Top Lit Reps Advise: Don’t Make These Screenwriting Mistakes

If there is one thing that I dread, it’s making mistakes. Not only do I dread the moment, I dread what comes after: the mulling of it. Tossing and turning it about in my mind. Analyzing not only the mistake, but also the fallout. And beating myself for it. That part is the longest, and worse.

So when I sat down with the various agents, managers and executives who were kind enough to sit down for interviews with me as I developed my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, it was something I  had to explore. After all, we all know the usual advice: Don’t share a screenplay or TV pilot before it’s ready. Never go into a meeting unprepared. Don’t just assume that it’s going to happen quickly. Work hard and be unrelenting about your craft. All of which is to say… I know what I know. But what I was interested in hearing was what sort of screenwriting mistakes my friends in representation encountered along the way:

APA’s Adam Perry, who is a Motion Picture Lit agent, told me:

“I think a lot of people will come right out of film school, get one good script and get an agent, get a manager, get an entertainment lawyer and sell it and then they ease up a little. They say: ‘I’ve got a manager, I’ve got an agent, they’re going to do everything for me.’ Without material we can’t do anything. We can put you in a ton of rooms. And the other thing is ideas. People who don’t have a lot of original ideas. And they’re just kind of asleep at the wheel. And say, oh, people are just going to bring me stuff. No. You have to generate. So, I would say, self-generating is the thing that lots of new writers lack. And the mistake is having one good sale and then resting on it.”

Literary manager Jennifer Au of Untitled Entertainment agreed and took it further: 

“I don’t want someone who’s one and done, you know? I want to read other work. But don’t give me something that you don’t stand behind. Don’t give me something that you haven’t polished for ten years, because I’m going to look at that as a reflection of your current skill. Part of my job as a rep is to educate. But I want my clients to be students of the game and reading and networking and all that. But make sure that you stand behind the work that you’re sending out. Constantly be thinking about ideas. Generate for yourself. It’s a mistake if you don’t. This is a proactive business at its best. If you sit back and are purely reactionary about your own career, no one is going to do it for you.”

Manager Lee Stobby, instrumental in the promotion of 2015’s The Black List topper script BUBBLES, told me:

“The number one mistake that anyone makes is that they haven’t actually studied writing, at all. The number one traits of all of my writers is that they’ve been writers for a while, in various capacities. None of them are people who said, ‘oh yeah, sure, I have no experience writing anything, why don’t I write a script?’ That doesn’t work. You have to understand prose. You have to be able to tell a story. You have to be able to put words down on a piece of paper. You have to have written enough that you know what you are good and bad at. Just because someone has a good idea doesn’t mean that you can write it well.”

Anonymous Content lit manager Ryan Cunningham warned:

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the way reps sign people or the way business fucks over writers. Writers sometimes think that it’s some kind of a conspiracy, like it’s an old boys club that you can’t break into, and honestly, everybody out there, they just want to find great stuff. You know, the mechanics of it and how the stuff comes to the surface can seem kind of weird, but at the end of the day, everybody wants unique stuff. Look, it’s a business. Everybody has to make money and everybody has to sell the product to somebody else, all the way from the top, which is the studio selling it to the American public or to the world to make money. Backtracking through the executives that have to sell to the studio head, the agents and managers that have to sell it to the studio, the writers that essentially have to sell the idea to their reps to get it out there, and I think a lot of people look at that and they say, “Oh, well, the system is only built to do one thing, and it’s not what I want to do.” But it could be, if you’re smart and you look at different avenues of how to get your stuff made, it’s not a conspiracy against the writers. And that’s where I go back to: have a passion for it. Write great material. Continue to churn it out. Show it to people when it’s ready. Almost do away with what your expectations are, but put the work in. And if you’re really doing great work you’re going to find success eventually.”

Paradigm feature lit agent Ryan Saul suggested:

“Don’t send the first thing that you write out… that’s the biggest mistake you can make because you get one crack really. That first screenplay that you write, burn it. It’s not ready. The first one you write, that’s for yourself. Put it aside. Write the second one. Maybe then you kind of find the voice a little bit. Put that one aside. The third one you write, you’re gonna learn a lot from the first two you’ve written. The great thing about being a screenwriter is it’s a fluid document that you’re writing. If you put that first screenplay aside and you realize something that you’re writing in the third screenplay would work in the first, steal from yourself. Go back to that first screenplay and then hone that one. Re-write it. And maybe that screenplay that you wrote – maybe burning it is an overreaction – That first screenplay that you wrote becomes your first spec. But only after you’ve gotten to understand your craft.”

Bellevue Productions’ lit manager John Zaozirny, whose client’s script BLOND AMBITION topped The Black List in 2016, weighed in on notes and the collaborative process:

“If I am suggesting something and at the other end you are like, ‘no, I’m not going to do that’, I’m not excited about working with you because you don’t seem really open to collaboration. Also, I don’t want to put you in a room with my friends who are executives, my friends who are agents, because you’re probably going to tell them the same thing that you are telling me. Nobody wants to be in the scenario where they’re working with someone who’s not collaborative. Not open to making something better. Who’s closed off. Generally, the more experienced a writer is, the more open they are to collaboration, to ideas coming from anywhere. Let me put it this way: not all amateur writers are closed off to other people’s ideas but most writers who are closed off to people’s ideas are amateurs.”

Heroes & Villains manager Chris Coggins, who was VP of Development at EuropaCorp following a stint at Escape Artists, discussed writing with realistic expectations. :

“Don’t necessarily write something that you think is going to sell. If you’re just starting out, you’re not going to sell your first script most of the time. You’re just not. Writers often try to write for the current marketplace. They try to write something that sells. I don’t think that’s the best use of their time. I think it’s much better to write a sample, to write something that shows your voice, and to remember that whatever it is that’s popular now in three years, when (best-case scenario) your movie gets made, same thing isn’t going to be as popular.”

Now that you are done reading, I would love to hear from you: What screenwriting mistakes would you advise others to avoid? Share in the comments, or through my CONTACT FORM.