Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Pecking Order

From 4 years ago... Emily has made more films since then. Check out TENSPOTTING!

Emily over on Bamboo Killers recently had some writer query her “production company” to see if she wanted to buy their screenplay. The initial problem with that is that Emily is a screenwriter who has produced one of her own short scripts and probably hopes to be involved in the production of her feature scripts. (Don't tell producers this, because there is already a “producer credit glut”, but if you are a writer you are creating and developing material and that makes you a producer, too – if you can convince the actual producer with the money connections. Nothing wrong with asking.) But just because you have those $20 business cards that say you are a writer-producer doesn't mean you are in any position to buy some dude's epic screenplay for a cool million – you're trying to sell your own scripts! The very first rule of querying is *NOT* to query blind – do your homework, know everything about the production company first.

If this person had just read Emily's blog (probably where they got her e-mail address) they'd have discovered she's a high school teacher trying to break into screenwriting. She's not going to buy your script. Emily wouldn't have made that mistake. She's smart enough to research first... and that's what her current blog entry is about.

Emily is great, and went out of her way to help this guy with his query letter so that when he *does* send it to someone who might be interested in buying his epic blockbuster script, he'd have a better chance... and the guy shot back an angry response! Hey, no good deed goes unpunished.

Meanwhile, on a messageboard, there was a recent post was about taking advice from idiots on the web. Only problem is - who are the idiots? The web is a great thing because a new writer can learn from a more experienced writer, but also – because of the anonymous aspect – you may be learning from an idiot... and learning how to do things wrong. And what is interesting about all of this is that often on message boards there will be someone who has had a small amount of success (optioned a script or something) who is giving advice on production rewrites – something they know nothing about. Now, this person may have all kinds of good advice on getting your script optioned, but they know nothing about production rewrites. And here's the thing – we are all idiots about something. There are things that we know nothing about... and you probably shouldn't trust us about those things that we have no experience in. I know some famous pro writers, and one in particular had an interesting "in" to the business but has no idea how someone who was not born with his connections would get in – so he never gives advice on that subject. I'm not going to give you advice on how to deal with $20 million movie stars... but if you want to know how to deal with Gary Busey...

Emily has found representation and her work has got her some meetings with actual real-live producers and at one point – almost an assignment. So, she knows something. The guy should have taken her advice, because that's stuff she knows about. Her blog entry gives great advice on all of those scammers out there who claim to be producers and want you to pay packaging fees or pay for coverage services. Make sure you do your research before you query... and remember that money flows *to* the writer.

There are levels of experience – and if someone has more experience than you do they may have good advice. A pecking order, if you will. Some people know more than others, and their experience makes their advice more valuable.

The thing about advice online is that you should never blindly believe *anything* – use your head! But also consider the experiences of the person giving the advice. There are a lot of people who use Stephen King's advice from ON WRITING for their screenplays – and although King knows everything about writing novels, when it comes to screenplays we are talking MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE... so maybe that novel advice doesn't transfer well to scripts? Think it through – maybe some of it does, and some of it doesn't. And sometimes the advice from someone who isn't as famous as Stephen King may be better than King's – look at the advice as well as who is dishing it out. But usually there's that "pecking order" at work, and the person with the most experience will have the better advice. IMDB the person to see what they've done, and if they're a one hit wonder or have a lot of experience in the biz.

If someone is a professional screenwriter, they probably know more about writing a script than someone who has never sold anything. There is some *reason* why they are a professional screenwriter. One of the strange things about advice online is that often the loudest voice is what people listen to... and usually the loudest voice belongs to the person with the least actual experience. On one message board I frequent there is a guy who starts a half dozen threads a day, all centered around him and his writing genius. But, um, he has never sold or optioned or got a meeting or (as far as I know) gotten a read off any of his scripts. Maybe you shouldn't follow his advice? Maybe the reason why he has had no success is because his advice is just plain wrong?

Also - watch out for people who have a lot of experience in one area, but none at all in another. They may have great advice in their area of expertize, but awful advice on subjects they don't know about.

Are you listening, Stephen (MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE) King?


There's a company I've had meetings with that promoted to a *suit* to VP of Development, and this guy has zero story experience but is still in the position to give notes – and his notes suck. He knows all about what sells, but nothing about *how to write a screenplay that works*. So his notes usually make the script worse - and the films made from them *don't* sell as well! He's using his "apples" experiences to grow "oranges" and it's not working. If I were him, I would find some assistant who knows *everything* about story and leave the notes to them. That way, he still gets to be the boss – but also gives better notes that don't end up trashing every script he touches.

When I first came to Los Angeles after selling COURTING DEATH to Paramount, I was looking around for some writers to swap scripts with to get feedback. It's kind of like dating to find a girlfriend – you go on a lot of bad dates! One of the “bad dates” was a husband and wife writing team who had zero luck so far getting anything sold or optioned, and I thought I'd be getting *two* opinions for the price of one. But after trading a couple of scripts, I realized they were not a good match. There was a reason why they had never had anything sold or optioned – most of their notes on my two scripts consisted of turning what was interesting and different into boring cliches - "What if he's a private eye?" "If you give him a pet dog he'd be more likeable!" - and the scripts of theirs that I read were trite, boring, and bland. It's like whenever they had a decision between interesting and seen-it-before they went with seen-it-before. Anything that was potentially interesting got sanded down to bland. And the problem was that they thought they were *right* - they thought their bad notes were good notes... and didn't realize that what they thought was good was actually bad (and vice versa). The *liked* boring cliche characters! They *liked* dull dialogue! They *liked* "low concept". Their notes on my scripts were all about turning it into mush. "You need to take out the exciting parts..."

This may be the same problem Emily's query letter writer has – he's defending his bad query letter instead of learning from someone higher up the pecking order who has more experience in these things. Know your place! If someone has more experience than you do, they probably know more - so you might be better off listening instead of talking.

After reading two of their scripts and getting their notes of two of my scripts, I figured it was not a match and moved on. As far as I know they never sold or optioned anything - which makes sense because they argued with all of my advice on how to improve their scripts. They *liked* bland and boring! And they wanted everyone else to write bland and boring, too.

I think it's important to consider the experience of whoever is giving you the notes or advice. If someone who can't get anyone to read a script off a query letter is telling you how to write a query letter – take that advice with a grain of salt. If *you* are giving the advice, make sure it is based on your actual experience and if you are posting under a pseudonym maybe mention your level of experience so that people can gauge your advice. And beware of giving advice to someone with more experience in whatever the subject is – hard not to look like an idiot when you do that. There's a guy on a message board I frequent who is always handing down proclamations way outside of his pay grade - and to most of us he looks like a complete idiot... but some people may think he knows what he's talking about. That's kind of frightening.

If you don't know what you are talking about, maybe you should shut up and listen?

We can all learn from people who have more experience than we do – as long as we don't fight the knowledge and acknowledge that we don't know everything. If you are below someone in "the pecking order" they may have knowledge and experience that you can learn from... and maybe you should pay attention to their notes on your query letter. You might learn something.

Oh, and here's Emily's latest, TENSPOTTING!

- Bill


Joshua James said...

This really resonates with me ... I can't tell you how many times I've run into people who simply refuse to take good advice ...

And it's not that I don't understand, I do ... we've all gotten bad feedback from people that didn't know squat about writing movies ...

But sooner or later a writer SHOULD listen to someone, there's got to be someone out there who knows whereof they speak ... and the advice might be hard, the changes might be a lot of work ... but if they don't do it, they miss out ...

some of the best work I've done I've done when pushed by someone who was more experienced than I was ... and each time I didn't want to do it, didn't want to do the extra work ... and it paid off every time.

Always pays to listen to those that know ...

David Wannabe said...

One of the best bits of advice I ever received, and of course it still hurt:-
"You see that inventive, interesting, wonderfully-written and emotional five-minute scene? You know, the one that does absolutely nothing to move the story onwards or develop the characters? Get rid of it..."

Joe Unidos said...

I hear ya, Bill. I hear ya.

Emily Blake said...

Wow, thanks Bill.

Ego.... growing....out of control.....

I always listen to your advice. I learn something new every time I talk to you. It's helped me out in a lot of situations.

I think part of the problem is that someone gives bad advice, then novices repeat it, then it spreads. I know I was guilty of that in the beginning.

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