In the middle of attempting to write my first screenplay, I bought a paperback called The Screenwriter's Survival Guide: Or, Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War, by Max Adams. It was a fast, smart read, very funny, with an insider's wisdom about how to get off the ground as a screenwriter.
Max, I learned, had won the two hottest screenwriting contests—the Nicholl Fellowship and Austin Film Festival—in the same year, sold a spec script for real money that made it onto the big screen, and scored a whole bunch of studio assignments. She also taught writing, and so when I saw her name in the faculty list for Gotham Writer's Workshop online, I jumped.
Max has taught me an incredible amount on writing visually, creating characters and plotting. Before I took a swerve into fiction, I got pretty far with the Nicholl myself, reaching semi-finalist twice, and getting some producers to read my scripts. Who knows? Someday one of those stories could be at a movie screen near you.
Now Max is back with an updated version of her book called The New Screenwriter's Survival Guide. This is not one of those cases where the author wrote a few new paragraphs for the Introduction. Max overhauled her book, making it even more useful and on target. Chapters range from "What You Really Get Paid" to "Writer Speak Versus Mogul Speak."
I chased her down--no easy feat--and persuaded her to submit to an interview on her new book. I've met Max in person as well as participated in her invite-only online workshops, and, well, Max has a conversational style like no other, one I wanted the blogosphere to experience. As you can see from this photo, she's not shy. What you can't see is she swears by killer shoes.
|Max Adams. Photo by Chesher Cat at http://cheshercat.com|
Max, what made you decide to update your 2001 book The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide?
The book was out of print, so getting harder to find. That is one big reason. And, information in the book was out of date. When I wrote it, we still did things like fax queries in, and that is a thing of the past, and I had to have an AOL account because the majority of people in Hollywood savvy enough to have email accounts were only on AOL and didn’t know you could have an email address that ended in anything other than @aol.com. Submissions were different, almost all paper – now they’re almost all PDF. A lot has changed so it was time to rewrite the book including new information that pertains to today.
Your book’s existence takes the position that it IS possible to survive as a screenwriter. There’s such pessimism out there about beating the odds and becoming a working writer for film and television. Or has there always been this pessimism and now there are just more online discussion boards?
I have not seen a change in the “what are the odds” discussions and attitudes. I just think they are not valid. It doesn’t do any good to think about odds in this business. Are the odds bad? Sure. Who cares? If this is what you want and need to do, you say “Screw the odds” and you go for it. Someone has to break in. If no one new ever broke in, screenwriters would have died out a long time ago. And if someone has to break in, that someone might as well be you. That is really the attitude you need to hang on to and the hell with the odds.
What has changed for the better in the life of the working screenwriter since 2001?
Things have gone up and down a lot. I think three things which are solid pluses are, Chris Nolan came out with Inception and blew the roof off the box office. And that was a very smart, complex plot film. Prior to that, the consensus in Hollywood offices was, Dumb down the plot, make it easy to understand. And after Inception, everyone sat up and said, Wait a minute, a smart complex plot film just ripped the roof off the box office, maybe we should re-evaluate? So smarter complex scripts stand a better chance of consideration these days. And we can thank Chris Nolan for breaking the ground there.
Another plus is the Twilight franchise. While Twilight may not be everyone’s cup of tea, one myth it dispelled for good is “there is no teen girl audience.” There has always been a teen girl audience, you can see that just watching old Beatles clips, and you could see it when Titanic came out, but people acted like Titanic was a fluke. Now, you kind of cannot miss the fact there is a huge teen girl audience so, if you write films that appeal to that audience, you are a lot less likely to hit the “there is no teen girl audience” wall in Hollywood. Yes there is, and no one can ignore it now.
Another plus is, it is getting less and less expensive to make films, so if you have aspirations of making your own films, in addition to writing them? You can literally go shoot on HD and edit the film on your computer at home. We couldn’t do that when I was in film school, just making a five minute student short was almost financially impossible because of the film and film development costs. Those are a thing of the past, and even equipment is much more affordable now. So for independent writers who want to go guerrilla filmmaker? That is a lot easier to do now.
What has changed for the worst?
Television staffs have shrunk and film studios have become more corporate and about re-working “done” storylines and material and less about new material and innovative stories. Studio production slates are smaller, so, even if you sell a script, seeing the movie get made is less likely. This tends to go in cycles however, studios will condense and become more and more about franchises and rehashing old material, then an independent will come along that is highly innovative and fresh and will blow the roof off the box office and the studios will expand a little again. It is a self perpetuating cycle.
You are a fabulous writing teacher. Do you think there is such a thing as innate storytelling talent? Or can some writers move the needle from zero to 60 and make amazing careers for themselves?
Thank you. I think there is innate story telling talent. I think it comes in different forms too. I have met brilliant novelists who could not write “script” to save their lives. They just couldn’t, somehow their brains were not wired to write for the screen. And yet they were brilliant award winning novelists. So, some people get one gift, others get another, and the truly lucky ones are blessed across many mediums and can switch from form to form.
I’m also going to say, Some people just are not blessed with the gift. People will hate me for saying that. But craft can only help you IF you can tell a story in the first place. And some people can’t. That should be okay with people. Everyone gets some people are cut out to be basketball players, and some people are not. But people get angry if you say, Some people are cut out to be story tellers and others are not. The thing is, no matter how much I want to be a star basketball player? It is just not going to happen. And I am okay with that, I get it. I got another gift, I got the writing gift. It is a fair trade. So I would say, find your gift and follow it, and if that gift is not writing? You will find you have another.
Your book debunks some of the persistent myths about how to succeed as a screenwriter. Such as that you need an agent to make a career breakthrough. Why do you think aspiring screenwriters are so obsessed with finding an agent?
Everyone is obsessed with finding an agent because that is a good way to open doors. There is also this idea that having an agent makes everything easier and means your career is set. It does make everything easier. People stop saying, “No unsolicited submissions” and slamming the phone down on you. Agents can just stroll your material through doors you have to kill yourself to break down on your own, starting out. But an agent doesn’t guarantee sales, a career, or even meetings. Some agents will just park you in a stable and let your career rot, so even with an agent, you have to be out there making contacts and connections and looking for the work.
It also looks, in the trades, often like an agent made a big break sale for an up and comer just breaking in when, in fact, the agent didn’t make that breakthrough sale. The writer was beating down doors and getting material out there alone, because agents wouldn’t rep an unknown writer, then the writer made a big splashy hit with a spec sale and an agent picked the writer up to negotiate the deal the writer found in the first place. So, you don’t necessarily need an agent to make that break through sale. To negotiate it for you? Sure. But lots of times, agents won’t even read material unless you already have that deal on the table so be less worried about agents, and more worried about producers. Producers are the people most likely to bring a new writer over the wall and set up that first deal.
You are extremely helpful in your book and your workshop on how to pitch to producers, how to talk in meetings. Such as “Don’t talk about theme.” How often do you think writers blow it in the meetings?
That depends on whether you are talking about veteran writers, fledgling writers who just broke in, or untried baby writers just writing the first script and trying to figure out how to pitch. The baby writers? 99% of the time, because they just don’t have experience or know what the hell they are doing. Fledgling writers? Till they gain experience and confidence, probably 50% of the time, because even though they have more practice, they probably still haven’t figured out what the studio suits need in a pitch to sell the pitch upstairs. Veteran writers? Maybe 1% to 2% of the time. These are hardened veterans, they know what has to be there, they know how to pitch, they’ve been in the trenches and have a lot of practice. Once in a rare while they will have a bad day or it will just be a meeting gone wrong, the rest of the time? They are not going to blow the pitch.
Does anyone sell a spec script with a query letter anymore? What is the best way to get noticed by Hollywood?
The best way to get noticed is to win one of the big competitions like Nicholl or Sundance or Austin Film Festival. But those slots are limited. A lot of people will tell you just write a great script and it will find it’s way to discovery. But that’s crap. Lots of great scripts are languishing in drawers because their writers can’t pitch or don’t know how to get read. (Pitching is a skill in and of itself and one people have to work on, if they don’t have it going in.) Some people get their material read by writing queries. Some people get their material read by hitting film events and festivals and pitching to everyone and anyone who will listen till the right person reads the script and it’s a go. I don’t really know the figures or percentages there on which works better or results in more sales.
There are not a huge number of working screenwriters. But there are a huge number of screenwriting contests. What should people think about when sending in their scripts to contests, some of which are pricey?
The primary reason to enter a contest is, winning or placing in that contest will get your script read by people who can make a movie – or help you get in with people who can make a movie. That is foremost, every time you submit to a contest. How much prestige does winning or placing in this competition get you and will it get your material read?
Secondary to that is cash prizes, which help pay the bills to give you more time to write, but first and foremost, always, is will a win or placing in this competition get your material in front of people who make movies?
There is a caveat to the above though. Check the fine print to see if winning gives the contest sponsor an automatic option on your material. That’s something you usually want to avoid.
Can a screenwriter survive if he or she can’t work well in a team?
TV writers can’t. They have to be able to work in a room with other writers. Feature writers can, if they just want to work on their own specs and sell them and avoid the whole collaboration process that comes after a sale. This also depends on the definition of “work well in a team” though. People will be told over and over to be a “good team player.” That has to be defined. And the definition should not be “be a yes man.” If you are part of a “team,” you bring a skill set to the team that you have to honor, while working with that team. And while you need to respect other people’s skill sets and what they bring to the team too? There will be times when you know something they don’t, about story or plot, and you need to fight for something in the story or plot. So, know what you should fight for, know what you can part with, and try to get along with others and it should be okay. And if you can’t do any of the above? Maybe you should be a novelist and work in a medium that doesn’t require collaborative working conditions to get the story out there.
You were discovered by Hollywood when you won the two biggest screenwriting contests the same year. What was the most enjoyable part of being the It Girl of film writing?
The best part was I went from pounding on doors asking people to read my material to people pounding on my door asking to read my material. That is real magic. That day when the door opens and you don’t have to ask them any more, they are asking you. It rocked. Getting a movie made was a pretty hot perk too.
And to find out more about Max's screenwriting classes at her school, The Academy of Film Writing, go to http://theafw.com/