Decades ago, as a young writer/filmmaker, I moved from Chicago to Hollywood without any sort of plan. I do not recommend this, even if you are the most talented writer and a tenacious survivor. I was a twitchy young advertising copywriter, moonlighting documentaries and wild experimental films, and writing the Great American Novel. My documentary won an Emmy, my novel got rejected a hundred times, I was fired for moonlighting, and at the last moment, when I was dead broke and out of options, legendary Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera offered me a job as a writer-producer and new show developer. You might have moved to the West Coast, too.
But, let’s say you’re already a published novelist, and you have reason to believe you might be the next Nicholas Sparks or Janet Evanovich. How best might you market your work to the movers and shakers of Tinseltown?
If you just write the pitch, producers will want to know Where’s the screenplay? That’s a bummer. Adapting your novel may seem the long way around, but in the end you’ll have a screenplay studio readers may take a look at. Should you choose this route, I recommend you absorb the teaching of at least three top instructors: Robert McKee, Linda Seger, and Lajos Egri. Adapting well is like writing haiku; looks easy, but isn’t.
Well, okay, let’s say you’ve adapted your novel and it’s a pretty nifty screenplay. What next? You contact agents and indy production companies and the reading departments at the majors—and they prove to be monumentally not interested. You’ve run into the first great rule of Tinseltown: It ain’t what you write, it’s what we need. Filmmaking is a machine that runs on fear and greed. Nobody really knows what will succeed or bomb. The money people tend to green light the type of projects that the hot stars, big directors, and successful producers say they want to do next. Hence, the popularity of parties where friends of friends of stars, directors, and producers hang out.
Understanding this, you will see the need to develop your pitch. You have taken months to write your adaptation, but bona fide Hollywood entities will not read it. Me, read 118 frickin’ pages from a frackin’ unknown? But they might read an appropriately beguiling paragraph. And they won’t be able to shutter their minds fast enough if you yank out their ear buds and rap them an unforgettable one-liner in that Starbucks across Little Santa Monica from CMA, or at some filmwriter conference in Maui. So write a fantastic lag line and a one-paragraph synopsis based on your adaptation. Memorize it.
Now what do you do? Do you hang around the main gates of Paramount with a bullhorn as the studio execs glide through in their fancy Bentleys or hot vintage Shelby Mustangs? Well, this method has worked, but is currently somewhat overused and, besides, maybe you don’t want to live in a fly-speck Howard Johnsons for six months while you try your luck. I know Lana Turner was discovered in a Hollywood drugstore, but I visited that very same spot and nonchalantly displayed my movie star profile, and nobody even gave me a second glance.
What about contests? Not a bad way to go, actually; you have to spent fifty or a hundred clams, but professional readers read your screenplay, and may well provide coverage to help you guess what the business is looking for. You might even win $10,000 or get optioned. For a list of reputable contests, check out moviebytes.com. Two of my favorites are Scriptapalooza and FFC’s Zoetrope, though I’ve never been more than a quarter finalist. If you enter the bluecatscreenplay.com contest, they guarantee to send you free coverage — not a bad deal. There are, of course, screenplay analysis and coverage services, and if you’re not making headway you might consider advice from these people. Scriptswami.com, Seismicscripts.com, and scriptzone.com.
What about contacts other than agents? The one I’ve used that will get your screenplay read by valid-but-lower-level indy producers is inktip.com. It costs a few buckos, but you’ll come away with a sense of what Tinseltown thinks it is looking for. Unfortunately, most Hollywood people are just as skittish about new talent as are their kissing cousins in the book business. And honestly, writers like us don’t have the time to run in every different direction to convince these luminaries of the obvious, that we have terrific stories to sell. What to do?
The one best piece of advice I can give you on how to successfully crash into Tinseltown is to run like hell in the other direction. Promote your current book to your readership like crazy and start working on your next one. Sell lots of books and win lots of awards. Tinseltown players love winners and success stories. When I was at Disney, a young producer who worked for The Duck & The Mouse ventured to Canada to discover already famous, worldwide bestselling Farley Mowat and buy Never Cry Wolf. After Francis Ford discovered highly popular S.E. Hinton, lesser producers showed up on her Midwestern doorstep. They assure you at Screenwriters Bootcamp that The System Works. What they don’t tell you is, it works okay for the biggies on top and pretty much sucks for anybody trying to break in at the bottom. Still, if you develop your name as a successful author, chances are the studios will find you when they need what you’ve got. I was at the ABA in Chicago when I fielded a call from a producer at Fox who’d read in the trades about HEADSLAP, a just-released sports bio I’d written. He’d remembered I had once adapted an action thriller novel to screenplay format. Well, it seems at that moment he didn’t give two hoots about HEADSLAP, but the studio needed an action thriller to fill a slot in their production schedule. Cha-ching! Option money! Hollywood is a strange cat, an animal that often will shy away the more you make a run at it. That’s why it is a valid marketing strategy to simply shine the light of your talent wherever you are—and let them come find you.
John Klawitter is a Hollywood writer, producer and director who writes fiction and non-fiction books. He often adapts his novels to screenplays that he then peddles around town. (So far, a few fat options, but no brass ring.) His novels are based on his years surviving as a creative person in the ad biz and in show biz. It is an interesting life.
He has worked as the Creative Director of Disney Studios in Burbank, and as an independent creative resource for Warner Bros, Universal Studios, Paramount and the Disney Channel, as well as for many indy production companies including Hanna Barbera, Franke Films, Pink Planet Productions, Eyeline Films and Zoiyu Productions. His films and television specials have appeared on NBC, the BBC, and the Disney Channel, and he has written many memorable song lyrics, advertising jingles and television show openings, including “Disney’s Wonderful World”, “Now & Then”, and “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show”.