Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Breakfast with Sharks by Michael Lent

Michael Lent. Breakfast with Sharks. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.

This book seeks to guide screenwriters through the processes required to survive the movie business. Movies are an industry where talent is important, yet so it finding the correct allies who help guide projects to fruition. There are many projects that fall apart and die along these processes, and people have to be prepared to cope with all kinds of situations.
There are (circa 2004) 2,500 film schools with 30,000 students. The competition for movie employment is harsh. Many try to find jobs and give up. The author, Michael Lent, recommends persistence as a key to finding success.

Movies are created through an established process that works for the industry. Movies tend to be deeply personal stories with mass appeal.

Success in Hollywood requires effort (which for screenwriters should be continually writing), access (learning how to interest decision makers to read and buy the written material), and timing (seizing opportunity when it emerges). Michael Lent recommends making contacts with industry personnel at screenings and premieres. Screenwriters should keep updated on ongoing projects and what the market seeks. When awarded writing jobs, make all deadlines. When mistakes are made, analyze them and learn from them.

The screenwriter must be prepared to handle rejection, as it happens frequently, even to established writers. Rejection of a screenplay should not be taken personally. One should learn patience, rewrite, and improve scripts, take on challenges that make a writer passionate about work, turn that passion into excitement by others, and learn to use criticism to improve work.

A screenwriter needs a voice, which means the script has to have an important point or view or style.

A screenwriter needs patience. It takes three to four years for many projects to move from script to screen.

A script needs an agent. The agent’s job is to get a production company or studio story editor to accept a script. The story editor assigns the script to a script reader to read and cover, or write an evaluation of, the script. Scripts with favorable coverage are presented to a creative executive, also known in some studios as the Director of Development. Scripts that pass this stage go to the Vice President of Development. If the script is accepted at this stage, it is purchased. Guild rules guarantee the screenwriter shall be hired for one rewrite. The studio provides input into the rewrite.

A screenwriter with two hit movies can insist on directing the next script in order to get a studio to buy the script. Usually the screenwriter will be offered more money not to direct it.

Low budget straight to video operates generally by raising the $350,000 to $3 million upfront from foreign distribution rights based on the marketability of the entertained appearing in the movie. Most of these are horror, martial arts, and action films. Scripts for these movies sell in the on-union range (circa 2004) of $20,000 to $40,000.

Spec screenwriters are original screenplays not created under contract. Few of these sell. Assignment screenwriters draft scripts for studios from previously developed ideas. Contracts are important to obtain and keep. A screenwriter should have several script ideas to discuss. Screenwriters should ask what the studio personnel are working on and take note of the type projects that do sell. Screenwriters should offer to work on dialogue for those projects. This can create an opening for work. If the screenwriter doesn’t have an agent, the screenwriter should ask for a recommendation. Many are willing to provide recommendations.

When pitching a script idea, Lent recommends a screenwriter beginning with a one sentence description of the “high concept” of the film. The major parts of the film should be describable in three minutes. This pitch should be prepared to include expanded discussions for up to 20 minutes depending on the occasion. A screenwriter should wrap-up discussing the script if it is detected there is a loss of interest in what is being stated. In sum, be prepared.

A screenwriter should consider what studio executives seek. They wish for screenwriters who are open to story suggestions, who are upbeat, passionate about writing, are optimistic, are willing to work hard and make deadlines, and who have a limited ego.

Screenwriters should have an attorney who specializes in entertainment law who may be hired to review any contract offered.

Screenwriters should mentally prepare themselves for studio notes on their scripts. Many screenwriters perceive their scripts as functional scripts. It may take an adjustment to accept another’s views on how the script should be.

A screenwriter should recognize the code word if a script is described as “intelligent”. This is code for a script that appeals to a small market.

Michael Lent recommends a method to obtain professional coverage of a script. Pretend to be a producer (under an assumed name) and ask a literary agent to recommend a freelance reader. Nearly all professional readers at agencies desire extra freelance work and money. Submit the script. The professional reader will return the script with professional comments meant for a producer. If the coverage is excellent, the screenwriter should send the script to the literary agency that has already received the script.

Screenwriters who deal with directors must realize directors also have to deal with producers, studio executives, actors, and lots of people with egos.

If one wishes to observe agents, Lent recommends eating lunch at the pricy Kate Mantilini’s on Wilshire Boulevard. Many agents eat lunch there (circa 2004). He also informs that if an agent or producer invites a screenwriter to lunch, the screenwriter is expected to pay. Before accepting a meeting with an agent, check who the agent represents on (Note there is an approximate $13 a month fee for this site circa 2008). Don’t wear a tie or jacket to the meeting.

A screenwriter should work with an agent. A screenwriter should inform an agent of producers, executives, directors, and actors the screenwriter believes might be interested in a script. A screenwriter should write productively and frequently. A screenwriter should send thank you notes after meetings with executive. A screenwriter should not criticize others.

Lent’s observation is that 5% of scripts in screenplay competitions are actually completed. Most submitted scripts have errors in plot and basic story elements.

A screenwriter should be prepared to describe a script in a two sentence logline.

If a screenwriter doesn’t have an agent and a producer is interested in a script, the screenwriter should declare being in between agents and inquire if the writer’s attorney would be fine. This should work most of the time..

Agents generally take three to eight weeks to read material. Agents should be called a after a week to verify receipt of the script. A screenwriter should not request to speak with an agent for at least two and a half weeks.

A manager is hired to keep a screenwriter productive.

Script consultants cost about $400 (and range from $100 to $1,000). (circa 2004)

76 minutes is the minimum length for a movie to be considered a feature film.

Michael Lent recommends screenwriters speak briefly during pitch meetings. Too many such meetings last too long and only the listeners.

Lent advises that only brilliant screenwriters can break the screenwriting rules.

The average Writers Guild member earns approximately $80,000 annually (circa 2004).

While developing a screenwriting career, many writers take jobs as script readers, working as a writer’s assistant, working a film editor’s assistant, etc.

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