SCREAMPLAYS! WRITING THE HORROR FILM – PART 4
By Lisa Morton
So here we are at the tense and exciting climax of this series of articles on horror screenwriting. You started with a great idea, you followed that with some study of script format, got the software, carefully crafted your dialogue and descriptions, got a nice flow with your scenes, did a lot of rewriting and polishing already, and your 150-page masterpiece is ready to go out into the world –
Waitaminnit, hold on there, partner – did you say 150 pages?!
We need to talk.
It’s true that, if your script is properly formatted, you can probably figure on one page of script translating to one minute of screen time. Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, even SILENT HILL ran over two hours, so my script should be at least 120 pages long, right?”
Look back at the second installment of this series, the one that covered dialogue and description, and you’ll notice a punchy little sentence repeated several times in one paragraph: People in Hollywood don’t read. In case you thought I was kidding, I wasn’t. When you hand in your script, it’s entirely likely – no, make that completely likely – that those production company executives will do one thing first, before they read a single line of your script:
They’ll flip to the back of your script to see how long it is. And if it’s over 120 pages, they’ll probably drop it promptly onto the “pass” pile. Seriously.
While it’s true that Hollywood has seen an overabundance of films with long running times in the last few years, those running times are almost always due to directors, not writers. The director is king in Hollywood; if he wants to go over two hours, chances are no one will say “boo” to him.
But as for your script…ideally it should be between 100 and 110 pages. If it’s over 110 – and especially if it’s over 120 – you should look at cutting it down. It’ll be painful, but you need to do it. If you’re under 100 pages, you might want to consider bulking up or even adding a subplot or character…unless your script is intended to be an ultra-low-budget production, in which case you can probably go as short as 80 pages.
So, let’s say you’ve cut your opus down to 110 sleek, taut, pages, you’ve polished it until it gleams, and you’re ready to send it out into the world. Now what?
The first thing I’d suggest is registering your script with the Writers Guild; you can now do it easily online at http://www.wga.org , where it’ll run you $20 (as a non-member). This is the easiest way to protect your script; although it’s not as foolproof as copyrighting your work, it does establish a date of completion, and is cheap and easy. Then, if the unthinkable happens and some fiend steals your script, you can prove that you wrote yours before they wrote theirs; you’ll only need to establish that they had access to your script then.
Ahh, that access part…that’s one of the reasons you need a film agent. An agent won’t just send your work out, they’ll also provide a paper trail of places they’ve submitted it to. They’ll also hopefully be able to get your script into the ironclad fortresses of the major production companies and studios, and will be able to negotiate you a better deal should one of those Hollywood illiterates be brilliant enough to recognize your script’s genius.
Even if you’ve already got a solid relationship with a good literary agent who reps your prose work, you’ll probably need a separate agent to handle your screenplays. This is where things get tricky:
Unlike literary agents – who will often sign writers without a face-to-face meet – film agents will likely insist on meeting you in person. Image is more important in cinema than it is in publishing; you may have heard of the WGA’s ongoing battle against “ageism”, and you can believe every word you’ve heard. A film agent will want to press your flesh to know that you’re still young enough to be marketable. They’ll also want to know that you can handle in-person meetings well. Hollywood executives love the pitch meeting, where they don’t have to actually read anything; prospective agents will want to know that you have a glib way with a pitch (and if you don’t…work on it NOW).
What this means, of course, is that if you don’t live in the Los Angeles area and aren’t planning on moving there, you need to be prepared for some traveling. If flying back-and-forth to Southern California is just not economically feasible for you…sorry, but that’s just how it is.
Okay, so you’ve set aside some flight money, and you’re ready to meet those agents…if you can figure out how to make that happen.
Welcome to the single hardest part of the business.
Scoring a great agent is about as easy as staking Count Dracula…and all of his brides. If you’re in the L.A. area, start networking. Go to Writers Guild functions. Get to know other writers and see if they’ll introduce you to their reps. Keep copies of your script on hand all the time for those chance meetings.
You can also try contacting agents on the agent list at www.wga.org, but be prepared – you’ll be extraordinarily lucky if you ever hear back from any of them, no matter how catchy your query letter is. Be aware that Hollywood agents are probably deluged with at least ten times as many inquiries as their publishing counterparts. You’re in for a tough haul.
If you break through and score that great agent…well, there’s nothing more I can tell you, except – hey, you lucky bastard, give me an introduction next time you see me!
Final note: It’s also not impossible to score a low-budget film deal without an agent, but this will depend on your hustling skills; if you’re not good at the pony show, partner yourself up with someone who is. Low-budget producers may even prefer to deal with a writer directly, and you’ll save the agent’s commission; however, don’t expect to get rich any time soon. Most low-budget producers (and you know who I’m talking about – they’re the guys whose films line the shelves at Blockbuster, and who get featured in the back pages of Fangoria) will pay considerably less than Writers Guild minimum. Your paycheck likely won’t even buy you a new car, especially not if you’ve had to split it with your hustler-partner.
That’s it, then. Still feel like writing a screenplay?
Did I mention that, if you’re one of the fortunate few who manages to sell a screenplay and sees it actually go into production, you should figure up front that you won’t be able to recognize a single line by the time you see the finished film?
That novel’s looking pretty good about now, huh?
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