On Friday night, I did what all the cool real people do and went to a lecture at my alma mater. The speaker was Daniel Pipski, an alumnus who works in development and writes on the side. [His wife is also a writer, which all seems very Sylvia Plath to me. Except most writers are better adjusted than she ever was.] Pipski's most recent project was Ben Affleck's The Town, which was #1 at the box office its opening weekend and has been getting great reviews. So this guy is legit. Here is some advice he shared--
Ensemble pieces don't sell. I try to fight this one all the time. I like ensemble movies. But when the guy who buys screenplays and gets them made says he's not buying, you gotta listen.
Nobody reads query letters. I can't get any consensus on this. Richard Walter's book definitely recommends writing query letters. And it's not like he's disconnected from the business. The only way I've been able to reconcile this so far is that Pipski's a development guy and Walter was talking mostly about agents. Maybe agents are the only ones who still read query letters. But development guys do not.
Don't write TV specs, only pilots. Pipski said he's never seen House, but he's read so many specs that he thinks it's a pretty great show. People reading your TV script want to hear your voice and see that you have ideas. The idea of specs, to me, is at the same time brilliant and really really odd. It's great if the spec really reads like an episode of the show--I personally feel like that really demonstrates a writer's skill. But it's weird because you never show your spec to the show you wrote for. And does CSI really care if you can mimic a perfect Bones spec? Would they even be able to appreciate that aspect of it? What if they don't watch Bones? Pipski's basic point was that a writer's creativity and craft shine better through a pilot not a spec, and original material is what people are going to ask to read. I would say you should at least have one really brilliant spec in your arsenal. One, because I've heard enough people say you should have a spec. Two, for contests and fellowships that only allow specs.
Write a movie that people will see. Pipski is in the process of making a well-funded company successful. The man behind the money like art. Pipski likes a company that's not going to lose money. He's looking for scripts that'll make money at the box office, that he can sell overseas, that will be packed on a weekend night. He used to make art movies. He has a long list of award movies he helped make. But award movies lose money. Now he's interested in making movies that people go see. Which is completely legit. As writers, we can get a little caught up in the art of the story. Which is fine--if you're not interested in making money off your work. As soon as you print your script out, brad it up, and hand it over, it's not about art, it's about business. Pipski's wife once pitched him an idea she was working on. His response-- "It sounds great, honey, but do you want to write this script or one that will put our kids through college?"
The spec market is dead. If you follow Scott Meyer's blog, he announced three spec sales last week. Which could be considered an explosion in spec sales. The most recent spec sold is a script called "Family Getaway," and it's the 33rd spec sale this year. I don't even want to speculate about how many scripts flood Hollywood each year, but being one of the 33 that was purchased this year is probably akin to winning the Powerball.
At this point, I had to ask--if the spec market is dead and art movies are vanishing, how do you make a career as a writer?
Write one brilliant screenplay. It always comes back to this, which is at once the most inspiring and frustrating thing a person can say. All the odds, all the luck, the gate-keepers and nay-sayers, they don't mean anything when you have a terrific script. Hollywood wants great scripts. That's where their business starts. And Pipski talked about projects he loves that he's been champion for years. Writing a fantastic script will get you noticed and get you in. [Sadly, your script won't always get made, but that's another issue.] Which is all very empowering--Yeah, all I have to do is write a brilliant script! Not fifteen, not one in every genre, just one really awesome script! And then you take a step beyond that--Wait, how do I do that? What if I think it's brilliant but it's not? What if I don't think it's brilliant but it is but I keep it forever, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting? Once I've got a brilliant script, then how do I get it sold? I feel like there are steps missing between write a brilliant script and cash a check. But you don't even get started on that road unless you have one truly amazing mind-blowing script.
I love hearing professionals talk about the business and craft of movie making. You can read all the books you want, discuss your trial and errors with your peers, commiserate with other semi-working writers. But to hear from a Hollywood player who buys scripts--that's an insider scoop you don't normally get in the middle of the Midwest.
Also, J.K. Rowling's Epic Fail