The Business of Screenwriting: Never send out a script before it’s ready

Or how I almost managed to kill my screenwriting career before it started.

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After K-9 sold, obviously people around town were curious about what we’d do next. Had I known any better at the time, we would have had several strong story concepts to develop and pitch. But apart from K-9, my partner and I had two poor original scripts and pretty much our thumbs up our ass.

So I will use the pressure of coming up with something as a partial excuse for what happened next.

A friend of ours starts talking to us about the 10th Mountain Division. They have a remarkable history which you can read about here, including not only their exploits at the very end of WWII, but also their legacy here in the United States after the war as they essentially founded the ski industry in Colorado.

Wound up by all the great anecdotes our friend tells us, the three of us decide to write a sprawling historical drama on spec.

Let me give you a minute to re-read that sentence and see how many things are wrong with this picture. Here are just a few:

  • Why follow up a comedy (K-9) with a historical drama?
  • Why follow up K-9 with a script written by three writers?
  • Why write a period piece… set in snow… with big battle scenes… resulting in a big budget?

All of that could be forgiven if we nail the script. We don’t. In our excitement, we jam through a draft, then a quick rewrite. That script goes out. And dies in the wind. Our so-called careers almost die with it.

Suddenly, meetings we had been taking vanish. The silence of no phone calls? Directly attributable to the piss poor reception to our spec script.

Afterward we meet with a producer who is kind enough to offer this insight:

“What the fuck were you guys thinking?”

He lists a plethora of reasons why the script was such a dumb idea to begin with (see bullet points above). But it is this that really strikes home:

And I sit there thinking, “Now he tells us.”

I know what many of you are asking: How do I know when my script is ready?

Great question. First, you can not trust your own eyeballs. We all know how easy it is to fall in love with our writing. You must have someone else read your script, preferably at least three people. And not just anybody, but people who know something about story. If nothing else, there are a zillion professional script readers out there. Pay someone a couple hundred bucks to get an informed opinion.

Second, you need to push yourself. Are your characters really compelling? Does your plot really push the reader through the pages? Does your dialogue really sparkle? If you need a comparison, read a script of one of your favorite movies. I know it’s tough to think about your script side by side with a script by Scott Frank, Steve Zaillian, Callie Khourie, or whoever you idolize as a screenwriter. But the reality is that’s what the studios do. They don’t compare your script to hacks. They think about it in terms of what movies have come before, what they’re producing, what they have in development, and who’s hot around town.

Bottom line: Whatever you do, do not send out your script before it’s ready.

How did we survive making that mistake? I’ll save the details for another day, but here’s a hint: We came up with a great high concept and sold it as a pitch.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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