Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 14 books, 97 plays and musicals, and over 100 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through Fiction Writers Connection. Her latest book, a humorous essaycollection called "IT'S NOT ME, IT'S YOU and Other Tales of Romance", isavailable at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
GETTING TO HOLLYWOOD VIA THE INDIES. Like many writers, I used to believe that winning the lottery was more likely than ever landing a film contract...Even if one of my novels was optioned for a movie, I thought, the likelihood of it actually being produced seemed remote, even if I moved to LA and 'hovered'. While luck and persistence certainly may have figured in my becoming lead screenwriter for a Maine filmmaker, the timing has never been better nor the market more approachable for aspiring screenwriters to dust off their scripts and take a look at independent film producers.
By definition, "indies" (as they are called) are companies that raise their own capital in order to produce selected film projects. Driven by passion more than paycheck, many first-time directors and photographers have honed their craft on independent productions, savoring the excitement of coloring outside traditional lines in order to tell a story their own way. In contrast, the Hollywood studio system assigns creative decisions to executives and company managers who subsequently dictate the style and policies for a hired director.
Where studios have the luxury of big budgets, huge crews, and custom-made sets, indies function on 10 to 500 grand per picture, employ fewer than 20 technicians, and can comfortably fit into private homes and businesses that would cramp large-scale operations. And although many major stars might decline a role in an indie, just as many more are professional enough to take a pay-cut for the freedom to push their talent in new directions and, accordingly, widen their options.
The first thing you need is a saleable script, a gameplan, and a lot of tenacity. If you're aiming to sell to Hollywood, you also need an agent. The Catch-22 of agents, unfortunately, is that they want writers with the level of experience that's hard to acquire without representation. While it's not impossible to break in on your own, indies offer a more accessible, user-friendly path. Just because indies are sometimes regarded as a stepping stone to bigger things, however, doesn't mean the quality of work should be that of a novice. Know the craft and format inside-out before you ever pick up the phone or put a stamp on an inquiry letter. Write constantly. Watch films of all kinds. Read scripts. Write the kind of movie that you yourself enjoy on a Saturday night.
WHAT KIND OF SCRIPTS ARE SELLING
The truth about selling to either market is that neither one knows what they want until they actually see it...whereupon large studios will proceed to furiously imitate it until the next hot idea comes along. Indies take a more eclectic view, regarding each project as a chance to expand creative dimensions. The worst mistake any author can make is to assume that whatever genre of storytelling is currently selling will continue to sell. If a script is unique, it actually has a better chance of getting picked up than one that simply mimics ephemeral trends.
FINDING A BUYER
The proliferation of indies throughout the US means that writers can conceivably find film opportunities right in their own backyard. For instance, each state has a film commission, serving the dual purpose of assisting Hollywood productions on location and maintaining a database of local actors, "tekkies", investors and writers. Not only does this network benefit producers in search of regional talent, but promotes the word that you--the writer--are available to develop and revise scripts. Whether an indie invites your participation depends on the existence/absence of a writer-director team, as well as the feasibility of filming your particular story. (Although it's helpful to familiarize yourself with a director's past credits in order to gauge compatibility, don't let it keep you from pitching your best work, no matter the genre or setting.)
While there are obvious commercial advantages of tailoring projects to an indie's home turf, the only constraints are your imagination and the production's budget. As an interesting side-note, the book version of my first film, HEAVEN ONLY KNOWS is set in San Francisco; the script was adapted for the opposite coast. Not only was this beneficial in generating local excitement but eliminated the exterior "gotchas" of license plates, billboards, foliage, architecture and weather.
Four additional routes are available for locating potential directors: trade magazines (FILMMAKER MAGAZINE, AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER, INDEPENDENT), screenwriting contests (DISNEY, NICHOLL FELLOWSHIPS, film festivals (SUNDANCE, FILMFEST DC) and online resources such as moviebytes.com or the Screenwriters Network at http://screenwriters.com. Of these, festivals and online resources present the best opportunity for one-on-one interaction, as well as industry referrals.
DON'T CALL US; WE'LL CALL YOU
Let's say that one of your cover letters lands you a pitch session, an invitation to tell a prospective director what your script is about. The biggest difference between pitching to indies and studios is that the latter is almost always done by professional agents. Indies typically aren't governed by such formality, nor are writers left hanging indefinitely as committees debate a script's marketability. Indie writers can expect to play a more active role in a film's development than they would at a studio, where revisions are often penned by someone on staff. It also isn't necessary for indie material to have been "audience-tested"; i.e., a published novel or play. While studios gravitate to established works that represent lower risk, indies are fearless about pushing limits and thrusting lesser-known projects into the limelight. If they were restaurants, studios would serve up burgers and fries; indies would feature tandoori and vegetable pakoras. Cardinal rule: keep your sales pitch succinct and be able to define your target audience (teen girls? families? minorities?).
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Any opportunity to prove your screenwriting mettle is always worth pursuing. Who's to say that a modest film won't suddenly take the public by storm and become an Oscar contender? On the other hand, if it withers into obscurity at the box office, you won't be scarred for life; you simply learn from your cinematic mistakes and move on. Hopefully you will have negotiated a reasonable salary long before the cameras even roll. How much is enough? With a studio, that determination is based on industry standards and the agent's chutzpah. Likewise, an established reputation as an already "hot" author is an influence on the number of zeroes on a check. Indies are not as liberal with cash flow, at least in their initial stages. Always request a copy of the production budget and breakout of expenses. For a benchmark figure, 5% of that total, plus a percentage of profits, is a nice start. Assigned rights should include use of the name and film script but not publication of the book or adaptations (unless they offer a huge sum you simply can't refuse!). If the story has yet to be sold to a publisher, the production company and writer need to agree beforehand whether they'll share any royalties. Consult an attorney if there are any aspects of a contract you don't understand.
A FINAL NOTE
Most of all, never forget the one thing that indies and studios have in common despite their significant differences: the script is the backbone, the essence, the very reason that cameras roll, directors direct, stars are born, and magic unfolds everyday on the screens of theaters nationwide. Without the writer, audiences would be left sitting in the dark.