My Nicholl’s Worth

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Every writer needs a panic room. It should look like those indoor play areas at the airport, with lots of padded surfaces and cool cubbies in which a stressed-out scribe can cower. Did I mention the classic arcade games and vending machines that disgorge an endless supply of Newman’s cookies?

This past year was a challenging one for my development slate and I NEED a fortress of solitude to call my own. My beloved Grandpa passed; my parents moved far away; and my neurotic poodle has developed propecia, but in the words of my idol, Tina Fey, “I will not be blamed.” Just when it seems like my career drive has run out of road, a hero swoops in to save the day. His name is Oscar. [Read more…]

The Next Big Idea

imageAfter months rewriting my latest comedy feature, the script is finally going out. I’ve earned some play time. Flopping on the sofa, I turn on the TV and watch animated bears wipe their bums with plush toilet paper. Next, a teary bachelorette begs for a rose. And then a bearded hillbilly pronounces roasted squirrel to be food of the gods. But none of this drowns out the insidious voice whispering: “What will you write next?”

Like Poe’s telltale heart, the question echoes in my brain over and over again. Screenwriting, like any career, is a numbers game at its core. The more you practice, the more impressive your skill and the higher your demand. The bigger your pile of desirable material, the bigger your chances are of getting THE script into the hands of THE person who can help to launch your career. Hollywood is a town built on dreams and for the screenwriter, the tunnel into the fortress is dug with all the scripts you have yet to write. So, we writers will always be haunted by the insidious voice. I’m going to need a plan.
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Opportunities Ahead: Proceed with Cautionary Tale

Every day for the last month, I have been opening my email as a hardened Army Ranger might approach a live grenade. I am both hoping to finding a response from the “Big Time Executive”, and hoping not to find it. You see, like the fabled Mr. Toad of the literary classic, Wind in the Willows, I dropped what I had, to reach for something better. And it was a mistake. A Big Time mistake.

After months of rewriting two high concept scripts, which nearly drove me insane, I sent them off to my most trusted readers. While I waited for their notes, I planned to clear my head, perhaps learn to crochet. This lasted two days and exactly eight rows of hopelessly lopsided yarn stitches. Instead of wisely rewarding my brain with a much deserved vacation, I dusted off my screenwriting business plan and checked off the next item on the list: Prepare pitches.
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Cinestory: Go Sell It On the Mountain

I clutch the steering wheel until my poor writer’s knuckles crackle. Glaring at the rental car’s GPS, I yell, “You’re insane. I can’t possibly go up there!” The moonlit mountain before me is so large, its peak exceeds my windshield’s visual capacity. I fervently repeat my latest mantra from Ralph Marston, “Excellence is not a skill. It’s an attitude.” The stubborn GPS counters with a mantra of its own, “Continue…continue…continue.” I recognize the simple wisdom in its command. If I want to achieve new heights in my screenwriting skills, I must follow this terrifyingly twisty road up the side of a mountain…in the dark. I double-check the seatbelt holding my laptop bag in the passenger seat and get back on the road.

Like all of history’s greatest gurus, the coveted Cinestory Writers’ Retreat in Idyllwilde, CA requires a pilgrimage cross-country, through the 405’s gauntlet of unforgiving drivers, and up a narrow mountain road that would make a goat tremble. Tracy King-Sanchez, a writer/director that I respect as a real warrior in film and life once told me if I want to master my screenwriting skills, I must “go cry on the mountain”. And cry I did, but that came later.

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Making Wily Connections

I’m listening to a writer’s meditation program. The eery, monotonous voice tells me to visualize myself creating a successful career. I squeeze my eyelids together until colorful little dots explode in front of my eyes. I breathe in and out, following the super-slow rhythm set by the voice. Just when I start to slip off my chair, the tiny dots form an image. This is it! After my long journey and months of hard work, I’m finally going to complete my writer’s vision quest. I see…an arid cliff under a robin’s egg blue sky. I hear…a strange grinding sound. And then…imagine my surprise when Wile E. Coyote speeds past in a makeshift raft. He slides right off the cliff and floats for a moment, gasping air into the fluttering sail. We lock eyes. He waves. Then, he drops out of sight.

I’ve come home from my first L.A. pilgrimage with the Hollywood Holy Grail…a successful project pitch, and I want to nail it like an Olympic vaulter. In an earlier blog, I shared the moment that I spontaneously pitched this pilot to a sharply-dressed management executive. Now, I love TV sitcoms. I watch TV sitcoms. I quote TV sitcoms. I have no clue how to write TV sitcoms. Aye, there’s the rub.
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Building a Career: One brick…

I’m gazing longingly at Final Draft’s “Collabo Writer” button.  If I click on it, would my perfect script pal inflate from the back of my Macbook with a completed script in one hand and a cup of chocolate sorbet in the other? Instead of whizzing through several magical drafts of my TV pilot, I’m sighing dramatically over coverage the initial treatment received. Legendary newsman David Brinkley once said, “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” So, how can I stack these bothersome blocks into a wall of wisdom and wealth?

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L.A. Meeting #3: Making a Perfect Pitch

It was my third and final L.A. meeting. I practiced my pitches in the mirror. I paced. Like “Alice”, I had stumbled into Wonderland determined to make my own way. I hit that town ready to prove myself as a screenwriter. I would do whatever it took to find representation. My pal, a best-selling author with years of experience in the movie industry, warned me, “Finding an agent or manager is like making a good marriage.” In other words, know my own worth and don’t look too desperate.

Later that day, sitting at yet another cafe table, I felt very desperate. I wanted to impress the sharply dressed executive sitting across from me…right NOW! The glorious California sunshine frizzed my hair and sweat coursed down my spine. I wasn’t sure if I was succeeding, until he sat back in his chair, watching me coolly, and said, “So tell me your idea.” For a moment, all the world stopped, except Rick James on a radio somewhere nearby singing “Super Freak.” There it was. The Holy Grail of meetings…an executive asked for my big pitch. And…I went blank.
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L.A. Meeting #2: Humble Pie and Coffee

The morning of L.A. meeting #2 started with someone else’s wake-up call. I was to meet Lee Zahavi-Jessup and a very successful producer at a popular L.A. cafe in twenty minutes and looking at the valet’s grim expression, I wasn’t going to make it on time. My stomach bubbled and I rested my head on the steering wheel for a moment. I couldn’t be late. I just couldn’t.

Successfully negotiating the rush hour traffic, I hunted for a parking space and emptied my pockets into the hungry meter. Inside the cafe, I quickly ordered breakfast and entered the crowded dining area. Lee and the highly successful producer were chatting and laughing over lovely pots of tea. I was late and I was drinking coffee. Swallow, step, smile, shake hands and sit.

I was so anxious to be in the presence of a producer known for shepherding authentic and unusual stories. She’s passionate about scripts that Hollywood should hate: period pieces, musicals, and dialogue-laden plays. Her first feature film began as a play on the east coast, but her determination transformed it into a film, starring Johnny Depp that was nominated for seven Oscars. Despite her success, she was so humble, lowering her voice to mumble names and titles, because in Hollywood someone is always listening. She was lovely in that easy California way and staring across the tiny table, I dug deep for a spectacular conversation opener. I asked, “Was it awesome working with Maggie Gyllenhaal?” Oh boy.
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L.A. Meeting #1: What’s High Concept and why do I care?

I stood in the well-used conference room of Madhouse Entertainment and stared at the Hollywood sign, beckoning from the nearby hills. It was a moment worthy of “Lawrence of Arabia”. My breath hitched and my knees locked. For the first time, I realized…”Holy crap! I’m meeting with a real Hollywood Executive and my life hinges on the next 30 freaking minutes!” And that’s when said executive walked in.

After nearly a year of accolades for my script, he blew the “High Concept” whistle and proceeded to tell me why this script won’t get far. He was pragmatic and kind, which are not easy bedmates. Luckily, I wasn’t surprised by the ruling. After all, I wrote a teen comedy with an autistic leading man. I was surprised and inspired by his reasoning.

He faulted my “Big Question”, which is the something that makes us watch the hero’s progress, mindlessly shoving popcorn into our mouths. We identify subconsciously with the big question and we apply our own emotional experiences to the story, which draws us deeper into the movie. He had recently spent years massaging a dark thriller script with a baby writer. When it finally hit the market, it was revered as an overnight sensation, which he still finds amusing, despite the countless drafts he personally reviewed. In that script, the big question is, “What would you do if someone you love is kidnapped; and you know who did it, but you can’t get justice through acceptable channels?” I admit, that many ideas and images pop into my head, and that’s the secret of the “Big Question”. My script obviously has mass appeal or I wouldn’t have made it into his office, but according to him, it isn’t big enough. And dammit, I agree with him.

Hollywood is more timid than a lost dog. It sniffs the same ground every day, hoping for a miraculous treat to appear. It chases rival pooches away, desperate to protect its very own barren ground. When a stranger bearing bones extends a hand, the Hollywood hound is more likely to bite an ankle without even glancing at the gift. If it manages to overcome its wariness, it takes a reluctant sample. If the bone is juicy and spicy in a way that satisfies it, the bone is gobbled in one gulp, along with a few fingers, too. Then, it goes right back to sniffing the garbage-strewn ground. As long as the stranger never shifts position, she’ll be included in the hound’s tireless search for treats.
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Finding Someone to Love…your Script

When my script, “Master’s Key” made the Top 5 of Final Draft’s Big Break contest, it was one of several positive reviews for this script and I thought, “here we go, baby!” I edited my digital business cards, bought a new top…the kind you dry-clean, and put new pens in my computer bag. Then I sat back and waited…and waited…and ate sorbet…and got depressed.

The script was already being scouted by ScriptShark and of course, the logline was sent out to subscribers of the various contests. But what was I doing to advance my cause? I’m as far away from L.A. as I can be without speaking another language. My professional background is marketing and motherhood, which limits my address book to exactly no one who could help me to sell my script. Or does it?
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