Screenwriter on a Mission…Get sold in 2011!

Christmas has come early for me this year. Santa stuffed my stocking with a manager meeting…in LA. It’s enough to make a jaded, small-town screenwriter believe in miracles. But I know better.

For those writers, who still wish to believe in the Santa Scribe, stop reading here!

For the rest of you, you’ve reached the age where the myth of luck and the perfect script has gotten pretty hard to believe. It’s time to accept that no amount of wishful letter writing or selfless perfection of your craft will bring success to your inbox. The truth is not as magical, but still very exciting.

My journey into the light began with a simple RSVP: yes, I would attend a screenwriting business seminar. Until that moment, I hadn’t worn my career aspirations in public. Well-meaning pals usually patted my arm and smiled indulgently when they heard that I was writing scripts…for the movies…like, for famous people. Their support was strained and patronizing, to say the least, and these were people who liked me! How would I fare in the professional fish tank where sharks circled the little fishies like me?

The morning of the seminar dawned rainy and freezing, but I took my first steps into the world as a screenwriter. The weather kept the class limited to less than twenty hopeful souls. We ranged from lifelong dabbler to compulsive over-achiever with a God complex. We tentatively opened our notebooks and waited for the lightning to strike.

Our instructor, Lee Zahavi-Jessup of ScriptShark, was nowhere near what I expected, although it’s been oft established that I didn’t have a clue about anything. I was initially mesmerized by the fierce auburn curls that swept the length of her spine when she moved.  She had a warm smile, but there was a “No BS accepted here” edge to it. She began to lay out a horrifying, dream-killing picture of Hollywood’s bizarre script bazaar. I worried that I might throw up, the only reason I was happy to have a doctor sitting next to me. Lee’s dynamic dialogue was powered with concrete facts, anecdotes of her own professional experiences, and if we listened carefully, a blueprint to a successful screenwriting career.

But where were the magical pixie ponies? Where were the mystical meetings with needy producers in stuck elevators? Where were the jaw-dropping phone calls from the so-and-so’s, who happened upon our scripts while riding camels on golden beaches? For me, lightning struck when she said, “Screenwriting is a job.

But, if “it’s just a job,” then…well then, I can do that!

As a matter of fact, I’ve been working since I was a kid. Instead of wasting another month making useless cold calls with crossed fingers, I made a business plan. That’s right…I pulled a Jerry Maguire, and wrote a sorbet-fueled mission statement. Most screenwriters dread “the pitch” and most entrepreneurs loathe the “mission statement.” Why…because it involves taking a stand, possibly when you feel like you know the least, about your future success.

Lee laid out the career paths available to screenwriters and I picked the one that inspired me the most. Then, I had an epiphany: my current portfolio didn’t fit that career path. I was trying too hard to write big stories, when those aren’t the movies I go to see. I like films that magnify a small, but dramatic moment in a character’s life. “The Savages,” starring Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as estranged siblings brought together by the need to care for their aging father, is a small story; although the stakes are huge for all of the characters. Still, I find myself thinking of their drive into “senior town,” as they pass the elderly residents riding bicycles, walking, and driving nifty golf carts down pristine streets. The movie juxtaposed two very real phases of getting old. The first was a geriatric Disney World; and the second was a gray, nursing home where hope went to die. It’s a fascinating world, but it’s not a big one. It’s raw and awesome. It’s what I want to write.

Inspired by my business goals, I wrote a new script, the best script I’ve written so far. Since then, I’ve been rebuilding my portfolio. Here’s an important note about the portfolio: if you don’t have multiple, high-quality projects in it, that truly represent who you are as a writer, go back to work immediately. As Lee and countless other professionals have said, the sign of the amateur is the single script.

My parents have been corporate mercenaries since before I was born. All those years listening at the dinner table paid off as I rounded out my business plan with a multi-pronged approach to becoming a professional screenwriter. The biggest section is networking. I have every business card ever given to me, even from the shoe salesman with bad hair, who tried to pick me up years ago in Manchester, NH. I don’t write about events. I write about people who do entertaining things before, during and after events. This fact is highlighted in my mission statement and drives me to collect people like my aunt collects those freaky cow figurines.

When I learn more about a particular contact person, even years later, I open my address book and make a note. I write down birthdays, anniversaries, food allergies, names of their important people, and their professional successes. I send cards at odd times of the year and I connect whenever I can help them. Famed literary agent Geoffery Sanborn advised me, “Always approach with your hand palm down. Never palm up.” He’s right, because so far, these very important people are actually glad to hear from me. And when they share their sage advice, I adjust my plan and keep going.

For now, I check off this task with a flourish, take a moment to do a little dance (someday I’ll Youtube it for you), and then I schedule the next task. Santa Scribe may come just once a year, but the paid Hollywood elves are always at their desks.