There’s always at least one panel in Austin on the thorny issue of Breaking Into Hollywood when you live in Boise, Idaho. Or Dublin, Ireland. Or Canada. And if it’s not that, it’s a panel on How to Get an Agent.
And I always wonder whether to go to these panels, because more often than not the subtext running through them is: Folks, you’re screwed. They can be depressing. And as a writer, I don’t need another depressing fact, I need hope, damn it!
But nevertheless, I figured I should drink the medicine at least once this year, so I went to the Breaking Into Hollywood from Outside one.
The panellists were TV (including Bones) and film writer/novelist Noah Hawley and TV writer Kell Cahoon, who lives in Austin. Here were their nuggets of wisdom on how to succeed in Hollywood from very far away:
- When you get a chance to submit something to someone in Hollywood, make sure to bring your A-game. You might only get one chance to get it right. So prepare by getting good at pitching, honing your craft and managing your industry relationships.
- Bu nice to assistants! Right now, they’re powerful gatekeepers. Next year, they could be an producer, agent or executive in their own right. (I would add to this: be nice to people in general. Seriously. Imagine if everyone just stopped behaving like dicks? It would be a wonderful world and there would be no more road rage or reality TV…. ).
- Remember, you’re looking for open assignments too. So even if they don’t like your script enough to buy it, they might like your writing style. And you. So be charming and polite.
- A fact I did not know – apparently the WGA assign experienced writers to guide newbie writers when they join. It’s a sort of mentoring scheme. I hope to have one of these mentors v. soon!
- Catch 22 – writers often find it hard to access work as assistants, but staffed writers find it hard to find good assistants, especially at short notice. It’s all about who you know, so use your social network! Exploit every contact you have, no matter how remote a chance it may seem. And check out this site – the Anonymous Production Assistant blog. Lots of job listings on there. Although if you’re me, or Canadian, you may be fresh out of luck. Keep reading!
- Older writers – your good script sample is your best weapon. Plus, life experience does count for a lot. If you have a writers room staffed with only twentysomething writers, you’re going to have a very narrow viewpoint.
- Indie films provide a route in that studio films and TV do not. Shoot your own movies. Make your own short films. You can do this from anywhere.
- An important point – once you have your foot through the door, you have to follow through. So if your agent gets you a meeting in L.A., no matter where you live, you have to go there and attend the meeting! Hollywood types don’t want to hear about “problems” with travel/kids/elderly parents/bosses. They have to contend with smog, traffic, angry people, the imminent prospect of being fired and the San Andreas fault.
- This was a big one – don’t take anything personally. This includes someone saying no to your script, your show getting cancelled, your movie going into turnaround, all of it. It’s a business, so take the pitfalls in your stride and move on. Be tenacious. Just keep going.
I quite liked this panel. Unlike most of its kind, it did not make me want to commit hari-kiri with my Final Draft disk.
And last, but not least, there was a panel led by former Pixar story artist Emma Coats on her internet-famous Story Rules. These are basically 22 “rules” or pieces of advice based on working at Pixar, most recently on the film Brave. Emma’s now shooting her own live-action shorts, including the outlaw story Sweetpea (which sounds amazing!).
The 22 rules are listed in this rather excellent Huffington Post interview with Emma, so I won’t list them again here.
However, here was what emerged as Emma and her writing partner Shion Takeuchi went through the list:
- These are not “rules” as such, but a distillation of what they have found to be true so far.
- Know your ending (this relates to rule 7) because otherwise things will need to be retro-fitted to suit it. If you have a scene in the second act that you really love but doesn’t suit your ending, it’s going to be hard to get rid of it.
- Even if you feel a scene is working great, ask yourself if an audience would want to watch it? It needs to be something that a LOT of people are going to be entertained by.
- Writing “from you” – with Brave, the challenge was that no one can relate to being a princess. But people CAN relate to the idea of having to live an over-structured life with too many restrictions. Find what’s relatable in your character.
- The first set of sequences in your script will be the most rewritten. You should use this section to set up anticipation in the audience for what’s going to happen later.
- Act 2 problems (and is there anyone who doesn’t have these?) usually happen because there is no clear midpoint. You have to use trial and error to find your “turn”. Where does the story peak? Emma used a good analogy, which is poker. With the inciting incident in your script, you’re “in” for a small amount, say 2 dollars. By the first half of Act 1, you get further and further in, throwing in dollar after dollar. By the midpoint, you’re “all in” and there’s no going back. So when in your story does your hero reach the point of no return? That’s your midpoint.
- When rewriting, be careful of remnants left over from old drafts, stuff that’s no longer relevant. Ask yourself when faced with older material if it should still be there or if it should be cut altogether.
- When writing a script about a fantastical world, the hero is usually the person who is the most naive, has the most to lose in the context of the theme, or who has the most to learn. They are the eyes of the audience.
- Pixar storyboarding for characters – a lot of it does not get used, but it helps to form the story and makes the characters come to life (this is similar to writing bios for your characters, which I highly recommend). Ask yourself how your character deals with conflict? How do they get out of doing stuff they don’t want to do?
- The “honeymoon phase” when you’ve just finished a script isn’t real. Just like with relationships. You have to get past it! Push past it if necessary.
- One of Emma’s rules deals with “getting the obvious out of the way”. Look past the first, second and third things that come to mind and see if you can come up with something more “out there”. Something you haven’t seen before. This is similar to writing sketches, where you’re asked to come up with 25 things that could happen in your scene. This will range from the mundane to the absurd. (Go with the absurd, at least for sketch writing!)
- With script ideas, get someone who is not attached to your idea and run it past them. Run it past plenty of people and see how enthusiastic they are – this will give you a hint of whether it’s a good concept or not.
- If a bunch of people are saying the same thing about your script and something that needs to be changed, maybe it needs to be changed. Look at deleted scenes on DVDs – in some cases they may be good scenes, but you probably didn’t miss them in the movie.
- Test new ideas out – you owe it to your story to try things. Usually, the changes will be better.
I found this session really helpful, especially avoiding the obvious and the idea of finding your midpoint by looking for the point of no return. Thanks to Emma and Shion, and looking forward to seeing Sweetpea!
And then it was done. Except it wasn’t, because I didn’t go home until Wednesday 24th. So there was another two days of talking and partying and meeting up with people. There was an excellent martini lunch (thank Yolanda!) and a visit to the majestic Alamo Ritz movie theatre, where you can order food and beer at your seat and NO ONE TALKS. You get shot if you talk, it’s Texas.
There was a last party on Tuesday before I went home and unusually, there was still an impressive number of conference attendees still around. I’m ashamed to say that I only got to catch one bunch of short films (all amazing). I did not manage to see one feature at AFF this year, and there were some good ones. Oh well, next time!
My plane was delayed coming back because some guy called Barack Obama was landing his little plane at LAX so he could go on some talk show. Tsk.
I’ll update over the next few days on what’s been happening since I got back to L.A., but in the meantime, a big, concerned hallo to everyone I know on the East Coast. Stay safe, people!