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A Screenwriters Knowledge Database: Markets, Current Trends, and Where Beginners Fit In
 
 
A Screenwriters Knowledge Database: MARKETS, CURRENT TRENDS, AND WHERE BEGINNERS FIT IN

It's great to write scripts and stories for the screen, to let your imagination soar and freely express whatever comes to mind. But the real juice, the fun part, the goal of every serious screenwriter, is selling his work, getting paid, and seeing the finished product on the screen. Before you get to that point, the screenwriter is a bit like a painter without a canvas. Dreams and visions may serve to get the words on the page, but seeing the material performed by trained actors and actresses and interpreted for film by a director who values the story is something you can wait many years to experience. The truth is: getting there is half the fun.

Thus, however idealistic you are about your art and the significance of your words and ideas, the writer must understand the market for his work. For the beginner, this is tricky, but by cleverly anticipating what's really going on in the filmmaking world, you can write scripts that move easily into the best position market wise for your success.

Along these lines, there are a few well known rules:

Never set out to write your own 'spec' version of a popular hit film or TV franchise. This also applies to books, comics, video games, etc. The reason is obvious---if you write a Batman film, no matter how great your work, the industry professionals who actually 'own' Batman will be pissed off and probably sue you, rather than welcome you as a new genius who will rescue their baby. When the world is ready for a new Star Trek film, the legal holders of the intellectual property will hire the best writers they can find and shepherd the new project into development exactly as they wish. Intellectual properties---whether it's a comic book character, a video game title, or even a magazine article---are not fair game for beginners who are too lazy to come up with their own fantastic concepts and characters. Most of these 'spec' scripts die instantly on submission. The only exception are public domain books, like 'The Three Musketeers' or 'The Illiad.'

Don't assume your first screenplay sale will fetch a $100 million production budget. Again, when studios are spending that kind of money, they hire a very well known writer so investors will feel protected. You can certainly write and even sometimes sell a script that calls for all kinds of special effects, specific actors, and costly animation. But your chances as a novice are much better with a mid-to-low budget project.

Don't assume you can just send your script to the street mailing address for big studios and companies like Disney, Warner Brothers, or Paramount. There's a right way and a wrong way to knock on those doors. We'll talk more about submissions later, but remember---if you send an unsolicited script to a large company, it will likely get tossed because they intentionally protect themselves from unwanted new ideas.

Don't bother to be paranoid about a producer or agent 'stealing your idea.' A lot of beginners think they have 'the next Star Wars,' but the reality is that most 'new' ideas are not so new. If a producer wants to see your story, try to work it out---otherwise you'll limit your chances drastically. Legitimate people know you'll turn around and sue them if they just walk off with your work. Register your script, but get it out there to any realistic potential production opportunities.

On the plus side, in the current film and video marketplace, the beginner trying to break in with a screen story has one great advantage---that is, the wide open, growing, low cost, independent film marketplace. It's an ideal match---the novice screenwriter teams up with the novice filmmaker and both can win. New technologies, such as DV cameras, digital desk top editing, easy reproduction, and other aspects, mean that a new wannabe director can make a film for costs as low as $50,000 to $100,000 and produce excellent work. Many of these independent filmmakers seek out scripts and stories just like the big boys. Sometimes these are individuals and sometimes small companies. By targeting your script here, you're a right sized fish in a right sized pond. Get those film credits and top work seen at festivals and maybe distributed direct-to-video and suddenly other doors start to open. By the way, these situations can earn you between $3,000 to $10,000 for a quality script.

So, where do beginners fit in? This is the sort of question you'll need to answer for yourself. Some writers are 'meat and potatoes' kind of guys---they'll work on anything that pays their bills. If that's you, don't worry---you'll be building that resume for the big fish that may eventually swim by. Other writers want the artistic end of things---they may be very serious about a creative idea or a particular story and tenaciously pursue a first sale for no less than $150,000. This is more of a challenge, but not to be discounted simply because the mountain is a bit taller and the climb a bit longer. You might want to write your own low budget script and produce and direct it yourself, for all the independent glory you can stand---whether or not your career will ultimately be that of a writer, director, producer. There are other kinds of screenwriting that can pay well, too---educational and corporate videos, episodic TV, commercials, etc.

So in a way, learning to write for the screen is a skill you may need at any time in your media career. Everyone has to start somewhere----you're always a beginner on every new project anyway and that freshness, newness, and innocence also has its value.
GETTING STARTED---MASTERING SCREENPLAY FORMAT



Without a doubt, the single most intimidating factor for the beginner who wants to write screenplays is the mandatory use of professional level script format to tell the story. Telling a story this way is awkward, technical, tedious, and slow---it's also the only way a filmmaker will be able to use your script to create a film. Not only do you need a solid story, but you also have to create the complete visualization in standard format so a filmmaker can interpret your work for the camera. There may be variations or exceptions to this, but in the broadest sense, if you want to write screenplays, you have to know the format at least passably well.

We'll look here at the basics of a typical feature film format---there are always variations for TV, videos, etc., and any particular writer will have his own style as well. The truth is that formatting can be very easy and become second nature for you. Highly recommended are programs like Final Draft, which handle much of this for you and make many formatting chores automatic through the miracle of the computer. You can also easily format your own scripts in word processing programs like Microsoft Word. It's not rocket science so get the format down first and then start to be brilliant in other areas.

There are only four or five essential building blocks for a feature film formatted script. These include: scene headings, action and setting blocks, dialogue blocks, transitions, and simple camera and editing directions. There are actually many other minor aspects, but these are the basic tools. So, let's quickly look at each:

Scene Headings

This is an all caps line above each scene. The first element is whether the scene is an exterior or interior set up. Space over about ten spaces and indicate the location and basic features of the scene. Space over another ten spaces, add a dash, and indicate if the scene is shot during the day or at night (or sometimes morning, dusk, etc.) A scene heading typically looks like this on the page:

EXT-- MOUNTAIN CABIN IN THE WOODS--DAY

The scene headings for the entire screenplay can also be numbered, and those go dog eared to the right and left. Every new set up for the director gets a new scene heading, but not necessarily every new shot---so when the camera crew has to set up again at a local market in the village below the mountain, you get a new scene heading; a shot under this scene heading of a dog attacking a rabbit just outside the cabin does not, even if there have been other elements in the scene.

Action and Setting Blocks

Use a double return beneath the scene heading, and then in caps and lower case, blocks of copy are placed at your widest margin, without paragraph indents. These are used for general descriptions, movements, behavior of the actors, or other elements (including anything from moving trucks to ravenous wolves, etc.) Camera direction can also be included. You want to keep these brief with clear descriptions (no long winded, flowery prose), and you also generally want to break up longer passages into shorter blocks. Action and setting blocks look like this:

EXT--MOUNTAIN CABIN IN THE WOODS--DAY

Outside the rustic cabin in the deep woods, it seems like another quiet day. A small campfire is burning in the foreground, with smoke rising gently, and a pot of fresh coffee is heating up. Sunlight filters through the trees beyond the cabin, with the songs of birds in the air.

Suddenly, a small white rabbit, chased by a large red dog, races across the yard in front of the cabin.

______________________________________________________

There's a lot that can be said about action and setting blocks, but for your formatting, it can't get much easier. Page margins for the entire script should be at least 1.5 inches from the left margin (to allow for binding) and about an inch from the right margin. The scene heading does not need to extend all the way across the page, but the action and setting copy blocks do.

Dialogue blocks

This is one of the trickier parts without a formatting program. For each block of dialogue, the character's name is placed in all caps, centered over a narrower copy block, beneath and between the action and setting blocks. The narrower copy block is also centered, and should only be about three inches wide. So, to accomplish this, you tab over and center the name. Beneath this, tab over about a third of the page and start typing in your dialogue. Sounds difficult, but it's really not. Of course you want to be consistent with all margins throughout the script. Dialogue blocks look like this on the page:

EXT-- MOUNTAIN CABIN IN THE WOODS--DAY

Outside the rustic cabin in the deep woods, it seems like another quiet day. A small campfire is burning in the foreground, with smoke rising gently, and a pot of fresh coffee is heating up. Sunlight filters through the trees beyond the cabin, with the songs of birds in the air.

Suddenly, a small white rabbit, chased by a large red dog, races across the yard in front of the cabin.

FARMER BOB and his wife MARY rush out the door of the cabin.

FARMER BOB

Dang that dog! That's my favorite
rabbit! He got out of the rabbit pen!

MARY
Want to learn more? Take an online course in Screenwriting.
Now, Bob. You know Old Yeller is
just playing with the critter. He don't
mean no harm.

Transitions

These can be very simple and should be used sparingly. Basically, what you're doing is telling the director (and film editor) how one scene is intended to transition cinematically to the next. Some writers use CUT TO: at the end of every scene, but it's not necessary. You can also useDISSOLVE: to indicate the passage of time or for effect. There are others (SLAM:, CUT TO:, or FADE OUT:). At the very beginning of your script you use FADE IN: at the top left of the page. Transitions, like all camera direction and editing moves, are always in all caps and are placed at the end of the scene in the bottom right position. A transition will commonly look like this on the page:

Suddenly, a small white rabbit,chased by a large red dog, races across the yard in front of the cabin.

FARMER BOB and his wife MARY rush out the door of the cabin.

FARMER BOB

Dang that dog! That's my favorite
rabbit! He got out of the rabbit pen!
MARY
Now, Bob. You know Old Yeller is
just playing with the critter. He don't
mean no harm.
Farmer Bob now runs after the dog as his wife folds her arms and waits by the cabin door.
DISSOLVE TO:

___________________________________________________

Common Simple Camera and Editing Directions

Throughout your script, you'll want to communicate to the filmmaker the way you feel a scene should be filmed cinematically. Writers may like to use these, but for modern scripts, they are used sparingly. There are dozens of individual camera moves (pan, tilt, close-up, wide, etc.). You don't want to use a lot, but to give your script a visual feel, it's not wrong to use a few. You also sometimes want to indicate where you feel music should be used (music up), and other film qualities like the use of a montage, the use of an inserted image, the overlay of graphics, any animation, and special effects. To be honest, to use these well, you need to be at least somewhat literate concerning filmmaking techniques in general. But these directions and camera moves are always all caps and placed where needed in the action and setting copy blocks. So, without going on at length, camera and editing directions look like this:

FARMER BOB and his wife MARY rush out the door of the cabin.

FARMER BOB

Dang that dog! That's my favorite
rabbit! He got out of the rabbit pen!
MARY
Now, Bob. You know Old Yeller is
just playing with the critter. He don't
mean no harm.

Farmer Bob now runs after the dog as his wife fold her arms and waits by the cabin door.

CLOSE ANGLE ON the dog, now across the yard, barking loudly at the rabbit, which is hiding under a log.

Farmer Bob rushes up behind the dog.

FARMER BOB

Yeller! Leave that rabbit alone!

WIDE ON the scene, with the dog still barking as Farmer Bob tries to control him.

CLOSE UP on the scared rabbit, peeking out from under the log. MUSIC UP, an Appalachian folk tune.
DISSOLVE:

_____________________________________________________

Here are a few other notes on script formatting. A key concept here is consistency. Different writers will have different formatting habits. As long as you're consistent with the way you handle scene formatting throughout the entire script and stick with the basics outlined above, most filmmakers will regard your document as properly done. You might notice in the above, that the character names in the scene are in all caps for a first reference, as an example of an idiosyncrasy. Scripts are hard enough to read anyway, and what you're talking about is the way the document looks---not the content of the story. So you want it to look and feel tight, fast, to the point, and very clear about how you, the writer, are visualizing this film. Also, it's important to note that video scripts, episodic TV scripts, and other types each may have specific formatting requirements, which can't be taught successfully here.

Your title page, by the way, includes the title of the film, in all caps, centered about half way up the page. Under this is your byline, which can simply be 'Screenplay By Your Name Here,' also centered. At the lower left corner, in caps and lower case, include the name of the owner of the script, such as the company you are writing for, the draft number (first draft, second draft, etc.), the registration number, and a contact phone number or e-mail. Use one line for each set of new information. At the very end of your script, in all caps to the left margin, you can include, 'FADE OUT, ROLL CREDITS, THE END.'

Don't let formatting your script bug you or get in the way of a great story.If you can't master the basics of formatting, screenwriting will always be a horrendous chore for you. The worst thing you can do is try to hand in a script that is a formatting mess, with made up formatting choices, different on every page, hard to understand passages, overflowing with lengthy descriptions, and far too numerous, and probably erroneous, camera directions. Most professionals won't even read scripts that look like this. You may as well hand in your feature screenplay written on toilet paper in longhand with a purple ballpoint pen. And that would never do.
 
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