Can’t Sell Your Original Screenplay? Try Sidewinding Your Way to Success

 by Lew Ritter

adaptationSelling a script to Hollywood can be hard. I had read stories in the trade papers of writers who gained entrance into the Hollywood system by optioning a true story. They gained the rights to a book or magazine article and then developed an interesting pitch letter for studios to evaluate.

They might hire you as the writer, or simply pay you a fee and send you on your way. Either way, you have a credit and a foot in the door.

My first attempt was back in the late 90’s early 2000’s. I was searching for books in my local library. I came across a book about two unsung Jewish brothers at the time of the 1941 German invasion.

Most of their family had been killed by the Germans. They found sanctuary in a remote wooded forest. Many other Jewish refugees made their way into the brother’s forest camp. They formed a partisan brigade composed of formerly defenseless Jews. Partisans could not defeat the Germans by themselves, but they tied up needed manpower and supplies A true story about an unsung group of Jews heroes who fought back against the Holocaust. It seemed like the perfect book.

After tracking down the publisher, I discovered that someone, probably a studio had already obtained the rights to the book. Several years later, I was reading about upcoming movies. DEFIANCE, the true story of the two Jewish brothers would be being released in a few months. It was written by Edward Zwick, the writer of GLORY and the TV series THIRTYSOMETHING.

For several years, I gave up the hope of finding the elusive unclaimed adaptation. During the last school year, I worked in a High School library. Every couple of days, I examined the boxes of new books arriving from the publishers. In particular, I was interested in examining the incoming best sellers.

Many of the students were interested in reading the most recent best sellers. Y.A. or Young Adult Fiction was the current rage. Everyone was looking for the next Hunger Games series. My idea was different. I was looking for a book that interested me enough that I could obtain the rights to the book.

I skimmed the incoming books and found a book that interested me. It was a book about a teenage girl discovering that she was either a robot or an advanced life form. I was excited and I called a veteran writer friend. I read the back cover to him. Both of us were intrigued

What I discovered was that most of these books had been scooped up by Hollywood. Many publishers send out advance copies of Y.A. fiction to Hollywood in the hopes of it becoming a book or series. Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling had become very wealthy after their book series became features.

In my case, the book had been optioned by SHONDALAND. This is the production company of SHONDA RHIMES, the powerful showrunner of GREY’S ANATOMY, and just about every other hit show on ABC. There was no way that I could hope to compete with this production company.

My quest for the next Hunger Games was over for the moment. However, I had read that China was an exploding market for TV and films. The Chinese were devouring material, especially if it involved Chinese history or some story set in Asia.

While finishing my lunch, I rummaged along the shelves of the used books. These were cast off books donated by teachers who wanted to give these books a new home. In short, they would be thrown out in several months when the school went into a house cleaning mode.

While examining the collection, I ran across a book called INTERIORS. It seemed perfect. It dealt with a beautiful Chinese government agent and her love interest, an American lawyer. I grabbed the book before it could vanish.

I started reading. A book dealing with modern day China. Lots of atmosphere and interesting characters. I was in movie writer’s heaven. I again contacted my friend the veteran writer. He was excited, it seemed like a perfect book to adapt into a movie or TV series.

These days, most authors have their own web page. It provides an easy way for them to publicize their books and provided a method for contacting them. I found the author’s website. She was a prolific author and was kind enough to respond to my efforts to gain the rights to the book. She told me that no one had ever approached her about gaining the rights for the series. She suggested contacting her agent, it was possible to discuss obtaining the movie rights.

Over the next few days, I devoured the book. I wrote a synopsis of the book in order to pitch it to my friend and a producer associate. The story, while interesting was nothing startlingly original. It dealt with a missing village girl. She goes to work for an American company and suffered a horrible fate and vanishes. The Chinese government agent goes undercover and discovers the unpleasant truth.

The problem was that the story was old news. There was no twist or new wrinkle that made the story fresh or unique. On top of that, any story that criticizes the present Chinese government would not get produced by the Chinese market.

I read several other books in the series. Again, the stories were nicely written and decent mysteries. The problem was that the stories were nothing earth shaking. We thought of turning it into a weekly TV series. However, problems arose as to stories and the idea died as quickly as it was born.

Ever the optimist, I was at my gym and grabbed a copy of NEW JERSEY MONTHLY. It featured an interesting article about policing in Camden, one of Jersey’s most crime ridden cities. The police had found a way to reduce crime and improve community relations.

I thought perhaps, I had found the next HILL STREET BLUES. I sent an email to the local editor. After several weeks, he replied that he was leaving his position. He would turn my request over to his replacement. I never heard anything further from them.

The moral of the story is that even though the odds are stacked against you. It could be worthwhile to keep your eyes out for some true story or book. It might be the proverbial nugget in the goldmine that could be adapted into a movie or TV series. It is one of the avenues that you had to explore as a writer trying to break into the Hollywood machine.

Film & TV Writing Contests: Are They Worth the Price of Admission?

wheel of fortune

by Lew Ritter

Every few weeks, my email brings me a breathless announcement for a new or established screenplay competition. It proclaims in bold headlines, ‘Want to Break into Industry?” or “Looking for New Blood.” Can your ticket to fame and fortune be far behind?

There are literally dozens of screenplay competitions out there. Some of the most famous ones are the NICHOL FELLOWSHIP, SCRIPTAPALOOZA, AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL and of course, the contests run by our fearless leader Larry Brody. He runs two contests yearly, the PEOPLE’S PILOT and SPEC SCRIPTACULAR. Other worthy contest are run by various networks or studios.

There are other lesser known contests that deal exclusively with short films, comedy or horror scripts. The fees are reasonable. The fee is usually around sixty dollars per script. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The PEOPLE’S PILOT and SPEC SCRIPTACULAR are $50.) Sometimes, they offer reduced fees for early bird entries.

So, you breathlessly upload your work of art, pay your fee and hope to hear that you have been selected to be the grand prize winner. Usually, you have to wait a few months before receiving the results of the contest.

Promises, Promises

Many of the contests promise that your script will be read by “industry professionals” and winning gives you entry into the glamourous world of screenwriting. Some even promise the winners an all – expense paid week in Hollywood. Fame and fortune is just a click away. Who could resist?
In order to be fair about writing the article, I asked a sampling of writers that I had met over the past year about their contest experiences. The response from these writers, as they said on the old Shell Gas commercials was (YMMV) or “Your Mileage May Vary.” In short, the experience were varied, but enlightening.

The Reality behind the Glitz

My favorite contest promise is the offer of an all-expense paid trip to Hollywood with airfare and hotel included. In addition, some contests sweeten the pot and offer mentorship by famous executives for a year.

After entering the contest, it occurs to me, the odds against winning the grand prize is like winning the lottery. The contests receive hundreds or even thousands of submissions based on their reputation. Does the contest really have the financial backing to make good on it’s offer to pay for the trip to Hollywood? Unless they are sponsored by a company like Final Draft, do they have the resources to make good on their promises?

Another contest offers to “Table Read your Screenplay.” Does this mean that your script is read by professional actors? This sounds really enticing. However, who are the actors? Are they A- List actors, or just local actors making a few dollars? It is a sure bet that Tom Cruise doesn’t have spare time on his hands and goes looking for his next project.

The thing that bothers me about the lesser known contests are the unanswered questions, such as who are the industry professionals that the contest uses to read entries? Are they serious writers with credits or simply junior level assistants? Reading a script is a very time intensive effort. How much of the actual script do they read? How much money do these evaluators make, and how many scripts do they read? These are questions that probably remain unanswered.

Should you pay the extra fee for feedback? The catch is that it requires an additional fee. The unanimous opinion from the other writers is that extra feedback was a waste of money. The feedback tends to be of a general nature, and some might even miss the point of your script. In addition, the sheer volume of scripts precludes a serious in- depth analysis.

Many are answered, but few are called

If you examine the list of top finalist from many contests, you find many talented writers waiting for their big break. Even if you are a semi- finalist or place highly in the contest, there is no guarantee that at a later time someone else in the industry will read the script. Some contests promise to send out lists of winners or their loglines to entice industry people.

The writers feel that publicity from a contest win is highly over rated. Even if an industry professional receives your name or logline, how many take the time to read all of those loglines? How many will request your script? The best use for publicity gained will be as a calling card when you network with industry professionals.

A year from now, how many of these writers will have gained any significant in –roads in their careers? How many will have had the scripts optioned or gained representation? What happens if the list mentions only the top ten or twenty winners. Your script might have been number twenty one and doesn’t appear on the list. My guess is that only a fraction of the writers will gain any impact from a contest win.

Confessions of a Screenwriting Addict

Two years ago, I submitted a script called ‘”WHISTLEBLOWER.” to a script consultant that I used on a fairly regular basis. If I received the infamous “Pass” response, than it would have ended the journey right there. However, when I received her email, the critique of the script indicated “Consider with Revisions.”

It meant that she liked the script, but recommended some changes. I took her suggestions seriously and polished the script. Every few weeks, I re-submitted a revised draft to the consultant.

Several months later, I submitted it to “BREAKING DOWN THE WALLS” Thriller Screenplay competition. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my script became a finalist in one of their quarterly competitions. Later, I entered it in the AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL and became what they call a Second Rounder.


Some of the writers that I interviewed felt a contest win was helpful. They claimed that it got them optioned or gained representation. Others were less optimistic about contests. The one unanimous response was that it was best not to depend on the competition circuit for your career.

Having a script win or place in a contest gives you additional credibility as a writer and elevates you above the herd. Potential gatekeepers might be impressed and offer to read your script. However, there is no guarantee. Even after coming home from Austin, the response from cold calling and email queries to agencies and management companies was underwhelming. They still preferred to deal with writers with credits.

And yet, I have to admit, those finishes made me feel so good….They truly were inspirational, a step up or two up the ladder, a couple of notches in the belt. It makes me smile to think that even though I’m not taking a free trip on the Yellow Brick Road to the fabled city of Oz Hollywood, I’m heading in the right direction, and instead of fading out, my writing is…to be continued.