The title of this session, the last I attended, was a bit of a misnomer. So much so that in the Q & A that followed one cheeky beggar asked, "so what are the 20 most common pitfalls?" It was pretty funny actually. But in reality what the session did provide was an overview of how your script, and indeed your actions and etiquette, are perceived by people inside the industry, and from that point of view it was invaluable. Moderated by Industrial Scripts supremo, Evan Leighton-Davis, the panel included Danny Stack, Steven Russell, Daniel Martin Eckhart, and Paul Andrew Williams.
What common mistakes did you make sending scripts out early on?
PAW: Sending them out for one, because they weren't very good. Early scripts were written in pen on A4 paper. Probably best not to do that. Didn't read any book on scriptwriting and still hasn't. Had no real idea of what he was doing, but clung onto the idea of 'what happens next,' to just keep driving the story forward. Then he started to get feedback etc and gradually his work improved.
DME: Wrote 7 or 8 specs before getting anything produced. It was a learning experience and even when looking back at them now still quite likes them. Also had no formal training, but just loved movies ever since being a kid and had an instinct for how scripts should feel and look like. One of the big problems he had was with script length - they were always too long.
DS: Every screenwriter that's ever lived makes the same mistakes when starting out. He was writing specs when working as a reader and you see scripts and the mistakes they make and realise omg I do the same thing. You always think your scripts are better and fresher than what's out there but when you read a lot of scripts Danny realised he needed to work harder to be better, more original, more imaginative, etc. If you download scripts online and just read a few a week, that's some of the best education you're ever going to get. Because you'll see mistakes and think okay I'm not going to do that. But equally, you'll see things like stylistic techniques and think that's a great way to do that, and so on. Readers get maligned for supposedly wanting to find things that they can be critical about - but equally we want to find things we love and our passionate about and can push as much as we can.
Any script pet hates?
SR: Intensely dislike camera direction in a script. It's not the writers job. 'Angle on' and the phrase "we see..." pops up a lot and it's a dry way of doing things when what you want is for the script to be emotive. It's a bit lazy and you need to work harder than that.
ELD: All the execs he knows just hate exposition. Telling the story through dialogue or quite transparently telling the story that way. It's the laziest form of screenwriting. That's a very common mistake for new writers.
DME: When you're an experienced writer and have had a few scripts produced, you can take liberties and get away with a lot more. But when you're a newbie starting out you want to do everything you can to avoid everything there is that will stop someone reading your script. Some script you download are from very experienced writers and they will have camera directions and lots of other stuff we're told not to do, all over them. And what's more, it might all work wonderfully. But when you're new - just don't do them.
ELD: Every single reader, the first thing they do is turn to the back page to see how long the script is. And you can make their day a little bit by keeping it as short as possible. Put yourself in their position, they've got a pile of scripts sitting there and they are going to be more disposed to reading the shorter ones first. And script lengths generally are creeping down a little bit. People are aware of that.
DS: Between 90-105 pages is becoming the standard now. It does depend a little bit on genre because horror might be on the shorter side for example. But scripts much longer than this and people will start raising eyebrows. And from a reader point of view, they'll be thinking oh I'm not going to read that one tonight. People talk a lot about the importance of the first 10 pages (or less, like 3 pages, these days) and that's all true. But what can then happen is after that point things start to go off the rails. So much effort has gone into the first 10 pages but then the structure falls away or the characterisation gets a bit wonky. And it should go without saying that as much time, effort and hard work needs to go into the rest of the script as it does with the first ten pages, but sometimes what's on the page doesn't look like it has.
As far as etiquette goes, how important are all the things that go on off page as it were, like making a good impression and getting on with people, etc?
SR: It's hugely important. We spend hours and hours working with writers and the relationship is really important. So if people are being difficult you're going to wonder whether it's worth it. This one writer had sent a script in and then just kept emailing 'have you read my script yet,' over and over again. Until it reached the point where they would just send an email with a question mark. Yeah, don't do that.
PAW: It's always a struggle to get your script read. But when you do pick your battles. Pick what you really care about and choose carefully what you're going to fight for. Is it a deal breaker? But at the same time keep your ego in check.
What are your thoughts on self promotion?
DS: You've got to be yourself but there's no harm in promoting yourself in a positive way that isn't a load of rubbish. Humility and humour go a long way, especially in email. In fact it's surprising how common it is for people who call themselves writers can't actually write a good email or letter. Or you might get what is obviously a generic email, and they've forgotten to put your name on this one so it just reads Dear,. The other thing is constantly asking if you've read the script yet, and then saying if you haven't here's another draft, can you read that one instead. And so begins another cycle of torment.
DME: Producers are human beings too. They want to work with people they get along with. Working on anything from TV to features, it's a long process. You're not talking a couple of months, you're talking a year or two. If you come across as difficult and someone who can't be challenged/argued with (in a constructive way) the producer will think I'll find the next best guy. Maybe it will be someone who is not quite as good a writer as you. But he can get along with him and grab a beer and have a laugh. Don't be a precious artist and think what you've written is just genius and you're doing them a favour even letting them read it. That's really important especially at the beginning. You need to start playing the game.
We're in the social networking age. How important is an online presence and what are the cautionary tales?
DS: The great thing about the internet is that it's ours and we make the content. So you can make yourself out to look really good, but by the same token you can end up looking like a complete idiot. And unfortunately it's very easy to do the latter and not so easy to do the former. So if you're going to have a website maintain it well. If you're going to have a blog have something to say. If you're going to twitter don't slag off people. Facebook is the same. Unless you protect your content it's a public forum. Execs will check out your blog before or after your meeting, so be careful what you say. If you think starting a blog will help you jump the queue in terms of getting work it won't. You can sometimes get work through relationships that have begun through your blog, but it will probably take years. There is still an attitude at the moment that writers don't need any online presence, which is a valid opinion. But that might change. We leave digital footsteps everywhere and the internet is such a part of our lives, that if an exec google you, like we all do, and don't find anything, it can look a bit weird.
DME: Today you can get away with nothing. But in five years time you might not. People need to be able to find you.