The Unusual Suspects: How to Use Unconventional Industry Contacts to Launch Your Screenwriting Career
Posted by Michael Elliot on
There’s a common misconception among new or ‘unrepresented’ screenwriters that only agents, managers, and producers can open Hollywood’s gates, and that without at least one of the three, it’s virtually impossible to sell a script or sidestep Hollywood’s frustrating barriers to entry. The truth is that representation or established producers can, of course, be a huge help, but they are by no means your only way in. Believing this is the first step to recognizing a massive pool of industry insiders – that aren’t agents or managers – who can also help launch your screenwriting career. You have options, lots of them. But to see them you have to be willing to toss aside the Traditional Hollywood Playbook. Continuing to allow its archaic methods to dictate your submission strategy will keep you from doing everything possible to realize your dreams.
Thumb through the pages of any dictionary and look up the words ‘traditional’ and ‘conventional’ and you’ll find definitions such as: “following the accepted customs, especially in a way that lacks originality” and “unimaginative; conformist.” Had dreamers like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Christopher Lloyd, James Cameron, and Tony Fadell “followed the accepted customs” there would be no Facebook, no Google, no Modern Family, no Avatar, no iPod. More personally, had I “followed the accepted customs” 13 years ago when I set out to achieve my first spec sale, my life since then would have been minus some truly amazing moments.
“Rejects conventional behavior; breaks with traditional customs” – this is how the dictionary defines: Renegade. This also describes the writer I morphed into back in ’98 when faced with empty pockets, an impending eviction, no representation and no Hollywood connections. I hatched an unconventional submission strategy, which included targeting individuals that conventional-thinking writers wouldn’t think to query; but they were industry professionals who I thought might need my script to advance their career. My strategy was based on a simple fact of life: When you’re hungry, you want to eat. So I asked myself “who’s hungry?” The answers became the individuals I would query. I reasoned: the hungrier my targets might be, the more likely (and quickly) they’d consider my query.
The strategy worked. Within 24 hours of firing off 250 unconventional queries, roughly 10% of my targets called and asked me to send over my spec, which was purchased by 20th Century Fox a week later, launching my career. Thinking like a Renegade Writer and maneuvering like one is how I defied the odds. It’s how you can, too.
The following ideas are for Renegade scribes only. Writers with the time, patience, and the luxury to wait for the Traditional Hollywood Playbook to yield results need not read on. But if the following definition applies to you, these ideas will inspire new submission strategies and new targets for your queries.
The Renegade Writer is a writer whose dreams are worth too much to leave a single stone unturned. A Renegade Writer thinks out of the box. Renegade Writers see opportunity where conventional-thinking writers don’t. For this group of scrappy and imaginative scribes, I offer The Unusual Suspects – unconventional groups of industry professionals that can also help launch your screenwriting career.
At first glance you might question their ability to help you, as their powers aren’t instantly obvious. But what gives The Unusual Suspects the ability to impact your potential screenwriter career is their hunger, their needs, their goals. Querying individuals that need your script as much as you need them is one way to circumvent the roadblocks put up by Hollywood’s Establishment, and to succeed – even without representation – at Breaking In. I believe that among these groups are individuals hoping they’ll come across the ‘right’ script; a script that they can use to go to the next level of their careers. And you just might have what they’re looking for.
For many of the actors who’ve won (or have been nominated for) Hollywood’s most prestigious prize but are no longer considered “hot” by Hollywood standards, the desire to play a fantastic character in a meaningful or commercially successful film, still burns. Past Oscar winners and nominees – even those whose stars burned brightest a decade or more ago – still have the relationships, access to script buyers, and the foreign bankability to turn a script that they’ve discovered and are passionate about into a produced film. If your spec offers a unique opportunity for Oscar winning or nominated talent who are no longer on Hollywood’s ‘go-to’ list, consider targeting them with a tailor-made query.
Cinematographers (or Directors of Photography) are the people responsible for making sure that each of a film’s scenes are shot in a way that brings the director’s vision to life. This being their skill, it’s easy to see why Cinematographer-to-Director is an obvious transition. One notable example: director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, The Watchmen). Snyder worked as a Cinematographer before Hollywood invited him to helm a feature film. With many of tomorrow’s feature directors emerging from the cinematography world, hot Cinematographers who may be a script away from transitioning to Directors’ chairs make ideal targets for your queries.
On any film, the First Assistant Director is the Director’s right-hand. Many First ADs aspire to helm their own film and consider their First AD jobs prep for the day they will direct. Alfred Hitchcock is the most famous First AD-turned-Director. A present-day First AD-turned-Director is James McTeigue. McTeigue, the First AD on the Matrix trilogy and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, made his feature directorial debut with V for Vendetta. Getting your query in the hands of ambitious First ADs is another strategy that could yield results.
Music Video Directors
Every year the world of Music Video Directors has a graduating class. Past graduates include Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), David Fincher (The Social Network), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job). By querying hot Music Video Directors poised to become filmmakers, your script could be one of their launch pads, and their interest in your script could be yours.
It may seem odd that a Commercial Director could play a pivotal role in the potential sale of a movie script, but studios have long considered Commercial Directors perfect Feature Directors because Commercial Directors know how to convey emotion in 30 seconds. Commercial Director-turned-Feature Director, Joseph Kosinski, directed Disney’s Tron: Legacy. Universal’s upcoming prequel The Thing was helmed by Commercial Director-turned-Feature Director Matthijs Van Heijningen Jr. Both freshmen join a club led by Michael Bay (Transformers), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise), who all got their start directing commercials for brands such as Smirnoff Vodka, the Red Cross, and Gap. Four months ago, in-demand Commercial Director Rupert Sanders chose Evan Daugherty’s spec “Snow White and The Huntsman” for his feature directorial debut. Sanders’ attachment to the spec practically guaranteed the spec’s sale, and made Daugherty’s script even more coveted by studios.
For every Bruckheimer, Grazer, and Rudin, there are Unit Production Managers (or UPMs) charged with the actual physical production of their films; the nuts-and-bolts work. For Production Managers that aspire to more creative, sexier, and higher-paying ‘Producer’ roles, what keeps many of them from realizing their Bruckheimer aspirations is a lack of access to material. You can change this with your queries.
For every actor whose name you’d know, there’s a Casting Director that discovered him or her. Many of these Casting Directors – all of which are hired by the Producer – would rather be on the other side of the table, using their keen eye for talent and their established relationships with the stars whose careers they help ignite, to be a Producer. But like with Production Managers, for Casting Directors that aspire to Produce, their ability to make the transition is often affected by a common reality: their access to scripts is rarely direct-from-screenwriters, but direct from producers or studios seeking their casting services.
For screenwriters who’ve penned successful films, they have the relationships, credibility, and the track record necessary to ‘set up’ projects penned by other writers. Established screenwriters who also Produce or aspire to Produce (or Direct), should definitely be considered for your queries. Note: targeting writers whose films reflect the genre, tone, and sensibility of your spec will increase your chances of one of these writers responding to your query.
Tomorrow’s Agents & Managers
Every week there are Assistants who are promoted to agents and managers, and every new agent or new manager has the same priority on their first day in their new position: develop his or her own client list. Recognizing that many of the gatekeepers in the offices of agents and managers will be tomorrow’s agents, managers, and players, is an opportunity for Renegade Writers to implement a strategy that I call The Day One: instead of pursuing the interest of established agents and managers, court their Assistants. In your query, tell the Assistant that you’re interested in being his client – when he makes agent or manager. There’s a chance that the Assistant will appreciate your vote of confidence and your willingness to wait ‘til he’s in a position to represent you. By establishing and maintaining relationships with the Assistant, you increase your chances of being one of a new agent’s or new manager’s Day One recruits.
Bottom line: whether you include The Usual Suspects I’ve suggested here to your submission strategy or not, I hope these ideas inspire you to think out of the box.
With an Establishment that seems more determined by the day to keep unrepresented writers out of its exclusive club, the writers who approach their submission strategy like they’re playing chess have the best chance of defying the odds.
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