You win some, you lose (or don’t place in) some

Another screenwriting contest season come and gone, at least for yours truly.

My western’s record with PAGE extended to 0-6, and didn’t make it to the quarterfinals in the Nicholl. After last year’s debacle with Austin, I opted to skip it this year.

(Side note 1 – I don’t pay to get the reader/judge notes, so don’t know why the script fared how it did for either contest. The Nicholl used to offer notes after the top 5 were announced, but not sure if they’re doing that this year or you had to pay upon registering.)

(Side note 2 – A very hearty congrats and good luck to the 359 writers who made it to the Nicholl QFs. I wholeheartedly applaud the Academy’s decision to limit submissions to one script per person. Other contests should follow their lead.)

My initial reaction to the news from both competitions was “I must be a really shitty writer to keep failing like this.”

But as my ever-supportive wife, a few friends who are also consultants, and several other trusted colleagues in my writers’ network reminded me:

It’s a really good script.

You’re not a bad writer.

IT’S ALL SUBJECTIVE.

This script has also done moderately well in some smaller contests, so it can’t be that bad.

I know a writer whose script advanced in the Nicholl after several years of bupkis. I also know another writer who made it to the top 50 one year, then the same script didn’t even make the quarterfinals the following year.

And as a few others pointed out about the prestigious contests and the scripts that do well in them: it may be a good script, but would it be a good movie? I’ve read some contest winners (and some top vote-getters on The Black List); some were very well-written, and some just didn’t do anything for me. One or two even made me question why they did as well in the contest as they did.

Furthermore – did any make me eager to shell out the cost of a ticket if it were available on the big screen?

Not really.

But again, that’s just my take – i.e. SUBJECTIVE.

At the very least, reading these scripts could be helpful in a “developing your craft” kind of way.

So where do I go from here? I’m rewriting a pair of newer scripts, and haven’t decided if either will go the contest route. Possibly, but right now I couldn’t say.

I’d rather focus on getting them in decent shape. If that means skipping contests next year, that’s fine by me.

From the archives: If only you could eat a bad script

pineapple upside down cake
Let the metaphors commence!

Author’s note: got some other stuff that requires my attention, and a recent discussion about pineapple upside-down cake reminded me I did a post involving it a few years ago, so hope you enjoy this blast from the past from July 2016.

“Before we get to the gist of today’s post, let’s address the elephant in the room: my western did not advance to the quarterfinals of the PAGE contest.

Honestly, I was a little surprised; I thought it would have done better. After a brief wallow in disappointment, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. It’s just another one of those things over which I have no control. I still have a ton of confidence in this script and might submit again next year. Also waiting to see how it fares in Austin and the Nicholl.

True, it was a rather lousy way to start the weekend, but over the next couple of days, I managed to redirect my focus, which included a nice long run that involved traversing the Golden Gate Bridge, and attempting something I’ve always wanted to try:

Making a pineapple upside-down cake (from scratch, naturally).

Guests were coming over for dinner, and I’d made pies for them before. But this time,  I wanted to try something entirely new and preferably a little challenging. I’d say this falls into both categories.

I scoured the internet for an ideal recipe, found one to my satisfaction, and followed the directions to the letter. The result? It looked like it was supposed to, and that’s where the similarities end. A little too sweet and the center was still kind of goopy. Nevertheless, my guests still liked it, and K & I split the last piece after they left. Not bad for a first attempt.

Why did it not turn out the way I expected? A lot of reasons. The oven’s a piece of junk. It didn’t bake long enough. The ingredients and the amount of them probably need to be tweaked. No matter what, I know now that I can adjust all of these next time and get closer to the results I seek.

Except for the oven. It will forever remain a piece of junk until it dies. Which can’t happen soon enough. But I digress.

Notice all of the comparisons you could make between baking and writing a script? Trying something new and long-sought-after. Seeking advice and guidance. Following the guidelines. Doing what I was supposed to. An okay-but-was-hoping-for-better initial result. Planning ahead on what to fix/adjust for next time.

If a less-than-determined baker ended up with the cake I made, they’d probably denounce the whole process, give up entirely and probably buy pre-made stuff at the supermarket. But we’re made of sterner stuff. We hit a snag or some kind of unforeseen development, and we compensate as best we can. We learn what not to do next time. Sometimes you end up with something jaw-droppingly amazing, and sometimes you end up with something totally inedible.

With this whole experience behind me, I can now focus on projects of the immediate future, which includes another round of editing and revising a script, and making a pie or two for a dinner party this coming weekend.

It’s my intention to have the results of both of these undertakings be totally and utterly irresistible when they’re done and ready to serve.”

Q & A with Brooks Elms (pt 2)

Brooks Elms is a screenwriter and independent filmmaker. His specialty is grounded personal characters and writing stomach-churning story tension.

He’s written 30+ screenplays, a dozen of them on assignment, and sold several scripts, including one this year with Brad Peyton as Executive Producer. Brooks was recently hired to rewrite a screenplay started by an Oscar-winning writer. Brooks began his career writing, directing, and producing two indie features (personal dramas) that he screened all over the world.

Here’s an interview with Brooks from last year. He also loves coaching fellow writers who have a burning ambition to deeply serve their audiences, and has two new programs available to give them a helping hand.

You started your new mentorship program ANSWER THE CALL in late 2020 and the online course UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER in early 2021. There are a lot of similar screenwriting courses and programs out there. What is it about yours that sets it apart from the rest?

Depth. I go ALL IN on the success of my writers. Most consultants give you their best for an hour or two, or maybe for the month you take their online course. And they play the numbers game. But since I only work with a few writers at a time, I’m better positioned to move the needle for you in a BIG way. I fully invest in writers: giving my time, my contacts, my everything – for life. I love helping them succeed as much as I love serving my audience with my own screenplays. 

Is this a course more applicable for screenwriters just starting out, those with a few scripts under their belts, or both?

I enjoy new writers, but the best way I can help them is through my free tips found here https://www.brookselms.com/new/. I’m on the planet to serve my own audiences, and to help talented intermediate-level writers turn pro ASAP, and to keep them working at their highest levels – for life. And by intermediate, I mean they’ve written a couple scripts OR they’re a working professional in an adjacent creative field: copywriting, journalism, novels, acting, producing, directing, etc… 

Do you consult with writers regarding which program would be the best for them?

The website helps writers with that. But the summary is that if you want a working WGA screenwriter to uplevel every facet of your game, consider the in-depth 1:1 story development program – ANSWER THE CALL. If you want help getting your script to people in Hollywood to launch your career forward, consider the outreach course & community – UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER.

What was the inspiration for calling the programs ANSWER THE CALL and UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?

ANSWER THE CALL is from Joseph Campbell’s work about the mythic CALL that begins every great story. Too often, writers Refuse The Call to get the support they need to move to their next level – and they remain stuck in Act 1 in agony and cynicism. My program is for writers ready for the emotional risk to ANSWER THE CALL. UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is just a fun way to think about branding and outreach, because that side of the game, more than any other, needs a playful approach to be GREAT at it.

One of the aspects of your ANSWER THE CALL program is that you work with several writers as a group, as opposed to just keeping it one-on-one. Do you find that more beneficial, and why?

The group coaching calls add dimension to learning the system. Sometimes, I’ll show you a craft adjustment 1:1, and you kinda get it, but then in the group call you see me coaching a different writer on that same principle and it will now totally click for you. And the writers I select are super-creative so our group calls are an amazing sounding board for getting quick collective reactions. Plus, having a circle of peers that are ambitious, team-oriented and active in the business – keeps you inspired. Because when one of us win, all of us win.

How extensive is your work with writers for ANSWER THE CALL? Do you help them develop a script from beginning to end, or should they come in with one already written?

We go the full distance. So you can repeat the process, for life. We’ll take a deep dive into your favorite films & shows and why you love them. Then discuss an idea for a new story, or it could be re-writing a previous story you couldn’t crack. 

I take you through every step in my simple, proven professional process, to be sure you’re squeezing ALL the creative juice from your story idea. I help you answer all your audiences questions that you didn’t think to ask yourself. I am your first and best audience member that’s rooting you on every step of the way.

And even when you get several drafts into the screenplay, I’m still with you and tapping into all my personal contacts to get this project set up, get you representation, and get you all the other success you want.

I can’t guarantee WHEN this will happen for you, but I do guarantee you WILL cross significant career milestones with this system if you keep using it. 

And I haven’t found a more comprehensive and effective system for success as a screenwriter anywhere — because of the in-depth 1:1 attention, and the inspired community I cultivate.

Part of the ANSWER THE CALL program is that you select 5 out of all applicants to participate. How do you determine who makes the cut, and what if somebody applies and doesn’t get selected?

I help everybody that applies. Some writers will be the best match for me, and I work with those 5 people myself. And because I’m getting so many serious writers applying, I’ve also brought in 2 guest mentors (with better credits than mine!) to support others I can’t work with myself. IF the writer and that other mentor hit it off, they’re still in my program with my community and group coaching calls, and they just get their 1:1 support from an even more fitting working writer than me.

For the writers that aren’t the best fit for my program, I still make an introduction to another amazing mentor colleague who works hourly, which allows them to still get custom support.

The qualities I look for in the writers that are a match for this program are:

– ambition while being open to earn how to fulfill that ambition

– team player

– talented – I don’t have to love their genre, but I have to love their creative approach and POV on life

– demonstrated commitment to the craft (written several screenplays, or created something else at the professional level and are ready to write screenplays)

– willing to go to the deepest places in themselves, so they can move their audiences in the deepest way

But most of all, I get a feeling when I do the first free coaching session that tells me “Hell yeah I want to help this person succeed myself AND they’re ready” or “I love that this person applied and I’m excited to help them a different way.”

It’s a soft landing for you either way, and just filling out the free (and fast) application will get you leaning forward in your career anyway. Easy!

While ANSWER THE CALL covers the actual writing of the script, UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is more about what a writer can do once the script is ready to go. Is this a topic that’s challenging to a lot of writers?

Oh yeah. Writers tend to create a lot of drama in the outreach process, and that’s the single biggest factor that’s slowing down your career. Whatever level of talent you have, the speed of your success hinges upon the quality of your outreach game. Lean into your outreach game, and you’ll move into the fast-track of your success.

Follow-up – how would you work with a writer who at the very start says “I’m a complete mess when it comes to pitching”?

I welcome that! We all are on the journey. Myself included. So we just practice, and then we become a little less of a mess, and practice some more — so we become “okay.” And we practice some more until we get good… and even great. And what’s most important is we enjoy that journey of developing our game, and to not take ourselves too seriously as we’re learning. It’s lots of fun.

A lot of writers say lack of access to the industry is one of the biggest obstacles to establishing a screenwriting career. What are your thoughts on that, and how do you help writers with it?

When writers say their problem is “lack of access,” I see the real problem is “lack of a good habit” to face their fears of socializing.

News flash: over half of Hollywood is online posting about all sorts of things. Go to them directly! Get into genuinely engaging conversations with YOUR people – for the sheer fun of it.

Some of those online conversations will escalate into deeper colleague connections and even attachments to your projects – IF and only if – you’ve got the goods. So… the only thing stopping writers from their own amazing outreach game is their habit of wallflowering. But since they chose that habit, they can choose a new one. With practice. Totally in their control and power.

Say a writer completed a script in ANSWER THE CALL that you felt was of above-average quality. What would your next steps be? Pass it along to an agent, manager, or producer? Recommend they enroll in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?

Once I make sure their script is as great as it can be, I map out a sales strategy for them and introduce them to my own contacts. I got one of my mentees signed to my own manager. Everybody in the core development program ANSWER THE CALL is automatically enrolled in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER as part of me helping them succeed.

Are there any success stories regarding former students you can share?

There sure are. In the very first year of the program, writers have already been advancing in contests, got an 8 on the Black List, gotten a handful of paid writing assignments, got producer attachments, and a former client won a Nicholl Fellowship last year (top 5 out of 7200 scripts).

Did I mention it was the first year of the program?

Success begets success, and this snowballing has just begun.

How can somebody interested in either or both of these courses get in touch with you?

Go to https://www.BrooksElmsCoaching.com. The deadline to register for ANSWER THE CALL is October 31st of this year

Last time around, you said your favorite pie was pecan (a la mode), with banana cream coming in a close second. Still the case?

Damn right.

Words that need to be heard

It takes a lot of determination and persistence to make it as a screenwriter.

A LOT.

And since so many other people are trying to accomplish the same things (more or less) as you and I, the difference between good days and bad days is a vast one indeed.

We learn to take the hits and the disappointments to the point that we chalk it up to “them’s the breaks”, and move on to the next thing. It is vital that we toughen up our skin to help us survive the journey.

But let’s go back to the good days thing.

When something positive happens for us, we do not hesitate to trumpet it from the rooftops – a rooftop in the form of some kind of social media platform.

And when that happens, our network of peers and associates is just as quick to join in the celebrating. We’re practically deluged with “congrats!”, “that’s awesome!”, “well deserved!”, and the like. Speaking for myself, I really appreciate it, and make a point of returning the sentiment when appropriate.

As writers, we live and breathe using words as our craft. We write something and hope it has the desired effect. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it makes a much bigger impact than you could have ever expected. (Those are particularly pleasing.)

Don’t underestimate the power of what you write. Not just for your latest script, but also when it comes to how you present yourself to the rest of the writing community.

Are you always there with a positive message? Do you think “telling ’em like it is” is the way it should be?

Sure, somebody who does well in the Nicholl or Austin is going to get all sorts of congratulatory messages, but what about somebody who came in second or made the quarterfinals in that small contest you’ve never heard of? Are you just as enthusiastic for them? Do you let them know that?

When I was just starting out, I naturally had the novice’s daydreams of “they’re going to love it!”, which of course didn’t happen. Just about every response from my queries would be along the lines of “thanks, but no thanks” (if there was a response at all), and the contest updates that most of the time start with “Unfortunately…” It’s just the way the business is. You take your lumps, move on, and try to be a better writer so you do better next time.

Anybody who’s reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve ALL been there.

I’ve recently read the lamentations of a novice writer who hasn’t had much luck in their efforts. They’re convinced that this can only mean that they’re a terrible writer, their family isn’t supportive of them even trying, and are thereby doomed to fail no matter what, so why even try? With as much sympathy and understanding I can put into text on a screen, I (and others) have tried to explain to them that everything they mentioned, from not placing in a contest to getting a pass from a query to them feeling completely alone in this, is not unique to them. Making any kind of progress on any of those fronts won’t happen overnight.

If ever there was a time that words could make a difference for the better, this was one of them. Hopefully my comments had at least the start of the desired effect.

We’re all busting our asses trying to make it however we can in this crazy business, and any outside offering of hope or encouragement is always welcome.

So as you skim your way across the turbulent waves in the vast ocean of social media and see someone’s comment, good or bad, about how they or their writing are doing, take a second to respond.

Let them know you’re rooting for them and hoping for continued success.

You’ve been where they are and hope things get better.

You’re thrilled for them.

You’re sorry.

You’d be amazed at how effective words, especially yours, can be.

A holiday Q & A with Heather Hughes & Kate Wharton

Heather Hughes and Kate Wharton have been writing together for over 12 years and worked with Disney, Hallmark, and Lifetime, as well as a plethora of indie filmmakers.

They are both graduates of the TheFilmSchool in Seattle and studied with the late, great Blake Snyder.

They are represented by The Nethercott Agency in Los Angeles.

What was the last thing you read or watched you thought was incredibly well-
written?

Heather: I thought The Queen’s Gambit was extremely well-written. The characters were very real and they avoided all tropes. I really enjoyed the mother and that character defied all my expectations. We also just rewatched Breaking Bad, which is about as far away from Hallmark movies as you can get, but genius writing.

Follow-up: a Christmas movie, TV or feature, you think is well-written.

Heather: We detail the seven sub-genres of Hallmark movies in our book and we’re huge fans of the “fake boyfriend” sub-genre, which we call “The Christmas Fake Out” or “Rent-a-Boyfriend” and thought The Mistletoe Promise (2016) was quite well done.

We also like Mary Christmas, which has one of the most satisfying and unexpected endings of any Hallmark movie ever. It’s not The Usual Suspects, but for these movies it was a shocker!

Kate: Hallmark’s The Angel Tree is very nicely done. The plot setup involves good Hallmark-appropriate conflict and there are a couple of nice plot twists. I think it’s the best of 2020’s 40 new Hallmark movies.

How did you get your starts in the industry, and how did you get into writing Christmas TV movies?  

A producer requested our screenplay, which had done well in a contest.  He routinely asks the directors of the contest to send him the winning scripts.  When we started writing together, we were advised that some screenwriting contests were a way to get noticed. That proved to be true for us. We consider Austin, the Nicholl Fellowship, PAGE, Big Break and Kairos to be some of the best contests.

You refer to these films as Cozy Christmas Romances, or CCRs. Is romance a necessary component of the story template? 

Romance is a requirement for this genre. When we first started writing these movies we assumed that any wholesome content would appeal to these networks. We spent a lot of time pitching heartwarming stories that routinely got turned down. It wasn’t until we’d been at it awhile that we realized that these scripts had to be about—to steal from the late great Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat—two people who are better together than apart AND they needed to celebrate Christmas not just take place at Christmas. Or, as one producer told us, “It needs to be about Christmas, not just set at Christmas.”

There is an abundance of CCRs on several channels and streaming services, with new ones coming out each year. To what do you attribute the popularity of the CCR? 

There are several reasons they are so popular. These movies are predictable, safe, and uncontroversial. It’s a great escape! We like to call them the mac-and-cheese of movies. They’re familiar, warm and comforting. You won’t have nightmares after watching them and you can watch them with your 92-year-old grandma and your six-year-old niece. 

When we were researching the book, we actually found that a lot of military vets enjoy watching them because they can relax knowing that they won’t encounter any disturbing content.

What was your inspiration behind your book IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE HALLMARK! WRITING A MADE-FOR-TV CHRISTMAS MOVIE?

We learned these guidelines in dribs and drabs while we were working with and pitching to companies that make films for Hallmark. It would have been helpful to us if someone had written them down. For instance: we wrote a whole spec script featuring a couple in their 50s thinking it would be perfect for them. After we submitted it, we
learned the protagonist for that project needed to be 28 – yes, they actually said 28. We wish the production company had told us that at the start!

These specific guidelines change from year to year, but it’s helpful to know the basic framework for these movies.

How much research went into putting the book together? How many Christmas TV movies did you end up watching?

If you ask our husbands they would say thousands, but it was really more like hundreds. We also did extensive research with a ton of screenwriters, agents and producers. Some were eager to share, but wanted anonymity, especially when talking about money. After doing more and more interviews we began to see specific rules emerging. There are always exceptions to these rules, and we aren’t out to stifle creativity. But when we compiled our findings, we began to see them as a roadmap for writers who would like to write in this genre.

In the book, you list the 7 main types of CCRs. Obviously, that’s not all they’re limited to, but a majority tend to fall into one of those categories. If a writer comes up with something totally different from any of these but could still be considered a CCR, does that hurt their chances of getting it noticed?

We came up with the seven after watching many movies and reading all of the loglines. We’re sure there are more subgenres or ways to put these movies into buckets. We’d love to hear from your readers who identify others!

If a writer comes up with a new and original subgenre it could be great! But the companies seem to be buying similar content. If the idea strays too far from the conventions of the world (a Christmas town full of zombies, for example), it might hurt your chances of selling to Hallmark. Other networks might love it, though! 

Hallmark has honed its brand to the point where they know the 85 million viewers who tune in during November and December and what those viewers expect.

A few chapters involve the CCR beat sheet, along with filling in the blanks about the story. Some might say that there’s a certain predictability to these stories, so what advice would you give to writers striving to come up with something original?

We’ve noticed that many writers struggle with plot. They start writing with a lot of momentum, and then get stuck around page 50 because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The beat sheet is a fill-in-the-blank exercise to teach the writer a structure that is common to all these movies. If you’re great at plot without a beat sheet, then you probably won’t need this roadmap. 

These movies are intentionally predictable, but within that framework there is a lot of room for originality. If you want to write CCR movies, your original ideas will probably center on an unusual hero, and a unique romantic combination. For example: you could find a new reason the female character needs to leave the big city, an unusual job for the male character, or a unique Christmas activity to include in your montage.

You also go into “what to do after the script’s done”, i.e. queries, meetings, etc., and reference several non-professional writers who sold their scripts. While not every script is guaranteed to sell, is this something you would recommend for aspiring writers?

When you write a script, the goal is to get someone to buy it and make it into a movie—unless you want to film it yourself, which is a great option for aspiring filmmakers. After writing your script, the second hardest thing to do is to get people to read it. Our process of research and queries is a good system for getting people to read your script, regardless of your genre.

We think this is a good place for new writers who like these movies to break in simply because of the sheer number of CCRs made each year. In 2020, Hallmark made 40 new movies, Lifetime made 30 and UPtv made 5. There is never a guarantee that a script will be optioned, but there are many companies looking for content.

The two of you are about more than just writing Christmas TV movies. How can people find out more, as well as order the book?

We love teaching and writing together. Readers can contact us through our website writingtherom.com or on our Facebook page We Heart Rom Coms.  You can buy our book on Amazon, and we’d love to hear any thoughts your readers might have about it. Feel free to reach out!

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

We both adore pecan pie with a ton of lightly sweetened whipped cream! No wonder we’re such great writing partners!

If your pie preferences run a bit more savory, we also recommend Costco chicken pot pies. They’re amazing—flaky crust, delicious chunks of chicken, and a light creamy sauce. Find them in the back, by the rotisserie chickens—It’s a cost effective, delicious meal.