Q &A with David Schwartz

David Schwartz is a freelance screenwriter and script consultant. Prior to being a script consultant, he took a few screenwriting courses in college along with other film courses. After college, he continued working on his first feature and started submitting his scripts to a variety of screenwriting contests. In fact, his first feature made it as a quarterfinalist in the 2019 Bluecat Screenwriting Competition. He’s written several scripts, mainly short films, and is focusing on helping writers with their scripts!

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

In my spare time, I’ve been watching a variety of things, but as for shows that have been well-written, I’d say WandaVision and Bridgerton. I thought I wouldn’t like those types of shows because I’m not much of a comic book fan and had never heard of Bridgerton, but I find both shows enjoyable to binge. I’m usually someone who likes musicals, so this might sound a bit cheesy, but I’m really enjoying Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist! It’s got humor, heart, and great songs that tell a story and moves the plot forward. At first I thought the concept sounded corny, but seven minutes into the pilot, I was hooked and became totally obsessed. I sometimes get emotional during that show. Oh, and I also like The Mandalorian.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I started when I first took a screenwriting course in college. At first, I thought it was going to be a real challenge. Prior to taking the course, I had no idea how much work it takes to write a script. But after completing the course, I actually found screenwriting very enjoyable and took a few more courses to develop my craft. In fact, I’m still working on a script I started writing during one of my courses. After college, I continued working on my script and started submitting it to contests and paying for some feedback. After receiving feedback from professionals in the industry, I was inspired to start my own script consulting business.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I think it’s a mix of both. When I look at a script, I can tell the writer’s experience based on their writing. For example, if someone has dialogue that’s flat or very on-the-nose, I can tell they’re just starting out. But then again, lots of writers, even professionals, tend to sometimes have some on-the-nose dialogue in their writing. When it comes to writing, I see myself as both student and teacher so it could go either way. When I read a script, my feedback is based on both what I’ve learned in my screenwriting courses and the feedback I’ve received on my own scripts.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script in my opinion is a solidly structured story. If you don’t have a structured story from start to end, the reader tends to lose interest early on. I’ve noticed this in more than a few scripts I’ve read, but it can be easily fixed. Before anyone starts writing, I’d suggest having a beat sheet so the writer has a blueprint of their script from beginning to end. Another component of a good script is conflict. Every scene, whether it’s big or small, has to have conflict. And finally, character development is extremely important. I love seeing characters develop from start to end, and that’s what makes movies great.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

The most common mistake I see is sometimes the writers will start their script with the inciting incident at the very beginning and continue on from there. The problem with this approach is I don’t get a sense of who the protagonist is as a person. I don’t necessarily have a reason to root for them to achieve their goal over the course of the film. That’s why I strongly recommend writers have a beat sheet before they jump into writing their script. It’s going to make things so much easier for the reader and the script is going to be a smooth read. (If you want to know more, I’ve written a blogpost about it.)

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m kind of tired of seeing love triangle plotlines. If I wanted to watch a love triangle plotline, I’ll just rewatch Friends. I also hate it when two people are having a conversation in the car and the driver takes their eyes off the road and continues talking with the passenger for 30 seconds or longer. Seriously, it irks me a bit.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

Don’t be boring.

Every scene must have conflict and serve a purpose. Additionally, each scene needs to drive the plot forward.

If you have writer’s block, keep writing and come back to it later.

It’s okay to take a break every now and then. Sometimes it’s best to rest after 2 hours of writing nonstop.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I remember reading a script a while ago where it was a bit hard for me to provide critical feedback on their script because it was so well-structured. I was in awe of their script and in fact, made a few minor suggestions to them in the feedback. A few months later, they posted in one of the Facebook screenwriting groups that their script made it to the quarter-finals in a screenwriting contest.

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

It depends on the contest. Some contests, like Bluecat for example, have a reasonable price and the feedback is free. The best part is writers can resubmit their scripts twice, which is nice. But not all feedback is free, and you have to pay an extra fee to get feedback on your script. Plus, depending on where you’re submitting, the contests can be very competitive. As a script consultant, my goal is to help writers develop their craft before they start submitting their work to the professionals in the industry.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide? 

Check out my website: www.davidschwartzconsulting.com. I’m also on Instagram: davidschwartzconsulting

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

I’m going to go with apple pie. Mmm…apple.

Q & A with Aiko Hilkinger

Aiko Hilkinger is an award-winning, queer, German-Japanese screenwriter from Colombia. She primarily works in fantasy and animation, and her pilot “Kate and Ava” placed her in Network ISA’s “Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021”. Hilkinger creates magical worlds filled with diverse characters that children and teenagers can relate to and see themselves represented in. Not only does she strive for diversity and inclusion in her stories, but most importantly, she believes that through her animation work she can connect with kids and help teach healthy communication and to own up to their mistakes.

When she’s not writing, Hilkinger works as a script analyst for big screenwriting contests and has recently started her own script consulting business.

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

I feel like I’ve said this to the point where the people who know me have gotten tired of hearing it, but Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix has to be my pick. I honestly think the show made my 2020 much more bearable while also blowing my mind with their imaginative storytelling. The show was planned as a three-season arc and you can tell when watching it that it was meticulously planned as the story is just so tight and has a clear message all the way throughout.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I actually don’t feel like I’ve “made it” into the industry yet. I joke that I graduated from “baby writer” to “toddler writer” in 2020 since it was a learning year for me. After I graduated from film school, one of my teachers helped me get an internship with an agency where I perfected my coverage skills. After that I applied to work as a script analyst for a contest site while entering some contests here and there for the first time.

I won some pretty cool awards this year and was named one of the Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021 by Network ISA. I’m looking forward to new opportunities this year, like getting signed and hopefully selling my first script or getting staffed in a room.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I think you can teach someone what to look out for (structure, format, clear goals, etc.) in a script but after a while it becomes a feeling. It sounds strange, and it definitely is, but after reading as many scripts as I have, you start to very easily pick up on things that make a script good or bad. At times it has everything to do with those “rules” we’re taught in film school, and it’s easy to technically say why something isn’t working, but it’s only through practice of your own craft and opening yourself up to criticism that you really learn what works or doesn’t for you, and how to break those rules.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script has something to say. I’m a sucker for a good theme, and I always suggest looking at it as a “thematic statement” or “the lesson the protagonist or antagonist will learn”. When a writer knows what they want to say with their piece, it gives the story direction, and it is much more enjoyable to see them get there.

Oftentimes when a script doesn’t know where it’s going, you can feel it, it’s like you’re wandering around aimlessly through a world, surrounded by characters who don’t know what they want and thus you don’t know what they need. Definitely start your writing journey by knowing your why (why do you want to tell this story and why does it need to be told now?).

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

One of the most common mistakes I see is characters not having a clear goal. A goal is the driving force behind the protagonist accomplishing something by the end of the script and without it, the story can drag on and become repetitive. We don’t want to see someone live their life day to day because it’s not dramatic; not every action pushes the story forward. That’s why it’s important that not only the protagonist has a clear goal, but the antagonist does as well, since they’re the ones who will get in the way of the protagonist.

I also recommend giving other characters goals of their own so that they can be more rounded and have something going on that gives them more depth other than doing whatever the protagonist needs them to do.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m exhausted of seeing every queer story be about “coming out” and dealing with homophobic families, friends, etc. It’s the same annoyance I have about POC films, especially Asian-American stories, only being about the struggle of immigration. There are so many other beautiful stories that can be told outside of the constant struggle to be accepted by a straight, white society that need to be told in order to showcase the beauty of our cultures and communities.

I want to watch a film about queer love that has nothing to do with strife or struggle, and I’m so happy that we’re slowly starting to get there with shows like Schitt’s Creek and She-Ra. And I would love to take my family to watch a film with characters that look like us where they’re just living their lives unapologetically, like Crazy Rich Asians and One Day at a Time.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

Write with a purpose. Know your why. Why are you writing this story? And why is it important to tell it now?

Fill out a bullet point list of your main structure in order to know your main emotional turns before you start writing.

Always outline, even if you don’t like it. Look at your outline as your first draft.

Make sure your characters have clear goals (wants) and clear needs (areas for growth).

Sneak exposition through conflict.

Make sure your characters are emotionally motivated.

Antagonists should have a clear driving force behind them.

Read as much as you can and make it a variety (both produced and peer scripts) in order to figure out what works for you in terms of storytelling, and to practice pinpointing why they don’t work for you.

You don’t have to take every note you get. Take the ones that resonate and throw away the ones that don’t.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

The main reason is that it’s clear the writer has something they want to say. I know I’ve mentioned this a lot, but it truly is the most important thing you can do. The second I get your voice and understand your point of view, I’m in. It’s our job to make that as clear as possible because our voice is what will set us aside from other writers. It’s what we bring to the table, what we’ll get hired based on, so it’s the most important thing to develop. And through a lot of practice, giving and receiving notes, you’ll get there.

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Contests can be worth it if you have money to splurge. I know a lot of people who haven’t had a lot of success from them and it can definitely be frustrating. I’ve had a very 50/50 experience. I didn’t make it into a few contests that I was excited about, but then I made it into one that really, really worked for me.

You have to be very clear with yourself about what you want out of these contests (exposure, management, etc.) and make sure you know they’re not your only chance to get into the industry. Also, be sure to ask fellow writers about their experiences in order to find out which contests are the best for you and your goals.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

I am super active on Twitter – @aikohwrites. That’s where you can find me saying things I probably shouldn’t. And if you’re interested in my coverage services, you can go to aikohilkinger.com/script-coverage to find more information.

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

This is such a good question! My favorite is apple. My mom has always had her own recipe and her apples for some reason always taste amazing. But if we’re being more specific, I love a good, warm and buttery strudel (maybe with some ice cream and caramel).

Q & A with Jenny Frankfurt of Finish Line

Jenny Frankfurt is the founder of The Finish Line Script Competition. She was a literary manager in LA, NYC and London for over 20 years.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

I May Destroy You. Hands down the best show I’ve seen in the past year, and I’ve watched A LOT during Covid lockdown.

I also think Revelation, which won the Grand Prize Winner in this year’s Finish Line competition, is one of the best pilots I’ve ever read.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I was at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU in the Cinema Studies Department and applied for a job as a floater (permanent temp) at the William Morris Agency. I got the job and realized I wouldn’t be able to do do it and fulfill any kind of classes. Since my plan was to work in representation after I graduated, I dropped out and started working instead. Though I wish I had finished college for personal reasons, it was the greatest opportunity I could’ve had. My time at William Morris (now William Morris Endeavor) was the most educational of my career.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

The more writing, bad and good, you do, and films/TV you watch, also bad and good, the better one can be at discovering what good writing truly is. Good writing is not subjective in my opinion, but one’s taste in various styles of writing is. I’ve always been a voracious reader since I was little. When I started covering scripts for the talent department at William Morris, I’d read them incredibly carefully and determine what roles were important for casting and not. To read something carefully is one of the most important elements of being a good recognizer of what is working and what isn’t. That and having an open heart and mind to story, ideas and the ways storytelling connects to our emotions. The more you read and pay attention, the more these things become evident.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

It’s become clearer to me that the writer’s voice is the most important thing in a script. It’s what sets a great script apart from a good script. Theme and emotion ought to be linked, and when done right can be very powerful. Characters written without feeling will come across as just that – they’ve been outlined and written. All of this, when done really well, pops off the page. It’s a joy to see.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Lack of planning in a story. Set pieces that are there only because the writer had a cool idea and stuck it in a script that doesn’t connect to that scene or narrative. Ideas and development of characters that are just good enough. Just good enough isn’t enough anymore. Energy on the page is a necessity.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing? 

Crying in the shower, sliding down the wall, a single tear. Mainly though forever the answer to this question will be road trip movies. Almost impossible to write them without them being full of every trope. Joe needs $25K or his mother will not get the operation she needs and gosh, an opportunity to get this money happens to present itself and hijinks occur. It may be fun, it may have merit, but it’s a trope.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

There are no rules.

Just tell the story.

Outline. 

Create an interesting setting and fascinating characters. Plop them in and let it happen.

Research the industry; know the ‘players’, read the trades.

When you receive notes, take what you like and leave the rest. Keep your voice.

Leave your ego at the door.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Oh wow, yes. But most of the time if you ask the writer they don’t know that they have! There’s a certain beauty in a confident piece of writing, no matter the medium. It’s a lack of excess rather than an addition of something. It’s the combination of just enough emotion, character development, story hook, theme. Just tell the story.

Seeing as how you run a screenwriting contest, what are the benefits for screenwriters to enter the Finish Line competition?

You can rewrite and resubmit new drafts for free throughout the competition and our notes are fantastic. They really are. They’re actionable so they don’t just say what works and what doesn’t, but we offer suggestions on how to fix it when it’s not working. We work with our writers so you feel connected; not just a fee thrown into the ethers. We want to help you get your script in the best shape you can by the end of the competition. If you don’t win, you still have a better script for another competition or a manager or producer. 

Also, we have a large number of mentors – over 40 throughout film/tv and in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Top people. People who can actually make things happen. From this 40 you usually get another 5-10 from referrals from the mentor and we add a few more on once we know the winning scripts and determine who else might respond. So there are a lot of people you’re meeting and building a working relationship with. We really mentor you throughout. We always go the extra mile and stay in touch, continuing to help long after the year has passed.

Lastly, we don’t overcharge and you can connect with your consultant if you need to clarify notes. We’re available to you. And we speak to all the semi-finalists after the competition and talk about the industry, your script, game plans for representation, etc. We end up working with some of the semi-finalists as well!

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

Our website is chock-full of information at www.finishlinescriptcomp.com. And you can email us with questions at info@finishlinescriptcomp.com. We’re on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook too!

I’d also like to point out if you have a script for a feature, short, or TV pilot, both this year’s Finish Line Script Competition and the Tirota/Finish Line Social Impact Competition are now open for submissions. Click on the link above for all the details.

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

Hands down, it’s apple. Preferably apple crisp. ‘Merica, right?

New year, new plans, and all that

It all comes down to a two-part question:

What do you hope to accomplish in 2021, and what are you going to do to make it happen?

This year for me is primarily about one thing: getting better, writing-wise. My screenwriting game needs to be severely upped if I want to make any kind of headway in becoming a working (i.e. paid) writer.

Part of this also involves totally stepping away from entering contests. Many are nothing more than a money drain – I’ve already saved over $1200 in registration fees – and I’d rather work on improving my craft.

And if I’m not spending money on contests, I plan to redirect it into another long-gestating project. Part of my 2020 involved writing a short script which I’d really like to make myself. After talking with a few filmmaker chums (many of whom offered up their services and advice), it’s definitely doable.

Another thing I’d like to accomplish this year is to read more scripts; at least one a week. Two, if possible. The Black List, produced works, what have you. Of the handful I’ve already enjoyed, it’s already been most helpful.

I’ve started reading and giving notes on other writers’ scripts. Always nice to see what others are up to and check out some original material, and it also lets me develop my analytical skills.

My approach to this year will be a little more laid back than in years past. The drive and desire are still there, but I want to enjoy my time making the journey more than focusing solely on the destination.

There will no doubt be the usual ups and downs. While the ups will be enjoyed and celebrated, the downs will be endured to the best of my ability, and then viewed through the lens of “what can be learned from this so it yields a more positive outcome next time?”.

As always, I am extremely grateful to all of you who’ve enjoyed my posts over this year and those past, and hope you decide to stick around for this one. I wish all of you a 2021 filled with numerous good writing days, positive career news, TV shows and movies you enjoy, and at least one piece of your pie of choice; sharing it is optional.

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 nice plot twists. I think it’s the best of this year’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. 

No one will be offended by them and they won’t trigger anyone. 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 rules 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 down these guidelines. 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 protagonists needed to be 28 – yes, they actually said 28. We wish the production company had told us that at the start!

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 several dozen. 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. This year 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.