The closest thing to a shortcut approach to becoming a professional screenwriter that’s available, and for a “reasonable” cost, is to take the ScreenwritingU ProSeries course led by former corporate trainer Hal Croasmun, and really apply its lessons, which can help one integrate craft and business. When I took the course, I had read over 70 books on screenwriting craft and business, so I had learned a hell of a lot, and didn’t think I’d learn anything more. In the event, it was true that I didn’t have as much learning opportunities in the course as the raw newbies. But, even so, I considered it surprisingly valuable for the additions it was (still) able to make to my toolbox.
(Fair warning: if you take this course and start participating on the message boards Mr. Croasmun will grant you access to, do not ever reference any other material, teachers, books, or software, that teach screenwriting technique. I’ve seen what happens; at the very least, your posts disappear. If you bring anything like them back around, you can set him off into “Pope” mode, and when he’s in that mode, you get excommunicated with a heavy hand. Just play along, for the duration, with the illusion that he wants you to accept and promote, that his course is “it,” the be-all and the end-all of screenwriting instruction, the only one that “works,” and you should do fine. And, actually, you will get a big load of the real goods from the course, no joke. Mr. Croasmun has dealt with a lot of dopes, and sometimes it’s easy to get him to jump to the conclusion that you’re probably another one. I’m advising you because otherwise, there’s a chance you’ll “hit the land mine” with no notice over something you never suspected could get you into “trouble.”)
Mastering the craft is still up to you, of course, much as we all wish someone could do the work for us and let us cash the check after the sale. I’ve seen people come out of the ProSeries who were writing anything but pro material, to be sure. That’s the fault of the pupils, though, not the material. Their comprehension, or the way they applied whatever they thought they were comprehending, missed the mark. The minority who “get it” and really go for making the most of what they’ve learned, though, are out there making deals on a semi-regular basis. They did what it took to increase the odds of their success, then started achieving some. It’s rather like threading a needle — not easy, but, it can be done.
The craft is hard, but, seriously, if you do manage to master it, gain the ability to pitch actual high concepts, and your queries don’t include misspellings, etc., THEN do some research on the IMDB for profitable movies similar to the script you’ve written and get, not studio, but production company information. Practice your logline, and have a couple of minutes of backup explanation if they want to know more, look up their phone number using one of the internet listing sources like Done Deal, SellAScript, Hollywood Screenwriting Directory, or Script Pipeline‘s Writers Database, then CALL production companies who made money making stuff you like, and ask if they can spare a minute to hear you pitch an idea. A lot of times, the person answering the phone actually will let you have a minute. Optimize your chances by learning how to develop a high concept (a simply-expressed core idea featuring four components: a fascinating subject, a great title, an inciting action, i.e., the problem of your story, and a “hook” the unique selling point of your story) that can be filmed on a low budget before you ever dare to make that call. Then, pitch it.
Or, you can take a pitch vacation. Go to a pitch fest. Research the details first. You’ll want to know your travel and lodging costs as well as the cost of the event. Some want to charge you per pitch, with others, the ability to pitch to a set number of production companies with reps in attendance comes with the price of admission, or as a general add-on for a film conference. Factor in the attending production outfits. Given the project or projects you want to pitch, do your homework on what they’ve done to decide what festival might provide the most fertile ground for your ideas. The annual Hollywood Pitch Festival and The Great American Pitch Fest are a couple of the best-known.
Or, you can save on travel and lodging and try cyber-pitching. There’s Virtual Pitchfest. PitchNehst. TVFilmRights. FIlmProposals. The aforementioned Greenlight My Movie. (Disclaimer: I have not personally used, nor can I vouch for any particular results from any of these sites.)
Robert Kosberg, the “Pitch King” and producer of 12 Monkeys, does what smart business people do, in or out of Hollywood. He plays a numbers game. Kosberg knows that even most people who give it a serious effort aren’t going to end up as world-class screenwriters. But he also knows that a great movie idea can come from anyone, anywhere, and can be developed by the pros. He rounds up pitches from all over the place, and in meetings throws what he thinks are good movie ideas against the wall, so to speak, until one sticks. Maybe you have an idea you can submit to him. There’s the possibility you could get a pretty hefty fee if he can sell your idea. When I saw him in 1999, he was talking about $50,000 potential. In many cases, that’s more than you might get from the sale of a much-more-laborious screenplay.
Using the resources linked above, you can also locate and feel out the kinds of production companies closest to your home who make reality TV shows and commercials as their everyday bread and butter; find out if they have ever aspired to make feature films, or TV dramatic series or comedy, if that’s what you have material for. Put yourself in their shoes. Gradually get to know them and get a get a bit acting part or work as crew person for them, if you can, learn what they’re up against, learn to work with them as a partner in success, any success. Like anyone trying to scrape out a good living in a cold, cruel world, they would love to hear a great, fresh idea that offers low risk and high reward. If so, pitch them. Mainly, don’t try to start at the top of the heap studios and agencies where they’ll just hang up on you; don’t think you’ll make a fabulous multi-million by $elling a script. That happened sometimes, once upon a time. It does not happen in the world today, unless it comes with a great big audience built in already, as in translation of an already-successful book series onto the big screen.
Great things can happen in storytelling using only modest means. As I see it, for us wannabees, there lies our challenge when it comes to breaking in. We have to find and flesh out that kind of story. Forget exploding cars and colliding planets. Find (or make) your own Juno or Paranormal Activity. If you’ve got a great idea, get crowdfunding through Kickstarter or indiegogo, and make the movie. “P.A.” was made with $15,000 and use of a house for a week; it went on to have the greatest ROI of all time in wide release. Start small, and be grateful for any and all progress toward your goals.