Monday, December 7, 2009

Staton Rabin: Breaking In: Zen and the Art of Guerrilla Script Marketing

Well, it’s the holiday season again: Time for all good screenwriters to start typing up those query letters addressed to the North Pole. Yes, many of you have already sent your “wish list” to Santa -- asking for a new BlackBerry or, better yet, “$100,000 against a cool million” for your latest spec script. After all, you’re writing directly to St. Nick because you know the secret of success. Contacts.

We’ve all heard it before: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” But I’m here to tell you that, when it comes to contacts, most of what you’ve heard about Hollywood is dead wrong. It’s not about the contacts you have. It’s about the contacts you make. And you make them based on the quality of your work, not on “who you know.” You want powerful advocates who admire your work, not people who are helping you simply because your second cousin knows Brad Pitt.

When I was growing up, my father was vice president for a major corporation. Part of his job was to meet celebrities and organize charity events, or get their endorsements for his company’s products. One day he’d be talking to Eleanor Roosevelt on the telephone, the next he’d be having lunch with My Fair Lady star Rex Harrison, or meeting Motown founder Berry Gordy. I was so jealous!

But when it came to meeting famous people, my father couldn’t have been less impressed. It was like pulling teeth for me to find out which superstar he’d had lunch with that day. You see, my father’s a class act, and doesn’t “name drop” or exploit his contacts for personal gain. So when I grew up, after I graduated from NYU film school and was looking for my first job in the movie business, he wouldn’t let me use any of his contacts. In short, I was in exactly the same position you probably are (or have been). I didn’t know anyone in the film business. I was on my own.

But that didn’t stop me. First, I did my homework. I learned everything I could about the movie stars and directors I most admired. Then I started writing letters to them. Letters to people like actor Jimmy Stewart, director Frank Capra, and dancer/choreographer Gene Kelly. And what happened?

I got personal answers. Encouraging letters. From almost every celebrity I wrote to. In those days, it wasn’t easy to find contact addresses for famous people. It’s a heck of a lot easier now.

Soon, I applied my letter-writing skills to my career. I started writing query letters to stars and directors asking if they’d read my screenplays or books. My ultimate purpose? To see if they might want to “attach” themselves to the project.

What did I talk about in those letters? I showed that I had really done my homework about their life, films and careers. I never said just the obvious: that I admired their performance in their most famous film from a zillion years ago. Instead, I complimented them on things they don’t usually hear: a lesser-known film performance, or perhaps some specific aspect of an interview they gave in a newspaper. If I mentioned one of their famous films, I talked about their performance in it in a very specific way, instead of just saying it was “great."

Of course, my business letters aren’t “gushing” fan mail. They are business-like, and contain my pitch, and I work very hard on my pitch. But I really think about who I’m writing to, and why. I think about what their needs are, and what’s important to them in their work and their life. There’s nothing “generic” about any letter I send to an actor, director, or film producer. And I never say things I don’t mean in order to “flatter” them. Neither should you.

So. If you write the right kind of query letter to a star, you don’t necessarily need a personal referral (though it can help) in order to get noticed. Even if you have a friend who knows a major Hollywood player, do you really want to exploit that friendship by asking him or her to submit your script to them as a favor to you? If you value your friendships, maybe not.

And even if your friend is happy to do you that favor, the star receiving the script probably knows it was sent over mostly as a favor -- rather than on the basis of the script’s merit. What would you rather have? Your script’s arriving on Tom Cruise’s desk simply because his dry cleaner did you a favor? Or the script being sent to Cruise because somebody powerful in the film business loves your screenplay, knows Tom Cruise, and tells him it’s something he ought to read? You may say it doesn’t matter how it gets there, as long as it does. I disagree.

The truth is, it’s not really your “contacts” that lead to success as a screenwriter, it’s the quality of your work. It’s much better to have contacts and referrals that you earn, through the merits of your work, than ones that are handed to you merely as a “favor” or through happenstance. No matter who you are and no matter what your background, if you’re talented, you can make contacts for yourself. The right kind of contacts, for the right reasons.

Keep pitching. See you next month.
Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. She is also a Senior Writer and story analyst for Script, has been a reader for Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema, and is a frequent guest lecturer at NYU. Staton’s novel Betsy and the Emperor is in development as a movie with Al Pacino attached to star. Staton Rabin is available for consultations and can be reached at


  1. I appreciate what you have written and will take it to the next level. I believe that you have made some bold and powerful statements. I have written a script that I feel is close to being read by a script consultant and after reading this, I feel you would be a great match. Congratulations on your film "Betsy and the Emporer", I look forward to seeing it and I will be in touch. Regards, J'hon

  2. Thanks, J'hon-- what a lovely note! You really made my day. Look forward to hearing from you and, I hope, reading your script.
    --Staton Rabin

  3. We have a script and will be doing a table read in two weeks to uncover any problems. We have produced a pre-vis [link deleted]. We would like to either finish the film here if we can get funding or sell rights to it. Any suggestions? Thanks for being here.
    Ty Ford

  4. Hi, Ty. Thanks for reading my column. If you're doing a table read and a pre-vis, it sounds like you might be considering producing your own film, which has a whole different set of "rules" than would trying to get your script sold to an outside producer. Either way, though, you want to make sure your script is working before going further with it. While a table read can be valuable for determining how a script "sounds" when real actors read the lines-- and actors themselves make excellent suggestions from their own unique perspective-- this is unlikely to uncover core problems of story structure or tell you whether your script is viable in the marketplace.

    So, at the risk of sounding self-serving... if you haven't already, I'd recommend that you have a script analyst take a look at the screenplay before seeking financing or making the movie.

    --Staton Rabin

  5. Great article, and appropriate to other marketing besides scripts.

    - Ed W.

  6. I'm curious: Did your father ever explain why he refused to honour the time-tested system of nepotism when it came to handing you over to his contacts or vice-versa? He does sound like a class act. Name-dropping is one of the scourges of civilization (and I can only imagine how thick that scourge is in Hollywood circles). Thanks for this inspiring and thoughtful post. Solid advice through and through.

  7. Excellent read, Ms. Staton.
    Is there an up front cost associated with getting a script analyst to read your work?

  8. As a total newbie at scriptwriting, I had no clue how to market my script once I have it finished--other than to start by querying an agent. But I have so much faith in this piece, I'm really dying to send it straight to the star I wrote it for. Of course I thought that might be the worst thing in the world to try...but your article opened doors in my mind. Thank you so much.

  9. Unfortunately I think your father's "class act" is a rarity and a lot of nepotism rules the day. Still, your point is well made...

  10. Thanks, Colin, I appreciate your comments. Good question. I don't think my father-- who will be 91 in a few weeks (knock wood)-- ever told me why he wouldn't let me use his movie business contacts to advance my career. He's not someone who gives explanations for what he thinks is right or wrong-- to him, it's self-evident. But I understood (even then) that he believed that asking personal favors of his business contacts would have been taking unfair advantage of them, and of his position at the company he worked for. Though he didn't "lend" me his contacts, my father was a writer/editor, too, read my work, and also gave me encouragement and emotional support -- which was ultimately far more important to my career.
    --Staton Rabin

  11. Ever noticed that many so-called experts on screenwriting and selling a screenplay never made it in the industry as a screenwriter? They publish books, give lectures, hold seminars, teach at universities, have a monthly column in a screenwriting magazine. Now, you may argue that they chose to be teachers and have thus neglected their own careers, thus their lack of credits as working screenwriters. But I say BS.

    The author claims it doesn't matter who you know - I say BS again. Bitter? Who me? No, just tired of all these "experts".

    P.S. Yes, I am posting as "Anonymous" - sadly, anything else would be career suicide. That's the way the industry works.

  12. I also have a script which I am told by friends would make a great adventure movie. I am thinking possibly a Disney film. Have tried finding an agent to read it but can't get anywhere. Can I go directly to someone at Disney, or is an agent required 100% of the time?
    Mr. Emergen

  13. Dear Mr. Emergen--

    Yes, many writers encounter frustrations in trying to get an agent. And without a good agent, it can be difficult to get a script read by a film studio. The good news is that there are many ways around this Catch-22.

    Normally, the best approach for a new writer is to write a great pitch/query letter, and send it to independent film production companies rather than agents or film studios. As you are finding out, it is often more difficult for a new writer to get a good agent than to get his script optioned by a producer.

    While many independent producers will read a query letter, film studios (such as Disney) will not. If you write to anyone at Disney, you will get a form letter from their legal department in reply.

    If your heart is set on Disney, however, here's what I'd suggest:

    Register to attend one of those big "pitch fests" for screenwriters and, assuming Disney is one of the companies that is sending a staff member to hear pitches, try to grab an appointment with Disney the moment that online sign-ups open for business.

    Another approach is to win or be a finalist in a major screenwriting contest, such as the Nicholl Fellowship, Austin, or Final Draft's own "Big Break". If you win a major script competition, especially if the "prize" is getting a high-profile manager or agent, getting your script read by Disney will become a much more realistic goal. If you win the Nicholl, major agencies will seek you out, and probably producers, as well (possibly even Disney).

    Disney also has its own screenwriting Fellowship contest, which you can enter for free (look this up on Google).

    Another potential way to get your script read by Disney is to hire an entertainment attorney to make the submission for you. Whether Disney will accept a submission from an attorney, though, may depend on whether he knows anyone at Disney, his reputation, etc., as well as Disney's current policy on this.

    There are many production companies, on and off the Disney lot, that have deals with Disney. So you might try sending your query/pitch letter to an independent producer who has a history of making successful movies for Disney. They might be more open to reading your letter than a producer who is directly employed by Disney, especially if they are located off-site.

    No matter who you write to, choose the right department ("development", "story", "creative"-- check the Hollywood Creative Directory for staff names and titles) and address an individual by formal name in your letter ("Dear Ms. Jones", for example, not "Dear Mary"-- unless you know her personally). Obviously, spell the name correctly.

    Another possible approach is to try to get a star "attached" to the lead role in your movie. Send a brief query letter containing your pitch to the star, and get the letter (not your script, unless they request it) to them in any appropriate and respectful way you can, preferably through the mail. Remember: don't act like a 'stalker'. The best way for a writer to reach a star is usually through their film production company, but this can vary.

    Of course, remember that your pitch/query letter must be just about "perfect" if you want to anyone-- a star, producer, director, or agent-- to read your screenplay.

    Finally, remember that though your heart may be set on getting this script to Disney, if it's truly right for Disney there are also many other good, potential markets for it, so don't despair if you have to go to "Plan B" (no pun intended. There really is a film production company called Plan B, owned by Brad Pitt). And the shortest distance between you and Disney may NOT be a straight line.

    Thanks for reading my blog and "Script" magazine.

    --Staton Rabin


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