Monday, December 14, 2009

Steve Kaire: Writing Partnerships

Writing partnerships are like marriages. They can continue in bliss or end up in bitter divorce. Working with a writing partner can either reduce your workload by half or create twice the headaches.

Any kind of partnership is fraught with peril. If it fails, not only does the project come to an immediate halt, but your friendship may be over as well.

A well-chosen partner is a valuable lightning rod to create and bounce ideas off. That person’s strengths can balance your weaknesses. But there has to be a meeting of the minds on critical issues before a partnership is undertaken.

There’s a list of questions that has to be answered before both parties make the final commitment to work together: Do your writing styles mesh rather than conflict? Do you have personalities that work well together under pressure? Can you both invest the amount of time required from inception of the script to the ultimate marketing of the material? How will major disagreements be resolved when you reach an impasse? Will you be doing an equal amount of work and splitting the money equally, or will there be some other kind of financial arrangement? And if the worst-case scenario occurs and you both decide to go your separate ways, who does the material belong to?

All these questions and potential pitfalls should be discussed and solutions agreed upon in a written contract before any partnership is entered into. I’ve had my share of writing partners. In some cases the partnership worked very well, in other cases it failed miserably. The more you know and clear up in advance, the better your chances of having the partnership work out to the benefit of both parties involved.

Steve Kaire is a screenwriter-pitchman who’s sold/optioned eight projects to the major studios without representation. He’s taught writing classes at the American Film Institute and has appeared on the Tonight Show’s “Pitching to America” with Jay Leno. His groundbreaking CD entitled, High Concept: How to Create, Pitch & Sell to Hollywood is a best-seller and is available on his website:

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Discussing November/December with Andrew Shearer, Part 2

Ah, the myriad of screenwriting advice we have to sift through in order to become masters of our craft -- it can drive you to drinking. William Martell’s article “Worldwide Cool” in the November/December edition of Script magazine suggests we should be writing scripts that appeal to worldwide audiences. Sounds reasonable. More potential for international box office. But the part that rubs me the wrong way is when Martell basically suggests screenwriters not write a script that “focuses on culture or politics or social issues that are unique to America.” What happened to write what you know? Write it because you can execute it with flying colors. As a producer, would you rather read a really well written script about an American cultural issue, or a poorly written script with a bunch of “really cool stuff” in it as Martell suggests, that appeals to a foreign audience? My guess is the well written American-centric script is more likely to get you your next gig because you’ve proven your talent (God willing).

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the realities of the business. I just don’t think it’s the best advice for new writers. My partner and I have an old script centered on a teenage, African-American kid in a juvenile-hall setting. It won screenwriting contests and had actors attached and still hasn’t been made. To put it bluntly, African-American-themed stories don’t have foreign appeal, so it’s tough to find funding. But should I not tell that very personal, important, moving story because, as Martell says, “people in Uganda watching the film on the wall of a building” don’t care about some U.S. issue? I care about the people in Chicago who do care about the issue.

Another screenplay my partner and I wrote, which also received accolades and was well-received around town, focuses on another American-centric story. It’s a comedy set in the world of small town, Christian fundamentalism. Again, very little foreign appeal. However, this is the script that has basically launched my and my partner’s careers. Well, pseudo-careers -- we’re getting there. Either way, every deal we have in the works is due to that script. Had we set out in the beginning, attempting to write some movie based solely on international appeal with a bunch of action and twists and turns and without any personal stakes, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have fallen flat on our faces. But that’s our story. Like I said in the beginning, it’s about sifting through the advice.

My partner and I are at the point now with some of the projects we’re writing where we certainly have to consider foreign box-office appeal, so I understand Martell’s advice. I just think depending on where you are in your career, that advice is not automatically the way to go. What do you think?


A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.