Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mailbag: Getting repped off contest wins and "They don't get my symbolism!"

So I was going through the old inbox and found a bunch of questions I had by-passed, in some cases for nearly a year. Some of this is because I've not been doing many mailbag posts, some of this is because I wasn't sure if these questions really were relevant enough to answer and in some cases... well, the questions were just too long and involved.

Being succinct is your friend.

First up is Brian,

I'm a longtime reader of your blog and first off just want to say thanks for doing it. I had a practical sort of question (or at least I hope is practical): my screenwriting partner and myself have just won first place in a screenplay competition at a film festival in NYC, Visionfest 14. We placed as finalists a few weeks back and figured we'd take last place, but instead we won the whole damn thing. 

Now, we have worked (slightly peripherally) in Hollywood for several years and have been through some ups and downs as hopeful filmmakers, including making our own micro-budget feature film and racking up the festival rejections (still waiting on a couple dozen at the moment), as well as landing an established agent some years ago when we were not at all ready for an agent, thus resulting in a relationship that went nowhere. Long story short, our parents and friends are really excited but we have learned the value of low expectations.

That said, I'm wondering if you think there is any value to trying to get representation based off this win, since 1st Place does sound pretty good. Then again it's not the biggest competition and I'm sure most people never heard of it even in the industry, so I can't exactly go around like I won an Oscar...

Besides our film, this script is our main trump card. It's got three 8 scores and a couple 7s on the Black List site. Now we have this 1st place win, in one of the first competitions we entered. If you were us, just starting off, what practical next steps might you take to capitalize on these developments (if any)?Any words of wisdom you can provide, it's greatly appreciated!

First up, congrats on your win. Let's get right to the meat of it: "Can you capitalize on this win to get an agent?" My hunch is "No." I've never heard of Visionfest and I suspect that an accolade from the festival doesn't really make much impact for any potential reps.

However, I - and just about everyone in the business - HAS heard of the Black List site. If you really have three 8 scores, you should be able to leverage that into getting a few reads. Since you didn't ask about how to contact these agents and managers, I assume you've done your homework and have that ready to go. I'd send out a brief email that quickly introduces yourself. Give a one or two-line pitch of the script, mention the Black List scores and if there's some really relevant reason why you chose to reach out to that rep, maybe add that too.

But keep it short. See the length of your email to me? Try for half that length.

Next up is Lee:

I'm a lapsed writer, who after many years of working in an unrelated field, finally decided to sit down and write my screenplay. I've received a good mix of reviews and notes (positive & negative), and the feedback has been mostly helpful. However, I'm troubled by the fact that some of the "Symbolism" / "Subtext" I've injected into the story seems to be missed by all 5 of the reads I've received (3Pro's, 2 Friends).

I don't know if this is a case of "speed reading" or "skimming" on the part of the people doing the coverage, but they all seem to be missing the subtext that explains away many of the criticisms of the story (Example: Story is filled with bad people. Well, they are in a "Bad" place, aren't they? Say, is anyone else really HOT? Let's ask the guy over there in the Red Pajamas).

Is this a symptom of Script Readers skimming the script and therefore missing the added layer of "meaning" in the story? Or do I need to be more explicit and "Talk Down" to my audience who may not be paying close attention?

Ah, the "they're not getting my subtext" question. This is hard to answer because I haven't read the script, but if you've got five people who you really trust - three of whom are writers themselves - and none of them even got a hint of the symbolism, the odds are the problem is more with the script than the reader.

That's not to say that readers can't miss that stuff. I think in a read, people are more inclined to take everything at surface value unless there are some key dog whistles in there. I think part of the issue might be that you're expecting the symbolism to explain away what are being called out as mistakes or plot holes. I can definitely understand using inconsistencies to force an audience to think more about "Wait a minute, why the hell would they do that?"

But if the symbolism is done in service of leading an audience to a revelation, the problem might be that such revelation isn't present in the script. To launch off of your "hell" metaphor, in The Devil's Advocate, attorney John Milton (Al Pacino) is revealed to be the Devil. Before that big reveal comes, we get a few clues and winks that allude to this truth, but by the end of the film, it's spelled out for us - he IS Lucifer. In the case of this script, that reveal leads to the climax of Keanu Reaves's character's arc.

In your script, it sounds like there might be some symbolism without any payoff. Maybe it's reading to them the way that Pretty Woman plays off of the Cinderella metaphor lightly without adhering to it strictly (We get a "makeover" scene with her "Fairy Godmother/Hotel Concierge" but the script doesn't go so far to have Vivian pass herself off as someone else, leave behind a slipper and have to be identified by her lost clothing.) Maybe your readers ARE noticing some of these things you've thrown in, but don't realize you intend them as more than mere asides. So I guess in that case, the answer might be to use the symbolism differently.

This is always a tricky question to answer because I can't say definitively if the problem is the writer or the reader unless I read the material myself. If many people are missing it and perceiving this as a plot hole, clearly you have to make some changes, though.

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