Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » Have Words, Will Travel: Breaking into the Indie World

Since the early 1980s and the days of first-timer, mega spec script sales like Shane Black's "Lethal Weapon" or Jeb Stuart's "Die Hard," aspiring screenwriters hoped to write the next big money, studio smash.

By coming up with a strong high-concept action film or comedy, new movie writers looked to offer studios potential "tent pole" films - movies designed for successful summer or holiday releases and capable of generating successful sequels. Silver screen scribbles worked to give the studios what they wanted to jump-start a major movie-writing career.

As the independent film world emerged in the 1990s with the dawn of surprise low-budget hits (ranging from "Sex, Lies and Videotape," "A Midnight Clear" and "Leaving Las Vegas" to "In the Company of Men," "Pi," "The Opposite of Sex" and "The Blair Witch Project") companies like Miramax, October Films, Propaganda and Artisan began offering writers a new market to unveil their work.

To learn more about how writers can break into the indie world, we turn to the source of opportunities, independent producers and directors. They know where the best indie material comes from, how it's developed, and how writers can best market themselves to earn more independent film opportunities.

Rich Hull, an independent film producer and head of his own production company (Richulco), recently co-produced the youth romantic comedy, "She's All That."

After logging early success a few years ago as a very young producer based in Texas, Hull found himself working with one of the big Hollywood agencies. He hoped that relationship would give him access to the best writers, directors and materials.

He was soon disappointed with the attention and quality of scripts he received from the big house and chose to go it alone as an independent producer.

Now, with Richulco and its sister company, Hall of Legends Sports, Hull keeps an eye out for the best, up and coming independent talent.

From his West LA office, Hull repeatedly stressed that one of the best ways for writers to push toward more independent involvement was to continue working on their own material. That way, a writer maintains some control over his or her work and career, rather than relying on low-level development assistants choosing or rejecting their material.

"That's the coolest part of the business," Hull said. "You need to keep working on your material and take what the business gives you - even if it's just working on your own spec scripts for now."

According to Hull, developing a portfolio of work for a writer or director is one of the better ways to make certain an aspiring professional is ready to answer when opportunity knocks. Hull raised the ordeal of finding an agent as an example.

"The conventional wisdom says a writer must find an agent. Also, to get that agent, you must have a referral. But, no agent will sign you based on just a referral. You must have something to show - writing samples, even if they're spec scripts. Agenting is a business of volume, whether you're talking major studio writers or young, independent writers. Agents go where the volume is."

As far as the volume business for writers goes, Hull said the independent film world offers more opportunity for writers, but also increased competition for creators and projects.

"When I started, it was possible to make a smaller independent movie and sell it overseas," he said. "Now, you need a star to sell a project. The independent landscape is moving back to the old studio star system, and that puts the emphasis back on the packaging of writer, director and stars."

For a writer to improve his or her chances in the independent film packaging environment, Hull urged writers who do not want to direct to make friends of directors who don't care to write.

"Make a friend who's a director," he said. "Find a friend with that talent. Work together to get your story on the screen. If you're not willing to get out there and make those kind of connections, if you don't love it, don't do it."

Paige Simpson, the producer behind the Oscar-winning "Leaving Las Vegas," is a veteran of the independent production wars. She warned writers that they shouldn't come into the indie realm believing it's any easier to break into than the studio system.

"I think breaking in gets harder and harder in the Hollywood mainstream if a writer has written a spec script," Simpson said from her New York office. "It can be nearly impossible to get it to the studios or agents."

As an alternative to the spec rat race, Simpson recommended that writers make contact with companies owned by stars. Most major actors and actresses have their own production companies now to develop material best suited to their talents.

"These companies are everywhere, and they need material," she said. "They're going to want to compete with agents and managers to get access to the best scripts out there. This is an avenue some writers might want to explore."

"Also, many investment professionals who once worked Wall Street or managed portfolios are starting their own production companies, as well. They're looking for material and want to get into the indie world because of the digital technology they see on the horizon."

With the success of the video-based "Blair Witch Project," more filmmakers are looking into the possibilities of cheaper production via digital video. Also, with "Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace" premiering as the first digitally projected film in some cities, film distribution could become cheaper as computers upload films digitally on demand to viewers.

Simpson explained that investment professionals look to develop a library of less expensive product that can be sold in the digital, on-demand age.

But, how does a writer get to those people? Simpson believes that it's often good to look to your friends or college buddies outside the creative environment.

"The people you meet in the financing world instead of the creative world can often prove more important to your writing career that an agent or prospective producer," she said.

Simpson essentially agreed with Hull's comments and warned that the independent film market is not as strong as it was just five years ago: "You once could make an indie film set in the United States and sell it. But, you can't get financing on those sorts of films now unless it'll sell overseas. The independent film as an export product is a reality."

Simpson added that a current glut of independent films have forced established producers to budget one-time $4 million at $1 million to improve chances of a returned investment. If a producer is unwilling or unable to bring a film in for that amount, financiers will find someone who can -- without regard to quality. The writer of a good script could end up out of luck.

According to Simpson, the brightest hope for the independent film market is that many companies are looking to open digital divisions that will focus exclusively on lower budget projects shot, edited and distributed digitally. Those divisions are willing to finance $150,000 films and could offer writers excellent artistic opportunities to tell smaller, more intimate stories.

Nancy Leiviska, an independent writer, producer and director is currently in pre-production on her first major indie film, "Pub Crawl." Working closely with writer, producer and creative partner Stuart Jemesen at Stefanino Productions, Leiviska looks to begin shooting in Australia later this fall.

She shared her experiences as she tries to get the script for "Pub Crawl" off the ground:

"What we've found about financing an independent film is that it's easier to finance a larger budget film, maybe at $6 million, than it is to put together the money for a smaller movie."

"The indie world is now making 'more than one film' financing deals," Leiviska said. "If investors are going to get involved in a film, they are usually more interested in investing more money in more than one film to improve chances on return of their money. So that should mean more opportunities for writers willing to work in the independent world."

She also explained that a writer/director might put together a successful independent film, only to be approached by a studio with a two or three film deal consequently. But, if that director is not prepared with two or three scripts ready for development, he or she will look for other projects. That creates a spec market for writers' lower budget scripts.

"If a writer sticks to screenwriting and does not want to direct, there's still opportunity in the independent world," she said. "Hang out with the independent directors and producers instead of the studio people."

"To get to these people, look into what kind of connections you can generate out of your world. What resources are around you?"

"Also, get on good terms with casting directors who work the indie scene," Leiviska advised. "They are often mini filmmakers because they link on-screen talent with writers and directors to put movies together. They end up playing the role of casting director, lawyer, agent -- a really jack of all trades situation."

Linda Berger is one such independent casting agent.

She casts films in development, essentially tying actresses and actors to writers, producers and directors of movies that don't exist yet. In the studio world, that would be considered packaging. She occasionally earns Producer credit for her work as she provides the elements to make the movie.

"My feeling is one of the most important things an aspiring writer interested in the independent world can do is align with a producer because the producer should have access to production money," Berger said from her Santa Monica office. "To get a script going, a writer wants to get money. If a writer doesn't have access to money people, he or she should align themselves with someone who does.

"You never know what elements will work to make a strong independent film. But, everybody wants to make their money back."

"As a casting agent, I can bring in talent to consider a script, but a writer often doesn't get anywhere unless he or she has money or someone with funding interested in the project. I need that to approach talent agents or managers with something behind a project."

She added, "Everybody in this town has a script. But, if a writer allies with money people or people with access to money people, they can improve their chances."

To get those alliances formed, Berger recommends blindly and feverishly networking. Many independent films develop from writers finding private investors, essentially making the writer the producer of his or her own project. She also urges writers to find a good director that might mean something to talent or money people.

"The first question on-screen talent asks when I approach them for a project is, 'Who's directing?'" Berger explained. "With an A-List director and no money, you can still get A-list talent interested in your script."

"Otherwise, you must hope the actor wants to do the part because they think it's very well-written. It's hard to get anyone great with a first time director unless they fall in love with the character."

With networking becoming such an important element of the independent film business, Leiviska lamented that it's a hard truth that writers are often not real outgoing, social people -- a fact that can damage their chances in air-kiss happy Hollywood.

Since writers might not be the best mixers, she suggested using web pages to find independent film professionals and lists of producers to contact. We include just a few of the most popular and most promising sites here:
This magazine's full-service home page recently expanded to include a wealth of information to the independently minded writer. The site includes special articles not found on these pages and story analysis services.
The homepage for the Independent Features Project, West is probably the essential first stop for writers looking to learn more about independent film development and production. Their homepage offers a complete overview of the organization and its many services.
This site registers screenwriters for an on-line movie writing mailing list that could improve chances for successful coast to coast networking.
One of the longer-running and most popular screenwriting web sites, this page offers a good list of links that can guide a writer around the world of Inter-networking.
The Screenwriters' Room has experienced feature film executives who read and consult on screenplays for all writers and can provide personal referrals to agents, producers, and studio executives.
A film writing and production research site with independent production information.
The website for working Hollywood. This insider's page offers development information, directories and coverage tracking.

While none of these sites will guarantee more success for writers, they offer suggestions that can help steer them toward more "independent thought."

In the end, as usual, it's a good news/bad news deal for the up and coming screenwriter. The good news is that the independent market developed to a level where it can present excellent opportunities to screenwriters unable or unwilling to break into the studio, agency maze.

The bad news is that becoming a successful independent film writer is no easier than emerging as a studio writer. The paths into the separate arenas are different, but the amount of effort needed to make the journey is the same.

Independent or big budget, it's never easy. But, if you wanted easy, you should have gone into brain surgery or astrophysics.

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