Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » Selling to Hollywood -- 1998

The Annual Selling to Hollywood screenwriting conference kicked off its second decade with another buster crop of aspiring scribes streaming into the Red Lion Hotel in downtown Glendale, CA.

As in previous years, eager writers from around the world filled the banquet halls and meeting rooms of the sophisticated hotel. Silver screen scribblers of different ages, experience levels and abilities attended a series of lectures and interactive presentations aimed at improving their writing and professional presentation skills. They opened their ears and notepads to a collection of industry insiders that included writers, agents, producers and writing coaches.

While the conference remains an effective and worthwhile introduction to Hollywood standards and practices for beginner screenwriters, the conference could add more advanced attractions to encourage more writers to return year after year.

The topics for writers to select from included: "Writing Treatments That Sell;" "Breaking the Ice, The Art and Power of Creating Relationships;" "The Reality of Options;" and "Hands-On Pitching." Guests could also sign up for opportunities to speak one on one to agents or producers in 10-minute individual consultation sessions.

A few of those special conference guests were kind enough to take a few moments and offer their opinions on Selling to Hollywood and the writers in attendance.

Janis Chaskin, executive director of creative affairs at New Line Cinema, said she found the conference a worthwhile endeavor.

"I was happy to be asked and enjoyed the experience," Chaskin said. "I found the writers well intentioned and enthusiastic."

Chaskin was associate producer on "In Love and War" (starring Sandra Bullock and Chris O'Donnell). The experienced Hollywood veteran was also involved in the productions of "Seven," "Blink" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau." She stressed the importance of earning the attention of WGA-signed agents so creative executives at her level can take a Selling to Hollywood attendee seriously.

"Aspiring writers need to realize the importance of having a WGA signatory agent if they want to be taken seriously," she said. "Agents serve as the first filtering process to make sure only the best scripts make it to producers. So, before your script is good enough to be read by a studio, it must have an agent."

Chaskin praised the Selling to Hollywood's energy and spirit, but she stressed the need for beginning writers to take a serious dose of reality as they approach the business.

"Everybody thinks they can be a writer, but not everybody can," Chaskin said. "Selling to Hollywood and other conferences serve a real purpose if they improve a writer's ability enough to emerge from the pack."

Chaskin added, "The odds are that a new writer's first script is not outstanding, so they need to write a second or a third and earn an agent's attention."

Fortunately for Selling to Hollywood attendees, a few legitimate Hollywood agents attended the conference and lent their views and advice.

Christine Foster is a literary agent with Shapiro-Lichtman Talent Agency. She represents writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors.

Foster said she enjoyed speaking to people new to the industry at Selling to Hollywood and considers it a chance to give something back to the entertainment community.

"I think the people that come to Selling to Hollywood enjoy interacting with professionals in the industry," Foster said. "The featured guests deserve credit because they are frank about whatever topic they're talking about. The professionals really speak very honestly because there's no sense in misleading people."

While impressed with the featured guests and the attending writers at the conference, Foster had a couple constructive suggestions for scribes heading to Selling to Hollywood.

"I think any writer who would like to pitch at the conference should have a one page synopsis they can present. They should come prepared with a professional document prepared at home."

Foster added, "The conference should then explain the criteria by which agents and producers choose the best pitches at the conference. It would all help the writers make the most of their time before and after their pitch."

Karen Wakefield, an agent with Epstein-Wyckoff & Associates, explained that she attended Selling to Hollywood because she knew many of the people who were attending the conference or who attended the gathering in the past.

"It made sense for me to attended because I knew this was a conference that was for real," she said.

Wakefield represents screenwriters, directors, book authors, producers and playwrights. She also worked as in development and production.

"I think Selling to Hollywood is intended more for beginner or intermediate writers," Wakefield said. "A featured guest needs to know this up front and be willing to explain a lot of the realities to the writers."

Wakefield said she supported the screenwriters trying to educate themselves and further their goals at the gathering, but she also emphasized the good sense of bringing the struggles of an aspiring writer to the forefront.

"What some people don't understand is that many writers who might have once wrote books are now writing screenplays for the glamour," she said. "The competition is fierce. A writer might have a nicely structured screenplay, but there has to be something more than that on the page. At conferences like Selling to Hollywood, a writer has an opportunity to gain some insight into how to push their script to the next level."

Finally, Lisa Elsey, vice president of development at Sonnenfeld/Josephson Entertainment, attended Selling to Hollywood for this first time and was surprised by the size of the crowds. But, she felt obliged to share some of her experience to so many eager ears.

"It's funny, but every time I'm asked to speak at a conference like Selling to Hollywood, I feel compelled to do it because I look at the crowds and feel like they should know how the industry works," Elsey said.

"It's harder to give real specific advice in the bigger seminars," she said, "but I had the opportunity to give the writers there a dose of reality. I think the writers are so dedicated and so eager, that the adrenaline can get to them. They need to take a moment and consider the opportunity they have."

When swamped by pitches during the conference, Elsey explained that she would take a moment to give the writer a choice:

"I would the writer to picture me in my office on a weekday afternoon. I'm out of my meetings and I returned all my calls for the day. Now, I could have their synopsis on my desk, and they could have my full attention. Or, they could try to pitch me in two minutes while I'm hearing scores of other pitches. Hopefully, that encourages them to take their time and better present their material."

Elsey used the image to illustrate her opinion that first time writers should consider delaying pitching in favor of writing more quality scripts.

"At a conference like this one, I hope the writers learn ways to improve their work," Elsey said. "Writers should write screenplays and not worry so much about pitching. If they write a good script, somebody will find it."

Finally, Elsey urged the writers who venture to Selling to Hollywood or any screenwriting gathering to focus on asking the best questions they can conceive.

"If they only have an agent's or a producer's attention for a few minutes, they should ask something that will make their work better."

For example, rather than asking an obvious question, such as "Are you buying romantic comedies?", Elsey suggested new writers should try to learn more about what a creative executive does with a great script once they receive it. Or, the writer could ask what writing qualities Elsey looks for when she reads material.

Elsey said she hoped future incarnations of the successful and popular Selling to Hollywood might encourage that sort of thinking to best equip writers for their long swim up the Hollywood mainstream.

Finally, all parties queried expressed hope that next year's Selling to Hollywood might include appearances by more A-List screenwriters. While the conference did include a handful of some accomplished wordsmiths, additional working pros could present the kind of advanced insight that will keep previous attendees coming back to Glendale every year.

To register for the next Selling to Hollywood International Screenwriters Conference, click here.

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