Archive for the ‘Q&A’ Category

What is a script doctor?

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

questionmarkI’m sure this is an unusual type of email, but I am doing some footwork for a friend of mine who wants to be a script doctor and doesn’t really know where to start. Right now he has a degree in English - Creative Writing and some film classes under his belt, but no experience in the industry. Can you offer some quick advise to someone looking to break into the field?

– Heather

Actually, this basic question comes up a fair amount, so it’s time I explain a term of art:

An established screenwriter with significant credits who rewrites a script to address specific concerns, often shortly before production begins.

By this definition, I am a script doctor. I get brought in to help out on big expensive movies — two of which you’ll see in Summer 2008. They pay me significant money to do a few weeks’ work, for which I’ll never get credit. I’m hired for my talent, hopefully, but also my track record in getting movies up on their feet. I enjoy the work, partially because it’s a chance to date other movies while being married to the ones I’m “really” writing.

The thing is, no one who actually is a script doctor uses the term. My hunch is that some journalist made it up, likely because the work the screenwriter is doing on a script in this stage is often described as “surgical” — you’re going in to fix a very specific issue, and leaving everything else intact. Steve Zaillian is often brought up as script doctor, but make no mistake, that’s not a side-job to his writing career. It is part of his writing career.

To summarize, Heather, a script doctor is a screenwriter. So if that’s your friend’s goal, he needs to write a lot of scripts and have them produced. There are also non-writers involved in the process of shaping a story — producers, development executives — but their focus is working with a writer. If that’s his ambition, he’ll start out in the trenches, answering phones and writing script coverage.

Damn, I knew I’d answered this before. In fact, it’s the fifth hit on Google for “script doctor.” Here’s what I said in 2004:

In the industry, a script doctor is an established screenwriter with a bunch of credits who comes in on a project shortly before production and does a rewrite to fix some specific, nagging problems. (Or, depending on your perspective, destroys the things that made the project unique.) Steve Zaillian is a highly-regarded script doctor. Arguably, I could be considered a script doctor, because I’ve done a fair number of these 23rd-hour emergency jobs. But no one’s business card reads “script doctor.” It’s a specific task within screenwriting, but not really a profession in-and-of itself.

A lot of times, the work you do on these projects is described as “surgical,” which fits well with the script doctor moniker. Generally, you’re not rewriting the whole script. You’re fixing a few key sections that aren’t working.

It’s strange to read an answer written nearly three years ago and see the same phrasing, same examples. I guess it’s good that I’m consistent.

By the way, I’ve added this to the wiki, in anticipation of the next time someone asks the question.

Being typecast as a writer

Friday, May 4th, 2007

questionmarkThis may seem like a strange question, but I was hoping you could answer it for me. I am an African-American aspiring screenwriter and I was curious about how the industry views us. Are Black screenwriters seen as being able to only write material with themes pertaining to our race?

I don’t know of very many African-American screenwriters working regularly in films today and the ones I do know of tend to write “Black films.” Should I send out a spec script specifically related to the African-American experience, or will my writing (or, more pointedly, will I) be viewed with colorblind eyes? Most of what I write is genre material (horror, suspense, mystery) and race is rarely an issue. Will this be a problem?

I hate to dump a huge issue like this at your feet, but I visit your website regularly and I’ve greatly appreciated your insights into the industry and screenwriting. Also, let me say, I am only interested in your opinion based on what you’ve observed. I am not expecting a definitive answer. I won’t hold you liable for what you say. I understand that this isn’t your field of expertise. I don’t expect you to explain how race works in Hollywood, but I would value your input.

– Ben
Los Angeles

Ben offered me so many outs in that last paragraph that I pretty much had to lob up some kind of opinion. Obviously, I have zero experience as an African-American screenwriter. The closest I come to minority status is being gay, and other than some awkward moments and a few jobs I wouldn’t want anyway, it hasn’t been a giant hindrance. All I can offer is a decade of watching how Hollywood works, and some predictions on what you might encounter.

First off, I’m going to assume you’re a genuinely talented screenwriter. This whole exercise is based on that postulate. A poor-to-mediocre screenwriter would find a different path in the industry, and I honestly get depressed thinking about the travails of untalented writers.

So for the sake of this thought experiment, you’re great. By that I mean, anyone reading your script would say you’ve got chops and an original voice. How will your being African-American affect your career?

Let’s start with meetings, since these face-to-face encounters with agents, managers, producers and development executives are a crucial part of a screenwriter’s job. Your great script will get you meetings, no problem. But how will you be received in the room?

My hunch: enthusiastically. Remember, the assumption in this exercise is that you’re very talented, so they’re inclined to like you regardless. But here’s what you might not know until I tell you: every studio and every network has public goals to increase their diversity across the board, starting with writers. Some places have special programs. Some have incentives for hiring minority writers. They’re all trying — sometimes not hard enough, sometimes in the wrong ways, sometimes ineptly. One could debate the merits of these programs. We won’t. We’ll just say that a talented young minority screenwriter is incredibly appealing. I know writers who’ve been able to get a first job because of minority hiring goals. If it helps open a door, by all means walk through.

But will you get pegged as “a black screenwriter?” Will you only get offered rewrites of Martin Lawrence comedies?

In my experience, you get typecast more by your work than who you are. My first two paid screenwriting jobs were adapting kids’ books. I got typecast as a soft kids’ comedy guy, which isn’t particularly me at all. It wasn’t until Go that I was even considered for an R-rated movie.

As far as race being a factor, my best anecdote comes from David Dean Botrell, who wrote Kingdom Come, which starred Whoopi Goldberg and a predominately Black cast. David told me that afterwards, he got called in for meetings on many other African-American centered projects, which was odd, because he’s whiter than I am. People mistakenly assumed he was Black. The reverse feels true as well: if you wrote Legally Blonde, they’d want you write that Kate Hudson comedy no matter what your ethnicity.

Should you, Ben, write a spec with African-American themes? Maybe. Less because of how frames it you than because there are specific production companies — and specific actors — who are always looking for material.

Again, I can only offer examples from limited experience. Shonda Rhimes was a classmate of mine at USC, whose spec historical drama centering on a young Black woman came close to production with Jada Pinkett (pre-Will Smith, as I recall). It never got made, but it provided Shonda some exposure. Her first major credit was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry. Shonda’s next two credits were not Black-centered at all, and now she runs Grey’s Anatomy, which while diverse, is not particular to the African-American experience.

I haven’t seen Shonda in years, so I don’t know to what degree she feels that her Black historical spec helped open doors for her — it certainly wasn’t the only thing she wrote. Anyone interested in hiring her had a range of writing samples to look at, and that’s what I’d urge you to consider.

You say your tastes run more towards horror, suspense and mystery. Write those. Remember, for the sake of argument, we’ve agreed that you’re immensely talented. Your suspenseful thriller spec will find a receptive readership no matter what your ethnicity. You don’t generally see M. Night Shyamalan referred to as an “Indian-American filmmaker.” He’s known by his work. I think you can be, too.

The Writers Guild has a Black Writers committee, whose members would obviously have more informed opinions on the situation, along with many other organizations. There are numbers to look at, particularly in terms of TV staffing, but I don’t think they’re particularly helpful in describing what your experience would be like. Are there a Catch-22 situations, where Black writers write Black-themed movies, and then only get offered other Black-themed movies? Almost certainly. But I think talent can defy expectations.

And don’t worry about being typecast until you’ve gotten a movie made.

Q&A…or…I Don’t Have Any Ideas This Week

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Yeah, fine, it’s my dirty little secret. Sometimes I don’t have anything worth saying to you people. And yet, I know you’re out there. Running a blog is a little like being on the roof of the mall in Dawn of the Dead. I can forget about the crowd outside for a little bit, but when I look down…

…you’re all still there.

Hungry for brains.

Well, if that analogy hasn’t turned you off forever, allow me to stopgap things for a bit with some Q&A. Oh, and no, that guy in the picture isn’t me. He’s better-looking than I am, even passed out and rubbery as he is.

Q: Why don’t you use “funny names” in your spoof movies?”

A: Because they’re not really funny.

Well, there’s funny names and funny names.

Fielding Mellish is a funny sounding name, but it’s not a funny name.

“White Bitch” or “Captain Jack Swallows” from Epic Movie are “funny” names, i.e. they pull a Mad Magazine on the name of the character you’re spoofing.

There are two reasons we don’t do this when we make spoofs. The first is that it’s so easy, anyone can do it, so why would anyone actually laugh?

This brings to mind a great joke from The Simpsons. We see the writing room of Mad Magazine. All the writers are quiet. Then one says, “How about…Everybody HATES Raymond?” The other writers laugh, and the editor says, “Well, it took all night, but it was worth it!”

The second reason we don’t use funny names is that they’re not funny after the first mention. Nothing is. Repeated jokes try the audience’s patience, unless it’s a running gag that builds.

This brings to mind a not so great joke from The Simpsons. This week’s episode was about Little League. Nelson is the pitcher, but instead of throwing the ball, he tosses it up in the air and punches it toward the batter. Cute joke…the first time.

The third time? Yikes.

It’s the same with funny names. Even if you get someone to laugh at “White Bitch” once, they’re not going to laugh at it the twelfth time.

We call this rule “Can you live with it?”

There is one and only one “funny name” in the ZAZ pantheon (and I include SM3 and SM4 in that). First person to name it gets a nod of recognition.

Q: How does one go about writing a remake? Can anyone pick up an old movie and retool it for a modern audience? Or do you have to be connected with the studio who owns the rights?

A: Carefully, no, no.

First, the easy part. Copyright includes control of so-called “derivative works”, which include screenplay adaptations. As such, if you’re serious about writing a script that will get produced, you do need to either purchase or option or receive a license for the adaptation rights from the copyright holder. For those of us who write professionally, this almost always means being hired by a studio that controls the underlying rights, although there are many inspirational examples of screenwriters taking the bull by the horns and going straight to the author on their own.

Some books have fallen into the public domain, so you’re free to adapt them as you wish.

The actual creative process of adaptation is its own unique form of screenwriting, and I’m simply not equipped to describe it fully. Having done two adaptations, I can tell you that it is essential to somehow carry with you a deep love and respect and total understanding of the material…as well as a simultaneous fearlessness to adapt and change it.

To me, the best adaptations aren’t the slavish ones, but the ones that alchemically transfer the heart and soul of the original material into a brand new work of art.

Read the novel “Out of Sight” and then watch the movie of Scott Frank’s screenplay. It’s a master class in how to adapt with soul.

Walsh/Boyens/Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings is another wonderful example of how to choose, omit and change and yet enhance the heart of the work, rather than diminish it.

Remember….love and fearlessness.

Q: I recently signed up for a screenwriting class. On our first day of class, myself and the other students eagerly asked our new teacher how many screenplays he had gotten optioned. His answer was long-winded and round-about, but basically amounted to: zero. So we asked him who his agent was, and he said he wasn’t represented, but didn’t need to be, because he was on a “first-name basis” with so-and-so big-name celebrities, who had agreed to “read anything I send them”. At that point, I started becoming concerned that perhaps I was not getting a quality education for my money.

Is this a legit thing? Is being able to say “I know four big wigs in Hollywood on a first-name basis” as good as being able to say, “I have optioned four screenplays” in the screenwriting world? Are all screenwriting teachers probably going to be people who have not actually sold screenplays (because presumably the people who are selling all the screenplays don’t need to teach to support themselves)? If you were me, would you drop the class and get your money back?

A: No, yes, don’t know.

I have a very dim view of the entire screenwriting “cottage industry” out there.

I think I’ll coin a word.


These people are all paraliterary. They exist on the fringe, selling “secrets” and teaching lessons and dealing in confidence, but of course they’d be gone in a moment if they could sell a script or work as a screenwriter.


I do believe that some people are really good at teaching and guiding. We see this in sports all the time. Casey Stengel was a pretty mediocre baseball player, but a great manager. Teaching is its own art, so if you’re learning things that make you a better writer, than the class is worth it.

I am extremely suspicious, however, of anyone who starts featherbedding their resume by talking about how “connected” they are. This is a bad sign.

My only advice here is this: if you think the class is helping your writing, stick with it. If you think it’s a waste of time, dump it.

Just remember, folks, professional screenwriting really is a lot like professional sports. Most of you will never be able to hit a 95 MPH two-seamer no matter how much training you get…and the sad statistics are than most of you will not be able to maintain a career as a screenwriter either. It’s hard. Take help where you can find it, but keep a watchful eye out for the paraliterary.

They want your money.

Q: I’m writing from Canada (go hockey!), and I have queried four agencies up here that rep TV writers. They all said “We are simply not expanding our roster. Do not send us anything.” So… now what? Is that a January thing? Is that a test to see how determined I am? What would be a reasonable length of time to re-contact them? Any advice on approaching production companies (in Canada) this spring without an agent? Am I kidding myself?

A: No, no, don’t bother, some, no.

I’m enjoying this multipart question trend.

Many agencies will not take on clients who don’t already have agents. They’re either full, or they don’t want to break in new writers, or they’re over-committed already, and can barely keep up with the clients they have…and are perhaps considering dropping a few, much less taking on additional ones.

You have to try and find a way in beyond the cold-call of a query letter. You need a friend, a lawyer, a manager, a someone. Once you get that, you need material that will impress.

Remember, if writing is your Plan A and what you’re doing while you’re waiting is your Plan B, make your Plan B your Plan A and your Plan A your Plan B. Find a job somewhere in the business and do it really well. This is the best way to get yourself into a position where you can be read by people who can help matchmake you with an agent.

Q: Is R. Kosberg’s Moviepitch a ripoff or is it worth while to send him ideas?

A: If you’re using this, you’re not a writer.

I’ve spoken with Robert a few times. He’s a very nice guy, he really is known by everyone in town, and he really does sell things every now and again. He’s a legitimate producer, and he certainly has made a living pitching ideas.

What he’s not is a writer. He’s a producer. That’s what some producers (not the full kind, but some) do: they come up with ideas for movies or they find ideas for movies, and they set them up. Writers like me then come along and write the script.

Guess who gets paid more on that project?

(hint…I do)

The reason Robert is a success is that he deals in volume, and more power to him! If he sets up twelve projects a year and just two get made, he’s probably into the seven figures.

So…should you be using him as a broker? Yes…if you can’t write the script of your idea. In that case, you’re a producer looking for another producer to help you. If you’re a writer, then write the damned script! A great script will be found. A great script will make you a lot of money. A great script will launch your career.

Setting up ideas is silly if you’re a writer…unless you’re doing it yourself in order to write the script (i.e. a pitch). In this case, it sounds like Robert’s getting you option money for your idea, but you’re not going to write the script, because who the hell wants to bother with you?

If you were a writer…you would have already written it, right?

Hmmm…I have a few more questions stored up, but I’m not gonna answer them right away. Gotta have something saved up for another lazy day.

Next up, I’m going to take on “clams.” If you read Jane Espenson’s blog, you know what I’m talking about….

Finding out if a book has been optioned

Monday, April 30th, 2007

questionmarkWhat is the best way to find out if a novel has been optioned for a film/screenplay?

–Jon Hanemann
Union City, NJ

I could swear I’ve answered this question before. But in 30 seconds of searching, I couldn’t find my previous answer, so it’s unlikely you could. And it’s so simple, I might as well answer it again.

  1. Open the book to the publishing/information page.
  2. Note the publisher.
  3. Call 212.555.1212. This is New York City information.
  4. Ask for the phone number for that publisher.
  5. Call that number.
  6. Ask for “subrights, please.”
  7. You’ll likely get a voicemail telling you to fax your request. Follow their instructions.
  8. In your faxed letter — or in the event you connect with a live person — explain that you’re trying to track down film and television rights to THIS GREAT NOVEL by This Author.

You may need to follow up a week or two later, but you’ll eventually get contact information for the author, her agent or attorney. You then write to them to ask.

What if it’s not a New York publisher, or not a US publisher, or some other special case? You can almost always find someone who knows something. Eventually, you need to get through to the author or her representatives. They’re the only people who will really know the status.