Screenwriting 101 Or Why Writing a Screenplay is Much Harder Than It Looks

typewriterWhen I was fresh out of college and eager to make a name for myself, I did what hundreds of thousands of people have done over the years.  I packed my Volkswagen bug to the gills and set out for Los Angeles from Salem, Oregon, intent on becoming Hollywood’s next “It Girl”.

A  woman I’d met, who worked for Michael Douglas at the time, said she should could help me find work in the film business, but only if I moved to L.A.   I started as a “floater” at the William Morris Agency the same day as Bryan Lourd began his career as an agent trainee, and I remember thinking, as we sat together in the personnel director’s office that first day, that this beautiful, sweet young man was going to be eaten alive by Hollywood.  I had the chance to tell Bryan that story a few years ago when I saw him at the British Film Academy tribute to the great film director, John Schlesinger, and as he so deliciously pointed out, things wound up working out pretty well for him.

Things however,  didn’t work out so well for me.  I spent twelve long years in the film business getting absolutely nowhere.  I worked for a succession of producers, including Tamara Asseyev (who produced NORMA RAE) and David Manson (an executive producer on HOUSE OF CARDS), I worked for several different film companies, most of whom are now defunct, as a story analyst, and I wrote screenplays in my spare time.    I wrote PEARL HART, THE BANDIT GIRL, about the only known female stagecoach robber in American history.  I wrote LUCKY 13, about the Women’s Air Service Pilots.  I wrote  HOW TO; A LOVE STORY, about a couple who find love through self help books.   Along the way, I had a few free options on my scripts, and offers to write screenplays for free, and, on occasion, I even managed to get a few pitch meetings with producers and development executives.

I thoroughly sucked at both.  I got so incredibly nervous during a pitch meeting at Disney that I’d rehearsed for weeks, that I broke out in a sweat, lost my place in the story, and watched helplessly as the producer who brought me in, and the executive who was his friend, try salvaging the idea on my behalf.  Another time, an executive at Paramount asked me what movies I liked, and I couldn’t think of the name of a single movie I had ever seen in my entire life, including TOP GUN, which was on the wall behind the executive’s desk.  Not surprisingly, people stopped taking my calls after that.

It didn’t help that I wrote period films about women.  Period movies have a slightly higher chance of getting made than movies with female leads, which is like saying Joseph Goebbels was only slightly more popular than Adolph Hilter.   So after a dozen years in the film business, and too many nights spent crying my eyes out in the back of the closet over my failed non-career, I packed up and moved to Utah.

There, my career as the number one gourd artist in the nation flourished.  But then the economy turned sour, and not surprisingly, so did my finances.  I quit the art business to concentrate on keeping my house,  then after breaking my ankle in a fall in my own backyard, I did a complete overhaul of LUCKY 13 to help pass the time.  It made the rounds of several screenwriting competitions, eventually landing in the top twenty percent out of close to 7300 screenplays submitted to the Nicholls Fellowships,  but when I got my “thanks, but no thanks” email from a writing competition for women, by women writers, with stories focusing exclusively on women, I got pissed.  I applied for a screenwriting scholarship competition at the New York Film Academy on a lark,  and out of three hundred submissions, my story, about the first African American woman to be inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, was chosen along with seven other entrants for the scholarship opportunity.

Classes started on March 3, and this marks the eighth and final week of school.   In the past two months, I have reconnected with old friends in the film business over dinner, drinks or basketball games, sat in on every seminar and lecture I could find, been to screenwriting mixers,  panel discussions, and teleconferences on how to get an agent or manager, sent a “reading basket” to a management company along with copy of one of my scripts,  posted LUCKY 13 on The Black List,  read SAVE THE CAT, and  SCREENWRITING DOWN TO THE ATOMS, watched movies for homework, and wrote 70 pages of the new screenplay with Lupita Nyong’o in mind.

Over the next few months, I plan to share the details of this journey and what I have learned about screenwriting, the film business, screenwriting competitions and the L.A. Clippers in more detail.  It’s been an incredible experience so far.  And there is still so much more to come…..