Last night, I moderated a panel with eleven of the writers nominated for WGA screenwriting awards. By any normal standard, it was way too many people to have on a stage, but we managed to make it work. My thanks to the panelists, the WGA and the Writers Guild Foundation for putting it all together.
The organizers had already decided there wouldn’t be a Q&A afterwards, but I wanted to give the audience a chance to participate a little. So I told them to tweet their best question to @johnaugust. I would pick one to ask before the end of the session.
I chose one by @oHaiZZ:
Lawrence Turman suggests asking random people for their opinions of your concept. Any panelists do this or is mums the word?
Aaron Sorkin cautioned that talking about what you’re planning to write can easily sap your enthusiasm for it. Stuart Blumberg agreed, noting that even one ‘meh’ response might scare you off your dream project.
Lisa Cholodenko said that while they were working on The Kids Are All Right, they hadn’t talked to many folks about the plot. Only after the movie was finished did an executive mention that she’d read a couple of scripts with similar storylines over the years. Had Cholodenko known there were competing projects, she might have had second thoughts, worried that someone would beat her to the screen.
I largely agree with these opinions, but I also agree with Turman. I think the difference is that Larry Turman is a producer, not a writer.
A producer serves several functions, but one of the most important is pitchman. He needs to convince directors, actors, studios — and ultimately audiences — to invest their time and money in a movie. So he’s constantly testing and refining his message. He doesn’t have to write “Wuthering Heights with mummies” — he just has to gauge if there’s interest. If no one sparks to it, he has very little at stake.
The writer, on the other hand, has spent days, weeks or months thinking and writing. It’s so easy to get derailed and never finish. So my advice depends on your job title:
Producer – pitch constantly.
Screenwriter – zip it and write.
The 20-page threshold
Several panelists mentioned how valuable they found it to get feedback from trusted colleagues at around the 20-page mark. By that point, you’re far enough into the script to feel you have a handle on it. You hopefully like what you’ve written. But you’re wondering if it’s actually any good.
That’s a good time to get feedback.
It doesn’t have to be 20 pages. For Monsterpocalypse, I shared the first act. For Preacher, it was 45 pages. In both cases, enthusiastic feedback gave me a nice bounce of energy to help me finish.
Yes, you’re taking a risk that you’ll get a bad reaction. But if it’s not working at this stage, it’s unlikely the problems would magically resolve themselves by page 120. Very few good movies have bad first acts. It’s worth stopping forward progress to get the beginning right.