Screenwriter Horrors – Major Mistakes & How To Avoid Them

Twenty years ago, I started off working in the story department at MGM, which led to my becoming a literary agent in Beverly Hills, eventually starting off my own management company and also producing. Somewhere along the line I also launched a website called to help writers break into the industry. Over the years I ran over 6700 studio pitch meetings mainly with the heads of production. I have worked with thousands of writers, including several Academy nominees.

When I was asked to write an article about the greatest impediment to a screenwriter having a career in the industry, the answer was simple. Writers themselves.

You might not believe it, but you will by the end of the article. It is quite amazing. I have seen writers who have written screenplay after screenplay, not had their calls returned for ten years, suddenly get a break and totally mess it up. Why?

Here are a few horror stories to illustrate my point. One writer, a graduate of a major film school, had written this wonderful coming of age piece that I got the head of the production at Universal to read and like. He said he was not going to make the picture, but he liked the writing and was open to a pitch. The writer had three weeks to prepare something. The day arrives. I decide to go to the meeting to support the writer. I arrive in the executive offices 10 mins early. Twenty minutes later. The writer is still not there. I am in a huge office, wrap-around views of the valley with the head of production in front of me and six D-people. So, I do my stand-up routine until the writer arrives ten minutes later, covered in sweat. He sits down. I put him at ease. He starts to pitch and pitch and pitch. Twenty-five minutes into this pitch, the studio head is looking at me, I look at the writer who now is drenched in sweat. What gives? Pitches are meant to be 7-10 minutes tops, a tease. Back at the writer who turns to me: “Alex, can you finish my pitch for me?”. He had not prepared a pitch; he was making it up as he went along. The studio chief reamed me. It took me nine months to get another meeting with him. The writer never got a script made.

Another time, a writer-director who had been ignored by the industry for years decided to shoot a short, about 15 mins of his script.

This thing was just amazing. Sam Peckinpah meets Michael Bay and then some. I walked it into the office of the head of the production at Columbia Tri-Star. He was blown away. Picked up the phone, got five D-people in the room.

Played the entire short, there are explosions, gun battles, etc. They are stunned, mouths open and he says: “Look what these guys did for $4.8 million!” and I went, “I think you meant $48,000”. This got us meetings all over town, one with a super management company with a CAA deal.

So, we go into this meeting right next to CAA, a huge office, with all that fake Santa Fe furniture, a fireplace, the works. The heads of the company are there, two of the most respected industry figures you could wish to meet. We cozy up, discuss the script, my client’s short, complete love fest. I mean these are guys with major movies under their belts. At some stage, they come up with a few ideas for the re-write, as in every script needs a re-write. Right? Wrong. What does my guy do? He listens and I see him gradually go redder and redder in the face until he blows and curses everyone out for daring to ask him to make changes to his perfect script. End of career. I think he is painting houses somewhere.

Another case study. A guy who won the contest with a horror script, got a lot of prize money, intros to agents, managers, producers all over town. The agent he had been hounding for two years finally gets back to him, agrees to take him on. But no, he decides the agent is no longer good enough to him, he aims higher, wants WME, CAA, ICM Partners… They all turn him down; they want people with track records. So, he goes back to that agent who says: “You are?”. End of story, another house painter somewhere.

Here’s an even weirder one. I took on a scribe who had written a major movie for Warners with his partner. Not sure what happened, but they split up. Now, the problem with that is that your “quote” goes down the drain. For those of you who don’t know the term, your quote basically refers to how much you got paid on your last movie. It is something agents use to bump a client’s revenue up when negotiating, and studios always try to beat you down to the WGA scale if you have no quote. In this instance, the reasoning is that both writers claim they did all the heavy-lifting, and nobody knows the truth, so your quote goes back to zero.

“Decision Making in the Hollywood Studio System”

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What my guy then did to “recharge his batteries”, was to take one of these writing seminars, I think it was Robert McKee’s and based on that, decided to write the perfect page, to abide by all the rules, to answer all the questions that the likes of Linda Seger will ask of your script. Now I am pretty sure the best of these script gurus always tell you that these are just guidelines. But somehow that did not sink into my guy, despite my reminding him. So, having identified a brilliant concept we were both excited about, he went to write that perfect script. After a year, he had written three pages. Last I heard he was selling shoes in Santa Monica.

And a final one, to show you the range of this self-destructive behavior. Two of the best, most visual action writers you will ever find. Everything they write is a page-turner, in fact, you cannot put their scripts down till you reach “The End”. These guys are better than scribes pulling down several million a pop for those big franchise blockbusters we all know of. They had a script they tried to set up but failed. Whatever the reasons, maybe it was timing, who knows. I remember it and go back to them years later and get their permission to show it to some players I know. I get a former studio head of production with a major deal to get excited about it. But the piece is a bit dated and he asks for a few changes. They would not even meet with him. They wanted money upfront. This was last year and they are both still working their office jobs and always will.

You may say: “I would never do that”- all of the above at some stage did.

Do you think these case studies are the exception? Sadly not. I have witnessed hundreds of bad decisions and heard of a lot more from colleagues. Talk to any producer or agent out there.

So, what does it take to have a career that actually qualifies you for a mortgage at some stage? Check-in next week for the follow-up article on how to avoid the myriad of mistakes and get paid what you are worth.

In the meantime, don’t waste your precious time writing blind. Get the help every writer needs to succeed.

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