One of the questions I get asked the most from aspiring screenwriters is: "how can I get my script in the hands of decision makers as a newbie, unagented writer since no professional producer/company will accept unsolicited screenplays?"
Here's how I got one of the key decision makers in Miramax Studios to not only meet with me but also read not one, but two drafts of my first screenplay.
It all started a while ago when at the ripe age of 25, I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter. However, I wasn't trained in anything to do with the film and television industry (I studied art), I didn't know any one from said film and television industry, and worse than that, I was living off temp work as a secretary when I could get the jobs.
I had also just started writing my first feature screenplay CONTINGENCY. It was a dark comedy thriller about a professional killer in her thirties who suddenly finds herself stuck with a toddler when a hit goes wrong.
I decided to go to New York on a four day trip, tagging along with a friend who had business there. At the time, I was obsessed with Miramax who had put out some wonderful indie-like movies that I loved. Stories that were character driven and interesting, that had heart. They were taking risks, not just ticking boxes and they - I had decided in my inexperienced mind - were the perfect studio to produce my movie.
So ahead of the trip, I had done some research. Miramax had a key office in New York - handy for me, right? I also had the name of the VP of Development for Miramax. I found their telephone number off the internet (see how none of this is rocket science?) then waited until I was in New York to call.
I knew I could call before I left - should probably call before I left as what if he wasn't in town that week? But I figured I'd have more chance of getting a meeting if there was only a short window of opportunity. So I landed in NY, then once I was ensconced in the hotel room, I noted down a few key things I needed to say so I wouldn't forget.
Then I dialled...
Before I tell you the rest of the story, I must explain that I was utterly terrified at this point. I know it all sounded pretty plain sailing up until now, but I knew I was no one. I knew I had no experience. But what I also had was hope. I was one of the millions who dreamed of seeing their ideas come to life on a cinema screen and I knew I had to start somewhere. I feel it's important for you to know this, so you don't think I was this uber confident kid without a concern in the world. I was acutely aware they could just slam the phone down on me for wasting their time.
Back to the story. The call was answered by the VP's assistant. Of course. He wasn't going to answer his own phone was he? He's an important and busy man.
(Lloyd and Ari from Entourage ©HBO)
She was very nice as she listened to me. I introduced myself by name, told her I was from London. Then here's the key thing: I told her the truth. I said I was completely new, I wasn't experienced and I didn't have an agent, but I loved Miramax's work and would love to meet with her boss. I explained I had written my first feature script, that I was no one important to them but also that I was only in town for a few days so I had to try. I didn't embellish or lie, I was respectful and honest.
Throughout, she was silent but when I finished speaking, she said, that's fine, I'll let him know and he'll call you back.
I hung up the phone shell-shocked at what I had done, completely convinced that I would never hear from them again. However, within just a few moments, the phone rang.
It was the Vice President of Development for Miramax himself!
He laughed at me. Said he would never usually do this, but his assistant had said how lovely and sincere I had come across and though he was a super busy man, he would see me THE NEXT DAY at 10am.
Insert choice swearword here.
I spent the rest of the day freaking out. Barely slept at all from nerves and excitement. The next day I found myself in the man's office.
I'll never forget it. Along the wall, stacked in vertical columns were printed screenplays of all the movies they had made in the last few years, plus all the movies they currently had in development. There were some BIG names that even I, in all my newbie glory, recognised.
I can't in all honesty remember much of what was said but I came out with him asking for me to keep in touch and to keep him appraised of my progress.
When I got back to London, I locked myself in my room and didn't come out again until three weeks later when I had finished my feature script.
I emailed the VP and his assistant again, told them I now had a finished screenplay and asked if he would consider it. He responded straight away with a yes, but I would have to sign a release form as the script wasn't going through an agent.
Two days later a Fedex van drove up to my house to deliver the release form. Now, I grew up in a council house on a street of council houses. It's not a rich area by any stretch of the imagination - it's certainly not a place which sees Fedex vans. Even the driver was amazed as he confided that he thought he had the wrong address as he had never come to my area before, not in the many years of driving.
Have you guys seen Bowfinger? That amazing comedy with Steve Martin who plays an indie producer who'll do anything to get his movie made? If you haven't, get it right now! Bowfinger knows he's made it when the Fedex van - which has bypassed him so many times before - finally turns into his drive. Well folks, this was my Fedex moment.
I signed the form, sent it back and within days, my first feature screenplay was being read by the Vice President of Development at Miramax Studios.
He liked my writing, the world and the story, but explained they already had an overcrowded slate. He gave me some development notes and wished me luck with it.
Now, I could have accepted this and just moved on, but this experienced exec had given me quite a few notes on ways I could improve the screenplay, so I took those notes and ran with them. A few weeks later, I had incorporated most, if not all of his notes. I then emailed back and asked if he would consider reading my screenplay again. And you know what? He said yes.
There's a little more to this story and it ties in with my next post - "How I ended up working for some of the biggest agents in London" - so I'll wrap up here for now. But the 2 key takehome lessons here are (and number 2 applies to life in general):
1) Always be nice to the assistants. They are the gatekeepers and if you're a dick to them, you can forget getting any calls or emails back.
2) Never be afraid to ask for what you want. Be honest, be respectful, and do your homework - but do ask.
You never know, like Miramax did (twice), they just might say yes.
Stay tuned for my next blogging from the film and television world. Or if you can't wait to read more of my scribblings, you can check out my debut YA sci fi thriller book WANTED, out now. It's already gaining 5 star reviews and comparisons to critically acclaimed video game, The Last of Us, and the best-selling Maximum Ride books series by James Patterson.
UK readers click here, or US readers, it's here. All other territories, check your online book stores.