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Agents’ Advice for Young Screenwriters: To Begin, Be Great

Fresh voices and execution sell, say reps

Your college screenwriting professor always said if you want a writing career, “Write about what you know.” And to get that big break, “It’s who you know that counts.”

Turns out the old man’s insights still apply, though the game has gotten rather more complicated.

The glory days of the spec script selling for millions are long gone, according to Julian Rosenberg, Circle of Confusion literary manager and producer. “There’s less development money out there and studios are looking to tighten their belts,” he says. “They aren’t looking to go out and acquire seven specs a month and see what works. They’re looking for movies.”

As a result, he says, a good script isn’t good enough. “It has to be great. Things with a good concept and average execution aren’t selling in meaningful ways. … Studios think, ‘We want to greenlight a movie without spending $600K to pay expensive writers to fix it.’ ”

Verve agent Tanya Cohen, who specializes in burgeoning writing careers, says the spec now escorts the author down a different path.

“Once in a blue moon, you’ll find that script that sells for a million dollars: the one with the great hook, or the four-quadrant tentpole movie,” Cohen says. “But to be honest, really breaking these young voices, we’re having a lot of success with stuff that’s a little ‘left-of-center.’” A lusty Catherine the Great epic, for instance, or a Carl Sagan biopic.

In both cases, she says, “the execution of the writing, a writer with a really unique, fresh voice, is what seems to be getting everyone excited.” The Catherine scribe was offered a job adapting a young adult novel for Warner within a matter of weeks, while the team on the Sagan biopic sold a tentpole pitch to Fox. Their original works may never get made, but opened doors for them.

Fresh voices, say the pros, can emerge from anywhere. (“One of my clients grew up in a nudist colony,” Rosenberg says grinning.) What they have in common are strong characterizations and passion.

Winning the Nicholls or Tracking B script contests “will almost certainly land you representation somewhere,” Rosenberg says. And he notes the Internet has also made networking easier for beginners. “The Internet gives you access to (Black List founder) Franklin Leonard, who in turn has given you access to agents and producers and managers.”

New writers, then, continue to get work the old-fashioned personal way, although initial linkups may happen online. And Cohen fervently believes “the cream will rise to the top” as it always has, so long as there’s truth and passion involved.

“I think, at the end of the day, writers should write what they know — what they emotionally know.”

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