Screenwriting

4 Ways Screenwriting Workshops Hone Your Craft

While discussing her experience at New York Film Academy, NYFA LA screenwriting student Janet Odogwu Butters stated, “When I first came out here, I thought I was going to learn how to write, but NYFA taught me how to be a storyteller.” Every film, be it fiction or nonfiction, documentary or action, begins with a script. Creating a feature film is certainly a collaborative effort but the script provides the bedrock on which every feature film is built. The contributions of actors, cinematographers, and even special effect technicians all depend on the story line that the script creates. Which is why aspiring screenwriters can benefit from taking screenwriting workshops to help them hone the craft needed to write a cinematic script.

Here are 4 ways screenwriting workshops can help you hone your craft.

1. Full immersion.

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With a screenwriting workshop, you will be fully immersed into the screenwriting experience. The workshop will focus on your own screenplay, as well as the works of other students in your class. Your workshop will be spent writing, thinking about, critiquing, fine-tuning, and learning about screenplays. With so much focused attention, you’re sure to come away with new insights and skills.

New York Film Academy offers screenwriting workshops of different lengths to accommodate all schedules, such as two-days, eight-week, 12-week, and more. Whatever the duration of your workshop, you’ll receive focused, hands-on, immersive instruction from working industry professionals. NYFA even offers online workshops for those with the most packed of schedules.

2. Hands-on feedback.

Screenwriting workshops will not only teach you how to create a great script, they will apply that knowledge to the script you are working on. These workshops will convert theory into practice. Each students will receive specific feedback  on their work that will aid them in crafting the best script possible. The workshops are taught by exceptional staff, such as Paul Brown (“X Files” and “Twilight Zone), whose 2-Day Weekend Workshop is attended by writer, directors, and producers, and actors.

3. They force you to write.

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Writer’s block can be the bane of any screenwriter. While there are techniques to break that block, most writers know the best way is to just start writing – whether the content is good or not. Workshops can force you to take that first step, with their rigorous curriculums and strict deadlines. What you write may not be your best (you may even want to delete it and start all over), but the workshops begin the process for revision and show you how you can pull something out of anything you write.

4. They cover multiple topics.

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The workshops will not just focus an aspect of your script that you think needs improvement. They will cover multiple topics so that you can learn new techniques while improving your own script. Topics they will cover include character arcs, dialogue, conflict, flashbacks, genre, voice over, subtext, and dramaturgy. The online workshops go even further, offering workshops with specific themes, like Screenplay Rewrite Workshop, Television Pilot Workshop, and Writing for Comic Books Workshop.

Whether you are a new screenwriter just starting out, or a professional looking for feedback on a project, the workshops in the Screenwriting School are an invaluable resource. The Screenwriting School at New York Film Academy offers a plethora of classes, such as Genre Studies, Business of Screenwriting, and Revision Class. While taking classes is vital to your education as a screenwriter, there are other ways to improve your skills. The school’s screenwriting workshops offer a unique experience for screenwriters and will further your skills beyond the classroom. Visit the New York Film Academy Screenwriting School page and find one that works best for you. That’s the easy part. Next comes the part where you sit and finally write down that brilliant idea.

Ready to see how a workshop can take your writing to the next level? Check out our screenwriting workshops at New York Film Academy!

How to Write a Scene for Film

Screenwriting is a visual medium that requires a writer to create words on a page that can be transformed into images on the big screen. Writing for a script that will be visualized into a film is very different from writing for a novel. It’s a common beginner’s curve to break. We have seen many scripts that tend to focus too much on prose and unnecessary fluff. Generally, what a scriptwriter needs to understand is that their script is going to be analyzed by dozens if not hundreds of people in production, people who do not have time to interpret any vague ideas. That is why it’s important to be as descriptive as possible, as succinctly as possible. As NYFA Screenwriting Program Chair Melanie Williams Oram notes, “I always tell my students you cannot write what you do not see.”

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So in order to successfully write a scene for a screenplay, it’s important to remember that less is more. By that, we don’t mean less description is more. We mean that less wording in your description is more.

For example, let’s try describing a scene in which a character enters a hotel room. You may be tempted to describe it as vividly as possible. When writing a script, it’s helpful to also imagine which crew members will be reading the script and what information they will need to bring the script to life.

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Example 1:

Susie, a 42 year old neurosurgeon from Connecticut, enters her hotel room, which entraps a blue hue that spreads from a ethereal neon glow just two yards from outside the window. She is contemplating the death of her brother, someone she will never see again. Susie says to herself, “I’m driving to Kansas tomorrow.”

This sounds like a pretty descriptive text. You can picture it in your mind, right? The actor, director, and camera and lighting crew have a lot to work with here. But if you were the costume designer, what clothes would you use for this scene? If you were the set designer, what sort of objects would be in the room? How much do they have to work with?

Let’s break it down and format all these details like a script.

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Example 2:

INT. HOTEL ROOM – NIGHT.

SUSIE (42), a Connecticut neurosurgeon, enters a mostly bare HOTEL ROOM. Bible on the dresser. Notepad on the desk. Empty boxes in the corner.

Broken, she is dressed in black. When Susie enters the room she places a funeral program down on the table.

Outside the window is a NEON BLUE sign.

SUSIE

I’m driving to Kansas tomorrow.

Writing your scripts like this gives ample descriptions that everybody in production can work with and properly sets the tone for the remainder of the scene. We won’t know unless we’ve seen Susie previously that the funeral program belongs to her brother. But that’s okay. We can learn that later.  From here, the director, director of photography, actor, costume designer, art director, and set designer have enough to work with in order to bring the scene to life.

Saying more with less is a skill that can take time and practice to master. If you’re interested in learning more about how to write and break down a script for production, visit the Screenwriting Program at York Film Academy.

Anatomy of an Adapted Screenplay

Novels are terrific, but there’s something about the silver screen that transforms great ideas into pure theatrical magic. And many incredible films exist because a screenwriter was inspired to adapt a story from another medium. Today, we’ll look at how you can tackle this process yourself. But finding your inspiration is only the first step. Here are some crucial tips to keep in mind as you adapt your screenplay.

Great Adaptations

First, understand that the adapted screenplay is an artform, with many great examples to look to for inspiration and insights on craftsmanship.

Beloved films like “The Shining,” “Fight Club,” “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” all started out as books before a talented screenwriter turned them into adapted screenplays. Also, think “Twilight.”

And books aren’t the only inspiration for adapted screenplays — don’t forget plays, short stories, poems, and more! There is a long and successful history of adapting all kinds of literature into screenplays…

Plays inspired many film classics: “12 Angry Men,” based on the play of the same name; “Pretty Woman,” based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”; and “West Side Story,” based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

But literature doesn’t have to be long to inspire a film. “Story of Your Life,” a science fiction short by Ted Chiang, was recently adapted into the Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film “Arrival.” And the Oscar-nominated 1939 classic “Gunga Din” was based on a poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling.

Sources for adapted screenplay material don’t have to end with books, plays, and poems. Need we mention all the films successfully adapted from comic books?  

Follow The Story

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Your first step is to learn the source material inside-out, identify the main characters, and trace out their story lines. Passion for the story is the most important driver behind adapting a novel into a screenplay. You can make a list of key characters, crucial scenes, and major themes, but don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. Remember: your goal is to tell this story as a film, and you’re looking for ways to drive the action forward.

This is your brainstorming phase. Draw charts or diagrams. Storyboard. Write lists. Do whatever it is that helps you connect the dots in your own brain as you begin to shift your mind from interacting with this story as consumer, to becoming the storyteller. Your job at this phase is to organize your source material and begin to identify the shape your story will take on screen.

Adaptation Means Change

Sometimes you have to shed subplots or minor characters in order to keep the story rolling along. Or, use your imagination to fill in gaps. After all, you’re adapting one story form into another, and it has to fit into the structure of a 120-page screenplay. Think of The Harry Potter series, and how screenwriters had to carefully curate which characters and subplots could participate in the the story of a two-hour time film.

This can be a hard judgment call, so how will you know when to change something? A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t drive the story forward, you’ll have to change it.

Jane Anderson, scriptwriter for HBO’s Olive Kitteridge, explained how screenwriters know when to twist a plot or kill off a character: “Once you know your theme and who you’re meant to follow, then it becomes very clear [what to cut or eliminate]. You have to decide, as a dramatist—how do I want to tell this story?”

Show Don’t Tell

It’s ever-so-tempting to translate those beautifully written sentences into voice-overs, but you must resist the urge! Remember that your audience wants to see the story and not hear it; they can hear the story on tape in Grandpa’s 1986 Chevy truck or download it on iTunes to listen at the gym. As a screenwriter, you know that you’re speaking a visual vocabulary. If you must use voice-overs to tell your story, limit it to the best lines in the book.

Once you have these tips in mind, choose your favorite novel or short and story and feel free to begin

adapting it for the big screen! What are your favorite adapted screenplays? Let us know in the comments below!

Learn more about the craft of filmmaking at NYFA’s Screenwriting School.

 

Great Films for Learning to Write Dialogue

Writing dialogue that is believable and natural can be a challenge. Each character in your script should sound distinct and different from the other characters. What they say needs to be important to character development or to advance the plot, but it can’t sound contrived. Above all, it has to be entertaining. Take a look (and a listen) to some of the silver screen’s masters of dialogue writing for inspiration. Below, we’ve rounded up some great scenes for you to watch for inspiration along with some great writing exercises. If you’re feeling stuck or simply want to flex your writing muscles, give these scene/exercise combinations a try!

1. Write: Characters Who Want Something From Each Other

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Without a doubt, Quentin Tarantino has a flair for writing memorable, quotable dialogue that is simultaneously intense, insightful, and often laugh-out- loud funny. It’s a challenge to find clips that are appropriate for a PG-13 audience, but check out this scene from 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.” The dynamic between Vincent (John Travolta) and Mia (Uma Thurman) is immediately clear when she cuts off his protest with the reminder that he has been directed to do whatever she wants: “Now, I wanna dance; I wanna win. I want that trophy, so dance good.” Her dominance continues as she does the talking for both of them when they take the stage.

Why this works: Mia’s aggressive dialogue is matched by Vincent’s monosyllabic responses. The pauses and body language throughout the scene take on as much meaning as the spoken words.

A challenge for you: Write a scene where one character wants something from another character.

2. Write: Solving a Problem

William Goldman’s screenplay for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) is full of great back-and- forth between Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford). He also includes some great ensemble scenes, such as this one where Butch and Sundance reunite with the Hole in the Wall Gang and find there has been a challenge to Butch’s leadership.

Why this works: There is humor and dramatic tension layered throughout the scene. From News Carver (Timothy Scott) wanting to read his own name in the paper to Harvey Logan’s (Ted Cassidy) insistence on settling the issue with a fight, the scene has crisp dialogue that reveals character and advances the plot, while cementing the bond between Butch and Sundance.

A challenge for you: Write a scene with three or more characters trying to solve a problem — make sure each character is unique.

3. Write: Unwilling Attraction

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“It Happened One Night” (1934) is a classic template for romantic comedy that works because of the smart screenplay by Robert Riskin and Samuel Hopkins Adams as much as because of the chemistry of the leads. The Screwball Comedies of this era usually matched a middle class character with a higher class character and “It Happened One Night” pairs a rough newsman with an heiress. In this scene where Peter (Clark Gable) and Ellie (Claudette Colbert) are hitchhiking, her cool wit undermines his gruff confidence.

Why this works: Ellie doesn’t speak many lines, but each one is sharp and cuts right through Peter’s bluster. He may have confidence, but she has brains. Their exchanges help establish the growing attraction between them.

A challenge for you: Write a scene where two characters are attracted to each other, but refuse to acknowledge it.

4. Write: Sustained Dialogue

Guy Ritchie’s films have dialogue that is as fast and twisted as any of the action scenes in them. His 1998 film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” opens with a street hustling scene featuring Bacon (Jason Statham) who delivers his lines in a rapid-fire manner that would leave most actors breathless. Bacon has a crowd gathered around him and he’s trying to sell hot wares with the help of another hustler planted in the audience. Bacon’s eyes move as quickly as his mouth as he tries to find the suckers in the crowd.

Why this works: The scene quickly establishes Bacon as a small-time con who is always looking for an advantage and an escape route.

A challenge for you: Write a scene where a character has a minute and a half of sustained, uninterrupted dialogue.

5. Write: Revealing a Secret 

The screenplay for “Jaws” (1975) was written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. The scene where Quint (Robert Shaw) describes surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the sea between Guam and the Philippines is intense and frightening because of Shaw’s masterful delivery and the sharp details of Quint’s story.

Why this works: The scene is a very primal one, calling to mind the stories told around a fire on a dark, moonless night. The details about shark’s eyes and Quint’s shipmates bobbing lifelessly in the water are told in an unflinching, matter-of-fact way that helps the viewer picture the scene.

A challenge for you: Write a scene where a character reveals a trauma from their past.

6. Write: An Exaggerated Reaction

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“Mean Girls” (2004) is full of scenes that are simultaneously funny and revealing. In this scene, Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) tries to explain her friendship with Regina (Rachel McAdams). Gretchen’s anger and insecurity bubble up through the surface as she suffers from yet another humiliation at the hands of Regina.

Why this works: Tina Fey’s script mixes exaggerated teenspeak, manic energy, and characters who are realistic enough to be recognizable even when their situations and reactions are distorted for the sake of comedy.

A challenge for you: Write a comic scene where a character has an exaggerated reaction to a situation.

Don’t stop now!

There are hundreds of other examples of great dialogue in film from every genre and era — when you watch a film, listen to how the dialogue functions and keep an ear out for models you can use for inspiration in your own writing. As you watch your favorite show or film, stop and ask yourself what is happening in the scene — and then try writing that action yourself.

Want to know more about writing dialogue? Check out NYFA’s How to Write Dialogue in Film or How To Write a Phone Conversation in a Screenplay. And apply today to attend NYFA’s Screenwriting School.

 

The Biggest Writers Guild of America Award Winners

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February is an exciting time to be a fan of film and television. The BAFTAs arrive early in the month to honor the top British and international contributions to the industry. At the end of the month we of course have arguably the biggest film celebration of them all — the Academy Awards.

But right in between those two red carpet events, we get to recognize the best writing achievements of the past year. Below are some of the most notable winners from the 69th Writers Guild of America Awards, which took place Sunday Feb. 19, 2017.

“Moonlight” Takes Home Best Original Screenplay

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The award for best original screenplay has always served as one of the top honors of the awards show, and this year it went to “Moonlight.” This coming-of-age story by an independent team has been racking up an impressive collection of trophies and is nominated for eight awards at the Oscars next week.

Winning this award meant defeating many other films that have been earning their own trove of awards this season, including big favorite “La La Land” as well as “Loving,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Hell or High Water.”

“Arrival” Bounces Back from Golden Globes

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Fans of the sci-fi movie were no doubt bummed by the results at the Golden Globes. “Arrival” was nominated for best performance by an actress (Amy Adams) along with best original score, but won neither. But at the WGAs, “Arrival” earned one of the biggest awards of the night: best adapted screenplay.

Things could get even better, as “Arrival” enters the Academy Awards with eight different nominations. Among those categories include best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best cinematography.

The Best in Interactive Storytelling

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No one can deny the growth and influence of video games in the last few decades. As computer technology advances at a quick pace, so too does the ability for games to absorb us into virtual worlds. Now, video games are considered one of the best forms of storytelling since only they can offer choices, nonlinear narratives, and more.

The big winner at the WGAs was Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, an action-adventure game that follows a treasure hunter named Nathan Drake around the world. To many of us this win is no surprise, considering Naughty Dog’s reputation for providing some of the best story-driven games of all time. Other nominees were MR. ROBOT 1.51exfiltratiOn, Far Cry Primal, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

FX Goes Home Happy

The 21st Century Fox channel has once again proven itself one of the best producers of excellent TV shows. Three of their latest series left the WGAs with some of the best awards the night has to offer.

While “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” took home the adapted long form award, “Atlanta” won both best new series and best new comedy. “The Americans” also beat strong contenders like “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things,” “Better Call Saul,” and “Westworld” to win best drama series.

What did you think of this year’s WGA winners? Let us know in the comments below! Interested in screenwriting? Learn more about the craft at NYFA’s Screenwriting School.

A Q&A with NYFA’s Screenwriting Chairs

In honor of International Screenwriter’s Day a few weeks ago, resident NYFA reporter Joelle Smith sat down with the New York Film Academy Screenwriting School’s three program chairs to discuss what their craft meant for them, their hopes for the future, and what students are bringing to the table. Here, read our dialogue with Melanie Williams Oram in New York City, and Nuncio DeFilippis and Adam Finer in Los Angles

NYFA: What makes the craft of screenwriting unique from all other forms of writing?

Adam Finer: Screenwriting is the blueprint for a uniquely visual form of storytelling. Without that strong blueprint, nothing gets built. Motion pictures, television series and web series all require storytellers who can visualize the world and create three-dimensional characters that drive a compelling and engaging story that can be told on-screen.    

Nunzio DeFilippis: Two things make it unique. The first is that a finished script is not a finished product. It’s only meant to guide in the creation of a different finished product (a film, or TV episode).

NYFA: What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

AF: I have been working with screenwriters for nearly 20 years now, helping writers develop their material, unearth characters, discover story worlds and find their personal voices. Those are some of the things that drive me. My mission is to help creative artists, and especially screenwriters, uncover the tools and skills to achieve their goals and find success in their chosen fields.  

NDF: Watching “Star Wars.” When I saw that movie (I was seven when it came out), I knew I wanted to write movies.  I did have some variation — thinking I might act as well as write — but I knew from seven years old that I wanted to write, and it had to be movies.

Melanie Williams Oram: I am a screenwriter because I love to tell stories. I decided to pursue a career in film and television because I am committed to telling stories that feature women, people of color, and other minorities and that celebrate the universality in diverse experiences. 

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NYFA: What do you see in your students today that is new in the field of screenwriting?

AF: Our department has a strong emphasis on finding the right medium for your story. It’s one of the reasons that our degree students learn about New Media or Transmedia storytelling. Our students are being prepared for the changes in the industry and are learning to create stories in the medium that best supports them.  

NDF: Younger writers don’t view the storytelling world in the same limited way that my generation did. When I went to film school, none of my classmates wanted to take classes on TV. It was beneath them, as they wrote films and only films.  

Students today are drawn to TV, but even better, see themselves as able to jump between the two forms. There is some resistance to other forms of visual storytelling (like web series and comic books) at first, but only from some of them.  

Many students are not only able to jump between film and TV, but they’re ready to tackle these new forms. I love their open-minded approach, and I think it serves them well.

MWO: The proliferation of digital media makes it easier for my current students to get their stories in front of an audience. In our screenwriting classes at NYFA we push students to develop unique characters that serve as the starting point to creating stories that are entertaining and that leave a powerful impact on their audiences

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NYFA: What’s one thing everyone should know before starting a screenplay?

AF: Understanding screenplay structure and format are essential for people in the industry to be willing to read your scripts.  

NDF: What they want the story to be about. Why are they writing it? Why is it important to them, and why are they the person to write this story?  

If you don’t know the answers to those two questions, you will burn out halfway through.  And the answers can’t just be “because it’s cool” or “because it’s popular right now.”  

If you don’t know what you’re writing about, and if you don’t connect with it, the work of creating a feature film script (or the entire world of a TV pilot) will be too much.

MWO: Conquering the demon of the blank page is the toughest thing about being a writer. Slay your blank page dragons by refusing to self-edit. Just let the ideas from your head flow onto the page. No judgments.

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NYFA: What makes a great screenplay?

AF: There are so many elements that go into a great screenplay. Well-developed and defined characters. A unique, yet relatable world (and unique doesn’t have to mean another planet, it can be a local sports story but from a perspective that’s unique). Strong dialogue that feels believable for the characters. The writer’s voice coming through in a story that they felt needed to be told.  

NDF: Characters who want something, and who face real stakes if they fail to achieve it. The greatest mistake I see in students and young writers is creating characters who are apathetic and want nothing. That’s a very hard character to hang a story around.  

Characters who want to be left alone have to pursue that goal as vigorously as other characters pursue their goals.  And even if they do, their stories risk a lack of connection to the audience.  What we connect to as audiences is desire.

Evil characters can still be compelling if the things they desire resonate with us.  Characters we have nothing in common with can generate empathy if we have something in common with what they want or need.  

Always build your story around this basic template:  “Someone wants something and something or someone gets in their way.” Then add consequences for failing to get that something (and not always physical ones, emotional ones will do) and you’ll have a story.

MWO: People connect to stories because they are able to identify with protagonists. There’s a common misconception in Hollywood that people can only identify with film characters who look like them. I believe that films with strong stories that explore human themes can connect people across racial and gender lines. Good stories make audiences forget that they are watching a film. Good stories allow audiences to become completely immersed in the struggles and the triumphs of the protagonist. 

Thank you to our Screenwriting School department chairs for sharing their insights with the New York Film Academy community! To learn more about the Scriptwriting track at NYFA click here.

Screenwriting 101: What Plagiarism Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Protect Yourself From It

Plagiarism is rare — at least when we’re talking about the screenwriting industry.

The only reason it seems so prevalent is that the few occasions in which it does occur at the top level — cases like Shia LaBeouf’s fall from grace, for instance — and usually result in huge amounts of press and gigantic court settlements.

The harsh reality, however, is you’ll be fighting hard to get your script noticed by anyone in the industry, meaning that plagiarism is likely to be the least of your worries. That’s the bad news. On the bright side, the incentive for a production company to steal work that lands on their desk and erase the writer’s name is virtually zero. The nature of the screenwriting business somewhat automatically protects your work: there’s no shortage of people with a screenplay to sell; the risk of being caught out with plagiarism is high; and the financial penalties for plagiarism can be crippling.

That all said, just because being struck by lightning is a very rare event doesn’t mean it never happens — and it is marginally more likely to occur when entering into less-than-reputable screenwriting competitions. So be careful, and do your due diligence in research ahead of time.

We thought we’d compile some tips on how to deal with the situation should you ever be unlucky enough to find your screenwriting work has been plagiarized.

And first up, we’ll start with something that gets to the root of the issue:

Busting the “Poor Man’s Copyright” Myth

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It’s an old and enduring token of wisdom: If you want to copyright your screenplay, mail a physical copy to yourself.

The idea here is that the US postal mark will prove ownership of the mail inside and provide a certifiable date which will defend against any accusations of plagiarism from works after this date.

Problem is, it’s flawed on every level.

We’ll put aside the fact that the system is less than failsafe — it’s not hard to manipulate an envelope — or that this defense has never been successfully employed in court to win a copyright case. The reason mailing yourself your script doesn’t copyright your work is that there’s absolutely no need to: anything you create is already copyrighted to you.

You don’t even need to put the © symbol anywhere on your script — and it’s often seen as a sign of an amateur to do so — because your copyright is already inherent. All adding the symbol does is remind anyone viewing your script that it’s the intellectual property of someone else. Anyone in the industry will take this as a given anyway, while an intentional plagiarist isn’t going to be deterred by a symbol.

But let’s assume you’ve become aware of someone who hasn’t just taken your idea (more on that later), but has copied whole chunks of your text. Now what?

Fighting Against Screenplay Plagiarism

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Really, the best cure here is prevention.

Many networks or corporations won’t even look at screenplays or concepts by unknown writers without an agent. This is not because it’s some kind of closed cabal, but simply because they’re covering their own backs. In copyright cases, it nearly always comes down not to how similar the screenplays are, but whether or not it can be established that the defendant was aware of the other person’s work — or had contact with them along the way.

So, many networks and corporations won’t look at unsolicited ideas or manuscripts in the first place because this reduces the chances of their being successfully sued further down the line to virtually zero.

What this means for you in the writer’s seat is that not only will finding a good agent improve your marketability, but it’ll also offer you the same protection that the corporations enjoy. When dealing through an agent, everything gets recorded. Which is just the way it should be — and the way you want it.

But if you have identified a real case of suspected plagiarism and are writing solo, here’s a very helpful flowchart detailing the best approach at responding to the person whose work you find under their name (it’s intended for authors, but the advice is fairly universal).

Afraid of Accidental Plagiarism?

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As a writer, you’ll no doubt recognize this very common scenario: you describe the brilliant screenplay you’re working on to a friend, only for her to reply with, “Hmmm, that sounds just like Movie X.”

Horrified, you look it up on IMDB or Wikipedia. You’ve never even seen the movie in question, but sure enough, you find it does indeed follow a pretty similar plot to your idea.

So, should you be worried about being sued for plagiarism?

Nope. Because you can’t actually be sued for plagiarism; that’s an ethical issue, not a legal one.

What you can be sued for is copyright violation, and it’s very difficult to commit this crime accidentally; this covers ripping off character names and entire passages of text, not expressing the same idea in a different way. Ideas, after all, are not copyrightable.

Simply having a similar plot (or even the same plot in most circumstances) does not constitute copyright violation. As we’ve covered previously, just as there are only seven notes with which to make songs, there are only so many plot archetypes and tropes with which to create a satisfying story. Every writer is inspired by works that have gone before their pen hit the page, and being inspired is far from violating copyrighted works. Think of the overt similarities between the TV show “House” and the “Sherlock Holmes” canon, for instance.

In fact, if you’re genuinely worried about mistakenly violating copyright, you’re precisely the type of person who’s least likely to do it.

So go forth and write! Strive for originality, but be aware that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

And that’s not a bad thing.

 

5 Brilliant Screenplays That Were Rejected … Repeatedly

In an industry dominated with rejection, sometimes a single “yes” is all it takes to change the face of cinema forever. Here are five truly groundbreaking movies that, for some studios, were a little too groundbreaking…

1. “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Despite being a quickly rising star in Hollywood at the time, Quentin Tarrantino had a lengthy battle in trying to get any studio interested in his follow up to “Reservoir Dogs.”

Why “Pulp Fiction” was Rejected: According to Columbia TriStar executive Mike Medavoy, the script was “too demented.” TriStar initially optioned the film and was even in talks to produce it, but then did a 180 by declaring, “This is the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent, and unfilmable.”

Very few studios were willing to touch a movie featuring heavy heroin use, and the search for a new backer was extensive before Miramax picked it up.

2. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

Initially dubbed “The Adventures of Indiana Smith,” even the attachment of industry superstars George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wasn’t enough to garner significant studio interest.

Why Indiana Jones was Rejected: It wasn’t actually Lucas’ screenplay that lead to it being rejected by every single studio in Hollywood, but more the fact that he was asking $20 million to make it. Paramount ended up footing the bill and Lucas shrewdly negotiated a five-film contract; it ended up grossing nearly $400 million at gross and is frequently heralded as the best action-adventure movie of all time.

3. “Back to the Future” (1985)

Another ‘80s classic that nearly got passed up entirely (incidentally, “Back to the Future” ended up sharing the same budget and box office gross as “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).

Why “Back to the Future” was Rejected: It was either too family-friendly or not family-friendly enough, depending on who you asked. Pretty much every major studio rejected the screenplay, with Disney advising that a film alluding to mother-son incest was not “appropriate under the Disney banner,” while Columbia thought it was a “really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough.”

The great Steven Spielberg always loved the script, however, and committed it to Amblin Entertainment as soon as he was able. The rest, as they say, is history — but it nearly got titled “Spaceman from Pluto.”

Naturally, Spielberg replied to the memo and told Sid Sheinberg that he had to be joking. The suggestion was never mentioned again.

4. “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

Now listed by the Writer’s Guild of America as the 35th greatest screenplay of all time, the ultimate mystery crime thriller nearly became as elusive as Keyser Söze.

Why “The Usual Suspects” was Rejected: Much like “Pulp Fiction,” the non-linear plotline of this screenplay completely baffled studios. After numerous rejections (and nine different drafts), the only company who would touch it was a European financing company. Somewhat surprisingly, director Bryan Singer managed to make the movie a masterpiece despite only having a $6 million budget.

5. “Casablanca” (1943)

The curious case of “Casablanca”: a screenplay rejected by numerous agencies 30 years after it had already become one of the world’s finest movies.

Why “Casablanca” was Rejected: It wasn’t rejected the first time around. But in 1982, freelance writer Chuck Ross wanted to see whether movie agents would recognize the screenplay if he sent it out again … and if not, would they recognize its greatness?

It was a clever experiment. Ross retitled the script “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” (the title of the original play on which “Casablanca” was based) and sent it out to 217 different Hollywood agencies.

The results?

  • 90 returned the screenplay because they weren’t looking for submissions.
  • 33 agents recognized the script immediately.
  • 8 spotted a similarity with the 1943 classic, but didn’t spot it was exactly the same.

However, 38 of the 217 read and rejected the classic script. Among the feedback Ross received, agents claimed there was “too much dialogue” and that the storyline was “too weak.” One even suggested it needed “a professional polish.”

But funnier still is that three agencies loved it and wanted to turn it into a movie.

It just goes to show: even the best screenplays on the planet get rejected. All it takes is just one “yes.”

Do you have an interesting experience of taking a project through many rejections to find success? Let us know in the comments below!

So What Exactly Is A Logline (And Why Do I Need One?)

The definition of a logline: one line (or two at the most) which describes what your screenplay is about.

Job done. Simple, right?

Well, not really. As you’ve no doubt already noticed, this post extends onwards and that’s because a logline is a surprisingly tricky thing to master…

… as well as being something you should ignore at your peril!

Today we’ll be looking at how to get the best out of your logline, and why it should be a high priority.

Loglines: The What

So we’ve already covered the basic definition in that a logline should describe the story, but a great logline should go a little further for that. Consider the following examples, and decide for yourself which one is best in each case:

Terminator

terminator

Example 1: A cyborg from the future hunts down a woman destined to later become the mother of humankind’s savior.

Example 2: A woman must fight for her life against an unstoppable cyborg assassin, sent back from the future with one mission: to kill her and prevent a future human uprising.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park gates

Example 1: A group of survivors struggle to escape from a revolutionary wildlife park filled with dinosaurs after a bribed employee sabotages the predators’ security gates.

Example 2: A rich philanthropist leads a team of scientists to populate a wildlife park with living dinosaur clones.

The Wizard of Oz

The wizard of oz cast

Example 1: A young girl finds herself transported to a surreal land far way from home. Desperately seeking the one man that can help her return, an evil witch shadows her every move…

Example 2: Dorothy is whisked away by a tornado to the Land of Oz, where she meets a group of friends each searching for something unique.

While all of the above examples could use some tightening up, some are definitely more effective than others and we’ll unpack each one as we discuss the conventions of writing a logline.

Loglines: The How

A logline should convey what happens in the story. That much is a given, and all six of the above loglines definitely do that. But a good logline should include all the same elements and structure that make up a fine screenplay:

– A set of circumstances
– A protagonist with a clear goal
– An opposing antagonist
– A point of conflict between the two parties

The screenplay itself, of course, will have resolution but that isn’t necessary in the logline (as its absence results in enticement!)

So, for example: “A recently widowed wife finds herself in a bitter legal dispute with her late husband’s psychotic and overbearing mother.”

That hits all of the above criteria for an effective logline. So which of the earlier examples fail?

Terminator: In this case example 1 is the weaker of the two. It opens with the antagonist, and while his goal is laid out and the scenario set, we don’t know much about the protagonist except for the circumstance she’s in. Example 2 is far stronger, follows convention, and has a greater sence of urgency.

Jurassic Park: You probably guessed this one. Example 2 is the weaker logline; no conflict, just a setting.

Wizard of Oz: The lines are a little more blurry here–both hit all the criteria (save for the lack of an antagonist in example 2), but the first doesn’t waste words on superfluous detail. It’s extremely uncommon to give characters names in the logline and nor is it necessary to explain that she’s in Oz or how she got there; example 1 focuses squarely on the key players and their motivations, and is better for it.

script on page

Hopefully that has helped differentiate between what constitutes a strong and a weak logline, but here are a few more tips that’ll help you nail it:

– The golden rule: When we say don’t go more than two sentences with your logline, we really mean it.

– Remember that you’re trying to sell the screenplay itself, not the story therein. You’ll fail if you try to do justice to the latter in two sentences, but it’s entirely possible to make the script itself enticing in the same space.

– Read it out loud to someone. Their reaction will be very telling, and very valuable.

– The logline can actually be helpful to you, too. If you ever get stuck with the production or find yourself losing your original vision, read it back to yourself. That’s the very essence of your film, right there, and should shine through in every scene of the movie and on every page of the script.

Loglines: The Why

If you can’t sell your screenplay in one line, you’re not going to sell your movie to either investors or a paying audience. It really is that simple.

The importance of a killer logline cannot be understated—if you think of it in terms of a job interview and leaving a good first impression, a strong logline is like walking into the room with a Ted Baker suit and greeting the interviewer with a well-manicured hand. A weak logline is slouching into the room with your sweatpants on.

a page of a screenplay

Come at it with laser-like focus, and your logline will be more that worth the time and effort you put into it in the long run. Best of luck!

Learn more about the School of Screenwriting at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

Screenwriting Tips: How To Nail Supernatural Realism

A penchant for the supernatural seems to have snuck in through the back door of the screenwriting industry recently, with a resurgence in movies and shows that have some kind of otherworldly element playing into the plot.

Not all of these are out-and-out horror, but it’s in part the success of franchises like Paranormal Activity and shows like American Horror Story that have fueled this recent trend.

Evan Peters in corpse paint in American Horror Story

Of course, some supernatural titles end up being better than others and their effectiveness is largely down to how “believable” the paranormal element is. The idea of needing to make the otherworldly seem real is something of a strange one, so for the benefit of those looking to do so at screenwriting school, today we’ll be exploring:

Creating Believable Supernatural Characters and Elements

In essence, what we’re dealing with here is the willing suspension of disbelief; the tricky thing with this is that not all viewers have the same willingness to go with whatever you present to them.

Not a great deal you can do about that—as the old adage goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But one surefire trick that’ll help you please most of the people all of the time is:

Internal Logic

Make sure it’s absolutely watertight.

an archway in the woods

You can come up with the most ludicrous paranormal premise imaginable—and remember, supernatural doesn’t just mean “ghosts” but also superpowers or any other paranormal element—and you can still get people onboard as long as two conditions are met:

  • The rules and limits of the supernatural element or character are clearly defined.
  • These rules are not broken.

The Sixth Sense worked because you get to the end and realize that everything held up to the revealed premise (if there was a single scene in which any of the ghosts interacted directly with any character other than the boy, the entire screenplay would have souffléd.)

Cabin in the Woods had a ridiculously over-the-top supernatural plot device, but it all adheres to the rules explained to us over the course of the movie.

On the other hand, nothing is more infuriating to us as viewers than a ghost ex machina. Suddenly having a character walk through walls, apropos of nothing, will have the audience groaning en masse.

Similarly, trying to tie up plotlines and provide resolution through the sudden introduction of a supernatural element has the opposite effect.

In short, anything goes when it comes to writing supernatural fiction… but not everything should go.

Playing In the Shadows

As a species, we’ve always held a macabre fascination with death.

drawing from victorian era of woman feeding supernatural characters

But whereas supernatural stories from antiquity and right up to the Victorian era concerned themselves primarily with exploring what happens in the afterlife, modern ghost stories are more speculative.

Instead of trying to come to a conclusion about the afterlife, it’s now more about asking the big question: what if?

A strong “what if” scenario is often the strongest weapon in the screenwriter’s arsenal, and doubly so when it comes to supernatural fiction. As long as the speculative element is engaging and the aforementioned internal logic is consistent, you’ll start off with a strong foundation for a great script.

Don’t Neglect Your Protagonist

In the quest for crafting a wholly believable and compelling supernatural antagonist or scenario, the human characters rooted to the confines of reality often fall by the wayside.

man holding body of woman in old film

A common pitfall is to have the main characters simply reacting to the otherworldly being throughout the entire script, which contravenes one of the golden rules of scriptwriting: characters should have their own goals and motivations.

If your human characters are nothing more than things for the ghost/werewolf/demon to toy with, you’ll never hook the audience emotionally.

On the other hand, if you have a cast of characters with goals of their own who react in a logical and realistic way to the supernatural force they’re up against, not only will you get the viewers more invested in the story but you’ll also make the paranormal seem more believable too.

Double win.

Avoid Lengthy Exposition

Although conveying the rules of how your ghostly being, haunted house or possessed doll operates is important, stick to the old ‘show not tell’ convention.

When dealing with concepts that are unbelievable by proxy, establishing plausibility is important. But again, do this by showing the supernatural character’s goals and limitations (as well as plugging up inconsistencies that the audience may find fault with.)

painting of woman reading a scary story at night

The Ghost Story. Frederick Smallfield (1829-1915). Watercolour. Catalogue No 1102c.

Two characters sharing exposition at length regarding the nature of the monster under the bed not required.

Learn more about the Screenwriting School at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

8 Essential Book-To-Screen Adaptations Every Screenwriter Should Watch

When in screenwriting school, you’ll likely at some point discuss the process of adapting fiction for the screen, which we’ve talked about at length in this space. This time, we’re going to look at some of cinema’s best examples of big screen fiction adaptations.

There are, of course, more incredible book-to-screen adaptations than we could possible hope to list here, so for the sake of brevity we’ve excluded the blockbuster franchises we all know and love—namely, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. We’ve also excluded adaptations from the works of Philip K. Dick and Steven King, which could fill lists all on their own!

So, without further ado…

8 Essential Book-To-Screen Adaptations Every Screenwriter Should Watch

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Book: Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name (2005)
RT Film Score: 86%

Javier_Bardem_Coen_brothers

One of two entries on this list based on a Cormac McCarthy novel (See The Road) and the first of two hat-tips to The Coen Brothers (True Grit), No Country For Old Men is a powerhouse in terms of both the performances therein and the moody, grim vibe spun carefully throughout. A modern day Western par excellence.

Life of Pi (2012)

Book: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001)
RT Film Score: 87%

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 14.00.41

After languishing for a decade in development hell, Ang Lee finally did justice to the superb Booker Prize-winning book of the same name (and we can’t imagine anyone else who could have done quite the same job.) If you get the opportunity to watch it in 3D, do so. As well as being a great example of a book—not least one that was widely considered ‘unfilmable’—but it’s also a better example of the third dimension used to great effect.

The 39 Steps (1935)

Book: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
RT Film Score: 98%

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 14.01.15

While only loosely based on the source material, The 39 Steps is not only one of the finest thrillers ever made but also helped cement a lot of ‘Hitchcockian’ elements which would come to define the director’s career and put him on the world stage. Numerous further adaptations have followed over the decades, including a hit Broadway play.

Matilda (1996)

Book: Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
RT Film Score: 90%

Matilda2

There are a number of Roald Dahl adaptations we could have included here (the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for one) but Matilda was the surprising hit that is worthy of a special mention. For everyone wondering what happened to the adorable child star Mara Wilson (who also did an amazing job in Mrs. Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street), she quit acting shortly after Matilda and is now focusing on writing fiction herself…and thus, the circle is closed.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Book: Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump (1986)
RT Film Score: 72%

Forrest Gump

So great was the success of the Forrest Gump movie that it has almost eclipsed the fact that its origins lay in literature. Forrest Gump is a uniquely charming cinematic gem and one of the best movies of the 1990s. To say this endures as one of Tom Hanks’ finest performance in a filmography as impressive as his is a high accolade indeed.

The Road (2009)

Book: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
RT Film Score: 75%

Viggo_Mortensen,_Kodi_Smit-McPhee,_Joe_Penhall,_John_Hillcoat,_Steve_Schwartz

In amongst a slew of post-apocolyptic movies released around the same time, The Road snuck in on limited release but ended up becoming an essential watch. Stripping back the usual high-budget flair of the genre, this Cormac McCarthy adaptation concerns itself solely with how the unspecified ‘event’ has ravaged the emotions of the two protagonists. The result is a very grim and highly charged movie, which doesn’t pull its punches.

True Grit (1969 & 2010)

Book: True Grit by Charles Portis (1968)
RT Film Score: Original 90%, Remake 96%

True grit adaptations

A superb book that went on to produce not just one, but two excellent slices of Western cinema. Both the original (which earned John Wayne his only Academy Award) and the 2010 Coen Brothers’ remake featuring a great performance by Jeff Bridges are well worth watching, regardless of whether or not you think you like Westerns.

Babe (1995)

Book: Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig (1985)
RT Film Score: 97%

731f602fdd2df7302c8007c2e6d9bda9

A cutesy family movie with talking animals and an oversaturated color palette? On paper, it should have been absolutely atrocious, but thanks to its pitch-perfect handling and the amount of heart poured into it from every department working on that movie, it ended up being an unadulterated delight…

… the sequel, not so much.

Got any personal favorite book-to-screen adaptations that we haven’t mentioned here? There’s certainly many more that we could have covered here—drop your suggestion down in the comments below!

 

Adapting Short Stories for Film: Screenplay Do’s And Don’ts

Short stories, by their very nature, can be excellent sources of concise and punchy narratives and as a result lend themselves very well for the big screen treatment. There’s a strong precedent for short story adaption so far, with the following feature movies having had their origins in short literature:

Total Recall (Started out as the Philip K. Dick short We Can Remember it For You Wholesale)

A Scanner Darkly (Also Philip K. Dick)

Minority Report (Ditto)

The Shawshank Redemption (Based on a Stephen King novella)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (From the Truman Capote novella of the same name)

Memento (Adapted by Christopher Nolan from his brother Johnathan’s short story Memento Mori)

Eyes Wide Shut (Loosely adapted by Kubrick from the 1926 novella Traumnovelle)

2001: A Space Odyssey (Another Kubrick feature adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinal)

Apocalypse Now (Based on the 1899 Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness)

And the list goes on, with more genre defining titles that we could realistically list here which got their start as a short story or novella. The question is, how do you get yourself on the list of greats and adapt a shorty story into a great film?

Adapting Short Stories for Film: The Do’s and Don’ts

adapting short stories into screenplays

Playing it Loose

One of the major banes of a filmmaker adapting a novel—or series of novels—into a screenplay is striking the right balance between squeezing it all into the run time but not falling foul of charges from the book’s fans of being ‘unfaithful to the source material.’

You’re a little luckier when it comes to adapting short stories as for whatever reason, the need to be a literalist doesn’t seem to apply so feel free to rework things at your leisure to find the best fit for the screen. If all else fails, substitute the phrase “adapted from…” to “inspired by…” and you’ll be golden!

Honing in on What Matters

This is more common with longer works, but even short stories it’s important to trim the fat and focus on what really matters. And as with any screenplay, it all boils down to three main ingredients: character motive, conflict and resolution.

How you distill these ingredients from the short story and repackage it for film is up to you as a screenwriter, but you should strive to put these key features at the forefront of your screenplay. And speaking of packaging:

Translating Pace

Pacing, of course, plays a big role in the enjoyability of both books and film. Preserving and translating the pacing of a short story in particular requires a little extra attention to get it right as you expand it into a 180 minute feature film.

Occasionally, you’ll have to revamp things entirely as you may sometimes find a short story that is exceptional in every way except the pacing, but you’ll have the opportunity to do your job as a screenwriter and rectify this during the adaption process.

Usage Rights

Clearing the rights for a production and optioning the source material for adaption is usually down to the producer rather than the screenwriter, but if you’re one in the same person, it really pays to make sure you’ve not shirked your responsibilities in this regard (and can cause serious issues later on if you neglect this duty.)

How to go about optioning book rights is deserving of its own dedicated post altogether but if this is something you’d really rather skip, consider adapting works that are already in the public domain.

Of course, it doesn’t particularly matter if the screenplay isn’t intended to leave your hard drive or go any further than a workshop at screenwriting school, and this brings us onto:

Even If The Film Never Surfaces…

…use it as practice.

Without any hesitation whatsoever, you can grab a short story and instantly start playing around. It’s a great way of not only putting your skills to the test but also pushing them to new heights—especially if you intentionally set yourself a challenge by picking a short story that’s really not suitable for silver screen adaptation!

short story adaptation

Got any tips of your own for adapting short stories to screenplays? Any particular favorite examples of the process being done well? You know where to head—we’ll see you in the comments below!

6 Proven Ways to Smash Writer’s Block

writers blockAh, writer’s block—the dreaded, famous nemesis of screenwriters who have an excellent script idea brewing in the back of their mind, but just can’t seem to get the words down.

If you’re suffering from a bout of writer’s block, first recognize that you’re not alone. It can afflict year-one screenwriting school students with just as much frequency and severity as a seasoned professional, but for the most part it can thankfully be cured and overcome with a little perspective. Let’s begin with…

A Hard Truth

If we’re being honest with ourselves, ‘writer’s block’ is just a dressed-up name for ‘procrastination.’ An electrician never gets ‘electrician’s block,’ a surgeon never gets ‘surgeon’s block,’ and a plumber never gets ‘plumber’s block’… well, that may be a term in plumbing but it’s not what we’re talking about.

As much as anyone, screenwriters have a job to do and writer’s block isn’t a great excuse for not getting it done. That said, whatever we choose to call it, it’s still a real phenomenon and one in which there are some methods with which to circumvent it. Presenting:

6 Surefire Methods for Beating Writer’s Block

1. Find the Trigger

In the vast majority of cases, there’ll be a specific mindset (or set of circumstances leading to it) that tend to trigger periods of inactivity. It could be crippling self-doubt, an innate drive for complete perfection, something as serious as overuse of substances…or just plain tedium.

The ‘block trigger’ will be (hugely) different for every screenwriter and it can be tricky to identify exactly what it is, but in doing so, you’ll almost always discover the key to overcoming it.

2. Working Publicly

One common trigger when it comes to screenwriting freeze is the knowledge that you’ve got a long process ahead of you to create a finished body of work, then all of a sudden it’ll get judged publicly in one fell swoop. That can be so daunting that it’s difficult to get going in the first place.

Consider releasing scenes or even individual pages for critique as you’re goinggetting outside of your own vacuum can be liberating, and the feedback gained will help shape your direction and momentum as you progress. If worried about the potential for copyright theft, show it to your inner circle of personal friends instead of into the public sphere.

3. Define Your Processes

Feeding back into point one, just as you should identify circumstances that hamstring your mood, discover a setting and way of proceeding that tends to get you moving forward…then repeat, and tailor as you go.

4. One Simple Question…

As you find your mind wanderingin this day and age, usually manifested by opening a new tab and loading up YouTubeask yourself one simple question:   “Is this worth it?” (followed closely by “Will I regret this at the end of what’s supposed to be a writing session?”) In almost every occasion, you’ll find yourself answering in the negative and getting back to what’s really important.

5. Some Pages Are Not Equal

Don’t beat yourself up if you manage to nail six pages one day, then struggle to come up with one the next. Some scenes or dialogue will require a lot more finesse and time than others, so it may not be a case that you had ‘writer’s block’ on the one-page day and failed to produce; it’s all progress either way, and progress should be congratulated.

6. Begin

Writer’s block is most prevalent when the page is blank. After all, there’s over a million words in the English language, so which to begin with? This is the very first line of your magnum opus. It best be epic!

True enoughit should be a great opening line… but you can always work on that later.

Invariably, the best trick for getting over initial screenwriting block is to simply start. Go all stream-of-consciousness style if you have to; you’ll find yourself revving up to full speed in no time, and can always go back and refine the bit that got you there.

writer's block tips

After all, there’s no great writing. There’s only great rewriting.

Now go get to it, and show that writer’s block who’s boss.

Top Emerging Screenwriters Of 2015

Even some of the most talented screenwriters making great strides in the industry get very little credit or recognition for their work—in fact, notoriously so.

Today, let’s buck that trend by paying homage to some of the hottest new talent to ever emerge from screenwriting school and who look set for great things in 2015 and beyond.

Top New Emerging Screenwriters: 2015 Edition

1. Justin Simien

Justin Simien new screenwriters

After a series of highly-acclaimed shorts between 2006 and 2009, Simien put out a conceptual trailer for a movie back in 2012, hoping to raise enough money to turn it into a feature via crowdfunding.

The campaign was a phenomenal success, with Simien nearly doubling his target asking amount.

That trailer went on to become Dear White People, a breakout hit that not only grossed $344,000 despite being screened in only 11 theatres (on hell of an achievement) but also won the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at last year’s Sundance.

With the movie sitting at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, we’re all eagerly awaiting Justin Simien’s next career move.

2. Lucinda Coxon

Lucinda Coxon

Lucinda Coxon is fairly new to writing for the big screen, but by no means is she a novice writer.

Having enjoyed award-winning success as a playwright for over two decades—predominantly between England and Scotland—her prolific work in theatre eventually saw her cross over to film with 2003’s The Heart of Me. With a long stretch of time lying between the period drama and her other forays into feature film writing, it looks like 2015 is going to be her year; this November will see the release of The Danish Girl, an adaptation of the fantastic novel of the same name by David Ebershoff.

3. Tess Morris

Tess Morris

Another British luminary whose success has been written in the stars for quite some time.

Way back in the late 90s, Morris won a prestigious short film challenge for her original screenplay and went on to work as a script editor and writer on two high-profile TV series (Hollyoaks and My Family). Jumping back over to the big screen in 2011, her romcom screenplay Man Up garnered significant interest and was eventually released this year with Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in the leading roles.

Given the success of her first feature and the background from which she comes, it’s little wonder that we’re all looking forward to seeing Morris’ next screenplay.

4. Oren Uziel

Oren Uziel

Uziel formed one third of the screenwriting team behind 2014’s 22 Jump Street, and as his debut work, it’s fair to say that he came out of the gate running.

22 was far funnier and far more tightly written than any sequel based on a movie based on a TV show should be, and it’s for this reason alone that Uziel is worthy of putting on the ‘one to watch’ list. If he can work this kind of magic and collaborate this well on a franchise title, it’ll be fascinating to see his work on original intellectual properties. We won’t have to wait long—his first solo feature, Kitchen Sink, will be out in September…

… and that’s only one of many upcoming, high-profile Uziel projects in the works, including a rumored Men In Black 4. Expect huge things.

5. Dan Sterling

Dan Sterling

Dan Sterling has long been a powerhouse comedy writer, having contributed to such national TV hits as The Sarah Silverman Program, The Office, King of the Hill, and The Daily Show.

After proving his chops as both a comedic writer and producer over the course of the last two decades, it was of little surprise that Sony Pictures entrusted him to write what was to become one of the most controversial comedy features in recent memory—The Interview.

How he’ll top that is anyone’s guess, but we’re definitely keen to find out.

Diversity Programs, Initiatives & Incentives For Screenwriters

At the time of writing, Cannes 2015 is underway and it was touted by the organizers themselves as a festival that would look to redress the imbalance between the genders. As if to reinforce this promise, the official festival poster prominently features Ingrid Bergman.

2015_Cannes_Film_Festival_posterAlas, it could be easily argued that Cannes failed to live up to those promises, so far on two counts: firstly, there was the outrage caused by festival staff turning away any females not wearing high heels (even those with disabilities). Secondly, out of the 19 contestants shooting for the Palme D’Or this year, only two directors are women.

We’ve already discussed the woeful state of affairs regarding marginalization within the film industry, and this recent example points to the fact that positive change is slow…

…But it is coming.

While we continue to both celebrate and promote diversity in our own screenwriting school and across other programs, there are a growing number of diversity initiatives that are well worth checking out.

What Is a Diversity Program?

Much like tax incentives—in which an entity (usually a state government) offers tax relief in order to attract movie production to an area—diversity incentives offer additional benefits to those who strive to keep a balanced team in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 18.15.58

In fact, some states are even making this mandatory. As such, it’s in a production company’s best interests to make sure they promote diversity, and that in turn benefits the wider community.

Below you’ll find a list of some of the main—and most enticing—diversity programs and incentives which exist for both screenwriters looking to break into the industry and producers looking to improve their own practices.

Film & TV Diversity Incentives and Programs

CBS Diversity Institute – CBS has a number of great diversity programs for screenwriters and others working both behind and in front of the camera (as well as a very good blog which explores the topic of diversity within the industry as a whole).

WriteGirl – A truly fantastic outfit that has successfully paired hundreds of high school girls—usually from underprivileged communities in LA—with female writers who have already made it in the business and are offering mentorship in writing.

HBOAccess Writing Fellowship – While HBO’s new program has closed its doors for this year, it’s certainly one to watch—in the most recent intake, eight semi-professional screenwriters were invited to a series of master classes at HBO’s Santa Monica HQ, before being paired with an executive developer for an eight month mentoring session (as well as an industry meet-and-greet held in their honor at the end). Keep an eye out for next year.

NHMC Television Writers Program – A long-running workshop group that is catered towards Latinos looking to break into professional scriptwriting, this program addresses the fact that only 2.8% of staff writers on televisions shows are Latino.

Alliance for Women in Media – Based in Washington D.C., the AWM is a nonprofit organization run by both men and women to advance the influence of women in numerous forms of media. Part of that includes a number of scholarships and fellowships, including the longstanding Gracie Awards Fellowship.

Diversity in Casting – One for producers. As the most well-known (and possibly oldest) diversity program still active for actors, the Screen Actors Guild allows producers of low-budget productions to take advantage of contractual benefits in conjunction with the guild as long as certain conditions are met.

Illinois Film Tax Credit – Another one for producers to look into. As mentioned above, some states are making diversity conditions mandatory in order to qualify for tax breaks. Illinois is one such state, and as long as you can track and prove you’ve “made good faith efforts” to achieve a racially diverse film crew, the benefits are quite substantial.

Sony Diversity Fellowship – One for directors. Introduced last year, Sony Pictures Television began their own program entitled the Diverse Directors Program. While details for this year are yet to be announced, qualifying candidates last year were invited to shadow high-level TV directors as they produced numerous acclaimed series.

I_Am_Legend_film_crew

Know of any more that we should be including on this list? You know what to do—drop a comment below, and let’s support those who make the entertainment industry a more fair and balanced place to work.

Should You Upload Your Screenplay Online?

Screenwriters often feel like they’re stuck between the rock of getting noticed and the hard place of not being taken advantage of.

When you’ve put in the hours at screenwriting school and have crafted an industry killer script that you’re keen to get optioned, it seems silly to stop short of going the final mile; to not do everything within one’s power and pursue all options for getting it noticed by The Powers That Be.

should you upload your screenplay online

The first port of call in this situation is, more often than not, to upload the script to as many submission websites as possible…

… but the debate currently raging is a fierce one:

Should You Ever Upload Your Screenplay Online?

With the Internet in its adolescence, these kinds of websites—not to mention the many scriptwriting advice blogs out there—are legion and have been around for quite some time already. The idea is a simple one: you upload your screenplay to a centralized repository, producers (or their associates) crawl the repository for some untapped gold, and hopefully you’re the person with whom they get in touch.

All well and good, except that as mentioned, there’s a thousand and one such sites and they all promise the same kind of exposure and increased odds of being discovered; you never know which ones truly attract any kind of appreciable attention, and which ones attract only tumbleweed.

But even still… what if you somehow know for a fact that a script website’s claims are true? Or is there even any harm in shotgunning a load of websites with your script in an attempt to maximize your chances?

In a nutshell, yes. And here are the main risks you should consider:

1) You Could Be Throwing Cash Down the Drain

Without naming names, some script websites charge a fee (or require paid membership) before you can upload your work for the world to see.

That can be a costly business if you’re hitting up a number of different sites at once with little or zero to show for it. Only you can decide if it’s worth it in individual cases, but be suspicious of inflated claims that all the big producers are personally combing their archive—look beyond this for evidence of the site’s success rate and efficacy.

2) You Could Even Hurt Your Chances

Which, of course, is the opposite outcome that you’re after.

Some producers and agents get turned off by work that has been floating around in the public for all to see, with some even using it as a litmus test to save them some time—if that screenplay has been sitting on this site for X years without being optioned, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

In addition, you stand a better chance of gaining attention with a well-targeted, personalized pitch than by simply throwing it out there and hoping for the best. And that leads to our next point….

3) It Breeds Inertia

Many people get lulled into a false sense of security by uploading their scripts onto websites, thinking that the golden phone call might be just around the corner. In turn, that leads to inactivity at a time when you should be at your most active—after all, your job is not over until you’ve finally gotten that deal, and simply uploading the script to a few places usually won’t cut it.

4) Copyright

Disclaimer: this is actually a very minor concern. Everyone is terrified that other screenwriters are going to steal their work, but the frequency at which this occurs is practically negligible. Still, throwing your screenplay out there does put you at a greater risk—while your work is automatically copyrighted to you at the point of its creation without any need to register it (contrary to an enduringly popular myth), you may wish to file your script with either the U.S. Copyright Office or the Writers Guild of America for extra protection. The former costs a mere $30, the latter only $20 (and includes membership).

In conclusion, uploading your screenplay to one or more script websites may lead to great success… but you shouldn’t count on it. Quite often, there’s no substitute to just getting out there and leveraging your contacts.

Don’t have any contacts yet? Make them. Attending screenwriting school is a useful way of expanding your network, and a few very careful email queries can get you the rest of the way there.

Best of luck!

5 Films That Play Out The Monomyth

Monomyth diagram

A lot of people think that there are only a handful of stories out there to tell, and every script falls under one of those plots. One of those stories could be the hero’s journey, or the monomyth, a concept developed by writer Joseph Campbell in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Borrowing the term from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Campbell describes the monomyth as a recurring pattern shared by multiple famous works from different times and cultures. Needless to say, it is a concept with which any student enrolled in screenwriting school would be intimately familiar.

This pattern focuses on a single protagonist following a distinct arc, with many of the same beats on that arc. Figures that follow this epic journey include Moses, Jesus Christ and the Buddha. But it’s not just classic stories that use the monomyth—it can be found throughout modern pop-culture, and is the foundation for many of the superhero and Young Adult themed franchises dominating Hollywood right now.

Here, then, are just five famous examples of the omnipresent monomyth:

1. The Matrix

The first step in the hero’s journey is the call to action, where a seemingly normal person in a normal, mundane life is brought into the larger, more fantastical world. In this case, cubicle drone Thomas Anderson follows the white rabbit and ends up discovering the Matrix and the Real World. He gains amazing powers and saves both worlds as Neo.

Neo in his cubicle in The Matrix

2. Men in Black

Following the same path as Neo is NYPD Officer James Edwards, who finds out that aliens live among us when he joins the MiB as Agent J. A crucial component of the monomyth is supernatural aid in the form of a mentor or guide. Neo had Morpheus and Agent J had Agent K.

Will Smith’s lead character must enter the Belly of the Whale, the monomyth step where the hero separates fully from the normal world, never able to return. Edwards does this when his identity and even his fingerprints are erased, permanently becoming Agent J.

3. The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen is a recent example of the monomyth, a normal girl from humble roots who enters the strange world of the Capital and the Arena and uses her superior skills at archery, hunting, and problem solving to take down tough competition and an entire evil empire. While doing so, she must follow the Road of Trials, the first step of the monomythic second major arc, Initiation. This includes winning over sponsors and allies while impressing the Gamemakers during training, and then competing in the Hunger Games itself.

Katniss Everdeen with bow in The Hunger Games

4. The Lion King

While science fiction and fantasy often use the monomyth, it doesn’t mean it can’t be found in genres. One famous example is The Lion King, itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After Simba is cast out into the strange jungle world outside of his pride, he makes peace with his new life and surroundings, enjoying the good life with his two mentors, Timon and Pumbaa. This stage is called the Apotheosis, a period of recharging before the hero’s return arc, often after he or she has even died. In this case, Simba didn’t physically die, but his ties to his Pride have. This step follows Atonement with the Father, which Simba does much more literally while speaking with the ghost of his dad, Mustafa.

5. Star Wars

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine

Not necessarily the entire trilogy (or hexalogy, or soon-to-be ennealogy) but specifically episode IV, A New Hope, is a classic example of the monomyth. In the span of the first film, Luke Skywalker goes from an innocent farmer on a backwater planet to a wielder of the Force and the hero of the empire. He becomes the Master of Two Worlds, the penultimate step of the monomyth, when he joins his material piloting skills with his spiritual Jedi abilities to make a one-in-a-million shot to destroy the Death Star and save the day. This also becomes Luke’s Freedom to Live, the final step. Luke would have more training and would confront his father in the future, but when describing the monomyth, Joseph Campbell wasn’t thinking of the era of never-ending sequels and spin-offs. Nobody’s perfect.

7 Essential TED Talks on Storytelling

Since the dawn of time, humanity and storytelling have gone hand in hand. The only thing that has changed over the millenia is the way in which we tell our stories.

Arguably, nearly all forms of media—from photography to music, cinematography to traditional art and everything in between—is all about conveying a story to an audience. But despite countless centuries of collective experience in storytelling, we’re still figuring out the best ways of going about it.

A painting of a man telling two boys a story

As is taught in screenwriting school 101, story is key. Here are 10 essential TED Talks on storytelling that will help you figure out how best to tell yours.

J.J. Abrams – The Mystery Box

Abrams is heralded as the master of not just sci-fi, but also knows how to keep viewers intrigued in a story right the way up to the pay-off. The art of injecting the right amount of mystery into a screenplay is a tricky one to master, but Abrams’ TED talk—intriguing in and of itself—will put you on the right track.

Tyler Cohen – Be Suspicious of Stories

Rather than cover the best practices of storytelling, Cohen takes a critical eye to the craft and reveals some of the pitfalls—many of them related to subjectivity—that screenwriters come up against.

Nancy Duarte – Uncovering the Structure of the Greatest Communicators

Nancy Duarte, a graphic designer and writer, came across an intriguing observation: some of the world’s greatest orators all used very similar patterns in their speeches. In unpacking the structure of some of the most well-known speeches and presentations, there’s a lot screenwriters can learn from Duarte’s TED talk in terms of making an emotional connection with their audience.

Elif Shafak – The Politics of Fiction

Fiction is a powerful thing. It has the ability to transcend the limits of its own created world and have a tangible effect on the real one we live in; here, novelist Elif Shafak explores this concept and shares examples of how fiction can help bring us together from across cultural and/or political divides.

Scott McCloud – The Visual Magic of Comics

Comics and screenplays—or, more specifically, the creation thereof—share a lot of parallels. Scott McCloud is widely considered to be the grandfather of comic theory, and the deeply insightful advice on storytelling that he delivers throughout his inspirational TED Talk is of use to both screenwriters and comic book creators alike.

Isabel Allende – Tales of Passion

Isabel Allende is famed for her compelling work as a novelist, but is also becoming equally well-known as an activist. In this essential TED Talk on storytelling, Allende discusses creativity and the art of exploring feminist issues through stories, and is equally as funny as it is moving.

Andrew Stanton – Clues to a Great Story

By all measures, Andrew Stanton is an incredible storyteller, having created some of the most enduring Pixar tales to date (including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E). His talk is a candid invitation into his creative process, with much of the theory being readily usable in your own screenwriting.

Got a favorite from the above list, or know of any other must-watch TED Talks on storytelling that every screenwriter should check out? Head on down to the comments below and let’s get the discussion flowing.

6 of the Best Screenwriting Competitions You’ve Never Heard Of

Screenwriting competitions can be a fantastic opportunity for both fledgling and professional screenwriters alike to raise their profile, and with a little bit of luck, earn some substantial cash prizes. 

screenwriting competitions

To boot, many great careers have been launched through a combination of time spent at screenwriting school and some notable contest wins, with many agents and other film representatives keeping a very close eye on the names that rise to the top of the following screenwriting competitions.

So, without further ado, here are a few that are well worth considering…

6 Best Screenwriting Competitions You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

BlueCat ScreenPlay Competition

Closing Date: October 15 (for next year’s competition). Entries open June 15.
Entry Fee: $35 to $70. Student discounts may apply.
What They’re After: Shorts and full screenplays of any genre. International entries accepted.
What You Stand to Win: Between $1,500 and $15,000 for finalists, plus every screenplay entered receives a written analysis.

PAGE International Awards

Closing Date: Final deadline for entries is May 15.
Entry Fee: $79 for last minute entry (plus $110 if feedback is requested).
What They’re After: Original screenplays, short film scripts and teleplays.
What You Stand to Win: Tiered cash prizes between $250 and $25,000.

Scriptalooza

Closing Date: Final deadline is April 29, so get in quick.
Entry Fee: $65 for last minute entry.
What They’re After: Original screenplays of various genres.
What You Stand to Win: Grand prize of $10,000, plus $500 for best of each genre.

Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest

Closing Date: May 20
Entry Fee: $55 if entered before May 1, otherwise $65
What They’re After: Original screenplays of various genres.
What You Stand to Win: Grand prize of $20,000 plus a huge exposure/development package. Runner up cash prizes and exposure packages also offered.

Slamdance Screenplay Competition

Closing Date: Regular deadline closes June 9, extended deadline July 21
Entry Fee: Between $35 to $80
What They’re After: Original screenplays in the category of short, original teleplay, feature and horror.
What You Stand to Win: Grand prize of $5,000 and $2,000 to winners of each category, plus free services.

TrackingB TV Script Competition

Closing Date: May 31
Entry Fee: $75 before April 30, otherwise $85
What They’re After: 30-70 page pilot script for comedy or drama TV show.
What You Stand to Win: A range highly lucrative and reputable exposure and development packages offered to 3 grand prize winners, 10 finalists and 25 semi-finalists.

 

3 Screenwriting Competitions You Should Have Heard Of

Below are three of the most noteworthy and renowned screenwriting competitions in the entire industry. Winning one of these is the proverbial golden ticket to career success, and although the odds of beating the mass of other entrants is low, those that win invariably never regret having entered.

Nicholl Fellowship Screenwriting Competition

Closing Date: May 1
Entry Fee: $75, plus an optional $40 to receive reader comments on your submission.
What They’re After: Original screenplays (no adaptations.) An additional caveat is that entrants must not have earned more than $25,000 writing screenplays for either film or television to date.
What You Stand to Win: Up to five $35,000 fellowships are awarded each year, plus Oscar level, career-launching exposure.

Austin Screenwriting Competition

Closing Date: April 20, with late entries closing May 20
Entry Fee: Between $30 to $50 depending on long form or short form submission and deadline window
What They’re After: Shorts, feature-length screenplays and teleplays.
What You Stand to Win: Cash prizes ranging between $500 and $2,500 plus coveted awards and exposure.

Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab

Closing Date: May 1
Entry Fee: $40
What They’re After: Original screenplays, though screenwriters who have already had more than one prior screenplay produced are ineligible for entry.
What You Stand to Win: Not technically a competition of sorts, selected applicants will be invited to attend the Screenwriter’s Lab; possibly the most prestigious and exclusive workshop in the entire country.

So there we have it—a total of nine screenwriting competitions that you should consider entering for the next awards season. Know of any others that you’d recommend a fellow screenwriter to check out? How about any success stories or experiences you’d like to share from entering competitions? Drop a comment below, and share with the group!

5 Ways Film School Makes You a Better Screenwriter

Typewriter keys

While some people are naturally great storytellers, or can strike up a conversation with just about anyone, writing can seem as foreign to them as flying a helicopter. Others seem to be born ready to write, naturally gifted with a pen or a keyboard. For either group, film school is a great tool to perfect—or just introduce—the skills needed to be a strong screenwriter.

Whether you’re a student who wants to focus on directing, editing, or other behind-the-camera skills, or someone who wants to draft the next great screenplay, film school can provide you with numerous advantages.  And if you’re one of those natural-born writers who’s been gifted with screenwriting skills, you might be surprised to find what classes can even offer you. Here are just five examples of how film school can help you become a great screenwriter.

Deadlines

Clock hands

Some writers thrive on deadlines, unable to get their gears turning until the clock is ticking and a draft is due at midnight. Others see deadlines as giant chains shackled to their creativity, hindering them from any productivity. However, film school, like Hollywood itself, lives and dies by deadlines. Being forced to write, even when you don’t feel like it, is a gift unto itself. Most writers agree that quantity leads to quality, and deadlines, if anything, produce quantity. You may not want to get started, but once you do you’ll find yourself surprised at how hard it is to stop.

Re-writes

If you’re the picky type of writer who abhors deadlines, there’s a good chance you’re equally repulsed by re-writes. A lot of writers start off writing because it’s fun—once it becomes a duty, it loses its flavor. Re-writing can taste just as stale, considering you’ve already brought to life the world and characters you intended. If writing is the creative, fun part then re-writing is the laborious, begrudging part. By forcing you to constantly re-visit and re-write your screenplay, film school makes you put in the work you may not want to, but ultimately rejoice in. Suddenly that world you had so much fun sketching in broad strokes has become a fine-tuned masterpiece ready to be put on screen.

Collaboration

If you went to film school to learn to direct, produce, edit or other filmcrafts other than writing, you may get frustrated when you’re forced to script something for yourself. After all, most of Spielberg or Scorsese’s great films were someone else’s drafts—why should you be any different? However, getting a feel for the craft of writing will help you in whatever aspect you choose to work in down the line. Knowing where a scene started on the page will only help you bring it to life on camera. Conversely, if you intend to primarily be a screenwriter, learning the other crafts will inform you how to put your words to page in a way that will best facilitate their filming down the line. Filmmaking is a collaboration through and through, and screenwriting is no exception.

Expanding Your Worldview

Working with other film students isn’t just essential to learning the art of collaboration—it will also expand your worldview. Chances are the high school and lower grades you’ve attended consisted mostly of students with the same background as yourself. Going to a film school with a diverse body of students, especially schools like the New York Film Academy with undergraduates and graduates from all over the world, offers you a window into numerous worlds and lifestyles. Even passively working and socializing with an eclectic group of artists and students will broaden your characters, themes, settings, and writing in general. That’s something no book or YouTube video can ever hope to gift you.

Learning the Rules to Break the Rules

Many writers and filmmakers fancy themselves rebels and trendsetters—not bound by the rules of everyone else. Maybe they’re right. But rules can never be effectively broken until they’ve been mastered. When conventions are shunned in writing and filmmaking in a thought-provoking and progressive way, it is because they are being used as a tool by the artist. Rules shouldn’t be broken for their own sake—they should be molded and made into something new. A statement is being made merely by changing the form—how effective that statement is depends entirely on how the form is changed. Film school teaches you the way other writers and the industry craft a screenplay. Once you’ve mastered that, playing with the conventions will be easier and more meaningful.  Simply put, it’s up to you what to build and how to build it. Film school gives you the best tools and materials to start building.

Check out our screenwriting programs at the New York Film Academy today!