Brian Duffield - How I Broke In
Our new article has been posted in the Final Draft "How I Broke In" series. We spoke with Brian Duffield, writer of Insurgent, about his Hollywood journey. There is some very good advice in here that goes far beyond making it in Hollywood.
Brian Duffield - How I Broke In
We are pleased to announce that we will be writing a regular column for Final Draft called, "How I Broke In". We will be interviewing Hollywood screenwriters to talk about the industry, what they're working on and how they came to break in to the industry in the first place.
In this column, we speak with Ben Ripley, writer of Source Code and Boychoir. We hope you enjoy.
Ben Ripley - How I Broke In
Tuesday is quickly becoming one of my favorite days of the workweek. Why? First, I'm through my Monday hangover and the week is fresh enough that I can still harbor delusions of getting something done by Friday. Secondly, it's "Sharktank Tuesday"! I admit that I was a bit later convert to the "Sharktank" fan wagon. My friends were telling me to watch it, but I was like, "What do I care about other people going in to beg for money?" Oh, the error of my ways. "Sharktank" is not about asking for money, it's about how you ask for that money. Something that we are basically doing at pitchfests. (I know it's more than that, but for simplicity... it always comes down to money). I'm not going to pretend to be the first to write an article on this subject but with my background in law enforcement I have a slightly different view of how it all goes down. Many good points have been made about how the show teaches you to find your hook and quickly grab someone's attention. My points are more about what is left unsaid.
Remember, money does not change hands at a pitchfest. Sales are not made at a pitchfest. You are there to build the foundation of a relationship that will hopefully lead to those sales or manager signings. So remember what you are really selling... yourself.
Dustin and I owe a big thank you to Final Draft. Thanks (there it is) to them we have been officially indoctrinated into the world of Hollywood awards shows. Or, as I joked with Dustin, we have now moved from Unknown Unknowns to Known Unknowns. Which means that instead of just passing us on the street without notice, Execs look at us and say, “Oh yeah, there’s those guys I don’t know.” We like to think that’s a pretty big deal.
The show had it all. There was after hours admittance to the Paramount Lot, extremely attractive ladies to greet the VIPs (they even smiled at us once), studio pages chauffeuring us through the lot on golf carts and a walk on the red carpet. Oh, the red carpet. If there was one thing we worried about, it was the red carpet. Okay, maybe I was the one worried. Dustin is imbued with this amazing ability to approach anyone at any time in any place and start a conversation with them. Seriously, his ability to open is heroic. Me? Not so much. I worried about things like, “Why the hell will the press care who we are?” Or, “What do I tell them when they ask why we’re important?” Even, “Have you produced anything I've seen?" Dustin? Blissfully unconcerned.
So, when the moment arrived and we stepped out of that golf cart, I swallowed nervously while Dustin buttoned up his suit, smiled and walked right onto that red carpet. No one blinked an eye. No one said, “Who the hell are you guys?” Another of the nice young ladies smiled at us. Someone else called me Sir. I have to admit that maybe Dustin was on to something here (Don’t tell him I told you). In a blink of an eye the press pictures were over and I had suddenly transformed from nervous to thinking, “Is that it? I can do more?” But alas, it was time to head inside. That’s where things really got weird.
It turns out I didn't need to be nervous about having to open with anyone. They were coming up and talking to us. At first, it was a little strange for a screenwriter used to having to craft carefully worded query letters just to get someone’s attention. But then it dawned on me. We were vetted. Final Draft was essentially telling everyone in the room that we were important enough to be included. Well that, and the fact that we are both north of six feet tall with large builds. That kind of stands out in a Hollywood room. But the bottom line is we weren't a blind query in their email. We were vetted writers with high placements in multiple prestigious contests, including one win. We were in.
The next five hours were above anything we expected them to be, and as screenwriters, we have big imaginations. We had originally planned to spend most of the rest of the week in LA editing some short films we had shot a few weeks earlier. It turns out we barely touched our computers. We had lunch with agents, meetings with managers, preliminary talks about securing a book deal for a graphic novel of our Industry Insider winning script, talks with a producer about directing some viral shorts and I have a picture of me on the red carpet, wearing a suit, to show my wife and prove we’re not just screwing around and going to the bars (that’s all work related) while in LA.
We owe this success to two things. First and foremost, we owe Final Draft. They stepped up and put their faith in us, and we tried not to disappoint. We also owe it to putting aside our natural screenwriter tendency to want to hide behind our computer and got ourselves out there. Too many times we, as screenwriters, want to just write our stories, send out our letters, and wait for success to come running back to us. I wish it were that easy. I really, really do. But it’s not. This town is about relationships. Never, ever turn down a chance to go form them because you don’t know when the next one will come. But above all, hyperbole and a half, the single most important thing I can say… have fun. Bask in the limelight. Enjoy the party. Act like you've been there. The work will find you.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I was asked by someone if I had produced anything she may have seen. Rather than explain the beginning stages of our career, I fell back on my old stand-bye. I made fun of myself. I simply said, “Only if you’re one of our 32 YouTube Channel subscribers. But the odds are kind of small since I know 20 of them personally.” Worked like a charm.
When I used to coach my softball team there was one situation above all that would absolutely get under my skin. That would be when our team was losing by multiple runs and I had a hitter at the plate, with no one on base, and he was swinging from his heels like he was going to tie the game with one swing of the bat. Now, unless there is some obscure rule in baseball that I don't know about, I'm pretty sure that if you are down by five and hit a solo Home Run you're still losing. Instead of the Home Run, I preached the baby steps approach. Base hit after base hit after base hit. Keep inching your way towards victory. Put yourself in a position to win.
It's the same approach with trying to carve out a career in Hollywood. Dustin and I have been to multiple conferences, been on countless message boards and seen I don't know how many tweets where people are looking for the next big thing that will break their career. They have one script and they just know that they're going to sell it for a million dollars. They heard that someone won some contest and ended up selling the script for a lot of money, so they'll just enter that contest and sell their script as well. They heard that this guy did this or that gal did that. Whatever it was, they just know that id they do the same thing, they're in. They're doing exactly what those hitters swinging from their heels were doing. They're trying to hit a five run homer. They also end up meeting the same result as most of those hitters. They strike out.
As a screenwriter, or anyone trying to get into the film business, you cannot judge your forward progress by the amount of big moments you have, because those are few and far between. It's not how fast you are moving forward, it's just whether you are moving forward. Baby steps. I'll have people ask us about our win in the Industry Insider Contest and what that has brought us. They seem disappointed that it didn't land us a big time agent or film deal. We're not. Because you know what it has brought us? Cache and a whole lot of open doors from people who wouldn't have talked to us before. Baby step. We went to a pitch conference in October. We got a few script requests and a whole lot of flat out no's. We went to another conference last month and we got twice as many script requests. More importantly, the no's we did receive were incredibly polite, almost to point of being apologetic that the project didn't quite fit them, with more advice on who we could bring it to. Baby step. Two years ago we knew one person in the whole town. Last year we had cards to maybe five or six people. This year we have had dozens of meetings and our emails get returned as quickly as five minutes later (sometimes). Baby steps.
But it goes back farther than just our contest win. There was the first few contests we entered where we never even heard back from the judges. Then there was the first contest where we finally made it to the quarter finals and actually got to see our name in print. Next came the contest where we broke through to the semi-finals. That netted us our first ever call from a manager who wanted to meet with us. Then we entered the Industry Insider Contest... and didn't even make it to the next round. Then we waited for the next time the contest was offered and couldn't even come up with an idea. Then we waited for the next time... and that's the one that we won. From the first contest we entered to our win took about three years. Baby steps.
You can't always be out there looking for the bigger, better deal. You can't judge your success off of what you sold and what awards you won. Success comes in many forms. Sure, a contest win is really nice. I still remember the call when I heard "Randall Wallace chose you guys as the winners". It can also be just as gratifying when you send an email to a big time producer and he answers you back two minutes later. Baby steps. Because you can't hit a five run homer.
Ask any new screenwriter just getting into the business what their greatest fear is and you are bound to get the same answer. They are afraid of having their script stolen. I am not going to say this is an irrational fear, but it shouldn't be all paralyzing either. First, let's do some math to ease your mind. Let's say your movie is going to cost $20 million to produce. We will also need to then throw a minimum of $45 million on top of that for a proper marketing campaign. We are looking at a $65 million output. Compare that to the price of paying a new screenwriter, usually $150 thousand vs. $250 thousand. Do you really think a smart business person is going to risk possible legal and PR problems to save less than 1% (far less) of their budget? No, they're not.
That being said, you need to be careful. Where most people trip up is in innocent conversations. The ones where you sit down at lunch and start discussing a possible idea with someone and the next thing you know they took it and sold it on their own. Here are some tips to help you avoid these types of situations.
Register Your Work: I know, I'm starting with finished scripts but this one bears repeating over and over again (because people think they can ignore it). Before you even think about sending your script out you need to register it with the Writer's Guild and the US Copyright Office. There will be people who tell you that you don't need to do this because US law establishes copyright the moment you create something. Don't listen to them. If you end up going to court someday do you want to base your case on "No way, I'm the one who wrote it. Not him!"? Or do you want to base it on "Here is my US Copyright, registered on this date."? We're talking $20 for the WGA and $35 for a copyright. There is no reason not file for this extra protection. (PS: If you make changes to your script, you need to file for another copyright. So don't register until you think you are absolutely ready)
Use The Google on The Internet Machine: Call this a leftover from my law enforcement days. If I am given the opportunity, I want to know everything about anything about any person I am going to sit down and talk business with. Done Deal Pro and IMDB Pro are your friends. Google is your friend. With these two simple tools you can find out where someone has worked, any deals they may have made, what circles they travel in and who they have worked with. That seems like a better idea than just blindly sending your scripts out to people just because they have "Manager" or "Producer" after their name.
Follow Your Instincts: When I was a young officer, I received some of the best advice I have ever heard. A veteran officer took me aside and said "When you are interviewing someone and the hair on the back of your neck starts to stand up, you are always right. Every time. It may not be the thing you are originally thinking, but there is a reason the person in front of you is setting off your alarms." It's not just advice for law enforcement. If you are sitting across from a manager or producer and something in your mind is saying "This isn't right", there's a reason for that. Listen to those warnings.
Silence is Golden: You can not register an idea, therefor you cannot protect an idea. So if you are sitting on the next great thing, an idea so great it sells itself in one line, then keep your mouth shut. It's as simple as that. Keep your mouth shut until such time you have that idea on paper in the form of a screenplay. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but they have to do with points 2 and 3 above. If Steven Spielberg is interested in what you are going to do next, that might be a good time to open up. Someone who barely registered in your research and you have some doubts? Keep your mouth shut (tactfully).
Know When It's Time to Walk Away: I'll give you an example for this one. Last October, Dustin and I sat down with a manager to talk about one of our scripts. From the first second of the meeting it just didn't feel right. To say the vibe we got from him was creepy would be an understatement. He didn't even want to talk about the movie. All he wanted to know was "What is the budget and who would star in it" (Questions not typically in the screenwriter's area of expertise). Before we even got a full idea of how to answer he said "Send it to me. Send me all of your other scripts, synopsis, or ideas as well. Include cast lists and budget break downs for all of them.... and make sure to sign our legal release" We smiled, nodded our heads and then walked away. Sometimes it's just not worth it.
Are these foolproof ideas? No. You show me something that's foolproof and I'll find you a better fool. But in this case, an ounce of prevention really does go a long way. Do what you can, suck it up, smile, get out there and have some fun.
It's that time of year again, pitchfest season. Yay! Normally I wouldn't talk about events like this until we are much closer to them happening. Today is different though. I want to take a moment to help temper your expectations if you are planning on attending one of these events for the first time. Not in a hater type of way (I happen to really like pitchfests). I mean in a, "This is what you need to be thinking type of way". Because when it comes to pitchfests, an ounce of preparation really does go a long way.
Be Prepared: A lot of people are going to read this and think I'm talking about researching the companies you want to talk to. Yes, that is important. No, that is not what I am talking about. I am going to go even further back. You need to have your script done and ready to show. In a perfect world you should have at least two, but one is the bare minimum. You would be amazed how many people attend these events with just an idea and a dream. Do that and all it will be is a dream. If you have an exec ask to see your script, you have two weeks, MAX, to get the script to them. Anything after that and they have moved on and forgotten about you. You will not get your script done in that time, especially if you have never written one. Get your script done. It won't mean anything if you go before that, and there will be plenty of opportunities once you have completed it.
Be Yourself: Relax, take a deep breath, tell some jokes to other attendees, smile, hand out cards, learn from others, etc... That's what you're there to do. The last event Dustin and I went to was, well... it was an experience. People were nervous and strung out because they were so focused on the notion that they had to sell their script that day. It was like a compressed version of people packing up their hopes and dreams and letting them all ride on that one single event. Seriously, we saw people crying in the bathrooms. If desperation is a turnoff to execs then there were a lot of turned off execs that day. Take a breath. It will be OK.
Have a Realistic Goal: Dustin and I will be attending The Great American Pitchfest in a little over a month. I will tell you right now that we are not going to sell a screenplay there. We aren't even entertaining the dream of selling a screenplay there. Why? Because I know that no matter how brilliant our pitch, no exec is going to pull out a checkbook and say "That's genius. I'm going to get on the phone to Spielberg right away. How does a million dollars sound?" We are going to the pitchfest to meet people, make relationships, open up dialogues. Think of it as a first date (a speed date but still a date). Both sides are sitting across the table trying to decide if they want a second date.
Know How to Handle Objections: This goes back to having a realistic goal. When Dustin and I sat down with Benderspink, after our Industry Insider Contest win, our Story Specialist gave us the best advice we could ever get, "You are not going to sign tomorrow. That is not how this works. Your goal is to have them still interested in you when you walk out the door. A request to read another script is a win." Knowing that advice is what saved the meeting for us. If we had gone in with stars in our eyes and our special signing pen in our hand we would have been in way over our heads. Instead, we were able to handle all of their questions, steer the conversation at the right times and, in the end, they asked for another script. Win. Conversations are still on going as they have asked for us to send them our next finished script as well (That reminds me, there will be a blog post on Writer's Block coming soon). Remember, you are NOT going to sell your script there. You are answering questions in a way to keep them interested in you. You are not trying to get them to please, please, please buy your script.
Talk With the Other Attendees: There are two very good reasons for this. First, you are not in competition with each other. There is not a set number of people execs are allowed to be interested in. Just because the person next to me has a fantastic romantic comedy has no bearing what-so-ever on whether or not an exec will like my angry, revenge filled action/thriller. Hell, we probably aren't even going to talk to the same execs. So get to know them, have fun, learn something new, tell them good luck when their time to pitch comes. The second reason? Who knows who that person will become? You are not the only talented person there and everyone has to start somewhere. Who knows, maybe you are going to look up in five years and see that person being interviewed on TV and you're going to think, "That looks like the person I sat next to at pitchfest. I sure wished I had talked to them."
This all being said, please don't let this scare you. I am not trying to scare you. I'm just a rather blunt person. I am also a firm believer in pitch events. Here's why. I don't live in LA. I spent a good part of my post college life working Law Enforcement. When Dustin and I started our screenwriting venture we did not know a soul in the movie industry. The first time we sat down to send out query letters it was all foreign to us. It was like, "This guy sounds cool. Let's send it to him as well." Flash forward a couple of years. Last month I was getting ready for another round of queries. I opened up my exec directory and started flipping through. This time I was saying things like, "There's XXXX, we met him at the Screenwriter Conference last October, he's the one who wanted to know where we got our business cards. Or XXXX, that's the manager we had coffee with last August. Here's XXXX they requested our script when we pitched at XXXX, etc..." Know how we met all those people? Pitchfests and high contest placements. It is more than worth the time if you have the right mental state going in.
So, to sum it all up. Have a finished script before you try to sell that script. Take a breath and calm down. Don't be desperate to make it all happen at the table. Know that it won't all happen at the table so you can focus the conversation. Be nice to the other people. Don't cry in the bathroom.
I almost became a millionaire last week. I don't mean a paper millionaire because the house I can't sell is appraised for a lot of money. I mean a filthy, stinking, which private island should I buy, rich. The deal was all set. The paperwork had changed hands. All I needed was for those six Powerball numbers to fall my way. I was already picking my new house, new car (or two), a vacation house (or two), maybe even a suite at The Seahawks. And I tell you what, our next in-house film was going to be EPIC. I was thinking of a short called DAD LOVED THE FOURTH OF JULY. All it would be is six minutes of explosions. Not stock footage explosions. We were going to blow things up for six minutes. Epic. Then I checked the numbers and it all came crashing down in about three seconds. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. I think Al Pacino said it best in the film TWO FOR THE MONEY. Gambling is not about winning and losing. It's not about the risk vs reward. It's about that moment when the dice are on the table. The moment they are spinning and you have hope. You can see your win. You can feel it, and man it feels great. It is that split second of dreaming that gambling is about.
Pursuing a career in Hollywood in much the same. It's not about risk vs reward, because there is a ton of risk and very little reward. It's not about winning and losing because most of the things you write are never going to see the light of day. It's about that feeling you get when you finish your screenplay. The anticipation you have when you send that big query letter. The thought that "this one is it". It's the joy you feel when you see your finished movie, no matter how small, no matter how few people see it. Is Rainbows and Unicorns Entertainment ever going to be a major player with huge lavish offices and contacts all around the world? Are we going to have movie posters lining the halls for all of our films that won Academy Awards? Probably not. That doesn't mean we can't dream about it. It doesn't mean we can't envision that our next film is going to be the "big one". Because that's why we do it. That is the joy we chase and feel every time we start a new project.
For years my Husky football experience was dampened by the man behind me, who I liked to call "The Frustrated High School Football Coach". No matter what the Huskies did, this man was miserable. If they ran they should have passed. If they passed they should have ran. It finally got so bad that one day my friend turned and said, "You know, Dave, it's really too bad there are so few college coaching positions open when there are so many qualified experts just sitting here in the stands". I laughed, he laughed, the section laughed, everybody laughed... well accept the guy behind us. But who cares about him?
The reason I bring this up is because I am going to admit a guilty pleasure. I love to scroll through the comment section of any article or Facebook post that pertains to the screenwriting hot button topics of contests, pitchfests or paid posting sites. The amount of pure hate and anger these topics inspire is jaw-dropping to the point of being must read. Let's take a look at a random sample:
Pitchfests: A recent post on the Final Draft Facebook page asked this one simple question "Pitching events - for or against?". That's all they asked, here are some of the responses:
Do you notice something missing from most of these posts (which were taken in their entirety)? I see a lot of general assumption not based in actual experience. Let's get a few misconceptions out of the way.
We recently attended the Screenwriter's World Conference. We talked to eight Execs, seven requested more info, five requested scripts and two requested to see our short film. I don't feel like a sucker.
Pay to Post Sites: The Blacklist recently opened a site where writers can pay a monthly fee to list their screenplays for Execs. For an additional fee they can also pay to have their script reviewed with well reviewed scripts getting a priority placement. The vitriol that came with the original announcement was undeniable. It was a scam, it was for suckers, it was a ripoff, there was no way it would work, etc... Well this came out today. I'm betting the guy who just signed with CAA doesn't feel like a sucker.
Contests: Another area that brings out the hate is the subject of screenplay contests. I Googled "Industry Insider Contest Worth It". I found some message boards that said:
Well, we entered the contest, we won it and now we're going to lunch with Randall Wallace and meeting with Benderspink. We don't feel like suckers. It's the same with Scriptapalooza. We have another script that made the top 100 and we have received several read requests and met with potential management out of it. As long as we are on the subject, can anyone tell me who these angels are who offer free screenplay contests?
My point to all of this? Hollywood is a town full of negativity. Everywhere you turn you are going to meet someone who has been rejected one too many times and has gone over the edge of Cynical Cliff. Nothing ever works, the town is against them and everything is a scam. Others want to believe in their talent so much that they have also jumped off the cliff and landed in their own hubris. Everything else is for suckers. If you were great like them you just need to mail in your script and wait for the Execs to dial their phone and scream "Where have you been all of my life?!". Don't listen to the negativity, it will consume you, as evidenced above. Set a realistic plan and stick to it. If you live outside Hollywood and haven't yet developed any contacts then I suggest you use the above methods. These do work, if you have a fantastic script. It always comes back to that. If you don't then it's not the fault of the contest or the pitching event.
I read a piece of advice many years ago, so long that I forget the source, that has stuck with me ever since. That advice was this:
There is a door that opens into Hollywood everyday. It is your job to get yourself in front of the door when it opens.
The article then went into length describing how you get yourself in front of one of those doors with a combination of talent, hard work, timing, more hard work and a little bit of luck. It is the definition of that last piece, luck, that trips a lot of people up. I think many people think that luck has to be something like a man walking down the street that just barely avoided being crushed by a falling piano. They think of it as an immediately recognizable thing that you recognize right away. Even worse is that they then go chasing that elusive "lucky moment". In reality your "luck" is much more subtle.
To put it into perspective, let me tell you about all of the luck Dustin and I have had to get to this point in our careers. And there is no denying that we have had a lot of luck, we just didn't recognize it until many months, if not years later.
Our luck, in retrospect, began 4 years ago when I completely tore up my left shoulder in a training accident. I completely tore my shoulder from stem to stern in such a way that can never be fixed (a SLAP lesion for the more medically inclined). Not going to lie, it sucked but I forged ahead as an officer for three more years. I just had to take it to grit through our yearly ground fighting qualifications (that's not the real term, but it's what they always ended up being) and I could keep going. But then the agency decided that the term "yearly" must mean we have to do it every three months. I went to my Chief and told him that this was really bad news. My Doctor told me one more accident and I would be down one shoulder for the rest of my life. I felt like I was playing Russian Roulette with my shoulder. Was there something we could do? My Chief told me that we could fill out a waiver, but no one was sure how to do it. So I would have to participate or they would just take my gun. Wondering how this fits into Hollywood luck? Well, they failed to take everything into account with my life situation and they were shocked (I don't know why) when I said "Why don't you just keep the gun" and turned in my notice two days later.
That was last December. A few weeks after I left I found a directing class in LA that was going to be taught at the end of January. Had I still been at the government I would have never been able to get the time off to go. I called Dustin and told him that we were going to be going to that class. He reminded me of a small problem. We were supposed to have a film in the Taos Shorts Festival that weekend. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I would rather go to the class, but I knew we needed to be at the festival. So I put the application away. Then, two days later, the Festival changed their mind about length, and suddenly our film was too long and therefor out. I had us signed up for the class that night.
Flash forward to the weekend of the class. Dustin and I had been working with The Writer's Store for over a year and decided that we should stop and introduce ourselves while we were in town. It was a great meeting, but two things started in motion out of it. First, we had the hard sell put on us to enter the Industry Insider Contest. They told us we had to do it since Randall Wallace was such a huge influence on us. Secondly, it was the first time we heard about The Screenwriter's World Conference.
Based off that, we went home and completed our fifteen page entry into The Industry Insider Contest. Then, many months later, we found out we were finalists. From that experience we were able to produce our third script that has received a "Recommend" from The Writer's Store coverage service, and the script that we used as our "Show Pony" at last weeks' pitch sessions. the pitch sessions at the conference we wouldn't have been at if we hadn't been personally told about it last January.
So let's recap: