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How To Tell An Amateur

By Nathan Marshall

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Los Angeles is a town full of pretenders. Actors pretend like they’re movie stars. Film students pretend like they’re Noah Baumbach or Alexander Payne. Production assistants pretend like they’re producers, and producers pretend like they’re broke… The only thing people in Hollywood REALLY have in common is their desire to be SOMEONE ELSE. It’s probably this desire which first inspired their bus ride to Los Angeles, and it’s an impulse which afflicts screenwriters as much as anyone else.

Beginner screenwriters pretend three things: a) That they are happy, b) that they are being paid, and c) that they have many projects “in development.” What a wonderfully vague term. In reality, having a project “in development” means that you have a script that’s been optioned or sold to a production company, and is currently in an active rewrite stage as it is being “developed” for production. Of course, the term is regularly extended during party conversion to mean “a script that I am writing and no one else has seen,” “a script I’ve given to a producer but have not yet heard a response to,” or even “an idea for a script I had while high with my buddies last weekend, and have no real intention of writing.”

Writers are smart people, and it is generally hard to tell the difference between someone who’s pretending, and someone who has an actual career. HOWEVER, there is one very-common point of conversation that immediately blows the top off any writer’s cover, and exposes him for the amateur he really is:

The fear of having his script STOLEN.

Yup. That’s right. If you complain to others about having your spec script ripped off, YOU ARE AN AMATEUR.

Why, you ask?

Because working writers know that IDEAS DON’T MEAN SHIT. Everyone has great ideas—sellable, fresh, genius, spicy, new, amazing ideas. What makes a writer a writer is how they ACTUALIZE these ideas on the page.

You can have the best idea in the world, but it’s your FINISHED SCRIPT that is going to get that idea sold. And you will LOSE more than you will GAIN by keeping your cool new concept all to yourself.

 Say you’re at a party, and you mention your super-secret concept to another writer:

“Don’t tell anyone,” you say. “But I’m writing a script about a drug company who develops a pill that when taken daily, isolates and amplifies a person’s sixth sense.”

“Wow.” They may say. “Great idea.”

So, what now? What’s the worst they can do? It’s hard to find a person who’s a competent screenwriter, but who doesn’t already have THEIR OWN ideas that they’re passionate about. Very few people have any interest in writing YOUR IDEA, even if it’s a great one. But let’s say you’ve found that person, and you spill the beans… Next week, they go to Paramount and pitch YOUR IDEA. What’s the first thing they’ll be asked for?

Writing samples. Previous scripts. And yes, even though they like your idea, it’ll be this writer’s already-written scripts that give the studio execs the confidence to move forward with the sale. It will be THIS WRITER’S WORK, not your idea, that gets the project green-lit. And again—this is the worst-case scenario. Most writers who have the type of writing samples that make them marketable are VERY COMPETENT, and with their competence comes their OWN CONCEPTS.

Ideas, by themselves, own are an apple in an orchard. If you’ve thought up something amazing, chances are, someone else has thought up the exact same concept. What makes you special is what you DO with this concept. How you write it. It’s your SCRIPTS that will sell scripts—not the ideas. It’s your job as a writer to have LOTS and LOTS of great ideas—some may fall away, some may become great scripts, and some may even get stolen—but it’s your COMPLETED SCRIPTS that will make your career. The one’s you finish with heart, and wit, and follow-through.

To drive home the point, imagine the exact same scenario above in which you’ve just revealed your brilliant concept to an unwitting writer at a party. What’s the BEST CASE scenario that could arise from your loose tongue?

Well, I’ll tell you. That writer could think, “wow.” “Great idea,” then later in the party find himself in a conversation with a producer. He might even forget your warning about sharing the concept, and say to this person, “hey, I just heard the best idea for a movie about a drug company that sells sixth sense pills, and ends up starting World War III.” That producer might say, “wow. That’s a script I’d really love to read,” and might track you down to schedule a meeting for next week. He might even buy it, and the next thing you know—you’re a professional screenwriter.

Farfetched? 

Nope. This latter scenario is FAR MORE COMMON than the first, and for writers without representation, it is the VERY BEST way to get your scripts read and to develop your screenwriting career. In fact, the possible benefits of TELLING OTHERS about your scripts so greatly outweigh the possible costs, that I would recommend you start spilling the goods to strangers at Starbucks every single day.

Most people are goodhearted. If they hear your great idea, most people will want to HELP you by passing on that great idea (and your name) to others. It will make THEM look good as well as you. This is called networking. It is how Hollywood works, which is why professional screenwriters LAUGH OUT LOUD when newbie writers keep their ideas close to their chests. If someone wants to hear your script concept, you should see it as an OPPORTUNITY. By closing up, you’re not only cutting off one potentially-good connection, you’re cutting off connections with everyone else this person knows, and every person he might introduce you to in the future.

You see? Theft does happen. But it’s rare. So once you’ve FINISHED a script, it’s smart to protect it. But an idea is just an idea. And if you’ve had a great one, SHARING your idea with others has a far better chance of being helpful than harmful.

So, don’t be an amateur. Open up. Pitch to strangers. Make them see how SPECIAL you are as a writer, and inspire them to ask for copies of your finished work. This is how you make it in Hollywood – by having LOTS of good ideas, and by using them to inspire others to help you down the road to success.

About Nathan Marshall

Nathan Marshall is an Emmy-nominated screenwriter and director. Nathan produced for National Geographic TV before receiving an MFA in Film from UCLA, and his work includes episodic TV, music videos, short films and commercials. Currently, Nathan’s original TV series Underwater and Funemployment are premiering at top film festivals, and last month he directed his first feature film 10 Habits of Highly Effective People starring Eddie Jemison, Noureen DeWulf and Robert Forster. Please visit Nathan's website at www.nathan-marshall.com or his screenwriting blog at www.scriptfaze.com.

Screenwriting Article by Nathan Marshall

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