Potholes on the Road to Publication - Scripts Ahoy!

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I used to produce television shows and movies. It was a crazy job, juggling so many moving pieces that I’d start every day feeling dizzy. I loved it, but it was exhausting!

On the floor behind my desk was a multi-peaked mountain range of screenplays that hopeful screenwriters and agents had sent in to our production company. One of my jobs was to read those screenplays to see if there was a hidden gem that would appeal to the buyers in our broadcast markets. Only when one of the piles looked like it was about to topple over would I grab a couple of screenplays and take them home to read.

I said I’d be honest in this series of blog posts, so here’s the brutal truth – I only read the first 8-10 pages of 99% of those screenplays. I could usually tell by page 8 whether or not it was something we’d be interested in producing. Now that I’m on the other side as a writer I feel so bad for all those screenwriters who put their heart and soul into every single word – words that never got read.

One day my Executive Producer came storming into my office and pointed at those piles. “Do we have a screenplay with a yacht in there?”

I didn’t know. I’d only stacked the screenplays; I hadn’t even read their cover pages yet. “Why?”

“I just signed a deal with a guy who owns a yacht charter company in the Virgin Islands. He wants exposure. If we make a movie that’s set on a yacht he’ll give us one of his yachts and a crew for free for as long as we need.”

A yacht? In the Virgin Islands? It sounded like my dream holiday! And I hadn’t taken a holiday in a really, really long time … and I knew exactly what kind of screenplay my boss would want … action/adventure in an exotic location … and I’d been fighting the urge to quit production and write instead … “Let me look through them over the weekend and I’ll get back to you.”

I wrote an action/adventure screenplay, set on a yacht in the Caribbean, over that weekend. I didn’t stop to eat or sleep – I wrote.

I handed the finished screenplay to my boss first thing on Monday morning. (I didn’t include a cover page, because I didn’t want him to know who had written it.)

I was in a production meeting when he called me.

“I love it! It’s like it was written for our markets! Get the writer into my office NOW!”

“Okay.” I left my meeting and walked to his office. Then I dropped my anchor. “I’ll only sell it to you if you let me produce it.”

“You mean like leave the office? Be away on-location? A foreign location?” He wasn’t happy. He liked having me around to put out the many fires that ignited every day. I supervised all the company’s line producers … and their productions, like all productions, spontaneously combusted on a daily basis. (And one shoot in particular seemed to combust on an almost hourly basis.)

We signed the contract that morning.

I got to go play on a yacht in the Virgin Islands. Even though it wasn’t really playing. I had to travel with and was responsible for a motley crew and a cast of actors; not my normal travelling companions. (There’s nothing normal about anyone who works in production!) And it was a lot of hard work for all of us … in an incredibly beautiful location. (And I admit that some of the work wasn’t that hard … like when we had to herd some baby chickens out of a public washroom at a marina because they were chirping so loudly that one of the sound guys was threatening to deep fry them.)

Sounds like a dream beginning to a writing career, right?

Pothole time.

Once the director and editors had done their thing with the raw footage, the movie came in several minutes short. (We had to be spot on with our timing to leave the networks enough advertising time in each broadcast.) I was swamped with my regular job (making up for all the time I’d lost while away on location), so my boss hired two screenwriters to write some fill-in scenes. I was too busy to go to the set when they were shooting those scenes. Then I saw the finished product.

I had my screenwriter credit removed from the head credit roll. I couldn’t stomach what those brought in screenwriters had done to the original story – they’d created a new character who changed the story so much that I didn’t recognise it.

But it wasn’t all bad news. I proved to myself that I could write a marketable product. I learned how important it was to really know and understand the market, any market. I got to spend weeks in the Caribbean, all expenses paid. I learned from that experience that if I ever wrote anything else I would be the only person to write it – my name would only appear in front of my words, not someone else’s.

And I had something to add to any future query letters or resumes … “I wrote a screenplay that was produced and aired in the following markets: US, UK, France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, Japan, United Arab Emirates…”

That writing credit was what caught the eye of a literary agent after I finally did quit producing and had a manuscript to sell.

Next pothole? Learning that being signed on by an agent doesn’t automatically put you on a smooth highway. It took me over two years to find the exit ramp from the bumpy dead end road I’d turned onto.

Janet Forman