Sunday, September 27, 2020

Five Ways COVID Has Changed Professional Screenwriting

Dear Friends,

2020 has certainly posed its share of obstacles. That's putting it mildly, isn't it? Sometimes I have a gift for understatement. Put another way, this year is probably the biggest f@#*ing dumpster fire I've ever seen. Of course that doesn't mean there aren't silver linings to those storm clouds. There absolutely are if you know where to look.

COVID has naturally been a subject that's on the minds and lips of billions of people around the world, and many of us are wondering how and when it will finally subside. The pandemic has affected the entertainment industry far more dramatically than many other industries in part because large crowds work in such close proximity and that employees like actors or crew members are so transient (jumping from one show to the next).

But it's also affected those working more behind the scenes. Recently, I crafted a piece for Funds for Writers about ways the COVID reality has affected professional film and television writers specifically, which was just published this past Friday (9/25). You can find the article here:

https://fundsforwriters.com/five-ways-covid-has-changed-professional-screenwriting/

But I've also pasted it below for your convenience, as always! :)

For writers who haven't had to deal with this new normal yet, it may be a bit of an eye-opener. But note that the news is not all bad. Some of it's good. Some just different. But anything that can help you prepare is a good thing, right? Because as long as the dumpster fire is raging, you might as well toast some marshmallows.

Enjoy!

MH


Five Ways COVID Has Changed Professional Screenwriting

Mark Heidelberger / 2020-09-25

I know, I know. We’re all sick of talking about COVID. It’s the pandemic that just won’t go away. Unfortunately, that may be doubly true for the world of professional screenwriting. The impact of COVID has, for better or worse, changed much of Hollywood’s old reality, and many of those changes look to be with us, if not permanently, for a very long time. As a writer who plans to work in the industry for the foreseeable future, you’ll find it beneficial to understand how those changes – whether good, bad or ugly – affect you so that you can adapt.

A Virtual World

Hollywood was already slowly moving toward a new norm of virtual meetings and collaborations, but the pandemic accelerated a change that would have taken years into one that took weeks. Almost overnight, Zoom became the de facto choice for story pitches and development meetings. Recent screenwriting software like Final Draft 11, Fade In and WriterDuet began boasting quarantine-defying features like real-time collaboration, which allow multiple writers to edit the same script simultaneously from two different places. Some software, like Celtx, is completely cloud-based, allowing access no matter where you’re sheltering. And we’re not talking just on the development side. Many major film markets, from AFM to Cannes, have been holding virtual events that allow writers to “attend” without having to travel.

Representative Storylines

Executives are hungering for scripts that take our “new normal” into account. That’s not to say you should rush out a fresh screenplay centered on the pandemic. Rather it means incorporating elements like mask-wearing, social distancing or sheltering into storylines that may otherwise have nothing to do with the pandemic. Why? First, it makes the material feel timely and relevant. Second, it makes for more production-friendly content because it reduces crowd scenes, better protects on-camera talent (who can now wear masks on set), and otherwise creates safer, more contained filming environments.

The Cost of Insurance

Production insurance is not something a writer typically thinks about when crafting a screenplay, but right now, it should be. The cost of insuring a production against this new wave of liabilities has become prohibitively expensive for independent productions, meaning many of them cannot afford to start up. (Good luck producing anything without insurance!) Instead, big companies like Netflix, Amazon or Disney that can afford the increased cost or that can self-insure are the ones shooting now. By creating bigger budget, mainstream content that will appeal to them, you give yourself a better shot at getting something made.

Pilot Season’s Death Knell

Traditionally, TV pilot/staffing season occurred between February and April when networks filmed new shows that they wanted to try out during the fall. However, the advent of streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, which release new shows throughout the year, made the concept of pilot season feel antiquated. Then, the onslaught of COVID shut down production worldwide, and with no new shows for fall, the pilot season playbook was tossed altogether. Now, with major networks creating their own streaming platforms and adhering to old norms less and less, the pilot season looks to be on its last legs. What does that mean? New content will be in demand no matter the season, so pilots will get picked up all year round, giving writers more opportunities to sell.

New Safety Protocols

If you’re lucky enough to sell a script, be prepared for the new on-set safety protocols established by a consortium of studio, guild, and union committees. These rules include tri-weekly COVID testing prior to visiting the set, daily questionnaires and temperature checks, mandatory mask-wearing (especially around vulnerable populations like actors who may not be able to wear them), and monitors spaced out around the set rather than the traditional “video village” set-up. In addition, your production may be required to shut down should three or more individuals test positive for COVID within 14 days. Such delays in shooting may require script rewrites to address new budget concerns, lost locations and the like.

Resources

https://kb.finaldraft.com/s/article/Does-Final-Draft-offer-real-time-collaboration
https://www.fadeinpro.com/kb/content/1/117/en/how-does-realtime-collaboration-work.html
https://www.writerduet.com/
https://www.celtx.com/index.html

Saturday, July 25, 2020

How to Create and Pitch a Television Show

Hey All,

The downtime in Hollywood has afforded me some extra time to write in between client development projects. Most recently, Funds for Writers published my article, "How to Create and Pitch a Television Show." So for anyone out there who's just getting started in this world and needs some guidance on the proper steps to take, give the article a read. It can be found here: https://fundsforwriters.com/how-to-create-and-pitch-a-television-show/?hilite=%27Mark%27%2C%27Heidelberger%27 But I've also pasted it below for your convenience :)

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Cheerio!

Mark


How to Create and Pitch a Television Show

Mark Heidelberger / 2020-07-17

Series programming continues to be a desirable source of content for buyers around the world, even as the entertainment landscape shifts and evolves. And the proliferation of newer platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others means more places for writers to pitch their shows. In the marketplace of ideas, a good one will rise to the top. The key is knowing how to develop and present that idea like a pro. For beginners out there with a million-dollar idea, here are the most important steps in the process:

Work Out the Concept
Flesh out your idea with a logline. This is a simple one- or two-sentence description of what your show is about. Consider whether the idea is truly original and what would make viewers want to tune in. Think about who the audience would be, the length of each episode (half or full hour?), which networks would air it and in what time slot. Then solicit feedback from people you trust. That could be members of a writers’ group, industry colleagues or really honest friends.
Develop the Story
If the idea passes muster with your test group, it’s time to jump into the development process. Come up with a strong title for the show and write out a synopsis of the entire series. Figure out who your characters are, what they want and what obstacles are keeping them from getting what they want. Make sure it feels unique but marketable and that the storyline can be extended for a full season (or multiple seasons). It’s not a movie; the pilot should be a catalyst for future episodes.
Write the Pilot
The pilot script is critical to your pitch because it gives executives a strong idea of a) what your show is about; b) the feel and tone of the show; c) your writing style; and d) how their audience will respond to it. Make sure structure, format and length are correct for whatever type of show it is, whether a one-hour cable drama or a 30-minute sitcom. (There are plenty of books and online resources that can offer guidance here.) Again, solicit feedback from trusted sources and rewrite as necessary.
Create a Series Mini Bible
A mini bible gives a sweeping view of your series from top to bottom. First, it should include the title, logline and synopsis. It should also feature a breakdown of the show’s main characters, including they’re goals, flaws, quirks and motivations. After that, have a synopsis of the pilot episode followed by a list of all episodes for the first season, including a short description of what happens in each one so executives can see where your show’s headed. And feel free to spice it up with photos and illustrations throughout.
Practice Your Pitch
Most pitch sessions only last 20 to 30 minutes, so you need to be able to pitch your show cogently and coherently in a shorter window than that since you want to leave time for the executive to ask questions. Remember, you’re not just pitching the plot, but the larger concept – what the show is really about and the message you’re trying to share with the audience. Practice pitching to a member of your trusted circle, get feedback, and revise.
Show It to the World
You’ll need an agent or manager to send out your pilot script to networks and then set up pitch meetings based on the strength of the response. (See my article on ways to get an agent if you don’t already have one: https://fundsforwriters.com/five-ways-aspiring-screenwriters-can-get-an-agents-attention/.) Research the networks you get meetings with so you can tailor a pitch on why your show is specifically right for them. In the room, be energetic and passionate about the show. Because if you’re not, why should they be? And bring a brief one-sheet that includes your name and contact info along with key elements of the pitch (genre, logline, synopsis, messaging, your bio) to leave with the executives as a way to remember you.
Additional Tip
Make sure to register your materials for copyright protection with the Library of Congress before submitting them to third parties (https://eco.copyright.gov/).
Further Reading

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Which Screenwriting Genres Sell… And Which Ones Don’t?

Hope everyone is staying safe and healthy, avoiding the virus, dodging the protests and starting to get back to work! Proud to share with you guys my latest article that Writers Weekly just published about top-selling screenplay genres versus the genres that are harder to sell, and why. Check it out...

Which Screenwriting Genres Sell…and Which Ones Don’t?

Which Screenwriting Genres Sell…and Which Ones Don’t? – by Mark Heidelberger
Effective screenwriting features many challenges, not least of all the creation of compelling storylines, engaging characters, and relevant themes. But, the savvy screenwriter also has to consider what makes a film marketable and, by extension, valuable to a distributor. Among the most important of those considerations is genre. To be clear, not all genres are created equal. Several have a much better track record of selling well in the modern marketplace than others.
Here’s a rundown of the best and worst screenplay genres, according to global buyer interest, along with a brief examination of why. First, the best.
Broad Action
Shoot-em-ups, car chases, explosions, daredevil stunts – all of these things elicit the same thrill from audiences everywhere, regardless of country, because there are no language or cultural barriers that prevent comprehension. In addition, higher production costs for action has left a dearth in the low-budget marketplace, thereby increasing demand.
Disaster
Films that focus on large-scale catastrophes have proven to be box office gold. The calamity can be natural (earthquakes, floods, etc.) or man-made; local or global; and rooted in drama, science fiction or even the supernatural. The draw is based on movie-goers’ attraction to spectacle and the high cost of visual effects makes the genre similarly rare.
Children’s Films
G-rated movies are accessible to the widest audience pool, and often attract families with young kids. Parents don’t have to be concerned about inappropriate content, and often purchase rather than rent because they expect to watch these films multiple times. Stories with kids or animals in lead roles have the greatest appeal as they prove most relatable to tykes.
Faith
Christian films have an enormous and underserved audience craving content that focuses on moral, God-centered messages. Faith is often overlooked in favor of “sexier” genres but viewer loyalty, low budget requirements, and scant marketplace competition create a perfect storm for profitability.
Femme Thrillers
The American cable TV market has fortified the demand for thrillers with female leads, also known as “women-in-peril” films, but this demand has expanded overseas as well. Female audiences are a significant driver of box office revenues, and yearn to see strong women in roles that task them with overcoming domineering male figures. And, like action, thrills translate well across territories.
Rom Coms
The universality of romantic relationships increases global interest in this genre but, since female audiences also drive these films, distributors seek stories with female leads, or those told from a woman’s point of view. Relatable protagonists and attractive male conquests satisfy a sense of wish fulfillment in viewers.
On the flip side, distributors tend to shy away from certain genres for a number of reasons. Some of the most prominent examples might be surprising.
Broad Drama
Dramas typically require a strong hook (i.e., based on an interesting real-life person) and an expensive A-list cast to generate box office heat. Moreover, most foreign markets boast their own local film industry that produces films with local stars catering to local audiences, making for excessive competition.
Period
Stories occurring in some historical time and place often require large amounts of cash to properly capture the period, many of which do not hold much appeal to general audiences, And, like dramas, they often need big names to generate interest, creating an unacceptable risk/reward profile to most buyers.
Broad Comedy
The subjectivity of comedy means it’s unlikely to properly translate across territories. Jokes and gags are often based on cultural references so what’s funny to audiences in one country is unlikely to be funny to audiences in another.
Dark Comedy
By extension, dark comedies are even more of a challenge to market than broad comedies because they’re rooted in dramatic irony, tragic endings, and a variety of narrative subtleties that make them far less accessible to broad audiences.
Western
If there was one distinctly American genre, it would have to be the American Western. But, with that badge of honor comes the downside – a genre rooted in historical and cultural references that don’t mean much to audiences outside the U.S.
Horror
Many indie filmmakers turn to low-budget horror as an access point to the film industry.  But, it’s exactly that reason that the marketplace has been flooded with horror flicks, making them far less desirable to distributors. Additionally, name actors often avoid this genre for fear of being stigmatized.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Mark's Little Corner - May 9, 2020

As we roll toward summer, with hopeful signs that the economy will reopen soon, I find myself performing a lot of script development and budgeting work for clients. Actually, my life hasn't changed all that much from the way it was before the whole COVID thing happened. Still sitting at my desk 90% of the workday going through emails, rolling calls, reading material, typing notes, running numbers and finding creative ways to push projects toward the starting line. It's more the social component of life that's been tempered. So, while I await the director's cut for "The Inheritance," I have a number of other promising projects for fall, including a horror to shoot in Oklahoma, a coming-of-age drama from a producer in San Fran, and a sci-fi pilot from a couple writer-producers in NYC. I expect that when Hollywood gets back on its feet, there will be a flood of work, but we'll also have to get used to some new ways of doing things. 2020 looks to be a pivotal year in the world of entertainment, although we won't really know just how much until the fall. In the meantime, just keep getting those projects in shape while you have the time!



Tuesday, March 31, 2020

As we wrap up the first quarter of 2020, sheltered in place and self-quarantined from the outside world, I find myself pondering not only what's happened but what the road ahead looks like. First, I can safely say the year has been anything but boring. Between Kobe, COVID-19, election-year politics, and a tumultuous roller coaster of a ride producing "The Inheritance," there have been many things to cry, yell or shake my head about.

But I try to remember that we humans are nothing if not resilient. We're capable of finding optimism and hope even in the most desperate of times. The silver lining of tragic events is that it brings us closer to one another (or should) -- working, fighting, praying and rebuilding as a team the way humans are wont to do.

We can look upon this era of solitude and isolation as a time for retrospect and self-examination. To think about who we are as individuals and what we really want to accomplish with the time we have here on this little blue marble. Moreover, we can use it as a time to be productive. Writers in particular have lots of time to work on their latest opuses, perfecting and fine-tuning so that their material is in ready shape for when Hollywood opens its collective doors again.

In the meantime, to help spur both the incentive and imagination of screenwriters out there struggling with where to start, I've pasted below my latest published article about the best-selling screenplay genres, which was recently published on FundsforWriters.com. So try to look on the bright side of things -- this time was set aside for you (and you alone) to create something great. Enjoy the read.

What Are the Best-Selling Screenplay Genres?

Mark Heidelberger / 2020-03-09
As a screenwriter, working out the crux of your story is a daunting enough task, but let’s rewind even further. How do you determine what genre to work in? After all, this is a crucial component to creating material that Hollywood wants to buy, right? So, how do you know which genres have the best chance of selling? There isn’t some magical way to access this mysterious information, is there? Surely, the film gods keep such knowledge under lock and key!
Actually, there’s good news: this info not only exists, it’s readily accessible if you know where to look. (Drum roll, please.) Ask a sales agent. They deal with film buyers around the world every day and can pass on valuable insights regarding what’s selling and what’s not. You can approach sales agents at film seminars and conferences, during festivals or markets like AFM (American Film Market), via personal contacts, or if all else fails, by cold calling with a plea for guidance. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of Hollywood sales agents.

Below are six genres that, according to a prominent sales agent I know, have consistently attracted buyers, and with no signs of abating.
Gender-Neutral Action
Action films have a long, battle-tested history of selling well around the world, regardless of territory. Why? Because unlike drama or comedy, action faces no language or cultural barriers. While something that’s funny in the US may not translate in India or Spain or Japan, explosions and car chases elicit the same thrill everywhere. Gender-neutral simply means the story is broad enough to attract both men and women. Think Fast & Furious or Terminator. Oh, and avoid straight martial arts stuff, which is too oversaturated in the market due to its lower budget requirements.
Female-Driven Thriller
The woman-in-peril sub-genre of thriller has generated reliable interest in the television and home entertainment markets thanks to female audiences hungry for strong, relatable women overcoming insurmountable odds, often against an otherwise dominant masculine figure. Enough or Sleeping with the Enemy are prime examples. Lifetime really popularized this type of story with a steady stream of weekly movies that have proven to be ratings gold.
Kids & Animals
W.C. Fields gave birth to the infamous Hollywood trope, “Never work with children or animals.” But as a screenwriter, live-action family films with an adventurous group of young tots or a couple of frisky felines could be a bullseye with a distributor. especially if the animals talk. (Yes, I’m serious.) Think The Sandlot or the Air Bud franchise. It’s the type of G-rated fun parents can show their seven-year-olds without having to do “earmuffs” every five minutes. Moreover, parents tend to spend the extra dough buying rather than renting these films because they expect to watch them over and over.
Disaster
Disaster films have been exciting audiences for decades, reaching a high-water mark in the 1970s with titles like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Such stories can be more global in nature like 2012 or local like Dante’s Peak. They can be natural like The Day After Tomorrow or supernatural like Independence Day. And they can skew more dramatic like Deep Impact or be action-oriented like Armageddon. The common thread is simply a larger-than-life existential threat to a defined population.
Female POV Rom-Com

Romantic comedies are perhaps the most successful form of comedy film globally since relationships are universal, making the storylines (and laughs) more accessible to foreign audiences. However, it’s critical to maintain a female point-of-view for greater marketability since the ladies drive this genre’s box office. Think Pretty Woman or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Buyers point to exit polling data that show women are more likely to invest their time in a story with a relatable protagonist. In other words, it’s something that could happen to them!
Faith-Based
Many distributors note that this heavily overlooked genre is among the most profitable due to the fact that such films have rabidly loyal audiences, little marketplace competition, and can often be produced for extremely low budgets. Films like Fireproof and God’s Not Dead generated gross revenues that multiplied their production costs many times over and, in the latter’s case, spawned a couple of sequels that were equally successful. Such films don’t have to be overtly religious as long as they’re centered around a moral or message rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dear 2020,

Nice to meet you. We haven't met before, but I'm hopeful that our new relationship will prove to be a fruitful one. I have high expectations for you, I'll be honest. I'm starting our collaboration off strong, with a brand new feature film I'm producing called The Inheritance, which starts shooting on February 5th. The story is about a crew of hoodlums who decide to rob two rich Chinese brothers who are inheriting a large corporation from their deceased father. It's set in New York, but we're shooting the primary unit in Los Angeles. Right after principal photography ends, I expect to start working on a new development project with my old buddy. Lloyd Barnett, who directed Ninja Apocalypse for me. I also have high hopes for Walking on Palmettos, the epic drama about drug smuggler Myles Richards, particularly after attaching Josh Lucas to the antagonist role and officially securing the support of Screen Queensland. Yes, 2020, you sure look to be a promising year. So don't let me down, and I'll try not to let you down either. Let's make this one for the record books. Talk soon!

Mark

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Dear Film Friends,

I often get asked by screenwriters about best practices for working with a film producer or literary manager -- I've served as the former for nearly two decades and was the latter for eight years in a previous life. With so much interest in this subject, I decided to write an article on the topic, which Funds for Writers recently published on their website. As such, I thought I would also include it here on my blog for those who might have missed it. I hope it provides all you up-and-coming writers with some real insights as you work your way up the Hollywood ladder.

Cheers,

Mark


Best Practices for Working with a Producer,
Agent or Manager in Film & TV

By Mark Heidelberger

Producers. Agents. Managers. Oh my! As a writer looking to make a living in the world of entertainment, these sometimes enigmatic creatures will be an integral part of your journey from unproduced novice to sought-after scribe du jour. Learning to work with them in a way that proves mutually beneficial means creating a winning environment for both sides, creatively and economically. (That’s why we call it “show business” and not “show show.”) And while no step-by-step guidebook exists for doing this because no two individuals are alike, I can suggest a handful of best practices that neophyte writers should keep in mind as they find themselves seeking these useful and often necessary allies.

First off, let’s clarify some basic definitions of each role so we know exactly who we’re talking about.

Producer – The chief visionary of a production who hires a writer to create a story or buys and develops her already written story with the ultimate intention of filming it for mass consumption.

Agent – A commission-based representative who is solely responsible for seeking out and procuring work for the writer or selling the writer’s material.

Manager – A commission-based representative who is tasked with guiding a writer’s career choices, developing her work for presentation to producers, coordinating her other representatives such as agents and lawyers, and facilitating opportunities, but not actively selling the work as an agent would.

Collectively, we’ll call them PAMs.

Get a Referral

Not only do most PAMs dislike being pitched without an invitation, especially by a stranger, they flat out refuse to even read or listen. Such pitching is called unsolicited and it’s frowned upon, not only because most PAMs are already inundated with material, but because it’s a legal liability. Hollywood is a relationship town, plain and simple, so getting a referral from someone the PAMs already know and trust is a universally accepted method for soliciting their attention.

Be Clear on the Deal Terms

PAMs who recognize your talent and want to work with you can feel rewarding, but don’t let that excitement cloud your judgment. Negotiate terms you can live with, get it in writing and have those terms reviewed by an expert who can verify that they are, at minimum, in line with industry standards. If the terms are not satisfactory to you, don’t be afraid to walk away. Anyone offering you terms outside of industry standards probably aren’t legitimate anyway.

Trust the Process

Respected PAMs achieved their status through years of experience, and while their methods may at times seem unconventional, trust that they bring knowledge of the industry that has been, until now, obscured from you. This isn’t to suggest you take a passive approach, but simply to accept guidance from those who have been around the business far longer than you.

Communication is King

Create a fluid system of communication from the outset. Establish the best method of contact, a regular schedule for corresponding, and what the goal of your collaboration will be. Clarify on a regular basis what you expect from your representative or what the producer expects from you. Moreover, respect their time and skill just as you want yours respected. Stand up for yourself without being combative. And pick your battles carefully.

Manage Expectations

Entertainment is one of the most competitive career landscapes in the world. “Overnight success” stories never happen overnight; they’re the result of years of unseen toiling in trenches. Accept the fact that you’ll always have to do a lot of legwork yourself, even with a PAM in your corner, and that most projects still never see the light of day. Failure is part of the process. That said, getting one in every 10 projects made means you’re a success even by jaded Hollywood standards.

Have an Exit Strategy

Sometimes your relationship with a PAM will go south, perhaps over creative differences, personality clashes, egos, money, whatever. Keep this in mind from the beginning and always make sure you have a contractual way out if the relationship sours. The worst position is to be stuck with a PAM who’s a drain instead of a buoy for your creative talent.