(Part 3 of 3 in Series of Articles on “Adventures in Writing Animation”)
We have all heard the news: Animation is Big Business. Andersen Consulting predicts the Indian animation industry to grow from $550 million to $15 billion by 2008 and Nasscom estimates the worldwide market to climb from $45 billion to as high as $70 billion by the end of this year. This means wonderful opportunities for animation screenwriters.
To best take advantage of those opportunities script writers need to understand the business. It is tough and highly competitive. I cannot count how many times I have heard, “I’m writing a screenplay.” To differentiate yourself from the crowd you require the knowledge and tools that will show others that you are a professional. This is important because animation is expensive and successful companies are looking for writers who can really deliver.
Many of you will think this does not apply to you because you are interested in writing short films that you want to make by yourselves, with a group of friends or at the company where you work, but not considering business, and specifically the market, could mean the difference between making a film that is seen only by friends and family, and one that earns you recognition, job advancement and possibly income. I am not suggesting that you give up on your artistic vision or ideas about breaking established rules and blazing new trails. As I have written earlier, “Great writing comes from passion,’so be true to your heart, but if you take the time to understand the business you will make educated and calculated decisions that could help you as an artist and a professional.
Types of Screenwriting
When it comes to business there are three basic types of writing: pitches, spec scripts and assignments. Pitches are your own ideas for scripts that you want to try to get others interested in. The “spec” in “spec script” means speculative. These are scripts that you write on your own with the intention of finishing and then trying to sell them.
Assignments are where you are hired for a specific job often when story and character have already been established. Usually to get an assignment you have to have proven yourself writing your own scripts. This is one reason why you need to take a professional approach to writing and making your own films. They become your calling cards and could startyour career as screenwriter for hire.
With all three types it is important to understand “the market.” Researching trends in what is currently successful will help you take your own vision and groom it to the appropriate market. Considering demographics, trends in education, suitable age ranges, popular visual techniques, prevalent story themes and more will give you an extra advantage. Not too many years ago this kind of research was difficult,but now with the internet there is no excuse not to study the climate so you come outshining.
Scriptwriting is a long and arduous process. For that reason many writers choose to pitch their ideas instead of writing a complete screenplay. Pitches can be as simple as the Hollywood high concept one sentence pitch to a detailed treatment of twenty pages. An example of former could be, “When fairy tale creatures invade his swamp an ogre with a heart of gold goes on a quest to save a princess finding friendship and love along the way.” A slightly longer version of this is called the “elevator pitch” which means you need to sell your idea in the time it takes for a short elevator ride. So, get to the point…quick. What is helpful about this kind of pitching is that it forces you as a writer to concentrate on the key elements of your story. If you cannot summarize the essence of your main character and their quest then you probably have not thought through your story clearly enough
Treatments are prose descriptions of your characters and plot told with an active voice in the present tense. This is a useful format to help “sell” someone on your idea. Here is the opening paragraph from a treatment for a script of mine called We Crazy:
It’s a beautiful summer day in a quiet section of San Francisco. Through a chain link fence we see three intense, violent looking men each guarded by a muscular hospital attendant dressed in white. A voice bellows over a loud speaker, “Group A in. Group B to the breathing area.” The three men from Group A go into the white three-story building and we see the sign, “PAGE Labs and Hospital.” Group B comes out consisting of four men and a woman, followed by two Attendants.
When I am preparing pitches I tend to create four summaries of varying lengths. They are:
1. A one sentence pitch – includes protagonist, their dramatic need and suggests the ending.
2. A one paragraph pitch – includes the above plus the antagonist, how they try to foil the protagonist and key details of the plot.
3. A two to three page treatment – includes main characters, setup, plot points, key action and ending.
4. A ten to twenty page treatment – which summarizes the entire script with at least a paragraph for every sequence of the film.
Treatments, like outlines, are also tools for story development and scriptwriting. They will help you clearly define the action of your script and see the entire project in condensed form. On the business side they are important because directors and producers, as well as the people they employ to consider submissions, are extremely busy. They want to find out if they are interested in an idea as quickly as possible. If you know your story and have clearly written these materials then you will be prepared for every opportunity.
The best way to prove yourself, as well as improve your skills, as a screenwriter is to write scripts. Having ideas is great, but being able to take the seed and bring it to blossom means dealing with the details and hard work of writing, re¬writing and polishing a final script. If you are a new screenwriter you will find it difficult to convince a company to hire you based on a concept no matter how creative. Writing your own spec scripts will give you both samples showing your ability to finish a screenplay and the possibility of selling your completed work.
As I have discussed in the previous two articles new writers can start with short scripts to more easily demonstrate their talents. Short form allows you to practice plot and character development, establishing beginning, middle and end, as well as vital essentials like dialogue, gags, etc. Still, if you want to write feature length animation at some point you will need to write a feature length script. Whether your scripts are short or long make sure the writing is polished and professionally presented before you start showing it to production companies.
There are two big difficulties with assignments: getting them and doing them. Most assignments come after you have successfully proven yourself either by writing, sometimes in different mediums, or by making your own films. In the US we have an agent system that provides writers with both business contacts and editorial advice. Since there are few “literary” agents in India you will have to develop your own contacts. This is difficult work and not necessarily easy for the writer with an “artistic” temperament.
The good news is that this is another area where the internet has made the writer’s job easier. You need to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry. Faithfully reading websites like AnimationXpress.com and CgTantra.com will help you understand what Indian companies are doing and how your ideas and/or skills might fit into their plans. Keeping abreast of the world scene with the Animation World Network (awn.com) and many of the other animation industry sites will help you integrate your ideas into worldwidetrends.
When you find a possible opportunity do some research. Look up the company, the principals and understand their past work and future plans. The better prepared you are the more likely you will be to impress people when you finally meet them. When you are ready, make sure you understand who to contact, then make the call or send an e-mail being direct, getting to the point quickly, confident, but not egotistical and ready to accept rejection with grace.
Once you get an assignment the key is being creative while understanding that such projects are collaborative and often full of compromises. Writers who think their way is the only way generally find themselves unhappy and out of work. Being a pleasant collaborative partner will help the flow of creativity and get projects done. Doing so will help you build both your reputation and writing portfolio which can put you in a position with more independence and creative controloffutureprojects.
Protecting Your Work
New writers often spend so much time worrying that their stories will be stolen that they never show them to anyone. Of course there is always the possibility that the unscrupulous will appropriate your masterful idea, but if you take the time to protect yourself you will sleep easier at night. In India the best way is to join the Indian Film writers Association, Anderi West, Mumbai (fwaindia.com) and then register your treatments or scripts with them. Check out theirwebsitefordetails.
You can register scripts online with the Writers Guild of America (wgawregistry.org) even if you are not a member. It costs $20 per script for five years of protection which can then be renewed. There are other online registries you can find if you search the web, but the WGA is the oldest and most established serviceof this type.
An old trick I have used is to send a copy of a finished script to myself by registered post. I make sure I have put the name of the script somewhere on the envelope and sign across the sealed flap to show it has not been open. I have a box of sealed envelopes safely stored as proof that the screenplays were created before the postmarked date.
Keeping it Legal
The entertainment business is complicated. Getting proper legal advice is important when negotiating contracts for selling your script, writing assignments or licensing a film you have made. Many skip this step of the process and regret it when their hard work is making other people rich. That is not to say that as a new writer you should expect to share in the profits of a film, but you should take the time and pay the price to make sure you get paid for your work The advice of an attorney who works in the entertainment business is best, but someone with contract law specialization will suffice. You can also consult books like Mark Litwak’s “Contracts for the Film and Television Industry” and “Dealmaking for the Film and Television Industry.” Both are readily available in India. You can also look for advice from one of the many “Lawyers for the Arts-organizations, but keep in the mind that there are key legal differencesbetweencountries.
Getting Down to Business
As a writer, and possibly a filmmaker, you need to reach out to both your peers and the world in general. This has never been easier. Joining writers group, both in your area or online, is something you need to do when you start working on a script and not after it is completed. Try to get honest opinions. If you are only open to people saying you have written a masterpiece then you will not improve as a writer. Keep an open mind and be ready to discuss new ideas so you can perfectyour script.
If you have written and then produced your own animated films get out there and publicize your work. YouTube, networking sites like Orkut, MySpace and Facebook, and having your own website or blog are some of the best ways to spread the word. Do not be shy. You are an entertainer and like the song says, “there’s no business like show business.”
(This is just a small list. Search, ask your friends, post to forums to find the information you are looking for.)
|Animation World Network||www.awn.com|
|Indian Film Writers Assoc.||www.fwaindia.com|
|Writers Guild of America||www.wgawregistry.org|
|Script Writers Network||www.scriptwritersnetwork.org|