Part II: My Big Move - From Visual Effects to Screenwriting

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Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today, Part II of Lyse Beck’s exclusive series: "My Big Move - From Visual Effects to Screenwriting".

Click here to read Part I

I wrote an adaptation of Cinderella when I was six. In my version, complete with illustrations, she had a dog and rescued the prince.

Although I’ve loved my career in VFX, my efforts have been shifting from VFX to my biggest passion; screenwriting. A friend said that working in VFX has probably helped my sci-fi writing specifically. She’s right. I’ve been privy to the leading edge of digital technology for a while. It removes limits on what’s possible and sparks my imagination for what’s ahead, and how it will affect us. This is my fascination.

I started my first screenplay in 1999. I’d been in VFX for 8 years, and I was producing a fully animated feature in Hawaii at the time. It was a heaven and hell experience. Hawaii was the heaven part. When I quit that gig in 2000, I took a 5-week trip to Santorini, Greece to write and recuperate. The romantic notion of becoming a writer, living in some exotic, isolated place is still alive and well in me. I wrote purely for the love of writing. I wasn’t ready for the business of screenwriting.

I upped my game in 2009. I was living in New Zealand, so my resources were online. I got involved with anything I could learn from. Inktip, newsletters, blogs… John August, Wordplayer (I printed out 300 pages of columns and got a binder full of killer info.) I started my own blog about my writing adventures. I got a gig as a “writer-for-hire-on-spec” with an LA production company via Inktip. Although I didn’t get paid for the 5 scripts I wrote for them (payment upon 1st day of principle photography which didn’t happen), James Manos Jr was a consultant for them. He’s a scary dude, but I learned a ton. One of the biggest lessons he taught me was “to know why I HAD to tell this story.” Great stuff. Would I do it again? Hell no. Do I regret it? Hell no.

A few years ago, I decided it was time to grab my dream by the balls. I only had two completed scripts that I would admit to. Time was always an issue. I was making jewelry, learning web design, in a sculpting class as well as writing, and of course working full time. I had a bit of a “moment” one night, and cried to my husband, “I can’t do it all anymore.” And he laughed and said, “No one’s asking you to. Pick one.” Oh. It was so obvious. Writing. I quit all my other hobbies. Having that singular focus was the best thing I could have done. As always, my husband’s logic is always perfect in its simplicity.

I took a 6-month intensive online course at ScreenwritingU, which was a huge leap in my education. The information was incredibly practical and solid gold. I met some people in that class that have become my core writer group. We give each other support, feedback and anything else needed. I love these guys, and would be lost without them. I think, for a writer’s growth and sanity, it is critical to have a solid support network of writer friends. I feel incredibly blessed with that.

I wrote two new scripts, rewrote the old two and entered competitions in earnest. That’s right. I like comps. My feeling is it’s an amateur’s way to get a glimpse into the professional’s arena. Does that mean if you win you’ll get your movie made? No. (Although some comps have that as a prize) It doesn’t even guarantee you’ll get repped. (But you could.) There’s also a chance you’ll get a bad reader. That’s the business. Although I bet that “bad readers” get a lot of blame for what’s really just a bad script. I’ve learned to evaluate the feedback after the sting wears off, which could take days, for the purpose of improving my script. Which to me is what the comps are about. Improving my scripts. You don’t have to win to get the benefit of that.

I read a fantastic book called “Good in a Room” (thanks Stephanie!) which highlighted my biggest fear; pitching. The thought of it made me want to barf. Seriously. I knew I had to overcome this, and I had about a year before I would be ready to pitch anything, so I joined Toastmasters; an international group that helps overcome the fear of public speaking. I went from barely able to breathe in my first speech, to actually enjoying it a year later. Fabulous organization.

I submitted scripts to various consultants. I was rewriting like crazy. I felt like I was having breakthroughs every other week. The thing is, someone can tell you to “kill your darlings” but until you have to actually kill one, you have no idea what that means. I listen to that little voice that whispers, “Something’s not right” and suck it up and rewrite. But at the same time, not let my perfectionism cripple me. This is another favor the VFX industry did me. I’m used to submitting my work for feedback and being crushed by a book of notes that I then have to decipher. I’m used to working through problems on a deadline, and pushing forward even if I feel like the only solution is to smash my computer and become a librarian. In a creative endeavor, you only stop working on something because you run out of time or there’s something else more important to do.

When The Production Arts Group started, I immediately signed up. They interview managers, whom you can pitch to. I learned what managers wanted in a query, what a logline should be, what scripts they were looking for and why. Golden information. I e-pitched to all their guest managers. Although I never got representation, for the first time, I knew the difference between a manager and an agent. I got fantastic feedback on my stories from a few managers, just from my pitch. That was a shocker. They knew what was wrong with my script from my logline. Note to self: Write and test out loglines before spending a colossal effort on a script no one will read. It’s key to know what’s marketable and what genres are favored. Tracking boards are good for that. This one’s free.

Last year was a good year for me. I had rewritten the stuffing out of all of my scripts and entered a lot of comps. The three comps that made the biggest difference for me are PAGE, Nicholls and The Happy Writers. Joey from The Happy Writers encouraged me to do their Skype pitches, and I became a pitching fanatic. I got enough read requests from doing well in the comps and the pitch sessions that I had to start a spreadsheet. The pitch sessions taught me to:

  • Know my story inside out, and have a polished, hooky pitch.
  • Have a dream cast and director sussed out before I pitch. It’s not to suggest whom to actually cast, it’s to help set a tone for my story.
  • Know my story’s specific target audience and tone. Make sure my pitch and story reflect this. (sounds obvious, but…)
  • Have an interesting tale ready about how I came up with the idea.
  • Know about branding myself before pitching to a manager. Know my favorite genre, even though I have scripts in other genres. They want to know how they’d sell me.
  • Never balk at the suggestion of a rewrite. That’s the business.

From winning THW contest last year I went to LA where Joey set up meetings for me with managers and producers. I made great contacts. Joey continues to get my scripts traction. He’s been a total game-changer for me and has forced me to become a better writer. He’s a unique combination of a brilliant story analyst, an incredible advocate and the sweetest guy ever. Joey’s become family to me and how often can you say that about someone that started as your consultant?

While I was in LA, I also met with some other contacts I’d made, including a manager, John Ferraro. I’d met him through the judge at PAGE after my 3rd place win. John read several of my scripts, and we set up a meeting for when I was in town. After our second awesome meeting, John offered to become my manager. I was so excited I jumped up and hugged him. I’ve learned so much from John, from our first potential option negotiation to what I should write next, and how to make it more marketable. John’s got so much experience, and he’s a great strategizer. It’s made a massive difference having John in my corner, sending out my scripts and giving me advice. Huge.

I still do my own marketing too. My favorite hang out is Stage 32. I know it’s a place to make deals, but I love it for the social aspect. I’ve made some amazing pals here. One brilliant writer (Mike, I’m looking at you!) asked to exchange sci-fi scripts, and we’ve been great friends and mutual supporters ever since. I’ve connected with some awesome people and even had some script requests. Wicked cool place 

The Big Question. Have I sold something yet? No. But I’m closer today than I was yesterday, and not as close as I’ll be tomorrow. I’m still grateful for my day-job. But there’s lots on the go. Development deals, interested parties, producers reading. My scripts are getting traction, as they say. I have high hopes with low expectations. I’m working my ass off and having a blast.

Side note: IMHO… If you’re not getting traction on your scripts, then there are four actions worth looking into.

  1. Revise your marketing material.
  2. Revise your script.
  3. Revise your attitude.
  4. Make your movie yourself.

(But bitching about it all the time is just boring. Sorry.)

A quick word about money. Yes, I’ve spent some coin on my writing education. But I’d have paid much more for a law degree. Writing is my next chosen career. The cost of my education was well worth it.

I’ll also say that for me, it’s not about who you know. The few times I asked friends for favors in sending my scripts out, I felt weird, and nothing came of it. I decided that’s not how I wanted to go about this. I met new people who help me because of my writing, not because of our friendship 

I also am proceeding with the notion that you don’t have to live in LA to work in Hollywood. It’s a digital world. Sure, nothing beats a face to face; but there’s Skype and airplanes. I’m looking forward to the day I can live in some exotic, isolated place that has an Internet connection, and write for a living.

Finally, I firmly believe that there are as many ways to make it as a screenwriter as there are people trying. Everyone has a unique path. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. That’s only for you to decide. Write a lot. Trust your path. Onward and upward. 

In honor of Lyse's kind words about Happy Writers, they have agreed to extend this special offer for Stage 32 members for until August 15th (50% off all services). In the last week alone The Happy Writers helped 3 writers find representation, including to management powerhouse Benderspink! With contacts to over 250 executives, The Happy Writers has been an integral part of writers getting traction in their careers. 

Lyse is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below.

RB's Weekend Reading (and viewing) - August 10th, 2013
Part I: My Big Move - From Visual Effects to Screenwriting
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