Advice for Screenwriters from an Award-Winning Producer & Repped Screenwriter

Advice for Screenwriters from an Award-Winning Producer & Repped Screenwriter

Advice for Screenwriters from an Award-Winning Producer & Repped Screenwriter

Shaun O'Banion
Shaun O'Banion
2 years ago

Hello Screenwriters.

My name is Shaun. I am a Stage 32 Exec, Gotham Award-winning independent film producer, member of the Producers Guild of America, Repped Screenwriter, Script Consultant and educator.

I've been in the film and television industry for 28 years and producing for 14 of those years. In that time I have been privileged to work with and learn from some of the greatest filmmakers and performers in our industry - from James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Judd Apatow to Joe Wright and Peter Hedges. From Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken and Ben Stiller to Courteney Cox and Jack Black.

As a writer, I have pitched everyone from Imagine Entertainment, Chernin and Temple Hill to Macro, Scrap Paper Pics, Keshet and Warner Brothers.

Just wanted to provide a few of my bonafides before I share what I'm going to share... and I should say up front, if you don't like what you read here, "don't @ me." I'm trying to help... in my typical, brutally honest style. As a writer, I know the value of a straight-forward, honest assessment.

After a number of interactions recently with writers both through my consulting page on my personal website and through Stage 32 I thought I would offer some free advice here to get you started off on the right foot.

Advice for Screenwriters from an AwardWinning Producer  Repped Screenwriter

So here goes:

You have to think of the interactions here on Stage 32 (and out in the world) as more than just a one-off consult on your material. It's like with actors and casting sessions... You're never just auditioning for the role you've been brought in on. The session is an opportunity for an actor to display some personality for the casting director or assistant so that, if you're not right for that particular role, you might be brought in for something else in the future.

So too with Stage 32 and writers. It's not merely a conversation about your script or pitch deck. It's a sample the Exec can keep in mind for the future. And booking a consult gives the Exec a sense of not just your writing, but of you as a person. Are you receptive to notes and feedback or is it all kind of litigating your "why this, why that”?

I get it, as a new writer it can be hard to take a note... it can all feel very personal… And it is! After all, this is your heart and soul poured out on the page (or computer screen), but know that the notes are not a definitive statement on your skill or ability. Well, ok, sometimes they are (he says with a laugh).

In all seriousness though, skill and ability come with time like anything else. And if you don't believe that writing is a skill that can be learned, you are sorely mistaken in my opinion. Writing can absolutely be improved by practice. I read things I wrote as a baby writer and, man, they're just... not good. At all. But if I read the stuff I’ve written over a period of years, there is notable progression. There is absolute improvement. I still have a long way to go and I may never be great, but I will continue to improve - and so will you if you keep at it.

All writers know the art and craft of writing IS RE-WRITING. It's in the subsequent drafts and polishes that your material begins to improve. Now maybe you actually are one of those people who can write a shootable draft in a week... I can't. And I've never met anyone who can, but if that's you, well done! Your only hurdle is getting read.

Advice for Screenwriters from an AwardWinning Producer  Repped Screenwriter

So, all of that said, here is the point I wanted to get to…

This website (Stage 32) provides you with extraordinary access to people with a lot of experience and connections. If they are on here offering that expertise, it is, with rare exception, because they (we) genuinely want to help guide writers and others to help people get a foothold in the industry. To pass on what we’ve learned. That access could lead to you getting repped or your material optioned or purchased.... or to your being considered for an OWA in the future. So you need to treat those opportunities as such and put your best foot (script/deck) forward.

That starts with being professional in terms of what you submit.

While I (and the other Execs on this site) realize that we may come into contact with writers at all levels, there is simply no excuse for submitting a draft that is littered with formatting and grammar issues. It’s 2022!

We all have spell-check. And there are free screenwriting programs that will handle all of the formatting for you!

At the very least you should proofread your draft before sending anywhere. Anything less smacks of unprofessionalism or worse, just plain old laziness. If I am five pages into your script and it's riddled with typos... if you slug a scene with INT. and the next line is "Joe and Jane walk through the park"... If your slugline reads "EXT. PARIS," but has no other identifier and I'm left thinking, “Paris is pretty big… Where in Paris?”

If you have failed to properly describe the geography of a setting or which characters are present in a scene and people we didn’t know were there just suddenly start speaking? Yeah, sorry but, as an Exec or Producer, I am probably going to stop reading.

And just to be clear, as a consultant, obviously, the situation is different. In that case, I am being paid to fully read and analyze the script and so I will.

Advice for Screenwriters from an AwardWinning Producer  Repped Screenwriter

Now some of you might be saying, "people like Tarantino make spelling errors all the time! Can't you just look past it? Well. There are two answers to that question:

  1. You're not Tarantino. Only Tarantino is Tarantino which is why, while we've certainly had a few imitators since he burst onto the scene, we haven't found anyone else who can truly do what he does in the way that he does it.
  2. If you truly are a genius writer... and if your characters, plot and scene construction are so good that I am immediately sucked into your script and cannot stop turning the page, then yes, I can ignore formatting issues or typos. But the percentage of writers whose scripts are ready to go... perfect from page one... is so infinitesimal as to be borderline non-existent.

And to be clear, I'm not talking about one misspelled word every 6 or 8 pages… I'm talking about pages littered with typos and mistakes such that the read is simply frustrating. I recently marked up a writers submitted material so much in the first five pages you could barely see the writing underneath. It was insane!

"So what should I do?”

Well, again, proof your material before sending. Run a spell-check. Do a pass where you look at your sluglines and make sure they match up. Check characters names.

I would also recommend that you get ahold of scripts for films and shows you like (and some you don’t) and analyze them carefully. What works? What doesn’t? How do they convey character through action and dialogue? How do they format? How do they express action, setting and geography? How do they show you what's important in a scene?

There is no better example to follow than by reading a ton of scripts. Sure, Save The Cat might be helpful... or McKee’s Story… but reading a variety of material is critical. And most scripts can be found online these days for free.

Advice for Screenwriters from an AwardWinning Producer  Repped Screenwriter

Done all that? Every ‘i’ dotted? Every ’t’ crossed? Great. Now make sure your story works because if your script, despite being properly formatted and void of typos, has given me no sense of where we're going or even what kind of tone I should be imagining after fifteen pages and if I have no sense of who your characters are or what they want, again, as a producer I will most likely stop reading.

Lastly, be conscious and respectful of an Execs time. It takes a minimum of an hour to an hour and a half to read a script. Then you have the thirty minute or one hour consult. I personally like to read each submitted script twice - once to just experience and absorb it... familiarize myself with character, setting and plot and the second time to read with a more critical view so that my notes and suggestions can be rooted in your story and be useful to you. It's my choice to do it that way, but even if I/they only read once, you are asking a lot of the Exec's time. And yes, we get paid for the read/consult, but it's not a lot of money when you break it down by time spent.

From your side, if you're going to spend your hard-earned money, don't you want to give yourself the best opportunity to learn something from the session? To potentially make a useful contact for the future? To receive helpful and actionable notes that can help improve your material? If so, be sure you are starting out in the right place.

In closing, I wish you all the best out there. It's an amazing time to be a writer, with more outlets and opportunities to sell than we've ever had.

As RB says, it really is “the new Golden Age,” so take advantage of that and of the myriad opportunities offered by Stage 32 and make the most of them.

Thanks to everyone for reading. Let's all keep writing and, if you need some advice, I’m here for ya.

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About the Author

Shaun O'Banion

Shaun O'Banion

Producer, Screenwriter, Script Consultant

Shaun O’Banion was drawn to the film business from an early age and got his first film industry job as a set P.A. on the Steven Spielberg series “SeaQuest DSV” during the series’ first season after sneaking onto the Universal lot for three months and asking for jobs. From there, he segued to fea...

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