Monday, September 1, 2014

Dreaming of Seeing Your Writing Project in Film? Maybe You Should!
How are you doing in your writing? Are you on fire, it's flowing like crazy and you can't wait to get to the keyboard? Or are you feeling overwhelmed and aren't sure how to progress on your project? Or are you feeling tired and burned out, trying to decide if you should push on or quit? This month, just for the fun of it, let's talk about seeing your writing project in film.

Whether you're dreaming of becoming a screenwriter or not, if the idea of someday seeing your novel, short story, memoir, true story, nonfiction book, article, or other writing project reach a whole new audience by being produced into a movie, short film, video, documentary, web series, or other film project intrigues you (or even if you think that's impossible), let's talk about how can you better your odds or even make it happen yourself.  (Tweet that!)

Let's dream big...even if it seems like a crazy, impossible dream. I love that old image of a donkey pulling a cart with a stick extending over his head dangling a carrot in front of him urging him onward. Let's let the dream of seeing our projects on the screen dangle in front of us like a carrot, tempting us, moving us onward. (Even if you're not interested in seeing your writing project on the screen, or even if you're not dreaming of screenwriting at all, I'm betting there's something here that will help you in your writing journey anyway.)

In my journey in film so far, I've learned a ton. I'll share bits of that here. I've discovered many resources that have really helped me and I'll share those too.

In recent years and months I've seen a growing trend. More and more writers are interested in seeing their projects possibly make it to the screen. For some writers it's a big dream that once seemed nearly impossible, but as they see more projects become films, the impossibility is shrinking. I'd put myself in this category. For other writers, they've never even considered their projects could be produced on film. (Okay, well I was there too.)

Technology in Producing Films

Besides selling your project to a big production company, there are other ways to get your project to film. As with many other areas in recent decades, technology has made what was once nearly impossible possible. Where once only the big production companies or people with a lot of money had or could obtain the equipment to produce a film of the quality to be shown on the big screen to a large audience, today high definition (HD) cameras are available to all of us. Now HD cameras are available for under $1,000 (or even less). A few years ago I purchased a Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera in a package which came with two lenses, a bag, and more. This is the camera we used to film my short film, The Choice. (You can find it at Watch the 2-minute trailer for The Choice.) This camera does both still photography and video, so I can pursue my passion for photography (and finally move to a digital camera) as well as produce films (a bonus I didn't expect!) with the same camera.

Even your cell phone probably has an HD camera! And I've even seen short film contests for films created exclusively with cell phone cameras.

There are so many outlets for film these days, I don't even know them all. Besides and, there are now over a thousand cable TV channels (according to The TV Showrunner's Roadmap by Neil Landau). Or you might create a web series or even see your series produced for NetFlix or Hulu.

So you see? Anything is possible.

It all starts with the Writer

But, as Robert McKee affirms in his Story Seminar, it all starts with the writer. Without the writer, there is no script to produce. There are no characters for the actors to portray. There are no lines of dialog for the actors to speak. There is nothing for the director to direct, nothing for producers to produce. There's nothing...until the writer writes. (Tweet that!)

It starts with you. So dream big. And write big!

And use your imagination. You don't have to be writing a novel or dreaming of it becoming a movie with a theatrical release to be thinking of film. Do you write short fictional stories? They can also become feature-length movies or short films.

Not a fiction writer? Then for nonfiction think not only of true-story films, but also of documentaries.

Am I still not hitting your writing-fancy? Then what about reality TV? (Yes, there are writers for reality TV. So I've heard. Don't ask me -- I don't know but you can research it.) How about a cooking show? What about a talk show discussing the topics that are your passions?

Have you considered a continuing series for TV or a web series based on the characters you've created? Or the story world you created? Isn't that what has happened with TV series like When Calls the Heart, Cedar Cove, Bones , Rizzoli & Isles, and A&E's (sadly, just canceled) Longmire?

If you're having trouble getting publishers interested in your books, don't you think they might suddenly be interested if your material is going to film? Absolutely. At least I should think so.

No matter what you're writing, the possibilities truly are endless.

Writing for Film Resources

Now that I've gotten you all excited, let me share some resources that I've found helpful. (Tweet that!)

Learning Screenwriting

If you're interesting in learning screenwriting, you'll need to learn about screenplay format and story structure. I'll include resources for both of these below.

If you want to jump in fast and learn quickly, consider taking part in the 168 Film Project's "Write of Passage" writing contest coming in October. Sign up now! This is a Christian-based speed screenwriting contest. (You don't have to be a Christian to take part.) 

In this contest you will have 168 hours (that's one week) to write a short film (10-page max, if I remember right). Plus, for your entry fee of about $40 (less if you register early), you'll get a mentor, called a Development Executive, to look over your screenplay up to three times during the writing week and give you feedback. That's a bargain! 

You can't start writing before the event begins or you're disqualified. How do they know? You will be assigned a Bible verse to base your story on. Obviously you can't start writing until you get your Bible verse. If you're interesting in taking part, use the link above to go register now.

If you'd like to take an online class on various aspects of screenwriting, I've taken some great classes, both free and paid, from Sign up for their e-mail list to hear about their free teleconferences.

If you're really serious and wish to write stories that express your Christian faith, check into the Act One Program, which holds classes in Hollywood. They offer both a training track for writers and for producers.

Story Structure

My favorite book that not only made learning story structure easy but showed me how to use a cork board and index cards to structure my stories is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

By "story structure" we're talking about the Three Act Structure. Learn it. Love it. You'll need it.

Even if you're not dreaming of writing for the screen, this resource helped me get my stories organized for maximum punch before I ever start writing them as a short story or novel. So if you're not into screenwriting but are still reading this far, here's a promised resource for you too.

Screenwriting Format

Screenplay format means how you put your screenplay on paper: what is in all caps and what is not, where to put dialog on the page (hint: it is NOT centered), how to write a scene heading, what to put in direction paragraphs, etc. To do this I highly recommend getting some software to do this for you. (See Screenwriting Software below.)

But even with the software to put dialog in the proper place and put your scene headings in all caps, you're going to need to know what to type in. What goes in a scene heading? What is the proper order for each element in a scene heading? When do you use a transition? How do you tell the camera person to do a close up? For all this information you need the book The Hollywood Standard by Chris Riley. The Hollywood standard means the standard screenwriting format. This is your handbook for that.

Screenwriting Software

I use Final Draft, but there are others.
If you're just playing with the idea or have a limited budget, there's a free screenwriting program called Celtx. (I haven't used it, so check it out yourself.)

Get "Coverage" (Feedback)

In the film business, movie companies have readers to review screenplays and write a short "review" of your script to let the production companies know if your script is worth their time to look at. The report these readers write is called "coverage." But you can also pay a company to read your script and give you coverage, which includes what we call "Notes," which is feedback on your script. When you're ready for that, I've heard these companies recommended:

Writing for TV

As I mentioned in the opening, the opportunities for writing for TV are expanding like crazy. The source I read that says there are now over 1,000 TV changes is the book The TV Showrunner's Roadmap by Neil Landau. If you're interested in writing for TV I highly recommend this book. I haven't finished it yet, but I've learned a ton already.

I also read an interesting article, especially encouraging for those of us wanting to write faith-based material, in this article from the entertainment-trade magazine:

Film Related E-Newsletters

I enjoy reading Script magazine. They have blogs to read and will send you their e-newsletter for free. Sign up here: Script Magazine. I just discovered their blog posts for "Writers on the Web" which I can't wait to catch up on. This seems to be a series of articles about writing and producing a web TV series.

You might also be interested in subscribing to the free newsletter InkTip, which sends a weekly e-mail with up to three production companies that are looking for scripts to produce. You can get more with a paid subscription, but it's kind of expensive ($60 per quarter, I think), so just wait until you have finished scripts to offer before subscribing to that. Still, you can learn a ton from the free newsletter. 


There are so many online organizations for screenwriters it's kind of crazy. A couple I've found are:

Even if you're not interested in writing for the screen but are a Christian and want to make an impact on what comes out of "Hollywood" (meaning that as a synonym for the entertainment industry), you might be interested in
I'm writing next comment FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY. (If you're not one, move to the next section now.): Christians, have you seen something objectionable come out of Hollywood recently? Then let me ask you this: Have you prayed for Hollywood recently? If you want to make a difference in Hollywood and what comes out in our entertainment industry and influences the world, then sign up for the Hollywood Prayer Network's free monthly prayer newsletter.

Facebook Groups

I've found several screenwriting groups active as Facebook groups. Here are the names a few Facebook groups for Christians interested in film. The Facebook groups I know about happen to be for Christians but I imagine you could find similar secular groups. Use Facebook's search bar to search for the group, then ask to join. 
  • 168 Film Project
  • Christian Film
  • Christian Movie Making Network
  • Believers in Film & Video...DO SOMETHING!
  • Churches Making Movies

Screenwriting Contests (Christian)

There are so many screenwriting contests it would be difficult to list them here, so I'm listing only a few that are specifically looking for faith-based, Christian entries. 

If you're writing something else, you should have no trouble finding screenplay contests by linking in to other resources listed in this post. For example, see Scriptapalooza.

The 168 Film Project has two different speed contests.
  • 168 Film Project production contest is a speed film-producing contest which takes place in May. Here, you produce a film based on an assigned Bible verse in 168 hours (one week). There is a 10-day pre-production period to get your script written, find locations and actors, etc. Filming begins at a time and day and you must turn in your completed film the following day, same time. The contest takes place in May. All films are screened at the 168 Film Festival in September. 
If you have a feature-length film completed, here are two Christian faith-based contests:

Protect Your Scripts

Before you send your script(s) out to a contest or allow anyone to read them (producers, agents, your critique group, etc.), you should protect your script by copyrighting it or registering it with a registry or both, if you wish. This officially puts your script in the hands of an official third party so that if there is ever a question about whether someone stole your work, you have documented what your work is and the date you documented it.

You can copyright your written script(s) with the U.S. Copyright Office.

You can also protect your written script(s) by registering it with the Writers Guild of America (WGA). You don't have to be a member to register your script. Cost is $20 for five years. There is a WGA-East and a WGA-West (dividing the United States).   

What is IMDb? 

Finally, if you haven't heard of, it's helpful and fun to know about. IMDb stands for Internet Movie Database. If you have ever googled something like, "Who was the actor who starred in The Terminator movie?" you probably ended up on an page.

IMDb is owned by Amazon. It came installed on my Amazon Kindle device. You can look up actors or movies or TV shows and find out who starred in them, when they ran, actors by episode, trivia about a show...all kinds of information.

If you're moving into writing for film, it can be an invaluable source for finding out who the production companies and producers are who do particular projects. Publishing and film have so many similarities it's incredible. Just like in publishing where you want to research which publishers are publishing the type of material you're writing, you want to do the same in film. This is one place where you can find that information. You can use for free, but there is also a paid subscription site which gives you information a serious screenwriter might want, such as the budget numbers for a movie and contact information for a production company.

In one class I took we were told that whenever you are talking to anyone official about your screen project, they are online looking you up on IMDb to see what you've done. Not everyone can have a page on IMDb. You have to have a credit in a film that IMDb recognizes as created for public viewing. In other words, you can't make a "home movie" and then go get an IMDb page. The folks at IMDb weed out those types of films. If your film is shown at a film festivals, that might get your film qualified for be on IMDb.

I qualified for an IMDb page by taking part in my first 168 Film Project and working on a film titled Steel City. The other producer, Nancy Bevins and I were in the same Act One class and teamed up to do the 168 Film Project. Nancy already had IMDb credits so when she added our film, Steel City, to her credits, I could then apply for a page since I was credited in that film as a co-producer, writer, line producer, and production designer. Once I was approved for a page, then I could add the 168 Film Project I produced the next year, The Choice.

I also wrote a script for a 168 Film Project this year. It's called Swapped and is scheduled to premier at the 168 Film Project's Film Festival September 12 - 13, 2014, in Los Angeles. You can see it on the schedule for 4:00 Friday at that link. After the film premiers at the 168 Film Project's Film Festival, it should be qualified as an IMDb film and then I should be able to add that project to my IMDb credits.

So that's how IMDb works. If you're interested, you can see my page here: Dianne's IMDb page. Aspiring to having your own IMDb entry is a fun challenge to work toward.

Surely there's something here to help you in your screenwriting, film, or other-writer journey. I hope it also spurs you on toward a new carrot-like treat in your writing. For those of you with the big dream, I hope to be sitting next to you soon watching your dream of seeing your writing projects in film on the big screen or on TV come true. I'll buy the popcorn! (Tweet that!)