Let’s face it: Without the help of a high-profile agent, a famous uncle or a replenishing bank account, it can be extremely tough to “make it” as a Hollywood screenwriter. As most production companies refuse unsolicited scripts, agencies keep their contact information hidden and nearly everyone you meet in Los Angeles claims to have a screenplay (or even multiple) in the works, the odds of standing out from the rest of the starry-eyed crowd seem like they are hardly ever in your favor.
That’s where Anton Diether steps in to weed out the hopeless hacks and make room for the truly talented hopefuls with his Writers Literary Brokerage Services. An accredited WGA screenwriter, Diether has worked with some of the biggest networks and studios in the industry, including Disney, Showtime and 20th Century Fox. With an impressive resume and years of experience under his belt, Diether knows firsthand how hard it is for novice screenwriters to get noticed among the handful of A-list writers. Fortunately, he also knows how to spot a marketable script, a skill he’s putting to good use with his Website, which showcases his choices for the top 10 script submissions he’s received, ranging from comedy to horror to sci-fi/fantasy. Though it does not provide you with management, Writers Literary Brokerage Services showcases top-notch scripts from novice screenwriters that would otherwise disappear in the labyrinth of nepotism and red tape that makes up the studio system, while also providing producers with fresh voices and material. It may not guarantee overnight success, but a little word of mouth and name recognition can go a long way in Tinseltown.
MovieMaker spoke with Diether to find out more about his innovative Website and what it could mean for aspiring screenwriters everywhere.
Lauren Barbato (MM): Where did you get the idea for Writers Literary Brokerage Services?
Anton Diether (AD): It began about two years ago. Editors on the staff of my script consult service would occasionally recommend a client’s script that they thought was well-written and marketable. Many of these clients had no representation and little chance of getting their script out there, so I started a “Hot List”—each script had a title, genre and a one-line pitch, in case I came across a producer looking for a script that matched it.
The Hot List grew too long, so I began reading recommended scripts myself and pulling out the “Top Priority” ones, which evolved into a new list of the very best by genre. My criteria for a good script are much higher than that of my editors—very few scripts pass my muster. Good horror, thriller and action scripts were easier to find; sellable comedy, family and sci-fi scripts were very difficult; westerns almost impossible. Drama is a more nebulous genre that encompasses many kinds of scripts, from dramedies to historical biopics.
In time, the conceit grew that I could pitch a good script’s loglines to a producer and connect them with the writer half as well as any agent or manager, which I am not, nor do I wish to be. Hence, the Top Priority list developed into a Top Ten Best Scripts list for each genre.
I started it as a way of giving back for a fairly successful writing career; a form of tithing, I suppose. And it’s good publicity for Writers Literary, since it shows that screenwriters who go through the editing process with us can be successful at selling or at least getting attention. The word “Brokerage” doesn’t mean much, since I don’t make a fee or a commission; I just make the connection. I’m more like a matchmaker for producers and writers.
MM: What criteria do you use in order to narrow down each list to only 10 scripts? Are you looking for a certain style—i.e. “Hollywood” or “independent,” or a mixture of the two?
AD: That’s the difficult part, narrowing down 10 scripts out of dozens of well-written ones. The criteria I generally use are marketability: Which script is more likely to sell in today’s market, even though it may not be as good as another script? A brilliant Jane Austen adaptation (though I do have one on my drama list) won’t draw as much attention as a lesser teen horror script with an offbeat premise, so I’m more likely to list the teen horror over the period piece. I’m just reflecting the film industry’s standards, which includes both Hollywood studios and the independents. I tend to judge scripts more in favor of the indie market, since a low-budget indie script is easier to sell. I’d rather list a Christian family drama or a Coen brothers-styled thriller that can be shot on a micro-budget than an expensive studio tent pole action epic or a futuristic sci-fi [script] that rarely, if ever, sells to Hollywood—especially original scripts that [don’t have] source material like a hot comic book series.
To bring attention to these 10 best scripts, which are listed by eight genres at a total of 75 scripts—the western genre lists only five scripts, since I can’t find 10 good ones—good loglines are everything. Producers have short attention spans and generally know what they’re looking for. Ten scripts per genre, which has a script contest feel to it, are about as many as they can handle. If they want a Die Hard with teenagers, they’ll find it on my Thriller list. That one is requested often. So the criteria for a Top 10 script is more likely to be based on what [producers are] looking for than what is the best written.
There is no order of preference on each list, scripts are listed randomly, and can change every month. For example, I may find a hot horror script that I feel will really sell, but then I have to take another horror script off the list. Replacements on the lists may occur up to two or three scripts per genre. The lists are constantly changing, and the competition to stay on them can be pretty fierce.
MM: How will novice moviemakers, as well as production companies, benefit from Writers Literary?
AD: Exposure—pure and simple. For talented young writers starting out with no agent, no industry connection, that alone is worth its weight in gold. The more requests I get from producers who scan the Top 10 Best Scripts lists and see a title they’d like to read—lately I’m getting a lot of those—the better the chances for a novice writer with a solid script. Trying to sell your material without an agent can be a pointless undertaking. Most indie producers, and all the major studios, never read an unsolicited script with no representation. So my Top 10 Best Scripts lists—like script contests and festival pitches—can be the next best thing to getting in the door and past Hollywood’s iron curtain.
For independent producers, the lists can be a huge benefit. They can’t compete with the studio’s bidding wars over hot scripts by A-list writers, nor can they afford them or afford to pay Writers Guild minimums. They’re often desperate for product—from anyone out there who can write a clean, professional script with an original concept. So, for free, an indie production company that needs to buy a cool, inexpensive, low-budget script can breeze through the list of their chosen genre and ask to see a script. This is happening a lot more often now. It hasn’t happened yet from the studios, but with more circulation that time will come. Really good scripts can and will get read.
MM: Though the Website is still quite young, have there been any success stories?
AD: There was one success story before the Top 10 Best Scripts lists were put up on the Web, during my period of culling scripts from the original Hot List into my more selective Priority List: One of them was client Joseph Thompson’s Born of Earth, a creature feature. The Skeleton Factory, an indie outfit that specializes in horror, was looking for exactly that. They bought it, produced it and it’s currently in release. Though the writer didn’t get much money for it, he’s a happy camper, because he now has a career as a screenwriter.
Since the Website began a few months ago, there have been a few minor options by producers. But the connections are being made, and the buzz is building. An up-and-coming literary manager has been reading scripts that I recommended from the lists, in search of fresh clients; a foreign investor wants to buy a horror script from the list and has been raising funds by territory for the budget, promising to make an offer soon. Just a week ago, a producer in need of sci-fi scripts read four [from the list] and flipped over one of them. He’s talking to his investors now and wants to purchase it in the near future.
These situations are happening more frequently now, the more this Website is exposed to the worldwide film industry. I’m not holding my breath on any of these recent deals, but some feel very promising. In this business, cautious optimism is our mantra.
MM: What do you believe are the ingredients for a great script?
AD: That’s a loaded question that would take too long to answer. Robert McKee, whom I respect, and a lot of other script gurus can explain it better than I can. Conflict, tension and pacing are essential ingredients—whatever the genre—as well as overcoming obstacles and character flaws. Nobody wants to see a biopic of a happy, successful music star. They want to see Johnny Cash going through hell. Character builds the plot, not the other way around. Character is the story.
Economy of writing is another one; short descriptive paragraphs and brief, fast-paced dialogue are all we professional readers have patience for. The white space is as important as the text. Also, budget can make or break a script’s chances. Those who say, “Don’t be limited by the expense, just go for broke,” are out of their minds. Always be budget-conscious; go for the most practical; kill the exploding helicopter scene if you can.
Above all, rewriting is paramount. That’s what separates the pros from the amateurs. I’m always telling my clients that M. Night Shyamalan wrote some 20 drafts of The Sixth Sense before he dared to put his script out to market, hence his million-dollar sale and a huge hit. Rewrite! It’s the only way to succeed at this craft.
During the process of the Top 10 Best Scripts lists, one thing I’ve learned that’s critical to selling a script is the perfect logline. Loglines, like TV Guide summaries, tell the essence of a script’s story in one or two sentences. It’s like writing ad copy, it has to be a drum banger—brief, dynamic, powerful, clear and easy to digest. Like an elevator pitch, it has to blow their minds, excite their imagination or move them to tears, instantly.
In my opinion, loglines are far more important than synopses. A great logline is a teaser that makes them hunger for more; a synopsis that tells too much of your story can open a minefield of negatives that prompts them to make a quick judgment call without ever reading your script. Producers want to know what a script is about in a few seconds.
On the Top 10 Best Scripts lists I rewrite nearly all of the loglines. They’re the essential key to grabbing [someone’s] attention and intriguing them enough to read your script. The shorter, the better. [Steven] Spielberg’s pitch for Jurassic Park was just three words: Dinosaurs chasing kids.
For more information, visit http://www.writersliterary.com/scriptbrokerage.html.