Last year, with a healthy dose of skepticism, I set out to learn how screenwriting websites like InkTip, Virtual Pitch Fest, and The Black List have leveled the playing field by offering writers greater access to the inner sanctum of Hollywood success.
The entertainment industry’s answer to eHarmony, these sites match people who write with people who make movies, offering a portal for unproven scribes to get unsolicited scripts into the hands of A-listers. and They sent story expos and their ilk the way of the T-Rex, and a dozen or so years after their debuts they continue to grow in popularity.
As a WGA member, I knew first-hand how hard it is to get past the studio sentinels, and knew all about the grueling gauntlet we run to get eyeballs onto our pages. But recently, at a guild-sponsored seminar featuring the head honchos of all three sites, I listened as InkTip’s Jerrol LeBaron, Virtual Pitch Fest’s David Kohner Zuckerman and The Black List’s Franklin Leonard made this unanimous assertion: Writers no longer needed an agent, or manager, or your uncle’s dentist’s cousin who works at Paramount to get their material considered, read—even sold. Sorry, I wasn’t buying it.
I had promised myself I would never, ever pay to have someone read my material. It was just against my religion. Then an opportunity presented itself that I couldn’t pass up: For a limited time last May, two of the sites were giving away free stuff to guild members. So I took the plunge, electing to focus on VPF’s offer of five complimentary “pitches” per week for the remainder of 2014.
First, a note: Whatever site you explore, your user experience will only be as good as the script you start with. “Writing is like falling in love,” says Zuckerman. “You love your script so much that, in your eyes, it has no faults. You’re blinded by your love so you can’t see where it lacks.” Similarly, Leonard notes: “Aspiring writers don’t aim high enough. ‘Good enough’ isn’t good enough.”
Bottom line: If your script is awful from the get-go, don’t expect these websites to help you make industry in-roads. They traffic in opportunity, not pixie dust. It’s a long-standing myth in this town that you only have to churn out one half-assed script after another and eventually you’ll score. Yes, your masterpiece will one day miraculously land in the lap of some studio mover and shaker and next thing you know, boom! Instant millionaire.
As Josh Olson said in his now infamous Village Voice article: “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script,” “They [aspiring screenwriters] think that screenwriting doesn’t actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie.” Fledgling screenwriters all too often buy into the false assumption that an average, ho-hum movie is the result of an average, ho-hum script, thus perpetuating the myth that, to make the cut, their output doesn’t have to be any more, any better, than just average, ho-hum. Which is not to say that bad movies don’t get made. They do obviously, all too often. But the varied and thorny reasons behind that particular phenomenon are far more complicated than we have time for here and can rarely be blamed on just one, single, solitary thing… like say, a shitty script.
OK—let’s assume you’ve written something with some potential. You don’t have representation, you’re not a Nicholl Fellowship finalist and—try as you may—you’ve come to the sad conclusion that networking and nepotism have their limits. So now what? How do you get read?
On Valentine’s Day, 2000, Jerrol LeBaron, launched the first website dedicated to tackling this problem head-on: InkTip. With a business model built on a “results-oriented” philosophy, LeBaron saw an opportunity to give struggling screenwriters a leg up. A four-month membership costs $60 and gets you a weekly “Preferred Newsletter” listing various leads, i.e. producers looking for scripts within specific genre, budgetary and/or casting criteria. InkTip also offers a script listing service ($65 for six months) where you can post your project in the hopes of finding a match with a producer looking for just your type of material.
InkTip insider tip: Since script listings are date-sensitive (i.e. they appear in the order they’re posted), you can move your script back up to the top of the heap by simply tweaking it—one word or even one comma—every six weeks. If you’re at the top of the heap, it’s more likely you’ll actually get noticed.
Before posting, though, LeBaron strongly suggests you take the time to perfect your logline, which he sees as an art form in itself. And toward that end, InkTip puts its money where its mouth is, offering a free lab dedicated to helping members create flawless loglines. As an added bonus, if you use their script- listing service, the Preferred Newsletter drops to half price ($30 for four months).
When I asked LeBaron to describe the demographic drawn to his site (aspiring screenwriters? working screenwriters? industry pros?), his answer was immediate and unambiguous: “Writers not making six figures.” Which reflects his egalitarian belief that InkTip’s overriding mission should be one of casting the widest net possible, appealing to writers on all levels. “I’m not going to discourage writers who aren’t on the top tier yet,” LeBaron insists. “Just because you’re not Meryl Streep doesn’t mean you shouldn’t act.”
Similarly, his attitude toward navigating the industry is rooted in a strong DIY mentality: “Writing a script is an art; selling a script is an acquired skill. Both are equally important.” In his view, writers must learn to self-promote and market themselves. “The belief that a great script will sell itself is old-school thinking and statistically incorrect.” And LeBaron has the numbers to back him up, pointing as proof to a whopping 250 produced feature films generated by member material since the site’s inception.
The Black List
Coming at it from a different angle, Franklin Leonard built The Black List on the belief that “writers should not be spending as much time marketing themselves as they should be writing. If you have a good script, you will succeed.” With that mindset, he launched The Black List in 2012. The site has quickly evolved into a bona fide Hollywood bellwether.
After an early stint as an industry exec, Leonard monetized an idea hatched years prior: an annual top 10 list designed to shine a light on scripts he and his industry counterparts adored—scripts that would otherwise have fallen between the cracks. For $25 a month, you can post your script to the BL database, making it available for download to pros trolling for material. “Our secret is our transparency,” says Leonard. “Users can track the number of downloads and views in real time.” And, as reflective of his refreshingly blunt, tough-love approach, Leonard urges participating screenwriters to stop throwing their money away if the volume of traffic to their script page is negligible. In his words: “We do not sell false hope. If no one wants to read your script, stop giving us your money.”
That said, to improve your chances of attracting eyeballs, you can purchase an evaluation for $50, whereby highly vetted, professional readers rate your script on a scale of 1-10. You can opt to share your score or keep it private. Needless to say, an eight or better is highly prized, especially in light of that fact that—based on a good ranking—BL will include your script on their weekly mailing, recommending it to a whole host of industry pros. And since last year alone, six writers with scripts posted on BL’s annual list were discovered by reps, that’s a pretty awesome endorsement.
The Black List insider tip: Though not required, Leonard strongly recommends getting at least one evaluation before posting your script. If you land a good score, it can make all the difference between getting traction or getting overlooked.
Though similar in some ways, The Black List and InkTip diverge on their basic, underlying approach. While InkTip eschews the subjective (LeBaron: “We don’t judge scripts. That’s why we don’t have a ratings system”), The Black List embraces it, offering users an optional system dedicated solely to singling out good scripts, and then using this data to advocate on behalf of their authors.
Virtual Pitch Fest
Coming down safely somewhere in the middle, David Kohner Zuckerman’s Virtual Pitch Fest boasts a unique alternative to the subscription-based model. During the whole Story Expo craze in the ’90s, Zuckerman and writer Katie Coyle devised a new way to convert these in-person gatherings into a more wallet-friendly, virtual experience. Why break the bank on expensive plane tickets, hotels, meals and entry fees when you can do the same thing at a fraction of the cost online?
Their instincts paid off. No sooner was VPF up and running than attendance at these so-called “pitch conventions” dropped from 4,000 a year to 400. In a tough economy, it didn’t take long for the public to catch on. For around $10 bucks a pitch, VPF lets users reach out to over 375 participating agencies, production and management companies, all extensively profiled and categorized by what material they’re looking for. VPF success stories include Hallmark’s 2011 Christmas Magic and the 2010 indie feature by Leena Pendharkar, Raspberry Magic (no relation).
A “pitch” (in VPF parlance) is a query letter you generate on your own or—for a small fee—with their help. This includes a logline, synopsis and any additional background you’d like to share about your project. The site allows you to query buyers directly and guarantees you’ll receive an answer back from them within five business days. If you get a “yes,” buyers include their email address so you can send your script directly to them.
So say you have a new horror spec you want to take out to the marketplace. VPF users can target just those producers, managers or agents looking for that kind of material. If you single out a dozen companies you think will respond to your spec, you can limit your purchase to just a dozen pitches (everything is on a pay-as-you-go basis). And if you’re a good shopper, promotional packages that pop up almost every month will drop your per-pitch cost down even lower.
When I took VPF for a trial spin, the first thing I did was check out some sample query letters available for free on their site. I studied them closely, then crafted my own query for one of my specs. Next, I carefully perused the list of buyers and selected only those I felt would like my script. It took me a few weeks before anyone bit, but—with a few key tweaks to my query letter—I got a hit.
Of course, there’s a big difference between getting a producer to read your material and actually making a sale. I’ve gotten quite a few reads, which is certainly encouraging. I’ve also had buyers not even bother to get back to me (don’t take it personally). I’ve had buyers pass on my material but offer notes for how to make the script better. I’ve had “soft” passes where buyers offer to read other material I may generate now or in the future. From my experience, I’ve learned this is an invaluable perk. If you don’t make a sale first go-round, but you manage to gain a fan, that’s an amazing leg up, especially in a business where you need all the friends you can get.
Virtual Pitch Fest insider tip: Follow them on Facebook and Twitter so you can keep track of periodic pitch promos, pitch tips and new buyer signings.
So which site is best for you? InkTip’s encouraging environment seems geared toward fledgling writers, unproduced newbies dipping their toe into the pond for the first time. It’s great for the uninitiated, those for whom validation of their work is most important (at this stage) than actually making a living off it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, with its long list of pedigreed partnerships and producers, The Black List will appeal to savvy screenwriters who know the grind, understand what it takes to find a real buyer, and won’t give up until they close the deal. Straddling the fence, VPF offers a middle ground for both seasoned pros and the less-jaded. Its five-day response time is direct and to the point.
The economics of content creation have changed dramatically. The industry is largely dependent on sure-bet brands, franchises, tentpoles, remakes and sequels—anything that reduces their risk. It’s hard to break in and getting harder all the time. But even so, InkTip, The Black List and Virtual Pitch Fest are striving to make it easier for writers to get a foothold.
Here’s a coda to my adventure: After months of sending my scripts out and getting lots of rejections and lots of reads, I finally managed to option two screenplays. Yep, these sites work. And I’m living proof of it. MM
John Weidner is a WGA screenwriter, columnist and currently a guest blogger for Virtual Pitch Fest’s online series “The Buzz.”
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2015 issue.