Scriptapalooza prides itself on being one of the top screenwriting competitions currently active. But it’s not all about prize money with Scriptapalooza (though there is that; the first place winner gets $10,000). Scripts are read by producers, managers and agents, while writers with scripts that place in the semifinals and higher get promoted by Scriptapalooza for an entire year. In a time when it seems like most people even remotely interested in film are shopping a script around, the assistance Scriptapalooza provides can end up being invaluable. The competition has enabled many a scriptwriter to get their foot in the door and get their script to the next level.
Since placing as a semifinalist in Scriptapalooza, John Muscarnero has seen his film Dark Woods get produced. Rodney Johnson, who made it to the semifinals with his script The Understudies, has since gotten his film Queen Sized, starring Hairspray’s Nikki Blonsky, made by Lifetime. Since winning Scriptaplooza in 2004, Patrick Andrew O’Connor has gotten his film The Break-Up Artist made by Legacy Filmworks.
These recent Scriptapalooza top-placers have taken the time to answer a few of MovieMaker’s questions about their scripts, Scriptapalooza and how the competition has helped them get their screenwriting careers off the ground.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): Talk a little bit about your film. How did the screenwriting process go for you, and were there many rewrites?
John Muscarnero (JM): With Dark Woods, it was a different a method than my normal process. The director and I spent a few hours hashing out the basic story. We knew we would eventually shoot it ourselves, we knew we wanted a twisted sort of love triangle at the center of the story and we knew it was set in a secluded place. That same night, I literally sat down and wrote until a rough 80- to 90-page draft was done—about six hours and two pots of coffee later. Over the next few years as I worked on various other projects, and I would occasionally revisit and rework pages. So it got rewritten a lot. I also would use feedback from potential producing partners as a guide to tweak even more. Then of course when we started pre-production in 2008, I rewrote according to locations, budget and actor input. The basic story and many major scenes are identical to the first rough draft. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, though!
Rodney Johnson (RJ): My first film that I worked on as a producer and writer happened so fast that I’m still dizzy from it—and that was five years ago!
Basically, I was initially hired to edit a few action scenes on a script that was still being fleshed out, but I found that I couldn’t resist writing a bit of the prose and dialogue as I worked. The exec producer liked what I did and asked me to write the entire movie and to come on board as an associate producer. (Disclaimer: This never happens in Hollywood. I still don’t know how this happened to me.) I accepted and turned in a final script about two weeks before the casting process began. That gave me a bit of a vacation until the leads were cast.
More notes came from the executive producer and the director based on the names that were ultimately cast. They wanted the characters written just a bit tighter to play up the comedic talents of the individual actors. In fact, I wrote a throwaway line, a joke, with a celebrity as the punchline. The executive producer sent the script to that very celebrity without telling me, and guess what? The celebrity loved the script so much, she wanted to be a part of it. So I had to turn a joke into an actual character and part of the plot. I finished a shooting draft of the script about a week before cameras rolled.
I didn’t really have to do any rewriting during principal photography, but the director did take advantage of the gifted comedians in the cast and there are quite a few scenes in the final film that are heavily ad-libbed. But my feelings weren’t hurt—it was funnier than anything I had written.
Patrick Andrew O’Connor (PAO): The idea for The Break-Up Artist came after I helped the daughter of a friend break up with her boyfriend. I told her what to say to the guy to make it a quick and easy dumping. And it worked. Then I thought, what if there was someone who actually got paid to break people up? Since this movie is all about relationships, I had new material every time I met, dated and then got dumped by a girl. So there were probably 20 drafts before I sold the script, and another five to 10 drafts before we went into production. I also co-wrote the song that’s played over the closing credits. So it was a lot of writing in a very short period. Very exhausting… but I also learned that as long as you know your characters and what their goals are, rewrites can be easy.
MM: Where were you as a screenwriter before you entered Scriptapalooza? Were you a veteran of screenplay competitions, or was this your first one? If you had entered other screenplay competitions, how does Scriptapalooza compare?
JM: I had been writing nonstop for a few years and it seemed every six months or so something encouraging would happen—either an agent would actually call me back, or I’d get an offer for an option, or actually book an assignment. During that time I would occasionally submit scripts to the top two or three contests out there, including Scriptapalooza, in hopes of winning. But also, as a writer, I can’t really tell if anything I write is any good or not, so I would enter as a way to gauge industry response—and it worked. It’s a great feeling after months and years of rejection to finally have a script or two that other people say is worth reading. Or in this case, one that made the semifinals and a TV script that placed second in the Scriptapalooza TV competition. Scriptapalooza is not only a well-regarded competition, but also the most accessible one; every step of the way I got the feeling that they didn’t just want my entry fee, but that they really work to get the scripts out into the world. It also has a good track record of promoting winning material. I can’t say the same for some of the other competitions I’ve entered.
RJ: I was not a screenwriter before the competition, but I was a published novelist. I had told myself that I would never write a script because it was too hard! But I decided to give it a try when I read in the trades that a young actress I liked had been cast in a movie that was very much within the genre of books that I wrote (teen/young adult), I thought to myself, ‘I could write that girl a movie!’
So I wrote a script with that young actress in mind (by the way, it’s Hilary Duff—I wrote for the Website of her Disney Channel TV show at the time). That was my first script and I had no idea what to do with it, so I researched the Web to find out what to do. I immediately found script competitions and Scriptapalooza was everywhere. Submitting it to Scriptapalooza was kind of a no-brainer. Especially when I saw the great exposure a finalist and semifinalist got from the competition. None of the others could compare with the kind of exposure Scriptapalooza offers its winners.
PAO: Before Scriptapalooza I had a few studio/production company meetings, but nothing serious. I already had a great manager (Garrett Hicks at Will Entertainment) but no agent. This was the first screenwriting competition I entered, so I guess beginner’s luck was in play.
MM: Did you take any screenwriting classes before entering the competition, or were you self-taught? Was the script you submitted to Scriptapalooza your first?
JM: Self-taught. I still do—and have for years—write and study every single day. Every book and magazine and script I can get my hands on I study. I have a voracious appetite for screenwriting. I’d written dozens of scripts before the one I sent to Scriptapalooza.
RJ: I never did take any courses or classes. However, there are some really great writers groups that I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on and getting some feedback on a work-in-progress.
The script I submitted to Scriptapalooza was indeed my first script. The best thing I ever did for my screenwriting career was submitting that puppy to Scriptapalooza.
PAO: I decided to switch my major in college during my last semester… never a good idea. In order to graduate on time, I had to do an independent project with a professor. When I told her I wanted to write, she told me the basic structure of a screenplay and how to do it. I then devoured every book on writing I could find. The script I won Scriptapalooza with (Don Juan) was actually the second script I wrote.
MM: There’s a large number of screenplay competitions out there—what led you to enter Scriptapalooza? How did you hear about it?
JM: You know, I don’t really know how I heard about it. It’s one that I was aware of most because I saw it in film and screenwriting magazines that I read on a regular basis; the quality reputation of Scriptapalooza really does get out there.
RJ: I heard about Scriptapalooza just by researching competitions on the Internet. Wherever I went, I saw Scriptapalooza listed. Not only listed, but rated as the number one place to submit a script. Because so many other screenwriters gave such good feedback regarding their experiences with the competition, I made the decision to submit my “baby” to Scriptapalooza, and only them. I wanted to see what it was like before I felt confident enough to submit to others. Turns out, Scriptapalooza was one of only three that I submitted to.
PAO: I had heard about Scriptapalooza online. I knew it was one of the biggest competitions out there. There are thousands of entries so just being named a quarterfinalist is a huge accomplishment. That was my only goal. And then my script kept advancing further.
MM: How has winning Scriptapalooza affected your screenwriting career? Scriptapalooza advertises that semifinalists and above get representation for a year; how helpful did you find this to be?
JM: In terms of my mental state, my second place win and semifinal placing has given me more confidence and understanding of what people respond to. In practical terms, telling producers about wins or high value places in a contest as recognizable as Scriptapalooza gives them extra incentive to read work and, in the case of Dark Woods, actually sign on to produce.
RJ: The judges who work the Scriptapalooza competition are all professionals currently working in the entertainment industry. When my script was read by a management firm, they contacted me directly when the entry period closed and called me in for a meeting. Based on that script, they offered me a contract to represent me in Hollywood. The script went on to the semifinalist level, but the real prize was getting representation out of it.
Having a manager (one that I garnered from entering Scriptapalooza) was key to getting my career started. It gave me that much-needed whiff of legitimacy in submitting projects to Hollywood. In fact, without representation, it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) for a writer to get read by industry pros.
PAO: Winning Scriptapalooza is like having an ace up your sleeve. Development people meet with so many writers each week, so when I tell them I won the contest, it makes their ears perk up. They take you seriously. I’ve sold a script and gotten a paid studio writing assignment since winning. I got several calls from people interested in managing me after winning… but I already had a great manager. But I’ve kept in touch with [Scriptapalooza founder] Mark [Andrushko] and last year he helped hook me up with my current agent at Abrams [Artists Agency].
MM: Are you working on any scripts now for future productions?
JM: I have two high-concept horror films written and soon to be in pre-production—and of course my first produced feature Dark Woods, starring Tracy Coogan and James Russo is being released later this year.
RJ: I am currently writing a thriller for my production company, Guest House Films. My partner and I started this company as a way to tell the stories we wanted to tell, with a target towards the LGBT audience. We are both writers, so our films tend to be heavy on the actual storytelling. We believe the best movies start with a solid script and write what may fall within the usual Hollywood genre films (like horror or romantic comedy), but with a gay “twist” or sensibility.
PAO: I just won another screenwriting contest with a raunchy comedy script I wrote. My manager will be going out with that next. I’m also co-writing a historically based baseball script with one of the bigger writers in Hollywood and a studio producer friend of mine. So that is the one I am most excited about.
MM: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to aspiring writers who are looking to get their first big break?
JM: Write and study your ass off. Enter Scriptapalooza and other major contests until you place well or win. And produce your own script!
RJ: The best piece of advice I can give aspiring screenwriters is the same advice my manager gave me in our first meeting: Write something commercial and write it well.
It’s all about the box office in Hollywood, so, as writers, we need to gear our writing towards what Hollywood wants to buy. That may rankle the sensibilities of the auteur in us, but if we want a career, we have to actually sell something. And Hollywood will buy The Proposal many more times than they will buy Napoleon Dynamite. Start out by putting the odds in favor of the writer first. Script buyers will read your indie drama a lot faster if you’ve already sold a formulaic romantic comedy.
That being said, anything that is written well will get the attention it deserves. To make sure it is written well, have the script read out loud so you can hear the dialogue and the prose. You’ll know when something doesn’t sound right, even if it looks right on the page. That’s where formalized education or writing groups are so invaluable to aspiring screenwriters.
That and step away from the computer for a couple hours and go see a movie.
PAO: As hard as you think you need to work to make it as a writer/filmmaker, multiply that by 10. That is how hard it really is. But people make it every day, so you can too. You just need to keep writing. In the end, it’s not about talent, luck or even hard work… it’s about resiliency. Because everyday you stay in the game, someone else you’re competing with quits.
For more information on Scriptapalooza, visit www.scriptapalooza.com.