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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

6 Tips for Screenwriters Outside the US

This post is dedicated to reader who emailed me from India asking if I had any specific advice for writers outside the US.
It's very hard for people outside of Los Angeles to break in. As I stated earlier, so many of the decisions are made here. But writers who are outside of the US (and outside of Los Angeles) do have avenues open to them. Here are tips to finding those paths and making the most out of them.

1. Be Fluent in English

This may seem like a no brainer but the lure of Hollywood can often override common sense. I recently read a screenplay written by someone for whom English was a second language and it was pretty rough sledding. I honestly could not say whether the fault was his English skills or a storytelling skills. Did he write such flat dialogue because he has no ear or because could not fully express himself in English? If a writer's English is at a fifth grade level than the script will look like it was written by a fifth grader. And believe it or not there are plenty of scripts in the submissions pile that look like they were written by fifth graders. No writer wants to be lumped with that group.

2. Find a Good International Contest

Several of the biggest screenplay contests around, in particular the PAGE Awards, welcome foreign submissions with open arms. This is a great way to get an introduction to the film business in Hollywood. If a foreign writer shows real promise, a contest like the PAGE awards will work to get that writer exposure. If a writer wins or places in the contest he or she has an excellent calling card.

3. Use Where You Are and Who You Are

Foreign writers have a lot of handicaps but they do have several big advantages. First and foremost they are foreign. Hollywood wants new and exotic. To somebody in LA, what they eat for breakfast in Mumbai is as exotic as the latest sci fi novel. Too often foreign writers ignore what's right outside their own door. A foreign setting can add spice to any genre be it horror, rom com, science fiction, thriller, action adventure. The best way to gain somebody's attention, producers and agents included is to tell them something they didn't already know.

But Remember to Provide Easy Access to American Readers

Hollywood has gotten better at casting more diverse actors in leading roles but at the end of the day they are still looking at American audiences first. So yes, foreign writers still need to write their stories for an American lead. This isn't necessarily a roadblock to authenticity. And a writer doesn't have to resort to the Ugly American Tourist. In this modern globalize economy, many Americans now work abroad for a variety of companies. And the world is full of American ex-pats who have completely absorbed the culture of their host country. The writer needs to remember that if Brad Pitt is the lead, the movie is as good as made.

Connections Are There to Be Made

Every writer needs representation or help. Foreign writers need as much help as they can get. But where to find it when one lives thousands of miles from Los Angeles? Fortunately Hollywood isn't as far away as it used to be. All the major studios have offices around the globe to handle distribution. Often the only requirement for working at one of those offices is to be fluent in English. Now these offices have nothing to do with production and do not have any direct communication with the decision makers, but they are a conduit back to Los Angeles or New York. People move in and out of these companies all the time, often to join management companies or to form companies themselves. One can never know what casual acquaintances can lead to. Writers should remember that writing relationships are exactly like other business relationships. They require trust, comfort, and compatibility. There are hard to find. One has to be willing to spend a lot of time and energy to find the right one for them.

Don't Forget the Local Movie Scene

Hollywood isn't the only place to make movies. Before a foreign writer knocks himself out trying to impress somebody in Los Angeles, he should at least consider looking at the movies being produced in his own backyard. Hollywood loves foreign films. They especially love to remake them. The rules for breaking into the local movie scene is the same as those for breaking into the Hollywood scene. One has to form good relationships with people one can work with. This can be invaluable experience. A writer who has three IMDB credits, even if they are foreign, is worth more than some hotshot just out of film school.

Writers outside the US have a tougher hill to climb than those who live and work in Los Angeles. But it can be scaled. Foreign talent is constantly finding a new home in LA. No one knows where the next big thing is going to come from.

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