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The Reel Deal

by Kevin Caruso

A great script begins with a great idea. Be it a big-money studio hack or an unrepresented, unsold scribe, this is our one unremitting, prevailing mantra. To achieve that great script, we must first spawn that great idea. That pesky great idea. Think of it as the egg from whence the story will hatch. As writers, we know it well. It’s that first, relentless brainchild that pulls us from the shower, scrambling naked across the house, seeking pen and paper, just so we could scribble it down. From that scrap of paper, we will flesh it out on something larger, supporting that original concept with more words, more ideas. Finally, we will sit before our computer and, with that first great idea fueling our fingertips, begin to punch out those infamous two words that begin any screenplay: Fade In.

Famous Madison Avenue advertising executive William Bernbach said: “An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.” Most ideas become like last month’s magazine—kept around, with its owner pledging to get around to reading it, month after month, until, finally, it’s dropped in the recycling bin and forgotten forever. But there are those that mature into screenplays. An idea knows no geographical boundaries. It’s possible for one idea to pop into the head of a screenwriter in Studio City while a similar idea is being developed inside the skull of a wannabe in Peoria. The two could present completely different scripts. The area code where the idea grows into a story should not matter. It should be all about the execution.

Or is it? I’ve been actively pursuing my dream of writing movies for six years now. I write in a small, crowded nook of New Jersey called Matawan. This town has a footnote in movie history since its 1916 shark attacks inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws. That’s it. That’s as Hollywood as my town gets.

I recently attended a writers’ retreat in Southern California and found myself surrounded by writers from all over the country who “made the commitment.” They relocated to Los Angeles. Their reasoning was always some take on: “In New Jersey, you’re not going to run into Steven Soderbergh in the Circle K.” Well, I honestly doubt that Mr. Soderbergh regularly shops in the Circle K, and if he does, he’s there for something quick and convenient, like a thirst quencher, and would doubtfully want to invest the time to hear your pitch. Nevertheless, the odds are more in their favor than mine.

I have been contemplating making the move, but, deep down inside, dread the notion. My family and my life all reside in the Garden State. Every idea I’ve ever fed off of came from there. However, as my screenplays garner more and more interest and attention, I am constantly reminded that once an agent or producer sees a zip code that does NOT begin with a nine, I might as well live in China. To quote one manager: “New Jersey is a great place to be from. Just don’t live there.”

Moving out to the heart of the film industry never assures one of success. I’ve experienced enough broken hearts in downtrodden actors and bitter writers from just taking the train into Manhattan. I’m doing quite well where I am. Although I have yet to sell or option a screenplay, I’m at the point where agents and producers are contacting me. Last year I qualified high in two major screenwriting competitions. That placement has done more for me than 200 query letters ever did.

I also did something that was both therapeutic and productive. I started a NJ screenwriters’ critique group. It helps to know that there are other hungry and displaced writers out there. One of the original members, Bruce Sakow, came aboard with his 25-year experience as a working screenwriter. He was a two-year veteran of the Hollywood rat race. He couldn’t take it, so he came home. Since his return, he has sold six screenplays and never again had to uproot his home and move out west. Out in the Greater Los Angeles area, Bruce had felt smothered by it all. “It seemed like everyone was a writer, actor, producer,” says Bruce. “All everyone wanted to talk about were movies. I had to come back home just to talk about something else.”

Terry Rossio, half of the writing team behind SHREK and DISNEY’S ALADDIN, writes to struggling writers in his column on Wordplayer.com: “as long as you can get to LA for the important meetings—by car, boat, plane, camel, whatever—you still don't have to actually live in Los Angeles.” However, it’s when one sells that first script and it goes into production. That’s when the scenario changes. That’s when the writer should opt for more sun. “You have to get to know directors,” writes Rossio, “and producers, and stars... you need to attend story meetings... casting meetings... you must be on the set... Yes. NOW you need to live in Los Angeles.”

The blockbuster may be nurtured, from page to screen to video, in Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other film communities. Look at New York, home of the independent film. “There is a better opportunity for a smaller writer in New York with a smaller film,” says Bruce. More independents come out of New York than Los Angeles. Although it is considerably smaller, it is not only a blossoming industry; New York tends to be more amiable to the new, slightly skewed idea.

Writing a movie can be done in any time zone, anyplace where black ink can get on the page in a fashionable Courier 12-point font. It’s that idea that matters. There is a glimmer of hope. As long as the writer has an outlet to marketing his stuff, i.e. contests, mailings, an uncle at William Morris, and that writer has penned something that someone is looking for.

As much as the Hollywood community would hate to admit it, the world outside their five area codes is much larger. There are ways for the up-and-coming writer to nudge a way inside. For every shattered dream, there is a success story. Create a plan. Submit to contests. Get your screenplays read and critiqued by peers, e.g. screenwriter groups and forums, ‘reputable’ script services. Don’t sweat about the move just yet. Let all the preverbial movement happen around your script. You did the work. It’s time for your script to work for you. Once it’s in the storyboard stages, and you have an A-list director with major talent attached, and then worry about changing addresses. At that point, may we all have such worries.


© 2005 BIGBreakNY, LLC. No material may be reprinted without permission.