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Sharpen the Screenwriting Craft With Your Voice

“Sharpen the Screenwriting Craft With Your Voice.” ISA’s Craig James On Navigating Your Career

Every screenwriter has a story. Every story needs a voice. Screenwriters must keep writing to develop their unique voice in order to break into the industry. Creative Screenwriting Magazine interviewed the founder of the International Screenwriters’ Association (ISA) about developing your voice and using the ISA to break in.

While working in the mortgage industry in the 90’s, Craig James decided to pursue acting and filmmaking. James had started a mortgage company with his mentor and this was his main focus for three years. Despite creating wealth, the eventual duo sold the company. His mentor went into novel writing, James started acting and writing screenplays to follow his dream with little or nothing on his resume to launch a career in the film industry.

“The encouragement I got was not on my acting. It was on my writing. An audience member at a film festival screening of my second film told me, ‘You need to keep writing.’ It was a refreshing comment,” said James, who had used all of his mortgage money making two independent films. Despite the pitfalls of the filmmaking world, the rookie screenwriter had found his passion.

He moved back home in the Chicago area to save up some money, which led to creating a TV pilot series called Wrigleyville. A friend helped James shoot the pilot, which was later seen by writer Steve Zacharias (Revenge of the Nerds). Eventually, James met an agent who sent out the TV pilot to various agencies. It was hip-pocketed around the time of the 2008 writers’ strike. But James saw this as just another challenge to be overcome, rather than as a stop sign.

“In the midst of all of that, I realized I should keep writing. I had to keep writing. We were getting things done and people liked what we were doing, even if it was on a smaller scale. It felt like we were going in the right direction,” he added. “As I was trying to find other ways to generate income, a friend of mine and I decided to launch a screenplay competition.” In addition, James and his friend also realized there wasn’t a single website that vetted content to help screenwriters promote their work and not get ripped off.  This sparked the idea for the ISA.

The International Screenwriters’ Association (ISA)

After patching up a cut-and-paste version of the ISA website, the duo started to make some money and get industry attention as a company. “It’s just grown into this beautiful, amazing resource that is now creating a funneling system for finding great content that we can get to high-level industry pros,” said James.

“The website can guide writers to make sure they’re making the right choices for their careers.” Features on the website include the Screenwriter’s Toolbox, made up of a shop, articles, guides, advice, and even development evaluations.

James wanted to break the myth that all industry consultants are bad people. Every industry has bad actors. Many screenwriters have been burned in the past, but the ISA is built on a system of vetted professionals willing to help screenwriters. “There are actually plenty of great mentors out there who are coaches. We all know this is a highly competitive industry and writing a screenplay is no easy task. It’s like writing a symphony. It has to be great and it has to come from a genuine place.”

By reading thousands of screenplays, the company recognized that many writers have learned to write what is true to his or herself, but that doesn’t mean they know how to present the story in the best way. But, with the ISA, a screenwriter can get guidance, and not just from a producer, who points out obvious screenwriting mistakes.

With a mentor, novice screenwriters can receive a “flow of positive creativity going through to the work.” At first, the ISA struggled to point out that only the best screenplays should be entered into competition. Many weak screenplays have a powerful essence in terms of heart, but they’re not truly ready to compete with the polished scripts.

The difference is that proper notes can repair a poorly written screenplay. Simply pointing out the errors will likely squash the project. “We’ve all heard that you’ve got to learn rules to break them, but…the site has become this thing that is meant to show writers that there are tools out there to benefit you. But, there’s still a lot you have to do to develop.”

“Michael Jordan never sat on the court and watched other people play. You can’t just read a screenplay and think that’s enough. You have to play. You have to be trained. You’ve got to work with the best people, but you’ve also got to find the best person for you. The site is being built so you have multiple options,” added James.

This is especially important for new screenwriters to understand. There’s no one way to become a screenwriter. Simply trying to create a series of rules from articles in Creative Screenwriting Magazine can even be counterproductive, since not every screenwriter needs the same advice.

Finding The Right Mentor

James advises for screenwriters to read articles, listen to podcasts, watch new videos, and work to find the right mentor. “We focus most of our attention on The Story Farm mentors so we know they’re qualified,” said James. Through an individual’s classes, articles, or podcasts, users can get a sense of who a mentor is.

At this point, anyone can post on the website as a mentor, but the goal is to create a framework through the ISA that will work to improve a writer’s abilities and help them pursue a real career as a screenwriter. In fact, every nickel that currently comes into the system is put right back into the business. 

“When you visit the Mentor’s page, you’ll be able to see, ‘More by this Mentor,’” instructed James. “Every writer can figure out who will be the best voice, guide, mentor or coach for you. You’ve got to make the choice [but] you’ll know. When somebody resonates with you—a teacher—you’ll know and you’ll connect.”

Currently, the ISA is in a new phase of development, but they’re also working with mentors to add features that will continue to benefit writers. In addition to the development evaluations, the screenwriting contests are meant to highlight all types of genres and all types of shows, series, and film ideas.

“Getting onto the Development Slate is based both on the quality of the writing and the marketability. It’s the strength of the work and an authentic voice. If we see an authentic voice that just needs a little bit of work, it may still get onto our Development Slate. A lot of projects coming through the contests are coming from the success story page, which is called the ISA Spotlight.

Getting Through The Development Team

“All the success stories go through the development team. The ones where we see a lot of action, a lot of progress, [and] a lot of award wins, will find our Spotlight page. The writers can also be contacted to get on ourDevelopment Slate. This actually happened for a writerwho had won 17 small competitions. You start with the small and work up to the bigger level.”

Max Timm, Director of Community Outreach at the ISA, found the said screenwriter, loved his most recent logline so he reached out for the script. “He thought it was a really well-written script. Not done. Not ready, but really well written with huge promise. So, he passed it over to a production company who immediately signed him for a quarter-of-a-million dollar deal.”

The screenwriter received a portion of the money, but the original deal fell apart. Soon after, however, the company got financing for the $30-40 million dollar movie and it’s now being passed around to industry pros. “We can’t say who it is,” said James. “Those A-Listers need some time to read the script. This is just the process. You keep going through the process until the right director finds it. In the meantime, that writer’s option gets people to answer his calls.”

“This screenwriter was living in London and he was walking away from writing. He was quitting. Same old story you hear with actors. Matthew Perry was just about to quit acting when he landed Friends. It’s the same kind of thing here, but you’ve got to get your work in front of the right people.”

James alleged that a lot of screenwriters will get discouraged that they placed in a contest, but didn’t win. “You shouldn’t get discouraged because that’s just a sign that you need to work with a mentor. That’s a sign that you’re going in the right direction but you still have to get to the next level. Second place, or placing as a quarter finalist is not a failure.”

“Quarter finals are amazing. Where you are now is amazing. But, you’ve got to keep going so you should be working with a mentor to make sure that you’re taking it to the next level. If you’re just taking notes from friends or a producer, they may be stripping away parts of your voice. Mentors are not going to impose their ideas on you, they’re just going to help you sharpen your craft so it’s producer ready.”

Benefits For Rural Screenwriters

“There’s a billion ways to break into this industry. You’ve just got to find somebody to encourage you. Every little success shouldn’t swell your head and then deflate it when it doesn’t do anything six months later. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do as a writer and invest in your career every damn day. Keep connecting with the right people.”

Within the ISA landscape, it doesn’t matter where writers are located. In previous interviews, agents have mentioned that more and more writers can live outside the major filmmaking centers and simply visit Los Angeles for pitch meetings a few times per year. The ISA takes this step even further.

“This guy two hours outside of London in a small town got connected to a Hollywood producer and a $30 million dollar deal. It doesn’t matter. They always say that if you’re writing for TV, you’ve got to be in LA, but if you’re writing a spec script, you can submit to our Writer’s Showcase from anywhere with an internet connection.”

ISA members who are consistently winning awards are essentially already vetted. “It’s very appealing for industry pros to see that they don’t have to do all the work. It’s not about taking a concept and developing it from the start. They look at the site and see that you’ve won awards. They see that you’ve had some success stories. They see that things are moving and your logline rocks. They can request the script.”

“It doesn’t matter the genre. We’re looking for originality. We’re looking for craft, but if you have those other things, they can carry the craft,” added James. “Then, when you get in production, you need the craft to be top of the line. You shouldn’t be writing a story that the market wants, you should be writing a story that means the world to you.”

“Barry Jenkins wrote Moonlight because it connected to him. It won Oscars because it connects to people through the heart in the story. The minute you start writing for everybody else, it’s very obvious. Tell the story that means the world to you and the world will love your story, because it’s written from your truth.”

“Be excited about telling your story—that’s the job. You never know what they want. The fact is that decision makers may look at you like you’re crazy, but if you love it, you can find the right kind of people who love your crazy. Once you find those people, it needs to be sharp. Make them see how much you love your idea.”

Becoming An Entrepreneurial Writer

Similar to Dean Georgaris’ entrepreneurial approach with The Meg, Craig James also recommends for screenwriters to be more proactive and entrepreneurially-minded. “Screenwriters need to think that they’re an entrepreneur. That’s the truth. You spend all of your time writing. It’s your time. No one is paying you do it most of the time. You need to believe in your business.”

“You need to believe in you and believe in your voice. You need to believe in the stories that you’re telling and tell them truthfully. Obviously you’re going to need notes from people in the industry and mentors to sharpen everything, but if you look at yourself as a business and you look at the stories you’re telling as part of your business, that’s a really critical aspect of  the process.”

While James doesn’t give this advice hoping that writers will put more pressure on themselves, he does want for writers to understand it’s their responsibility to put in the time. “There’s no one way to get to the top. There’s multiple paths,” he reiterated.

To take this business-mindset a step further, James recommended creating a sizzle reel by cutting together a trailer or short on an iPhone or gathering friends for a table read. At the bare minimum, he recommended making a movie poster or lookbook, which might appeal to people looking for a certain genre of script.

“It’s not done until you’re shooting,” added James. Shoot a scene like Damien Chazelle did with Whiplash and try to get it into festivals—something that represents the tone of the story. It’s got to work as a one-off scene even if you cheat it a little to make it work. Show your film. Get into festivals and draw attention to yourself. The ISA will help you with these things.”

Finally, James recommended for writers to read as many bad screenplays as they read good screenplays. “People think that reading The Shawshank Redemption will teach them how to write. The first draft you write is going to be awful and that’s great. You should embrace that. Improve your craft.”

“You’ve got to be reading as much as writing. You’ve got to be doing the research. Have people you can collaborate with. Ultimately, you need somebody reading your work who doesn’t know your voice,” added James. “When you feel like your script is pretty solid, enter competitions and get feedback. You don’t want them to know anything about you. That’s how you get a clear evaluation. They just see what’s on the page and go from there.”

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