Interview with Jim Cirile:
An Inside Look at the Writers on the Storm Screenplay Competition
by Barri Evins
Jim Cirile was in his first car chase when he was negative two months old. His mom, NYPD Detective Marie Cirile, chased down and shot a looter, whom she believed had killed her partner, the day before going out on maternity leave. That more or less set the tone for Jim's life - no, not running from the cops. He has enjoyed a multipicture deal writing action movies for CFP and Lionsgate. His latest film is the dark superhero action thriller LIBERATOR starring Lou Ferrigno, Peta Wilson, Michael Dorn and Ed Asner. Jim is also the owner of www.coverageink.com. He writes for Script and Creative Screenwriting magazines and is the coordinator of the Cyberspace Open writing tournament, as well as Writers on the Storm Screenplay Competition.
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Barri Evins: Tell us about the origin of the Writers on the Storm Screenplay Competition. Why did you start this contest and what were your goals?
Jim Cirile: As with so many things I do, I started it because I was pretty dissatisfied with what was out there. As a writer myself, I had entered a whole bunch of contests. I found them ridiculously inconsistent. For example, I "won" the WGA Agent Access program and got signed from that, but when I entered that same script into contests, it usually never made it past the first round. An action script I wrote made the Nicholl quarterfinals and that was it, but that same script later got me a 5-figure deal. But mostly I felt like I was throwing money away. For so many contests, you send in your script and your 50 bucks or whatever, and then... nothin'. That's it. No feedback, not even a thank you. I had one script make a contest Top Ten, and I found out literally months later when a friend just happened by their web site and saw me listed there. They never even sent me an email.
So about seven years ago, my partner at the time, Greg D'Alessandro, was keen on doing a contest. I brought a list of my grievances with contests, and we discussed them. I said the only way I would be interested was if we could do a "nontest" - to somehow do better by writers and not be like all those other guys. This turned out to be a bit more challenging than one would imagine. Ultimately we wanted to make our nontest - Writers on the Storm - a pleasant experience where people felt they were actually getting something for their money and hopefully upping their game in the process.
BE: It's clear that there's a very specific philosophy behind Writers On The Storm that sets it apart from other contests. Tell us how that directly shapes what makes WOTS unique.
JC: We're probably the most development-heavy contest around. Most contests, if you make the Top Ten, you may or may not get some industry exposure, but it's of that draft. See, and this is the painful thing - just because you make the Top Ten or win a contest, doesn't necessarily mean your script is ready to go. So we work with the writers for months before we send a single script out to anyone. Manager Jeff Belkin and TV writing guru Ellen Sandler are also offering consultations, plus there are seminars and workshops and prizes, such as the Save the Cat! Beat sheet weekend, Writers Boot Camp, etc. Basically it's an intensive period of education and development. The two writers we helped get signed last year - Paul Moxham and Jeremy Shipp - both went the extra mile and did draft after draft working with us. When their scripts went out, we knew that those two guys were going to get attention because the results were on the page.
BE: How many submissions do you anticipate this, your 5th year?
JC: Probably around 1,000, if the previous years are any indication. It's actually a little slower now, probably due to the economy, than it's been in the past. But hey, that actually reduces the odds for entrants.
BE: There's actually two ways to enter WOTS. How does that work? How does this help your writers?
JC: Writers on the Storm is hosted by Coverage Ink, so you can enter through either website. If you simply want to enter Writers on the Storm, visit http://writerstorm.com and you can pay the entry fee, upload your script in about 60 seconds and you're good to go. We'll keep you apprised throughout and send you a feedback form at the end telling you exactly what the reader thought about your script and how it could be improved. It's sort of coverage-lite.
Or you can submit your script to www.coverageink.com for full-blown script analysis. Any feature script submitted to Coverage Ink before the contest final deadline - July 31st - is automatically entered into Writers on the Storm. You're getting the contest entry added on for free. To advance in the contest, the script needs to score a "consider with reservations" or better, roughly the top 10%. The big advantage to this is it gives writers the ability to polish their script and then re-enter the contest if they so desire, multiple times even, before the final deadline.
BE: It's easy for a lot of screenwriters to feel shortchanged when it comes to contests. There are the lucky few winners, and that's it. How does WOTS bring value to everyone who enters?
JC: We actually have prize tiers extending all the way down to everyone who enters. Okay, that's just a $10 discount to Coverage Ink, but hey, every little bit helps. And of course, every submission gets a feedback form, designed to tell you what's working and what isn't and offering suggestions. For many folks, this is the first time they've gotten any professional-level feedback on their scripts, and many people tell us it's a real eye-opener and very helpful.
Things get a bit more interesting at the Top 50 level. You get a subscription to Moviemaker magazine (every writer must read this magazine - you CAN make your movie! No need to wait around for someone to come buy your script anymore), as well as our CI Spec Format & Style Guide, an 80-page e-book. Screenwriter Showcase is also offering a year of script promotion through their site, a pretty cool prize. They give you an unlimited amount of web pages to post and hype your projects, and they have leads and producer subscribers.
For our Top Ten, there are huge opportunities - DVDs and software and books and seminars from people like Michael Hauge, Save the Cat!, Great American Pitchfest, Virtual Pitchfest, TrackingB.com, Writers Boot Camp, Creative Screenwriting and of course, development with Coverage Ink. Things get real juicy at the Top Three and Winner levels, of course - that's where the money and big prizes kick in.
BE: When scripts make it to the Top Ten, I know you have some prestigious judges weighing in. Care to drop some names?
JC: Nope! The reason is, I am the ultimate and final judge. Now I may call in some industry friends for a quick opinion. I've done this a few times. I won't mention names, but if you look at my go-to industry panelists from my Agent's Hot Sheet column for Creative Screenwriting, you'll get a fair idea who these people are. But again, I try to avoid this. I want to create a bit of a clamor when our Top Ten finally do go out, which means everyone needs to get it at the same time. Hopefully there will be multiple people interested in a project, and that creates heat. It's a very tricky and rare thing, but when it happens, it's beautiful. It's like a microcosmic version of sending out a spec.
BE: In the contest world, most writers keep their "eye on the prize." WOTS has an impressive prize package, but as a producer and mentor of writers, I know that there's a much bigger prize at WOTS than cash and software, in fact something that I've seen no one else offer. Please explain what WOTS offers the Top Ten winners and how it works.
JC: This year, we're looking to get every one of our top ten signed. To make that happen, we're offering an insanely development-heavy prize package. Why? Because you're not going to get anywhere until your script is bulletproof. That's the Coverage, Ink philosophy. We offer a pretty robust series of script analysis and phone calls for the Top Ten, and in particular our Top Three. I read and give heavy notes on all the scripts, and one or more of our senior readers also offer their feedback in the form of a comprehensive analysis. I call each of the Top Ten and engage with them through a series of emails, to come up with a battle plan for the polish draft(s). As I mentioned, just because a script hits the Top Ten doesn't necessarily mean it's good to go. I also discuss commercial and marketing concerns, because after 20 years in the biz and 10 years of writing the Agent's Hot Sheet column, you learn a little bit about how to market scripts and what people are not looking for. I try to share this knowledge with the writers and get them thinking more entrepreneurially. In addition, there are other development seminars and workshops and prizes, and we discuss how to best implement that power into the script. The writer winds up with a lot intel here. What we're offering is an intensive period of development, similar to what they would get working with a manager.
BE: What happens after the winning scripts go through your development process?
JC: When I finally pronounce the scripts ready to go, which can take anywhere from four to eight months, Portia Jefferson, our contest coordinator, and I call everyone on our industry contacts list. I write up a pitch presentation document with the loglines for each script, a mash-up (it's "Predator" meets "Pootie Tang"!) as well as our opinion of each. This, by the way, is a Jedi mind trick. We're telling them in advance what their opinion is going to be. Furthermore, we acknowledge and downplay any fears they may have about a script and find workarounds, such as, "Could be a tricky sell due to the controversial subject matter, but absolutely worth a read and a terrific new voice." A few companies ask to get all the scripts, but most pick and choose.
BE: 150 industry insiders paying attention to your screenplay has to pack a wallop. What kind of industry attention can these writers expect?
JC: It definitely gets attention. Our list is very manager and producer-heavy because this is one of the most effective ways for a new writer to get someone in the business in their corner. Those are the folks who actually read, and managers in particular have to always be cultivating new talent.
We were able to get Jeremy Shipp signed by UTA without a manager or producer, so I guess maybe I am contradicting myself, but the truth is he got in there because of my relationship with UTA agent Julien Thuan. That's awesome, but for the most part, writers need to assume that getting a passionate manager or producer working with them is the best first step.
BE: As a producer, I know exactly how much time and energy goes into developing a great draft of a project. What does WOTS expect in return?
JC: We cut ourselves in for precisely zero. No percentage, no ownership. If the script sells, congratulations. Just say something nice about us in an interview!
BE: This truly unique process must produce some incredible success stories. Can you share a few of your favorites?
JC: Sure. I mentioned Paul and Jeremy already, two incredibly talented writers. Jeremy is now working on the animated "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" show, I believe, while Paul is working on a new spec. He has a manager now and several strong samples, so it's only a matter of time before something really clicks for him, too. There was one fellow from the previous year - fantastic comedic writer. We hooked him up with a manager, and all was well - for about a week. I think we all have to manage expectations and, er, tamp down on our natural writerly neuroses. So that flamed out, unfortunately. We've gotten people meetings and made introductions that have turned into relationships and hip-pocket representation. But honestly it took a few years for us to really build up to the legitimacy level we have now.
BE: What is the single question you are most often asked that you'd like to answer here?
STOP asking, "How do I get an agent?" The answer is, you don't - an agent gets you. (Watch my video for an explanation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ol6ksF-HY_U) But what you can get on your own is a manager, or producer. A manager or producer will take a flyer on you, develop a piece of material with you, and then they will get you an agent. Developing new talent is not an agent's job. Now more than ever it's really about high concept and "Can I sell this?" At the end of the day, it's all business.
To enter THE WRITERS ON THE STORM SCREENPLAY COMPETITION, visit www.writerstorm.com.
Late Deadline midnight 7/31/11
Moviebytes members: $5 or $10 rebate! After you enter the contest, email email@example.com. Include your name and script title and the code "MOVIEBYTESCODE." Once we confirm your entry, we will refund you $5 off a single entry or $10 off a double entry within 72 hours.
Entry via Coverage Ink: www.coverageink.com
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A working film producer who's sold pitches and specs to all the majors, Barri Evins created BIG IDEAS to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to achieve their dreams by sharing the techniques she uses with highly paid pros on big league projects. The Big Ideas Screenwriting Seminar revolutionizes the way you write. Create ideas that ignite industry interest. Master tools to craft a successful script faster than you dreamed possible. The seminar includes Barri's mentorship for a year. Follow Big Ideas on Facebook.
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