Screenwriter Interviews

MovieBytes Interview: JIM CIRILE

An interview with JIM CIRILE regarding the Writers On The Storm Writing Competition.

Q: Who sponsors this contest, and what is their background in the industry? When was the contest founded?

A: I founded Writers on the Storm in 2006 along with two other partners, my top readers from Coverage, Ink. We are all screenwriters who are lucky enough to have had some things produced. My industry background is I came out here 15 years ago and within two days of arriving in Hollywood, I was PAing on a big studio feature.

I worked in production for years while writing on the side. After a few years I managed to land an agent at a big 3-letter agency and got a lot of play on some of my comedies. But it was only after moving on to a smaller agency that I started actually getting work. I had a nice run in the 90s, but then something really weird happened--I was not able to progress past the level that I was at. It took a long time before I realized, with the help of a professional reader friend, that there were problems in my scripts that I simply wasn't seeing, and my representatives weren't bothering to tell me about.

So I went to ground and decided to do everything the right way--finally. I went to UCLA to study screenwriting and came to embrace the use of coverage as a development tool. But all the coverage services out there charged too much money for struggling writers to afford. So I started Coverage, Ink as an answer to that, and now I use my own company to develop my own scripts. And I still write, and in fact Coverage Ink is now producing our first short film.

Q: What role do you play personally in the adminstration of the contest?

A: Coordinator Portia Jefferson handles the day-to-day. I handled the web site, the marketing and interfacing with our partners as well as trouble-shooting as needed. The idea was I could be relatively hands-off and let the team handle the contest, but the reality is I am doing contest-related stuff every single day! So it goes...

Q: Have any of the winning scripts from the contest been sold or produced?

A: Not yet, but this is only our second go-round. The first year we managed to get some meetings for a couple of our top ten, which was great but frankly below our (perhaps unrealistic?) expectations. We were disappointed that quite a few companies from the 2006 competition who agreed to participate flaked on us, so those guys have been excised for this go-round.

Also some of the stronger scripts in our top ten were not exactly commercial genres, and a few were deemed "not there yet" by trusted industry friends. But we definitely got exposure to our guys and pulled out the stops to get them read, and now several of them have new industry contacts who are waiting to see their next scripts. It's a start, but for this year's contest we're aiming higher.

Q: Who judges the early rounds of the competition? What are their qualifications? Who judges the final rounds?

A: The early rounds are judged by Coverage, Ink's team of readers. These are working industry professionals who must have a minimum of an undergrad degree in screenwriting and at least 1 year experience working for a known agency, management or prodco. But more importantly they have to have comprehensive knowledge of movies and movie structure, be able to communicate well and pass my fiendishly hard test.

The later rounds are judged by the contest partners, myself, and a handful of industry types such as Hal Ackerman (UCLA), writer/director John Fasano, Writer/producer Michael Lent, Blake Snyder (Save the Cat!) and more. The final decisions are made by me.

Q: Do the early-round judges read the entire script, or do they stop after a certain number of pages?

A: They have to read the entire script. Now obviously if it's a knockout they're going to spend more time with it than if it's going nowhere fast, but we've budgeted decent reading time for each submission.

Q: Are the judges looking for any specific type of script? Are scripts of a certain genre more likely to do well?

A: No, any genre is fine. Just look at last year's top ten--we had a dark horror/ thriller, TWO costume period pieces, a family comedy, a noir, a quirky comedy... it just has to be a great example of whatever it's supposed to be!

That said, the INDUSTRY will certainly respond better if your script is contemporary, can be shot on a budget and has an accessible logline.

Q: What do you do promote your winning writers, and to publicize their scripts?

A: This is where I earn my proverbial money. Firstly, we have assembled a 130 companies who have promised to read the winning script and/or loglines from the top ten. We will try to make sure they honor that. About 2 dozen of those are my personal connex so I will twist arms. I then personally follow up with all the people the script has gone out to--no 'fire and forget' here. We also advertise the winners on the CI website and buy print ads in Creative Screenwriting magazine. The winner(s) also gets admission to Great American Pitchfest to pitch their script to the town, e-blast their logline through Scriptblaster and post on InkTip.com. There's a lot of exposure!

But--and this is the most important thing I believe--our efforts really come into play BEFORE the scripts and loglines go out to anyone in the biz. I personally work with each of the winners to make sure their script is as good as it can be and then craft a pitch to the industry that maximizes the project's strength. Check our development-heavy list of prizes and you will see that we mean business. This echoes my personal (and the CI) philosophy--development is all. I made the mistake of sending out material that wasn't ready way too many times. Don't be me! So we have a whole team of industry pros who will work with our top ten--Coverage Ink, Save the Cat, Popular Films, Writers Boot Camp and many more. In short, it's got to rock before it goes out the door.

Q: What advice can you offer to writers entering your contest?

A: Knowledge is power, as they say! I would start with reading some of my favorite books on screenwriting: Hal Ackerman's Writing Screenplays That Sell - the Ackerman Way, Save the Cat!, The Writer's Journey, Robin Russin's Screenplay: Writing the Picture, and Michael Lent's brilliant Breakfast With Sharks.

I would then make sure that you've gotten some feedback on your script from people who are knowledgeable--of course Coverage Ink, or perhaps friends in a writers group, or classmates in a workshop environment like Writers Boot Camp or the UCLA professional program. Get as much in-the-know feedback (not Mom, sorry) as you can, because the number one problem for screenwriters is sending the script out too %^#*#^&!*)@# early! I've had the door whack me on the butt too many times, only to realize the problem--which was usually fixable--way too late.

Lastly I would remember that contests are generally a big heap of disappointment. I wrote a column last year: "I Hate Contests," and I mean it. I say that with only a tinge of irony. I have entered a lot of contests. Some, I've done well. Some, I never made it past the first round. But in general, I always hated them because like a date with a hot tease that goes nowhere, ultimately you can't help but feel a bit used. So I founded Writers on the Storm with an anti-contest mentality. I wanted WOTS to be a 'nontest,' if you will--by writers, for writers. I really wanted to offer something to everyone so that even though the vast majority will be eliminated before even the quarterfinal round, they're not gritting their teeth in anger! So to that end we've implemented feedback on every submission and discounts from CI and The Writer's Store for everyone who enters. Those discounts alone could easily make up the cost of the contest. That's why we include the contest entry for free with any script submission to CI.

It all comes down to this: Try hard, expect little ;) It's the only way to survive the screenwriter's life.

Posted Thursday, February 15, 2007