Screenwriting in the 90s: How I Got Started -
Before I get into ways to use your creative muse, other than doing that one thing you really want to do, I'm going to talk about getting started. You have to start, even if you take a detour down the back roads in the process. Today, I'm going to talk about how I got started in screenwriting in the 1990s.
BTW - that's me, the tall blonde in purple - John Lennon sunglasses. Next to me is Rita J. Moore, who I wrote with in the 90s along with my friend, Julie Malady.
I apologize to the other woman in the picture. I can't recall her name, but I never, ever forget a face. If you're reading this, please reach out to me. I hate when I forget someone's name. My apologies, and I hope if she reads this, she'll reach out.
MY EARLY DAYS
I started writing screenplays as an escape from a [bad-short-lived] first marriage in my late 20s. I call those "The Wonder Years," because I wonder what the hell I was ever thinking. During that time, I attended a screenwriting seminar and met Rita Moore and Julie Malady.
Rita was a young mom. Julie was a playwright. Julie aspired to be a sit-com writer.
I did, too. Her parents were aging. My father was deceased, so I was locked down to Florida as my mom was suffering from MS. Julie was the co-writer who I went on to write the script that earned the development deal (the one I talk about that fell apart). I'll go into that more in another post here.
Both Julie and I had to give up our dream of heading to Hollywood because of our parents' health situations. So how did aspiring sit-com writers express their ability in the 90s without moving cross-country? It's not like today when you can Zoom. The answer is -
CONTESTS AND FESTIVALS:
Julie and I entered lots and lots of contests... and we often placed - never won, but it did open doors. I can't even recall how many we entered, but we did particularly well by earning TOP 50 spots in a contest at the time called "America's Best." If you're wanting to know who that Shalenko person is, that's my birth name. I was still going by Bishop (married name), but I wrote mostly under Shalenko.
Julie and I wrote sit-com scripts for "Murphy Brown," and "Wings," which both placed in the Top 50. I (solo) made the quarterfinals with a script I wrote for "Northern Exposure," and a script (solo) I wrote for "In the Heat of the Night" gained the attention of an agent and she actually submitted it to the slush pile. It didn't get picked up, but interestingly, they did an episode that was similar, which happens. All that means is that you know the characters so well, that you wrote something the writers probably already conceived when they planned out the season's episodes.
SHOULD YOU ENTER CONTESTS?
Entering contests is a no-brainer for aspiring screenwriters right out of the gate. You have to be selective about which contests to enter, and they do cost money. One of the benefits Julie and I got out of entering contests was networking. We made the "Second Round" of judging with a script at Austin. Which means our script advanced, although we didn't win, but that was enough to get us a discount to the film festival and conference. There we took a seminar with the great writer/director Dan Petrie, Jr. This is a great story. He misspoke at the seminar and said he'd read stuff if the participants emailed. You can only imagine the mess his assistant had to clean up. When she emailed me back to give me the news about his misstep, I was gracious in my reply, and I guess that impressed the artist enough to write and say he'd read a few pages. He actually called me, and we spoke for about 20-30 minutes as he gave me constructive feedback. Excellent advice about writing comedy. What an honor, and I sure took that feedback to heart.
I am in no way saying that if you enter a contest or go to Austin, you'll get a mentor opportunity like that. I think it was my kind reaction to his assistant's email that got me the read. If you do make contacts through contests or festivals, be humble, compliment the work, but don't gush. Remember, you are an artist peer, not a groupie. You might not have the experience, but the industry pro will appreciate your professionalism and in looking to work with others, professionalism goes a long way.
Do I still enter contests and go to festivals? In fact, when I re-entered the screenwriting world, I entered my script "The Jealousy Test" into a contest. It was a first draft, so I didn't expect to win, but I wanted the Coverfly coverage. The coverage came back 90% positive. I took the notes, made the changes, and I went on to get great coverage from an industry pro I know who offered to read it for notes. She came back loving it. I made a few more changes and it's currently off being considered at the time of this writing.
As for festivals, I attended one recently in St. Petersburg on a Saturday just to attend the screenwriting panels and sessions. There I learned how much the industry changed. Even the amount of the description readers will tolerate in the script has changed, so I came back and yes, made more edits to my work. As a corporate trainer by day, I say, never stop learning.
GET INSPIRED YOUR WAY
That's me outside the Cheers bar in Boston circa 1996. I immersed myself in TV show culture at the time I was writing sit-coms. On an early trip to California, Julie talked our way onto the "Wings" set while on the Paramount tour. The set wasn't being used for the day, so we got to see it. Which helped us when we wrote the episode, because we got to see the sound stage. We also attended a taping of a summer replacement show (they used to film those) by the same producers called "Big Wave Dave's."
But there is one person who I would like to mention who also inspired me. I met a young actor as he was waiting tables around 98 when I was on a business trip in LA. We ended up on the same flight out of LAX, and he even changed seats to sit next to me. He was dressed up on the plane and highly groomed, and I think he was embarrassed (I don't know why) to admit he was the same guy as the waiter when I asked him if he had another job. I played along. I am also skilled in improv. We had a very nice talk. As I learned more about him and his struggles to get started (a few years later), he inspired me, and I knew he would make it someday. While I'm a late bloomer and it's taken me all these years to come full circle at screenwriting, he knew exactly what he wanted at a young age and was going for it.
I recently reached out to an actor who I thought was him. Unfortunately, he didn't remember me. I had this whole speech planned on how proud I was of him, and how he still held a special place in my heart, but I never got to make it because I was too embarrassed to continue the conversation. I am an introvert, so uncomfortable conversations, I tend to run from those.
I am not sure now if it was a different guy. Maybe. Or, more likely, like the woman in the picture, I was just someone he ran across in his life. Not that I was any less important on his journey... sometimes on the journey, we forget to stop and make note of who we run across. That woman in the picture, she could be someone really important in the business today. Or maybe she took a different direction. I am now making note of everyone I meet along the way. I think that's good advice.
The point here is, whether you are like me, and you take a detour, or you just go for it like the young actor, you are still going to have times when you need to get off the main path. Now that you know a bit about how I got started, which is important for context, over the next few installments, I'm going to discuss how I got agent representation, how I landed the development deal and how it fell apart - and then I'm going to get into the conversation with a 20-something male reader that caused me to take the detour into food writing, and how that shaped me as I journeyed back. In between these posts, I'm going to have a few guests, including a friend, Bryan, who worked on a show in Baltimore. Talk about how he got that gig.
With that, I will leave you with -