Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434
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A Mentor For All Seasons

Lew Hunter has been a "name" in the Hollywood writing community and television for over 40 years. A past chair of the Film Department at UCLA, his current title is Professor-Film Chair Emeritus as he continues his annual offering of Screenwriting 434, the title of his revered textbook. His students' credits include Highlander (Gregory Widen) and Sideways (Oscar® winner Alexander Payne). In 1999 he gave up full-time professorship to "retire" to his family home in Superior, Nebraska. That move has not slowed down the man's productivity or his influence on developing writers. His writing colonies offered in Nebraska and around the world continue to motivate writers. He is about to release his second book, Naked Screenwriting: Interviews With 20 Academy Award-Winning Directors And Writers.

Lew graduated with a Bachelor's in Dramatic Arts from Nebraska Wesleyan University, received a Master's from Northwestern University at age 19 and headed to Hollywood in 1956. In 1969, he earned his WGA membership when he sold and Aaron Spelling produced If Tomorrow Comes. His MOW, Fallen Angel, received a 1981 Emmy® nomination. Lew has worked with such writers as Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Ray Bradbury. Currently under development for remake, his If Tomorrow Comes will introduce a new generation to what happened to the Niesei (Japanese Americans) before, during and after Pearl Harbor.

This astute man moved up the administrative ladder of Walt Disney studios and the major networks, then served as Program Director for NBC from 1973 to 1977, supervising TV series' like Batman, Bewitched, Little House On The Prairie... almost the entire present-day Nick-At-Night schedule. In 1979, Lew began to produce his own scripts and TV series and started teaching screenwriting at UCLA.

Once on a Lew Moon is a documentary currently being filmed about Lew Hunter's work and life with commentaries from film icons, peers, students, and even his lovely wife, Pamela. The three men driving the project anticipate completing the filming of over 100-hours of interviews in April 2007, editing the material down to a mere three hours of footage, and hosting a DVD release party in Summer 2007. You don't want to miss the story of this humanitarian-in-cynical-Hollywood who was renowned for taking perfect strangers into his California home for prolonged periods simply to jump start their writing careers! Please check Lew's website for that DVD's release and ordering information.

Q. You continue to interact with many television and film people, even though you are not "in Hollywood" on a day-to-day basis most of the year. How do you keep abreast of everything and how do you suggest new writers/filmmakers keep informed?

A. I speed-read six newspapers a day but really concentrate on Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Anyone serious about working in the industry anywhere in the world needs to know what is reported on a day-to-day basis in those two newspapers. IMDbpro.com on the Internet also has summaries of international industry events. Of course, I also consult my contacts and co-professors at UCLA. And, I see 50-60 films a year, most of them in a theatre. I like to see non-mainstream films shown at theatres known for supporting the independents. A great deal can be learned about evolving film concepts by watching independent films.

Q. Is it absolute necessary that a new writer has a reputable agent to get serious attention? If so, what's the process? If not, where can a new writer be read?

A. Don't market yourself until you have at least five solid feature film scripts. Five means you are serious enough to keep at it and if someone says they like your style but not this script, you have another to offer, just not all five at once. That's over-anxious and insecure. A new writer can get read by independents, but has to work to find those interested in his story. Ask, never assume. For example if you've got a special-effects-heavy horror film, don't send it to an independent who is doing character-driven stories, just because you read he is getting attention and funding. Another hint is: Never submit or try to contact anyone on a Thursday or Friday because people will be trying to get things done in anticipation of the weekend. And Mondays can be touchy, too, because people will be setting up their week. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are best. But, to be perceived as a professional, a writer needs an agent. An agent is the one who does the research and keeps informed on who is doing what. Get a copy of the Agents & Managers Creative Directory (and, yes, it's online and all listed will be WGA-signatory), make a list of ten potentials and find out "who is taking what." Keep at it. If you believe in yourself, don't ever give up. Look for an agent who will read and love your work as much as you do. While you are submitting to independent film companies, keep submitting to agents, as well. Of course you want a WGA-signatory who "plays by the rules" and is recognized as an industry professional. Look for those with an area code of 213, 310, or 818 because they are in the Hollywood vicinity. Yes, there are agencies in the Midwest, Florida and even New York, but think about this: Bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks. He said, "Because that's where the money is." You want an agent where the money is.

Q. Hollywood is said to be a small town so a new talent can earn a reputation by word-of-mouth. What is the best method for fostering such notice? What is currently considered admirable, professional action and what is negative, inexcusable rudeness?

A. You get noticed or remembered through persistence and good manners. Keep calling and sending your ideas, synopses and scripts. That can be expensive, but are you serious or not? You call and someone wants to see a synopsis, so fax it, immediately, while the contact is hot. Snail mail allows someone to forget you and e-mails are too easily deleted. Spend a part of every day marketing yourself. Research any contact you encounter that may be able to get your script to decision-making people. Note the channels your contact is pursuing so you know what is going where and always be polite. If you get a 1:1 contact and say you are going to send something, do it! But, send it in the correct format, as in correct script format, correct synopsis format. Spelling, punctuation and formatting errors kill any script. Thirdly, have the good manners to be on time for a call or a meeting. Tardiness will be remembered because you wasted other people's time. Fourth, don't overly bug your contact. No one has the time to read anything immediately. Give your contact 3-4 weeks then follow-up. Keep a record of what went where. And multiple submissions are expected until you do get a commitment to consider your script. And, finally, 100% of the time, watch your attitude and practice good manners. Arrogance will haunt you, but self-confidence and politeness make you shine and win you friends.

Q. How does anyone entering film or television develop networking skills and contacts?

A. Networking in the industry means (1) being well-informed by reading the trades every single day and (2) by putting your name and your projects out there on a continuous basis and at every opportunity. Yes, take classes and get to know your classmates. One of them may be a producer five years down the road. Keep a record of who you contact, when and any distinguishing information you might want to recall. An agent's assistant one week may be promoted next week, just like a studio reader can become an associate producer next January or a special effects coordinator may find backing for a project that needs rewrites. Lightning rarely strikes randomly in the film industry. It usually follows a well-laid path. Actors getting discovered while waiting table? Why do you think that person got a job in L.A.? That's where the opportunities are. Do you have to be in L.A. as a writer? No, but your name has to be there. Yes, make a plan, expand it, evaluate it, keep trying.

Q. Since you have met with filmmakers around the world, what differences do you perceive in how filmmaking as a whole is fostered elsewhere compared to the U.S.?

A. It's a matter of population who can spend their dollar in the movie theatres or for television. Money-earning potential equals respect even in China. Power is where the money is. In the film industry that remains Hollywood. I designed the curriculum for the University of Paris at the Sorbonne and I've lectured in Tel Aviv and Croatia, as well as the UK. Yes, the film industry is growing in other countries, like our neighbour to the north, Canada. However, the industry's investors and decision-makers continue to be in California. Writers and filmmakers in other parts of the world fight a daily battle for funding and for box-office draw. I do not see any substantial shift of movie attendance preference from U.S.-made films to, say, French or South African films. Of course, every once in a while a foreign film blows the socks off the industry. Persistence and salesmanship may win on a national or regional scale, but an Academy Award®-winning film will still have a bigger audience in Melbourne than a film by a new Australian production company. That may not be fair, but that is industry reality.

Q. The growth of independent film and cable opportunities have expanded the markets for new writers and filmmakers. How does one research the needs and legitimacy of production companies anywhere in the world?

A. Start your research with the company's previous credits. If they have two or three film credits, that demonstrates their ability to create a marketable product. Anyone looking to work with any production company, be they a writer or a technician or a caterer, needs to research the company's financial soundness. Call the contact number and ask realistic, common sense questions about budget, shooting schedule, even insurance and the experience of those involved. Professionals will not be offended or consider the caller presumptuous. But, an agent or manager should do that preliminary footwork. It is their responsibility to find and filter legitimate opportunities for their client. Sometimes folks need both an agent who is the mouthpiece-negotiator and a manager who is the organizer-director of the client's career. Agents get 10% and managers get 15%. That's 25% of the person's income but these are the people who are doing set-up while the client is creating, be they a writer, director, or actor. These are the people who make sure that creative person has a lucrative income. Like in Jerry Maguire, "Show me the money!" They have an important function in the overall scheme of the film industry's deal-making.

Lew's final advice: The only failures in this business are those who quit, so keep at it and you WILL succeed.

Sally J. Walker
Editorial Director, The Fiction Works
Script Supervisor, Misty Mountain Productions
My books on Amazon: LETTING GO OF SACRED THINGS , DESERT TIME
My Webpage: http://members.cox.net/sallyjwalker, RWA Chapter: www.cameoromancewriters.com
"Savor the journey instead of obsessing about the destination."