SCREENWRITER SHANE WEISFELD GETS TO THE POINT OF WRITING.
Shane Weisfeld hates talking about queries. Although it has worked for him in the past, he says it is the “longest and hardest way” to get your material in the right hands. Shane is the Canadian screenwriter behind the 2014 feature film “Freezer”, which was his first produced credit after many years of writing and actively pursuing the industry. He has seen first-hand how hard it is to get a movie made, let alone finding representation and/or getting a producer to commit to your script. He has agreed to reveal the tricks of the trade for all writers and artists trying to make a name for themselves, the big mistakes that he made over the years, and what it takes to keep that one main ingredient that is superior to all the flavors that make up reaching your goal: perseverance.
You have to look at it from the perspective of the agents, managers, producers and executives you’re querying. They’re getting queries all the time. They don’t have time to read them, they don’t want to deal with unrepped, unknown writers, and it’s a legal issue as well. They see queries as something unprofessional and naïve on the part of the writer. However, if you have nothing else going on, no other way to get your material out there, by all means, query. Certainly some agents and managers do reveal when they’re taking queries, and for some, it’s one way to find new material. But understand that 99.9% of the time it doesn’t work. Sure, a small percentage of writers have been signed from queries; hell, I was signed originally from a query – but movies don’t get made because of querying. Most of the working writers in the industry never queried. This business is all about relationships and representation (which is usually the two main things a writer doesn’t have if they’re querying). That being said, if you can make connections and develop relationships that originate from queries, go right ahead.
Let’s talk about rejection. You have stressed that it has made you a better writer, but most people can only take so much of it, or any at all. What is it about rejection that breaks so many people down, but yet has allowed you to become a more seasoned, mature writer?
Rejection is the only thing that will allow you to become better and mentally stronger. It has for me. You have to be open to feedback and (hopefully constructive) criticism. It applies to actors as well. So that means getting your material to the people that can give you proper notes, and I’m not talking about friends or family members, no matter how unbiased they will try and be! Of course rejection is hard, it’s frustrating, and you need a thick skin and backbone for it – but if it makes you go back and improve your craft, you’re doing the right thing. The hardest part is persevering in the face of rejection. That’s where most people get crushed. It ain’t for the weak, that’s for sure. Also, most of the time, you hear the word “no” without any explanation. That’s tough. For me though, not perfecting my craft is even tougher. Not getting better with each script would be the worst of it. Not getting real industry feedback means I’m just spinning my wheels.
You have accomplished what so many screenwriters dream of or spend years trying to obtain: getting representation, selling a script, having a movie made and getting picked up for distribution. How did that all come about and what was it like when it all came together after years of hard work?
How much time do you have? It’s long, long, long story. In a nutshell, I spent years writing scripts, years facing a mountain of rejection, years building up my network and spending so much mental energy and sacrifice on this. There’s so many factors that went into accomplishing these goals, but the key element has been the obsessive, burning desire and relentless perseverance. I can’t stress enough how important these factors have been. Those goals didn’t all happen overnight though, it was over a three-year period, from signing with a manager in L.A., optioning the script for “Freezer”, then the producers exercising the option by “purchasing” the script once everything was a go, and then of course the film getting made and being released. Actually, the distributor bought the domestic rights for the film before it even went into production. That was a nice bonus. I’m 43 now and didn’t become a represented writer until the age of 36, and then became a produced writer at the age of 38.
Where did the writing begin for you? Why did you specifically choose screenwriting?
I come from a planet called hip-hop and I’m proud to be an alien. I’m a soldier of the culture and will defend it always. Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation laid out the elements. So it wasn’t just the music itself, it was the whole culture that penetrated through me. That’s where it all started, and I mean everything. All that I am is because of hip-hop. I’m down by law. It hasn’t just been an influence on my life, it’s so much more than that. It is my life. It runs pure through my blood and veins. So that’s where the writing and creativity started for me, and then that became proving myself, lyrically, in the most bold and bodacious way possible, and of course from that comes dealing with rejection, whether it’s from the live crowds or industry people. I also was writing short stories as a kid and through my teens, always loved film, the process it goes through to get made, and then in high school I knew I wanted to be involved in film in some creative capacity. I actually didn’t start writing scripts until I went to film school as a Screenwriting major. I wrote a whole bunch of short scripts there, but once I wrote my first feature, I was hooked. The love and passion for film + writing = screenwriting, and I was off and running, and throwing myself into the fire.
Why is it so hard to break into the film & TV industry, and why is it so hard to not only get something produced, but turn a profit as well?
The thing you have to understand is it’s not based on fact or math or science, and it’s definitely not based on your academic or work background. It’s all based on someone’s opinion or interpretation of your material. It’s all subjective. That includes both the reader and the audience. You’re literally saying to someone “take a chance on me and spend millions of dollars doing it, and with no guarantee you’ll make your money back.” William Goldman said it best: ‘nobody knows anything.’ There’s no magic potion to put on a film so it will be a success and not only gross a lot of money, but net a nice profit. P&A these days, it’s hard for a movie to make its money back, let alone make a profit. So, what do the studios do? Well, they go for the most marketable, IP-based stuff, roll it out in as many theatres as possible, get those merchandising tie-ins and ancillary markets, and hopefully generate hundreds of millions or even a billion or more dollars at the worldwide box office and anything else they can generate money from. But even if you’re talking about the independent film world, the only thing different is they’re willing to take more risks when it comes to story, and of course spend less money on the making and marketing of a film. The goal is to still make money. However, nothing changes in terms of the subjectivity of it all. You, as a writer, having a producer or exec, or literary agent or manager, read your material and fall in love with it and hopefully be a champion of it, is still as hard as it will ever be.
All it takes is that one “yes”.
It’s actually three, four or five “yes’s” that you need. Because even if you get to the point where you have representation, that person then has to convince a producer or executive or actor or director to get involved, then a financier has to want to put up the money, and then a sales agent and/or producers’ rep has to shop it, then a film festival and/or distributor still has to commit to it. It’s a long line of people before a movie actually gets to the point of production, let alone being released. The most frustrating part is it may take years before you finally hear that first “yes.”
Most Hollywood movies these days are the big blockbusters, franchises, sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes. Are the studios running out of original ideas?
I get this question asked a lot. Studios aren’t running out of ideas. They’re still meeting with writers, still optioning and buying original specs. Also, part of a production executive’s job is to come up with ideas and then work with writers to develop those original ideas into screenplays. However, as big as these studios are, they’re owned by even bigger companies, and the whole point is to line the pockets of investors and shareholders. What’s the most sure-fire way to do that? What I mean is, what type of movies can generate hundreds of millions of dollars, or more than a billion dollars? The $20-$30 million dramatic movie from a spec script that you have to educate the movie-going public about, or the $100-$200 million blockbuster, four-quadrant superhero movie based on a beloved comic book known to millions worldwide for so many years? However, independent film is alive and well – always will be. That’s where the best, original ideas are. Don’t blame the studios for doing exactly what they’re meant to do – make lots of money. If you want truly unique, original stories, from different perspectives, even on a small, low-budget scale – support your local film festival and seek out these films at the smaller movie theatres or through DVD, digital/streaming releases.
So as a screenwriter, are you torn between writing a big, blockbuster-type film or a small-scale character piece?
I write what gets me excited to write, the genres I love and know best. I have to be passionate about it, and it has to be something I would pay to see myself. Many aspiring writers are under the impression that they have to write the flavor of the month. I can tell you though, that most of the screenwriters and filmmakers getting these big, juicy studio gigs probably started off with a very unique spec script (or film) that really showcased their voice and they were able to break in with that. Your best defense and protection as a writer, the way you can truly make an impact and be in your own category, is to write the script that only you can write. Show your true, original voice. Fuel the fire. What will separate you from the rest? I just want to be a working writer, period, and it’s all about paying my dues, but I’m satisfied when I write from the heart and soul of it all, not from chasing the marketplace or writing what I think people will like. Write the way a cigar is made and consumed, not the way a cigarette is made and consumed. It’s what I call the cigar vs. cigarette scenario.
What are some of the challenges you have faced over the years in your pursuit?
Number one would be the constant rejection. It never ends. It’s just the nature of the beast for us artists. A big challenge has been learning from my mistakes. I’ve definitely made my share of mistakes, and I’ve made the same mistakes more than once as well; but as I’ve gotten older and matured as a writer and learning more about how the business works, I’ve been able to not repeat those mistakes. Another challenge is the doors that are constantly opening and closing. It’s a rollercoaster ride. One day, a door opens, and the next day that very door can close. Crazy.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a new feature. When am I not? It’s an elevated thriller involving a divorced trucker and the strained relationship with his teenaged daughter. I’ve written various TV scripts as well, some which have turned out to be some of my best samples, but mainly I write features, which my manager in L.A. keeps pressing me about! Always good to have a second pair of eyes keeping you in check. See, I’ve taken time away from the writing by talking to you! Just kidding. Glad to be sharing my story and giving advice.
Speaking of advice… what do you want to say to all the aspiring writers out there who are in the everyday struggle?
You’re not alone. We’re all facing the same rejection, we all want acknowledgement and respect, and the ability to do this for a living. If you’re serious enough about it though, you have to be willing to spend years and years at this, and in some cases years of no progression. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Also, don’t cop out and have that attitude of “I don’t know anybody, what am I supposed to do?” You don’t need to know anybody. Well, okay, it helps if you know the right people, but if you’re a writer, then write. Write your ass off. The connections can be made as you’re out there getting your material to these people. If you want to be in whatever business you’re going for, you need to know who the players are and how the industry works. First and foremost though, perfect your craft. Make it the best it can be. Rewrite your face off. Then when you think it’s the best, it’s probably not. Do another draft. Enter competitions. Invest money in the best competitions that have industry judges, and even spend a little more to get notes and feedback that a lot of the legit/prestigious competitions have these days… And if you have to query, go for it. Do whatever it takes. Just know that the odds of getting a request for your material are extremely low. Oh, the odds of anything happening are very low. Don’t expect much, then when something finally does happen, it will be a nice surprise.