Throughout filmmaking history screenwriters have used many methods to achieve success in Hollywood. Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, 1989) easily gained access to Hollywood as the daughter of stage and screenwriting team Henry and Phoebe Ephron. Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, 1999) juggled many jobs and wrote for the T.V. series, “Get a Life,” before catching the attention of producer Steve Golin. Alan Ball (American Beauty 1999) chose a different path; he first worked as a theater producer and writer. Producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner invited him to Hollywood because they both saw the debut of Ball’s hit play, “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” at the Manhattan Class Company Theater.
While Hollywood screenwriters have their own success stories, they also share strong work ethics and know how to foster vital business connections. This article examines how current Hollywood screenwriters Dan Bucatinsky and Tim McCanlies learned from their predecessors’ habits and how they jumpstarted their writing careers.
Dan Bucatinsky is a talented and disciplined writer who broke into the Hollywood scene in 2001 with his romantic comedy, “All Over the Guy.” A 1987 graduate of Vassar College, Dan took advantage of his education and worked diligently to learn his craft and develop a unique style. His time spent writing countless papers, stories, and scripts in college attributed to his screenwriting excellence. When he returned to Vassar in 2004 to advise aspiring screenwriters Dan emphasized the importance of writing everyday.
“Even when I draw a blank, even when I don’t feel like working, even when nothing I put down on paper is any good…I force myself to write for at least a couple of hours everyday,” Dan revealed.
This discipline is a trademark of successful Hollywood screenwriters. According to Dan, a writer’s willingness to push himself can prove more significant than raw talent. There are many naturally gifted writers; what distinguishes a great writer from a good one is the technique they have gained through careful study and years of dedication.
Several helpful books exist for writers seeking guidance as they try to develop their skills, including, “Crafty Screenwriting” by Alex Epstein, “Adventures in the Screen Trade” by William Goldman, and “Secrets of Film Writing” by Tom Lazarus. Dan Bucatinsky and countless other screenwriters rely on these resources to craft innovative, creative screenplays. .
Like Dan Bucatinsky, Tim McCanlies (Iron Giant, Secondhand Lions, Dancer, Texas Pop. 81) gained attention for his artful writing. He nurtured his natural writing talent by practicing and revising scripts when he wasn’t working at odd jobs to support himself.
In 1979 he published his first novel, “Harlem,” and enrolled in the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College to further study writing techniques. While in school Tim simultaneously excelled in his classes and completed a screenplay based on his novel. His hard work paid off: college founder Gary Shusett noted Tim’s diligence, read the screenplay for Harlem, and helped to get the script optioned by Interscope.
In a recent interview Tim revealed that he still writes everyday and added that “the key to good writing is to focus on developing strong, interesting characters.” He stressed the importance of building up a writing resume, encouraging aspiring writers to embrace all learning opportunities including internships and jobs as assistant writers.
One of Tim’s early jobs was as an assistant writer for the 1987 film North Shore.
Tim urges beginning writers not to lose hope, saying that it took him more than six months to write and revise the screenplay for “Iron Giant” even with his strong educational background and years of professional writing experience.
As gifted, hard working writers, both Dan Bucatinsky and Tim McCanlies recognize the significance of contacts in Hollywood. Hollywood studios receive thousands of scripts each month. Of these thousands only a few hundred may make it from the mail room, past the intern’s desk, and into the executive’s office. In the rush to read and pass scripts through the hierarchy, Hollywood studios push many screenplays to the back burner or, worse yet, immediately discard screenplays without review. Some amazing screenplays end in the trashcan while many mediocre scripts are approved for production.
Why does this happen?
Because when a script arrives with a cover letter of recommendation from an executive’s old professor, friend, co-worker, etc… it goes straight to the top of the studio’s “Read Me Now” list regardless of quality. This is the reality of the Hollywood system, however unfair it may seem to newcomers.
The smart screenwriter will accept this reality and make the most of his/her connections to ensure that their script lands in the “Read Me Now” list. Although mixers through organizations like the American Screenwriters Association and the Writers Guild of America are good places to make contacts, the schmoozing element of the business often requires some luck as well as hard work.
For example, Dan Bucatinsky was close friends with a woman named Lisa Kudrow when he was studying to become a writer at Vassar College. When Lisa became famous for her role in the popular television sitcom, “Friends,” she helped Dan achieve his Hollywood dream. She ensured the production of “All Over the Guy” by signing onto the film as an actress and recommended Dan as a writer to many Hollywood producers and directors. Dan and Lisa continue to collaborate on film projects, and he writes parts for her into his screenplays. When Dan speaks to students, he stresses making valuable friendships in college and urges students to view writing as a business as well as an art.
Tim McCanlies also credits much of his success to luck and connections. Without the support of Gary Shusett, an associate producer on the 1988 film “Moon Over Parador,” it is unlikely that Interscope would have read Tim’s unsolicited screenplay “Harlem,” let alone optioned it. Once Gary Shusett helped him get his foot in the door, Tim had the opportunity to make films with rising Hollywood stars like Brad Bird (Iron Giant 1999, The Incredibles 2004) who appreciated his work ethic and creativity. Tim’s career as a Hollywood screenwriter thrives today because of the connections he made and fostered as a young writer.
The key to breaking into Hollywood as a screenwriter is twofold: a willingness to write, study, and practice with consistency; and a talent to develop relationships with people in positions of power. There is not one right way to be a screenwriter, but these elements are significant to achieve success in Hollywood.