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GET THE BOOK: Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing


I have long preached that there are no trends in screenwriting. What’s the trend today? Vampires are already so last year. If, just for the sake of argument, we could actually identify a particular trend, it would be too late to cash in on that trend simply because it is the trend. To become the trend it would have had to be in the works for at least a couple of years. By the time you write a script following the blockbuster weekend of a romantic comedy with record sales, the trend is over.

That said however, there is in fact a trend, and is the only trend. It has prevailed since the time of Aristotle and will continue to dictate what audiences see centuries from now. That trend is: story. For creators of fresh, arresting, engaging stories the sky is the limit. There has never been a better time for story tellers to enter the movie and media market. Thanks to the new technologies, now more than ever the storytellers – the writers – are in charge.

- Richard Walter




Begging Writer

All the parking on the Vegas strip is free.

Downtown along Fremont Street in the old Las Vegas, with its storefront casinos such as The Golden Nugget, even in one-hundred-and-ten degree desert-summer heat the doors stand wide open.

Casino owners want it to be super-easy for visitors to enter. Even a nominal parking fee might deter, say, one-and-a-half percent of potential visitors. Even merely having to stop to push open a door—rather than simply strolling through one that is already open--might dissuade, say, one half of one percent of potential gamblers. One half of one percent might add up to, perhaps, six-hundred-thousand dollars a week.

What’s this got to do with screenwriting?

Writers should make it not difficult but easy for readers to enter their scripts. Even with a stack of scripts to the ceiling, a producer, or her readers, might glance—merely out of curiosity—at the opening lines of a newly arrived script.

Why not hook them right away?

Continue reading this article... at

Script Magazine - Ask the Expert

Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Neil Landau

Neil Landau - The Screenwriter's Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story

Neil Landau is a professor in the MFA in Screenwriting and Producing Programs at UCLA School of Film, Television and Digital Media, and a guest lecturer in the MFA Screenwriting Division at USC School of Cinematic Arts.

He’s the author of "101 Things I Learned in Film School" (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). His film and television credits include the cult teen comedy "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead,” "Melrose Place," "The Magnificent Seven," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "The Secret World of Alex Mack," “Twice in a Lifetime,” MTV's "Undressed,” plus sold one-hour drama TV pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime, and Freemantle.

He serves as writer and co-executive producer on the new 3D animated feature “Tad, the Lost Explorer” forthcoming from Paramount and StudioCanal. Neil is also developing an original historical miniseries for HBO Europe.

His second book, "The Screenwriter’s Roadmap," arrives in bookstores in next week from Focal Press. The book features nuts and bolts screenwriting guidance from Landau, plus interviews with 21 A-list Hollywood screenwriters, including Tony Gilroy, David S. Goyer, Scott Z. Burns, Billy Ray, Melissa Rosenberg, David Koepp, and Eric Roth.

In this Q&A, Neil discusses how he entered the industry and continues to drive success to the stories he brings alive on screen.

Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Neil Landau

Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?  

When I was just six years old, my father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 39. I was devastated and retreated into my own world. Instead of playing outside, I stayed in my room and started writing plays. Fantastical premises. Comedies. Crazy shit. By high school, one of my plays won a regional theater festival; the play was about a depressed guy who had trouble making it through another week in his life – until the days of the week showed up – personified – to help him. So I figured I’d be a playwright, but being raised by a hard working single mom, I was pragmatic enough to know that I also needed to make a living. My other escapist obsessions were movies and sit-coms (especially “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”). I sent away for tickets to be in the audience for live tapings of TV shows, and begged my mom to take me. The more I observed the process, the more I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I started college at Cal-State Northridge and secured an internship at MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) Enterprises which produced “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Newhart.” “Hill Street” was such a seminal one-hour drama series; I’d never seen anything that gritty and nuanced on TV before – which certainly inspired me to want to write for one-hour drama series and create my own pilots later. I was also assistant to actor Judd Hirsch when he was doing “Taxi” at Paramount, and I would spend every spare minute sitting and watching those great actors rehearsing on set, and observing how the writers and showrunner, James L. Brooks, and director, James Burrows, would perfect the timing of every joke – but never at the expense of character. Before I transferred to UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, this was my on- the-job training. For me, it was magical.

Q2: How did you start your writing career?

While I was still at UCLA, I teamed up with my best friend, Tara Ison (who was an English major there), and we dedicated ourselves to writing some scripts together. The first one was awful. The second one got us some interest from an agent and a few meetings, but nothing more. The third script sold and was made into “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” (starring Christina Applegate). We wrote it on spec and one of my UCLA professors (Cynthia Whitcomb) got it to an agent for us. Our lives changed very quickly after that. There was a bidding war at two studios for that script. 20th Century Fox bought it, and lots or work soon followed in the form of selling pitches and nabbing assignments at almost every studio. We also got signed by CAA, and that led to our first TV writing gig at “Doogie Howser, M.D.” – which was a Steven Bochco show (as was “Hill Street Blues”), so my fantasy career was, more or less, becoming a reality. But every career has its ups and downs; Tara and I later split up and I had some lean years until I managed to learn how to stand on my own two feet and rediscover my solo voice again. And it was by writing a new stage play that got produced… which then helped me land a solo writing assignment at Fox, and then on to writing on “Melrose Place” and many other TV series.

Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why? 

“The Graduate.” I think director Mike Nichols broke new ground with his style and verve – and all those scenes that made me cringe (but in a good way). I’m also a huge fan of heist and con artist movies, like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting” – which offered iconic characters and high stakes suspense mixed with comedy. Ditto: “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I still think “Tootsie” is the best comedy of all time. “Rosemary’s Baby” is the best horror picture ever made… in my humble opinion; “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en,” the best thrillers; “Cabaret,” the best musical. “Strangers on a Train” is my favorite Hitchcock. “Toy Story” and “Up” are my favorite animated movies. More all time favorites: “The Verdict,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Paper Moon,” “The Godfather,” “Taxi Driver,” along with classic Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and Woody Allen films. More recently: “American Beauty,” “Michael Clayton,” and “The Town.” My favorite movie last year was “Drive.”

Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?

Rule #1: KEEP WRITING. It’s easy to get distracted by the business and who’s making what deals and where. But a great, viable screenplay or TV pilot is your ticket in. Many writers make the mistake of trying to break-in to the biz before they’re ready – by sending out material that’s half-baked or tepid. It’s just too competitive out there to go out with anything that’s not 100%. And choosing the right idea is vital: a premise that truly fires you up. Of course, some of that is timing and just dumb luck. Stuff you can’t control. But quality you can (assuming you have talent). Ask your friends to be tough on you before you send scripts out because the gatekeepers who read scripts will be merciless. I’m also a big advocate of taking advantage of internships at movie and TV companies and agencies while you’re still in school. Internships can be invaluable learning experiences. UCLA is a wonderful film school and a great place to network and hone your craft among super talented peers and under the tutelage of astute instructors. Then, try to find a day job that affords you the most time to focus on your writing. Travel, explore, read books, see plays and movies. Steep yourself in family and love and life; that’s where the best stories come from.

Q5: What new projects are you working on?

I worked on a 3D animated movie, “Tad, the Lost Explorer,” for the past three years with a very talented Spanish director (Enrique Gato) and a team of Spanish producers and writers. Paramount is releasing it around the world, with premieres in Spain, France, UK, Russia, all over South America -- and China. Depending on our box office results, we’ll see if we get a US release. Our budget was one-fifth the size of a Pixar or Dreamworks animated movie, so we’ll see. No matter what happens, I’m proud of our work, and I’m credited as writer and co-Executive Producer. [At press time, "Tad" opened #1 at the Spanish box office and has remained at #1 for 5 consecutive weeks, outgrossing Pixar, Dreamworks, "The Hunger Games," "The Dark Knight Rises," and has become the highest grossing animated film in Spain's history, and is Spain's #1 box office movie of the year.] Hopefully, we’ll do many sequels of Tad. And the same team and I are already working on a new animated movie that starts production in early 2013. It’s called “Capture the Flag.” Other projects include one-hour pilot development with Cary Brokaw (for Avenue Pictures); Cary produced “The Player” and “Closer” and “Angels in America” for HBO, and has optioned my last spec screenplay; we’re seeking a director to make it next year. I also continue to work quite extensively for TV studios and networks in Moscow, and am working on what will become the first original series for HBO Russia.

And last, but not least, my new book, THE SCREENWRITER’S ROADMAP: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story (from Focal Press), is arriving in bookstores in early October. The book encompasses what I learned from my mentors, Richard Walter and Hal Ackerman, and what I currently teach in my MFA Screenwriting classes at both UCLA and USC. But that’s not all! I also interviewed 21 “A” list screenwriters for an in-depth discussion of the topic of each chapter, including: Tony Gilroy, David Koepp, Andrew Kevin Walker, Eric Roth, Laeta Kalogridis, Melissa Rosenberg, Jose Rivera, David S. Goyer, Billy Ray, Steven Conrad, and Richard LaGravenese. I’m now at work on my follow up/companion book: The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (for Focal Press, 2013), which will offer my perspectives on writing/producing and sustaining an episodic TV series, plus interviews with top showrunners from Breaking Bad, Homeland, Dexter, The Walking Dead, Lost – and so many other great shows. How much fun is that?

CLICK HERE to check out Neil's new book, "The Screenwriter's Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story"

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