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Screenwriting a tough act to break into, says SU prof, script consultant

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Evan Smith isn’t in the business of dashing hopes, but as a screenwriting professor and a private script consultant, he has seen the curtain close on many dreams.

“The business is structured to make it very, very difficult for a newcomer to break in,” said Mr. Smith, a professor of radio, television and film at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “That helps to weed out those who are untalented.”

Mr. Smith joined the New-house faculty in 1995 after working in the television-film industry for 16 years. As a screenwriter, he wrote comedy and drama for Paramount, MTM, Fox, USA and other producers. Before that, he was a television development vice president in charge of TV movies, specials and series.

Mr. Smith is also known for his screenwriting seminars and articles and is the author of the book “Writing Television Sitcoms.” He also serves as a private script consultant for entertainment companies and screenwriters. In 2013, he was one of two professors in the country to receive the Teaching Excellence Award from the University Film and Video Association.

Mr. Smith talked in a phone interview about the challenges aspiring screenwriters face.

“Agents and managers find that it’s not profitable to sign new talent,” Mr. Smith said. “They make their money off of established talent that isn’t so hard to put into the next gig.”

For some students and aspiring screenwriters who are full of hope, that’s tough to hear.

“A hope that is quickly dashed is that they can write a screenplay, send it off to some manager or agent and have that person call back and say, ‘I want to represent you! Sit back and relax, I’ll do everything.’ That’s the fantasy.”

But screenwriting takes lots of work and not just the putting-down-words part.

“Half of screenwriting is selling, unfortunately,” Mr. Smith said. “Writers, more often than not, are creative, introspective types. They don’t really care for selling. But if they don’t do it, they’ll never see their work optioned, purchased or produced.”

He said the vast majority of submissions that come in to producers are horrible — that is, if you can get the attention of a producer.

“Sadly, so many people are lured by the excitement of Hollywood that the competition to get your material read is massive,” Mr. Smith said. “As a result, the people who are supposed to be developing material set up walls to prevent you from getting to them. It’s a real paradox.”

Location also matters, he said.

“Long-distance pitching is not a path to success,” he said. “There’s one city, Los Angeles, where 90 percent of the stuff is bought, developed, produced and distributed. Maybe New York City has the other 10 percent.”

It’s also tough for a screenwriter to get an agent, Mr. Smith said.

“If you call up 10 agents, at least nine are not going to take your call,” he said. “And the tenth will try to get rid of you.”

The pitch for a screenplay must be concise and brief, usually a one-sentence script summary. In the industry, such pitches are called loglines.

If the logline passes muster with a producer, the screenwriter will be asked to further describe the story.

“They’re listening to you and they’re also looking subconsciously for reasons to pass on your project,” Mr. Smith said. “If you say a couple of things that are red flags, you are going to hear a pass.”

And if a person’s script is green-lighted, there’s always the problem of trying to get the next one noticed.

“Just because you sell one script doesn’t mean you’ll sell another script,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s incredibly hard. But of course, the brass ring is pretty exciting — to get your name up on the screen, to be able to work as a storyteller and get paid for it — that’s very interesting.”

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