Review: Ask the Pros: Screenwriting 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting
101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Edited by Howard Meibach and Paul Duran
Lone Eagle Publishing Company
2004
205 pp.
Amazon.com price: $12.57

Review by Patrick Beltran 

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is not your typical screenwriting book. Edited by Howard Meibach (of Hollywoodlitsales.com fame) and writer-director Paul Duran, this book does not attempt to teach you how to write a screenplay – at all. The book is exactly what the subtitle says it is: 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals.

Now, I have to admit that when I first sat down to read it, I did not think I was going to like this book or find much value in its approach to screenwriting “education.” A big fat frequently-asked questions (FAQ) list, in book form, for screenwriters? Containing such hoary gems as, “what makes a screenplay great?” (that was the first question of the first chapter). As a well-read wannabe, I prepared for the worst; I expected to find all the same questions and answers that I’d already read and heard in various forums, and in a thousand different ways, from every screenwriting seminar, how-to book, and advice columnist on the web.

So you can imagine my surprise when I started liking the book – and my total shock when I realized that I was actually learning from it.

Based on the “Ask a Hollywood Pro” forum from hollywoodlitsales.com, the premise of the book is deceptively prosaic: Gather a long and impressive list of working Hollywood professionals – writers, directors, producers, agents, studio executives, etc. – and get them to answer, in detail, the most common questions that screenwriters always ask about writing, selling, making movies, and breaking into the business. Arrange the answers according to question topic and the profession of the answerers, pepper the pages with sidebars to give extra details and relevant definitions, and voilà, you have Ask the Pros: Screenwriting.

But the real value, I discovered, comes not from the individual answers but from the collection itself – from seeing how each answer compares, side-by-side, with answers by similar professionals responding to the same questions. Look, we’ve all heard stories about the capricious nature of Hollywood, about the Politburo-like mindless conformity that supposedly permeates the corridors of power and leads executives to march in lock-step, regularly rejecting mega-blockbuster scripts like, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (“You’ve got to be kidding, right? There’s just no Greek demographic.”). Intellectually, we know that’s not the whole story – we know that good scripts rise or fall for a lot of reasons, and that somewhere on the other side of that monolithic Wall there are individual human beings with differing tastes, opinions and abilities.

Well, Ask the Pros: Screenwriting puts that diversity of opinion in stark black and white, right on the page for all to see. Sometimes the effect is comical: for example, one of the questions the producer-experts answered was, “How much does [script] coverage affect your [development] decisions?” One producer said, “coverage is very important”; a second one’s answer started off, “coverage is a waste of time”; and a third one said, in essence, “It depends.” Other contrasts weren’t so dramatic, but everywhere I looked, I detected subtle shades of difference in approach, attitude, and expectation. I suddenly realized – hey, these guys are professionals, and even they don’t agree on the best recipe for wannabe success.

This was the first, best lesson I learned from reading this book: When it comes to an artistic, creative endeavor such as making movies or writing screenplays, there is always more than one right answer.

The second best thing about Ask the Pros is its sidebar blurbs. I especially like the “Buzz Word” definitions, which explain various “Hollywood-speak” words in ordinary English. These are terms that most of us in “flyover country” (everything between NY and L.A.) don’t use in day-to-day life, but that regularly appear in industry magazines such as Variety. For instance, did you know that “tyro” means first timer? (As in: “Tyro scribe Jim Jones just sold his spec script ‘Drinking Kool-Aid’ to DreamWorks for an undisclosed six-figure sum”). Or that Praisery is another word for public relations firm? And if you ever see a film directed by Alan Smithee, you’ll know (after reading Ask the Pros) that this is a Director’s Guild-allowed pseudonym, and it is probably being used because the real director didn’t want his or her name associated with what he considered to be a train-wreck of a picture.

Ask the Pros also includes a CD-ROM with a demo copy of the latest version of Final Draft script formatting software. If you’re serious about your wannabe status, and if you want to have any real hope of ever tasting success on the other side of that Wall, then you absolutely must invest the money to buy a scriptwriting software package. I don’t care, save your dimes for a year if you need to, cause this type of software gives you 50 spoons’ worth of traction when you’re digging for that next killer script. Final Draft is one of two packages recognized and used throughout the industry (the other one is Movie Magic Screenwriter). The demo CD enclosed with this book has a full-featured copy of Final Draft that you can take for a time-limited test drive. If you like it, you can activate the full copy simply by purchasing and entering a valid serial number.

Bottom line — Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is useful for getting inside the heads of the many Hollywood professionals interviewed. Although the book won’t help you with the mechanics of writing a script, it will give you a clearer picture of how the whole Hollywood success thing works (or doesn’t). It also helps prepare you for what you’ll encounter once you type “The End” and want to scope out which section of the Wall you’ll slam yourself into first. It’s a first-rate spoon, this one: I give it an A. Now go, young wannabe tyros — dig and be happy.

Patrick Beltran is a screenwriter, independent producer, and freelance writer who works as an IT professional during the day to pay the bills. He lives in Virginia with his wife and three daughters