Actors like Tom Cruise bring characters to life on the silver screen with intensity, dedication and creativity, but the magic always begins with the story. Screenwriters, the folks who develop stories into the screenplays and scripts that take our imaginations to new heights, are the source for all the great movies and films we as fans enjoy. It’s no wonder thousands of folks from around the world aspire to write their own screenplay or teleplay and get their story into theaters or on television. Tom himself participates in the writing process – having written the story for his latest movie, Mission Impossible 4, with producer J.J. Abrams (seen in the above photo on the right), and for one of his classics, Days of Thunder.
With so many people looking to have their voice heard in both the film and television industries, the competition to take a story from idea to script to production is a competitive one. Seriously competitive. However, it’s totally possible to live the dream as a successful screenwriter or television writer. All you need is some good ideas, an understanding of how a story is told, and the fortitude to work at your script. With hard work and persistence, you too can have your script make it to the big or small screen! If anyone can do it, we know it’s the ultimate movie fans reading here right now.
So, in the spirit of our guide for filmmakers, the team at TomCruise.com gathered resources for the aspiring screenwriter! Here you can find a wealth of information to get started on the road to making your screenplay a finished work of art ready for the silver screen. In this post you can find resources for screenwriters including books, magazines, contests, festivals, fellowships and schools.
While similar, writing for film and television were different enough that we’ve separated the resources for screen and television writers into two posts! We start today with screenwriting for cinema, and will move onto writing for television for our next post. For those aspiring for a career in either medium, you’re in luck! We have you covered on all fronts. Writers looking to break into TV, stay tuned for part 2!
The story. It’s the most important part of any movie or television series. It’s where all the other great performances and art springs from. It’s what captivates audiences and keeps people the world over hungry for more! We’re sure with these tools, you can make your story the one that people come back to see again and again.
Take a look below and explore the many resources we’ve made available for the budding screen scribes! With some help, we know your creations will be up on the marquee of theaters soon.
The art and science of writing a screenplay for a feature film is something that comes easy to a select few, but normally requires a ton of dedication to master. Thankfully, there’s a ton of resources through books, fellowships and schooling that can guide the budding wordsmith from newbie to screenwriting expert! From the arc of conflict in a script to writing natural dialogue to how a script should be formatted, you can find virtually everything you need to know through the information below. All you need to supply is the irresistible story, and you’re on your way!
BOOKS & MAGAZINES
Most good writers, screenwriters included, will need to also be good readers. There are a wealth of resources for screenwriters in books and manuals to give an overview of how to become a good visual and cinematic storyteller. We’ve collected some of the most authoritative manuals used consistently as by screenwriters ranging from the most seasoned to the greenest rookies.
Considered among the sacred texts of aspiring screenwriters, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting; A Step-By-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script by Syd Field is certainly a must read for anyone looking to write a screenplay the film community will take seriously. Considered a “guru” of screenwriters, the book teaches script fundamentals such as the three-act structure, the language of visual storytelling, how to work in collaboration, and what to do after your script is complete to get it sold. Basically, it’s one of the best places to start to know the language of screenwriting and start your journey. Field teaches screenwriting at some of the schools we’ll discuss later, like USC and Harvard.
Another “guru” of screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting is also considered a necessary textbook for the aspiring screenwriter. Also a USC professor, McKee mentored 26 Academy Award winning and 126 Emmy winning writers through his world famous writers Story Seminar. His book distills the principles of the seminar down to a manual for aspiring writers to follow. He emphasizes the shaping of story, character development and the arc of conflict and resolution first popularized in ancient Greece by Aristotle! Now that’s authoratative
McKee appears in popular culture through a depiction of his seminar in the Spike Jonze film, Adaptation.
Billed as a “five-in-one” guide to writing a sellable script, The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by David Trottier earned praise from readers looking for a no-nonsense practical guide to getting a script purchased for production. The five elements the book looks to cover includes a screenwriting guide, a script workbook, a formatting guide based on industry standards, a guide to writing speculative (spec) scripts for television, a marketing guide to get a script noticed in the modern filmmaking community and, finally, an index of resources and contacts. That sounds pretty exhaustive!
One of the major obstacles in the studio system to getting a script to the next level is getting through the first gatekeeper at an agency or production company: the dreaded script-reader. Thankfully experienced professional script reader Jennifer Lerch wrote 500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Script Reader: Writing the Screenplay the Reader Will Recommend. This resource is to guide your script past the initial, and steep, barrier to entry before moving on to producers and agents for real consideration to be made.
Another book from a scriptwriting master, Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need! by the late Blake Snyder has inspired a small legion of screenwriters since it’s publication in 2005. Recommended by commenter Tom Bennett (@twbennett), this tome puts great emphasis on the structure of a screenplay through the use of a granular “beat sheet” or outline. It is currently the top-rated book on screenplays for Amazon.com. Prior to passing away in 2009, Snyder taught at UCLA, Chapman University, and Vanderbilt University.
Also on recommendation from Tom Bennett, the examination of character archetypes in 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Schmidt is also a newer but widely popular resource for storytellers. While not specifically meant for screenwriters, 45 Master Characters provides a background to classic character tropes screenwriters may use as raw material to build believable scripts. By examining the ancient foundation of character development, Schmidt gives screenwriters aprimer on how to build depth into their screenplays.
An industry standard periodical, Script Magazine is a good resource for news about script writing, learning about film industry contacts and keeping up with trends in production. For any writer looking to make Hollywood their career, it naturally makes sense to keep informed of what the screenwriting community is up to!
Another hugely influential periodical for screenwriters both aspiring and working in the industry is the monthly, Creative Screenwriting. Called the “best screenwriting magazine” by the Los Angeles Times, Creative Screenwriting offers up interviews with top screenwriters as well as a bevy of tips, advice and ways to contact folks in the industry. The magazine also hosts a Screenwriting Expo, with over 100 educational panels, and the AAA Screenwriting Contest with a $10,000 cash grand prize! Another popular feature is the magazine’s podcast, featuring talks with veteran writers such as Mike Mills, Mark Frost, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and David Elliot.
While books and periodicals are obvious starting points, staying up to date through daily advice from experienced screenwriters on their blogs is another resource to consider while developing your story. These blogs not only dispense helpful advice, tips and ways to avoid traps, but also have giant indexes of links to other online resources for the nascent screenwriter to explore.
The most authoritative voice regarding screenwriting in the blogosphere has to be John August’s blog. A veteran screenwriter with credits including Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, August has compiled an extensive archive of advice about the art of the screenplay since launching the site in 2003. A graduate of the Peter Stark School at USC, August includes articles on the basics of screenwriting, how to navigate the studio system in Hollywood, and financial concerns of writers.
For a more off-beat look at writing, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog provides screenwriters with a slightly removed take from the Hollywood norm. Scott Smith blogs about how people outside of Los Angeles can have their stories told and sold for production in TinselTown. It’s inspiring for those of us around the world who aspire to Hollywood magic without having to live in Hollywood itself.
Some other key resources for filmmakers exist on the Internet, while not in blog or publication form. Chief among these comes from one of our authors of screenwriting guides.
The resources page at Robert McKee’s website provides an astonishing wealth of information for the aspiring screenwriter looking to research the craft and art of the screenplay on the Web. With links to dozens of sites covering the gamut of screenwriting questions and needs, the would-be writer can be well on their way to learning the fundamentals of producing a polished script.
The professional advise and training offered by the Screenwriting U – both as an online news source for screenwriters and a professional school with online classes – gives the aspiring writers the opportunity to learn more about their craft regardless of where they live in the world. On a tip from screenwriter Tim Elliot in our comments, we’re happy to include this means for new screenwriters to get off the ground and create a filmmaking enterprise wherever they may live. From our look at the site, Screenwriting U founder and head instructor Hal Croasmun dispenses the sound advice that Tim calls, “the ‘Save The Cat’ for the next decade”; a nod to Blake Snyder’s influential courses on screenwriting.
Once you’ve written a script, how do you get agencies and production studios to read it? One of the major routes for the striving screenwriters to propel their unsigned script to cinema stardom would have to be the competitions and contests at film festivals and online. Here’s a list of some of the more reputable and major competitions that can earn your completed script the notice it needs to get greenlit for production!
The Slamdance Film Festival runs in conjunction with it’s more famous cousin, the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah. While not as prestigious as Sundance, the Slamdance festival for years has piggy-backed on the success of the larger fest to earn independent screenwriters and filmmakers acclaim not normally found at a smaller festival. One of the major components of Slamdance is the screenwriting contest, which stays open not only for feature-length (90 minutes or more) scripts, but also for shorts, television scripts, and genre scripts like horror or comedy.
As we noted in the earlier post for filmmakers and directors, the Austin Film Festival is a major resource for upcoming cineastes. In addition to the directing prizes in the Young Filmmakers Program, the festival hosts a well-known screenplay contest. With huge resources put forward to launching the careers of young filmmakers, this festival is one of the premiere venues in the country for the passionate writer looking to strike out on a life in cinema!
For screenwriters on the East Coast, the Gotham Screen Film Festival Screenplay Contest also provides an open forum for those looking for a break into the filmmaking game. With a specialty in the cutting edge and genre cinema, the lovers of the darker subject matter are open to vie for a $2,500 prize. In addition, all finalist have the opportunity for an excerpt of their work to be performed by live actors at the festival!
As we also wrote in the filmmakers post for directors, the American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest judged by famed film director Francis Ford Copolla is among the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country. Known for hosting filmmakers with an independent streak and literary bend, Zoetrope gave birth to independent classics such as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. The contest includes a membership to the Zoetrope Digital Studio, which helps screenwriters through workshops and critiques of writing to make scripts stronger.
For more advanced screenwriters, taking the step to gaining a fellowship can boost a a passion for writing from hobby to career. These awards typically include a substantial cash prize to finance further writing, contacts in the industry, and often the opportunity to move a speculative script into production.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the people behind the Academy Awards!) offers such a fellowship for screenwriters looking to take their career to the next level. The Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are given up to five writers each year, including a $30,000 prize for writers who have earned less than $5,000 previously for screenwriting work.
Screenwriting is blessedly the one aspect of filmmaking that doesn’t necessarily require skills specific to the job. Successful screenwriters come from remarkably varied educational backgrounds. The most important aspect is the ability to see or tell a story in a manner both familiar and fresh. That’s the magic!
However, most screenwriters typically have an education and life experience to draw from in order to find these stories. And some schools with strong traditions of excellence in the cinematic arts have produced more successful writers with award-winning screenplays than others. Below is a short list of some of these schools with their most recognizable alumni attached. Those who have collaborated with Tom Cruise will be bolded on the list. All awards listed are for original screenplays, with nominations designated with (N):
- New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts – Woody Allen (Oscar – Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Nominated 14 times!) Charlie Kaufman (Oscar – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Michael Arndt (Oscar – Little Miss Sunshine), Bruce Joel Rubin (Oscar – Ghost), Joel Coen (Oscar – Fargo), Tamara Jenkins (Oscar (N) – The Savages)
- California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) – Brad Bird (Oscar (N) – Ratatouille, The Incredibles)
- University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Theater, Film and Television – Dustin Lance Black (Oscar – Milk), Alessandro Camon (Oscar (N) – The Messenger), Oren Moverman (Oscar (N) – The Messenger), Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder), David Koepp (War of the Worlds)
- University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts – Grant Heslov (Oscar (N) – Good Night, and Good Luck), Judd Apatow (The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), Will Farrell (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby), Ron Howard (Far and Away)
- Harvard University – Matt Damon (Oscar – Good Will Hunting), Terrence Malick (Oscar (N) – The Thin Red Line), Whit Stillman (Oscar (N) – Metropolitan)
There you have it screenwriting hopefuls! Using the resources above, you should be able to start your march to crafting a compelling and captivating screenplay. Not only that, but get it sold and produced for all the world to enjoy! We can’t wait to see you do it.
Remember to stay tuned for the second part of the screenwriters posts, with specific resources for the writers looking to break into the world of television. It promises to be a good one!