Creating a Road Map for Your Screenwriting Career With Oscar-Winner Tom Nunan

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by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Tom Nunan’s resume is formidable, to say the least. Aside from serving as the president of UPN (now the CW), president of NBC Studios, and forming his own successful production company, Bull’s Eye Entertainment, Tom also has a Best Picture Oscar for his role in producing Crash. He is an experienced teacher at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, and now you have the opportunity to learn from Tom’s many years of experience without shelling out for a graduate degree.

Tom and his UCLA colleague, renowned screenwriting teacher Corey Mandell, are leading a two-day seminar in October entitled Script to Career. Over the course of the weekend, Tom and Corey will help writers not just bring their scripts up to a professional level but also map out a career plan that creates opportunities in this ultra-competitive business. You can read the full description of the weekend course at ScriptToCareer.com and get your pass here. Remember to use the discount code LASW2016 for 10% off.

I had the chance to speak with Tom via email to learn more about Script to Career, creating a road map for your career, and the biggest mistakes he sees writers make.

Read to the end for a chance to win a FREE PASS to Script to Career.

Angela Bourassa (AB): Looking over the schedule for Script to Career, it seems like you and Corey are taking a very integrated approach to this seminar.

tom-nunanTom Nunan (TN): Corey and I are taking an integrated approach to the event, for a few reasons.  First off, we recognize that when one is pursuing a creative career, it’s difficult to separate “script” from “career.”  Most serious writers ask themselves how a particular script, concept, or idea, might fit into the overall fabric of the career they’re trying hard to create.  Our lectures will address those questions directly and organically.  For example, if one is a beginning writer, should they write in all genres — comedy, drama, fantasy, etc. — or should they possibly focus on a single genre and become expert at it?  That single question shows how the creative — the genre I write in — is indelibly connected to the career choice — what am I known for, as a professional?

AB: Could you talk a bit about creating a road map for a screenwriting career and how writers can approach that daunting process?

TN: Creating a road map for a screenwriting career is much less daunting, in my experience, than writing itself is.  In fact, my hope would be that the creation of this road map, blue-print, or “ladder” would be a fun and fulfilling experience.  Without revealing all of the lessons I hope to share at our event, it’s clear that a few essentials are necessary whenever anyone is envisioning a career in entertainment: Who are my role models?  What time frame am I giving myself to reach key milestones in my career before I reevaluate?  What are the key ways I’m advancing myself and making myself accountable to my goals, and are there things I’m doing now that are actually pulling me away from the career I want?  I help writers and creators uncover these truths in themselves and, as a result, bring to life a future for themselves that might not have totally revealed itself until now.

AB: In your experience, are there avenues to becoming a working writer that have proven more successful than others (aside from writing as much as possible)? For example, does it make more sense to work an agent’s desk and make inside connections that way or to get a bartending gig and produce your own content on the weekends?

TN: The most effective avenue for becoming a working writer is to hang out with other aspiring writers, or better yet, hang out with other successful writers.  In the beginning, most writers must find their first, second, or even third professional writing job on their own — via their own relationships.  If those relationships are born out of working on an agent’s desk, terrific.  If those relationships are born working as a bartender somewhere, great.  But overall, without a vital, functioning writer’s group — and I’ll describe helpful writers groups versus unhelpful writers groups when we meet — few writers get the leg up they’re seeking.  Generally, I’m not a big believer in writers and creators working in “entertainment adjacent” jobs in the industry, unless they’re working for writer/producers, or actually in a writer’s room.  If you think about your favorite writers and how their careers began, few if any worked in related businesses in the entertainment industry.

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Some of the companies that Tom Nunan and Corey Mandell have written or produced for…

AB: How analytical do you recommend screenwriters be about the concepts they choose to develop? Are you an advocate of following the trades and staying on top of what’s hot now?

TN: People often ask how analytical a writer should be in deciding what concept to develop or write on spec.  Some even believe that following trade publications to see what’s being bought is a good way to make strategic decisions.  First off, I’m a big advocate of keeping up on what’s happening in the entertainment industry, but not for choosing what to write and what not to write.  It’s important to see the volume, diversity, and range of projects that are being transacted on daily.  What doesn’t work is watching those transactions and believing you can somehow devise a way to sell an idea, based on news blurbs.  For one thing, most of the projects we read about have been in the works for years.  Also, if anything, to read about what’s being bought should only inform you regarding concept strategy one way:  come up with something DIFFERENT than what’s already sold.

The only real value, regarding creative concept strategy, in reading the entertainment news is realizing a key truth: everything is based on Intellectual Property these days.  It’s rare to find any news where someone has simply bought a concept.  The good news is that IP can also mean a spec script.  So my advice?  Keep up on the news in Hollywood, but only to educate yourself about opportunity, not to inform you about what to develop.

AB: There’s this conception among budding writers that if they could just land a rep, they’d have it made. Could you speak to that?

TN: That’s one of the great myths.  Ask any new writer who has an agent or manager, and you’ll realize immediately how untrue that myth is.  While there are excellent agents and managers out there, the only people who really benefit from representatives early in their careers are actors and directors.  Acting and directing opportunities are still learned about the old fashioned way — via talent representatives.  It’s nearly impossible to get cast in something, or get hired to direct an episode, pilot or feature, without an agent or manager letting you know about the opportunity.  Writing is utterly different.  Writers must create their own opportunities.  It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s downright confusing.  But it’s true.  Agents and managers are rarely helpful finding work, especially for the new writer.  Once you’re established, an agent or manager can be truly helpful managing opportunities and introducing new ones.  But the new writer is very much on their own. That is, unless they write a lot of excellent spec material that can be sold.  Then even a young writer will benefit from representation.  Even then, however, the new writer will likely have to sell that spec based on their own relationships, in the beginning, versus an agent.  It’s the way of the world.

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AB: What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see writers make?

TN: A.)  They talk about writing more than they actually write.  B.)  They chase trends, versus writing what they believe in.  C.)  They turn in material before it’s ready to be turned in, often permanently damaging their creative reputation.  D.)  Did I mention they’re often lazy and don’t turn out material as often as they should?  E.)  They hang on to old ideas for far too long.  Give yourself three months with a new idea and if you don’t get real traction — i.e. a good first draft — let it go.  F.)  They isolate too much and don’t join writers groups or form them, even though every expert tells them they must have a helpful writers group to succeed. I’ve got more…

AB: What do you wish more writers understood about film and TV production?

TN: When it comes to film and TV production,  I wish some writers were more aware of the following:

COLLABORATION.  The only way you get to stay on a film or TV show is if you realize there are true limits to physical production.  If you’re not willing to be creative and efficient with your script changes, they’ll swiftly find someone else who gets that compromise is MANDATORY.

ACTORS AREN’T IDIOTS.  Writers often take the haughty position that actors don’t know the first thing about material.  If you keep that position, you’ll be fired.  Even if an actor isn’t articulate about why the scene doesn’t work, it’s the writer’s job to fix it and make it work so that the train can keep moving.  Actors are the most intuitive souls walking planet earth, but they often don’t express their concerns effectively.  The most successful writers are “Actor Whisperers.”  They know how to interpret why an actor is uncomfortable with a scene, and they can fix it, often to the benefit of the scene.  Remember — on any set — the star usually wields the most power.  Don’t make the star the enemy — learn to be their friend by helping them.  You’ll end up helping yourself.  And the hardest part to admit: the actor usually is correct, on some fundamental level, when they complain that a scene doesn’t work.

DEADLINES MATTER.  Producers love writers who do what they say and say what they do, especially when it comes to deadlines.  Most writers aren’t in the extraordinary camp of Aaron Sorkin or David Milch, who once had reputations for missing deadlines and schedules in service of their muse or their art.  Studios and networks will tolerate that kind of behavior from an established and true genius — but Sorkin and Milch have even been fired from their own shows for not being professional.  Studios, networks, and producers all understand that writing is difficult, but they also understand that it’s also rarely perfect.  They simply want to work with the writer to get it to as good a place as it can be, and one way they can help do that is if they can actually get their hands on the material when all agree it is due.  Don’t be late.  Be good always, but don’t be late when you’re a hired gun.  If you’re writing a spec, take your time and make it PERFECT.  But if you’re on a job, do the best you can, but meet your deadlines and keep your promises.  It’s all part of what gets you hired next time.

BE DIRECT.  If you’re getting notes, don’t be silent or “yes” producers if you have no intention of actually executing their notes or ideas.  If you have a problem with a note or suggestion, speak up about it, either in the room or as soon as possible once you’re in front of your computer.  There’s nothing more infuriating for a producer than to have to prepare hours of notes with a writer, have a writer agree to them in the room, then to get a script six weeks later with few of the notes integrated, and no warning about it.  No producer expects all of her notes to be taken, but she certainly expects the writer to respect the time, effort, and INTENTION behind the note.  Writers don’t realize that these notes aren’t casual nor are they simply opinions.  The notes often are driven by market issues: will the script attract the right talent, will the studio want this specific genre in the way it is executed, are the first twenty pages compelling enough?  Notes take time and real effort to create — don’t ignore them or, worse, “yes” them if you have no intention of doing them.

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Have a question about building a screenwriting career? Ask it in the comments. Our favorite comment will win a FREE PASS ($495 value) to Script to Career with Tom Nunan and Corey Mandell, October 8-9 at UCLA. Comment by August 31 — we’ll pick the winner on September 1!

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Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

16 thoughts on “Creating a Road Map for Your Screenwriting Career With Oscar-Winner Tom Nunan

Add yours

  1. Screenwriters often are broke, not being associate Writers Guild members so acquisitions departments reject query submission letters, how can a talented writer get his foot inside a Los Angeles producers door to greenlight on his/her creative variety?

    1. It’s all about building connections and making sure that your scripts are at a professional level. If you’re in LA, there are a lot of great networking events that you can attend. You should also try to get into a writers group. Just be sure that when you do meet someone who can get your script made, your script is ready!

  2. Thank you for this frank, solid advice. Here’s the line I found most intriguing: “And the hardest part to admit: the actor usually is correct, on some fundamental level, when they complain that a scene doesn’t work.” My experience from being in fiction workshops is that while other writers aren’t always spot-on in advising you how to make a fix to a scene, they’re almost always right about the problem existing in the first place. It’s typically a matter of trying to figure out how to solve that problem based on the way it’s being described by other people, even if they’re describing it in a way you don’t exactly agree with.

  3. Everybody has a job in the production of a screenplay. These guys are telling you to DO YOUR JOB. Directors direct, actors act, and writers should write and act like a professional. They’re gonna take your baby, rip it up, and throw it’s guts on the floor. You have to Man/Woman up and take it. It’s called being an adult. Go stomp around in the bathroom and bang your head against the wall then come back out and get the job done. Be polite, be professional, and be grateful that you have a creative job that you get paid big bucks to do. (Drops the mic)

  4. For someone with no education on screenwriting. Where do I go to find a screenwriting group to get to know those in the business?

    1. A simple place to start is meetup.com. There are lots of open writers groups listed there. You can also check networkisa.org or scriptwritersnetwork.com

  5. I love how straightforward and practical this article is. It’s very positive as well. I worked in journalism for a brief time and that instilled in me the importance of deadlines. I also am in a few good, supportive writing groups – it’s amazing – not only the community you can become a part of, but the great feedback! Really glad I found this article today!

  6. My comment/question is:

    Corey, you’ve talked about the importance of writing consistently, perhaps every day.* Tom, should we also take steps every day to further the business side of our writing careers? And if so, what specific steps do you recommend?

    I hope this wins me the free pass – this is going to be a great, informative event. 🙂

    Thanks Angela and all best!

    *Here’s a post by Corey where he talks about daily writing: http://coreymandell.net/the-kurosawa-method/

  7. When they watch blockbusters on screens and read about the awards and remunerations of their writers. Beginners usually want to start at that level and be the next Oscar winners the following year. They have more expectations than the comprehensive knowledge in the field, and end up being frustrated at the start.

    What reading materials would you recommend beginners to master?
    What could be the best genres of screenplays for beginners and of what length?
    Where would you advise them to submit their scripts for better motivation, guidance and avoid instant rejection?

    Umar Matovu (Uganda, Africa)
    New screenwriter.

  8. What is the best way for someone not living in LA or NY to break into screenwriting and actually get noticed by the right people? Is moving necessary? What about those of us who are international and can’t just move to the US?

  9. Corey is a master at helping the screenwriter move from novice to accomplished in as short a time as possible. He knows the tools that help create a great screenplay and he drills his students unmercifully toward mastering those tools. He helps the student balance the conceptual and intuitive mind so that they don’t work agains each other. Many novices waste years writing a rewriting. Stop. You will learn more in a year working with Corey than three years elsewhere.

  10. Corey is a master at helping the screenwriter move from novice to accomplished in as short a time as possible. He knows the tools that help create a great screenplay and he drills his students unmercifully toward mastering those tools. He helps the student balance the conceptual and intuitive mind so that they don’t work against each other. Many novices waste years writing and then rewriting only to wonder why no one likes their screenplay. Stop. You will learn more in a year working with Corey than three years elsewhere.

  11. Four things I gained from this article:
    1. Representation mainly helps actors and directors. As a writer/ director it is imperative that I obtain representaion through the films I direct to open the door for writing opportunities.
    2. Less talking/more writing: I appreciate the fact that Tom placed a timeline on a idea, the first drat should be done in 90 days. I think this is critical because of the “stale factor” as writers we become stale if we dont exercise with our pen.
    3. Actors are not stupid: Actors should be treated with the upmost respect, and communication helps the actor to potray a more acurate character if the actors care about the project.
    4. Compromise: Writers must be able to compromise for the longevity of the project.

  12. These are all great comments and questions. Thank you all for your thoughtful responses!

    This time around, the free pass is going to…… SMW! Congratulations and we hope you love the seminar!

    For everyone else, remember that you can get 10% off Script to Career with the coupon code LASW2016.

    You can also try again in a few weeks, because we’re going to give away ANOTHER FREE PASS! Keep visiting the site or sign up for our newsletter so you don’t miss that opportunity!

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