Today we’ve the pleasure of interviewing Steven Prowse, who was good enough to answer my questions, both insightful and inane!
Steven has placed in over 130 competitions, winning 25 in the process with numerous quarter and semi final places to boot… he’s also just optioned a true WWII feature for a mid six figure sum to Hollywood!
To super-glue a smile to everyone’s faces, please take a look at dear Mr. Prowse’s IMDB page.
Trust me – this is a guy you want to have burned into your synapses. In a very good way…
Q: Could you give me a little bit of background on yourself and how you got into screenwriting?
A: In my teens I was a math geek who hated English. English was way too subjective for my tastes. But I was somehow awarded a Scholarship to Cambridge University to read Math. After that I fell into accounting (this is where you start to feel sad for me) and am currently at CFO level (maybe not so sad). I’ve also played bridge at international level. So there was nothing in my history to suggest I would, could or should ever write.
However, in 1999 I took a year sabbatical and quickly became bored. One can only watch so much daytime TV before one’s IQ starts bleeding through the eyes. One random shopping trip I decided to challenge myself, and all I could think of was to write a novel. English – my nemesis. By the time I arrived home I had the first and last chapters pretty much verbatim, but it took almost the full year to connect the dots.
As research, it included personal tours of the White House, the DoJ Building and the main FBI Building. This was pre 9/11 – I’m not sure such accommodation would be granted now. It also involved getting some FBI agents drunk. Did they really think they could compete with a writer? I learned so much those two nights – especially on the second night when they brought in the professional drinkers. Their loss. My gain. Oh how they’ll talk!
It turned out, to my utter surprise, that I thoroughly enjoyed the writing process, with or without alcohol. The novel, like 98% of written novels, has never been published, though I am tempted to e-publish it myself next year. I never set out to have it published in any case – it was just to keep the brain cogs turning.
After the sabbatical, back to work for another twelve years before taking another sabbatical. I wanted to write again but didn’t fancy a whole novel – quite the investment. I remember snapping at one-too-many movies where it appeared the script had been written by a computer which had simply taken another script and moved some of the words and scenes around. I can’t even remember if it was an action movie or a rom-com.
Screenplays it was then. I preferred it in any case as there is no inner monologue and you don’t take a page describing the scenery. As a result, they are smaller projects (usually around 15-20% of the number of words of a novel), so one can have more variety in a year with different projects. Hence the plethora of screenplays out there floating on the internet vying for attention.
Q: And how many features, shorts etc have you written now?
A: Other than the novel in 1999, I wrote five features in 2013, one based on the novel: a Mel Brooks satire of all things Hollywood, an FBI Procedural, a medieval horror, a true WW2 story, and a low-budget children’s movie. The rest of my spare time since then has been spent revising and editing them – a never-ending process.
I have written a premise for a TV show which has won a first and second place, but I have yet to develop it.
I also have in my head a hopefully compelling and unique 7-hour TV drama. I’ve written down a detailed synopsis, the beats for each episode, but have yet to commit myself to actually writing it in full. If I can garner success with the other projects I have invested so much time, energy and passion into, then maybe I’ll pick it up. I’ve dreamt every episode. I’ve got to the stage where I refuse to expend any more energy on screenwriting, despite the successes.
Q: Did you undertake any formal training, courses or just jump in?
A: Warren Buffet once advised never to test the depth of the water with both feet. What does that billionaire know about anything? I ignored that and jumped straight in.
Q: Any advice for beginner screenwriters based on what you learnt with your first few scripts?
A: Please note that any answers I give forthwith (and above) are based on two-and-a-half years of intensive competition entries. Despite any successes, a certain amount of jaded, tired ennui will seep through. Please filter accordingly.
Feedback, patience and a thick skin rule in equal measure. Do not think your first scripts, and certainly not the first drafts of any scripts, are any good. 99.9% of the time they won’t be. The temptation once the wonderful first draft is done is to throw it and money into competitions and sit back vaingloriously awaiting the inevitable praise and offers that will come your way.
Send it to friends who will be truthful with you. Spend some money on independent reviews, even if they only offer feedback of a few pages. It will be cash well spent in the long run. Enter it in competitions that also provide this service as part of the entrance fee if you like. As I said, English is subjective and there is nothing worse than yourself appraising your own work.
Also, be careful over the first few scripts not to inject your personal favorite sayings, phrases and habits in different scripts. It’s an easy unconscious slip. Always focus on producing different, defined characters that are not similar cuttings of you.
Q: You are massively successful in screenwriting competitions, I think I counted 25 outright wins for all five features, plus nine 2nds and over a hundred official selections. What prompted you to go the competition route?
A: Exposure. Being a first-time screenwriter it was the only way to attract any attention from agents, managers or producers. The spam query letter, despite it being professionally sculptured, rarely (if ever) succeeds, not even with boutique companies.
Q: How did you assess and select the competitions you entered?
A: At the beginning I didn’t. It was pretty much a costly scatter-gun approach – the competition version of a spam query letter. Of course, I did the research and found out the top competitions and entered them but, in the beginning trying to get placings on my CV, it was a question of width rather than quality. I pretty much entered everything. There was also the hope of a quick placing for my own comfort that I must be doing *something* right. Many screenwriters do this. We are insecure.
Of course, as the placings and wins started to mount up I had the width, so quality became more important. Enter Phase II. Now I tend to avoid the pure internet-based competitions. There are some good ones out there that are not connected with a land-based film festival, but most are worthless by name, just by number. Now I research the history of the competition (I never enter a competition in its first year – it almost certainly won’t carry any weight), try to find comments from previous entrants, etc, etc.
Q: What’s the biggest you’ve won in your opinion?
A: A trickier question than one might think. In terms of potential exposure, it would have to be the long-running and popular Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival for the true WW2 story. Not only did it win Best Historical Screenplay, but was awarded a Special Jury Award as well. Potential exposure, yes, but nothing came of it.
In terms of ‘biggest’ from a personal point of view, and possibly the biggest surprise, it would have to be Best Screenplay for the same true WW2 story from the Female Eye Film Festival based in Toronto. This festival focuses on the advancement of women as directors, screenwriters and actors. I was lucky enough to attend last year and the dedication they spend trying to promote women at all levels in the industry is quite awe-inspiring.
Come the awards ceremony, I obviously did not expect to win, even though the script focuses on the true story of an all-woman air-regiment that basically bombed the crap out of the German forces, and the battles to have the regiment formed in the first place. No one with male genitalia had won in any category in its twelve year history. Yet I did. I really wish I had refrained from Writers’ Drink before the acceptance speech…
Q: What’s your favorite competition and why?
That’s an easy one. ReelHeART, based in Toronto. The enthusiasm and energy of the organizer, Shannonn Kelly, the fact that the top three nominated scripts get a full table read (an invaluable experience), the fact that unpaid actors rehearse these scripts time and time again and that they are integral to the whole festival…it just energizes you to a level you never thought you could attain.
Q: And what have you learnt from your incredible run in competitions?
To be honest, that most competitions (the internet ones) are there simply to make money from wannabe screenwriters like myself and do not care for their career. Skimming the market. Many boast great judges, great connections and that the winning script will be sent to their contacts. Maybe that is kosher, maybe it is not. Who can tell? But most agents / managers / producers will not have heard of these competitions nor care. As I said, there are exceptions of course.
But it’s a symbiotic relationship. I accepted most were not worth a damn but wanted some sort of recognition, any recognition, and wanted to build up that list as well. And it worked – like getting letters after your name from a bogus on-line university. I finally got noticed not by an agent, but by Network ISA as you mention later.
You say it is an incredible run, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I really can’t tell. Although I have a large number of wins / placings, for every one of those there are three competitions I failed to place in. Given the average number of scripts entered into a competition is around 600, perhaps a 25% success rate is something, I guess. With a machine gun in a crowd, you’re bound to hit some.
Also, as I said, grow a thick thin is a rule. There are several competitions I have entered that, given previous successes, I was a shoe-in for. Yet I never reached the first round. English. Subjective.
Q: Have the competitions themselves given you options/sales etc?
Nothing. Just USD 700 in cash, a few trophies, a few certificates, and many e-mailed jpgs saying ‘Winner’.
Q: I believe the volume and consistency of the competition successes brought you to the attention of the development team at Network ISA, how did that play out?
There are several websites out there that promote the concept that agents / managers / producers regularly scour them looking for the Next Best Thing, but there are rare successes. Interestingly, more than one website lay claim that Snow White And The Huntsman, which sold for over USD 3m due to a new overly-ambitious studio head at the time, was because the script was on their website. It was on many websites. Be wary of that.
Unless it’s a micro-budget, do not expect any interest. Obviously there are many, many exceptions, but just prepare yourself for a lack of interest. As I said, a thick-skin is one of the rulers. Chip, chip, chip away. Do not expect Thor’s Hammer with one mighty blow, no matter how good you think your script is.
On Network ISA however, instead of being just a dating site / data dump / hosting site like Blacklist and most others, they have a spot-the-potential (‘Development’) team headed by Max Timm that search through what is registered on their database, search through the post-your-success page, spot the potentials and then pro-actively engage to make the script and log-line better and then send it out to their contacts.
Now a lot of their post-your-success page is “I reached the quarter-final of something you might have heard of!” Well whoopee-do. I hate to say it, but nobody cares. Luckily, because of my costly scatter-gun approach, the number of wins and official selections became very high and as a result I became noticed by the Development Team. The investment in insignificant competitions worked – at least for me. Like everything in commerce, the success of a product is a mixture of how inherently good it is and the marketing campaign. I can only comment on my own approach.
Q: What have they done for you so far?
A: Max sent the script to a Hollywood studio, and after several months, it is now optioned for a mid-six figure amount.
Max has also helped on loglines for the other projects, and introduced me to an agent who, free of charge, helped out with the negotiations for the option as noted above. Wow.
I still don’t have an agent of manager, despite the success, so my only message to the audience is not to expect to get one.
Q: I understand it’s an invitation only scheme the ISA run, any tips for getting the invite?
A: Simply do enough to get noticed. Network ISA is a “tell us what you’ve achieved in competitions” database as opposed to the other more simplified “Here’s my screenplay and my log-line” dating databases that freckle and infest the internet. It turned out that my approach to competitions and their looking for potential was a perfect storm. It won’t work for everyone, it just happened to work for me.
Q: You are a ‘mature’ screenwriter and have come to the industry relatively late, do you think that helped or hindered?
A: Age only seems significant if one is a female actor. There are many reasons screenwriters rarely appear in front of the camera. Age is just one of them. I, for example, have the perfect face for radio.
Q: One of your recent, multi-award winning, screenplays has been optioned by Hollywood for a significant fee, what can you tell us about the screenplay?
A: Right now, female-led scripts are at the fore. They are looking to make The Expendabelles as a parallel to The Expendables, as an example.
There was a project for this true story about 15 years ago, but that script parachuted in a male, US lead to make it commercial, but luckily that plane never took off. Hearing about this aborted take-off of the actual facts, is what spurred me to write my own commercial version with as little distortion from the truth as possible. These women earned that. Here’s the log-line:
“With wood and canvas biplanes, no radio, no lights, no defenses and no parachutes, just bombs, these WW2 Soviet pilots terrorized the German front line night after night. They just happened to be women. A true story.”
To be honest, because I tried to deviate from the truth as little as possible, I feel more like an editor rather than a screenwriter. There was so much I needed to embellish, so much heroism I needed to cut, in order to get the big picture (pun intended) across to make it cinematic and therefore share the diluted truth with the maximum audience. I just hope I did them justice in the long run and that the equation worked.
Q: You’ve written a number of screenplays, what do you think set this one apart?
A: A multi-women action lead, where the women are not defined by how men perceive them? Priceless. It’s time is now. Prior to that…well you had Ripley solo in the Alien franchise, a few women in horror sequels, but that was pretty much it. The emphasis on ‘pretty’.
Q: And how did the option come about?
As mentioned, the Development team at Network ISA noticed the continuing successes of the WW2 story, as well as my other projects, and got in touch.
Q: Did you need or use an agent to negotiate?
Initially I used a lawyer in the UK, but he turned out to be as helpful as a one-armed wallpaper hanger. Luckily Max Timm introduced me to an agent friend of his who gave great advice at no cost re negotiations, which ultimately I handled myself. As a seasoned CFO making all sorts of third-party agreements, I hope I manged to avoid most of the traps.
Q: What’s the current status of the project?
A: Early days. No financing, directors nor cast in place yet. As to how many options are turned into films I have no idea. Watch this space.
Q: What have you learnt through the process?
A: Count to 10. Then learn how to count to 1,000.
Q: Any interest in your other projects as a result of your first option?
A: As you may have noticed, the title of the option has not been publicized anywhere, not even in this interview. No doubt it’s easily discoverable with Google, but the production company does not want it as yet actively advertised.
Somewhat frustrating both for me personally and Network ISA’s Development Team, but it does mean there is yet to be a cascade of dominos.
Q: Have you used, and if so what are your thoughts on notes and coverage services?
A: I have only used them as part of a competition – never in its own right. Perhaps that approach is a mistake in hindsight. Overall though, I would say costly, an investment, but invaluable. Many sites seem to have feedback generated by a computer. “Where’s the character arc for person #3? According to Save The Cat (“STC”) this plot point should be a page earlier”. Ack. Many really take the time and invest in your project. Many churn it out unthinkingly. It truly depends on the particular judge you get on the particular website. Despite any advertising by websites, it is a throw of the die.
I hate STC (Google “Save The Cat”). It should have been killed 4.5 times according to Schrödinger. One should write by wrote, not rote. Personally, I would have bombed the f***er and left no doubt.
Q: And do you use these if available in the competitions you enter?
Not now, but I have come to the end of my competition entries. See above.
Q: Do you have a favorite genre?
No, but I have ‘unfavorite’ ones. I will never do a straight relationship kitchen-sink drama for example. Nor I will not entertain a screenplay that deals with a person’s spiral into decay. If I want disappointment and anxiety in my life, I’ll use my memory. Some use screenwriting as a cathartic experience, I use it to fly with possibilities from a lighter platform.
I will only do screenplays where there are multiple beats where the audience gets warm / fuzzy / I should have seen that coming, dammit / LOL moments. In other words, entertainment as opposed to a journey. Commercial? Perhaps, but that’s me. Every writer has their own personal landscape the audience doesn’t see. That just happens to be mine.
Q: How do you approach structure in your scripts? Do you follow any particular method?
A: For me, and only me, let it mull / ferment / mature for a month. Patience. Write down the clever phrases, the beats, the pay-offs (along with earlier moments leading to it), the profound, anything that comes to mind or in the middle of the night.
*Only* then start to write it. Copy / paste in your ideas above wherever they fit into the script.
What you end up with is a movie through your own eyes. Almost certainly not commercially viable – audience of one. If you want your project to be shared, ie. viewed by others, you now need to take a long time, step back, and re-write it from the perspective of the audience. This I think is the hardest part of the writing process. Try your best to turn it from subjective to objective. Much of “self” needs to be discarded.
STC is pretty much the rule book for screenwriting for the machine-industry and, for me, is the most insidious thing ever written. Most people in the industry, overwhelmed by wannabees like me (screenwriting is easy!), simply use this as a rule book almost like a spam filter rather than seeing the underlying structure and story.
The scripts that stand out are the ones that do not follow the STC formula, yet to break into the industry you must be seen as a relatively risk-free investment – in other words you followed STC. Quite exasperating.
Q: What’s your favourite film? And script, if they’re different.
A: Film? Script? Luckily the same answer. Once Upon A Time In America. Not the butchered cinematic version that cut an hour, but the full version now available everywhere.
To make gangsters sympathetic characters is one of the greatest achievements in screenwriting and it is no surprise there were more than seven people involved in the screenplay.
The direction, the art direction, the cinematography, the acting and the music – rarely has it come together so well. The fact that the screenplay cuts back and forth between different decades without insulting the audience is an extra boon.
Q: What’s the best and worse screenwriting advice you’ve been given?
The worst? “Write for yourself” – you’ll have an audience of one. The best? Patience, think of the audience, and never think a screenplay is finished.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters on SimplyScripts?
A: To anyone, persevere. Expect blocked walls. Try to step back from your first draft. Get, welcome, and respond to feedback.
Q: Any advice for writers who think they have the next $500 million hit script if they could just get an agent/make a connection?
A: Think again, you arrogant self-absorbed fool.
Q: What projects are you working on now and when can next expect to see your name on the credits?
A: Nothing as of now.
Q: Any final thoughts for the screenwriters out there?
A: There is no right answer, no correct path. All I have done is to explain the footsteps *I* took. I only have experience to give you with only a little wisdom. I doubt anyone can give general wisdom in this field.