Plymouth, Michigan, doesn’t have much in common with Hollywood. But from there Burnstein tickled Tinseltown’s funny bone with his script for Renaissance Man, the film that started his career. Since then, he co-wrote Mighty Ducks 3 and is currently writing an original science-fiction film for Avnet/Kerner, the production team behind Ducks.
“At the start, the odds are against you because you don’t live in Hollywood,” says Burnstein. “But you can distinguish yourself because of it. The most important thing is to have a screenplay worthy of reading, one that is really your best shot.
“Don’t fall in love with the first draft. Rewriting is critical because so many scripts are floating around Hollywood,” he says. Burnstein claims only the title and lead character’s first name remain from his first draft of Renaissance Man. “You could write 19 first drafts for 19 different movies and sell none, or rewrite one project 19 times and be in a position to sell it.”
Finding Connections — and Making Your Own
As in most things in life, personal connections can be crucial. And if you’re not on Speilberg’s dinner list, you’ll need to be creative — and diligent.
Friends. A friend introduced Burnstein to Michigan screenwriter Kurt Luedtke (who penned Absence of Malice and Out of Africa). Luedtke suggested Burnstein write what he knew. That advice led him to Renaissance Man, which is based on his experiences teaching Shakespeare to soldiers at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.
Use your experiences to pen the script, suggests Burnstein, and your connections to get it in the Hollywood loop. Make a list of 50 people you know. One of them, he says, likely knows somebody who knows someone connected to the business. Ask that person to pass your script along or connect you directly to the Hollywood contact.
“All you’re asking for is a favor. If you get it to a producer or agent and it’s rejected, don’t worry. You need that no before you get a yes,” says Burnstein.
The Guild. Connect yourself by requesting the Writers Guild of America’s list of agents soliciting new screenplays (send $2.50 to the Guild at 7000 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles 90048-4329).
Don’t be shy about contacting agents. “For agents soliciting new screenplays, send a cover letter and die script,” says Burnstein. “Choose ten; don’t go broke mailing your script. For those not soliciting, send an enticing letter with either a line, a paragraph, or a one-page script synopsis. Then, for both, follow up with a phone call begging them to look at it.”
Also, send the script with the letter to agents who aren’t accepting new material. If they like the letter, then they already have the screenplay. Don’t try this with every agent, Burnstein advises; pick a couple and see what works for you.
Agents are one reason “why rewriting is so important,” says Burnstein, who rewrote Renaissance Man four times before showing it. “When you’re contacting them, you’re saying, `Sure, everybody’s written a screenplay, but this one will be worth your time.'”
Stay in touch. Stay in touch with Hollywood through its many industry mags. Read Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, The Living Arts section of The New York Times, Variety (both Weekly and Daily editions) and The Hollywood Reporter.
“By reading these publications, you’ll know which studios and producers are hot and what they’re looking for,” says Burnstein. “And you’ll educate yourself as to how the business works by learning how other writers have made it.”
Read screenplays. Burnstein recommends the quarterly Scenario Magazine, which typically prints four complete scripts.
Scripts and scriptwriting advice can also be found on the Internet. A good site is the Screenwriters and Playwrights Home Page (http://www.teleport.com/~cdeemer/ scrwriter.html), which houses classic and current scripts, as well as tips on writing and marketing your own script. There’s also advice on how to write a query letter and how to submit, as well as a fist of online agents (and a fink to a site that fists agencies interested in new writers), producers, production companies and screenwriting contests. The Writers Guild also has a site; it’s at http://www.wga-org.
It All Comes Back to the Script
Living outside of Hollywood can even be an advantage, says Burnstein. He believes Hollywood natives tend to submit scripts before they’re ready just to quicken the process.
“Many Hollywood writers think producers are the ultimate audience. But a screenwriter must write movies for people who pay to see them.”
Living elsewhere can also broaden a writer’s perspective. Renaissance Man producer Sara Colleton says, “One out of 50 scripts has what I saw Jim’s. He writes with heart, integrity and honesty by keeping his feet firmly planted in the real world and being in touch with family values and the movie-going audience.
“Writers outside of Hollywood seem to have better lives, and this provides a source of creative energy. They have freer thoughts and don’t get caught up in the recycled ideas that flow from studio to studio.”
But to ultimately succeed you must stay true to the material you really want to write. Trends change but good writing is always marketable, says Burnstein. Colleton claims passion is the secret. “Good material surfaces,” she says. “When agents get hold of it, your phone will ring off the hook.”
And think career,, says Burnstein. “Everybody wants their movie made, but if you get an agent and your screenplay never gets produced, who cares? Now you’re in the game. Your minimum goal with your first screenplay should be to get and agent, because an agent can get you work in Hollywood.”
And once you have an agent on your side, it doesn’t matter if you live in Plymouth, Michigan, or in Plymouth, Massachusetts. You’ll be working in Hollywood.
Burnstein’s Thumb’s Up
To write movies, you must watch as many as possible. Jim Burnstein’s three must-sees:
Shows how dialogue defines character. “What makes it work is how Quentin Tarantino plays with structure. Told in a linear format, the movie would lose its theme.”
Sylvester Stallone’s script knows exactly what it’s about. “It’s a character-driven movie that reflects the picture’s theme. It all comes together when Rocky creates a goal for himself. He knows he can’t win; but if he goes the distance, he’ll know he’s not just another bum.”
Scriptwriters William Kelly, Pamela Wallace and Earl Wallace combined a police thriller and love story to make a statement on violence. “Witness executes the three-act structure flawlessly. it has strong characters, important themes and great dialogue.”