A Conversation With Skip Press

by Claire E. White

An award-winning author, screenwriter, teacher, playwright, and former
Photo of Skip Press
Editor of Entertainment Monthly (Los Angeles), Skip Press has written -- and sold -- everything from radio and television scripts to feature films, plays, CD-ROMs, and a variety of articles and bestselling books, both fiction and non-fiction. His first script sale was in 1978, to a nationally syndicated radio series (Alien Worlds); later, he branched out into children's television (Zoobilee Zoo series, 1984; Algo's Factory series, currently on UPN), and CD-ROMs (Aladdin, 1995). He has also sold two feature film scripts (one written with Peter Flynn, another with Michael Sean Conley), and two plays which have been produced (All The Difference and Curtain/Time). Another of his plays, Fourth World was a finalist in several national playwriting competitions, and Walking After Midnight has been optioned for a feature film. Skip has written almost two dozen books, including Writers Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors and Screenwriting Agents, 1999-2000 (Prima Publishing) and How To Write What You Want & Sell What You Write (Career Press). How To Write What You Want & Sell What You Write was a finalist for Best Nonfiction Ebook for 2000 in the first annual Eppie Awards.

His latest book Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting, was just released by MacMillan Publishing, and is about to go into its second printing. He has also written for national publications as diverse as Writer's Digest, Disney Adventures, Espionage, and Reader's Digest, and sold electronic articles to America Online and other online magazines around the globe. A native Texan, Skip lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children. When he's not writing, you might find Skip on the golf course, teaching his popular online writing class, or spending time with his family. Skip spoke with us about his new book, the fatal mistakes that beginning screenwriters make and why it's so important for aspiring screenwriters to be Internet-savvy.

Let's talk about your new screenwriting book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting. How did this project come about?

Cover of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Screnwriting
by Skip Press
I met another Complete Idiot's Guide author, Janet Berstel, at a writers conference. She asked me about writing screenplays and I gave her some advice. A few months later, she sent me an email saying the editor was looking for someone to write the CIG to Screenwriting. She put me in touch, and a few emails and a phone call later, I had a contract. I had to do an outline based on their standard outline template, which was a bear, but it got me the job.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?

There are soooo many books on screenwriting out there, but there are problems with most of them: (a) the good ones are mostly written by people no longer active as screenwriters; (b) some of the really good ones (like Bill Martell's Secrets of Action Screenwriting) are specialized on one aspect of films; or (c) the gurus who have written most of the books don't really have many credits as screenwriters. I don't think Linda Seger (How to Make a Good Script Great) has ever written a screenplay, but she has good advice. I didn't want to be a screenwriting guru, and I don't have a produced feature screenplay credit, just sales and jobs and options. I do have produced TV credits and other credits. So I had to weigh whether there was enough missing information in a how-to book against my lack of an onscreen feature credit. Finally I decided there was actually a need for what I could tell beginning screenwriters, and I did the book. What now amazes me is that the feedback I'm getting on the book is over the top on praise, and the same with the reviews, and they're telling me that I actually did fill in gaps that existed in the plethora of other books out there. For example, I'm the only book that also talks about writing for Webisodes (shows on the Web).

What is your writing schedule like? How do you manage to balance your time with all your projects, teaching and still have a family life?

I'm beginning to pay a LOT more attention to my family, and putting the
"[There] is a sick and soulless attitude by a lot of the folks I know in Hollywood, who don't have kids, will never have kids (and should not), hate kids, and will consciously do everything they can to pollute the minds of the youngest kids possible."
work aside whenever possible, but the sad truth is that for the last three years I've pretty much been chained to the computer, put on a little weight, not exercised enough. I make it to all my kids' games and things like that, but I've been imbalanced, really. It's been not unusual for me to put in 18 hours in a day writing. I almost always do 10 hours. I think it just takes that kind of dedication to build up a business, which I've done now. Another problem is that I've given away a lot for free. I've found that some people charge $3,500 for an appearance at a company giving inspirational talks that are regular with me every time I appear somewhere. People come up to me years after I said something to them that changed their whole career. I was on the east coast this past weekend and found out that a woman who attended a lecture two years ago has published one book and is about to publish another -- she said she would never have done it if not listening to me. That kind of thing fills my heart. It's been somewhat easy for me to publish books, but to some others, it's the experience of a lifetime just to get one in print. I think I inspire writers as much as I teach them, and that's because I am inspired myself. I have a purpose in my life and that drives me to get it all done and try to have a life and family as well. Now I'm determined to pay more attention to Skip, though, and see that I get taken care of and that my family gets more as well.

As a teacher, what is one of the most common mistakes that you see aspiring or beginning screenwriters make?

They take it personally when they are rejected. They don't see that they are simply in a market and that customers have a right to choose. The customer is always right, and if the customer doesn't buy from you, you find out why and fix it, or you find a customer who thinks you're the best -- and then you'll be happy to say they're always right. Remember, long term successes in show business tend to stay with the same publisher year after year, or work with the same producers (Hollywood version) time after time. You have to reach a certain quality with your writing, and then it's just finding your customer. Beginning writers don't do enough of that, and they don't get around and meet other successful writers so they can see that all these writers were rejected time after time before they made a breakthrough. They forget that J.K. Rowling couldn't even afford to make a photocopy of her first Harry Potter to send it out. They aren't in it for the long haul like she was (like I am) so they make some attempt or a few and then give up. With particular regard to screenwriters, they don't learn the formulas that Hollywood buys over and over and over again. They don't write a great screenplay that will get them working immediately, that shows they know what they're doing as a screenwriter. And even worse, they don't move to Los Angeles and meet people and do whatever they need to do to get their work seen and to meet people personally and make friends. Hollywood is a people business, period. Writing is everything, but writing is secondary when it comes to finding someone to work with you and love your project enough to put two years of their life into getting it made.

You have always urged your students to take advantage of the opportunities that the Internet offers for screenwriters and authors. How has the Internet changed since you first got online?

The bad news is, producers aren't as enchanted by email as they once were and it's taken on the same aspect as a phone call from an unknown. The good news is, producers will now read an ebook or a screenplay on a screen. They won't go to a Website to read the script you posted, but a few development people will. And some agencies and production companies have even promoted finding writers on the Web. Zoetrope (Francis Ford Coppola) optioned two properties this past year that were discovered on zoetrope.com. The Internet is now a big part of Hollywood. You can find out anything you need to know, what projects are in development, where to reach anyone. Take a look at FilmTracker some time as an example -- check out their InfoSource area. Also, I can get an email from a writer in South Africa and a few minutes later have him talking on the phone with a Hollywood producer he's been trying to reach (at his expense). The Internet has made doing business much more affordable for writers, which is a big deal when you're starting out and broke.

Why is it important for screenwriters to understand the history of drama and filmmaking?

Because if they don't they're wasting great resources. If you didn't know
Cover of 1999-2000 Writer's Guide to Hollywood Producers Directory
and Screewriter's Agents by Skip Press
Eisenstein, for example, you'd think David Mamet was a real genius for putting in that baby carriage down the steps scene in The Untouchables. The truth is, he stole it from Battleship Potemkin. Writers picked up on it, but audiences did not. You can recycle things over and over in screenplays. When Anthony Hopkins as the old Zorro is saved in jail because all the prisoners stand up and claim they are Zorro, that's a direct rip-off from Spartacus by Dalton Trumbo, but the audiences didn't know that. Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot (the writers of The Mask of Zorro) did. Also, many young studio executives are complete idiots when it comes to the history of film. They don't know beans -- they know TV and can recite Scooby Doo episodes to you. So when you tell them about a scene that came from some old Buster Keaton stunt, they'll have no idea where you really got it. Plus, if you understand the evolution of film, you can think of ways to help it evolve further, so we don't just have the same old derivative crap over and over.

Why is it important for screenwriters to read Shakespeare?

He gave England pride in its language and culture, and with the proliferation of his plays around the world, he helped make English the world language (the world needed a main language desperately). Now film & TV is the main cultural language of the Earth. Also, Shakespearean plots and themes get recycled over and over in Hollywood. It's been done innumerable times, and will be done again. There is a depth of the understanding of the psyche and emotions, the darkest elements of humankind, the struggles of the classes, in his works that you just don't find in other places. I also feel that writers who study Shakespeare write more lyrically. Japan's greatest filmmaker, Kurosawa, was a huge fan of the Bard. Kurosawa's Ran was King Lear set in feudal Japan.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I enjoy the results. I enjoy hearing that people are inspired, that they've solved problems they've been stuck on a while, and that I've saved them time and kept them from going down dead ends I encountered myself. But best of all, I love hearing they've sold something or gotten further up the road of success. That's the real reward.

As a father, how concerned are you about sex and violence on tv and in films? What should the role of the government be in regulating content of films, tv and/or computer games that are targeted to children?

Kids don't understand sex. They think it's kissing and hugging up to a point, and naked bodies cavorting just look icky to small kids. So I don't worry too much about that. But violence they emulate, and they hurt each other. What really matters, though, is a sick and soulless attitude by a lot of the folks I know in Hollywood, who don't have kids, will never have kids (and should not), hate kids, and will consciously do everything they can to pollute the minds of the youngest kids possible. You can't tell me it's not intentional, because I've been around real people doing real things like this, all in the name of seeing just how much they can get away with. In a sense, they're actually asking someone to stop them, then they raise hell when it happens. I'm not sure the government can regulate it, because the problem is a moral malaise that might actually best be cured by turning off the television and not allowing kids to see certain things "because the other kids did." Parents give in to that kind of thing, and Hollywood has taken advantage of it, consciously advertising PG-13 movies on Nickelodeon shows they knew little kids were watching, because those kids would nag their over-worked parents into taking them to see the movie. Thank God the FCC report helped a crackdown on that take place and gave people opposed to this Hollywood practice ammunition to shoot at the guys who did it, who only care about money. I think the new tone in Washington will continue this kind of thing (while on the adult side you'll get a bit wilder side of things as the liberal actors try to make statements against the conservatives on film). I don't know what the government's actual role should be -- I think that Hollywood goes overboard enough and that a public reaction leads to a government reaction, and that it all balances out pretty well.

Cover of How to Write What You Want and Sell What You
 Write by Skip Press
Click here
for ordering information.
What was your reaction when you heard that your book, How To Write What You Want and Sell What You Write, was an Eppie Award finalist?

I was pleased, but in a way amazed that it got taken that seriously. The original print book came from a class I taught at the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and the ebook was an update to the print copy, which did pretty well.

What is your opinion of the ebook publishing phenomena? Are print books going away eventually?

Unless they perfect e-readers -- the instruments that play them -- so that they have a booklike feel to them and you can carry a number of stored books at once in something no bigger than a normal paperback now, at a price that is affordable by just about everyone, ebooks will never dominate. I think people will keep their favorite books in hardback form with acid-free paper that will last for a long time, like art, but most of their reading will eventually be done on e-screens. But that only when the screen is not demanding on the eyes over hours of prolonged reading. What people don't realize is that a whole generation is growing up reading onscreen and they don't mind. The only issue is size and portability. A Palm screen is too little for books over the long-term. Something mid-size between that and a regular hardback book, priced at less than $100 (maybe even $50) will probably be the model, and maybe that device will also play mini-CDs or MP3s, etc. As to things that have driven the phenomena so far, the biggest success story so far has been M.J. Rose, who sells sex, and Stephen King, who already had a massive audience. Why did Rose make it? There are a whole lot of people sitting at their computers looking for sex, looking at pictures and masturbating, and chatting online acting like they are someone who doesn't need to lose 50 pounds and get a life. Rose's book isn't the only example of how the big ebook phenomena so far has had sex tied in. But that's not too far away from half of what makes people go to the movies, is it? And buy romance novels and watch soap operas.

How will the Internet affect the future of newspapers and magazines?

It already has. The New York Times and the LA Times and most major newspapers give away enormous amounts on content daily. People can now get what they want without buying the whole paper. They know what they like and they get free email newsletters daily from major news sources. They don't have to read the ads. New magazines coming along, however, have figured this dynamic out, so they tailor everything they do (narrowcasting, not broadcasting) to the demographic their publication is intended to reach. Two good examples are Inside.com (Web, then print) and Screentalk.org (Web, then print) which are some of the best in their area. A bad example is Salon, which has always been about driving a definite agenda into the minds of readers (a communista approach) rather than knowing what their demographic likes and trying to provide it. The New York Times may adapt and survive. I doubt that the LA Times will, unless their new bosses in Chicago do some wholesale firing. (And the mere fact that the LA Times was taken over by a group in another city should tell you how clueless they've been.) People who live with the immediacy and interest in what works, not what is just opinion, don't have time for people who will kill themselves over political correctness like the LA Times staffers. "Get over it" is something traditional newspapers better understand quick. "Right here, right now" as well.

What is your advice to aspiring screenwriters who feel they have a great story, but don't know what to do next?

Buy my Complete Idiot's Guide and read it, then read some of the other
"When you've made it or the next one (or the next one) the very best you can, then find some professional (that means working) writers to read it and give their opinions. Try to find 10 of those. If you keep hearing the same comments about something to fix, pay attention. If you hear 10 differing opinions, do what you want."
books I recommend. Write their first screenplay, then set it aside for a while. Write something else (not necessarily a whole screenplay), then come back to the first script and rewrite it. When you've made it or the next one (or the next one) the very best you can, then find some professional (that means working) writers to read it and give their opinions. Try to find 10 of those. If you keep hearing the same comments about something to fix, pay attention. If you hear 10 differing opinions, do what you want. Then you have to start marketing, which might involve coming to Hollywood at least for a weeklong or weekend event. My Writer's Guide to Hollywood covers that, but so does the CIG. And don't take my word on any of this -- writers have to do as much research as possible.

When you're not working, what are some of your favorite ways to relax and have fun?

I read M.J. Rose books and cruise chatroo... just kidding. I play golf, I smoke cigars, I try to have a date with my wife. I've even been known to go to a party, or watch some Hollywood star try to prove he's a great musician in a local club, like Jeff Goldblum and Dennis Quaid have been doing lately. Or I'll go somewhere on a weekend with the family. The really great way, though, is to have dinner or coffee with some other bright creative people and share our visions of the world, what it is, what it could be. But the thing is, I'm always working. I'm always observing and filing things away mentally. People ask me how I can be so prolific, and I'm aghast. I think they're simply just not paying attention to all the amazing things that are going on, usually in their own backyard. I have 100 more ideas than I can get around to writing almost all the time.

What projects are you working on now?

I'm finishing the 3rd Writer's Guide to Hollywood and doing a rewrite on
Skip and Debbie Press
Skip and his wife, Debbie.
a script for someone. I'm talking with someone about a kids' show. I'm also planning out a rewrite of an old script of mine, and finally getting to write my own Great American Novel this year. Plus I'm doing some consulting on other people's scripts here and there, which is always interesting. And then I'm trying to help a writer's conference get some really big funding to make it a world-famous yearly event and... there's so much stuff all the time, you really don't want to know about all of it. But hey, it's better than digging ditches for a living, and I've done that, too!

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