Let me take you back. In an ideal world, right now you are imagining some harp music and a shimmering visual effect to indicate that we’re heading down memory lane. From about the age of 18 I wanted to make a film. A low-to-no budget film. I was inspired by people like Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs clocked in at $1.5m) and more importantly Kevin Smith (Clerks: $27k). My story was closer to Tarantino’s, my budget closer to Smith’s. I was only about $26.9k away from matching him, and I had a bad script entitled Debut ready to go. It never happened and let’s all thank God for that. I’d still be paying it off if I’d tried and I’m not sure it would have opened any doors. It was immature and derivative, but it was a stepping stone. It was the first thing I ever wrote as an ‘adult’ and without it I’m not sure my writing would have developed to where it is now.

There are a number of reasons why it was never going to get off the ground – the lack of characterisation and understanding of how to construct an interesting narrative being only two of the myriad issues involved. I didn’t have any kind of understanding of the film industry, for one thing. In 1994-96, the kind of period we’re talking about, the new independent movement was suddenly in vogue and art house had a mini-boom. Or maybe it just seemed that way as my eyes had only recently been opened to films outside of the mainstream.

However, there was one thing I did understand – if I was going to make a film I would need help and money from other people and I would need to convince them of the viability of my project. Respectful begging letters were sent to various producers, along with a copy of the script. I even sent it to agents of actors like Tim Roth (newly discovered in Reservoir Dogs – God I was naive). The point being, I tried to engage with people in a way that would make me seem like a professional – someone who knew what he was doing and would be successful at turning his first script into a break-out indie Brit-hit and would be the youngest ever best-Director Oscar winner (yes, I seriously thought that – I view it as a sign of my growing maturity that I can now look back, point fingers at myself and laugh).

Fast forward to December 13th, 2009, and I receive a message on Facebook from an unfamiliar name…:

hi benjamin, i have completed ,y MA producing film and tv course from bournemouth university and i am planning to make a feature film. I hae a story and need a good scriptwriter to take it in the rright direction. The genre is sex comedy and the format is low budget digital format. If ur interested pls contact me at xxxxxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com or call me at 07xxxxxxxxx. Also mention ur previous exp in scriptwrting.
cheers
xxxxx

That entire message needs a big ‘[sic]’ stamped across it.

Now, my first reaction was to chuckle and ignore it, but as time went on it played on my mind and I really wanted to send something in response. But what?

As I said in my first post, I am far from a professional writer. However, I think I can still offer a little advice on how to present yourself as an enticing proposition. He may not be asking me for money, but he is asking me for an investment. So I dived in with some helpful tips. My reply in full:

Hi xxxxx,

Thanks for getting in touch to discuss your project – I assume you came across my name either directly through the University as a graduate of the Scriptwriting degree course, or through my membership of groups on here. I admire your chutzpah in setting out to produce a low budget feature film – something that, a few years back, I was very keen to do myself – and I hope that the MA has set you with the appropriate skills required for the task. However, given the message you have sent to me, I would have my concerns.

First and foremost, I would assume that your project will produced for free – or as good as free – and you will be requiring goodwill from all those involved in order to be able to bring your vision to fruition. As such you need to sell to me (or whoever you are contacting) why I/they should devote my/their time and energy to your project. As I am sure you know, the film marketplace is more crowded than it has ever been and fewer and fewer low budget, independent films ever get released, let alone make their money back. As a writer, I am constantly working on one project or another off my own back – currently finishing a children’s novel. I pick which project I want to work on now based on two criteria – how much will I enjoy working on it and how will it further my writing career. As I said, you need to sell your project to me – why would working with you be beneficial to me? What contacts do you have? Who are you also working with? What projects have you previously pulled together? Etc and so on.

Granted – having pulled my name from some B’mouth Uni alumni list or other, you have no way of knowing whether I am any good – as you reference with your request for my experience. Obviously a totally fair question and, were your pitch to sound particularly intriguing or the opportunity like it was too good to miss, I would be happy to provide you with samples of my writing to demonstrate my talents.

So what kind of information would I be after (and would I expect anyone with any sense to be after)? Aside from the few questions about yourself I mentioned above, it would be useful to know more about the project. Ideally, when do you want to shoot (and thus how long is there to work on the script)? What kind of budget are you going to work with? But most importantly, do you have any idea about the story itself?

See, the reason that last question is important is because, if you haven’t already got some kind of brief outline is that if you aren’t bringing an idea to a writer, you are asking the writer to dream up something all by themselves. “So what?” you may well ask. Well, if I was going to write a sex comedy that I dreamed up all by myself, why wouldn’t I try and sell it to a studio or something like that? Then I’d get paid for it and potentially get a proper (ie not low-to-no budget) movie made of my work.

I’m not saying you need to have written a treatment even, you could just go for a line: for example, two best friends are running out of money and decide to make a porno together to pay the bills – Zack & Miri Make A Porno. This gives the writer something to work from and suggests that the production has some direction that the producers are committed to.

In addition to having a pitch ready for people containing the information outlined above, you may also find it advantageous to approach people in a slightly more professional sounding manner – ie use a capital letter for their name, or, indeed, capital letters throughout, check your spelling, not use ‘text speak’ and so on. It doesn’t fill me with faith in your ability to pull together a successful film project.

I hope you take this message in the spirit it was meant. My aim was not to rain on your parade but to offer some constructive criticism that may help you in pursuing your dream of succeeding with this production and building a successful career. Unfortunately, however, from the information you have given me I am not currently interested in working on your project. If you wish to refine your pitch and contact me again, I will consider it and, if I am interested, I will forward on some of my work to prove my credentials.

In the meantime, all the best,

Ben

I think this is pretty well reasoned, and let’s be honest, the majority of it is a combination of common sense and common courtesy; the kind of things I wouldn’t think twice about. Maybe I’m over-sensitive and over-fussy, and maybe the bolshy and driven 19-year-old me trying to produce Debut would have responded favourably to the original request, but now I give a damn about grammar and punctuation – indeed, I will stop people mid-sentence if they are pronouncing words wrong. But I think the bigger point is, if this is how he is going to approach someone he is asking for time from – and considerable time if we’re talking about writing a feature film for free – how is he going to approach potential investors, distributors, etc and so on?

I didn’t expect a reply. While I’d hate to think I’d have sent such an email 15 years ago (technology notwithstanding), my mindset at the time would probably have just tossed it to one side. Part of me thought (and maybe hoped just a little bit) I might get some kind of expletive led reply dismissing me. I certainly didn’t expect anything more than that.

Cue this afternoon:

Hi Benjamin, thx for ur reply. I can surely make out from ur reply that u like to write, but i havent pitched u anything yet. My concern was to find out first of all that ur still into scripwriting and that can u be a part of a micro budget production which can work only on a deferral payment system. i found ur name in the group ‘Bournemouth scriptwriters’, unfortunately very few writers continue their passion for a long time after university. I’m glad to learn that ur still into writing.
i deally i want to shoot sometime in june/july, but it all depends on the script. i will not start any production work until unless im 100% happy with the script. As far as the money is concerned, im looking at a budget of 25-30k, which i will raise from private investors.
At the moment im in search of a scriptwriter who dreams to make it big and is just waiting for an oppurtunity. i have a treatment but it needs a lot of polishing. If u can work on such a system then lemme know and i if u say yes then i will formally pitch u.

cheers
xxxxx

It’s an interesting reply. It would appear that certain lessons have been learned. There is formatting, capital letters (though it is worth pointing out that his own name did not contain a capital letter – perhaps the sign of a true artist?), and he shows that perhaps he does have some degree of professionalism in him, what with the treatment and all. However, clearly the text speak is still there – perhaps he was unsure what I meant by that. (And as a side note, a part of me feels that even with text speak, his grammar is out – isn’t “ur” “your” and “u r” “you’re”, or does “ur” normally just stand in for both? And yes, I do realise I have become – or always been – one of them).

I have to say that, at this point, I am filled with numerous conflicting emotions. I am desperate to see the treatment even though I have no desire to be involved. Even if I wanted to I don’t have the time available to me, but I want to know what this script is going to be about. Maybe it is destined to be the Citizen Kane of sex comedies – prizes for the best title to fill that description.

I also feel bad about posting this and ragging this chap out. He believes in his project and I’d love to believe in it too. I’d love it to be a success and reward his hard work, but something just tells me it’s not going to happen. And only partially because it’s only about 0.0001% of all low-to-no budget movies that make anything in the long run. I mean, seriously – Clerks, El Mariachi, Brother’s McMullan, Twenty-Four-Seven, Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity
– that’s all I got. I’m sure someone will correct me, mind.

But I want to help the guy, and help others. If anyone out there is going down this route, best of luck to you, but I do suggest make yourself sound like you know what you’re doing. If you sound like an amateur or a chancer, people will think you’re an amateur or a chancer and they will treat you as such. I wouldn’t trust an amateur or a chancer with £25-30k of my money. Likewise, I wouldn’t spend six months of my life writing a script for an amateur or a chancer. If I am going to spend time or money on a project, I want to have faith that there is a reward coming. And to get that faith I need to believe I am working with serious, committed and talented people.

Sending the kind of messages shared above is not how ur going to build that faith.

Sorry.

PS – Well, this is more of a kind of deleted scene – I couldn’t find a natural place to put this in the above text without losing the flow, so I’m just going to add it down here.

As mentioned above, both xxxxx and I went to Bournemouth University to study and, as promised in my first post, I will one day discuss the university, the course and my time there. What I’d like to point out now is, what the Hell are they teaching on that MA? I feel that just receiving that email has devalued the degree I got there. A Masters graduate can’t type, spell or punctuate correctly? He doesn’t know how to make an approach to people? I don’t feel that I am just being a grumpy old man when I say that I find this genuinely shocking. Maybe you feel differently. Maybe you’re wrong.