Say what you will about the controversy surrounding the Best Actress Oscar nomination for Andrea Riseborough in the film To Leslie, but the unusual way she was promoted for a nod did the trick. While most films have multimillion dollar promotional campaigns behind them, the grassroots effort for the respected British thespian, spearheaded by her actress friend Mary McCormack, landed her in the top five.
Are there lessons for screenwriters trying to draw attention to their work in such a story?
Quite simply, while most other nomination campaigns were zigging, McCormack zagged for her friend. She did things differently, calling upon her high-powered acting peers to personally take up the cause for Riseborough’s work. Those peers, from Charlize Theron to Kate Winslet to Gwyneth Paltrow, championed the underdog via home screenings, social media endorsements, and even YouTube video testimonials. It all created quite the buzz in the final weeks, enough for Riseborough to prevail over a couple of expected nominations for other actresses.
The zagging made the difference.
Breaking into Oscar’s final five, or the Hollywood system at large, for that matter, are no easy tasks. Talent isn’t enough. Networking, promoting, going that extra mile—every little bit helps.
So, how can you stand out as a writer trying to get attention for your script? Even if you’ve got a winner, endorsed with great notes from a pro, or some wins in a contest or two, what else can you do to give your work traction?
Try some zagging.
Here are 10 ideas:
Turn Likes Into Love
For starters, such publicity on this format doesn’t cost a dime. And even if you choose to pay the extra offered by places like Instagram or Facebook to promote your post, it’s still nothing compared to hiring a PR firm. What social media genuinely offers you is a daily showcase to keep yourself in the public eye. Let people know you’re a writer, tell them what you’re writing, show your progress, talk about other writers or artists that inspire you. And if you connect with certain people or get them to follow you, you can DM them to keep the conversation going and seek out opportunities with those new connections.
Double Your Efforts
As the saying goes, sometimes two heads are better than one. Working with a partner instantly connects you to a muse, task master, and a doubling of elbow grease to make more hay out of what you’ve written. With a partner, you’ve got two people now working to get the work noticed, finding contacts, and making connections.
Have Cellphone, Will Film
Easier said than done, but if you want to show the world what a great writer you are, show them what a great filmmaker you are, too. Aim small with a modest budget and cast. Maybe even try a TikTok short on your smartphone. Can you tell a compelling story in a minute? Can you tell one each week? It might be like a mini-IMDb resume if you can show people how clever and prolific you can be, especially under such limits.
Write a Two-Hander
You know what’s easier to produce than another superhero movie that will cost upwards of 100 million? A simple two-hander in a limited setting. Producers are likely to turn your script into a film if it’s not going to cost them an arm and a leg and can be done with limited actors. So challenge yourself to create a big idea with a tiny cast and a simple setting.
Make It a Really Good Read
In 1970, Erich Segal wrote the screenplay for Love Story. While the film was being made for Paramount, the studio suggested he write a book version of it to help pre-publicize the release of the film. He did, and amazingly, the book became a ginormous bestseller. By the time the film came out a year later, the audience was already in place, ready to line up at the box office. If you can write your story first as a book and get it published, you’ve got a leg up on almost every other screenwriter. You’re a big-time author already, and the powers that be will sit up and ask, “What else you got?”
Put the Biz in Show Biz
LinkedIn is essentially business Twitter. All kinds of people hang out there, writing all kinds of posts, in an environment where almost anything goes. (It’s shocking how much bile and political grandstanding dominates the forum. Yeesh.) Still, where else can you meet all kinds of people and easily connect with them? Even if they’re not in showbiz, a lot of execs you’ll find there have money and connections, so they could be a meal ticket or a good connection who’ll introduce you to the right people.
Be Stingey About Contests
Don’t waste your money entering every screenplay contest imaginable. Be choosy, signing up for only those with the best reputations and the greatest reach. The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship, (bias alert:) Script Pipeline, Table Read, and Final Draft Big Break are a few of those that have sterling reputations and industry eyeballs a actually paying attention to them.
Find Other Starving Artists
It’s a no-no to contact established actors with your script without going through their agent, but those graduating from schools like Julliard or NYU? If they don’t have big-time representation, why not? Soon, they’ll be pounding the bricks looking for their chance, too. Perhaps your script is perfect for them. And if such thespians can afford a tony education, hey, they might even be able to finance your dream and theirs.
Scare Up More Possibilities
Horror is not only a fun genre to write in, but scary movies almost always do well at the box office. If you have a good idea for a script that could scare the bejesus out of folks, write that one next. Producers who want ROI assurances will likely be casting their net for horror. And you could be their next pick for a monster hit.
Start at the Bottom
Sure, you want to get that staff writing job on a sitcom, as do 10,000 other writers. But find another way into the biz. Become an intern for a production company or studio. Try goong the crew route. A lot of people who’ve made it to corner offices in the business world humbly started in the mailroom, or working as an assistant. Think you are above craft service? Think again. Any entrée into the business is better than nothing, and you will certainly meet movers and shakers once you’re in on any level like that, no matter how low you are on the totem pole.
And here’s one lucky strike extra:
Let Your Pet Do the Barking
Do you have a cat or dog? Do you know how many TikToks with pets have hundreds of thousands of followers? Too many to count, believe me. If you have a pet, perhaps it’s time to consider letting you furry friend be your advocate. Film them barking or meowing and then wittily subtitle their messages with your cleverness on TikTok or YouTube. Perhaps Rover or Mr. Cuddles can tell others about how hard you work all day; staring out the window for inspiration while they track the birdies and squirrels. It is a cheeky way to brag on yourself, a definite zag, and one that might bring you loads of attention.
Now, will any of these suggestions guarantee success? No. Yes. Who knows? But they are ways that could be attention-getting. At the very least, such ideas are far from the standard approach.
Zagging could be just the way to increase your odds. And, for every shrewd way you find to add more to what you’re selling, most buyers will appreciate your unique efforts. And you’re instantly telling them how clever you are before they’ve even read your script.