Steven Prowse, an international CFO, is a restless fellow that is rarely satisfied with the status quo. His favorite quote is from Mario Andretti, an ex Formula 1 driver, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
Perhaps it is this need for speed and setting himself challenges that has led him to 130 screenplays official nominations & finalist nods and over 25 wins in just two years. If the Guinness Book of World Records had this as a category over the last two years, the name Steven Prowse would be listed there on top.
We were lucky to catch Steven in London between flights – he just got back from somewhere and was heading to China – and he had a wealth of information to share with us on screenplay writing, entering film festivals & screenplay contests, as well as his thoughts as to the future of film making and distribution.
Q: What got you into writing screenplays?
A: Everyone at some point has come out of a movie theatre thinking, “I could have written better – even my neighbor’s ten year old kid, even if drunk, could have written a better script.” As Bob Hope once said: “TV and films are called a medium because they are neither rare nor well-done.”
I’d been to 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. Not good, and especially not good for a comedy. I am happy to report I cannot remember which movie it was.
Something in me snapped. Luckily I had the resources to take a year away from my financial consultancy and start writing. I ended up writing five screenplays in that year – 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.
It was a strange decision on my part. I hated English at school due to how subjective it was. I detested writing essays. I was a math geek who ended up being awarded a scholarship to read math at Cambridge for goodness sake! For me English was just algebra in a strange order. So given that background I surprised myself by firstly deciding to write, and secondly thoroughly enjoying the process.
Q: Of all your screenplays, which one is attracting the most attention?
A: The Night Witches, a true WW2 story set in Russia. 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. The kicker though is that they were all women – the pilots, navigators, armorers, even the mechanics. The script just had its 18th win at the Toronto Independent Film Festival and I’m currently negotiating an option with a Hollywood studio.
Night Witches from the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Avation Regiment preparing for an upcoming raid during World War II, 1944. From Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images.
Q: How did you come upon this idea?
A: My wife showed me an article about them from the A Mighty Girl website. Although in awe of what these women managed to accomplish I was initially reluctant to write a true story. The dynamic and creative process is completely different to writing fiction. But the more I researched the more my jaw hit the floor. In the end I had to write it. I guess the idea of taking on another challenge also helped.
Q: Having won and being a finalist in so many different festivals and screenplay contests, what advice can you give to the emerging screenplay writer about entering into these contests?
A: Step 1: Prepare a budget. These things cost money to enter, so having the financial cost in line with your other spending habits is important, so it won’t affect your life negatively. The average for entering a contest is around USD 40.
Step 2: Focus, focus, focus on the first ten pages of your script. Agents, judges and readers have to deal with an awful lot of awfulness and often give up awfully early. Their attention needs to be grabbed ASAP. Yes, that’s unfair for a brilliant slow-burner with a long initial set-up but that’s how the movie industry is as a whole. Cream is not guaranteed to rise to the top.
Only 2% of books written are ever published; the percentage of screenplays being produced is much, much lower than that. This is because screenplays are so much easier to write as opposed to a full-blown novel – there is no need for florid descriptions, no inner monologue, and they are typically only 15-20% the length of a novel. There are far more amateur screenwriters around than amateur novelists as a result.
And when I say focus, it is not just on the story itself but the formatting and style. There are many websites that give guidance on industry standard formatting, but there are also style tips out there as well. For example, if it’s not dialogue, never, ever have a descriptive paragraph more than four lines long – break up a large block – there needs to be white space on the page.
Step 3: Never think your screenplay is a finished product. It not certainly is not. Once you are happy to put your work out there focus on competitions that give feedback first. They are usually more expensive but waiting for that feedback and editing accordingly will mean you will have a much better product for a second wave of entries and will not waste so much money. Patience.
If you have received feedback from a judge, do not be defensive and proud. Absorb it and be open to make changes.
I remember when I entered the first draft of my first screenplay to a raft of film festivals knowing it would be optioned within months and on the silver screen within two years. It was a hilarious masterpiece. Then I started to get feedback. Looking back now, it was an awful self-indulgent piece of crap and I was too brash and impatient. Because of the feedback, it’s in a much better shape, has been officially selected on over 40 occasions with one win.
Step 4: Do your research on festivals. Make sure your screenplay aligns with its theme or temperament if any. You don’t want to enter an all-male action-shoot’em-up script to a festival focused on LGBT issues. Some film festivals actually have specific sub-categories, such as historical, action-adventure, comedy, LGBT etc – which is a good thing – it can be difficult to have to choose an overall winner between an action-adventure film and a comedy.
Step 5: As part of your second wave of entries, enter it into some of the big competitions where there are many agents, managers, and executives will be reading the winning scripts, such as the Nicholl Academy Fellowship, Page and the Austin Screenwriting Competition. Having it read – and liked – by someone important in the industry is probably the quickest path to having it produced or at least optioned. You might get lucky, but you probably won’t. The headline competitions attract over 6,000 entries.
Step 6: Go ahead and enter the smaller land-based ones too, that fit your style and genre. Some offer feedback – or coverage – as part of the prize, which is helpful if it is from someone with knowledge in, and about the industry. Racking up a few laurels from such festivals is also helpful, for when someone in the industry ever does decide to read your script, it’s kind of nice to have a list of awards it has won from various festivals under the title.
Step 7: Be wary of screenplay competitions that are purely internet-based. Many are honourable, many are worthless, and almost all will be utterly unknown to an agent or producer. There are only three reasons to enter these – self-worth if you place, possible feedback and, as mentioned earlier, if you get enough placings surely it must count for something and can become a selling point in its own right if you get enough of them.
Step 8: See if there is a niche festival that will fit your film. For example, the GI Film Festival in Washington DC is like the military channel – all kinds of military scripts, soldier stories, WWII, veteran, and war scripts and films are entered here. Again, go back and research to find out which film festivals are your niche ones.
Niche example: The GI Film Festival – which calls for military themed stories
As I said, English is subjective so do not be surprised if you do not place in a niche competition. A thick skin is required. As a recent example, although being ranked the top action/adventure, the top biographical and second best historical unproduced screenplay on the internet by MovieBytes, The Night Witches didn’t even make it to the first round of what I had considered a shoe-in, the Adapted & True Story Screenplay Competition. That’s English. C’est la vie.
Q: I’m sure many screenplay writers and film-makers as well ought to find that information very helpful. What else have you done besides entering your script into film festivals to get – as we say – your screenplay ‘out there’?
List your scripts on sites that are set up to do so, such as InkTip, ISA (Network International Screenwriters Association), and Movie Bytes. These are sites that will list your scripts so that directors and producers who are shopping for a script can see all that are out there – these sites act as sort of an exchange house. ISA has been very helpful, they also list and will email you writing jobs – real writing jobs – that are sent to them.
There are others, but they tend not to be worth the money. BlackList is a case in point as far as I’m concerned but you might get lucky. Just as for film festivals, it pays to research and read user feedback before spending actual cash. A simple search should take you to the few forums where screenwriters share their experiences.
But I guess most importantly, if you can, at least enter a land-based film festival near where you live and attend it. Not only is the networking opportunities there (make business cards and set up a website for your script, even if it’s just a FaceBook page), but quite often they will have seminars where you will learn not just about writing but distribution, production and an overview of how your cog fits in the great machine.
Q: With your experience in the financial world, where do you see the future of the film industry heading?
My gut feel tells me that someone will set up a version of Netflix or other VOD / PPV system dedicated to small, micro-budget indie movies. These movies more often than not fail to get a distribution deal, certainly not a significant one. Such a system would cut out the subjective middle man and lower costs.
It’s a golden age for TV screenwriting but it’s the worst of the worst for films right now. Spec sales are at an all-time low. It is the age of sequels, franchises, reboots and risk-aversion. This can only improve but I’m not holding my breath. I can tell you that right now agents are generally looking for horror and not comedy. Apparently they see the former as universal whereas comedy tends to be more eclectic, local and therefore less distributable. I’m not sure I completely agree with that, but that is the right now.
Steven, this has been most informative and I’m sure helpful discussion to many of our readers, thank-you so much for your time.
Thank you. Where do I send my invoice?
Steven’s screenplays and wins can be found at:
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Interview by David Bryant Perkins