If you know me, you know I rarely have a good word to say about screenwriting gurus. In fact, in the eight years I’ve been screenwriting, I’ve made many an enemy of these self proclaimed experts. I don’t actually hate them. I know some very respected consultants working for the big studios and my fellow producers and I use them to reassure investors our script is ready for market. I just hate people who rip off naive amateurs trying to go pro. So, here’s five ways you can spot a grifter, hopefully before it’s too late.
I have a wound when it comes to people who position themselves as gurus. Well, two major wounds on top of a load of cuts and bruises to be more accurate. If you spend any time within screenwriting communities, you’ll know they tend to lurk in every dark corner, ready to creep up behind you during an unrelated conversation, lean right up to your ear, and whisper “you need professional advice”. They are all too often creepy and parasitic.
My first major wound is the effect one of the most notorious gurus within these communities had on me. They told me over and over for year after year that everything I was doing was wrong. They told me my style of voice was unwanted and career strategy foolhardy. When I blogged about optioning my first script and what I’d learned about breaking in, they criticised my advice publicly. Even now, despite me having proven them wrong over and over and overtaking them within the industry as a working feature writer, they still take pot shots at what I’m trying to do with Script Revolution. In fact, this same guru has gone on to attack various people in the industry, many of which far higher than me. I just don’t think aspiring screenwriters need to employ consultants and I feel that myself and many other working writers are clear proof of that - perhaps even proof it’s best to avoid them altogether.
We learned not only from those of us who were still struggling to get through the gate, but from those who crashed it before us and those who cared about us and looked out for our best interests as we came up. To a scribe, we absorbed advice and strengthened and discarded certain notions as we moved forward, learned and evolved. And again, to a writer, we all come down on the same side of this issue: spending money on “script consultants” and “coverage services” is a LOSING ENDEAVOR. At best, it will separate you from some hard-earned money and not make you a better writer. At worst, it will separate you from buckets of hard-earned money and will actually cause your writing to regress as you develop bad habits and take terrible, terrible advice to heart. — Geoff Latulippe
The second major wound, the one that I really feel fuels a lot of my anger, is that, in my early years, I watched two aspiring writers with a lot of talent and energy use “reputable” consultants and subsequently go on to quit pursuing their dreams as a result of the scathing criticism they received. They lost all hope in themselves within only a few weeks. They didn’t invest in a mentor who could see their value and nurture it, they wasted a lot of their hard earned cash on someone who knocks others down under the guise of “tough love” in an attempt to build themselves up.
What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON’T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They’re selling books. They’re selling seminars. They’re “script consultants.” And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they’ll coach you right into the big leagues! — Craig Mazin
I also cut my teeth for twenty years in business development and marketing. I’ve worked with organisations within the public sector, university, and private enterprise world designed to deliver expertise to every size of business from small start-ups to large enterprises. What I saw sometimes disgusted me; individuals with no business success (in an advisory or practical capacity) being sold as established thought leaders to those who ironically had more hands on experience and positive results than those “experts” who claim they can teach them something. I watched this phenomena flourish across multiple industries, raking in cash and bolstering incompetent people’s profiles while handing out patently bad advice.
I don’t take well to people who abuse my peers both financially and spiritually and I seem to see more fake gurus and low-rent screenwriting consultants out there than ever. Some I manage to call out, others I manage to scare away, but most go about unchallenged and even held aloft by the communities they troll. So, here’s five red flags to look out for whenever someone offers their expertise to you or your friends in exchange for your hard earned cash.
They’re Obsessed With Readers
A good script consultant puts story first and, if they’re being asked to do so, within the context of commerciality. Better stories make better films and films that resound deeper with their audience and become critically acclaimed within their genre tend to make more money. Good consultants are able to pull back to the bigger picture, take on a top level view and, based on years of studio experience, are accustomed to pointing out opportunities to improve a story’s return on investment. They can point out issues like where a script may squander its opportunity to sell in a valuable sales region, how its audience may be too niche for its budget, or how the way a character is killed off eliminates the possibility of bringing them back in a potential sequel. They can think like the target consumer and spot where a story may get too technical or lack emotion. They can identify where a protagonist may need a little more backstory to help create a stronger bond with fans.
Low-rent consultants tend to see impressing low-tier readers as the main goal and that says a lot about where their own point of view is coming from. They see some of the most inexperienced members of the industry as the true gatekeepers to success because that’s all they themselves have any access to. They see the system from that of a completely unknown writer trying to break in and tend to be victims of the cowardly cult-think that comes with it. Cult-think such as obsessing over the more superficial elements of script writing such as formatting and following rules. They don’t see things from the needs of a producer or a distributor because they have no experience working closely with any producers or distributors.
Anecdote: I once watched an amateur screenwriter receive a few high scores on the Black List website and, when job offers didn’t come rolling in, quickly branded themselves as a consultant. They would troll forums reading the first page of people’s scripts and telling them they needed “professional advice”. To this day, eight years later, that writer has still to gain a professional credit.
They Have No Real Credits
Aspiring screenwriters are terrible for doing their due-diligence. It’s not hard to ask someone claiming to be valuable within the film industry what their credits have been in the past three years. If they can’t point to their IMDb profile or supply a resume to back their claims up, questions have to be asked.
Fake gurus like to make bold claims about their career history but are deliberately vague about any specifics. They talk about having industry experience without being able to cite in what role or where. They mention having worked on films but don’t want to tell you any titles. It’s a bullshit backstory and they will try to wheel out client testimonials to cover for it. Of course people are delighted with the advice they’ve been given, they’ve spent four figures on it and don’t want to face buyer’s remorse plus the negative reviews are filtered out. They’ll try to use competition placements for their clients as proof their clients are succeeding but these are not adequate success stories, especially when so many of these kind of consultants are close to, or even judge, the competitions they reference. Scripts getting optioned and sold or assignment work and representation with established industry members are success stories. Not to reach the quarter finals of some competition you’ve never heard of. Dig a little into their past and you’ll almost always find out they’re writers who tried and failed to work in the industry. They weren’t good enough then and don’t know how to help you become good enough now.
Anecdote: I know of a fake guru selling books and seminars who, when you go to their website, has a page titled something like “My Movies”. When you visit the page, it lists what looks like a portfolio of major films they’ve written. However, if you look them up on IMDb, you will find they are mostly short films made by first time filmmakers the guru has only received a story consultancy credit on.
They Push Associated Products & Services
Fake gurus are great at milking as much from their audience as they can and often have various products and services they try to market laterally as off-shoots of their main business. These are often books, courses, and seminars they’ve created to help them make money while they sleep. In some cases, they will push certain brands within the screenwriting world because they have affiliate schemes with them or because they feature in their interviews. Therefore, it’s often best to avoid these brands along with the consultants they associate with. Some even go as far as to push their own novels on their audience. Just consider the absurdity of paying someone for writing advice to advance your career who in turn desperately needs you to buy their material.
A good consultant helping amateurs should have your financial interests at heart as breaking in can take years and slowly eat away at your funds. A pro-level writer should be making the bulk of their money selling specs or getting paid to write assignments. If they are reliant on you, alarm bells should be ringing.
Anecdote: I once had a screenwriter ask to me review a book they’d written about how to sell screenplays but couldn’t prove they’d sold a single script.
They Act Like an Industry Celebrity
If someone is arrogant enough to charge money for their knowledge despite being unproven, it’s fair to say their ego is out of control and many fake gurus like to see themselves as celebrities within the industry. They tend to be preoccupied with their influence as a measurement of their status, sometimes going as far as to blatantly buy fake Twitter followers or pose as their own fanbase. Watch out for “opinion leaders” with 15K+ followers who only ever get a few likes on their posts. In desperate attempts to go viral, they will sometimes make outlandish statements, try to pick fights with well known writers, scold entire communities, and produce dogmatic lists of overly simplified rules. Fame or infamy, they’ll take either just to feel noticed.
They also form rackets with other fake gurus where they all validate one another with pandering interviews or shoutouts in each other’s blogs and posts. Birds of a feather and all that. The irony is, they are seen as pariahs within the world of working professionals who see abusing your position to capitalise on aspiring artists as toxic and morally reprehensible. There’s a good reason why nobody with status will be recommending their advice.
Anecdote: I know of a writer who likes to call themselves a “media personality” whose blog is almost entirely interviews with other consultants. The comments on their blogs are almost entirely from those other consultants. They all share links on forums as if they’ve been interviewed by a major publication despite the fact the blog is even less popular than mine. The writer once claimed to offer access to writers via their “platform” by allowing amateur writers to submit their best work to be considered for selection within a showcase of the best talent. Miraculously, the showcase turned out to be a tiresome list of all their friend’s scripts including, and I shit you not, some of their own material. Yes, they actually selected themselves for their own shortlist.
They Use Scammy Marketing Tricks
The rapid rise of the internet “contrepreneur” has created a glut of predatory individuals across a range of industries calling themselves coaches, gurus, consultants, guides, disrupters, and whole host of other grandiose sounding titles. It has become almost too easy to get rich by selling advice on how to get rich.
What tends to bind all these hucksters together is their marketing style which you often see reflected in how fake screenwriting gurus operate. They shill their services by yelling fire and try to sell the water, scaremongering where they can and claiming to offer quick results that shortcut the system. You visit their site and they offer you a free pdf in exchange for signing up to their mailing list. Soon you’re bombarded with messages about their services which they claim are discounted just for you and, if you’re foolish enough to pull at that thread, they’ll try to up-sell immediately with worthless add-ons. If they aren’t hanging out on screenwriting forums and Facebook groups (the dive bars of the Internet) they‘re at the conferences giving talks and running seminars because the conference organisers themselves can’t afford/attract real working pros.
Anecdote: When a writer claiming to be a consultant to major studios got angry with my opinions on a forum once, I looked them up incase I was missing something. Their name led me to an online resume page which shared the same profile picture. It turned out they had been made redundant from an office job some years before and were actually now managing a Kinkos.
It’s worth noting that someone simply having a book, talking at seminars, or teaching courses does not necessarily mean they are a fake guru. Many well established filmmaking pros do this either because it’s the most efficient way to share their knowledge and/or they’ve effectively retired from the industry which is notoriously tough to sustain a long-term career within. It’s really on you to do your research and plenty of working screenwriters are happy to share any educational resources that worked for them such as my own recommended reading list.
If someone’s positioning themselves as a guru and they display one of the red flags I’ve identified in this blog, you’ve got them on the back foot. If they display all of them, you’ve got them bang to rights. Walk, run, sprint away, be glad you dodged a bullet and, when you go on to succeed without their help, flag their antics out to others.