As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Josh Stolberg, a screen and television writer who's credits include Honey I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show, Sabrina: The Animated Series, Pirahna 3D, Sorority Row, Good Luck Chuck, The Spellman Files (Barry Sonnenfeld directing) and Man-Witch (Todd Phillips producing).
As a screenwriter, his job " involves a fairly broad spectrum of writing. It can be anything from submitting a ‘spec’ script (writing it without getting paid) in hopes a buyer will bite, to writing a job on assignment that a studio pitches to the writer, to selling a pitch in which the script doesn’t exist yet. I’ve also worked punching up scripts in round-table situations (usually one or two days, writing jokes or helping to solve plot problems)."
HBAD: So, tell us, how did you get your start?
JS: I started in theater in Junior High School. My interest started to shift toward directing in the theater program at the University of Vermont. After college I moved to Hollywood and started from the bottom. I worked in television as a Production Assistant, and later as a Second Unit Director before going back to grad school at USC. My first few years out here were about learning the business from the ground up and building a network of people with similar moviemaking tastes and interests.
My first big break was getting an agent who immediately hooked me up with a staff job on Honey I Shrunk the Kids. I had sent out about 800 query letters to nearly every agency in Hollywood, and was lucky enough that ICM was the agency that bit. While working on Honey, I continued writing features on spec. During the hiatus on the show, I made my first sale on a spec script called Bad Nougat (a romantic comedy about a relationship counselor still in love with his ex-girlfriend). It wasn’t a big sale, but it allowed me me to leave Honey and work full-time in features.
The next big step happened when my manager fixed me up with a pretty amazing writer named Monica Johnson. She was more established and looking for someone to write with after she stopped working with Albert Brooks. Together we made a more substantial sale on a script called Closers (about a company that choreographs the perfect date for clients). It was a big splashy spec sale and was really the launching pad for getting my being known as a writer.
HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?
JS: The biggest challenge is that as a writer, only 10% of your job is actually writing. The other 90% is getting your next job. Taking meetings. Writing pitches. Delivering the pitches. Building business relationships with the execs and directors that share your sensibilities. Even once you have an agent you’re selling him or her on your next project. The more excited they are, the better job they can do selling it.
By nature, most writers are creative folks, not salesmen. But you have to adapt and grow into it. When the studio is hiring you as a writer, they aren’t just hiring you for your skills, but also because they look forward to working with you, giving you notes, hearing your ideas.
There is another challenge in balancing the business of writing with the creative side. What I would love to write, isn’t always what Hollywood wants to make. So it’s always a struggle trying to pin-point what Hollywood WANTS, and then tailoring it so that the work is exciting to me.
A lot of that is just finding the right idea. If it’s a good idea, the script usually writes itself. It’s a lot easier to write a good script than a bad script. A bad script drains every ounce of your energy because it’s like pulling teeth to make it work.
HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to become a screenwriter?
JS: Of course you need to do your homework. For a writer this means being a reader. Buzz through as many screenplays as you can get your hands on. Read them critically. Pay attention to when they introduce concepts and how they evolve.
But the best advice I can offer is to take the extra step. You can read about screenwriting all you want but it really comes down to ‘doing it.’ WRITE. Write as much as you can.
And know this… 99% of first scripts are horrible! I can’t even read my first script without spinning into a depression. Be prepared for this. And don’t let the rejections get to you. I really can’t understand how most writers think that their first scripts are going to win them an Oscar (Diablo Cody is the exception, not the rule). Think of it like this: it’s like golf, in the sense that when you’re on the practice range, you’re probably going to duff a few before you nail one 300 yards.