How Brandon Rhiness broke into screenwriting

A Radio and Television alum pays the bills by selling film scripts

brandon rhiness, edmonton indi filmmakers nightEdmonton isn’t likely the first city that comes to mind as a great place to be a screenwriter. That’s something Brandon Rhiness (Radio and Television ’00) is working to change, both as a member of the city’s small but active filmmaking community and as a full-time writer of scripts he’s sold locally and elsewhere.

“I don’t think a lot of people even know movies are being made in Edmonton,” says Rhiness, referring to homegrown productions.

That’s a big part of the reason he organized Edmonton Indie Filmmakers Night, which happened at the Garneau Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 18.

In addition to showing half a dozen made-in-Edmonton short films (including the trailer for Motel 13, a full-length feature Rhiness wrote and plans to make, and a short he made called My Shadow is Trying to Kill Me), the event included networking to connect directors, screenwriters and actors – the kind of thing he'd like to have attended when he started out.

“It’s a tight-knit community,” says Rhiness. He’d like to see more people involved. Attending local networking events is one way. Another is to be dedicated to the craft, he adds. Rhiness acknowledges he’s working mostly with low-budget filmmakers, but it’s paying his bills.

“Hopefully one day I’ll get paid a quarter-million dollars per script," he says with a laugh. "But until then I have to hustle like never before.” Here’s how he does it.

Write a lot

Rhiness keeps a long list of ideas. Sometimes they’re just titles; sometimes they’re concepts. “Whenever I want to start a new project, I’ll go over the list and see if something will catch my eye,” he says.

That’s how it worked for Slash Shot (Rhiness' talents lean toward dark but often quirky thriller or horror stories), now being considered by U.S.-based director and producer David DeCoteau. When shaping his script about a hockey player who returns from the dead, Rhiness started by sketching methods by which the protagonist could do away with other players. Then he stitched them into scenes to make an outline.

Rhiness churns out a feature-length film script in 2 weeks or less.

To write the script, he shut the door and put his head down, as he always does, writing 10 or 11 pages a day. In general, Rhiness churns out a feature-length film script in 2 weeks or less. 

Pitch a lot

After writing, Rhiness might use a service such as Screenwriting Staffing to help him pitch to potential buyers. For a monthly fee, he receives messages about which producers want new work and what they’re after.

“Those are the best leads, because those are the people who are actively looking,” says Rhiness. Along with the script, he sends a sentence about the film, a short bio and a link to his IMDB page.

He’ll also cold call. Rhiness pays for his IMDB account, gaining access to contact info for industry pros. “Only one in 20 will ever actually respond,” he says, which is why he pitches dozens if not hundreds at at time. Locally, odds improve, sometimes in unexpected ways. An idea might not be right for a director at the time but might lead to being hired later – which is how Rhiness came to pen the script for Cor Values, a film by Gilbert Allan that’s now in production in Red Deer and Lacombe.

brandon rhiness, my shadow is trying to kill meBe positive

Attitude doesn’t help novices. “I work hard to be super friendly,” says Rhiness. “I make it so that dealing with me is easy.” When you pitch, be professional but highly personable. Be open to feedback when your script returns for revisions.

Be flexible

Contracts, unfortunately, are not very common, says Rhiness. But in general, he adds, a writer can expect about 3% of the film’s total budget – though usually not until producers have secured project funding. This will likely mean writing on spec and trusting informal agreements.

Early in his career, Rhiness actually gave away scripts to begin amassing a body of work and therefore credibility. These days, he’s been steadily increasing his rates – particularly when he’s proven himself with a producer. Nevertheless, he negotiates case by case. With new clients, Rhiness takes calculated risks. He took a chance on the TV series Super Drycleaners, for example, knowing producer Barb Briggs’ reputation for creating award-winning material.

Sure enough, it was picked up earlier this year by Telus Optik.

Take breaks, stay focused

Rhiness may know how to hustle but he also knows how to pace himself. After many uninterrupted days of writing, “There comes a point where my brain is going to explode,” he says. At that point he switches to pitching or networking until his mind clears. “Then a time comes when I need to start writing again.”

Being self-employed in a creative industry is stressful, Rhiness admits, but he doesn’t mind. For him, it's worth the effort. “This is my dream come true.”

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