Each year, the top movers and shakers, green lighters and executives create the Young & Hungry list to showcase Hollywood’s Top New screenwriters. Creative Screenwriting Magazine spoke to many of them about how they shape their screenwriting careers.
Chris Courtney Martin hails from Philadelphia, where she was introduced to her craft. In high school, she placed in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights (PYP) competition. After receiving the prestigious Liberty scholarship, Martin started Drexel University’s Screenwriting & Playwriting program, where she switched gears to focus on screenwriting. As an undergrad, Martin wrote for multiple student productions, including the Horror short “Hideous” (2014) and the short documentary, “The Last Laugh” (2015).
Martin graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from Drexel’s SCRP program, as well as minors in Film & Video and Art History. She has since won/placed in several screenwriting competitions (including Urbanworld and ISA’s Emerging Screenwriters) and received promotion via the 2018 Bitch List and the Black List website. While building her writing career, Martin works as a freelance coverage analyst and an associate producer for iN-Hale Entertainment. Though she is known for her horror/thriller screenplays.
Martin’s body of work explores an array of genres, typically through the lens of Black female protagonists. She coined the motto “craft with conscience,” which expresses her passion for producing socially relevant and politically progressive works and maintaining artistic integrity. Martin cites the work of Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, James Wan and Dee Rees as her biggest inspirations.
How young and how hungry do you need to be to win a place on the 2018 Young & Hungry list?
From what I understand, the “Young” aspect is pretty figurative– which is great, because there are tons of talented writers out there in all age brackets and there’s often some bias against older writers who are just now starting to break in. But as far as “Hungry”… You gotta be pretty damn hungry. In many cases, literally. I can’t speak for everyone who made the list but there was a lot of hustle involved. A lot of rallying. A lot of lunches and brunches and coffees– all to build a network of people who really see what you do and appreciate it. And of course, while you’re building that network, you have to make sure you’re building a body of work that’s worthy of that appreciation.
Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project(s) that attracted industry interest?
I grew up in West Philly and ended up attending Drexel University, which is technically in the same part of the city. (Go, Dragons!) I was fortunate enough to study Screenwriting & Playwriting at Drexel, on scholarship, under the guidance of some amazing educators. My college years presented me with a lot of opportunities to learn the craft as well as the business. So, I have much to thank Philadelphia for. Even when I’m not writing about Philly specifically, a lot of those hometown sensibilities find their way into my work. I write with a certain curtness and a certain honesty. Some might even call it gritty. *wink* As well, my experience as a black woman definitely impacts the lens through which I write. I love to show the gamut of experiences that lie within blackness and womanhood. I could write stories about black women for my entire life and never convey every single nuance of that experience.
There are three different projects that put me on the radar this year. There’s Charcuterie— which I’m producing with Sandra Leviton and Rachel Liu. That’s a horror/comedy feature about gentrification, set in the neighborhood where I grew up. That one was actually inspired by an article from a local Philly newspaper that detailed how a developer gutted a historic high school building to build luxury lofts. We’re in development on it right now, attaching our dream team.
Another biggie is Pale Horse which has won some awards and is being promoted on the Black List website right now. That one actually got a personal compliment from Franklin Leonard, which still makes me giddy. It’s a thriller feature about an author with MS who gets sucked down the rabbit hole of the circumstances of her twin brother’s disappearance almost 20 years prior. And there’s a gripping romance at the center that really complicates things.
There’s also The Glass Empire, which is an hour-long Fantasy pilot in the vein of Game of Thrones meets Into the Badlands. On the surface, it’s about the political intrigue of this fictional empire and its “Puppet Queen.” But as she finds her own voice as a leader and figures out her values, it unfolds as an interrogation of power, greed, conquest & imperialism.
What personal qualities do screenwriters need to make it?
Tenacity is the most important one for sure. I’d say it’s even more important than raw talent. I’ve had to be pretty much obsessive about my career to make it this far and something tells me I’ll have to maintain that to go even farther. People skills also go a long way, as it takes a village to build an entertainment career. You’ve got to be someone who people can get behind and go to bat for. Patience is imperative because even when you’re killing it, nothing happens overnight. I’m still working on that last one, every single day.
Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?
This is going to sound corny, but I really feel like I was called to it. I’ve been writing stories almost as long as I’ve been able to write, period. And before then, I made them up in my head and spoke the dialogue aloud. Philadelphia Young Playwrights (PYP) had a huge hand in my career. I wanted to be a novelist up until my freshman year of high school, but I found dramatic writing through PYP. Then when I got accepted into Drexel’s Screenwriting & Playwriting program I had to pick a track. Even though I started out writing for the stage, writing for the screen just made a lot more sense to me because I didn’t go to the theater that often but I spent every bit of my free time in front of IFC and the Sundance channel.
How do you become agent/manager bait?
Well, I don’t have an agent yet. But regarding my manager, my situation was a bit special because he signed me on the strength of Pale Horse alone. But he was also happy to know that I had a significant body of work. It’s great to have a prize pony script, but you have to prove that you’re fairly prolific. Your rep can’t be under the impression that if they get you an assignment, you’ll need five years to do it. I think my manager was also impressed by the fact that I’m a self-starter. Before I had a rep, I entered contests regularly. I crawled the internet for just about every pitch/query opportunity I could find and I took it. I made projects with friends. They want to know that you’ll meet them at least halfway.
Where do you get your creative inspiration?
I’m a maladaptive daydreamer. Think Walter Mitty. So, sometimes I’ll find myself living in a story before I even consciously realize I’m creating something. But the inspiration that sparks that can come from anywhere. An article. A song. A story a friend told me. But I also have muses– actors that I want to write for. When I cast the part in my head and see the whole thing as a movie or episode, cuts and all, that makes it a much smoother product the first time around– so rewrites are fairly minimal for me. But that’s just process stuff. I leave most of that off of the page.
How do you decide which ideas are worthy of pursuing?
I give it a beat and if the story still excites me, if I can still see it clear as day, then that’s what I write.
Do you have a writing brand in terms of interests you gravitate towards?
Oh, for sure. Progressive, diverse representation– usually through capital-G Genres (horror, fantasy, sci-fi.) But everything I do has at least a little levity in it. I’m known as a horror/thriller writer, which I think excites a lot of people. But I also don’t like to box myself in. Jordan Peele has blown the myth that you have to stick to what you’re known for way out of the water.
How do characterize the current state of the industry and opportunities for emerging writers?
That’s a tough one. In some ways, there are more ways to put your work out there than ever. On the other hand, we’re still in a post-writers-strike industry. No one has an open door policy. The tiny number of places with open submissions are inundated with material and they can only produce maybe one or two of those per year, assuming they’re not focusing on stuff they’ve developed internally. And all of these gatekeeping mechanisms are mercurial. Once you’ve weeded out all the objectively terrible scripts, it all boils down to a matter of personal taste and/or what people believe they can sell. And at the end of the day, this is a risk-averse business.
How do you train and improve your writing craft?
Reading scripts. The good, the bad, and the downright nausea-inducing. Identifying which elements make me feel what, and why. Then applying that to my own writing. Also, it’s just a matter of seeing things through to completion. I’m not one of those writers who touts the gospel of “Write Every Single Day, No Matter What.” But I am very serious about finishing things that I start. Even if I have to let a project sit for a couple years and work on something else, if that story means something to me, it’s going to get done. If you don’t believe me– The Glass Empire is based on a one-act play I wrote for PYP when I was a senior in high school. I also try to learn something from each piece that I write and use it to make myself better.
What are the qualities of scripts you read that don’t get industry interest?
I’ve been covering scripts since I was a sophomore in college and in my experience, the least viable scripts are passionless reiterations of tropes that writers think people want to see in whatever genre they’re working in. They lack a unique perspective and they aren’t really grounded in anything.
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s Young & Hungry list?
Put yourself out there. Be your own best advocate. Network, network, network– whether it’s in person or via Twitter (which is an amazing brand-building tool if you know how to use it.) But when you’re making these connections, be sure that they are genuine. Don’t just try and force a relationship with someone just because you think they might be able to help you.
And don’t be afraid to put what you want out into the universe. Call me kooky, but I 100% believe in being intentional and manifesting what you want. In the fall of 2017 (or around there) I tweeted that I wanted to get on The Bitch List. In January of 2018, someone voted me on there. Last year, I perused the Young & Hungry List from my dad’s apartment in Fayetteville, North Carolina– hoping my name would magically appear. And this year, some really amazing people made that happen for me.
What is something that few people know about you?
I’m kind of an open book, so that’s a hard question. I guess because I don’t talk about it nearly as much as my writing, people would be surprised to know that I’m really passionate about music. I love to sing (as my roommates will attest) and I taught myself how to play guitar. Unfortunately, I haven’t picked one up in about 8 years. But I used to write lyrics and compose melodies in my head. I think there’s an alternate universe where I front a band.