When I graduated from film school, my sole focus was the same as my fellow aspiring scribes—to write and sell our original spec screenplays. Anyone could write a spec screenplay and this was the era when Hollywood didn’t hesitate to spend a million bucks just to take a spec script off the market. These were good times and it’s nice work if you can get it. I knew a few who did with mid-six to seven-figure paydays. The rest of us slogged through spec after spec hoping to make some noise and get lucky with our first screenplay sale.
It wasn’t until my fourth spec that I started to make some noise. It was a big-budget action script co-written with my friend who was the personal assistant/driver to the biggest action producer in Hollywood. While the producer was in Europe shooting a mega-budget film with an “A-list” star, my friend’s job was to man the production company’s offices for when they called and needed something from the European set. We decided to properly use our writing time and meet in the offices on the Warner Brothers lot at night and write until the morning. After several drafts, we garnered the interest from a big movie star and took a meeting with him. He was considering three action scripts and ours was one of them. Unfortunately, we didn’t have representation at the time and were out winging it by ourselves. Looking back, the concept was strong, but the writing could have been better. No regrets. You can only be as good of a writer as you are at this moment in time—no better or worse. You only become a better writer by writing and continuing to learn and grow. Experience takes time, hard work and unwavering determination.
If you’re lucky enough to stay in the screen trade long enough and garner enough experience and credits, you’ll discover other screenwriting career opportunities may come your way. After I graduated from film school, I never imagined my eventual twelve screenwriting jobs would all be from assignment work. It’s the bread and butter of a working screenwriter. Sure, every screenwriter needs to write specs and many end up as writing samples, but these samples can land you assignment work.
You may write a half-dozen specs that don’t sell before one of them secures you an assignment job from a producer or studio. It was my fifth spec that moved me farther along on the field— it nearly won the Nicholl Fellowship at the Academy (a top 20 script), it sold a year later and was produced into a motion picture. I continued to write specs after the sale and it wasn’t until my twelfth spec when I was able to secure my first screenwriting assignment job. You never know the perils that await you on your pathway to success, but the road is definitely paved with your spec screenplays.
Another opportunity you might be offered is working as a “script doctor.” When a screenwriter is unable to execute the producer’s notes and they are effectively “written out,” a producer will bring in a new writer to fix the mess. This is why it’s extremely important to execute notes properly. No writer enjoys being rewritten, but the harsh realities of the business dictate when the writer is unable to deliver, producers go with a writer who can adequately make the changes necessary to push the project along toward production.
As a working screenwriter, rewriting a screenplay using notes is an art and craft you must respect. You’ll work again if you become a writer who is easy-going and can execute the producer’s notes quickly and on schedule. I’ve been hired a handful of times as a “script doctor” to help a project in need and sometimes did un-credited rewrites. I worked on a project where the original writer adapted the book and three drafts, but was unable to execute the changes the producer needed to move into production. I previously worked with these producers, so they knew my work and trusted me to get the job done on schedule. I eventually completed four more drafts including working with the director on altering the script to fit specific locations and address budget concerns.
Another opportunity is consulting with aspiring writers to hone their skills and bring their project up to a professional level. This teaching aspect of a screenwriter’s career is very fulfilling, especially when the students are passionate about the process and not looking for fame or a quick payday. It feels good to give back and pay it forward. Everyone needs a mentor and if you can take a beginning screenwriter under your wing, your good karma will surely come back to you.
It takes years of writing and honing your skills to gain the wealth of experience necessary to work on a professional level. Even with the hard work, focus, determination and luck, so much is out of your control and success is not a given. The only aspect within your control is to constantly prepare for when opportunities arise to further your screenwriting career. You must respect it’s a highly specialized craft, but if you can master your unique voice and writing skills, you’ll discover new avenues of work for your screenwriting career.
“The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration, but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.” —Steven Pressfield
“… The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.” ― Steven Pressfield
Stephen King with advice from his old newspaper editor John Gould: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
“You must be confident enough to believe that you can “make it”—but humble enough to know it’s a long journey with much to learn.”—Scriptcat
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