The precious moment of a screenwriter’s first payday…
February 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
You always remember your first time getting paid as a professional screenwriter. You may even Xerox the check and frame it, as to remember this monumental event on your long journey to carving out a career as a professional screenwriter (I did!). There’s never a better feeling than receiving a check for work done with your creative mind and not your physical labor. It’s an amazing feeling to get paid for putting words on paper. It’s even more amazing to get paid more than once to put words on paper and being on the set while they make the film.
I remember my first option on my fifth spec script “I’ll Remember April.” It was for very little money, but I was able to take my girlfriend at the time to Vegas for the weekend and celebrate my victory with my new-found wealth. The real joy happened later when the other paydays arrived— the producers executed the option, purchased the script and a year later it went into production. Once you get paid it becomes a job and you’re now a professional working under a deadline. There are no more excuses about “waiting for your muse.” You’ve finally graduated from aspirant to working professional and on the surface it may feel like it just happened overnight. It didn’t as you know the long haul it took to get to this point. Maybe five scripts, countless meetings, and ten years? You’ve stepped through the door into a new world and you must press on to stay inside the castle walls. Celebrate! Enjoy the spoils of success, but now it’s time to get back to work.
This is why it’s imperative your experience and skills allow you to work efficiently under a deadline and write at the top of your game. Your script got you the job, but you’ll need to back it up with the ability to execute notes and work with producers and directors. If you turn in a sub-standard draft, the producer or studio will fire you and find another screenwriter who can deliver the goods. Sorry, but you signed a contract and the producer is expecting “great things” very soon within the agreed delivery schedule.
In the classic Cohen Brothers film “Barton Fink,” Captial Pictures studio boss Jack Lipnick tells Fink, “We’re only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!” We all remember what happened to Fink when he got overwhelmed by writer’s block and couldn’t type but a few sentences under pressure? It’s a different game when you’re writing for money and your employer expects “great things.”
Your unique voice as a screenwriter will attract producers to hire you for the writing only you can do. It’s what will keep you working over the long haul. You’ll also need to get used to being creative under pressure, writing quickly and efficiently and meeting your deadlines, but you will eventually find yourself being more productive in less time. That’s the key to working under contract and executing notes. Will you be able to write a script in eight weeks? Will it be a worthy first draft that will not need five more drafts? Maybe they will ask for more drafts and will you be able to execute the notes on schedule to their liking? Or will you get fired? Only experience and time will prepare you to meet any writing opportunity that might come your way. I try not to think about the deadline, but get lost in the work and trust when I go back to the well, there will be an entirely new creative place I have never visited before.
I completed my thirteenth paid screenwriting assignment in the spring and the movie is now in production. My assignment before that was produced and is now airing in Canada and will be distributed globally later this year. It feels good to have my seventh and eight produced films go before the cameras during the last ten months. No fortune, fame or glory—none of the romanticized ideals of a screenwriter’s life—just a master craftsman, in his workshop, finishing up his twenty-eight screenplay, blowing out the candle to return another day on another project. I never take any of it for granted and know the long slog and decades of experience that it’s taken me to get here.
It’s work—and will always be hard work, but I’m happy and humbled to have had another chance up to the plate and made sure to knock it out of the park. Always build your reputation in everything you do.
Once you do start working professionally as a screenwriter and making money, do yourself a favor and live below your means. Sock away a “rainy day” fund and don’t run out and buy a new car and movie into a giant house. Success can ebb and flow in a screenwriting career and it’s the slow times that you must survive to stay in the game. Never look at your success as lasting forever at any level because that’s a fool’s point of view. There will be high times followed by low times and your goal is to weather any storm safely in between the sways of success. It’s not an easy business to succeed in as the various odds will tell you. That’s okay, us dreamers don’t look at odds, but we keep our focus, create our body of work, and live and breathe the life of an artist.
Always be a professional in action and ability. The pursuit of a screenwriting career is a long haul, so keep training for the long haul of the screenwriter’s marathon.
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“Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.”—P.G. Woodhouse
“The professional also “dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration, but he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.” — Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Breaking into this business, making your first sale, is an incredible event. The most important thing about the first sale is for the very first time in your life something written has value and proven value because somebody has given you money for the words that you’ve written, and that’s terribly important, it’s a tremendous boon to the ego, to your sense of self-reliance, to your feeling about your own talent. I remember the first sale I made was a hundred and fifty dollars for a radio script, and, as poor as I was, I didn’t cash the check for three months. I kept showing it to people.”—Rod Serling
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