Screenwriters need to create a solid body of work to standout…
January 18, 2013 § 8 Comments
The honest truth? No one cares about your script or my script—unless you’re under a contract and writing on assignment. I’ve been blessed to have fourteen assignments and one spec sale on my journey. Otherwise, the specs are just another one of the 50,000 or so projects bouncing around Hollywood every year looking for a home. Half of the WGA writers don’t report any income in a given year and only 4,899 worked last year. As you quickly learn, good isn’t good enough anymore you have to be amazing and you’ll need the time to reach that plateau with your writing.
How do you standout as a screenwriter in this very competitive and crowded business? You’ll need to create a constant stream of material to put into your pipeline for consideration. You can’t write just one script and hope for success. The smart screenwriter is busy writing with an eye on the bigger picture of a career. It may take writing a half-dozen projects for one to finally sell or get you assignment work, but every new script is a new opportunity or a missed opportunity–it depends on how you play it.
You’ll need to work at a professional level for producers to take you seriously with your projects. If you’re looking to hook an agent or manager, they too will look to see if you are ready to compete on a professional level. They want to know if they send your script out, or send you into a meeting that you’ll be able to do the job. Their own reputation is on the line every time out so they need to feel confident. Yes, it will take time to create a handful of solid screenplays that can compete and represent you properly in a professional arena. This is why I stress the practice of patience during this growing period. I find many beginning screenwriters are too eager to sell their first script for a million dollars—like it’s just that easy. It’s not just that easy. And you need to respect your craft and practice it every day. You’ll need the time to fail and write badly before you can become an excellent screenwriter, execute notes and work on a schedule under pressure. You don’t want a yellow belt in screenwriting—you want to achieve a Grand Master 4th degree Black Belt—and to do this you’ll need to train by writing every day.
You’ll need a plan to build a solid body of work. It’s a three prong attack I call “The Trifecta” because it involves creating three types of material: A new pitch, a logline/beat sheet/treatment for a project, and a completed script. As you’re finishing one project, you’re starting work on another, crafting pitches and treatments, and you already have your latest script out in the marketplace. The only way you’ll be able to do this is to keep to a tight writing schedule. You’ll need to protect your precious writing time. Stephen King calls it “closing your door.” When your door is closed, it means that you are writing. You have to become a master at scheduling your time. The more you write, the more you’ll be able to estimate how long it will take you to complete any writing task: a scene, five pages, the entire script, a polish, or rewrite. You’ll get to know yourself better as a screenwriter and discover your strengths and weaknesses. This is important for when you’re working on a paid screenwriting assignment and under a deadline. You’ll want to know if you’ve properly built up the mental stamina to work six to eight hours a day—the time needed to properly finish a project.
As you create your projects and develop your new ideas, set a deadline to finish them and stick to it. This will help train you for the time when you’re really paid and have to work under contract and have to meet a deadline to deliver the project. You’ll already be up to speed having trained yourself to work under your self-imposed deadlines.
Find a genre that you’re passionate about and focus on that type of material. If you have too many projects in different genres, you’ll appear scattered and it will be hard to create your brand. Pigeonholing is not exclusive to actors only, it also happens to screenwriters—and that’s not such a bad thing. You want Hollywood to know you for your unique voice and style in a particular genre. Usually your first script that sells will determine the type of genre you’ll be known for creating. That’s okay, but pick a genre that you really love and stick with it.
Your body of work may include feature-length original screenplays and if they don’t sell, the scripts can become solid writing samples that can get you assignment work. If you want to work in television, your body of work should include your original TV pilots to show an agent, manager, producer or executive your unique voice. It used to be that you needed to write a spec episode of an existing series, but now agents and managers look for original material to get a handle on the writer’s talent and unique voice. And for both feature films and TV continue to craft your pitches for ideas that you want to write.
After I graduated film school, I solely focused on writing feature screenplays on spec and my agent (s) at the time only went out to those producers and companies in the feature film world. That was fantastic, but only if you eventually did sell your specs. Otherwise it was like banging your head against a wall each time—taking a few steps forward and then falling on your face, only to go back and do it again and again only to experience the same results. I believe they call that “insanity.”
And only focusing on one medium is extremely limiting to a screenwriter. The odds are astronomical to sell any spec especially from an unknown, un-credited screenwriter. It’s like stepping up to the plate and hoping for a grand slam home run every time out. Or standing in the end zone of a darkened football field and trying to kick the football into the opposite end’s goalpost. Difficult at best and impossible most of the time. And the odds become worse to secure any work if a writer cuts out the entire business of television. Back in the day, those working in features looked down on television as lowbrow and all of us eager film school grads focused on selling our million-dollar spec like we read about in Variety every week. I went to UCLA Film School and our alum writer/director Shane Black (Ironman 3) had sold a little script he wrote called Lethal Weapon for huge money and then he went on to a $4 million sale with The Long Kiss Goodnight. Looking back, I should have gotten into television, as I had close friends who were running shows, but alas I focused on features and time marched on.
Thankfully, the business has changed and now writers are free to work in television, features and the web without being pigeonholed into just one medium. Many agree that television is going through a new golden age where the most interesting ideas and series are causing the big talent in the feature world to take notice and many enjoy doing both features and television.
Many of the biggest Hollywood feature directors like JJ Abrams, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Josh Whedon are now working in television and producing shows. And many of them actually go their start in television, transitioned into features and now are back working in TV. It’s no longer considered a demotion. This is why as a screenwriter trying to break into Hollywood you need to diversify your talents. Don’t just focus on writing features alone. The Scoggins Report Spec Market Scorecard for 2015 listed only 46 feature scripts selling as of August and seven of those scripts had gone out in the marketplace before 2015. Those horrible numbers are down from last year’s ninety spec sales and it’s the second lowest spec sale tally of the past seven years, a full thirty percent lower than average through the end of August. Horrible odds, right? So why keep banging your head against the wall in only one medium where your projects are not selling—for a myriad of reasons?
You must diversify as a screenwriter if you want to stay in the game over the long haul. Write a web series, write a half hour and hour pilot for television, or write short comedy sketches. I’ve been blessed during my career to get paid to write for all mediums: Indie feature films, TV movies, a web series, a game show, sketch comedy for a live show, and both a half hour and hour pilots for television. This has allowed me to work on a regular basis because I have my material out into these worlds—not limiting myself to only the world of feature scripts where the business has changed dramatically. It’s more difficult than ever to sell an original spec given there are fewer films being made and Hollywood’s obsession is producing big-budget tent-poles that are remakes or properties they already own. It’s a huge gamble for a studio to buy a spec from an unproven writer and the idea does not have built-in global audience recognition.
So if you’ve stalled and crapped out with your feature specs, trying to get agents, managers and producers interested and finding yourself with the same results every time out, maybe you should consider changing your writing medium? It’s important to have writing experience in different mediums because if you happen to go up for a job, you’ll need the experience and a solid sample to represent you. It also opens up more possible places to work. Don’t cut yourself out of the television world or the web. I had never written a web series before until I met a director and producer who had a fantastic idea and we formed a company to create this new project. I wrote nine episodes of the first season and the project is out to investors. It was an invaluable experience for me as a screenwriter to now have this experience and it’s a solid project that opens up even more opportunities for writing. I also just finished writing a TV sitcom pilot on assignment for a producer and luckily I had done my spec work over the years and had solid samples in that medium to represent me. My samples got me the gig because of the similar humor and tone the producer wanted and my specs showed that I could deliver.
As you probably have experienced, it’s a long slog journey to reach any level of success in this business as a screenwriter. Don’t limit your writing to only one medium because you hamper your chances to secure any writing job in this very competitive marketplace. Yes, you can excel in different mediums because you are a writer and that’s what writers do—write. Of course it will take time to prepare solid samples in the different mediums, but it will be worth the effort when you secure a job in one that leads to another. Eventually it becomes necessary to become a multi-hyphenate so you can have more creative control over your material and not just be a “hired gun” every time out. But baby steps at first—study your craft, become a solid writer, and keep writing solid material in different mediums to expand your chances for any success
This is why you need a solid body of work to make you more attractive to an agent or manager as they can see you are not a “one script wonder” but a workhorse. Reps don’t like divas, they love writers who can and do write—and rewrite. As you build up your projects, you’ll be working on your craft and becoming a better screenwriter in the process. And as it’s extremely difficult to sell a project, you’ll want to increase your odds by creating multiple projects so you can attack on different fronts. Eventually one script will slip through and it will jump-start your screenwriting career.
Keep on writing and keep the faith!
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“Writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that. Not to write, for many of us, is to die. We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout.”—Ray Bradbury
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“You have to be very productive in order to become excellent. You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period. It may be very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You maybe ready to move into your good period and your excellent period. But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”—Ray Bradbury
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