A screenwriter’s checklist: Keeping an eye on the big picture of your career…
June 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
Hey, we’re saying a fond farewell to 2016 and there is no turning back. I do believe it’s always a powerful tool to look back over the previous year and critically analyze the good, the bad and the ugly choices we’ve made. Leave the regrets behind and focus on your growth as a screenwriter and human being. Hopefully, you’ve learned from your failures and enjoyed your successes. Excuses abound, but what really matters is how productive have you been? Is there room for improvement? We must always adapt to survive while slogging it out in Hollywood’s trenches. Have you become a better screenwriter and have you been able to move yourself and your projects down the field? Have you opened doors and gained new “fans” of your writing? Have you been able to gain and hold new ground? Established new relationships and contacts? Created a solid body of material in a genre to show your unique voice? Sold or optioned a project? Follow your writing disciplines to stay on target?
The responsibility for a screenwriter’s career begins and ends with the screenwriter. The hard fact: Your screenwriting career is probably the most important struggle to you and not to anyone else. Only you know the hard work and sacrifices you’ve endured for years going after your dream, so you need to protect your career path by taking responsibility for chartering the course of your career. Your time is precious and you need to constantly be moving forward and avoid the pitfalls of poor choices and negative experiences.
Too many times, I’ve heard screenwriters blame others for their own missteps or lack of success in Hollywood. Some writers look for the quick and easy way to success, but end up frustrated when their one script doesn’t sell, they have no other plans and they are not working on new material. Sure, it’s easier to soften the blow to blame the agent, manager, producer, or Hollywood itself for not getting your film made, but screenwriters need to step up and take more control over their choices. You can’t believe that every spec will sell—in fact most will not. Your new spec may not be the “one” — but one of many you’ll have to write and burn through until it jump starts your career.
Every time you write a new project on spec, you must consider how it fits into the bigger picture of your screenwriting goals. It’s a risk when you write a spec and you are rolling the dice with your precious time. Did you just have a “fun idea” for a movie and thought it would sell, so you decided to spend months writing it hoping when you’re done for a huge payday? This is not an effective use of your time. If it’s your passion project and you must write it—do it and hopefully you’ve executed it properly and your passion will be there on the page—but choose your material wisely. REMEMBER: What you write about is as important as how you execute it and just because you write it doesn’t mean they will “love it.“ You’ll only figure this out after you meander through four or five scripts that don’t achieve the plateaus you had expected or do not sell. You’ll be forced to take a step back and examine your reasoning for embarking on the journey with each project.
If you’ve been successfully making noise with a particular genre, continue to establish yourself as an expert in that genre. When you secure a writing gig, you’ll move forward with steady work because you’ll be known for a genre. There is nothing wrong with being pigeonholed as a screenwriter. It means you’ll work and build up your résumé in a genre that you hopefully enjoy writing. Trust me, bouncing around for years with different scripts in different genres hoping that something sticks is a fool’s endeavor. I’ve been there. When something eventually hits and is a success, the producers will want more of the same from you in the way of screenwriting assignments—the bread and butter or working screenwriters. There is no shame in steady work. I find sometimes aspirants believe they’ll hold out and will only go with a script that is “their vision” and somehow it’s “selling out” to take a job offered writing something that maybe isn’t their favorite choice of material—but it’s a foot in the door.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the odds are already stacked against you and time marches on so quickly. If you don’t believe the odds, consider that according to the Scoggins Spec Market Scorecard, only 47 specs sold at the studio level as of September 2016 . And only 5,159 WGA members reported any income in a year (annual report ending in June) out of nearly 9,000 members. The other half did not work. Over half of those numbers who did report income were working in television. Think about those odds for a moment and then get back to work. And if you add the non-union screenwriters working… it can boggle the mind with more stats and there are no stats for non-union screenwriters working or not working. The main issue is that you must stay busy creating projects and casting your best scripts wide.
I’ve been blessed, this past year was very busy for me and I’ve pushed various projects down the field to production. In the last year, my eighth produced film “Mommy’s Little Murderer” premiered on Lifetime to huge ratings and they’ve been re-airing it ever since, I was hired for two script assignments (my 14th and 15th) and completed one, and hired for two script rewrite jobs. I also finished my new book on surviving in Hollywood’s trenches and plan to publish in January on Amazon, and this blog hit over 51,000 reads last year alone. We must stay active and not wait for others to open doors. We create new opportunities with every project that we create.
So, it’s never too late, even though we’re already into the new year, grab a piece of paper and if you haven’t yet, set up a game plan for 2017. Look back at 2016 and chart your successes and failures. Write down your goals you achieved and the ones you missed. Hit the ground running this year and achieve your goals every day of the week. Treat your screenwriting like a business—it’s YOU, INC. and every decision you make affects your pathway to success. Every three months check in on your progress and keep updating your list and following your road map to success. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions: “Why am I writing this particular spec and will it serve me in the best way possible to create opportunities and open doors?” If you haven’t done this start now. Grab a piece of paper and…
1) Make a list of all viable projects. Completed scripts and what condition they are in—ready to be read, needs a rewrite, needs a polish, only a first draft, etc. Add to the list any fleshed out pitches, log lines, one sheets, beat sheets or treatments. This is important if you cross paths with an agent or manager. They want to see you busy and prolific on your own. What do you have to offer? One script only and nothing as a follow-up? You’ll need a solid body of work to standout and it will take time to craft these projects.
2) Make a list of your achievements in 2016. Scrutinize the successes and failures so you can see where you need to pick up the slack in areas where you need to focus in the new year. List any accolades—did you win or place in a significant screenwriting competition? Did you option or sell a screenplay? Did you graduate from film school? Did you make any films, short movies or a webseries on your own? Did you work on a film production or complete an internship? Find a screenwriting mentor? List anything that shows you are working toward to your goals.
3) Make a list of potential deadlines for any rewrites or new ideas. Keep true to these self-imposed deadline as if they were real screenwriting jobs. Do not deviate from the commitment for anyone or any external forces. Trust me, either on purpose or by mistake, people will try to derail your schedule and will think it’s not that important because you’re writing on spec. It is that important. It’s vital training for the time when you finally do get a job on assignment and you’ll know how to keep a deadline under any conditions. Find respected screenwriting contests that you may want to enter and use their entry dates as a goal and deadlines to finish your new material.
4) Make a list of any new contacts that you met by networking during the year. If you have an e-mail, or the address of their company, send a holiday card. Nothing like the holidays as a good reason to reconnect, right? In January, make sure to send them a: “Midyear check in—hope this finds you well—this is what I’m doing” e-mail. It will put you back on their radar and if you list a few interesting projects, they might bite and ask for a read.
5) If you haven’t yet, attend more networking events before the year ends. Become a member of the International Screenwriter’s Association ( ISA ) for workshops, webinars and in person events in your area. Also Final Draft hosts meetups every month with known screenwriters and offers tips and many free networking events during the year. Network on Stage32.com also—it’s free and a great place to meet fellow filmmakers. Get out of your writing cave and meet other screenwriters and network. Make sure to support others and you will find they will help you.
6) If you don’t already, read scripts on a regular basis. Good scripts, bad scripts, classics—read! You’ll be surprised how much you learn from reading screenplays. Be careful of the screenplays that are posted during award season. Do not try to emulate their style as many are written in a protected bubble of development and were not specs, so they can get away with many things regarding format that you cannot with a spec from an unknown writer. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” —Stephen King.
7) If you don’t already, read screenwriting blogs, books, articles and film websites with news about the film industry. You must do your homework on a daily basis and not expect your representation (if you’re lucky to have an agent or manager) to do it for you. Many things slip through the cracks and information is priceless currency in Hollywood. It can mean the difference between getting in a door with a meeting that could land you the next job that launches your career. A game plan helps you allocate your precious time wisely. It shows that you’re your serious about your career and treating your screenwriting as a professional—not just willy-nilly writing a script and hoping it will sell on its own merits. It’s rare that one script makes a career. It’s always one script that opens the door, but you’ll probably have to write five or six to get to that “ONE.”
And keep updating these lists every three months to keep track of your progress and not allow an opportunity or contact to slip through the cracks. Keeping an eye on your career doesn’t just mean focusing on writing your latest spec and ignoring the business side of your journey. You have to multitask and keep all of these important aspects in check throughout the year. Your current spec is just one of the tools in your arsenal to use to move forward on the field.
The overnight success is usually a series of little successes along the way that lead up to continued success. You have to consider how everything you do regarding your career fits into your bigger overall goals. Your career aspirations can’t live or die by one project and you can’t focus on “the one” and hope it unlocks the gates of Hollywood. It’s always going to be a numbers game with horrible odds of success. Even if you sell a screenplay, there are no guarantees and still so many hurdles to jump.
The good news is—the more quality material you create, the better chance you have of garnering interest and that may lead to a sale or assignment work. Keep your eye on the big picture. It’s like what Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon, “It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!” And read this eye opening essay on the current filmmaking business environment as you try to chase the Hollywood studios with your specs: “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA.” All my best wishes for a glorious and successful journey for 2017 and may it be the best year ever.
Copyright 2016 by Mark Sanderson on his blog My Blank Page.
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“The professional prepares mentally to absorb blows and to deliver them. His aim is to take what the day gives him. He is prepared to be prudent and prepared to be reckless, to take a beating when he has to, and to go for the throat when he can. He understands the field alters every day. His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily as he can.”— Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art
“You must be arrogant enough to believe that you can “make it”—but humble enough to know it’s a long journey with much to learn.”—Scriptcat
“So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.”—William Faulkner
“So give yourself that chance to put together the 80, 90 pages of a draft and then read it very in a nice little ceremony, where you’re comfortable, and you read it and make good notes on it, what you liked, what touched you, what moved you, what’s a possible way, and then you go about on a rewrite.”—Francis Ford Coppola