If you haven’t yet, ask yourself the honest question: “Why do I want to be a professional screenwriter?”
January 13, 2016 § Leave a comment
It’s at the heart of any journey… the true reason for embarking on a crusade that remains so elusive for so many, but those who refuse to give up on a dream find a way to achieve some level of success. It’s the pursuit of a screenwriting career. Thousands crack open “Save the Cat” every year and begin to dream saying, “I can do that!” And far too many don’t yet realize how difficult it is to craft a well-written screenplay or the long haul journey fraught with criticism, rejection and failure.
Yes, it’s a romanticized career pursued by millions of writers who chase a dream of screenwriting’s fame and fortune, but realize after five years of getting kicked around it’s a hard climb to the top of the mountain. The mistake aspirants make is setting off on the journey without the proper training or temperament. You have to be in this for the long haul with the tenacity of a pitbull or get out now.
I’m shocked when I read a script and the writer hasn’t yet learned screenwriting format or even cares to proofread the work. This is not a business for amateurs who don’t take the journey seriously. It’s a big sandbox and if you want to play with the big toys you’ll have to do the work necessary to compete and even then you have no guarantees. Too many jump in line who don’t respect the craft or the difficulty of the job. They believe that writing one screenplay is going to launch a career, but don’t realize the early specs are training tools to learn the craft—not potential million dollar sales. Yes, if you’re blessed and can make screenwriting your job, you sell one and now you have to do it again and again—it’s called a professional career that comes with all of the pressures and deadlines any job requires. You move from a protected bubble of writing specs on your own schedule to a job. When it’s how you pay your bills and eat is when it really gets serious.
The question of “why” comes when you’re slogging it out in the trenches getting a face full of criticism and rejection. If your answer is because it’s your dream, your passion to become a filmmaker and tell stories on the screen—go forward, take your lumps, come back next time with a better script and never give up. If you do give up, Hollywood doesn’t care, they don’t need anymore screenwriters at the gates. Seriously, the WGA’s Annual Report ending June 2016 shows only 5,159 writers reported any income. The rest did not work in that calendar year. These are “professional writers” in the guild with only about fifty out of thousands making over a million dollars a year. Sure, you know their names and some of us know them personally.
It’s not like Hollywood is throwing money as specs anymore. The Scoggins Spec Market Scorecard for 2016 reported that around 70 specs had sold in Hollywood for an eight year low. The spec sales by genre in order? Drama, comedy, thriller, action/adventure, sci-fy/fantasy, then horror. Do these numbers stop you in your tracks? They shouldn’t—but let it be a wake up call and know the mountain you’re climbing to reach any level of success—if any success is even possible. And considering when 50,000 scripts bounce around Hollywood each year, you really have to ask yourself “why?” Why do you want to pursue screenwriting as a career? Focus on your love of the craft and becoming a better screenwriter. Be humble on your journey and be in the screenwriting game because your passion drives you to write and you simply love the work—end of story.
If you’re struggling with the “why,” dig deep and look in the mirror if you must, but you need to get the answer out of the way early in your journey. If it’s passion for the work, the prolific David Mamet has a great quote,“Having spent too many years in show business, the one thing I see that succeeds is persistence. It’s the person who just ain’t gonna go home. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to go home. This is what I’ll be doing until they put me in jail or in a coffin.”
If you haven’t discovered after a few years of struggling for any level of success in Hollywood—write this down so you can see it daily: “Screenwriting is not a road to fame, fortune and celebrity—it’s just not.” The romantic myth doesn’t include the years of hard work as you master your craft, the many late nights, sacrifices, constant rewrites of projects that don’t sell, the rejection and criticism, magnificent highs, bottom scraping lows, and the constant search for validation and respect. If you’re in this game believing a Hollywood screenwriter’s exciting life is living in a mansion in the hills with a pool and three cars in the garage, and endless parties, premieres and huge paydays—very few screenwriters achieve that level of success.
Trust me, I’ve slogged it out over the past twenty years of my professional career and have managed to rack up credits and survive with screenwriting as my job. At times it can feel like madness staring into the unknown and looking for your next gig. The longer you stay in the game, it’s filled with good times and bad, dry periods where you can’t find work, and other times when you have two films produced within ten months—like what happened to me this past year. The key is to stay in the game for the long haul and that’s the hardest part of the journey.
And what about screenwriting fame? Ha… it’s was best said by screenwriter Joe Gillis in writer/director Billy Wilder’s classic movie Sunset Boulevard, “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” So, forget the “fame aspect” unless you enjoy impressing your parents or grandparents. Screenwriters are a dime a dozen in Hollywood—throw a rock and you’ll hit a dozen. Screenwriters are lucky even to get an invite to the wrap party or the movie’s première. Hollywood is like no other business where the person or people who are invaluable to creating the project are sometimes the most disrespected and mistreated. Ah, but that’s showbiz, folks.
And realize even if you finally do get paid to write or your script sells, your payday might be less than you expected, and you may have to live on it for a year or more before the film is made—if the film is ever made. There are no guarantees—ever. Your daily reward must come from doing what you love to do. The way to survive over the long haul marathon is to forge ahead without expectations. Even if you do “make it,” whatever your definition is, your overnight success will probably be ten years in the making. Trust me, those will be years of sacrifice, ups and downs, criticism, self-doubt and fear while you slog it out in the trenches. Do you have what it takes to weather the storms over the long haul?
Every time up to the plate and with every new screenplay it’s a constant test to see just how badly you want a career as a screenwriter. So, if you want to make “big money” or get attention from a career, pick another profession besides screenwriter. Only pursue a screenwriting career because your passion drives you to live out your dreams, it’s what gets you up in the morning and you don’t want to go through life doing anything else.
Now get back to filling those blank pages—and hopefully you’ve asked yourself the honest question, “why am I pursuing a screenwriting career,” and have a solid answer for the right reasons whatever they may be. If you’ve discovered that screenwriting is your calling, keep writing because if you stop you’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success.
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Find the quotes below and 100 others on the QUOTE FOR TODAY page on this blog.
“With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job. It’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There is plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
“Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it. And as long as they don not understand it you are ahead of them. Oh sure, I thought, I’m so far ahead of them now that I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little.” —Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, page 75.
“Only you know the hard work, sacrifices and time it took to reach this level of your career. Surround yourself with like-minded people who truly champion your overall screenwriting goals and not just support you for one project. Remember always—it’s your career.”—Scriptcat
“Master storytellers never explain. They do the hard, painfully creative thing—they dramatize.”—Robert Mckee, “Story”
“So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it… now he would never write the thing he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that is why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.” —Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
“But the Artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling. If you don’t believe me, ask Van Gogh, who produced masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer his whole life. In the hierarchy, the Artist faces outward. Meeting someone new he asks himself, “What can this person do for me?” “How can this person advance my standing?” In hierarchy, the Artist looks up and looks down. The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Believe me that in every big thing or achievement there are obstacles — big or small — and the reaction one shows to such an obstacle is what counts not the obstacle itself.”—Bruce Lee