Oh, the odds to achieve any screenwriting success…
May 7, 2016 § 1 Comment
I read the sobering statistics from the Scoggins Spec Scorecard for 2016 spec sales in Hollywood. Approximately 70 specs sold. It’s the lowest sales in eight years. And in four of the last seven years, fewer than 100 specs a year sold. Ouch. Don’t even get me started on the number of scripts registered with the Writer’s Guild every year. Those figures are staggering with reports of 30,000 – 50,000 screenplays. Last fiscal year for 2016 (ending June 2016) in the WGAw, only 5,159 screenwriters reported any income, the rest did not find gainful work as a professional screenwriter. They may have written specs or taken other jobs, but not in their career field. Three-quarters of the employed writers work in television and the rest in features. Crazy odds! This is what we’re up against brave screenwriters, but use these statistics as a reality check and not to derail your dreams. It’s humbling for sure, but you can sell a spec… hell, I did it once. It opened the door to fifteen screenwriting assignments and 9 produced films.
So, I always ask aspiring screenwriters, does their passion to write still burn inside even after hearing these numbers? If you are going to pursue writing as a career in Hollywood, I think you must honestly ask yourself the difficult questions. If your answer is “yes” then you truly love the craft of screenwriting, even against all odds. Call it the insanity of us dreamers.
I believe some screenwriters write scripts because they consider it like playing the lottery. Buy a ticket at a chance for millions — write a script for a chance at millions. Mostly those days are over where Hollywood throws money at scripts just to take them off the market. I remember when you would read that a studio just spent a cool million dollars to buy a “hot” property, only to read later that it’s shelved due to particular circumstances. Mostly they discovered what they purchased was over priced and when they actually read the script, it was a lemon.
Others may seek fame, fortune and a desire for attention from selling a script for a huge amount of money. Unfortunately, it’s a numbers game at best and unfortunately, no one really cares who wrote the movie. Respect is a fickle beast in Hollywood. If you are searching for validation from Hollywood, you are going to come up empty most of the time. You’ll survive in the trenches longer if you can get into a Zen mindset where the only validation you seek is your own satisfaction from finishing the best script you’ve ever written to date. Oh, and detaching from any outcome. You pat yourself on the back for completing your new script—don’t expect anyone else to do it.
Mastering your craft takes years of study and execution. Hemingway said, “We are all masters of a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Wow. That’s respect for the art of writing. I love hearing an old jazz musician, a master of his instrument, saying that he is still learning. It’s an ongoing process. As you live and experience, you enhance your observation of life and hopefully it translates into your writing. Be an honest writer and find the truth in your stories. Once you find your own voice, continually work on your craft to get better with each screenplay. Especially if you are working for producers who pay you to deliver the script they need.
Those writers who burn out after one script probably didn’t really love the craft enough to start. Writing is difficult to do well and the business side certainly can take its toll. If you dream of being a working screenwriter, you can’t write in a vacuüm. Development executives, producers and directors will expect you to execute their notes, and your precious baby will start to strangely change into something much different from the first draft they purchased. It’s a collaborative art form and we as the screenwriters are the architects of the film. If your script gets produced into a film, a hundred craftspeople will go to work adding their creativity and imprint. Sometimes when I visit the set, I feel useless because my work finished months ago when I typed “FADE OUT – THE END.” Now a hundred people are now busy taking care of my baby, the script. An idea that I crafted into a completed blueprint. It’s extremely fulfilling to see these creative masters all working together.
Screenwriting is the only writing craft that I know where so many people you run into daily have at least one script they either attempted to write, or actually completed. I don’t find many of those same people having attempted or completed a novel. That’s an entirely different world, one with a lot less perceived fame and fortune. I think screenwriting has become almost a pop culture exercise as the basics are now so accessible to everyone. Everyone now has unprecedented access to making a movie. When I started, the process was more mysterious and you’d only find a small group of film nerds who were truly interested in film. The craft is now truly open to everyone, but you still have to tell a good story.
True writers love the craft of storytelling. We write because we need to release these stories from our heads and hearts. Our passion in life is to fill the blank page. We would even write for free and do when we craft our spec scripts. But remember, don’t tell producers that you love writing so much, you’d write for free—you’ll find yourself working for free, and I only suggest doing that for your own spec projects. At least you have ownership and that is a place of power.
The odds of success for any artistic pursuit are shaky at best, but artists create because of their passion for the work. If you do manage to get a film produced, a hearty congratulations. You have just beat the seemingly insurmountable odds. If you can sustain screenwriting as a career, you have won the lottery. As my old friend director/writer/producer JJ Abrams once said to me, “It is no small feat to get a movie made, on any subject, on any screen.” Tru-dat!
Live. Experience. Write. Love and enjoy the wild journey. Celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small. If you love what you do and your passion drives you to create, then you’re already a winner. It’s a blast to wake up every morning and get paid for your passion in life. I’m on my 30th screenplay which is my fourteenth screenwriting assignment. I’m blessed.
Keep the faith and ever, I mean never give up.
Copyright 2017 written by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE blog.
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“… the professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality. He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep the huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull in to Nome.”—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
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