How many feature scripts will you write without success until you consider a new direction?
February 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Specs! We must write and sell feature specs! All specs, all the time! It’s the ONLY way! We’re going to sell feature spec screenplays for huge paydays—like we read about in Variety!” This is what my fellow film school friends and I believed back in the day as we started pursing our dreams. Yes, feature specs are a necessary component to your learning and training as a screenwriter, but you have to put the process in perspective.
So, you want to be a feature screenwriter? How many spec screenplays have you written that are solid samples and can compete in a very crowded marketplace? It will take time to create a solid body of material that properly represents you as a professional. Maybe a few of your specs placed in competitions? Obviously, it’s better to win, but if you placed in the semi-finals or closer it’s worth a mention. Okay, but are you also pursuing agents and managers? Sending out query letters? Are you networking with assistants and other lower level players who will be your entry into the system? What if you don’t live in Hollywood? It makes it more difficult to have your ear to the ground and meet those people necessary to help with your screenwriting journey.
Did you write a handful of specs… and rewrite them… and rewrite them with various notes from friends, contests, or professional feedback? Are your specs scattered in different genres? Are you building a reputation in a particular genre, or are you spending your time trying to be prolific in multiple genres? Comedy is difficult and some screenwriters are not good at comedy. That’s okay if you figure that out early. It’s not okay if you’re not good at comedy and waste your time writing six specs that end up going nowhere. Other writers are great with action while some might be horrible at horror. You have to find a genre that drives your passion, otherwise you’re scattering yourself thin and you’ll find that it’s hard to be prolific in all genres. And most likely the first spec you sell will dictate the genre you’ll be writing from then on.
Screenplay contests are a great way to judge your writing against hundreds or potentially thousands of other writers—but it’s still a protected bubble. It’s not the “real” world of Hollywood where estimates say around 50,000 projects bounce around yearly. Unless your script wins or places in the top percentage of screenplay contest entries, it doesn’t really mean anything. Sure, it can help you judge your writing if that’s what you need, but is it worth the continual expense year after year? Last year maybe you placed in the top 1,000 and this year you placed in the top 750? What does that actually mean? You’re marching closer to success? If you just write your script better this next pass, you just might place in the top 500 next year? It’s madness and chasing an elusive dragon.
A good friend of mine landed in 3rd place in one of the biggest screenplay contests around, but it did nothing for his career. He didn’t get any press from the contest and never even took a meeting as a result. Even “winning” a contest doesn’t guarantee instant success. Sure, you might receive money and some meetings, but you still have to convince someone to buy your screenplay or hire you to write one. The work never ends with “winning.” It just begins.
Rita Mae Brown in her book Sudden Death said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It’s the same as going to the hardware store every day for bread. You hope that someday, they will stock bread and the accusations of your insanity will be proven wrong. Similarly, writing script after script and hoping to sell one could be called insanity. Sure, it’s what screenwriters need to do, but how long are you willing to write feature screenplays without any real evidence of forward movement? Five scripts without a sale or being hired for an assignment? Ten specs? Fifteen? As many as it takes?
A few honest questions:
- Are you only writing huge budgeted specs and chasing Hollywood’s ten-pole dreams?
- Are you hitting a higher wall every time out?
- Are you writing simpler, more indie ideas that are lower budgeted and could actually get made?
- Do you have a limit on the number of feature specs you don’t sell when you’ll change direction and write something else—or are you going to continue on the same routine, year after year, without a change or adaptation?
- Faith and optimism are necessary, but can you be realistic about the film business, the odds, and if your pursuit of a career is really gaining momentum or not?
- Are you willing to consider writing TV pilots, hour and half hour, or a web series on spec in addition?
Time passes fast as you pursue a career and life can get in the way. Writing other mediums could create more opportunities for work. I’ve been blessed that most of my writing work comes from feature-length assignments, so my sole focus was on feature screenplays until about five years ago when I started to craft spec original TV pilots with show bibles. I started to get the hang of the writing for half hour and hour episodic TV and even dabbled writing the first season of an original web series with nine episodes. Later, I turned that web series into an hour pilot. I started to take TV pilot pitch meetings too that opened up new opportunities. One of my spec comedy TV pilots actually landed me a paid writing assignment with a producer who hired me to write a half hour comedy pilot and the show bible. She asked for a writing sample that was similar in humor to what she wanted, so I gave her my original spec comedy half hour pilot. She loved the writing and my sample got me the job.
It all comes down to cost of time vs. benefit. If you find that feature screenplay writing is taking up all of your time with little to show as a result, maybe writing in another medium could be the answer. You never know when your different works will open new doors that lead to paid work.
Either way, keep writing and getting better. What’s the alternative to not writing? You’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success. At least with a solid body of material you practice your craft and create opportunities—the rest is timing and the right project getting to the right producer.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“Take a person like Picasso, you know, who does double profiles and has gone through cubism and God knows what, but he knows every muscle in the human body. If you ask him to draw the figure of a man or a woman, there wouldn’t be a muscle out of place. You’ve got to know your craft in order to express the art.”—Alfred Hitchcock
“What’s unique about screenwriting is that it’s an act of prophecy. The screenwriter is a bit of the Gypsy with a crystal ball. You say, I’m writing this on a page and it’s going to be blown up on a screen so damned big that you believe it, with actors I don’t know if anybody’s going to get, in settings I don’t know where and how they can be done; and it’s going to turn out this way…” You’re guessing. There’s a big of Gypsy in you. An act of prophecy.”—Robert Towne
“Masters and those who display a high level of creative energy are simply people who manage to retain a sizable portion of their childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood.”—Robert Greene, “Mastery”
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen”—Joseph Campbell
“Screenwriting is such a very special branch of literature. In some ways, it’s closer to the poetic form than it is to the dramatic. A lot of writers think that they write down to an audience if they do a motion-picture script.”—John Huston