A screenwriter’s end of the year checklist: Keeping your eye on the big picture for 2018…
December 3, 2017 § 1 Comment
Hey, soon we’ll be saying a fond farewell to 2017 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 70 specs sold at the studio level in 2016 . And only 5,227 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, I’ve completed five screenwriting assignments—three of the films were produced, one goes into production in December 2017, and I just completed the first draft of my latest assignment and I’m turning it into the producer. I also finished my new book on surviving in Hollywood’s trenches called “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” now available on Amazon. 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 2018. Look back at 2017 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 2017. 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. In addition, check out the Scriptwriters Network in Los Angeles. They put on networking meetings the first Friday of every month. 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 2018 and may it be the best year ever.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on his blog My Blank Page.
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Check out my new book. If your passion drives you to embark on this crazy adventure of a screenwriting career, you’ll need to prepare for survival in Hollywood’s trenches. Talent is important, but so is your professionalism and ability to endure criticism, rejection, and failure over the long haul. The odds may be stacked against you, but the way to standout in this very competitive business is to create a solid body of work and build a reputation as a team player and collaborator. The rest is just luck — a prepared screenwriter who meets with an opportunity and delivers the goods. “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” will help you prepare for your own journey with the necessary, tips, tricks and tactics that I’ve developed over the past twenty years of working in the film industry that have helped me stay in the game. It’s time to start living your dream as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Click on the book cover for the link to Amazon.
“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
“It’s such an exhausting thing, you know, facing that empty page in the morning.”—Billy Wilder
“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye. Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Writing is very hard work, and having done both writing and directing, I can tell you that directing is a pleasure and writing is a drag… but writing is just an empty page—you start with absolutely nothing. I think writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It’s totally impossible, thought, for a mediocre director to completely screw up a great script.”— director Billy Wilder
You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.”—Ernest Hemingway
“Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp.”—Jerry Lewis