If you’re in this business for any length or time, you’ll realize it’s a numbers game at best to sell a screenplay. Consider the odds of selling a spec screenplay being the same as winning the lottery if you believe the numbers—nearly 50,000 projects bounce around Hollywood each year with less than 100 specs selling at the studio level in most years. The exact numbers are hard to find, but it looks like about 40 specs sold in 2018. Don’t forget about the thousands of films made without distribution that end up competing at film festivals every year with only a handful landing deals. Ah, don’t forget about the hundreds of pitches that don’t sell and the fact that the WGA 2019 employment report listed only 6,057 professional writers reporting income in fiscal year 2019 (Ends June 2019).
Yes, I also hate learning about the odds, but it’s a reality that must be considered so you know the mountain that you must climb with every new screenplay. It also makes you humble knowing it’s not going to be easy. This is an example of why you must have multiple projects, pitches and treatments in the marketplace at any given time for chance that one might—and I stress might—find interest and move farther down the playing field. And talk is cheap in Hollywood, so add that to the journey of your projects when producers or executives head their praise on your talents and your screenplay, but string you along with offers of free work as they dangle the carrot of production. Interest, even when you receive a payday, doesn’t always guarantee your film goes on to being a produced film. Sure, money makes their interest real, but your project still must jump over hurdles that are out of your control.
- An option for little money doesn’t end up with the purchase of the script.
- A script is purchased, the writer is fired, and it’s rewritten so many times it languishes in development hell and never gets produced.
- A script is close to being financed when suddenly the investors pullout, the producer loses the money and the star as a result. It’s dead after that.
- A project is put on hold because of scheduling conflicts.
- A project isn’t produced due to changing global marketplace factors. It’s cheaper NOT to make the film than take a risk.
Each project you create will have a shelf life and travel on its own unique journey to either failure or success. Sometimes a spec that didn’t sell two years ago can find a new home, but it’s a long haul journey for any project to find a producer or executive who likes it enough to move forward in some way. The project must also survive the dicey minefield of the development process and with luck, move into production. Even when a film is produced, there still is no guarantee of success either. How many films considered a “guaranteed hit” end up a bomb at the box office? It happens every weekend. As you see there are many hurdles that are out of a screenwriter’s control, but the one thing in your control is creating a solid body of work and putting it in the pipeline with the goal of having one move forward down the field to production. This is why you can’t be a “one script wonder” and burn out after a few drafts of your first screenplay.
I just completed my 39th overall screenplay and it’s still hard work and humbling. One of the hardest lessons that I had to learn when I finally started being paid to write screenplays was that not every project that I wrote was going to be produced. Many projects that I was hired to write ended up in development hell, not from anything I did, but because of a variety of circumstances out of my control. These projects remain viable with production ready drafts, but might never get off the shelf and into production. That’s okay. Take your lumps and move onto generating your next logline, pitch or treatment and hopefully another job.
Never forget that Hollywood is a business and screenwriting is a profession with the same dilemmas of other jobs. Your goal is staying in the game and being hired again and again to write screenplays to establish a career. It may take writing a half-dozen projects for one to finally sell or get you assignment work, but every new script is a new opportunity or a missed opportunity–it depends on how you play it. The other harsh reality is that you will need plenty of time to master your craft and be writing at a professional level with at least four or five solid projects that can be out in the marketplace competing with the thousands of others. This is why I stress the practice of patience during this period of your journey. I find many beginning screenwriters are too eager to sell their first script for a million dollars—like it’s just that easy. It’s not just that easy. And you need to respect your craft and practice it every day. You’ll need the time to fail and write badly before you can become an excellent screenwriter, execute notes and work on a schedule under pressure. You don’t want a yellow belt in screenwriting—you want to achieve a Grand Master 4th degree Black Belt—and to do this you’ll need to train by writing every day.
The only way you’ll be able to do this is to keep to a tight writing schedule. You’ll need to protect your precious writing time from distraction and procrastination. Stephen King calls it, “closing your door.” When your door is closed, it means that you are writing. You have to take your career seriously and become a master at scheduling your time. If you dabble at your career, time becomes your enemy, it passes quickly while projects burn out and life gets in the way of your most splendid screenwriting dreams. If you keep the pipeline always filled with your best work you will create opportunities and have a shot at success. If your body of work includes feature-length original screenplays and if they don’t sell, the scripts can become solid writing samples that can get you assignment work. If you want to work in television, your body of work should include your original TV pilots to show an agent, manager, producer or executive your unique voice. It used to be that you needed to write a spec episode of an existing series, but now agents and managers look for original material to get a handle on the writer’s talent and unique voice. And for both feature films and TV continue to craft your pitches for ideas that you want to write.
If you have a solid body of work and you’re always creating new projects, you will be more attractive to an agent or manager as they can see you are not a “one script wonder” but a workhorse. They don’t like divas and love writers who write and create the product. As you build up your projects, you’ll be working on your craft and becoming a better screenwriter in the process. And as it’s extremely difficult to sell a project, you’ll want to increase your odds by unleashing solid projects into the pipeline so you can attack a career on different fronts. Eventually one script will slip through and stick and it will jump-start your screenwriting career.
Keep writing because if you stop—you’re guaranteed never to have any chance at success.
Copyright © 2020 Mark Sanderson. All rights reserved. My Blank Page blog.
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“In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.”—Kurt Vonnegut
“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
“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson
“The time we have alone; the time we have in walking; the time we have in riding a bicycle; are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.”—Ray Bradbury
“I never feel the need to discuss my work with anyone. No, I am too busy writing it. It has got to please me and if it does I don’t need to talk about it. If it doesn’t please me, talking about it won’t improve it, since the only thing to improve it is to work on it some more. I am not a literary man but only a writer. I don’t get any pleasure from talking shop.”—William Faulkner
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