Who can believe the year is almost over? The pandemic has changed everything and working in Hollywood now has even more challenges. It’s always a powerful tool to look back over the previous year and critically analyze the good, the bad, and the ugly choices you’ve made about your screenwriting. Hopefully, you’ve learned from your failures and enjoyed your successes. Excuses abound, but what really matters is how productive have you been? Room for improvement? 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?
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 to go 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.
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? 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.
Always have a purpose in choosing your material. REMEMBER: What you write about is as important as how you execute it — and just because you write it doesn’t mean they have to buy it or 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 have 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 in a particular genre. 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. A writer with zero credits is still a writer without any produced films.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the odds are already stacked against you and time marches on so quickly. Only 6,323WGA members reported any income last year and of those, 5,118 were in Television (annual report ending in July 2020) out of nearly 13,000 members. Check out the 2020 ANNUAL REPORT FROM THE WGA. 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, networking, building your unique voice, and casting your best scripts wide to the right players.
So, it’s never too late, even though the year is nearly over, to grab a piece of paper and if you haven’t yet, set up a game plan for 2021. Hit the ground running and achieve your goals every day of the week. Treat your screenwriting like a business—because it’s YOU, INC. and every decision you make affects your pathway to success. Ask yourself the hard questions: “Why are you writing this particular spec and will it serve you in the best way possible to create opportunities and open doors?”
Here are seven steps in my checklist to prepare for the new year:
1) SCREENPLAYS! 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? Do you have 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. It’s dangerous to be impatient and go out with a screenplay without having another solid project to back it up.
2) ACHIEVEMENTS! Make a list of your achievements in 2020. 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 production or take an internship? List anything that shows you are working toward to your goals.
3) SOLID CONTACTS! Make a list of any new contacts that you met by networking during the year. In January, make sure to send them a “First of the year—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. Also, instead of always asking for help, BE a good contact too. It’s not all one-sided.
4) DEADLINES! 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.
5) NETWORKING! If you haven’t yet, start attending networking events in the new year. Become a member of the International Screenwriter’s Association ( ISA ) for workshops, webinars and in person events in your area. Join Scriptwriter’s Network and they have seminars and meetups every month in Los Angeles. Network on Stage32.com and also Final Draft hosts meetups every month with known screenwriters and offers tips and many free networking events during the year. Get out of your writing cave and meet other screenwriters and network. Help others and you will find they will help you.
6) READ, READ, READ! 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 most were 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) HOMEWORK! 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. A lot of vital information slips 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.” 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. It’s always about the right project to the right producer at the right time. That’s why you stay in the game by continuing to write and get better. 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!”
All my best wishes for a glorious and successful 20201 that is a blank slate for you to fill as you wish. Stay healthy, wash your hands, and stay six feet apart.
Copyright © 2020 by Mark Sanderson. All Rights Reserved. My Blank Page blog.
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