The longer you chase your dream of being a professional screenwriter and slug it out in Hollywood’s trenches, the more you’ll realize just how difficult it is to sell a screenplay and if you do, to sustain a career. The years pass by fast, and Hollywood definitely works on its own schedule — never the schedule of an eager writer looking to sell a big spec or start a career. I offer this reality check only to keep you humble, focused on the necessary work, and always keeping your eye on the bigger picture of where you are going with your pursuits. A screenplay written without the thought of what it can do for you with regards to your ultimate career goals can be an exercise in futility. If you want to be a horror genre screenwriter and that is your passion, don’t write a romantic comedy. Stick to what you love to write and a genre that is your passion — and write the hell out of it. You’ll be looked upon as less “scattered” when it’s time to get you on the studio rewrite lists for jobs. Agents and managers can also understand what you can do better than if you showed up with a western, romantic comedy, drama, sci-fi, and action screenplay. How can a writer be good at all genres? Most likely they are not.
Now let’s examine the role of a good opportunity that can help start your screenwriting career. First of all, I believe you create new opportunities with every new screenplay. When your script is completely ready to be sent out and compete in the marketplace, it will serve as your “calling card” to showcase the best of your abilities. It’s rare your screenplay will sell on the first time out, but it can secure you a meeting or open a door with a production company. This can lead to a script assignment job — the bread and butter of working screenwriters. Today the business is all about intellectual property and developing existing books, news events, and even re-making old films. But the key is recognizing a good opportunity when it comes your way.
A few years ago, I took a rewrite job with a producer and because I did so well with the job, the producer hired me three more times — two were other rewrites and one was a script assignment of my own. I could have turned down the original rewrite job because I had to share credit (never an issue with me) with the original writer. I decided to jump in with both feet and plant my flag to showcase my ability to save the project that was floundering. You never know where one opportunity will lead and what doors it will open.
I recently had this discussion with a screenwriter who asked if he should continue to focus on writing his big-budget specs and hoping for a major sale, or should he write lower budgeted films at a company where he has a solid connection. I told him that fewer that 100 specs a year sell in Hollywood. In fact in 2021 only 34 specs sold. And if you consider the 50,000 scripts registered at the Writer’s Guild every year, the odds of selling a major spec to a studio as an unknown writer… well, you’d might have a better chance at winning the lottery. You have to seriously ask yourself what is the best use of your time. Yes, some writers are willing to hold out, year after year, writing big budget specs as unknowns, hoping for a miracle sale to happen and hitting a wall every time out. As the years fly past, this pursuit can really affect one’s mental and financial health. Or, if you have an opportunity to write a movie with a company where it will get made, why not take that easier opportunity? You never know where your job will lead and you can build on the opportunity. What if you write a few successful movies for them, and then you ask to move into producing? Or maybe directing? And you’re learning production while you’re getting paid. As an unknown writer, you’d never have those opportunities at a major studio to start with your first movie.
And looking at the bigger picture, most writers end up where they never imagined. Your career will never be what you imagined when you were pounding out your specs at home. You have to seize upon a good opportunity to get past the gates, and then what you do with that opportunity is the most important thing. I told this writer to take the writing job with the company, low budget or not, because it’s real. Money makes it real. Not some promises of “interest” or talk of possibly an option. He will be a paid and credited screenwriter, and that goes a hell of a long way to getting the next job over someone who has never been paid to write anything. It’s also building those vital relationships as he will be working closely with producers and the directors. These relationships are vital to building the foundation of a screenwriting career.
At the start, someone has to take a chance on you. If you deliver the goods and have a productive working relationship, that’s when they offer you another job, and hopefully another — and that’s called a career. It’s being paid to do what you love for a living. Trust me, producers like working with writers whom they can trust.
Every screenwriter has their own idea of “making it” and what a dream career looks like. I say you have to continue to “make it” with every new job after the first one. It’s not the romanticized idea of what a screenwriter’s life is like. There is no down time to rest. The hardest part of the journey is selling that first screenplay or being offered your first assignment job. Once you have a credited film, it’s a lot easier to find your next job because someone has already taken a chance on you. Always consider all opportunities that come your way. You probably won’t be paid a lot for your first few jobs, but you have to build the foundation of a career first before it can flourish.
Keep the faith, and keep filling your blank pages on your road to success.
Copyright 2022 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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