January 1, 2016 § 1 Comment
Okay, it’s one thing to finish a screenplay and another to understand the complexities of how it fits into forging a career or what I call “the bigger picture.” Sure, a completed screenplay is an accomplishment to be celebrated, but you have to realize it’s only the beginning of a long journey. If you’ve completed a few screenplays, congratulations. Now get back to work because it’s always going to be about the work. Writing the perfect screenplay is elusive at best, but we can still try, right? Every time out is a chance to get better and learn while you build your screenwriting arsenal.
If also you lack humility on this adventure and think it’s an easy road, the film business will humble you and fast. According to the 2015 Scoggins Report only 93 spec screenplays solid in 2015. Also there are approximately 50,000 scripts bouncing around Hollywood every year and half of the Writers Guild doesn’t report any income and those are writers with professional credits.
Consider your first screenplay as a training tool and one of many that you’ll have to write badly to get to a place where you’re writing at a professional level to compete. Specs usually end up being your calling card instead of a million dollar sale. Also realize now that everything you write is not going to sell. It might take ten scripts and four drafts of each to have one open the door for a job.
The pursuit of a Hollywood screenwriting career, especially in today’s film business, is not for the thin of skin or for anyone looking to achieve easy fame and fortune. I wish you the best of luck if that’s your intention. There are better careers that pay more on a regular basis instead of going from script to script with many never getting produced or you paid. Honestly, no one cares who wrote the screenplay when they see a film at the multiplex. They’re going to see the stars or the story and hopefully your name is still on the end product and you haven’t been fired or have to share credit.
If you’re calling yourself a screenwriter but without credits, do you have four or five solid screenplays written, other pitches, one sheets, or treatments and have you done the training necessary to compete? Professionalism is an attitude, work ethic and discipline that shows you are serious about your screenwriting even if you haven’t sold anything yet.
Time to check the list…
THE TEN WARNING SIGNS YOU’RE STILL AN ASPIRANT:
1 . You don’t spend the time necessary to become a better screenwriter because you still believe it’s easy to establish a career.
2. You’re writing beyond your ability at this point in your screenwriting journey because you want to sell a Hollywood tent-pole before you’re ready.
3. Your writing is only a rehash of what you’ve seen before in movies and on television and not something unique to your voice.
4. You lack the patience to master your craft and want success to come fast without sacrifice.
5. You’re not open to notes, you’re defensive about criticism on your screenplay and bristle at the suggestion of cutting anything. You have not learned how to be a collaborator and team player with professionals.
6. You haven’t accepted it’s a long haul journey to reach any level of success in the film business and believe it’s going to be different for you because you are the “chosen one”– it’s just that Hollywood hasn’t chosen you yet.
7. You don’t learn from your mistakes and you’re doomed to repeat them.
8. You constantly bemoan, “The producers, executives and agents don’t know what they’re talking about. I see the movies out there and I can do better.” If so, why haven’t you sold anything?
9. You feel entitled to success just because you’ve completed a script and expect Hollywood to grant you a big sale and a career.
10. You do more talking about your “writing” than actually writing.
If you’re guilty of any of the signs on this list, consider making immediate changes to your attitude and game plan. Hollywood is filled with screenwriters and the odds of establishing a career and being paid regularly are horrible, but it does happen. Respect the craft and the journey because that’s what professionals do and you don’t want to be stuck aspiring for success.
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“Don’t focus on where you’re not (famous or A-list writer)—focus on where you’re at—hopefully screenwriting. Regardless of success or experience, we’re all equals in front of that blank page channeling the muse.”—Scriptcat
“‘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
“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”
“There is only one way to avoid criticism: say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”—Aristotle
October 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
When I started out on this crazy screenwriting journey, I made the same mistake many beginning screenwriters make when they complete their first specs—believing that everything they write will sell—and sell for a million dollars. When you consider that on the average about one hundred specs a year sell at the studio level and only half of the Writers Guild members report income in any given year, your specs should really be considered the necessary training ground for you to become a better screenwriter—not chances to win Hollywood’s lottery. The recent Scoggins Report for 2016 listed only 47 specs that have sold in Hollywood through September. It’s an eight year low. Horrible numbers.
Trust me, I know it’s hard to accept the spec you are writing probably will not sell and may end up being only a writing sample, but you need to put your specs into perspective. If you don’t put in the necessary work with solid rewrites from constructive feedback and create professionally competitive material—your specs could end up in a drawer collecting dust or worse a dumpster and have a negative effect on your career aspirations.
Specs are a necessary part of every screenwriter’s journey because they are the scripts you “cut your teeth on” to prepare you for when you do get hired for assignment jobs. My fifth spec is the one that opened the door to a career for me. Back in the day, a new production company optioned my screenplay and made it as their first released film. My professional relationship with the producers on the rewrites and my attitude during production helped build my reputation with them and they hired me for a series of screenwriting assignment jobs. This opened the door and launched my career. Since then I’ve been hired fourteen times for paid assignments, some of them sadly went into “development hell,” but I’ve had eight of the scripts produced into films and distributed globally.
No spec ever wastes your time because you hopefully gain precious knowledge and experience with every new screenplay. I’ve completed 30 feature-length scripts since I started screenwriting and have been paid for sixteen of them (one spec sale, thirteen feature assignments and two TV pilot assignments). My early specs were not great and I look back at them as learning experiences and I realized that I needed time to get better and learn how to compete on a professional level. The truth is that I’m still learning because we never stop mastering our craft. This is why it’s vital to respect the process and journey otherwise the craft and the film business will humble you fast. Trust me, years of rejection and criticism just might make you decided to pick another career to pursue. I’ve had many friends who wanted to be actors and writers and very few achieved any success in the film business today.
Also consider the genre that you’re writing. What genre drives your passion? Many of Hollywood biggest films now are multi-genre movies so they can appeal to a global audience. If you’re writing in every genre and an agent or manager asks, “What genre do you write?” What is your answer? If you replay, “Well… I write everything… horror, drama, comedy, and action.” No writer is a master at every genre and you will appear scattered without a mastery of one genre. Agents want to get you on studio rewrite lists and those are genre specific. Also your first screenplay sale will probably determine the genre that you’ll be working in as you establish your career. If you sell a comedy out of the gate, your agent won’t be sending you out for horror or action assignment jobs.
Moving forward on your spec journey, realize that Hollywood doesn’t owe you or me a read, a job or a career just because we’ve put words on paper in the form of a screenplay. Everyone has a screenplay or has tried to write one, but not everyone respects the craft or the mountain they need to climb for any shot at success. Specs are vital to your journey, but detach from their outcome and protect yourself from the reality of rejection so it doesn’t destroy your creative soul. Also remember what you write about is as important as the execution of the screenplay. My fifth spec was a difficult commercial sell because it was a historical movie about WWII and life on the home front of the United States with four ten-year olds as the protagonists. When I shopped the script, Hollywood was not making historical films and I kept coming up short with my submissions. Yes, it was a top 20 script in the Nicholl Fellowship and I received positive feedback about the story and writing, but alas no sale. It took three years until it found a home with a producer and new company that wanted to make quality independent films. And it was a total of seven years from the day I typed FADE OUT of the first draft to the first day of photography. A long haul journey for sure, but I never gave up and it paid off.
Be smart about your career. Don’t waste time making the same mistakes over and over again. Always remember that it’s your responsibility to chart the course and keep your eye of the big picture. Before you start your next spec and burn precious time, consider how it figures into your overall screenwriting goals—not just the mantra that I hear from so many aspirants, “I have a good idea for a script.” Many times it’s not a good idea and if your goal is to be a horror genre screenwriter, why are you writing a romantic comedy especially when Hollywood isn’t producing that genre now? Think, plan, create a checklist, hit your goals, create a solid story treatment before you start pages, and then put your ass in a seat and fill those blank pages.
Also realize even if you do sell a script there are no guarantees. I’ve been paid to write five production ready screenplays that are in development hell and they will probably never be made due to situations out of my control. 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 create opportunities and the rest is timing and the right project getting to the right producer.
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“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”—Ray Bradbury
“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby
“The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“The key word in art—it’s an ugly word but it’s a necessary word—is power, your own power. Power to say, “I’m going to bend you to my will.” However you disguise it, you’re gripping someone’s throat. You’re saying, “My dear, this is the way it’s going to be.”—Elia Kazan
Hemingway said it best, “I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.”
June 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
Hey, we’re saying a fond farewell to 2016 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 47 specs sold at the studio level as of September 2016 . And only 5,159 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, my eighth produced film “Mommy’s Little Murderer” premiered on Lifetime to huge ratings and they’ve been re-airing it ever since, I was hired for two script assignments (my 14th and 15th) and completed one, and hired for two script rewrite jobs. I also finished my new book on surviving in Hollywood’s trenches and plan to publish in January on Amazon, and this blog hit over 51,000 reads last year alone. 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 2017. Look back at 2016 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 2016. 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. 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 2017 and may it be the best year ever.
Copyright 2016 by Mark Sanderson on his blog My Blank Page.
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“The professional prepares mentally to absorb blows and to deliver them. His aim is to take what the day gives him. He is prepared to be prudent and prepared to be reckless, to take a beating when he has to, and to go for the throat when he can. He understands the field alters every day. His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily as he can.”— Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art
“You must be arrogant enough to believe that you can “make it”—but humble enough to know it’s a long journey with much to learn.”—Scriptcat
“So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.”—William Faulkner
“So give yourself that chance to put together the 80, 90 pages of a draft and then read it very in a nice little ceremony, where you’re comfortable, and you read it and make good notes on it, what you liked, what touched you, what moved you, what’s a possible way, and then you go about on a rewrite.”—Francis Ford Coppola
March 12, 2015 § 1 Comment
It’s a numbers game at best. Consider the odds of selling a spec screenplay the same as winning the lottery if you believe the numbers—nearly 40,000 projects bounce around Hollywood each year with just over 100 specs selling at the studio level most years. Hollywood released 728 movies in theaters domestically in 2016. Only 42 spec sold as of September 2016. Don’t forget about the thousands of films 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 2016 employment report listed only 5,159 professional writers reporting income in 2016 (Ends June 2016). They’re worse because they struggle out there in the ether with the producer or executive debating if the writer can deliver the goods as pitched.
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.
- 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 31st overall screenplay that is my 15th paid assignment 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 2017 written by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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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
October 11, 2014 § 2 Comments
Speculation screenplays (specs) are a strange breed of project. As a screenwriter you should always work on your specs, but the reality is that most will not sell. But if one lands you an assignment job it will have served its purpose well. Specs are also necessary for you to find your unique ‘voice’ as a screenwriter and to make mistakes and write badly so you can get to a better place with your ability. If you’re lucky you will sell a spec and it will jump-start your professional screenwriting career. As I’ve mentioned in my earlier posts, I’ve only sold one spec in my career—the other thirteen jobs have been screenplay assignment work with seven of the scripts being produced. Assignment work is the ‘bread and butter’ of a working screenwriter as the spec market has changed so much since I started screenwriting. Early this year, I completed my twenty-eighth feature screenplay and it was my thirteenth paid screenwriting assignment. Nearly half of the scripts, thirteen of those twenty-eight, were paid jobs (includes the one spec sale).
I burned through writing only specs early in my pursuit of a screenwriting career. I don’t write many specs anymore as the main source of my work and time spent comes from paid assignment screenwriting jobs. I have to really love an idea of mine to write it as a spec because it will take me away from my paid jobs—and it’s more of a risk of precious time for me.
Regarding assignment work, many aspirants ask if I have a problem with the fact that I didn’t come up with the idea or story treatment. My answer is “no” because I love to work and make my living from screenwriting. It also takes the pressure off from me to “sell a script” with the hopes that someone will buy it. A spec can bounce around town for years and never get produced. An assignment job usually is an idea or a story the producer wants to produce and more likely has a deal in place for distribution. It’s a pleasure going into the job knowing the script will most likely be produced and distributed. The idea also becomes mine once I start writing the script and I must embrace every element of the story because it is my job to craft the idea into a fully realized screenplay. If your idea is to work in the film industry as a screenwriter you will need to create your income from somewhere—either your “day job” which usually involves doing something other than screenwriting to pay the bills—or being a professional writer who producers pay to sit down and write. I prefer the latter.
I have to admit, I too was guilty of this when I first started writing my early specs—I always thought just because I wrote a screenplay that producers or executives should immediately take notice and care. The reality is that NO ONE CARES. Write this down and post it near your computer. You have to make them care and even if they do care, it may not lead to a produced film as a result. Hollywood has upwards to 40,000 screenplays bouncing around in any given year all trying to get noticed and produced. Sure, the majority of these screenplays are not well-written or projects that any smart producer would take a chance on, but the top percent are good and eventually find a home or get the screenwriter an assignment job. Any spec script takes time to find its home. My script for my fifth spec “I’ll Remember April” took seven years to finally find a producer who decided that it was the script and movie he wanted to make. I had a lot of false starts, some bites with small options, but never a full-blown decision to buy the script until the script found its way to a producer who “got it.” I knew that I had “something” early on that was of value because the script almost won the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship (a top 20 screenplay) and that alone validated my project. The placement allowed me to get agents, managers and producers to read the script. It can take a long time for your spec to find a home and you must look at it from the producer’s side or point of view — is the project commercial enough to put into the movie theaters (now mainly huge blockbusters that play well globally — superhero, sci-fi, huge action)?
The smaller films are not being produced as much for the “art house”— or they make the films for TV. The #1 concern for a producer? Will the movie be successful and make money—and will the investors will make their money back, lose money or break even? Sure, producing a film is always a risk, but they lessen that risk with well-known stars or big ideas that translate globally. Not every story you write will be produced just because you love your screenplay. If you have this point of view—get over yourself. Sure, you must love your spec first and hopefully your passion will show through in the screenwriting. But filmmaking is a business first and it will always be a long journey to find a producer or executive who loves your script the same way you do. That’s the trick to selling specs.
And if you repeatedly hit a wall, it could be because of the writing — not the story — maybe the actual screenwriting is not compelling enough or is a tough read as many issues can make a script fail in the marketplace: concept, structure, story, weak characters, over writing, poor screenwriting ability, etc. Or it’s the marketplace? Maybe Hollywood isn’t making your type of genre at the moment? It only takes ONE of these to make a producer decide “NO” and the hardest part is finding that perfect marriage between your script and a producer who wants to produce it. If you’re stubborn you can say that “the producers didn’t get it” — meaning they don’t understand what you were trying to do… but if three or four producers don’t get it… the problem might be the script itself and it probably needs more work. But you won’t know if it’s the concept that failed, or if it was your screenwriting style, or a weak structure and characters. It could be a combination of many issues.
Your script lives or dies by a thousand tiny details that add up to a rejection. It could make them feel the script is a long way from being in the shape to purchase and develop. When your spec script comes through the door to be considered, they look at your ability to craft a successful project in the fewest drafts possible. But if your spec needs a lot of work, maybe several more drafts, they will pass because they will have to hire another writer with more experience or ability to get the script into shape. This might not be part of their production schedule as they might need a production ready script now and not six months from now.
The longer you slug it out in Hollywood’s trenches, you’ll learn that it’s important not to expect anything from the film business. Never expect anyone to love your screenplay as much as you do—that goes for your agent, manager or producer. If you go into this business with eyes wide and your head in the clouds believing that success will be easy, you’ll soon be crushed by the reality of feedback. As Lao Tzu writes: “Act without expectation.” It’s a good philosophy to follow on the long haul journey to any level of screenwriting success. Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages. @scriptcat out!
Copyright 2016 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“For the nicest thing Hollywood can possibly think of to say to a writer is that he is too good to be only a writer.”—Raymond Chandler
“When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a ten cent notebook and start the whole thing over again.” — Preston Sturges
“Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. If you succeed, keep working. If you fail, keep working. If you’re interested, keep working. If you’re bored, keep working.”—Michael Crichton
“Breaking into this business, making your first sale is an incredible event. The most important thing about the first sale is for the very first time in your life something written has value and proven value because somebody has given you money for the words that you’ve written, and that’s terribly important, it’s a tremendous boon to the ego, to your sense of self-reliance, to your feeling about your own talent. I remember the first sale I made was a hundred and fifty dollars for a radio script, and, as poor as I was, I didn’t cash the check for three months. I kept showing it to people.”—Rod Serling
“But it is not at all unthinkable for anyone to tell a writer how to write. It comes with the territory.”—Ernest Lehman
May 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
Screenwriting aspirants always ask how many scripts will it take to sell one? If anyone gives you that answer they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s different for every writer and every journey is unique. Rarely does a screenwriter sell a first script… or a second or a third. Sure it can happen, but it’s like winning the lottery. If you continue to write a better and better screenplay, the early ones will serve their purpose as good training until you start writing at a professional level and move to a different plateau.
When I graduated from film school, my sole focus was the same as my fellow aspiring scribes—to write and sell our original spec screenplays—for truckloads of money. Anyone could write a spec screenplay and this was the era when Hollywood didn’t hesitate to spend a million bucks just to take a spec script off the market. These were good times and it’s nice work if you can get it. I knew a few who did with mid-six to seven-figure paydays. The rest of us slogged through spec after spec hoping to make some noise and get lucky with our first screenplay sale. Hollywood has changed dramatically as well as the global marketplace.
The longer you’re in the screenwriting game you’ll have to accept the harsh reality that many scripts that you write will not move into production. In fact, even if a producer or studio buys your script and it goes into the next stop of development, there is no guarantee it will make it to production. This is especially true if you move into screening assignment work—the bread and butter of a working screenwriter.
My seventh produced film MOTHER OF ALL LIES just premiered on LMN and I also completed my 13th paid assignment, a film that was produced called MOMMY’S LITTLE GIRL that should be out later this year. It was my 28th feature length screenplay that I’ve written since film school. After those two jobs, I landed my 14th assignment job — a TV sitcom pilot and recently turned that into the producer. I’ve had eight films produced from my assignment work and one spec produced. The rest of the assignment scripts are stuck in “development” — but at least I was paid to write them all. Finger remain crossed that someday, one might rise to the surface again.
One assignment screenplay that hasn’t been produced yet recently came to life after four years on the shelf as the production company is now actively looking for financing. That’s good news. No project is ever dead, but the reality is that so much is out of your control that you need a large volume of work to make sure even a few slip through for even a shot at production. Some scripts will make it across the finish line and be produced, others will stumble out of the gate and never be more than a writing experience, others will get stuck in development hell. That’s the hard reality. Accept it now and you’ll survive to write another day in the trenches.
My first “official” spec in film school was a comedy and looking back it wasn’t very good—but my professor picked it to be in the film school’s screenwriting library for other writers to read as a solid example of a script. I had written shorter scripts since I was eleven years old when I was making my own films and even through college the short scripts were never as long as a feature.
It wasn’t until my fourth feature-length spec that I started to make some noise. It was a big-budget action movie co-written with my friend who was the personal assistant/driver to the biggest action producer in Hollywood. While the producer was in Europe shooting a mega-budget film with an “A list” star, my friend’s job was to man the production company’s offices for when they called and needed something from the European set. We decided to properly use our writing time and meet in the offices on the Warner Brothers lot at night and write through until the morning. I would work at night as a waiter and when I got off from my shift, I’d drive over to the studio, the guard would let me through the gate, and I would meet my friend in the production company’s offices and we would write all night until the morning.
Those were long nights working on the script, but the offices had a complete kitchen stocked with food, so we ate our fill and made coffee to fuel the writing. The studio guard would stop by a few times during the night and ask us “how things were going.” It was a blast driving to Warner Brothers studios every night to write our own big budget spec. We even sat at the producer’s desk in his office and behind the desk on a shelf were the leather-bound script copies of some of the most successful action movies in Hollywood. That fueled our passion to complete our script and get it to my writing partner’s boss when he came back from Europe.
My writing partner pitched the movie one night to his boss the producer at a read light when he was driving him to a nightclub. His comment was, “Big movie, expensive movie.” Nothing ever materialized with his boss, but we soldiered on. After several drafts, we garnered the interest from a big A list movie star at the time and took a meeting with him at this production offices. He was considering three action scripts and ours was one of them. We even met with his agent at CAA about the script but unfortunately, we didn’t have representation at the time and were out winging it by ourselves. Looking back, the concept of our script was strong, but the writing could have been better. No regrets. You can only be as good of a writer as you are at this moment in time—no better or worse. You only become a better writer by writing and continuing to learn and grow. Experience takes time, hard work and unwavering determination.
It wasn’t until my fifth spec that moved me farther along on the field— it nearly won the Nicholl Fellowship at the Academy and placed in the top 1% (a top 20 script) out of thousands. That was good enough to get producers and agents to read my script. Eventually, it found a producer and a new production company that wanted to make my movie. That was six years out of film school when I received my first option on that script. The options continued, renewed with payments every six months until 18 months later the production company executed the option and they purchased my script. It took a year after that to actually go into production. A long, long process. You never know the journey of every script that you write.
Also ask yourself the honest and hard question: WHY am I writing the story of my latest spec? Is it to chase marketplace trends? Forget it. The films this summer were written over a year ago and might have been in development for years before. Next summer’s films are moving into production now, so you can never follow “trends.” That’s not to say don’t pay attention to what is being produced and if you decided to write the little story of your grandmother’s first date with your grandfather, don’t be surprised if it’s a hard sell and might take years to find a producer interested—if ever. My belief is that you should never just write a spec without first knowing how it will benefit your overall career goals.
A spec for spec’s sake is a waste of time. You should have a goal with the script you are writing. Think of how it fits into the bigger picture of the career you are trying to establish. Do you want to be a horror screenwriter? Why are you writing an action film, a Western, and a comedy? Focus on the genre that drives your passion to write and become a master of that genre.
- Specs burn time. Precious time with the hopes the script will move your career forward by selling, getting you meetings, or assignment work. It’s always a necessary gamble, but know the thankless lack of rewards a poorly executed spec could offer.
- Ideas are constantly floating around in the ether. You can spend a tremendous amount of time on your spec, only to find out a very similar idea is in development or production. Storytelling though the ages breaks down into seven basic plots using Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama. So, considering screenwriters register 50,000 ideas/scripts with the WGA every year, the odds your spec is similar to another is pretty good. It’s hard to compete if you don’t have a track record of credits and your competition has big name talent attached. Trust me it sucks to find out your precious spec will never move forward because someone else beat you to production.
- If your spec is similar to a movie that did not do well at the box office—Hollywood will avoid it completely. Who wants to sink money into an idea that filed? Nobody.
- Is your spec even a good idea for a movie? A half-baked idea will undermine any potential for a spec to succeed no matter how well you write it. Many aspirants always say, “But I have a great idea for a movie.” Uh-huh. Think hard before you write that spec.
- You may have poorly executed your spec and nothing can save a bad spec from being a doorstop or thrown into the recycling dumpster. It’s all about the execution. Don’t fool yourself—Hollywood is filled with great ideas—it’s the development process and poor execution that kills many great original screenplays. Their dismantled as the drafts continue and more producers and executives put their imprint upon it and ruin it.
You may write a half-dozen specs that don’t sell before one of them secures you an assignment job from a producer or studio. Keep writing and finding your unique voice, keep mastering your craft, and really think about why you are writing your spec. What you write about is as important as how you write it. You never know the perils that await you on your pathway to success, but the road is definitely paved with your spec screenplays—it just might take a half-dozen or more.
Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith! If you stop writing you’ll never have any chance at success.
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“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling
“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby
“Luck is a prepared screenwriter who meets an opportunity and delivers the goods.”—Scriptcat
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu
“The film (The Power and the Glory) made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession.”—Preston Sturges
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”—Stephen King
“Not only do you attack each scene as late as is possible, you attack the entire story the same way.”—William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade.