The romanticized idea of “making it” as a screenwriter in Hollywood…

Doesn’t every screenwriter dream of being on the A-list at the top levels of Hollywood? How realistic is that? Who knows? And what is your definition of “making it?” Having huge paydays for your screenplays or creative satisfaction? Good luck. Maybe it’s making a living in a tough business and waking up doing what you love for a living. That’s more realistic, but who knows where you will end up? Even with the best intentions and hard work there is no guarantee of success. Many talented writers toil away for years and never sell anything, while others with less talent and drive end up selling projects. It’s a screwy business for sure.

As working screenwriters, we are all just one project away from looking for our next job. We are like a band of artisan nomads who roam from job to job trying to stay in the screenwriting game and make a living. If you consider screenwriting a job, it will help take much of the romanticized glamor off this business. Your life after you sell a script or land an assignment job will never be what you envisioned. If you are writing on a TV series, the season ends and so does the show if it’s cancelled. Then what? You have to find your next gig. Today many streamers produce a limited season of 6-8 episodes and they also cancel a series after three seasons. This makes writers have fewer long term employment guarantees than in the past.

Years ago I thought when I scored my first professional writing job that I had finally “made it.” I was able to quit my restaurant job as a waiter, and I thought this was my big break. That was until the producers fired me six weeks into the gig. Sadly, it happens. I didn’t “make it” but it was just another step on a very long journey. What it did was get me out of the restaurant job and I never looked back. It’s been a long haul journey to achieve one spec sale that was produced and fifteen other produced films from twenty-three paid script assignments. It happened due to my drive, tenacity, and never giving up. So, “making it” is all relative. Getting your first gig or next gig is “making it” in my opinion.

Hollywood is a tough business to achieve any level of success, so you have to shoot to the moon with your dreams to even reach half way there. Your idea of success cannot always be about making a big sale or climbing to the A-list overnight. You will not survive over the long haul journey if you have an “all or nothing at all” attitude. I have known people who would only consider themselves a success if they became an A-list talent. It wasn’t worth the tremendous effort to them to end up only making a living at their craft and not being on top. They only wanted to be superstars and nothing less. When I was pre-teen kid and making films with my friends, I only ever wanted to get paid to do what I loved to do—make movies. I am blessed and happy waking up in the morning and getting paid to be creative. That is my dream come true.

The longer you are in the film business with its ups and downs and busy and slow periods, you may change your opinion as to what “making it” is in your mind. Few achieve the top levels of any field. Shoot for the moon, but it’s not such a bad thing to get paid to do what you love for a living too. This might require you to adjust your lofty goals of achieving A-list status. It is okay to make a living from your art too. Fame, fortune, and glory are elusive in the screenwriting game.


Do not take any successful step forward for granted because what might appear to be a tiny step forward can actually be a huge successful step in disguise. If you can get your material to assistants for consideration, it is a new opportunity for you to plant your flag and hold new ground if they like your writing. If they pass on your script but like your writing, it might feel like a failure now, but it is something that will pay off down the road. It is a little success and positive step forward to celebrate. Even a tiny step like meeting an assistant and keeping in touch as a new contact is a successful step.

Back in the day when I was shopping my spec around Hollywood and getting rejected at every turn, I met an assistant through a mutual contact. This assistant got his boss interested enough in my spec to option it and later buy it and produce it into a movie. The assistant went on to become the president of the production company and hired me to write many movies for them. Later he became an independent producer and hired me again for more assignment work. You never know where the tiny successes will lead, but they do add up and help you establish your experience and eventually a career.

Many years ago when I was just starting out in my attempt to be a working screenwriter, I entered my fifth spec script in various screenwriting contests. Much to my surprise it ended up being a semi-finalist in the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship that year. It placed in the top 1% of all entries worldwide and was in the top twenty scripts overall, but did not end up as one of the eight finalists. I could have looked upon this as a complete failure, but I used my script’s advanced placement as a successful step forward and convinced agents and producers to read it because of my achievement. I eventually found a producer who saw my script’s potential and his new production company bought my project and later produced it into a movie.

This screenwriting journey is full of ups and downs and Hollywood can serve up a constant dose of criticism, rejection, and failure. Be aware of your negative thoughts about your self-worth as it relates to your screenwriting success or failure. The more negative thoughts you have, the more it becomes an emotion, and then it’s hard to separate your thoughts from your emotions. You can actually start to believe a reality that isn’t true. Many times, it is not always about the sale or the final results of a project. A rejection or “pass” now can actually be an open door later and another project because they like your writing and want to see more of your material. What seemed like a failure at first might really be a successful step because you started a new relationship with a producer or executive and now their door is open to you. This is why you must work on your next project because the key to a successful career is building these relationships with a solid body of material.

It will take at least three or four scripts to get used to the craft and find your voice and style. Screenwriting well takes time and experience — so be patient and do the necessary work. Don’t be depressed when your script does not sell the first time out. Most beginning screenwriters rarely sell their first screenplays. Remain humble or Hollywood will humble you fast. This is a long haul marathon and not a sprint. Completing your latest screenplay is “making it.” Keep making it and hopefully you will land a real screenwriting job that will be the first step of a long journey to stay in the game.

Keep writing and keep the faith.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright ⓒ 2022 All rights reserved by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.

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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

I have a theory: not to bore the audience. You make pictures, in a way, for yourself, but you also make them for an audience.”—director William Wyler, Conversations with The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute.

“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

“The reward of suffering is experience.”—Aeschylus, Ancient Greek Dramatist known as the founder of Greek Tragedy

“Unlimited budgets make for a lack of precise decision-making.”—producer Lynda Obst in her new book: Sleepless in Hollywood

“Starting tonight, every night in your life before you go to sleep, read at least one poem by anyone you choose. Poetry and motion pictures are twins.”—Ray Bradbury

On your screenwriting journey don’t be afraid to say, “No.”

pitchNo. It’s a powerful word if used properly on your screenwriting journey. Or better yet, “No, thank you.” If you stay in the screenwriting game long enough you will encounter the ups and downs of the business. During the successful times when you’re working and your scripts get produced, it’s magical, but you must prepare for the Yin & Yang of the journey. There will be times when you’re scraping the bottom and it feels like nobody wants to return your calls. Or you might feel trapped in a cycle where you just can’t push any one project forward enough to actually see money or production.

hang onSo, what if you find yourself on the side of the cliff dangling by a mere finger hold and running out of time? Hang on. Climb back up and work on another script, and another, and get better and build your network of contacts. When you’re at the lowest point is when it really matters how you stay in the game because it’s much easier for you to leave the business when all hope is lost. And time keeps ticking away. It can be your greatest asset or worst enemy especially if you put an expiration date on your screenwriting dreams—“I have to make it by 30!” When you’re struggling on the side of that cliff, fight for your long term survival. Never allow them to stomp on your fingers so you fall into the void and never to live out your splendid screenwriting dreams.

praise or blameTrust me, producers can smell desperation in the room if a writer needs to pay the rent or needs some validation about the work. This is when you unknowingly might allow them to take advantage of you and then you accept a crappy deal that benefits them and not you. Sure, you might need to get your foot in the door, but it doesn’t mean they have to crush your toes in the process. Any opportunity to work is a chance for you to shine, but your time is important and if you are writing at a professional level to compete, you should come into any situation with a humble confidence.

In the Wild West, a gunslinger could spot other gunslingers by the way they handled themselves and by the execution of their work. The same goes for professionals in Hollywood. Pros can spot another pro just by the title page on a screenplay. They have a built-in radar to weed out the amateurs and aspirants by recognizing their inexperience and bad screenwriting. And if you’re desperate, you just might consider taking a bad working situation just to move forward. Do not. Many times the job “is what it is” meaning there is no chance of advancement when it’s done, just more of the same. Or if you get fired with no credit it really doesn’t help your career anyway. In fact maybe next time they tell you that your pay is less because their business model has changed. If you’re meeting with a producer who complains about working with bad writers and bemoans about not having much of a development budget, it’s a major red flag.

sullivans-travels-052I know, it’s difficult to walk away because it may feel like that producer is the only person interested and at least their interest is something. Some interest is better than the script file sitting in your hard drive, right? No. It’s talk until you both sign the contract and the check clears. Unfortunately, money does make it real. And if the interest from just one person is the “only game in town,” that doesn’t really give you much leverage for any type of negotiation. If you tell them, “Nobody else is interested in my script,” you’re sunk and they’ve got you. Never let anyone know the real status of your project unless they are ready to offer a contract and money. Until then you have it “at a handful of companies around town and it’s being considered.” Even if two of the companies passed, in your discussion it’s still over there and they haven’t gotten back to you yet. This buys you more time—but not much. Hopefully, they won’t ask you more details, but if they do have a real answer because they will check up and it’s a small town.

The only consideration should be the risk factor for you and that includes the payment, your time, and if it detracts from other more important work. Also realize the markings of a good deal and when it’s the best that you’re going to get. You might blow it a few times before you realize what you can and can’t push for at your level. It’s best to let your lawyer, agent or manager handle the back and forth negotiations of any deal. If you don’t have anyone on your team, consult friends who are more established in the film business for advice. They’ve been through the process for years and will tell you what to do and not to do.

BoulderFlatThe reality is you’ll probably make less money on your first few jobs until you can get established, show a successful movie and then can negotiate for a better deal. If any deal does not feel right or isn’t right for you, don’t be afraid to graciously say, “No, thank you.” Yes, even if you haven’t sold a screenplay before. Your time is more important than being locked into a crappy deal and something that could set you back. You come from a place of power when you feel that something is wrong and you don’t cave to your fears out of desperation. You will thank yourself when a better opportunity comes your way and you’re free to take it.

Keep writing and learning because it you stop you’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2016 by Mark Sanderson on 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

“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

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

“All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.”—Ernest Hemingway

“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