(originally posted on Murderati.com)
JT Ellison has been after me to do this column for ages and I just happen to have gotten a lot of e mail and MySpace questions on screenwriting lately and, always one to go with the flow, I thought I’d at least start this discussion, and maybe make it a two-parter, so that people can come back next week with all their questions.
First, a brief background (and of course you can read more in depth at my website.). Before I sold THE HARROWING, I worked steadily as a screenwriter for ten years. I had a pretty typical screenwriting career, actually – I worked for every major studio (except Universal, for some reason) and some independent production companies, I sold original scripts and got hired on assignment to do novel adaptations, I made a good living, and in all that time I had one movie made - that I got credited for. What I didn't get credited for - well, we'll get to that.
Depending on who you talk to, it's estimated that 400 to 600 scripts are bought or commissioned for every one that gets made. Not good odds. Which is the second reason I started writing novels. The first reason is that I’m passionate about my work and not only was I sick to death of having things I wrote not made – I was sick to death of having things I wrote butchered – and THEN not made. I was sick to death of seeing other people’s great scripts butchered, too, but that’s another column. I’ll try to keep this one in focus.
For the purposes of this column, I’m going to be talking primarily about feature screenwriting, although I will mention television writing as well. (And I’m talking specifically about Hollywood feature screenwriting, not independent feature screenwriting, which is a completely different animal.) Feature writing and television writing are structured very differently, but what I want to point out right up front is that in television, writers have the power (not at first, but once you get into the higher ranks). In features, directors have the power and writers most assuredly do not.
We’ll get back to that, though.
I’ll start with the first thing you need to know about screenwriting, and the biggest misconceptions I find people have about it.
IT’S A JOB.
Authors – and aspiring screenwriters – rarely seem to know this about screen work. It’s a job in a way that writing novels just isn't. Employers (studios, producers) are looking for writers who are committed to doing the screen thing as a living, full time (double full time, is often the real case). They don't want to just buy your fabulous spec (meaning original script), pay you big money and never hear from you again. The chances are infinitesimal that they'll ever make your movie at all. Your script is just a sample to show that you can write the movie THEY want to make, which they will dictate to you, and which probably won't make a whole lot of dramatic sense, but they’re paying you to do it.
So, speaking now to authors who are thinking of toying with screenwriting - unless you're willing to move to LA (and it has to be LA, unless you want to do independent film, which pays even less than novels!) - and really go for it, it's probably not what you want to be doing. A lot of your time as a working screenwriter is taken up trying to GET jobs, and that in the end was the most frustrating thing to me - how much wasted time and writing was going on with nothing to show for it. Except, of course, I was making a living.
For the vast majority of novelists, it’s a much more viable idea to work on optioning your novels and getting some money from Hollywood without having to pursue a screenwriting career. Many more novels are optioned and bought outright than original scripts are.
On the other hand, if you’re fairly young (young is an operative word, here) and film or television is your passion, and you want to make a living exclusively at writing, it's a really viable job. You can get paid for writing, you can support a family, you can work in a glamorous business with wildly talented people (and a lot of jerks, too, but truly, a lot of brilliantly talented people) and once in a while you can get something done.
Another thing novelists never seem to know about screenwriting is that screenwriters are union workers. Working screenwriters belong to the Writers Guild of America – WGA – East or West, depending on which side of the Mississippi you live on. The WGA is a federal labor union and handles collective bargaining for screen, TV, game and news writers. The WGA has negotiated, through long activism, a very good MBA, minimum basic agreement, which ensures that WGA members get paid certain minimums for their work, including pension and health benefits. That’s why screen and television writers are paid so much more than novelists, on average.
But what, you ask, is the catch?
Yes, there is a huge catch. We got the contract, and salary minimums and benefits - but in order to do that, we gave up copyright. When studios buy your script, they buy your copyright. It’s their project. And from then on, you are an employee, and you can be fired off your own script at any time, for any reason or no reason, but the reason is almost always the same – the studio/producers will want a bigger writer on the project. In fact, they will want a whole series of bigger writers on the project, the more the better, somehow – it’s not unusual for two or three dozen writers to work on a single project (although only three writers or teams of writers are ever allowed to be credited on any one movie) and that, in a nutshell, is why movies are so bad these days. And that’s another column, too.
But I’m sure you’re not here to read about collective bargaining (even though it's kind of crucial). I’d like to say, though, that I’ve not just been a working screenwriter – I’ve also been tremendously active in the WGA, including a 2 year term on the Board of Directors, and administering a private message board for WGA members only. So when I speak in sweeping terms about what makes a screenwriting career, I’m not just speaking about how I did it, personally – I actually have had a ringside seat from which I see very specifically who does break in to the business and how they break in and how they sustain their careers.
Now, on to what you really want to know, what everyone wants to know:
HOW DO I BREAK IN?
The way you break in is: write a great script (and having a male lead doesn’t hurt), get a great film agent and have that agent market your script as a weekend read and hopefully get into a bidding war. I'll get into more details later, but that's the process in a nutshell. Chances are you won’t sell that script, especially because the spec market has been depressed for years (although a good time to sell a script may be on the horizon – more on that later, too).
But whether or not you sell the script, if it's good, even if all the studios and financing companies pass (and there are only about 10 real sources of money in Hollywood at any given time), you will be flavor of the month and they will want to meet you and you will then go through a couple dozen meet-and-greet meetings in which execs and producers will tell you the projects they're trying to get going and you can potentially get an assignment out of that - or you can work harder and go in with a pitch of your own that you might sell and be hired to write.
That is how the vast majority of screenwriters get started. That is precisely how I got started – great script (I thought!) got me great agent who sold it to Fox in a bidding war. Script never got made, but I was “in”. I got an assignment off that, and kept getting hired from there.
So, next question.
HOW DO YOU GET A FILM AGENT?
This is how I got my film agent. This is how most screenwriters I know (and I know a lot) got their film agents.
First, they lived in Los Angeles.
Second, they worked as story analysts, or readers, for a studio or agency or production company. A story analyst reads scripts and books that are submitted to companies for consideration for film or TV development, and writes “coverage” - a 2-10 page synopsis of the book or script (depending on the company’s requirements) and a one-page evaluation of the material’s potential as a film, complete with a grid that scores the script in terms of character development, story, dialogue, action, and other narrative elements.
People get those jobs by living in Los Angeles, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who works in the business.
I didn’t get my first job as a reader by throwing rocks at my neighbors, but I did get the job through a neighbor who was working as a reader herself and had too much work to handle. I ghosted some of her scripts, and when a reading job came up at her company she recommended me, and I got the job – it was that easy.
Working as a reader is tremendous training for screenwriting because you learn the format, you learn what works and what doesn’t, you learn how the business really operates from a writing point of view, and you learn who the agents are, out there.
When I was a reader I kept file cards on every single script that came in to my company and every single agent who submitted. So when I had my great script finished, I knew exactly which agents I wanted to approach. I made a list and cold-called those agents, and explained that I was a reader at this company and I’d read these scripts of the agent’s by these clients and I had a script that I thought that agent would respond to.
Every single one of the agents but one said to send the script. I got multiple offers of representation and picked the best one of the bunch, and he sold that script to Fox.
BUT WHAT IF I DON’T LIVE IN LOS ANGELES?
Well, as I said above, if you’re not willing to move to Los Angeles, you’re probably not going to have a career as a screenwriter. It happens, but rarely. At least in the beginning, you have to actually be there.
But – there is a tried and true way to get an agent and break into the business if you don’t live in Los Angeles. You will still have to move to Los Angeles to sustain your career, but you can take this road to break in without actually moving yet.
There are some established screenwriting contests and fellowships that have launched many a writing career. There are a million writing contests out there and most of them will not help you to a screenwriting career at all. But the following contests have consistently gotten the winners and placers good agents, writing assignments, or TV staff jobs:
- The Nicholl Fellowship - the most prestigious and best breakthough screenwriting contest out there. Many pros say it's about the only contest that can lead to a professional career. http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/index.html
- The Disney Fellowship and Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship – winners get an actual job and hands-on training. The Nick Fellowship grooms writers to work on one of their shows.
- The Warner Bros Drama Writers Workshop and Comedy Writers Workshop – a fast-track way into TV staffing. You write your hour spec and submit. They get about 600 scripts a year; they pick 25 to interview, and choose 13 for the program. You write a second spec under their supervision, and they get you interviews with current CW network and studio projects. About half of any given class gets hired on staff out of the program. Being in the program can get you a good agent if you don’t have one.
- For University of California students and alumni, the Goldwyn Award is also major. There is huge industry competition for the first-place winner, and the Goldwyns heavily promote the winners. Just about every winner becomes a WGA member and is working in the industry within a year of winning.
- TVwriter.com and WriteSafe contests: I know winners of these contests who have gone on to industry jobs. TVwriter.com is also just an excellent resource and community for aspiring TV writers. The film equivalent is Wordplay - Wordplayer.com - about which more next week.
AND JUST ONE MORE NOTE ABOUT BREAKING IN…
… because even though I've not even scratched the surface of this subject, I think I’d better let some of this stuff absorb and pick it up again next week. But since I’m on the subject of breaking in, I might as well say this.
Right now you can forget about breaking in to screenwriting because the WGA is on strike. (Go here for details). If you sell a script now, you will be blacklisted from a film career for the rest of your life. Don't do it.
However, traditionally the few months right after the conclusion of a strike has always been the very best spec market, with the very best prices paid. So IF the pattern holds, if you can write yourself a spec script and plan to take it out right after the strike you are in a really good position to sell/break in. (See, I told you collective bargaining was important!).
I hope some of this has been helpful. Please feel free to deluge me with questions. The ones I don’t answer today I’ll address next Saturday, and the Saturday after that if it’s warranted, and I hope our other screenwriters out there will jump in with their experiences as well.
Next week I’ll also talk about the craft of screenwriting.
Added 9/14: Here are some interesting statistics on spec script sales over the years. Women should particularly take note of the gross imbalance between scripts sold by male writers and scripts sold by female writers - compared to the even balance of male/female bestsellers on the NY Times list. It's something to keep in mind when you're deciding between the two media.
All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks. Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.
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- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)
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