Question: “How do I break into screenwriting?”
It’s the most often-asked question I get at classes and conferences around the country and from my clients. And honestly, I hate this question. There is no ONE answer. Everyone has a different “breaking in” story and everyone gets in a different way. And of course some don’t get in at all. It’s hard to break in - but here are some keys to finding your way.
My no bullshit answer to the question is - you should’ve gone to school for it! Going to film school doesn’t give you any guarantees, especially in this economy, but it does increase the chance you’ll MEET someone that can help you, connect with alumni in the industry, and it will give you a better perspective on what you’re good at and give you some formal training. And let’s be honest - it’s easier to break in at 22 than 52.
If you didn’t go to college for film or writing, there are classes you can take (especially in LA) including the Peter Stark Program, UCLA Extension classes, AFI, Writers Store, etc., where you will meet people and learn things that will help you break in.
If you read the trades or screenwriting magazines (which you better be if you want to break into this business), the most often told break-in story is that a writer knew ONE person who happened to be an assistant, agent, manager, producer, or executive and they sent that one person their script, and it made it up the flagpole and BAM – success! It all starts with knowing ONE person. This is why networking is important. It’s all about having that viable referral!
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times – you don’t need a gimmick! You don’t need to take out full page ads in Variety or billboards on La Cienega. All you need is talent, determination, and contacts. You have to know someone, but you don’t have to go to extraordinary lengths to reach everyone. And often, doing so will end more possible relationships than create them. It’s all about being normal and being someone with whom companies want to work. There seems to be an ever-thinning line between persistence and insanity.
With the insane growth of the internet and sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, more and more talent is being found online. You can make a video, post it on Vimeo or YouTube or get it on FunnyorDie, and become an overnight sensation, garnering a following, an agent, and a career if you know what you’re doing and can duplicate the magic time and again. Ashton Kutcher recently sold his second TV series based on a random guy’s twitter feed. The floodgates are open and there are assistants and interns whose whole job is searching online for the next big thing. Hello, Justin Bieber!
However, execs HATE being pitched on Facebook by a stranger. I’ve been vocal about not adding random writers I don’t know to my personal friend list. This isn’t because I don’t like writers – I love them! This is because I don’t need someone going through my 700 friends and blanketing them with friend requests, pitches or queries because they’ll know I was the connection. Instead, create a group for yourself on Facebook and let others decide if they want to be a fan, or send out newsletters to people you know about what you’re working on and ask them to forward it to anyone who might be interested.
Writing a blog is a great way to get your voice out there, but you need to really have a point of view and something to say. You have to be original and special and engaging. It’s okay if your blog is about what you eat for breakfast everyday if you write it in a way that makes people riveted to every bite. Everyone knows the story of Diablo Cody and her stripper blog and she’s not the only one who went from blogger to major player. Hell, I’m still waiting for my column to make me famous!
Despite the mobile breeding ground of talent the internet has become, there is one more controversial trend you will find among writers who have broken in. I get into many a battle over this one but here goes… Ready? ...Move to LA!
I will preface this point by saying that I’ve met some wonderfully productive and determined film people in Albuquerque, Dallas, Vancouver, Chicago, etc. Many of them work harder and make more actual movies than those in LA! And I’ve optioned scripts from writers who live outside of LA who have gone on to nice careers. So is it possible to break in without moving in? Absolutely!
However, you can’t walk into a Starbucks in Iowa and sit next to 10 other screenwriters all trying to perfect their craft. You can’t be a waiter in Missouri and serve Hollywood elite or an agent or manager that will give you their card. You can’t soak up the lingo, the attitude, the business, the experience, and most importantly the contacts unless you are in the middle of it all. Sure, once a year you can attend a screenwriting conference in your town and meet 20 people. But in LA, you could meet 20 people a day if you wanted to.
If you are in your 20s and you want to be writer, move to LA and get an assistant job in a manager, agent or development exec’s office. It’s the best way to break in and will give you a great perspective on your own work, and make it much easier to land a manager or agent when you’re ready. It’s unpopular, but there’s a reason executives live in LA and NY – they can’t be executives and live in Oklahoma! So why should it be any different for writers? There is an attitude in LA that those who are TRULY serious, will live here for a while. Not forever – no one wants to live here forever – but for a while. Bottom line – it’s harder to break in when you’re not here to do it in person.
But before you start writing your hate mail, there are ways to break in from outside of LA…
Those screenwriting conferences and pitchfests I mentioned CAN be quite useful. I continue to think that if you work the event correctly and have a commercial and well-written project, this can be a viable way to break in. Most conferences offer classes given by professionals and those pros have contacts. Some conferences bring in big name writers or producers to speak who will often allow for some personal interactions after their lecture. Use that time but don’t abuse it. Don’t come off as crazy or too aggressive and don’t ask to send them your script – just try to make a personal connection where they ask YOU for your card. You never know where a mentor could come from.
Next, there are screenwriting contests out there that get press, and whose finalists and winners do make a splash. But beware you’re not wasting your time and money. Choose prestigious national contests, contests with prizes that can actually help advance your career, ones where there is more than ONE judge and the judges have a clue, and ones where it is clear who is running them and where they do not force you to sign over rights to your script (or future scripts) if you win. And look especially at contests where the prize is a meeting with an agent or exec or getting your script read by the town.
Nicholls is the biggest and most prestigious. It’s the only contest where saying you are a quarterfinalist actually means something. The ABC/Disney, Nickelodeon and Sundance Fellowships are also quite impressive and can launch your career!
Austin Film Festival, The Page Awards, Final Draft’s Big Break Contest, Amazon Studios, TrackingB, the Writers Store’s Industry Insider Contest, Scriptapalooza, etc., are all well-known and are among the more prestigious out there. But they’re only impressive if you are a semi-finalist, finalist or winner. Statewide contests, regional contests, or anything where the prize is a steak dinner, is a waste of time.
Another new popular way to break in is thru online query sites. These have replaced the snail mail query, which has really gone the way of the Dodo. Sites like Virtualpitchfest, and Inktip all offer a (slightly more expensive) way to get your query letter or pitch out to professionals, but some guarantee you’ll get a quick response.
Screenwriting contests and query websites have the upside of being completely anonymous. No one knows how old you are or where you’re from. They only know if you can write and tell a good story. If you are a finalist in the Nicholls or win some other prestigious contest, you’re going to get meetings no matter how old you are. So while it is harder, you can definitely still break in at an older age. You may just need to go about it a different way and pay even more attention to the marketplace and pop culture than your younger competition so no one can say you’re out of touch.
And finally, there are script consultants out there who have Hollywood Outreach programs for scripts that are ready to be seen. My own No BullScript has the No Bull Hollywood Connection where the query letter and logline of those scripts that get a “recommend” are sent to over 45 companies who have agreed to read them! Though keep in mind, it’s not a script consultant’s job to give you your big break – our job is to make sure you’re ready for it!
So, these are just some of the ways to break in. And as they say, if you can’t get in through the front door…break a window. This is Hollywood – there are no rules on how to break in or else everyone would do it.