If you're trying to establish yourself as a screenwriter and create a long-term screenwriting career you probably already know it's not enough to have one spec script under your belt, you need a portfolio of work to present to the industry. So what should that portfolio of specs look like? Will a mix of project genres and styles hinder you developing your screenwriting brand?
If you're anything like me, you probably love a wide range of film genres and television shows. If it's a good Thriller, I love it. If it's a powerful, heart-breaking Drama, I'm in. A scary Horror, I'm there. A laugh-out-loud Comedy, yes please. You name it, I'll watch it. And if it's a great execution of that genre, I'll love it.
And if your note book is full of ideas that span a range of media and genres it's really tempting to just go with the idea you're most excited about. All things being equal, I'd always urge writers to develop the ideas they are most passionate about. But what if your last spec was a Thriller, and it started getting you industry interest, and now you want to write a Drama, should you?
If you're still in the early stages of developing a screenwriting career and trying to get interest from the film and television industry, the truth is that you should probably follow the spec Thriller with another Thriller or, at the very least its close cousin, the Action feature. Having multiple specs in the same media (film or TV) and the same genre will greatly enhance your chances of getting interest from both producers and representation.
If writers love writing an eclectic mix of material, why shouldn't they? Well, the clue is in the fact that you're trying to break into an established industry which has (for good or ill) established patterns of behaviours and expectations.
Why would Managers and Agents want you to specialize? First, let me clarify that Agents in the UK do the dual role that is split between Agents and Managers in the U.S., so when we refer to Agents, we're meaning the person who will both paper the deal and manage your career long-term. One of the primary roles of the Agent/Manager is to secure you work and the best way to do that is to offer the Producers and Development Executives the writers and material that most closely matches their needs.
So even if you're trying to secure representation, your eye (as theirs is) should be firmly on the needs of the Producers who can buy your script or commission you for an existing gig. If you've got a killer Thriller feature spec, you're going to need another couple of them in your portfolio. Why? Well, say that your Manager gets you in front of the Producer that makes Thriller features. They love the writing but pass on the project asking, 'what else have you got?' If your answer is 'a sitcom' then you can be pretty sure that you and that Producer will be parting company because you don't have anything else to offer her.
All of this works on the assumption that most production companies and studios specialize in either film or television and within those, usually within one genre. They make a hit Thriller and you can be pretty sure they'll follow it up with another Thriller because the finance is much easier to secure if you're making something similar to the thing that was just a hit. And so it goes. Of course companies might diversify and people might move on to new roles, but the general way of the industry, especially in Hollywood, is specialism. If you want to create brand 'YOU' then you, too, should be specializing.
Is it possible to break in and gain traction for your screenwriting career if your portfolio IS eclectic? Definitely. Before Saving Mr. Banks, Kelly Marcel had written an unproduced sitcom for BBC Scotland, done rewrites on the dark prison drama, Bronson, for Channel Four, created the sci-fi drama series, Terra Nova, (directed by Steven Spielberg for Fox) followed by a dark comedy for Ben Stiller. That's neither sticking with one medium nor one genre. So yes, it can be done, but Marcel's career trajectory is not the norm, and it's definitely not the easiest way to establish yourself.
Is the industry changing? I'd say 'yes'. One of the reasons I established Script Angel back in 2009 was that I love working in both film and television, and I couldn't find a development role in the UK that would allow me to do that. Pretty much every production company specialized in either film or television. Over the past five years things have changed and many production companies now see the value of having a development slate that spans both media and allows their talent (on-screen and off) to move between the two. In the UK, Neal Street productions have produced Call the Midwife (BBC/PBS) and Revolutionary Road while Working Title have produced Birdsong (BBC/WGBH), Rush and Les Miserables. In the U.S., Trigger Street produced House of Cards (Netflix), Captain Phillips, The Social Network and Fifty Shades of Grey.
My guess is that it will become easier to move between media and genres as a screenwriter, but right now the best advice is definitely to be focused and specialized in your early days. If you become known in the industry thanks to your fantastic Thriller spec script, your best chance of advancing your career off the back of that success is undoubtedly to have other Thriller specs ready to go. And who knows, maybe a little way down the road, the industry will be biting your hand off for all your material, regardless of its intended platform or genre.
- More articles by Hayley McKenzie
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