All you have to do is write a great script and navigating Hollywood is easy. Think again. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares tips for developing the hustle it takes to succeed as a screenwriter.
When you’re a screenwriter living outside of L.A., you’re going to need some extra hustle in your step. But living in L.A. doesn’t always make breaking in easier. You may not need the airmiles, but you certainly need to do something to separate yourself from every barista who has a screenplay to pimp.
These past months I’ve been flying back and forth from NY to L.A. more times than my wallet can handle. But flights give you a lot of time to reflect. Maybe too much time, but hey, beats the TSA pat downs. In my global transit, I came to one conclusion:
Success is an illusion, with Hollywood being the ultimate palace of smoke and mirrors.
When you put pen to paper to craft your first script, you probably thought, “All I have to do is write it, sell it, and I’m IN!” Don’t be embarrassed to admit it. We all wore the same rose-colored glasses. Allow me to remove those for you...
I am blessed to know many professional writers now, and I am here to tell you, even after they sold their first scripts, the hustle never ended. EVER! Not a single one of them watched the money train pull up and an infinite stream of writing gigs pour in from their agents. They had to keep hustling on their own too.
Sure, maybe Aaron Sorkin doesn’t have to hustle anymore, but trust me, 99% of screenwriters inside the velvet ropes still do. The industry has its favorite handful of writers, and they ain’t gonna let just anyone into their treefort.
How do you set yourself apart? As I say often, there’s no single way to rise to the top. Sure, you need to be an amazing writer, but maybe more than that, you need to hone your hustle.
Some people are born hustlers. I remember a kid in kindergarten who worked that playground like a pro. People loved to hate him. Why? Because he always managed to get what he wanted, even if he had to be underhanded to do it.
No, I’m not suggesting you be a scumbag to succeed, but man, you do need a set of balls.
Don’t have any? Don’t worry. You can grow some.
How does one develop their hustle?
Hustle. It’s a word that defines so much about this industry. We hustle to get the words on the page, we hustle through traffic on the 405 for meetings, and we refine the art of hustling ourselves in order to sell our screenplays. Hell, I’d even do the hustle if that would help. (Yes, that’s a 1975 reference.)
Have you ever seen a true hustler in action? They all have predominant traits in common with successful screenwriters and directors – confidence, passion and the tenacity to be the last person standing. They don’t want to win… they need to win. Losing isn’t an option. Period.
Sure, artists are insecure by nature, but projecting confidence is essential at every step. So is believing in your talent and being willing to fight for it.
Just like when I learned to “do the hustle” (yes, I did indeed take disco lessons), there are steps to take to survive the dance of pursuing a writing career, especially from outside of L.A.
1. Be confident in your writing.
Pick daring stories only you can write, and write the hell out of them. Don’t hold back. Write something that scares you – an idea that literally gives you goose bumps. I don’t mean a horror script. I mean something that takes you deep into your own personal wounds and tears the scabs off of them.
Why? Because the story has to matter to you on a profound level for your passion and talent to show. It has to be personal. Rip open your wounds and bleed on the page. Those are the scripts that will get you noticed. Sure, maybe they won’t sell, but when you’re passionate about something, your writing voice will shine, and you’ll have an incredible writing sample.
The magic happens when you stop worrying if everyone will like your words and you get the courage to “shut the door” and write like no one is watching. Do that, over and over and over again. The more you write with that kind of courage, the more confident you’ll become.
Do you think all those pros are confident?
Like I said before, everything is an illusion. No one is confident 100% of the time. If you struggle with elevating your writing mojo, try pretending to be confident, or at the very least, guard yourself from insecurity. I recently watched Charlie Rose interview a best-selling author who said she never reads reviews of her novels. In fact, her husband keeps them in a folder for her to read years later. Why? Because he doesn’t want her to lose her confidence, knowing that alone will kill her creativity.
2. Embrace collaboration.
This is an industry of collaboration. You’re going to get notes from everyone along the way, so be open to other opinions, but not so open that you lose faith in your own.
It’s not easy to accept people ripping apart your baby. Breathe. Listen. Open your mind to other ideas. But at the end of the day, it’s your vision, and you need to believe in it, so be willing to fight for it. Don’t let yourself be swayed by every note you get.
The reality is, sometimes that exec across the table is giving you notes just to hear himself talk, or because he wants to piss all over the script and leave his mark. Your job is to smile, thank them for their thoughts, and then digest them to find the note behind the note, or to determine if the notegiver even has a clue what s/he’s talking about. The only way to know is to shut up and listen. After hearing the feedback in full, you’ll be able to tell what’s important and what isn’t.
Above all, don’t be stubborn. Be grateful. The people offering you insights wouldn’t give you notes if they didn’t want to see you succeed. If you succeed, they succeed.
I know it sounds contradictory to listen to advice yet fight to stay true to your story. That’s the rub. Once you’re confident enough in your writing, you’ll instinctively know when to push back and when to make the changes. That confidence takes time to build. Learning to take notes at an early stage will help you when the day comes that you get studio notes and your job depends on how well you take them.
Bottom-line, a hustler believes in their own vision, but puts that vision aside if someone else comes up with a better idea. Be confident enough to stand up for your work, but be able to pivot and right the ship, if necessary.
3. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Everyone has gotten burned in this industry, and I do mean everyone. You can’t expect to avoid that reality, but you can lower your odds by creating an inner circle of people you trust. If you’ve watched any of the Ocean’s Eleven movies, you can see the power of a trusted pack when it comes to hustling.
Finding a champion along the way would certainly make it easier, but you have to want success badly enough to die in battle alone, never expecting anyone to have your back. That “back watcher” might be holding a knife, ready to plant it deep into your shoulder blades.
So, how do you know whom to trust? People worthy of your trust are happy to earn it. It’s the truth. Everyone in my inner circle never once expected me to trust them blindly, nor did I expect them to trust me. We demonstrated our worthiness by consistently being loyal and dependable. Actions matter. Words matter. Loyalty matters.
Good people exist in this industry, but it takes time to find them. Be patient. They’re worth the wait.
4. Be passionate about your work and life philosophy.
What is your overall philosophy about your career? Write it down and live by it as if it’s a business mission statement. When you hit those roadblocks, your “business plan” will keep you on track.
It doesn’t have to be some formal document, but something simple that keeps you focused. I have a quote on my laptop reading...
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”
That simple quote reminds me to keep being daring. To keep fighting for what I want. To maintain my belief that if only I try harder, things will be less difficult some day.
Sure, I have days I want to crawl in a ball, but it’s important to roll with the punches and stay firm to your overall philosophy. At the end of the day, I never want to say, “What if…?” I want to leave it all on the table and know I left no stone unturned.
5. Be humble.
Humility is one of the most attractive qualities a person can have. No one wants to help someone who is arrogant, defensive or a cocky bastard.
While many feel Hollywood is anything but humble, I’ve met incredibly generous people whenever I’m in the city for meetings. Kind attracts kind. Lovely people are out there, and those are the ones you want to team up with. If you’re a cocky jerk, those potential champions will punt your negative energy out of the room.
6. When people help you, work twice as hard to make them feel it was worth their time.
How? Be a quick study.
Always put yourself in your mentor’s shoes. Say they point out a problem in your writing, and you fix it. Don’t keep making the same mistake later, only to have them correct you again and again. PAY ATTENTION and learn the lesson the first time. Give them confidence that you are able to improve. That will keep them interested in your writing and overall success.
Having a pro on your side also increases your odds of getting noticed. There’s nothing like a seasoned writer hustling your name as a “writer to watch” among their own network to get you a leg up.
7. Pitch as if the exec needs you instead of you needing them.
Again, it’s about confidence, but sometimes you need delusional confidence. You’re asking someone to spend millions of dollars on your vision. Hell, my brain explodes just from reading my kids’ Christmas lists, and I love my kids. Now imagine the mind of a producer who doesn’t even know you when you ask her to invest time and money into your idea. If you expect them to be bat-shit crazy and scream, “Sold!” you have to have delusional confidence.
Act like you’re walking into a bank to ask for a loan. Would you walk in unshowered, wearing sweatpants, and begging for money? If you did, they’d worry you could never pay the loan back. You have to act like you don't need a loan. Walk in like you already are a success. I’m not talking about dressing in a three-piece suit. No writer would be caught dead in one. What I mean is that air of success – the body language, calm demeanor, and sense of humor. When you command the pitch room, they’ll have the faith to give you the reins. Just like the bank needs people to take out loans to make money, execs need writers with great concepts to make the studios money. They need you. Never forget that.
Remember, you’re also interviewing them. Are they the type of producer, network, agent, manager, etc. you want to work with? Especially if we’re talking representation, your personality needs to click with the manager or agent. You need to trust them with your hard work. They need to like you in order to make time to set up meetings. Don’t be so desperate to get representation that you hand your life’s work over to someone whose agenda isn’t in your best interest. If you see a red flag, trust your gut! They are representing you in the room and out. If they don’t act professionally in front of studios/producers, that’s going to hurt you. You’d be better off without representation and getting your own hustle on.
But having representation makes a big difference. Don’t go after the big names when you’re starting out. Find the new agents and managers who are hungry and want to find a fresh voice to take the city by storm. Once they get you a gig, don’t drop them. Be loyal to the people who gave you your break.
8. Know when to shut up and listen.
A confident person doesn’t drone on and on about themselves. They listen more than they talk. That’s how they learn. Think of it as gathering intel. No one learns anything about their opponent when they’re busy talking about themselves. They learn by listening, observing, and noticing the things left unsaid. Pay attention to what’s said in between the lines.
If Tony Montana had stopped to listen instead of pulling the trigger, he'd know his best friend was now his brother-in-law, not a man taking a romp with his little sister... oops!
Like I said before, nothing is as it seems, which is exactly why you need to hone your Spidey senses. You’ll have meetings with “important people” who end up just being hustlers who love to blow smoke to make themselves feel important. Don’t trip over yourself for someone labeled “producer.” A lot of those producers are only good at elevating bullshit, not careers. Listen more and talk less and you’ll pick up the red flags.
Of course, you have to speak too. When I’m pitching, we always start with small talk. Oftentimes a commonality is found. The exec might talk about something totally unrelated to writing – college, kids, cars, etc. If it’s something you have expertise in, chime in. They’ll appreciate and remember you.
Feel free to ask them questions too. You have them in the room; take advantage of it. Find out what they’re looking for. One of your other projects might be in their wheelhouse. If so, pitch it! Always be ready to turn the conversation on a dime.
9. Leave them wanting more.
If they asked to read the script, shake their hand and get out before you talk yourself into a no! You accomplished what you came in for – don’t blow it. Be mindful the exec has more work to do after you leave, so never overstay your welcome. An exec will have more confidence in you when you know how to close a deal.
Once you exit, stay exited. Don’t pop back in. Not only will it be incredibly awkward, but it also just smells of desperation. If you met informally at a party or event and the exec exits first, be mindful important ears may still be in the room. Always assume anything you say in front of anyone will be repeated to said exec. Keep your head about you. This is a small town. No one wants to feel handled or disrespected.
10. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Think of someone who has achieved greatness. Do you really think they never had to do something that made them uncomfortable? I bet the first time they made a cold call, or took that first leap of faith, they panicked inside… but they did it anyway.
That’s what you need to do. If pitching scares you, practice with friends, go to pitchfests or do virtual pitches just for the practice. Like it or not, you have to pitch in the room at some point in your career, or you’ll never sell anything.
The more you do anything scary, the less scary it gets. No one can do it for you. Face your fears and get comfortable being uncomfortable. I promise you; whatever it is that makes you tremor will become second nature faster than you think.
11. Above all, be true to yourself.
Authenticity is attractive. This is your career, not something you can make rash decisions about. Be patient and respect yourself – if you don’t, no one else will. Great hustlers are always respected. That’s how they get as far as they have. If they act desperate, it always comes back to bite them.
Writing well is only part of the equation. Being a hardworking, decent human being is the other part. You don't need to sell your soul to succeed. Trust that you are enough by being the person someone wants to work with. Be a person you would want to work with.
You know what the ultimate key to confidence is? Knowing your writing is stellar. The only way to trust in that is to hustle your ass back into your writing chair… and start all over again.
And that kid on my kindergarten playground? He literally struck oil and is a well-respected success. And? He still works his ass off, never slowing his hustle.
- More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman
- Balls of Steel: Pursuing a Screenwriting Career When You Feel Lost
- Balls of Steel: Characters, Fate, Philosophy & Clarification
You are no different than any other produced screenwriter. If they did it, why can’t you? Watch our free video of Jeanne's encouragement and advice on facing your fears of writing and pursuing a screenwriting career.