While it requires an enormous investment of time and energy, it is possible to network your way to a screenwriting career.
This article was originally commissioned, edited, and published by The Hot Sheet and is republished here with permission.
Christine Conradt, a professional screenwriter with 70+ television credits on her résumé—not to mention a trio of YA novels published by HarperTeen—admitted to a roomful of writers at this year’s Writer’s Digest Conference, “I hate pitching. … I teach workshops on it, and I still hate it.” Her candid session, “No Agent, No Problem: Selling Your Screenplay on Your Own,” offered aspiring screenwriters a way to carve their own agent-free career path in Hollywood. It also clarified that, in the end, there is “no set way to become a screenwriter.”
First, you have to be certain you want to write screenplays. As a screenwriter, you could also turn your novel into a screenplay, write for a series, or get assignment work. If original screenplays are what you want to write, Conradt says, be focused. “Because it takes so much investment to get to the level where you can make a living doing it, you have to be laser focused. If you’re a little bit wishy-washy, there are going to be a hundred other people who aren’t wishy-washy, and they’re going to get those opportunities before you.”
Know the difference between agents and managers. Conradt highlighted several similarities in what agents and managers actually do for screenwriters, such as setting up meet-and-greets and pitch meetings, sending scripts out to producers, and pitching writers for assignment work. These are all things an ambitious screenwriter can arguably do for themselves—using Conradt’s tips. The differences between agents and managers become far more important, though, when it comes to contracts and the ongoing tensions between major Hollywood agencies and the Writer’s Guild regarding the former’s practice of packaging, which is when agencies take money directly from the studios for the teams of talent they package together, rather than making their income as a percentage of what they get for their client-writers.
Conradt argued that an agent is unnecessary for an aspiring screenwriter. “You will not get an agent unless you really have a deal on the table and you need them to negotiate it,” she said. In Hollywood, only agents can package projects and negotiate contracts, but now—as indicated above—agents are proving problematic. Conradt suggested any contracts can be handled by an entertainment lawyer.
Relationships are key; networking is critical. Agents (and managers) typically have deep networks of contacts they can send your scripts to and set up meetings with, but as an intermediary, they own all of those relationships. The key to breaking into Hollywood without an agent is to develop those relationships—with producers, directors, actors, and other writers—for yourself. However, before you start networking, you need to have your materials ready. Conradt said, “You need to have a script ready to go, which means not a first draft.” But a polished draft can work.
“Network with everyone,” Conradt explained. “Network with people who are moving up, no matter who they are—because those are the hustlers, those are the ones making things happen, and those are the ones who sell projects.” Emphasizing assistants in particular, she noted, “Assistants are easier to get to than the executives, and they’re all on the track to becoming an executive in the next couple of years. Some want to prove themselves by bringing in the next great project to their boss. Yours could be that next great project.”
She also stressed “networking the right way.” That means networking should never be about what someone can do for you—it should start with what you can do for them. She advised taking a sincere interest in their work, identifying ways you can help them with no strings attached, and offering your help when relevant and appropriate, even if it’s not specifically related to your writing. For example, you might say, “If you need a PA on the film you’re shooting, I’d love to volunteer for a few days.” When the right opportunity presents itself, you’ll have to “know how to pitch yourself while still sounding humble.” Don’t exaggerate your accomplishments, don’t overtly state your lack of experience, never mention any amount of money—but always clearly state what you’re looking to do.
You don’t have to live in New York or Los Angeles to network. In fact, every state has a film commission, and it can often be easier to make connections in a smaller pond. New York, California, Texas, and Georgia all have robust film industries that can be harder to break in to, but regardless of where you live, get to know your state film commissioners. “They know who’s making movies there. They can get you on set to make those contacts when things film.”
Bottom line: Conradt stressed the importance of investing in one’s career and managing it like a business—including tracking your networking contacts, meetings, and submissions in detail; setting specific goals and tracking your progress toward them; and, most importantly, continuing to write and improve your craft until—and after—you get that first deal.