Becoming a working screenwriter takes ongoing, deliberate, consistent and focused effort. It doesn't happen over night. Nor, despite the best expectations, does it happen on a whim. Many a column, article and blog post have been written about on how to get there. What screenwriting courses to take, what habits to form, what materials to read in order to make a real honest-to-goodness run at a screenwriting career.
Just as important as knowing what to do right is knowing what behaviors, beliefs and attitudes not to engage in. And who better to learn from than those who have tried to build their screenwriting career before you, but never managed to make a go of it? For this column, I thought I'd share some of the more common mistakes and destructive attitudes my industry colleagues and I have seen aspiring writers wrestle with.
1. Making it personal
This may be personal to you, but for everyone else on the industry front you come in contact with? This is business. It doesn't matter to them whether you've been waiting for this break all your life, if your electricity will be disconnected if you don't sell a script immediately, or if you're on the verge of giving up on the whole thing. What matters to them is the script you gave them to read. The new and exciting ideas you're developing. A pity party does not a career make, yet many a writer seem to believe that if they explain to the executive listening or reading their query how desperately they need to find a way in or how dire their circumstance is, somehow a screenwriting career will appear. While writing can be a highly personal vocation, making movies is, at the end of the day, a business. And like in any business or industry, Hollywood professionals like to work with other professionals, who can carry their own and have plenty that's relevant to contribute. This is not an easy thing to process: You spend hours, weeks, months, years, writing on spec, believing in a dream. But to make a real go of it, put your personal hopes and feelings aside, and convert fans on the merit of your writing, not the depth of your need.
2. Trying to build a screenwriting career on the merit of one script
Screenwriters write. And they write plenty. Even before breaking in, a screenwriter should aim to complete 2-3 screenplays every year. Many an agent and a manager will not sign clients, no matter how talented, if they only have one script. So write a lot, write well, and build your body of stellar, ready-to-show work. Many writers finish their script and think: This is it! The truth is that the hard work is only just beginning. Your writing will only improve from script to script, so it makes sense that you should start working on your next script as soon as the last one is finished. If you wrote THE ONE, the script that you believed it, finished it three years ago, and have been peddling it ever since only to get no real interest? Time to move on to the next. I know it's not what you want to hear, but believe me: If the script was as good as you think, someone would have responded to it. It would have at least gotten you some meetings, gotten someone asking what else you're working on. If you've been getting it out there, getting into contests and it hasn't happened, it's time to move on to the next script.
3. Throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks
For some odd reasons, when screenwriters try to break into the industry, they rarely do so methodically. When you look for a job, a normal job, or even consider a new profession, what do you do? You conduct your research. Build your resume. Put your website together if it's right for your field. Then you research the companies you want to work for or with. You start attending events. You pursue your new job or career logically. Rationally. Writers? Many finish a script, than emerge from their creative casbah to attend a quick event, send out a few timid emails to those they might have met the last time they've emerged, or submit their screenplay to a contest with a deadline just looming, only to disappear again into their writing world, not to be seen or heard from again for months if not years. That's it. No follow up. No questions asked. No 'did you get my last email' or 'I just wanted to follow up and see if you had a chance to read my script.' Nothing. Just the hope that if they had thrown enough things against the wall during their ever-so-brief creative hiatus, one might, just possibly, stick.
4. Thinking you're good at EVERYTHING
I don't care how good of a writer you are. No writer is equally good at every genre out there. Don't get me wrong: Everyone would like to think that they could be. And I've met more than my fair share of writers who thought they could write a thriller as well as they could a comedy. But the truth is that your best chance for a screenwriting career is identifying your strongest genre and running with it. Developing multiple scripts that will prove definitively that you are talented enough to become an authority. A go-to guy. The writer that everyone will want to read. You know what they say? If you're good at everything, you're probably not GREAT at anything. And being great, truly great, and able to display that greatness in script after script is what it will take to build a screenwriting career.
5. Setting unrealistic expectations
Everyone wants to write the killer spec, show it to three people, and have it be so good, so tight, so incredible that two weeks later it sells to a major studio for two million bucks. The reality? One hundred and thirty two specs sold in the entertainment industry last year. That's specs from A-List writers, from working professionals, from folks with established brands and track records and "read me" reputations. This doesn't mean that your spec will never sell; It means that if your expectation is to sell your original spec right out the gate, you might be setting unrealistic expectations that will do little more than sabotage your path. Recently, a client asked me if her action-adventure screenplay is likely to get her a meeting with Jerry Bruckheimer. And while anything is possible and the script has come a long way, I had to tell her that, while she is still unproven and unrepresented, such a meeting is technically, possible, though realistically not at all likely for someone in her current station. Luckily, I am her career coach so she could ask this of me; If she had asked this in a meeting with industry pros she would have been labeled an ignorant novice. The reality is that 99% of specs by new writers introduced into the industry end up becoming writing samples on the merit of which the writer may go on to secure representation or get invited to general meetings. A screenwriting career is a long, slow build. And while one should certainly always hope and write for the best possibility, realistic expectations should be set if only so that you don't get so disappointed that you walk away, resentful and angry the way that you had hoped, regardless of what you should have realistically expected.
While some of the information above may be off-putting, the reason for this column is simple: To help you set realistic expectations and provide you with a clearer perspective on what it takes to build a screenwriting career. There is no question that it's hard to break into screenwriting, and that the competition is steep. But it is also indisputable that, armed with superior material and industry savvy, new writers are breaking in to the entertainment industry every day.
Come join us at Screenwriters World Conference East in NYC April 5-7, 2013.
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Meet Screenwriters World Conference Speakers:
- Jacob Krueger: 5 Steps to Pitching Success
- Richard Botto: Staying in the Game
- Statin Rabin: Top 10 Lame-O Excuses for Why You Can’t Sell Your Screenplay
- Jeanne Veillette Bowerman: Balls of Steel – Checklist for Pitchfests & Conferences
- Charles Kipps: The Five Ws
- Meet Susan Kouguell: How to Succeed in Screenwriting Without Even Trying
- Meet Loren-Paul Caplin: The Hero’s Journey Meets the Screenwriter’s Journey
- Meet John T. Trigonis: (Multi-)Genre Storytelling in the Social Media Age