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Writers on the Verge: Know Thy Screenwriting Career Path

What makes a screenwriter career, and what avenues are open for the writer who does have just that one script? Lee Jessup explores the different options for writers to find success.

While different writers do different things (some write for TV, others see things strictly in a feature format, some have great ideas come to them every day while others struggle to find an idea worthy of their excitement every 3 months), not every writer out there envisions the same future for themselves. While some writers are eager to get staffed on a TV show, land a writing assignment, or even sell script after script, other writers are motivated to rewrite the same story year after year driving it towards perfection, or taking the one script and talking about it to anyone who would listen until someone finally expresses interest. The latter, a writer with a single script, is a writer who is trying to get one movie or television show made. He is not, by any sort of industry standards, the sort of writer who is trying to build a screenwriting career in the true sense of the word.

In the 90's, the single-script writer was often one who fell into the "one-and-done" category - a business model that allowed a writer to surface in the industry with one script, sell it and be gone. But in today's industry climate, where it takes twice the time to sell a script or break a writer for half the money that would have been paid pre-2008 strike, the industry - and representation specifically - does tend to invest more in the development of a promising career.

screenwriting career

So let's break it down: What makes a career screenwriter, and what avenues are open for the writer who does have just that one script?

A writer who is trying to build a screenwriting career is one who...

  • Creates new content consistently, building a strong body of work and creating ongoing opportunities for their representation
  • Is capable of coming up with new ideas, and executing them aptly, on a regular basis
  • Consistently brings new work to the finish line, then starts their next project
  • Is capable of displaying skill, craft and innovation in screenplay after screenplay

In today's market, a screenwriting career is rarely built on the back of one script. Therefore, a career screenwriter is one who is capable of meeting at least two of the above bullet points. Career screenwriters are suitable for representation because they will consistently have new material for their industry advocates, such as an agent or a manager, to shop. Many career screenwriters understand and are ready to commit to the following:

  • Building a screenwriting career doesn't happen overnight. Therefore, they are willing to put in the hard work for the near future
  • A screenwriting career ordinarily takes 3-10 years of hard, consistent work to launch
  • The job of the career screenwriter is to constantly churn out superior new material. That means: For feature writers: A new ready-to-market feature script every 6 months For TV writers: A new original pilot every 3-4 months, and one new spec generated every year, in time for fellowships
  • Ongoing networking efforts aimed at consistently growing one's network so that every new screenplay gets more exposure.
  • Regular methodology for completing the work, creating supporting materials (such as one-sheets for features or concept sheets for TV) and getting it out there through screenwriting contests, listing services, pitch opportunities or networking efforts.
  • Ongoing consumption of industry information, be it news, blogs and/or podcasts.

But what if you're not that writer? What if you really have just that one script, that one story you know would be amazing on the screen? What do you do then? Unless your screenplay is that one-in-a-million script that can just go out there and sell, an agent or manager would probably not be right for you. And if you have been pursuing this one story for years and years, odds are you are not interested in selling your script, collecting your writer's fees and walking away. Rather, if asked, you would like to be involved in its realization every step of the way. So chances are that whatever path this screenplay travels, you want to escort it along. If that is indeed the case, there are many options available to you out there for getting the script seen and your project ultimately made:

  • Bypass representation and go straight to production companies. This can be done through pitch opportunities, targeted queries and online services. With a name producer attached who is less interested in your long-term creative prowess and more interested in the work at hand, you are much more likely to find a partner for your project who would want to help you see your vision come to life.
  • Enter high profile screenwriting contests. If you win or place in the finalist's circle, you will gain much needed exposure for the work, and many high profile producers will suddenly be interested.
  • List the material on services such as The Black List and pay for reads. If it scores well, the material will have a shinny new pedigree to speak of, and once again gain the opportunity for attention.
  • Explore private funding. If you can make the movie on the cheap, or have access to private money or rich family members, bring on a seasoned line producer to help you make your movie yourself.

Whether you're in it for the long haul, or just trying to get your dream project made, it's critical that you understand which path is right for you to take. If you only have one script, skip the representation path, as any rep will likely want to see more than one writing sample before they add you to their roster. And if you are not particularly invested in any one of your works, be sure to get on a schedule of creating new content again and again, because that's what your reps and industry network will come to expect. But most importantly, know where it is you want to go, and the most advantageous avenues to get you there. This way, despite your final destination, you will always appear serious, well-informed, and, ultimately, professional.

Get more advice in Lee's book
Getting It Write: An Insider's Guide to a Screenwriting Career

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