So not only do you wanna be a writer, you wanna be a screenwriter? Were heavy narcotics or copious amounts of alcohol involved in that decision? I’m kidding, of course. Screenwriting is amazing on so many levels. Beyond the money and fame—if you’re lucky enough to achieve super-scribe status, that is—screenwriting allows writers to flex their creative grey matter, quite possibly resulting in a finished product that will be talked about for eons to come. Unfortunately, screenwriting is also one of the toughest—if not the toughest—literary pursuit to not only break into but sustain momentum, if for no other reason than the limited number of markets screenwriters have to sell their work to.
If you’re a news journalist, magazine/e-zine writer, blogger, or book author, there are plenty of publishing entities to choose from. Granted, the pay scale separating the low end and the high end is massive, ranging anywhere from a few cents per word to multi-million dollar advances, but at least there’s an actual pay-for-your-work exchange associated with each discipline. However, if you’re writing screenplays for short films or feature films, or teleplays for the small screen, the number of producers, production companies and studios with the legit ability to acquire your work for monetary compensation is but a fraction of the former.
Over the years, the screenwriting game has changed considerably. There was a time when Hollywood as a whole was acquiring “spec scripts” (scripts written on speculation, with no guarantees whatsoever) at a record pace, often engaging in big-dollar bidding wars. In fact, the industry was so nucking futs, there are numerous stories circulating around Tinseltown about pitches—including some written on bar napkins (read Hollywood Animal: A Memoir by Joe Eszterhas) or the backs of menus—that resulted in insane six- and seven-figure checks being written (begrudgingly), and a few high level studio execs getting fired when the hangovers wore off!
Ah, those were the good old days. Not so much anymore.
Today, the market to sell your screenplays is tighter than a giant clam using Krazy Glue. I know many A-list screenwriters—screenwriters who used to have high six-figure/low seven-figure “quotes” (the minimum fee to get them involved on a project)—courtesy of their previous sales and successes that now peruse Craigslist, Screenwriting Staffing, InkTip and other industry job-finder forums on a daily basis, looking for places to sell their original work or pick up a work-for-hire gig.
And then there’s the simple but impossible to get around fact that screenwriters without agents, managers or well-connected entertainment attorneys have little to no chance of getting their work seen by any real industry decision-maker, let alone see their work get purchased. That’s not to say unagented screenwriters will never find success in Hollywood, but if I’m being totally honest, scribes in that category probably have a better chance of getting struck by lightning or winning the lottery than ever selling a script. It can happen, but the instances are few and far between.
Consider the landscape. There are thousands of wanna-be screenwriters out there—and not just in Hollywood. (For the record, my use of “wanna-be” is not a derogatory term, but merely a descriptor for writers hoping to break into the biz.) There are writers in every corner of the globe who are convinced they’ve penned the next beloved Oscar winner or blockbuster franchise, resulting in thousands of new scripts flooding the market annually. To quote the majority of industry gatekeepers—otherwise known as “readers”—who pen detailed coverage reports on the strengths and weaknesses of the scripts that make it onto the desk or into the email in-box of the scant few people who have real “push it up the ladder” power: “Most scripts don’t make the grade.” Either they’ve got a great concept that isn’t fully fleshed out, the act structure is all wrong, the characters are boring and one-dimensional, the story is “been there, seen that,” or the writing flat out sucks from start to finish.
Any way you slice it, it’s a very, very tough business.
But there is hope.
Because of all the new cable and alternative programming markets (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube Red, etc.), many screenwriters have turned their attention to the scripted series arena. Instead of penning 100-120 page feature scripts, they’re now writing 30-40 page half-hour or 60-70 page one-hour pilots. That’s not to say there’s less work involved in writing material for the small screen than there is for the big screen. Heavens no! But the greater number of markets, coupled with the smaller outlay of cash required to shoot a pilot as opposed to funding full-length features, make that approach to cracking into the biz seemingly more intelligent. If nothing else, finished projects with fewer pages are faster reads, thus making them great calling cards for screenwriters hoping to show off their literary chops for the possibility of being considered for future work. Granted, you usually have to option or sell something to be considered for an industry job, but genuine talent will open doors. The business may be cynical, but it’s still a business. If a writer can consistently deliver the goods, that writer will have more opportunities than other writers who can’t.
Another way of cracking the “Hollywood code” is by entering your work in one (or more) of the many screenwriting competitions. Short scripts, pilots (half-hour sit-coms and one-hour dramas), features… Every category is represented. Some comps are much better than others; check the industry names and judges associated with each competition before submitting. Entry fees range anywhere from $10 to about $100 per entry, and the prizes for the winners and top finishers are also widely varied—everything from straight cash pay-outs to all-expenses paid trips to La La Land to meet with agents, managers, producers and other industry execs.
All it takes is a great script.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be the one to write it.
Until next time, happy writing!