Your Screenwriting Career: Dispelling Misconceptions (Volume 1)
Misconceptions about what it takes to become a working screenwriter, e.g. what is required in order to attract the right sort of industry attention, and where your time and resources are best spent, are everywhere. Is it all about the writing? Or all about relationships? Do you have to have a manager? Or an agent? Can you really plan on selling your feature screenplay? We know that there’s tons of confusion outside of the industry. But there is also some misguided information within.
As my client Nora Nolan, a comedy writer who recently completed the prestigious WB Television Writer’s Workshop told me:
“Biggest one is that you have to write something totally out there to separate yourself and get peoples’ attention. When I first moved to LA, I had a casual meeting with an agent at one of the big three agencies (friend of a friend) and he told me to write something to get peoples’ attention – his example was how well vampires had been playing (this was 2013). I’m glad I didn’t try to box myself in with this advice – it really went against my nature. Instead, my biggest break came from a very grounded sitcom pilot, based loosely on my own family (who are not vampires). I would not have been able to write vampires, or other absurd things, in a way that felt honest or real. That agent was basically saying to me that all writers are the same and here’s the formula. That’s not how it works.”
While I have the honor and pleasure of working with a slew of curious, educated and well informed feature and television writers who, just like Nora, are on their journey to breaking in, on occasion I do encounter a somewhat green screenwriter who starts upon his journey with a lot of hunger and determination, but also a generous helping of misinformation or straight up misconceptions about what it takes to build a screenwriting career. Therefore, I decided to put together a list of some of the most common misconceptions I am often confronted with, break them down, identify what’s true, what’s false, and what’s the boots-on-the-ground reality.
Misconception: For new writers, it’s all about the concept
The reality: While choosing an interesting, fresh concept for your break-through script is incredibly important, for new writers seeking to break in it’s all about execution. Little is as important when it comes to attracting the attention of an agent or manager as putting on display one’s voice, skilled craft, and storytelling abilities. If the reverse were true, we would find ourselves back in the 90’s, when new writers could on occasion sell treatments and pitches because concept was king. Today, however, it’s all about crafting characters, introducing a new, different, interesting plot, engaging a unique style of storytelling and conveying intriguing and effective screenwriting abilities.
The Verdict: FALSE
Misconception: If you don’t know anyone in the industry you will never break in
The reality: While careers are built on the shoulders of relationships, the truth of the matter is that there are those rare writers who found a way to attract enough attention in order to break in, without having pre-existing industry relationships. As an example, look no further than EXTANT creator Mickey Fisher whose pilot won the Tracking B contest and broke open his career, or Eric Koenig, whose feature script MATRIARCH placed in the Top 25 of the Tracking Board’s Launch Pad contest, sold to Paramount for mid-six figures, and set Eric on the path to professional screenwriting. However, while those two examples convey the reality that – with an amazing, standout script on their hands – a writer can indeed come out of nowhere and blow up fast, there is also nuance here: Due to their contest win or placement, the writers noted above attracted industry attention. It’s not like someone showed up on their doorsteps with a paycheck. And it’s the attention they attracted from the right industry players that allowed them to then get their material into the right hands, which ultimately lead to a sale.
The Verdict: IT’S COMPLICATED.
Misconception: It’s not about the writing, it’s about relationships
The reality: Yes, it’s true: Relationships are the key to a long career in the entertainment industry. As Gersh agent Sean Barclay told me when I interviewed him for my book, no one is going to give you a job unless they already know you. But it is also true that relationships are near impossible to build if you don’t have the writing ready to make the case for the career that you are building. While there have been exceptions in which nepotism certainly seemed to play a part, in most scenarios the writing is an integral, non-negotiable element to building your career. After all, it’s the writing that will get you into rooms, that will put you in front of agents, managers, producers and executives. Without it, you will simply not be invited in. Every time an agent or manager takes a chance on a new writer, every time a showrunner brings a green writer into the room or an executive gives an unproven writer a writing assignment, they are taking a risk. And no one will put their job on the line unless they believe – because you showed them as much – that you can absolutely deliver. And while it’s important for agents, managers, producers and execs to like you enough to want to build a relationship, it’s the writing, first and foremost, that will get them excited about you and make them want to take that leap.
The Verdict: FALSE
Misconception: I need a lit manager to help develop my craft
The reality: While very much on the forefront of talent discovery, managers are in no way screenwriting teachers. They expect you to come to them almost fully formed and ready to go toe-to-toe with them as they help you develop new work for the marketplace. Though it is true that in days long gone (when the spec market was still alive and well) managers did indeed look for diamonds in the rough whom they could help shape and develop for the professional space, today most managers are seeking out writers whose craft is already – in the very least – half way to “there.” A lot more diamond, a lot less rough. Now, while a manager will likely not seek to instruct you on HOW to write, they will help you figure out WHAT you should write next. Even if they loved your voice and respected your skill in the screenplay that got their attention in the first place, the script may not be quite strong enough to take into the general marketplace. In that case, the manager will seek to help you write a new piece that makes the most of your voice, storytelling sensibilities and craft, and that will be able to stand out in the crowded and often challenging marketplace. All of which is to say: by the time you get your manager, you better be on top of your craft.
The Verdict: FALSE
Misconception: The job of my spec screenplay is to generate a sale
The reality: How do I say this gently???… No. Have you looked at the spec market lately? I have, and it’s not pretty. It’s not awful. But definitely not pretty. And unless you have the amazing David Boxerbaum by your side (who has managed to thus far in 2017 sell 10 specs despite a somewhat stagnant market), selling your spec screenplay is just not the most likely outcome. Now that doesn’t mean that it’s spec sale or bust. Not at all. What it does say, though, is that there are many different measurements of success in today’s market. The job of your first great spec screenplay is to win contests, and hopefully land you representation. If the script is really outstanding, then maybe it will get you in the door for a slew of generals, and allow your reps to start building you a fan club. If it’s really out of this world, maybe it will get you on the prestige lists, such as The Black List or The Hit List. Then your next spec will reinvigorate all that initial interest, get you back into old rooms, open a few more doors, and potentially have you put up for a few writing assignments. After that it’s a bit of a wash-rinse-repeat spec after spec, until you write the one that breaks your whole career open. Maybe it will be a flashy spec sale. Maybe it will be put into development with a studio. Maybe it will get made on the indie side, and a flashy spec sale will not come up. Maybe it will land you a juicy writing assignment. The point is, there are many ways to skin a cat.
The Verdict: Yeah… NO.
Misconception: Once you’ve broken in, the hard work is done
The reality: Not even close. Let’s look at two different tracks here. First, there’s feature writing, a world in which the writer constantly has to generate great new content or deliver on writing assignments time and again. If you are fortunate enough to generate that killer spec that maybe shows up on The Black List, goes into development or does the unheard-of and sells, you will then have to generate your next amazing screenplay. If it’s assignments you’re after and the doors are indeed opening that way, then you will have to roll back your sleeves, do the hard work of developing your take, go in to pitch, and pitch, and pitch again, without any guarantees that you will get the work. The TV side may be a bit more forgiving, as nothing is harder than getting a green writer into his first room… except for getting that second job, proving that that first time you got hired wasn’t a mistake. If you manage to prove yourself in the room again and again, then with a good rep behind you and well-built relationships, you should be able to remain employed, going to the next show when the last one gets cancelled. There is good news here, and it is this: With any luck, you are doing this because you LOVE writing. You can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, let alone being happy doing anything else. So the idea of writing and writing and writing some more, while also developing pitches and working relationships, should not be much of a threat.
The Verdict: Not even close.
Misconception: When it comes to breaking into television writing, you have to be young. And hip.
The reality: While working in television, specifically on the room’s support staff (i.e. writer’s assistant, showrunner’s assistant, room PA or coordinator) or the lower writing levels (staff writer, Story Editor, Executive Story Editor) has long been considered to be a younger person’s game, I can tell you this: In the last 5 years, all of the writers that I had worked with who staffed on shows for the first time were no babies. Yes, one was under 30 when she got her first staff writing gig, but there are also a slew of writers that I work with who got into the room for the first time well into their 30’s and even 40’s. While support staff roles will likely continue to go to those in their 20’s, I have seen many writers in their 30’s and even 40’s given a chance as part of the writing staff.
The Verdict: False.
Misconception: If someone has your script and doesn’t return your calls, it means that they probably read it and hated it
The reality: While it has been said that in Hollywood “No” is silence over time, I do find that when writers submit material and don’t hear back, it’s usually because the material got de-prioritized. Agents and managers, specifically, usually have 3 piles of scripts in front of them: The pile of material from their clients, which they have to note and then get out. The pile of writers that were referred to them by a known industry contact. And the pile that has everything else, i.e. contest placing or winning scripts, scripts they requested off pitches or queries, and scripts that they can’t even remember how they got there. They may have every intention to get to every last one of them, but in all likelihood that’s not going to happen. The rule is: the more they like you or the person that referred you to them, the more likely they are to read. And if they do read, even if it is going to be a pass for them, they’re going to let you know that they did the work. Whether they put in 10 minutes (and put the script down after 5 pages) or 2 hours (and read the script cover to virtual cover), they are going to let you know that they’ve done their part, and it’s just not for them. Therefore, if you’ve sent a script to an exec, an agent or a manager and have not heard from them, odds are that your script had unfortunately gotten de-prioritized in their stack.
The Verdict: FALSE
Misconception: The industry is full of shady, douchy, awful people
The reality: For good or bad, every industry – specifically ones where there is money to be made – attracts all personality types. You can find a wide array of personalities in corporate, in finance, in technology, in education, in health and in government. The entertainment industry is no different. Ari Gold was definitely a caricature of a narcissistic agent, but that caricature wasn’t entirely baseless. That was, after all, what made him so great. But for every asshole and douchebag, there are also plenty of great, hard-working, entirely decent people working in this space. Take it from someone who works in it every day. So don’t assume that every person you run into is automatically a jerk.
The Verdict: DOESN’T EVERY INDUSTRY HAVE A FEW OF THEM?
Got any more misconceptions you want me to dispel or explain or misinformation for me to set straight? Send it through my contact form, and I will include you in Volume 2 of this blogpost.