The Hard Truths About Screenwriting
Warning: This blog post contains information about screenwriting that may be upsetting to some screenwriters. Not for the faint of heart!
It has happened. Someone accused me, without any apology and in no uncertain terms, of being… negative.
The where and the what are simple and straightforward: In the comment section of a YouTube video, one of the many interviews out there that I’ve done over the years, asking me some question or another about what screenwriters can expect when coming into the industry. It had been a while since I poked around those pages and looked at those comments, because, you know, the internet. But there it was, starring right back at me: “Does this woman ever say anything positive????”
People who know me in real life will tell you that I am one of the most positive people you will ever meet. But as I thought about it long and hard, I had to admit: Some of what I say can sound negative. Difficult. Discouraging. And in many ways, when it comes to generalities, I think I do it by design. Why? Because there are some hard truths when it comes to screenwriting, that every writer should keep in mind as they aim to build a screenwriting career. And, just as importantly, I never want any writer that I work with to accuse me of misleading him, of making it sound as though building a screenwriting career is going to be a walk in the park. I want the writers who really want this to go for it, to fight for it. But I also want them to do so knowing the odds, with their eyes wide open. If there is one statement I hate, it is: “I wish I had known.” In my own life, I make it a practice to gather every bit of available information and utilize it as needed as I stride forward.
To be clear: This blog post is not being written to deter anyone reading it from taking on the craft and business of screenwriting. On the contrary, it is written to empower anyone who takes the time to consume this content with some information, so that they have more realistic expectations and a better understanding of this mountain that they are looking to climb.
So for once, let me break it down. I know, it can get a bit depressing, but I promise that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
So… What are these hard screenwriting truths I am talking about?
Breaking into screenwriting is rarely easy.
For good or bad, there is rarely an “APPLY HERE” button when it comes to breaking into the industry and launching a screenwriting career. For most, and especially those who arrive without any preexisting industry connections, there is no precise map detailing how to get there; instead, it takes a lot of trying, writing, submitting, talking, building relationships, and trying again.
Most writers won’t make it.
Statistically speaking, it is true. Most people attempting to break into screenwriting today won’t be able to build a long-lasting screenwriting career. Just consider the number of scripts being registered with the WGA every year, vs. the number of writers working and… there you have it. But there are a number of factors that feed into this: Not every writer registering a screenplay or television pilot with the WGA is a talented writer. Not every writer has more than one story to tell. Not every writer is willing to do the consistent hard work it takes to become a working, bona fide screenwriting professional. I’ve been reminded of this simple fact by my very own clients: not every emerging screenwriter is going to turn professional. But I find that it’s often those who are aware of this fact, those who use this reality to motivate them, who do become working screenwriters sooner or later.
Breaking into screenwriting is going to require some… writing.
I can’t tell you how many writers have told me at one point or another that they want to and are ready to get staffed in a TV writers room even though they don’t have a showable writing sample (i.e. original pilot). For good or bad, there is rarely any breaking into writing, and specifically TV writing (unless of course the showrunner is your best friend, in which case all bets are off) without a showable sample, without displaying that you are able to work within television’s very rigid structure, without putting vision, voice and story on the page in a compelling and powerful way first.
Breaking in does not mean making a ton of money right off the bat.
A lot of people think that as soon as they break in, they will start getting paid. While everyone hopes for this scenario, that is not necessarily the reality of it. In the television space, one can be considered broken in once they’ve been selected by one of the television writing programs and gotten a manager and/or an agent. But unless you’ve been accepted into the ABC/Disney program or awarded the Humanitas New Voices prize, the reality is that even though you are now technically known to the industry, you are not yet getting paid. Pay for television writers arrives once they are staffed in a television writer’s room, sell a TV pilot or pitch, or are hired to write a pilot for a producer. On the feature side, a writer could be showing up regularly on the prestige lists (The Black List, The Hit List, The Young & Hungry List, The Blood List) and going after high end writing assignment for months and years before they land a job or sell a spec screenplay. And selling a spec screenplay does not, in today’s market, mean making bank. With the spec market dwindling, most writers will find themselves selling to indie buyers at first, ones whose pockets are not nearly as generous as those of executives and the studios that empower them.
Screenwriting is not a quick fix for a frustrating job or a dwindling bank account.
Over the years, I’ve been told such things as: “I have to get out of my job, so I’m going to try screenwriting,” and “I am in a lot of debt so I’m going to write a screenplay and sell it.” Let me clear about one thing: A screenwriting career is not a Band-Aid. It’s the anti-Band-Aid. It takes years of hard work to build, and any money that comes in in the first few years is rarely a windfall. Screenwriting is more likely to get you into debt instead of out of it (at least initially). For years it will be a money- and a time-suck. So why do it? Because you love (and I do mean LOVE) visual storytelling, and you have something specific you want to say or contribute to it.
No one breaks in quickly. Or when they think they are ready.
I can’t tell you how many times one of my writers told me that “I’m ready to staff” or that “I think where I’m really going to do great is writing assignments.” I get it, and, believe me, I love the conviction and the confidence. But the reality is that no one breaks in when they are ready. They break in when they have the right sample for the right opportunity, the right advocates for an open seat in a room, the right voice for an assignment, the right champions to vouch for them. Don’t get me wrong. This can be a cause for huge frustration. The writer can find herself wondering: “I’m ready! I know I’m ready. What will it take for me to break in?” I’ve wondered the same thing about some of my clients. But the good news is that those who stuck with it did eventually break in, even if behind their own expected schedule.
It takes years (and I do mean years) to build a screenwriting career.
Three to five years at minimum, to be exact. And that’s being generous. Harsher analysts will say five to ten years. No matter the number we are talking years of hard, consistent work on both the writing and the business fronts before the writer can exhale at the sight of their screenwriting career. But rather than waxing poetic about this (and because, let’s face it, I’m starting to wonder if that guy in the comment thread was right and I am actually quite negative) I will just send you to a previous blog post I wrote about this: Confessions of a Dream Killer.
So… what’s the upside? And why do I think that after reading all this you will still want to give your screenwriting career a fighting chance?
For one simple reason: Because I see people do it – break in, become working professionals – every day. That’s the most gratifying part of my job, and what makes my job the best in the world. I get to see writers transform their lives, create opportunities, rise to the challenge and exceed expectations. Writers who put their heads down, do their work, take in as much information as they can, fight through disappointments and frustrations, continue to improve their craft, build relationships, generate material, challenge themselves and build their fan base. I promise you, it takes longer for most of them than they ever intended. And the money they make is not amazing. At least not right off the bat. But the point is that my job allows me the privilege of seeing writers who have taken all the above detractors into consideration, and still pushed themselves to make it. No two writers followed the exact same path. And I don’t know anyone who had any guarantees going in. But they were driven and passionate. It is that passion, that talent, that hunger and determination that has granted each of them a screenwriting career.