Breaking into Screenwriting: A User Manual for Screenwriters

A few years ago, I met with a writer who was introduced to me through a relative on the east coast. The writer, previously an independent film producer, wrote a screenplay that can best be described as old fashioned. Not a bad screenplay by any stretch, but a screenplay that, for good or bad, felt very far removed from anything the industry was making at that time, whether we’re talking prestige dramas, superhero everything or summer comedies. In fact, it felt very far removed from anything the industry had made in this century, or even the few decades that came before. When I asked the writer about the relevance of her screenplay for that time’s cinematic landscape, she told me: 

“This is the perfect TCM movie. They are the company I want to approach to produce it.”

TCM, for those who have cut the chord or are otherwise just not familiar, is Turner Classic Movies, and, as the name suggests, specializes in programming classic movies on its basic cable channel. And while I could easily understand how the writers’ screenplay served as a template for a movie nostalgic for those cinematic adventures of old, there was one inherent problem in the writers’ approach: TCM did not, at that time, produce any original narrative content. Sure, they produced a few documentaries over time, but as far as producing scripted content was concerned they seemed to have no motion picture production track record to speak of. Not only that, they had no executives heading up production or development of feature content outside of the documentary space. So even though the writer had an interesting idea, at the end of the day there was just no “there” there. 

You might ask: why am I telling you this? In order to succeed in the industry, in any industry for that matter,  you have to understand how that industry works. What it does and does not make. What the expectations might be of you and for your writing at various stages of your career. This is not to say that the industry is not ever-changing. It very much is! But very few things happen in the industry as a happy accident. The industry, at the end of the day, is a business which is, at least on the studio front, heavily guided by corporate mandates. Yes, there are still independent films being made, as well as web-series and podcasts that provide a path for storytellers to get out there. I remain a believer that in this industry, nothing is impossible. However, if you want to succeed in this industry, you have to embrace the way in which it is working in order to create the most opportunity for your own success. 

The importance of understanding the industry and how it works speaks directly to understanding how writers work in the industry in its current state. And nowhere have I found a greater disconnect between how the industry works and what emerging writers might expect than in the spec screenplay space. 

When I meet emerging writers who are new to the industry, one of the first things they tell me is that they are eager to sell their spec screenplay. Preferably in the current calendar year. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am all for selling screenplays! And I have had the good fortune of witnessing those big, flashy, exciting spec sales. But I also know that the industry has changed drastically since the heyday of the spec market. In today’s industry, most writers make a living doing what is known as “writing pages”, i.e. doing writing assignments, or writing on TV shows. I work with a slew of very successful screenwriters who have made a fantastic living and are widely respected, but have yet to sell a spec screenplay. If you look at how we track spec screenplay, in the past couple of decades we’ve gone away from tracking screenplays that are sold to instead focus on screenplays that are “set up” with producers and/or talent. This is not to say that the screenplay won’t sell down the line, but in the new reality, we expect the writer to get paid as the project nears production, rather than up front. For more on this, check out my blogpost Lets Talk About Specs

In today’s industry, the purpose of a screenplay is not singular. Sure, a sale would be great, but the screeenplay can serve its author in many different ways. 

When developing your body of work, one that can serve as an introduction to the industry, it’s crucial to develop content that meets the standards of the industry. What does that mean? 

  • Feature screenplays should not exceed 120 pages. Some will argue that even 120 pages is pushing it, specifically when it comes to horror and comedy scripts. Screenwriting luminaries are held to different standards (and even they freak out when they arrive at a bloated page count). An emerging writer needs to show that they can deliver a solid screenplay within the set industry parameters. 
  • A TV pilot is the single, opening episode of a TV series. 1/2-hour pilots should not exceed 38-pages (those who are more rigid would say 35-pages). 1-hour pilots should not exceed 64 pages. If the material at hand is for a 1/2-hour show, the writer can’t present a 2-part (or 2-episode) opener. Or a 1-hour pilot for what will become a 1/2-hour show. Sure, if you’re Danny McBride you can start with a 1-hour pilot and then go to 1/2-hour episodes but if you’re not… You only just get the pilot to make the case for your show. And the bible, if you’re lucky. But you don’t get a 2-part or 3-part pilot. 

The industry looks for material that can be deemed “same-but-different.” But over the years, I’ve realized that writers are often not quite sure what that means. In my experience, what this speaks to is material that brings something familiar to the table, but then adds a different, new, or unexpected element or twist. Because of this, the industry tends to lean on comps (i.e. comparable movies or TV shows) in order to understand the framework of the project. The this-meets-that of it all allows executives to quickly get a sense of the type of project the writer is talking about. 

Which means that… if the writer brings forward a project that has no comps, something the likes of which has never been done before, if they are not an established creator, the industry will have a hard time opening that door. As stated earlier, this is a business, after all. And good business often means developing content for which there is some semblance of a proven audience. That doesn’t mean that a screenplay or pilot has to be a ripoff of something that went before. But find common ground with previous successful projects that will make the “different” element of it all a much easier pill to swallow.

Take, for example, Elad Ziv’s Court 17,  which was the #2 script on 2022’s The Black List (and also a case study for my previous blogpost 3 Steps to Getting Repped). The logline to Elad’s script goes like this: 

An over-the-hill tennis pro, trying to salvage her career, finds herself stuck playing the first round of the US Open over and over again against one of the top players in the world. The only way to stop the loop is to win the match, a seemingly impossible task due to how overmatched she is. 

So the “same” element here is the time-loop. The Groundhog Day of it all. The different? An over-the-hill tennis pro stuck in said time-loop that she will only be able to stop by winning an impossible match. Same, but different. 

Every once in a while, I will talk to a writer who will tell me: “They don’t make the sort of movies I write anymore.” and it can be true for TV too. Which… is a problem. If the collective “they” don’t make the type of movies that the writer writes, what is the market for them? Who would be their natural audience? Hollywood is a big proponent of supply and demand. If there was evidence that there’s demand for product that isn’t out there, Hollywood would make a point to meet those demands as long as the numbers made sense because… business.

With that in mind, then, it’s important for writers to challenge themselves to consider what the 2024 version of the type of movie they love is. Hollywood has not forgotten about a type of movie, or a type of TV show for that matter. If the industry is not making a type of movie or TV show it is, unfortunately, because it has reason to believe that the movie or TV show would not generate the sort of business that would justify its cost (and there’s a whole conversation to be had here about independent movies and the need to find more than just Marvel movies at your local theater which I completely agree with, but that’s a different topic for a different blog post. This one is all about this industry. That said… there are many different ways to fund independent movies, and there’s no better way to make a case for the sort of movie you want to see by making it and having it become a financial success). 

In addition to understanding the type of movies and TV shows that are currently being made, what is expected in, say, a 1/2-hour pilot versus a 1-hour pilot, it’s important to understand the type of projects the industry is and is not making. It’s happened more than once in recent years that a writer told me they were writing a Network TV movie-of-the-week a la those once shown on NBC and ABC, or stand-alone after-school specials. While I am old enough to remember those, I also know that, while Netflix, Hallmark and Lifetime have taken over what used to be the Network TV movie space, NBC, ABC and CBS no longer program original event movies, while 1-hour moralistic after school specials have been eliminated entirely. Shows like Black Mirror offered up stand-alone 1-hour stories, connected by common themes, but celebrated though it was, we have not had many other shows replicate that sort of success (although shows like Modern Love certainly attempted to replicate the effort in a more sentimental space). 

A few years ago, a writer I worked with became incredibly excited at the prospect of meeting with an old family friend who was a successful feature film producer. The producer was so successful, in fact, that a year or two prior a movie he had produced was nominated for any Academy Award. The writer was eager to share his latest script, a broad comedy, with the producer. However, upon reading the screenplay, the producer reached out to the writer and let him know that this was not the type of screenplay he connects with, as exemplified by his stellar record of producing high-brow, prestige dramas. The writer was devastated. He had high hopes for a high caliber producer reading his screenplay, and couldn’t understand why the producer so easily passed on material that otherwise received very positive feedback. 

Much as writers are expected to have a brand, especially earlier on in their career, producers, too, have a genre or area of film that they specialize in. Years ago, a good friend of mine who made her name producing romantic period dramas was given a contemporary RomCom with a grounded sci-fi bent. I knew the script and was a fan of it, so I was excited to hear my friends’ opinion when we met up for dinner after she’d read it. She quickly squashed any hopes I might have had for a producer-and-script-match-made-in-heaven. “It’s not a costume drama that needs to be shot in Luxembourg and brought in on a tight budget. I have no value-add to bring to project.” All of this is to say… when trying to find a home for your project, any old producer just will not do. It’s important to target both individual producers and production companies that swim in the same pool as your pilot or screenplay. 

Now all that said, as a writer emerging or working in the industry, it’s important never to chase trends in features or in TV. Know how the industry works and understand what it’s making, but don’t try to write content that you don’t feel passionate about just because at the moment it might be trending. By the time you’ve written the thing that follows a particular trend, that trend will be over and done with, with a new trend having taken its place. It’s a losing battle, so don’t engage in it. Instead, take all that I’ve said into account and consider: What is the most market-forward version of the thing that you’re excited to write? How do you tell your stories in the manner most relevant for TV and movies today? Remember, this industry is dependent on the discovery of new voices. On great stories. On fresh ideas. So learn all that you can about the industry, then pave your own unique and undeniable path into it.