Breaking into Screenwriting: What’s Possible, What’s Probable? 

Part 1: Contests & Representation

Let’s agree on one thing: When it comes to the film and television industry, everything is possible. Over my many years working with screenwriters in the industry, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen an older gentleman become a staff writer for the very first time, an insurance agent with no previous writing experience sell a spec script in a flashy sale, unknown writers sell television shows, and older ladies become the toast of the town. But in an industry where everything is possible and nothing is easy, what is possible, and what is probable? 

These are the questions I intend to examine in my new blog series, “What’s Possible, What’s Probable?”: What is the actual probability for success on specific screenwriting paths?

My coaching clients hear me use the possible/probably distinction often: Everything in this industry provides a challenge, but which challenges or goals are within the scope of probability, and which ones are against-all-odds long shots?

When strategizing for my screenwriters’ careers, I make a point of keeping them informed when they are in pursuit of success that, though within the realm of difficult-to-achieve, is probable, versus pursuing a goal that has a narrow, speck-size bullseye, making the chances for success in their chosen path – yes – possible, but not probable.

As you read this, keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily about identifying the path that is most probable for you, but rather choosing the path you want to pursue with full awareness of the odds.

And just one more caveat, so that no one can say I didn’t tell them so: there is no breaking into screenwriting without stellar screenwriting chops and strong writing samples to show them off, be they a spec features, television pilots, or both. And as much as some writers hate to hear it, networking, meeting, pitching and people skills go a long way too! 

So without further ado, the first installment of the Probable/Possible Series:

What is possible, and what is probable, when it comes to screenwriting competitions and representation?  

Winning a name screenwriting competition and getting an agent or manager? Probable. 

While there are no guarantees, this is (or should be) the reason you enter a big, name screenwriting competition: Not for the prize money, or the latest copy of Final Draft, but because you know that the final round is being read by (you guessed it) agents and managers, as well as production and development executives. 

As Circle of Confusion’s Josh Adler said when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: “If you have $100 in your pocket, and there’s two writing competitions, one that has a $50,000 prize and one that has no prize but guarantees your script will get read by this list of people that work in the business, and both of them are $100 to enter, enter (the one with the guaranteed reads) because that’s worth way more. Yeah, $50,000 is nice, but that’s just some guy sitting in his apartment reading a bunch of scripts saying, “Yours is the best,” and here’s the prize. There are legitimate contests out there that get read by agents, managers, producers, and we all get together and have a big dinner and everybody talks about what they’ve read, so there are legit screenwriting competitions out there that are read by people who actually work in the business. That’s what you want. If you’ve got $100 to spend, use it on that. Go where you get the most amount of exposure for your money, not the most amount of money for your money.“

Whether you are able to stimulate representation interest directly from those reading for the contest, or use the contest win yourself to reach out to potential reps and generate interest, doesn’t matter. The point is: The big contests are all considered vetting avenues for the industry. If you manage to win, or get a finalist placement, in any of them, it is sure to go a long way towards securing the support of an agent or manager, as long as you are willing to do some of the heavy lifting yourself.

Winning a screenwriting competition and selling the winning script to a major studio or network? Possible. 

Yes, it does happen. For proof, look no further than this year’s MARIAN, scripted by newcomer Pete Barry and discovered when it made Tracking Board’s Launch Pad contest Top 25, after which it promptly landed the writer high caliber representation (with top selling agent David Boxerbaum no less), and proceeded to sell to Sony with Margot Robbie attached to star. So yes, it is possible. It does happen. But the reason we pay attention to the MARIAN story, much as we did the story of Eric Koenig selling his feature MATRIARCH after it placed in the same Top 25 of the very same contest, is because these occurrences are very few and far between. So few and far between, in fact, that we can remember them by name. Sure, we can talk about BETHLEHEM by Larry Brenner, which placed in the Final Draft contest, or EXTANT by Mickey Fisher which found its way to 2 seasons on CBS. But we remember them because they are unusual, rather than commonplace. Now, that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t enter screenwriting contests because selling a feature or pilot off a win is only possible but not probable. There is a lot that a strong contest placement can do for you – you just have to set your expectations accordingly. 

As an unknown writer, having your feature spec or original pilot land you representation? Probable.

If the script has been properly vetted and tested, not only by friends and family (unless of course friends and family are deeply entrenched in the industry) but by industry sources including executives, working writers, experts and/or consultants, and by all accounts displays a unique voice, complex characters, meaningful themes and original storylines, then it just may garner the attention of an agent or manager once you make inroads with them. Of course, the ideal scenario is that an agent or manager reads your work and decides to sign you right away. However, sometimes it takes a bit more than that, assuming that there is interest. The agent or manager may respond to the voice, but not quite fall in love with the material itself, which would lead the agent or manager to ask you to submit additional samples – existing or future ones – before they commit to becoming your industry advocate. This may mean that they will decide to sign you on the next one, or that you will send them script after script without ever making a commitment. But as long as the door is open, keep pursuing that relationship. 

Your first industry-ready feature spec or original pilot getting you a manager and/or agent, going out to the industry wide, and ultimately selling? Possible.

Yes, it has happened before, and it will happen again. In an industry of make-believe, everything is possible, and we do on the rare occasion see a script that goes all the way, from securing that first agent or manager to selling to a major studio or network. But probable? By no means. While every writer should write every script with the intention of writing the best TV show or movie they possibly can, the reality is that if a screenplay has garnered you representation, it’s done its job of helping you move your screenwriting career to the next level. Anything beyond that is a bonus. Of course you want to see the work go out there, and the world fall in love with it. But if all it does right off the bat is secure you effective representation that will help you determine your next project and prepare for the marketplace then… It’s time to celebrate!

Check out upcoming installments, which will include Possible/Probable determinations for selling your first feature spec, and getting into a writer’s room!