Bring on the Pedigree: Getting Your Screenplay or Pilot Noticed

There is no doubt: The screenwriting and TV writing space is a super crowded space. These days, writers trying their hands at screenwriting and TV writing can be found everywhere, creating an ongoing flood of emerging content, vying for the attention of the professional space. The Nicholl fellowship alone receives over 8,000 submissions a year on the feature side alone. The Final Draft Big Break Competition has clocked over 12,000 submissions in both the TV and feature space this past year. And the estimate for the number of new scripts – from both professional and emerging writers – that are registered with the WGA every year ranges from 40,000 to 60,000. That’s a lot of scripts!

Not only are there more screenplays and TV pilots from emerging writers coming into the professional space on a regular basis, but with the advent of the internet and the prevalence of screenwriting instruction via books, online courses, blog posts, masterclasses, screenwriting instructional videos there are more screenplays and pilots that can appear, at least on first blush, to do the job. In other words, we are finding that there are less terrible scripts out there than there were, say, 20 years ago, because basic screenwriting instruction is easier to find. Over the years, many of my manager friends have told me that while there are more “decent-to-good” screenplays out there these days, it’s harder to find those truly great screenplays and pilots.

So with all those numbers, that virtual flood of screenplays and pilots vying for the attention of literary representatives, how does one stand out and get noticed once they have written that truly great TV pilot or screenplay? That’s where developing some strong pedigree comes in.

It has been said that if a great screenplay was dropped in the middle of Sunset Blvd., someone would find it. I, however, prefer not to leave so much to chance, to have a clearer, more actionable career strategy. Equally, if you have strong industry advocates ready to refer you to every literary manager who is willing until they find your perfect fit, then your job of surfacing in a very crowded space is made that much easier. But if you don’t? If, like most writers, you are coming into this very crowded space without previous connections ready to sing your praises to anyone who will listen via those all-powerful referrals? Then it’s all about pedigree, pedigree, pedigree.

In the world of screenwriting, a screenplay or pilots’ pedigree are its qualifiers; those accolades that distinguish it from the pack, that allow it to rise to the top. As emerging writers start on their screenwriting journey, not only perfecting their craft, but then seeking to get their work read by potential reps, they will soon discover that it’s not easy to get read on logline alone. While most query letters rise and fall, ultimately, on the appeal of the logline found within them, the truth of the matter is that it’s not easy getting “read requests” for a feature or TV pilot on logline alone. In order for that to happen, the logline has to deliver just the thing the recipient has been looking for;a concept that is unique, stands out, and is something they’ve not exactly seen before. It’s not to say that an outstanding logline is not important. If you’re not sure, just check out my blog post about concept vs. execution. But time and time again I’ve found that pedigree will help put a good logline over the top.

So what exactly is this pedigree I speak of? As mentioned above, and in the simplest terms, pedigree  helps qualify the material for people in the know, usually managers, who may be willing to consider a new writer to take on, but are looking for some sort of an indicator that the work at hand is good. Remember those endless numbers of scripts being entered into some of the biggest screenwriting contests? There is no way for one person to get through all of those, or through the thousands and thousands of scripts being registered with the WGA on an annual basis. Pedigree helps identify those screenplays and TV pilots that managers, producers, and even agents, should be paying attention to.

There are many different ways to create pedigree: Placing as finalist or winner in one of the big screenwriting contests. Garnering an evaluation that awards your screenplay the coveted grade of 8 or above from The Black List. Being named to any of the TV writing programs, from WB’s TV Writing Workshop to The Humanitas New Voices Prize, CAPE, NHMC or Hillman Grad. Being accepted into a prestigious screenwriting writing lab or program, such as the Universal Writers Program, Sundance’s Screenwriting Lab or Meryl Streep’s The Writer’s Lab. For those writers who are a bit further ahead, developing material with known industry producers or production companies, collaborating with name directors on a project, or being mentored by name executives all help.

Personal pedigree matters as well. If you were an EMT for 5 years, and just wrote a unique script about ambulance chasers, that is certainly something that can help set your work apart from the rest. Any time that you can connect personal (or non-screenwriting professional) experience that gives your characters or world unique, authentic depths, it’s an important component to share.

Earlier in your career as you take initial steps towards getting your work read by industry professionals, this pedigree will be useful in query letters, whether you are sending out targeted queries or using services such as Virtual Pitch Fest, as well as any online pitching opportunities offered by Stage 32 and Roadmap Writers.

As your contact list builds and you begin to develop a solid readership, a meaningful contest placement or an exciting new development relationship with an industry producer will become grounds for ongoing marketing efforts. It’s important to reach out to your contacts to let them know about the progress being made with your screenwriting career, signified by these known qualifiers recognizing your work and talents. Over the many years I’ve been working with writers, I’ve seen pedigree help with both initial pushes for representation, as well as help writers already well on their way make changes in their team or push their writing career to the next level. As long as you are still working your way up, pedigree that corresponds with your current career stage is always a good thing to amass.