Delusions of Screenwriting Grandeur


Warning: This blog post is going to be delving into some sensitive stuff. Which means that some of its readers may feel that I’m trampling all over (if not straight out poo-pooing) some of their successes. That is not at all my intention. But this blogpost needs to be written none-the-less. Even though some of the writers reading it will be offended. I am going to have to take that chance. Because of a few recent experiences, it just has to be written.

By no means are you obligated to read this. It might piss you off, or make you feel like I’m diminishing your accomplishments (which, I promise, I’m not). If you don’t want to go there, I promise I won’t be offended. You can close the tab, click out, do what you have to do to put this away.

But if you’re still reading… Let’s keep going.

Over the last couple of weeks, I met with two writers who, in their own words, positioned themselves to me in written materials (I ask all my new clients to complete a New Client Questionnaire) as being VERY clearly ahead of the curve, as far as emerging writers are concerned. They were, for all intents and purposes, ahead of most new writers I get to work with. Thisclose to making the transition from emerging to professional.

Why they thought they knew where most of my writers are is beyond me; Over the years, I’ve worked with every type of writer, from those just starting out, figuring out their brand, writing routine, pedigree, and craft, to those already working with studios and networks. But I digress.

Having done this as long as I have, I am well aware that many people do have the tendency to try and position themselves in the very best light they can. To paint the most favorable picture. To potentially inflate the things that are going for them. And, furthermore, to keep themselves going, especially when it comes to something as challenging as screenwriting, by focusing on the positive rather than the negative. It’s human nature. And for those in the midst of the marathon that is building a career in screenwriting, may be absolutely necessary in order to stay the course. Same is true for producers, actors, and even directors who are up-and-coming. But there is a difference between painting things in the most positive light versus deluding yourself. And it’s that intersection – of confidence and delusion – that I want to explore here.

One writer, whom we will call Bob for the sake of this blog post, told me the following in an email exchange: “I’ve had a couple of very close near-misses. Since I am very close to breaking in and becoming a working writer, I want someone to help me get there.”

A second writer, let’s call her Sally, told me in her New Client Questionnaire: “I’m significantly further ahead with my screenwriting career than most writers who are just trying to break in. I’ve placed in the some of the highest levels in almost every major contest.”

Okay. Interesting. I’m excited to meet both Bob and Sally, on different days at different times, and get to know them.But after meeting each one of these writers, I quickly deduced that the reality of their seemingly unique situations was quite different than the positioning they granted themselves when first reaching out to me.

Let’s break it down.

First, BOB. Bob, who was RIGHT there, just missing it by THAT much.

When we sat down together and I asked him to elaborate on these opportunities that almost made his career, he was all too happy to tell me that he’s had a lot of industry interest in his work.

What sort of interest?” I asked.

Well, right now I am in talks with (insert name of major movie star here) for my psychological thriller.”

Ok. Interesting. “That’s great, so are they developing the script with you? Have they given you notes?”

Bob takes a moment, smiles and answers: “No, I sent them a query. I am waiting to hear back.”

Sally, on this front, didn’t turn out to be very different. As far as she told me, she’s had serious interest from a manager at a very reputable management firm where I do happen to have a few friends.

“Who are you talking to over there?” I naturally asked. If nothing else, I could follow up with the manager about the writer later, and see if I could help.

But then Sally answered: “Oh, he left the company…”

“Didn’t he tell you where he was going?” I asked.

“I really don’t know,” she answered and went on to say: “He asked for the script after I sent him a query letter, but then he never got back to me so… I am hoping to hear from someone else.”

Suffice it to say, it turned out that this query letter was sent a year ago. And that I knew the manager who left. When I asked him about it a few weeks later he couldn’t remember the query, or the corresponding script. He’s gotten a lot of queries, asked to see a lot of work. And yes, that did happen right around the time he left which is unfortunate, but in general, few managers can remember every script they read if it doesn’t immediately pique their interest.

All of which is to say: While a request to see your feature screenplay or original pilot following a query is something that every screenwriter should be excited about (because it’s always great to know that your pedigree is meaningful, that you can write a great logline and that your concepts and query style are worthy of attention) a simple request for a script holds promise and potential, but is NOT akin to tangible, substantive interest.

Interest comes when someone has read your script and responded positively to your work. When that person wants to meet, or read something else. Or, in lieu of reading, if someone in the industry meets you and tells you something to the tune of: “I love you! We’ve got to find something to work on together!” (Though I am sure that some folks who are reading this might be rolling their eyes right about now – it is true that things like this are said without cover all too often in the professional space!)

Below are some other examples of what real interest looks (or reads) like when it comes your way:

  • Love the writing! Can you send me something else to read?
  • Love the script! Can we set up a call or a time to meet?
  • Love the writing, but I didn’t connect with the script. Do you have anything else I could read?
  • Love the writing, but I didn’t connect with the script. However, I would love to hear what else you’re working on. I love your voice! Maybe we could develop something else together? (once again, I know there is an eye roll here because all too often writers are asked to develop material for free. However, if we are talking about developing with a reputable manager, then that might be an opportunity worth pursuing).
  • Love the writing, but the script is not for me. However, would love to read your next original pilot or screenplay, so when it’s done, feel free to send it to me!

In Sally’s questionnaire, she told me right off the bat that she is further along in her career because she placed “in the some of the highest levels in almost every major contest.”

Now, there is certainly value in any placement in almost any screenwriting competition, but that value may not resonate similarly with the industry as it does with the writer. For the writer, such placement can confirm that her writing is resonating with someone somewhere, that her material is rising to the top (be it the top 1% or top 10%), even if not quite to the level that would garner industry interest just yet. And I promise you, I am not trying to diminish that. But it is important to understand the placements that are meaningful confirmations for the writer will not always be meaningful in the professional space.

Let me be blunt: Just because a contest placement means something to you, it doesn’t mean that it is going to hold the same meaning for industry executives. Of course, it’s going to mean something to the writer if she submitted her screenplay to a competition with 500 entries and was named a finalist or even a winner. But that’s not going to have the same impact in the professional space. For the industry, screenwriting competitions are a big-fish-big-pond game. You have to be the big fish in the big contest to be able to use it for traction.

“You win the Nicholl, a lot of people have read your script in order for you to win, so maybe your script is worthy.” My friend, renowned manager Jewerl Ross who reps Academy Award winners Barry Jenkins (MOONLIGHT) and Matt Aldrich (COCO), told me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES. “You win a contest, maybe you’re worthy. You win five contests, maybe you’re worthy. You need something to talk about that’s more than just your opinion or your idea. The better the contest, the sexier it looks. I’m a snob. I didn’t go to Yale because it was Connecticut. I went because it was the best school I got into. I’m going to pay attention to the person who wins the Nicholl more than I am the person who wins some random screenwriting contest.”

For industry folks and in very general terms, the screenwriting competitions that really matter are the following:

There are additional contests, such as those put on by ScreenCraft, Cinestory and ISA that will likely hold some water, but go beyond those, and it’s really a stretch.

Only in The Nicholl Fellowships does Quarterfinalist and Semi-Finalist placement matter. In the Tracking Board competition, you can start getting interest once you hit the Top 75, but likely not before that. Austin, Final Draft, Page and Tracking B are all about the finalists as well. Before that? The industry may not care as much as you will.

The problem with Sally was that she had only gotten as far as Top 10%-er for two of the above-mentioned contests. Now, I know it feels great to know that your script came in in the top 90th percentile. But for the industry, it doesn’t matter, because the top 10% means somewhere in a batch of 600-800 screenplays considered to be better than the rest. And the industry is not looking for the top 10% – it is looking for the top 1%, which is why those top placements really do matter.

All of this is not to say that Sally’s writing wasn’t resonating, that she wasn’t making progress. But, for good or bad, not all screenwriting competitions are created equal, so it’s up to Sally to understand the industry perception before she launches on a very public, I’m-ready-to-break-in victory lap. Don’t get me wrong: Wins, no matter how big or small, are not easy to come by as you work your way up and into the professional space. When you get them, you should absolutely take a moment (or an evening, or a weekend) to celebrate. But also understand whether such a win is meaningful for you, or whether it is capable of delivering the desired industry impact. The inability to differentiate between the two implies that Sally may not quite yet have an understanding of how this whole thing works.

By boasting that she placed in every major contest (which she didn’t), Sally effectively deflated the value of getting some traction in a number of the mid-level contests and cracking the lower levels (though not winning or being named a finalist) of the bigger contests. By telling me that they have real, bona fide interest from actors and reps, both Sally and Bob diminished the fact that they are working hard to get their material out there, even if they are not getting the desired reaction or interest in their work.

The realities of breaking in, of making it, of getting to that elusive next level is not about the stories you can tell, but rather about the substantive steps, no matter how big or small, you regularly take. Making it is often times not sexy, not pretty, and the work that gets you there is rarely, if ever, glamorous. But do the work, understand the market, remain consistent and resilient, and odds are that you will give yourself a good fighting shot.