Do Good Writers REALLY Break In?
The above question was posed to me a few years ago by a screenwriter wrestling with standard-issue writerly doubt. It wasn’t the first time I was asked, but that time it really struck me. Maybe it was the tone. Maybe it was the context. Maybe it was just the simplicity of the question.
Since then, I’ve heard it asked in a million other, potentially less earnest, questions and statements:
“Does it really matter how good your writing is if you don’t know anyone in Hollywood?”
“I heard that it’s now about how strong my application is; you can’t get into the fellowships without a strong recommendation.”
“Even a great writer can’t break into Hollywood if he doesn’t have a relative in the industry.”
“Isn’t it, really, just about who you know?”
“Nobody wants to read new writers.”
All of these beliefs, stated with varying degrees of frustration, disappointment and honest-to-goodness trepidation, all spell out one possibility: Doesn’t matter how good your writing is. Unless you have been kissed by lady luck herself, you won’t break in.
When I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, super manager Jewerl Ross, who reps Barry Jenkins (MOONLIGHT) and Matthew Aldrich (COCO) told me:
“I was once at a restaurant and some producer told me, You know, if there was a great script and you threw it into the middle of Sunset Boulevard, that script would find its way to someone who mattered, because finding a great script is so rare. And I believe in that.”
And here’s the thing: I believe that too. Maybe not in the same fantastical sense that Jewerl’s statement makes us want to believe. Over time, experience taught me that despite industry connections or lack thereof, great writing rises to the top.
But, beyond such inspiring statements, what’s the reality?
Great writers, not just good writers, do break in. Today, with the abundanceof information available on the internet, from masterclasses to sample scripts, it’s easier to push one’s screenwriting from mediocre to pretty good. But the writing that rises to the top is the writing that is, truly, great. That stands out. That shows us a new point of view, a new character, a new take on an old story. Writing that has a strong voice powering the narrative. That tells a clear story with significant emotional resonance. (Not sure how to get there? check out my blog post DON’T RUIN A GOOD READ! SCREENWRITING MISTAKES TO AVOID).
In order to be a great writer, you have to push your craft. You have to go to those readers, be they writer friends, mentors, consultants or hired readers who will push you and challenge you in every way. Win THOSE people over, and you will know that your writing is advancing. Great writing is not just about great concept; it’s also about stellar execution, and vice versa. Submit to recognized screenwriting contests. A handful of them. See if your work begins to rise to Finalist and Winner’s Circle.
Working TV writer/novelist Hollie Overton told me when I interviewed her for my WHEN ARE YOU READY TO STAFF? blog post:
“I’m also a big believer in submitting your work to writing contests. Some people argue they’re too competitive, but I’ve always found them to be a great barometer on how your work stacks up. In my experience, writers who consistently place in these contests are ready for their shot. It’s also a much better feeling to be chased by reps as opposed to chasing them.”
Statistically speaking, there is some not-so-great-news, the kind I cannot ignore:
The Final Draft Big Break contest, for example, receives roughly 8,000 scripts into its screenwriting contest every year. Its’ winners circle is made of just about a dozen screenplays and writers.
The Nicholl Fellowship receives significantly more. Their semi-finalist count comes in at about 150. Which means that 8k+ didn’t make the cut.
The WGA registers over 40,000 new screenplays and TV pilots every year, while its employed membership is hovering around 6,000 writers, more or less.
What do all of these numbers mean? The hard-to-swallow reality is that not everyone is going to get there. Most writers who are good, but not great, will probably continue to be challenged by the realities of breaking in.
But those screenwriters who work hard to push their work from good to great?
There can very well be a different reality for that.
It’s the luxury of my job (and the best part of it) that I get to see those writers break in. Regularly.
Case and point: In 2019 alone, one of my writers, unknown for all intents and purposes when we started working together, became Creator and Executive Producer for the first time on a Netflix show. Another, previously un-staffed writer, began her first stint in the room as a staff writer. Two writers started in a prestigious network’s writers’ program. Another two writers got representation.
Manager Chris Cook of SkyWay Entertainment offered this:
“It’s still truly the case that the cream rises to the top. In other words, if you have the material that people want, people will buy it, and then they will want to go to you to rewrite every other project under the sun. Now how do you get to that point? It takes the time it takes to create the thing that’s gonna knock everybody on their butts.”
But breaking in is not just about craft. It’s also about tenacity.
Breaking in, as I have seen firsthand over the years, is a marathon, not a sprint (more on that in another blogpost soon!). So in many ways, it becomes not just about producing great writing consistently and on an ongoing basis, but also about tenacity. It’s about surviving the disappointments, fighting for the next script after the last one that you loved did absolutely nothing. In this day and age, when scripts from unknown writers, be they spec feature or original TV pilots, are difficult to sell outright, it’s all about the career, the long-term, for which a deep bench of great work and even better ideas is going to be required.
During my many years doing what I do, I have seen great writers walk away. Get fed up of the whole thing and quit. Do I believe that those great writers would have made it eventually? Yes. But it’s not up to me to decide how long a writer fights for this career.
The reason I believe that fighting for this career is a worthwhile thing for those who really want it is because, I have seen writers do it time and time again. Writers who didn’t know anyone when they first got here. Writers who got into programs and into staff jobs without a recommendation from Shonda Rhimes. A couple of years ago, one of my writers who got into one of the TV writing programs that ultimately went on to staff her knew nobody but her screenwriting instructor, who ultimately was kind enough to write her a recommendation. Another writer, working in a parallel industry but with zero connections to his name got into another such program based simply on the merit of his writing. One of my clients moved here from Bavaria and built a screenwriting career. Another moved here from Israel, with no prior contacts, and now has a major star attached to her Sony-based script. I could tell you a million more stories, just like this, but I won’t bore you. The bottom line and the point is:
They got there.
They got there on the power of sweat equity, catapulted by great writing, all of which, after many years and many scripts – at least in most cases – allowed all of their efforts to coalesce and create results. So yes. It takes craft. It takes community building. It takes focus and strategy and tenacity. But when willing to bring those to the table… Yes, great writers really do break in.