Don’t Drop the Ball! Seize Your Screenwriting Opportunities

A few years ago, when one of my writers got into a big network writing program, she was introduced to a bunch of potential reps in the hopes of using the attention to start constructing a powerful team that would be responsible for advocating for her in the professional space. But when the time came to sign with a rep, she ultimately hesitated. So much so that one of the reps, who also happens to be an industry friend, reached out to me to find out what was happening. His concern? If the TV program wouldn’t be able to get her staffed, it would be very hard to get industry players excited about the writer once the program was done.

In other words? You have to make moves for your career when you are hot, when your screenplay is recognized as exceptional, when inroads are being paved on the merit of an outstanding TV pilot, when your writing is giving industry folks reason to pay attention.

I can’t tell you how many writers I talk to over the years, who share with me stories about opportunities they had, but did nothing with. Which is exactly why I wrote this.

While opportunities akin to acceptance into the TV Writing Programs, and specifically those of the broadcast networks (i.e. CBS, NBC, WB and Disney/ABC), are few and far between, this email from my manager friend was a huge reminder that it’s up to writers to make the most of every opportunity they’ve created for themselves, be it placement in a reputable screenwriting competition or acceptance into a program like the ones I just mentioned.

And make no mistake about it: Winning, or being named a finalist in a big, reputable screenwriting competition, receiving an 8 on The Black List website, getting accepted into an industry-recognized TV writing or feature writing lab, or even just making finalist in the renowned TV networks’ writing programs is a lot of things, but it’s also an opportunity you’ve created for yourself, which you absolutely should not waste.

Over the years, I’ve heard from so many writers who didn’t do much with an opportunity that came their way for any number of reasons: They didn’t understand what making semi-finalist in The Nicholl actually meant, or that it would have any sort of impact with literary managers. They weren’t sure who to reach out to when they placed in the top 25 for Tracking Board’s Launch Pad competition. They were hoping that once they made finalist at The Austin Film Festival the industry would be reaching out to them, and they wouldn’t have to do anything that would feel… quite so icky as asking for favors or sending out queries.

And listen, I get it. Everyone longs for that moment when the industry comes to them, when they don’t have to fight to finally get noticed and be taken seriously after all the years of hard work they put into their writing.. And just to be clear, those things – managers and agents seeking out the writer – do happen, just like they did for my client Kim Garland when it was announced in Deadline that she, along with 5 other worthy women, were named to The Black List/Women In Film’s Episodic Lab and she was promptly pursued and signed by a reputable manager, who very quickly started getting her out there for staffing.

But for every Kim Garland that I know out there, I also know and work with many other writers who created similar opportunities for themselves, and then refused to rest on their laurels when those opportunities (i.e. fellowship, lab or contest placements, high evaluation marks on The Black List) didn’t generate the desired industry interest. And in my experience, there is no shame in fighting to make the most of opportunities you’ve worked hard to create. At the end of day, it’s up to the writer to make the most of every opportunity she creates for herself because, bottom line, you just don’t know if or when these opportunities will come around again.

If you’ve read my blogpost SCREENWRITING COMPETITIONS: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE TRUTH, then you know that it’s important that you recognize those opportunities worth taking out for a spin and seeing what they can do for you industry-wise, versus the placements that are validating for you, but don’t really possess a ton of meaning for industry folks.

When those opportunities come around, you have to be bold, and remember that you are the champion of your own career. No one has more to gain than you do, so it’s in your best interest to make the most of every opportunity. Not sure what those actionable next steps would be? Here are but a few suggestions:

First, and most importantly, you should go after those low hanging fruit, i.e. anyone who’s read you before, who you communicated with directly, and who, in the very least, responded well to the writing, even if the screenplay or TV pilot you sent over wasn’t inherently for them. To those people, you want to write a Good News! type of email, letting them know about your lab placement or contest win, sharing the logline for the screenplay or pilot that placed, and offering to send it over should it be of interest.

You should also talk to industry friends, and see if you can stimulate some referrals. Referrals are the fastest and most effective way to get in front of literary managers, so if you have friends who are a few steps ahead of you in the screenwriting journey, you should absolutely reach out and share these developments, in case they are willing and able to provide those all-important referrals to friends in the industry, or potentially their own manager.

Of course, not everyone has industry relationships already built in, and, like it or not, you have to start somewhere. While query letters are the lowest on the totem-pole as far as stimulating industry interest, my approach is to use the means that you have available to you as best you can.

When I interviewed her for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, manager Jen Au advised:

“People forget when they write a query letter (or even when you’re writing a note to someone) that writing is a reflection of your writing, too. So if you’re a comedy writer, your query letter should be funny. Your query letter shouldn’t be filled with typos. That is a reflection of your work and your work ethic. Don’t send me a query letter addressed to someone else – that happens a lot. Take the time to put my name on it. It makes a difference. It’s more rare for someone to infuse a type of writing like that with their voice. It’s much harder. But it does stand out.”

Want to learn more about query letter best practices? Check out my previous blog post, Breaking In: Representation – TO QUERY OR NOT TO QUERY.

You can also investigate online pitch opportunities, like those offered by Stage 32 as well as Roadmap Writers. Both providers offer pay-to-pitch opportunities, connecting writers with managers, agents, execs and producers.

My friend, manager Jeff Portnoy, shared this with me when discussing online pitching opportunities (note that Jeff doesn’t mention Roadmap Writers as they did not exist yet at the time of our interview):

“If you don’t live in Los Angeles you’re limited to The Black List website, InkTip, Stage 32, these are websites and organizations that get writer’s material to people in the business, managers, agents, studio executives, producers. And also get the writer on the phone with the executive. And that’s something Stage 32 does more than anyone else. Stage 32’s specialty is the pitching. Stage 32 is ‘we’re going to put you on the phone or put you on Skype with a manager or an agent, producer, executive etc., and you can pitch to them’. I’ve listened to a lot of pitches on Skype or over the phone through Stage 32 and people are calling from Africa, Australia, China, Japan, and today, if you don’t know anybody, there’s no other way to get face-to-face, or phone-to-phone time with a manager or an agent other than through that.”

Remember: In many ways, once the industry is collectively paying attention to you, you won’t be in quite the same need of industry advocates to take a chance on you. So now, before you have executives and showrunners clamoring to read your work, is the time that you can use the help. If your writing is managing to rise to the top, to set itself apart from the pack, don’t wait! Use it as an opportunity to get going on some actionable marketing steps, to knock on doors, and try to create momentum. In many ways, screenwriting competitions, labs, fellowships and programs serve as a sort of culling mechanism: they are there to sort through the masses, and select those screenplays, pilots, and writers that they deem worthy. But don’t wait for others to do the hard work! Be sure to make the most of every opportunity in a timely fashion in order to push your screenwriting career to the next level.