JUST DO IT: The Screenwriting Edition
Instructions to the reader: Before you dive in… allow me to ask you that if you read this, you read this the whole way through. You absolutely don’t have to read it. But if you only read the first few sentences… it will probably piss you off. And I don’t want to piss you off. In fact, I HATE pissing people off. That is not why I do what I do. But part of the reality of doing what I do is needing to address some things that I’m told in order to, hopefully, empower you, the reader, to aim for the best writerly version of you. So kindly keep that in mind as you read on…
One of my biggest pet peeves is when a writer, who has yet to complete their own industry-ready screenplay or pilot, tells me this, usually quite dismissively, about a screenplay or TV pilot that is gaining traction in the professional space:
“I can do so much better.”
Don’t get me wrong; I in no way think that all industry screenplays are beyond reproach. In fact, there are plenty of screenplays and pilots I’ve read over the years that I didn’t think much of; that made me wonder what someone was on when they purchased it, when they voted for it to get on The Black List, when they decided to choose it for development over other projects. I maintain that this is, largely, a business of opinions, and can vouch for the simple fact that every screenplay or pilot I’ve seen get picked up in the industry had someone pass on it for reasons as simple as not “seeing it,” “connecting with it,” or “responding to it.” Just this past week, one of my writers had her high-concept script to two studio heads; one dismissed it entirely because he “didn’t get it.” The other placed an aggressive offer to purchase it, in order to prevent the writers’ reps from taking the material elsewhere, he wanted it so badly.
But I digress. The point? Some of those passed-on screenplays have gone on to be very VERY successful.
So I don’t think that those industry screenplays and pilots that get picked up, that make it onto The Black List, or even those that win screenwriting contests are the end-all. Not everyone will agree on them. And not everyone is going to love them – that’s for sure.
So what I have a negative reaction to is not “I can do so much better” at face value. You should want and aim to do better. What I’m talking about is that sentiment being uttered by emerging feature and TV writers who, by their own admission, have yet to complete an industry-ready screenplay or pilot, the sort that they themselves feel good about and proud of, not to mention the kind that starts getting some traction, uniformly positive feedback, or industry interest, but regardless of this gaping absence in their writing portfolio blatantly proclaim: I can do so much better.
Don’t get me wrong: Putting butt-in-chair and fingers-to-keyboard day after day requires a leap of faith. It requires that the writer believe that they have a story that’s important to them to tell, that compels them to the page again and again, and the faith that they can finish that screenplay or pilot, that their story is important, that they can, indeed, make it great. That they can, in fact, do better. And I completely and utterly get it. In fact, I don’t only get it; I root those writers on.
It’s those writers who don’t do the work, who don’t develop the craft that ultimately produces that amazing TV pilot or screenplay, proclaiming they can but rarely do, who get me reacting that way.
When it comes to finding success in screenwriting, be it in features or for television, the proof is in the pudding or, rather, on the page. It’s not about what you CAN do. It’s about what you have done. What you are actually doing. What you are producing. You can do better? Great! I love better. I am rooting for better. But without actually doing it, delivering that cohesive, effective, emotionally resonant pilot or screenplay, saying that you can do it is meaningless.
I feel very much the same about writers who have yet to complete a TV pilot who tell me that they are ready to staff, and scoff at the need for a TV pilot (or three) in their arsenal because they don’t want to write for free; they want to get paid. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for getting paid. Writers should absolutely and without a doubt get paid for their services, be they in a writers’ room or on feature writing assignments. Work product, too, is absolutely worthy of compensation, whether it’s an episode of television, or an original pitch developed into a feature with a production company or studio. But the way you get that job is with that stellar TV pilot or screenplay. It’s your calling card. The thing that will get you noticed, considered, and, eventually, compensated.
Part of what I love about screenwriting is that writers have the ability to write themselves into their career break, into new opportunities, into that next career stage. Unlike directors who need a camera, and a script, and a crew and a cast (not to mention money and locations and… so much else) or actors who need a part to play, a director to direct them, an audience to watch them, writers need look only as far as the blank page for the next evolution in their professional journey. Want to staff, or break into TV by selling your very own project? Write that brilliant, loud, stand-out pilot. Want to get repped and start taking generals? Those lie just beyond your next great screenplay. The page allows the writer the opportunity to level up their career and their trajectory, and there’s a great freedom and power in that.
A few years ago, at a dinner with premiere TV writing consultant Jen Grisanti, my dear friend told me:
“The only thing between an emerging writer and success is the blank page and what they choose to put on it. “
I could not agree with that sentiment more.
The bottom line is that there just isn’t any breaking in without great writing on the page. That original pilot or spec screenplay shows the industry what you can do; opens doors to representation, to general meetings, and, in time, to staffing opportunities, writing assignments, and gets you consideration for a potential sale. It’s not about screenwriting or TV writing theory, it’s about what you are able to deliver on the page. Sure, in time it will become about the reputation you’ve built and the relationships that you have. But, in my experience, every career starts with the stories that the writer tells masterfully on the page. For good or bad, there is no getting around that. It’s not about conjecture; it’s about execution. It’s not about what you CAN do, it’s about DOING it. It’s about making a case for the career that you want and the promise that you bring in the pages of your TV pilot or screenplay.