Pick Your Lane: Lit Reps Weigh in on Screenwriting Brand
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All too often, when I talk to my friends in representation, I hear some version of: “Writers who are looking to break in HAVE TO pick their lane.”
Picking your lane is not, of course, literal. What my friends in representation are saying is: know what you write best, and focus there. Pick your general writing space, be it light (comedies, action comedies, dramedies or RomComs) or dark (thrillers, horror, suspense, sci-fi, dark drama, etc). Identify the area in which you want to build your body of work, and lean into what will become, at least for the outset of your career, your screenwriting or television writing brand.
But what is your screenwriting brand? Your brand, in the simplest terms, comes to identify the general genre space, and potentially. format, that your work falls within. Are you a dark feature writer? Do you specialize in comedies with a heart? While in recent years writers have been able to vacillate more freely between formats (i.e. features, television and new media) than they have in the past, your brand helps others identify not only what you do best, but also what you can be marketed as.
Not only will your brand speak to what you write, it will inform what you are (or should be) knowledgeable about. Thriller writers are expected to know other thrillers in their space. Comedies writers are supposed to be well versed in anything and everything scripted that will generate laughs. This knowledge base will not only come in useful when gaining inspiration and identifying comparable projects for your own work, it will be instrumental in the construction of your fan base. More on your fan base just a little bit later.
A writer I once worked with lamented, “Why do I have to pick a lane? Why can’t I just be a writer????”
While I understand the instinct and the desire to not singularly define himself as one thing or another, I also know that in order for a writer to be effectively promoted in the industry, there has to be clarity about his brand. In every walk of life, we seek to work with people who are experienced and successful in a particular area. If you are building a Spanish Hacienda, you will seek out architects who have Hacienda-type homes in their portfolio. If you are planning an Italian wedding, you will try to get the best Italian chef you can afford. And if you’re a producer looking to make a Romantic Comedy, you will likely seek out writers who have successfully written in that space.
When a manager or an agent gets a call from a producer looking for a type of writer for an open writing assignment, they are rarely asked for the rep’s best writer. Instead, they are going to want to know: Who do you have that is great with horror? Who do you have that is really strong with character dramas?
Similarly, when there’s a seat open in a writer’s room, the showrunner usually knows what type of writer he is looking to fill that spot with, be it to build on what is already being done successfully in the room, or to add an element that the room is currently lacking. He or his staff will not be reading just any old writer; instead, they will be reading the type of writers who meet the needs of whatever they are currently looking for.
Super agent David Boxerbaum, who recently was named a partner at Verve, shared this with me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:
“If you’re known to be someone that’s great with comedy, great with character, great with dialogue, that’s a real benefit to the marketplace these days. Having your brand—having a built-in area that your expertise is in is really important when studios are trying to nail down what they’re looking for. When someone calls and is like, I just need a great family voice, someone who can take like two, three weeks to work on this script. Who’s great with family and heart? Okay, well, you know the brand of writers you represent and your client stable, so who has that brand behind them? Who’s done that and has a track record with that kind of success?”
For screenwriters looking to break in, providing a strong and well-defined brand delivers a sense of clarity about what the writer does best, and is able to execute on again and again. On the flip side, failing to brand yourself effectively, writing across multiple genre rather than picking your lane, implies that you yourself lack clarity about what it is that you do best. If you are unable to identify where you truly shine, how can you expect the industry to know when and where to best put you up at bat?
The industry wants to understand what sort of writer you are, in the most specific (though not myopic) ways. Agents and managers want to strategize how to best sell you to the industry, whether it’s shopping your products (screenplays) or your services (writing services, which come into play with Open Writing Assignments or get you into a particular room) to a potential fan base. That potential fan base will be constructed of producers, executives, production companies, studios and networks that work in the same or a similar space. Consequently, when those same producers seek to do rewrites on, for example, a thriller, they will put together a list of thriller writers whose work they responded to in the past. Every time, those will be writers well vested in that particular brand of storytelling, which then makes them viable for collaborative work in the space.
Madhouse Entertainment’s Ryan Cunningham further elaborated:
“I might sign somebody off of a really great horror script they wrote. And if I talk to them, and they’re like, I wrote this one-off horror, but I really don’t like horror, I don’t want to write it anymore—well, then that’s very different. Because what you don’t want to do is send out a piece of material in a particular space, get every producer and development exec excited to meet this person, and then all of a sudden, that’s what you’re being expected to generate in this bubble at least at the beginning, and if you don’t want to be in it, that’s going to create more issues in the long run than anything else.”
Though genre selection may be the most obvious path through which to brand oneself, other thematic and message-driven choices made by the writer may also come into play when constructing the brand. In television, the sort of world, characters and themes explored with any consistency may help define and enforce the writer’s brand, while in features, writing screenplays with a faith-based or social-justice bent can become a brand unto itself.
Lit manager Zadoc Angell of Echo Lake Entertainment detailed further:
“One of the frustrations I have about new writers is that they’re often writing all different kinds of genres—features, TV, comedy, sci-fi, horror, they’re all over the place. And as a representative, it’s very hard to represent someone who’s not established who does everything. I don’t care how good you are, no actor can play all parts well. And writers need to write enough to start to figure out where your writing is best, right? So maybe you write a bunch of scripts in different kinds of genres, and then you realize, okay, I’m really, really good at writing high-concept genre or science fiction. So then write several great scripts in that wheelhouse. They don’t need to be identical to each other, they should be cousins to each other. There are so many different kinds of TV shows and movies, so especially in the beginning you have to pick the lane you want to be in. You can always reinvent yourself later through writing. But you’ve gotta be great at something at the beginning so that you can brand yourself to the community and then get advocates in the community—friends, fellow writers, agents, managers, lawyers, people to advocate on your behalf, because they know what they’re advocating. We know we’re advocating for X writer who’s really great at doing Y and Z. Go. If I can’t kind of categorize a young writer, then I don’t even know where to begin.”
I wholly agree with Zadoc: You can’t know your brand before you start putting some stories on the page. For a new writer just starting out, there should be a period of discovery, where they try on different genres for size, and explore which stories come to them more innately, which genre or genre space has them at their best. So don’t start out your career, before you even started writing, committing to write in one genre or another. Instead, start exploring what excites you conceptually. In what area of storytelling are your ideas the strongest? You might want to be a sci-fi writer, but discover that you are, in fact, a psychological thriller writer. It’s not about the writer that you aspire to be; it’s about discovering what sort of writer you are on the page.
As your career progresses, you will find more out-of-brand opportunities for your craft. You are, after all, a storyteller, and the stronger you get in one area of the craft, the more occasions you will find to stretch your screenwriting legs. Flexibility is one of the many perks that come with success. However, at the outset of your career, it is important that you identify where you are at your screenwriting best. Not only will it help you define and develop your voice and your screenwriting brand, it will provide a clear understanding of your value proposition for agents and managers considering you for representation, and instill confidence in those considering you for collaboration, staffing and assignment work.
Want more manager insights? Check out the BREAKING IN – ADVICE video on Branding with insights from Jeff Portnoy, Allard Cantor, Kailey Marsh and Chris Cook!