Rejection is a Bitch: A Screenwriter’s Survival Guide

There’s no two ways about it: No one likes rejection. Rejection is tough. Painful. Disappointing. And, in the world of screenwriting, can also feel incredibly, irritatingly personal. All too often, writers pour their hearts and souls onto the page, crafting intricate stories about characters they see themselves in, experiencing life events drawn from their own. How could it not feel personal? But in an industry flooded with new content and emerging writers eager to make a name for themselves, rejection is just part of the business. And for anyone trying to break into screenwriting and build a screenwriting or TV writing career, rejection is going to be par for the course. 

We often talk about the importance of exposing the screenwriter’s spec screenplay or pilot. Exposure, after all, is what gets the writer further interest, be it in the project itself or in the writer and her craft. Earlier in the writer’s career, she will expose her work through screenwriting competitions, fellowships and labs, through query letters, through listing services like The Black List website. She may expose her work by doing pitches via Stage 32 or Roadmap Writers, or choose to get queries out there utilizing such services as Virtual Pitch Fest. Later in her career, she will expose incubated work to her reps, who will in turn send her screenplay or pilot out to producers and executives, or set up pitch meetings in which she will be able to present a pitch for the movie or TV show she’s envisioned. And the one thing that is guaranteed with all of these is that there will be plenty of rejections along the way in various forms. 

It’s important to remember that, for a manager, an agent, a development executive or a producer, it’s often much easier to say No than it is to say Yes. If a manager, for example, reads a screenplay and decides it’s a Pass (i.e. they will not be pursuing the screenplay or the writer any further) then… That’s that. Onto the next. But if the screenplay or pilot is worthy of a Yes or even a Maybe then it’s about taking meetings. Giving notes. Making calls. Convincing industry friends in production and development that the material is worthy of their time, worthy of a read. It’s getting a lot of No’s themselves. And the same can be said at higher levels: When an executive takes a pitch and decides to pass on it, they don’t have to do anything else as far as that one project is concerned. But if they like it enough, they then have to pitch it to their bosses. Get their bosses excited about it. Get an offer in for the pitch. Compete with other offers. Then shepherd the project, and potentially advocate for it again and again on the studio and/or network level with nothing less than their job and livelihood at stake. So saying yes can be… complicated. 

(All that said, let me make it clear that Yes is said in Hollywood all. the. time. Every day. It does absolutely happen. Hollywood wouldn’t survive without it, and executives, producers, managers and agents would not be able to continue doing their job without saying Yes. But this blogpost is not about that all-important sought-after Yes. It’s about deciphering the rejection. So onwards with that!). 

In the industry, NO is said in many different ways. For emerging writers who don’t yet have industry advocates, that No can often come in the form of silence over time. A screenplay or a pilot is requested, the writer sends it in, only to never hear back from the potential rep, producer or development exec. Thoughtful, gentle follow up is important and does help, but even then, there’s no guarantee that the writer will hear back. 

And then there are the various answers that the writer may be given as responses, a version of No left for them to decipher and understand: 

“I didn’t connect with the material”

“It’s not what we’re looking to make right now”

“I’ve taken out something like this before.”

“The project is outside of our wheelhouse”

“We have a similar project already in development”

“I have a too-similar writer on my client list already”

But what do those all mean? Let’s break it down: 

I didn’t connect with the material is all about emotional resonance. The script may be executed perfectly fine for all intents and purposes, but it didn’t ultimately move the reader emotionally, therefore failing to provide the inspiration needed to deliver that all important Yes. Industry folks, be they managers, agents, executives and producers read so much that often the barometer for a screenplay’s or TV pilot’s success, beyond the mechanics, is its emotional impact. The screenplay’s or TV pilot’s ability to move the reader in a meaningful, emotional fashion is what will make the difference between a manager wanting to take a meeting and outright passing on the writer and the material. If you’re looking for more insight on emotional resonace, CLICK HERE

It’s not what we’re looking to develop right now. Even though the screenplay or pilot is in line with what the producer or production company does in a broad sense, it doesn’t meet current company mandates, in all likelihood for reasons the writer has no way of knowing. The production company could have a particular aversion to an element in the screenplay, or is steering clear of its themes, characters, time period or story elements and therefore choosing to pass. 

I’ve taken out something like this before. Both reps and executives are gun-shy when it comes to taking out or taking on material that is in a similar vein or world as something they’ve taken out or developed unsuccessfully before. A few years ago, a talented emerging writer I worked with who was yet unrepped was able to get his French Revolution original pilot that was, by all accounts, very well written, out there. Having previously built relationships with a number of lit managers, the writer was able to get a few read-requests. But two of the reps (who do not work together) got back to him with something to the tune of: “I took out a French Revolution period pilot last year and couldn’t get it going.” If a literary rep or development executive took out or developed something so specific that didn’t ultimately prove successful for them, they are likely to cite that as the reason for passing on projects in the same space. 

The project is outside of our wheelhouse.  This speaks to the fact that while the company, an executive or a producer may have responded to the writing, the screenplay or pilot is just not in the company’s lane. Much as writers are often encouraged to have a particular brand or write within a defined lane, producers and production companies, too, have the area in which they have a proven track record. While they may expand and diversify their slate in time, as many production companies do expanding their industry footprint, they usually make a particular type of TV show or movie, and look to find those projects that would meet their mandates and amplify their pre-existing brand. In other words: A24 makes a specific type of movie, as does Blumhouse, as does Hello Sunshine. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to do the research on what type of project a production company, producer or executive has worked on in the past, in order to identify whether they would be a good fit for your project. 

We have a similar project already in development. This is another response that is completely outside of the writer’s control. What it speaks to is this: While the executive or producer responded to the logline, now that they’ve read the screenplay or pilot they realize that the screenplay or pilot submitted has too much overlap with another project that they are already developing, i.e. a project into which they’ve poured time, money and resources. Therefore, they are unlikely to take on a project that would effectively compete with one they are already developing or potentially present a conflict, and are passing on your screenplay or pilot because of it. 

I have a too-similar writer on my client roster already is a response that a writer is likely to hear from an agent or manager who considered representing them. While every manager or agent is likely to have a number of writers who write in the same general genre space on their list, they don’t want to bring on writers whose voices are too similar, as they seek to populate their client lists with writers who are, in their own individual way, entirely unique. 

No matter how the response is phrased, it’s never easy to get your screenplay or pilot rejected by a production company or a potential rep that you were hoping to work with. However, it’s important to remember that you have to amass a certain number of No’s in order to get to that all-important Yes. Therefore, as long as the material is properly vetted, don’t let those rejections deter you. Stay the course. Write your next screenplay or pilot. Get it out there. In time, you will see the career progress you are seeking to make.