The Screenwriters’ Make-or-Break: Body of Work

If there is one thing I’ve learned over my many years working with screenwriters, it is this: When it comes to making or breaking your screenwriting career, your body of work can make all the difference.

Before we go into the “why,” let’s address the “what”: What should a screenwriter’s body of work look like at the outset?

In my experience, a solid body of work should include 2-3 completed, vetted, expertly executed scripts, be they original television pilots or feature specs, in the same or similar space. That means 2-3 pieces that are all in the same or similar genre (i.e. light space vs. dark space), as well as a same or similar format (i.e. 1/2 hour vs. 1 hour, TV vs. features). In today’s industry where film and television are no longer quite so separated, a TV writer can indeed have a feature, and a feature writer can have a pilot in his body of work, but overall, your body of work should make the case for the type of material you write best, and speak to a strong brand.

Often, writers are advised to “pick a lane.” I can only second that. The industry seeks to understand where the writer is at his best, where he excels. With that in mind, and especially at the outset of one’s career, it is beneficial to define a brand. Think of it this way: No one calls an agent and says “Send me your best writer!” Instead, an agent will pick up the phone and hear “Send me your writer who’s great with psychological thrillers (or comedies with a heart, or dramas based on real life).” The agent will then sift through his pile, and identify the writers that fit within that brand, and who have the work to back it up. At the end of the day, no one is going to put out there anything that’s not defined enough to be able to sell.

But I digress.

Now, a body of work rarely consists of fifteen, or twenty, or thirty completed scripts. It is made of those scripts that have been vetted, rewritten, and developed enough to push them to the highest level. It’s not about the fifteen scripts a writer might have tried her hand at over the years; it’s about her three or four very best ones, as well as the one that she is developing currently.
(Developing currently is key: any writer should always be able to speak to the project she is currently working on, showing that she is always productive, always working towards her best success).

Back in the heyday of the spec market boom of the 90’s, a body of work wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite for screenwriting success. But then, those were the days of the one-and-done model, in which a writer was more likely to make a single sale than to have a long-standing career. Today, any agent or manager taking on a new client wants to know that the writer will be at it for the long haul, and that writing and producing new quality content again and again is something to which the writer has committed himself.

A strong, compelling body of work does three things for the writer:

First, it establishes the writer as someone who didn’t just get lucky with the one script, but rather is someone who is capable of developing a number of intriguing properties.

Even with slight variations in quality, a strong body of work tells anyone working with the writer that the scribe can not only write one successful script, but rather that it’s an effort that can be repeated again and again. Having proof that the writer is able to generate compelling, well-executed, interesting content again and again within the same brand assures whoever chooses to represent or work with him that the one script they read and liked was no fluke, but rather one of the many building blocks upon which he will be able to construct a career.

Second, it shows that the writer is passionate about storytelling, rather than eager to tell a single story.
At the core of the one-and-done model was a writer who may not have had more than one winning script in him, or one story to tell. While it may have worked in the days when material moved fast and new writers were everywhere, in today’s environment where, by all accounts, it’s tougher to break in new writers, agents and managers want to know that they are fighting the good fight for someone who will never wait to embark on writing their next great script, and who will always be prolific. New content is every writer’s life-blood. While an initial script may get the writer repped or even out for meetings, it’s the follow-up work, the new original features and television pilots that will stand to strengthen existing relationships, to shore up the fan base, and even to reinvigorate a stalled career.

Third, it allows the writer to always have something more to offer.

When I interviewed him for my new book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, Madhouse manager Ryan Cunningham told me: “You never want to go into a meeting holding your hand out. You want to go in there showing all this great stuff you’re doing.”

In most scenarios, it’s a script already read that got the writer into the room. Executives will seek to meet the writer behind it not only to identify whether the script is viable, but, more importantly, whether the writer himself is one that they want to be in business with. If the writer only has that one script, that one piece of business, to offer, that is all the viable business that will be discussed in the meeting that day, unless the writer is fortunate enough to have the executive he is meeting bring a potential project to him. But if the writer is prolific and has a body of work to lean on, he will be able to go in there showing all this great stuff he’s doing just as manager Ryan Cunningham suggested, offering up a number of different opportunities for business that the executive may find interesting.

Recently, a long-term client of mine shared with me that after all of his years going out on general meetings, he finally is able to make the most of them, to parlay them into additional opportunities. How is he now able to do so, you might ask? After years of writing, of generating new content, of perfecting his craft, he now has a number of exciting feature and television scripts under his belt. So even if an executive doesn’t respond to one script, he has two or three others ready to pitch that can stimulate interest and deepen the relationships.

At the start of his career, the writer will point to his body of work as proof of his craft and commitment to brand. But as the writer’s career develops, it’s that same body of work that will come to not only get his foot in the door, but also create new and sometimes unexpected opportunities. Because of this, careers stand to only benefit from the ongoing development of the screenwriter’s body of work. It’s that body of work that will become a conversation starter, provide an opportunity for the writer to reinvent himself, and set the stage for a meaningful business exchange.