Screenwriting Career Roadmap: Writing Assignments!

Every once in a while, I will sit down with a writer new to the industry, unrepresented but with a couple of screenplays or TV pilots to his name, who tells me: “I know I’m ready for writing assignments. How do I get one of those?” The answer, and the process, are much more complicated and trying than many think when they come into the space.

For the record: This blog post is about industry writing assignments. Writing assignments done (usually) for pay, for bona fide industry players, where contracts and deal memos change hands. This is not about the sort of writing assignments that writers may have found on outlets like CraigsList, or on message boards or screenwriter job boards. There is nothing wrong with those, and they can certainly provide a lot of very important experience learning to work collaboratively with producers, to apply notes, to synthesize many opinions into coherent script and story changes… but those are not what this blog post is about.

Within the industry today, writing assignments, or OWA’s (Open Writing Assignments) represent the brass ring for many a screenwriter. Sure, every feature writer would love to sell spec after spec, but in a shrinking spec market that is not always a highly accessible or widely achievable reality. Similarly, in television, where getting staffed or selling an original pilot both seem like tall mountains to climb, writing assignments can be an entirely attractive proposition. Many TV writers partake in feature writing assignments in their off seasons. Television writing assignments are becoming more prevalent as well, specifically when a production entity seeks to develop new material based on a concept generated from within. Writers just emerging into the space may find that they are considering assignment work that comes without up-front pay in order to get in with a prominent production company, studio or mini-major. After all, if the material is well executed, the writer stands to end up with a powerful ally championing his work in the space.

But how do you get those assignments? The formula can seem deceptively simple: Your agent or manager gets your new writing sample into the marketplace, be it to introduce you to the industry for the first time, or to get your fanbase excited about you again. From there, general meetings are set with those who responded to the craft and/or the content. The general goes well? The executive or producer will likely keep you in mind for future opportunities to work together (want to learn more about how to kill your general market? CLICK HERE).

The opportunity itself may show up in a number of ways: It may be in the general itself, when the executive shares with you a short story or book that her company’s been looking to adapt, and invites you to come back with a take, or offers a particular ripped-from-the-headlines topic she and her superiors want to develop something around. It can come after the meeting, on a follow up call with your rep when the exec suddenly mentions that there’s a book they’ve been looking to adapt and would love to get your take on, or else months down the line when the company reaches out to a few different writers appropriate for a project that they are developing, and once again, invite you to pitch a take.

Perhaps the most important component of the chain of events described above is the personal connections, or, put in layman’s terms, hitting it off with the exec at the general in order to later be in contention for a writing assignment.

When I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, Gersh’s Sean Barclay explained:
“For 18 years I’ve only been hired by people I know, so the idea that there’s a job out here and we’re going to send this new person, new idea, new sample, you’ve never heard of them, let’s send them in for this job… They’re not getting that job. The fan base is built, the decision makers have lists of people that they’ve been tracking, writers they really love, with tons of notes on Excel spreadsheets about what these technicians did well.”

Bellevue Productions’ manager Jeff Portnoy added his insights about how the assignment world works.
“The realistic road to getting a writing assignment is getting your manager and/or agent to send your best writing sample to producers, to studios, to companies that have writing assignments. So usually it starts with a manager and/or agent sending a sample to a producer or studio executive. And the producer or studio executive then meets the writer for a general meeting. Then after the general, the producer following up would say, hey I think your writer would be great for this book that we have – I’ll send you the book. The manager/agent sends the book to the writer. Writer reads it, and if it’s something that they would like to do as an assignment, the writer then develops a pitch or “take,” goes back into the studio or producer’s office, gives the pitch to them and if they like the pitch then they take the next steps towards getting paid to write the assignment. It’s very competitive and for any given writing assignment usually there’s multiple writers or writing teams going up for it. So it’s just a matter of doing your best pitch and having a great sample. But it’s hard. It’s not necessarily hard to get invited to pitch on something, but getting the assignment is hard. You’re always up against other people and you’ve just gotta do your best and hopefully if you’re up for enough of them you’ll eventually get one inevitably, and then off to the races.”

Paradigm feature agent Ryan Saul provided his two cents:
“If the writer has a great spec that either sold or didn’t, they’re getting those meetings, and those assignments will come to them. My job is to find the assignments that aren’t cattle calls. Where there isn’t like “hey we’re bringing in 20 writers for this.” Now if you’re a new writer, you’re gonna do the work because you wanna get in the room. You wanna show that you’re easy and great to work with. And being a screenwriter or television writer is unique in the writing world because it’s also a social game that you’re playing. If you deliver on an assignment, that writing work will keep coming.”

Initially, OWA’s were made available on the studio level. A studio would invite a slew of approved writers, as well as the occasional hot new writer in the space, to come pitch their take. But studios are not the only microcosm in which Open Writing Assignments are available. In today’s market, and in lieu of waiting and hoping for a script that’s a perfect fit for their company’s unique brand and vision, many production companies have taken to developing their own unique materials from within.

Remember: open writing assignment opportunities are not exclusive to new material developed from inception. These prospects may also include rewrites, polishes, punch-ups, as well as the adaptation of books, newspaper articles, magazine articles, short stories or documentary material for the big or small screen. Without a doubt, the most popular of these opportunities is book adaptations, scenarios in which production companies, mini-majors or studios bring in a writer to adapt a book for screen, provide narrative focus and cinematize its vision. Such opportunities, which capitalize on that all-important pre-existing IP, usually come about when the producing entity approaches a rep in search of a writer suitable for the material, or else when a producer or executive makes the opportunity available to a scribe who has come in for a general and positioned himself as a good fit.

I asked Circle of Confusion’s Josh Adler what writers can expect when going up for OWA’s. He told me:
“They can expect to do a lot of work for free. It takes everybody going above and beyond to move a project forward, and that includes the writer. And especially if you’re a young writer trying to get noticed, to break through the ten other writers that they’re out to on a project, go above and beyond.” 

If it’s a brand new idea you’re pitching on, you will be asked to develop your cinematic take on the material. If this is for a feature, the executives will expect to hear your 3-act vision for the material, complete with twists and turns, characters and world descriptions. While you are not expected to develop a full outline, you should be able to speak competently about each and every significant story beat and general plot progression. If it’s a television show that you are being considered for, your take will be needed not only for the pilot episode, but also for the show’s overall long-term, multi-season vision. Additionally, you will be tasked with laying down the groundwork for characters and world building.

If you are developing a pitch from a short story, news article or blog post, you will likely be asked to produce a treatment that will outline how to develop the material from a straight-forward, contained piece of limited material into a complete cinematic or television-oriented dramatic narrative. You will have to figure out how to take the core elements of the material that attracted the executive’s attention, and transition them into a multi-dimensional feature script or television pilot that honors and highlights the core concept while supplementing it with enough story meat to make the story rich and viable.

When book adaptations are on the table, the writer’s very first task is to read the book at hand. All 400 or 500 or 600 pages. Next, you will have to identify which elements of the book are important to incorporate in the pilot or television show, and which threads can be left off. This stage is all about focusing your vision: You can’t convert a 400-page book into a 120-page screenplay without making some tough but important choices. Additionally, most books are not positioned to seamlessly transition from book to screen. What may be viable story in a book complete with character insights, internal monologues and author commentary is not likely to easily transition to feature script or pilot form as is. Not only will you then have to figure out which threads or secondary storylines to keep, which to discard and how to contain your A-story for the screen; you will also have to offer up fixes for elements that may have worked in the book, but don’t transition well – if at all – to a script.

When it’s a rewrite that you’re pitching your take on, the task at hand is all about offering up solutions. Your job is to take the elements that the executives love about the work, fix characters, story points and escalations that got in the project’s way, and make all of it sing in harmony. Vying for the assignment, you will have to speak to the elements in the material that you connected to (i.e. why you’re the perfect writer for this job) as well as the elements that require fixes and improvements, with real, thought-out suggestions for how to address those. While inspiration is important, this will be a practical exploration: You will be required to come up with fixes that not only dazzle in conversation, but can also be executed seamlessly on the page, preserving the material’s original strengths and bolstering the project’s overall cohesion. 

Circle of Confusion’s Josh Adler had this advice:
“Wow people. People want to be excited about what they’re doing, and they want to be excited about who they’re working with, and they want to be working with people who are excited as well. So if you’re going in to pitch on a project and you go in and you sit down and you’re like, “Yeah, these are my three ideas, and we could do this, or we could do this, or we could do that, what do you think?” It’s not really all that exciting. Another guy who comes in and says, “Listen, I know you guys are thinking about this over here, but I had this crazy idea—let me tell you about it,” and you spend 20 minutes talking through with examples and things really fleshed out, and there’s passion behind it—and by the way, maybe that’s not the direction they want to go— you’ll get noticed, and you will separate yourself from the pack.”

Going up for and getting these jobs rarely – if ever – happens in a single shot. Multiple writers – from three or four all the way up to a dozen or more – are brought in to pitch their take, each one competing for the job just like you. Writers who successfully completed writing assignments before have an immediate advantage walking through the door. They are proven quantities, bringing with them a track record that includes successfully working with executives to deliver on such jobs. During or following your initial pitch, you are likely to be given executive notes, which you are then expected to incorporate into your materials. If you make it through the initial round – which means that the executives in the room responded to your take – you will likely be invited to come back and pitch again, potentially to the upper brass. There is no limit to how many times you may be called back in to pitch your take, tweak, and pitch again. On some occasions, the writer may be asked to elaborate further on the work – provide more detail or expand on certain areas of story, before a final decision can be made.

The downside? All of this work is expected without pay. You may be engaged in reading books and developing your take for weeks and even months without any guarantee of payment in the end. And if the producers decide to go in a different direction? You have no right to the material at hand. So not only did you not get paid for all this time, effort and work, you also lost time that you could have used to work on your own original work, which is instrumental to staying relevant in a crowded marketplace.

Nevertheless, once attained, writing assignments represent a path to a sustainable, long lasting screenwriting career. In addition to getting you paid, they also provide a fantastic opportunity to build and reinforce meaningful relationships with executives as well as the possibility for adapting IP that you love, while simultaneously bolstering your reputation and honing your skills.