The Bad (Screenwriting) News That Nobody Wants to Share but Somebody Has to…
Let me start this blog post with a confession: This blog post is entirely self-serving. Over the years, many writers have signed up to work with me believing that a particular accomplishment for their writing career was going to translate into broad and high-level industry success. They came to me with big hopes for those significant career leaps…. only to have me then rain on their parade. While I love my job, I absolutely hate being the messenger delivering a sober and often times frustrating (if not somewhat deflating) reality check. And it feels even worse when someone has spent their hard-earned dollars to have that conversation. So even though I know this blog post is going to piss some people off and cause some frustrations, I wanted to lay it all out here in order to hopefully spare some writers from coming to me with unrealistic expectations. I imagine it has to feel better to get frustrated and disappointed from a 5-minute read, than it would be from a tough conversation that takes place in a career coaching intake session.
And, for the record, I really REALLY don’t like to dwell on the negative. Because I see new writers break in and go from emerging to professional on a very regular basis, I don’t want to peddle bad news that can make the journey to a professional screenwriting career seem even more challenging. However, all my years working with writers have also taught me that, at the end of the day, writers who are suitable for becoming working writers in the industry can handle all the realities of breaking in, good, bad, or indifferent.
So with that in mind, here it is:
BAD NEWS: Being named quarter finalist or 2nd rounder in a big screenwriting contest will not likely get you much attention.
While 2nd round and quarterfinalist placement in your early contest submission days should absolutely be validating to you, no amount of 2nd round or quarterfinalist placements is going to have a great deal of impact on literary representatives.
As super-manager Jewerl Ross, who reps Barry Jenkins and Matt Aldrich told me when I interviewed him for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:
“You need something to prove to me that you are worthy. You win a contest, maybe you’re worthy. You win five contests, maybe you’re worthy. You need something to talk about that’s more than just your opinion or your idea. The better the contest, the better, the sexier it looks. I’m a snob. I didn’t go to Yale because it was Connecticut. I went because it was the best school I got into. I’m going to pay attention to the person who wins the Nicholl.”
Don’t get me wrong: Making quarter-finals or 2nd round in the larger screenwriting competitions is certainly a sign that your writing is going in the right direction. Now it’s about continuing to work on the craft in order to push it to the next level, so that the next time you have a new piece to submit, you will see if go further. Placing as a finalist or winner in a large industry competition is a qualifier that can lead to some meaningful manager interest.
BAD NEWS: Being named a top 10% finalist in The Nicholl isn’t quite the threshold we’re looking to meet for breaking in.
Jewerl Ross himself mentioned the Nicholl Fellowship as the one to win. Don’t worry! There are others that the industry pays attention to as well, so it’s not Nicholl or bust by any means! (Want to learn what those are? Check out my blog post about screenwriting competitions).
Because The Nicholl Fellowship is so highly regarded, every once in a while a writer will reach out to me saying something to the tune of: “I just made the top 10% in The Nicholl Fellowship! Should I start reaching out to managers?”
Unfortunately, because the Nicholl gets upwards of 8,000 submissions a year, the top 10% would translate to the top 800 scripts submitted to the fellowship. Don’t get me wrong: any writer submitting should hope to be in the top 800, vs. the lower 7,000, so it’s definitely something that should be meaningful to you. But since screenwriting competitions provide a culling mechanism to the industry, narrowing it down to the top 800 scripts doesn’t really do it. Instead, when seeking to identify those competition scripts that they should read, reps prefer to look at finalists, semi-finalists in The Nicholl (usually top 150 scripts) or Top 50 in other competitions.
In recent years, with screenplays being widely available to download, read and dissect, online screenwriting classes, screenwriting lectures and random instructional screenwriting videos on YouTube, the information gap has grown lesser. As a result, we are finding that there are just as many bad scripts as there were before, but less mediocre scripts. The good news? There are more and more good scripts out there, which signify that top 10%. The bad news? The industry is not looking for good; it’s looking for GREAT. The sort of script that can become finalist, or win a screenwriting competition.
BAD NEWS: Winning a small competition can be incredibly validating for you, but will not mean much to the industry
Over the years, I’ve spoken to so many writers who’ve won smaller screenwriting competitions, as well as screenwriting awards in film festivals both domestic and international. You should absolutely celebrate each one of those wins, because they mean that your screenplay rose to the top from all of the submission that year!
However, if the competition or festival has not made a name for itself in the screenwriting space by discovering those writers who went on to forge big Hollywood careers, or by having Hollywood luminaries as part of the judging panel, then that particular win, while meaningful to you, is likely not going to generate much traction in the industry.
BAD NEWS: That Hallmark/Lifetime movie is not going to guarantee that you get repped, let alone writing for a big studio
There is a great deal to be said for getting a movie made, no matter where it ends up. Going through the entire production process, watching your words performed, your vision come to life, then seeing it all come together on the screen can be absolute magic.
But not all magic is created equal. In many ways, Hallmark and Lifetime, in addition to other similar conglomerates, are a microcosm onto themselves, and success in one such microcosm does not immediately crossover to other, larger, film-making universes. Because of the large amount of movies that the Hallmark universe produces in a single year, it is usually hard to stand out to potential reps or buyers with such a credit; there are simply many other writers getting those Hallmark credits. Don’t get me wrong: You can have a great career writing small Hallmark movies and seeing them produced year after year. I’ve worked with a number of writers who write 2-3 Hallmark movies a year and love it. But if you’re aiming to gain traction in the broader industry, those Hallmark credits aren’t likely to gain you a lot of steam, as they have become a bit too common, and those movies – for good or bad – a bit stigmatized, to impress a representative on their own merit.
BAD NEWS: Writing Children’s TV content, daytime soaps, or working in the reality space doesn’t easily translate to opportunities writing in the primetime TV space
Much as Hallmark and the mainstream industry are their own unique microcosms, so are children’s content, daytime soaps, and reality TV programming. While there is no doubt that there is meaningful experience and knowledge to be gained working in any one of those sectors, not to mention a decent living, it’s important to know that those, too, operate separately from those entities who make prime-time programming for networks, cable and digital streamers. Therefore, while there is a lot to celebrate about getting such jobs, seamlessly transitioning from those areas of entertainment and into prime time scripted content will not be one of them, unless, of course, you find yourself working on a celebrated runaway hit.
BAD NEWS: Shorts are just not going to do it.
Every once in a while, I will encounter a writer eager to break in, but who doesn’t have any long form scripted content, i.e. completed feature scripts or TV pilots. Not too long ago, I spoke with a writer whose body of work was made entirely of not-yet-filmed 10-minute shorts.
Shorts, to begin with, are considered to be more of a directors’ medium. However, even if you don’t want to direct, there is much to be gained from the writing and making of them that can be useful for your journey moving forward. And for writers who are already working, an exciting short script can become meaningful supplemental material, with incredibly additive value to your already impressive body of work. But for writers just starting out, it’s really about displaying your craft, plotting, understanding of world and carefully crafted characters in long-form content, and having those pilots and screenplays vetted and ready to share as industry-ready samples.
BAD NEWS: Getting repped doesn’t mean you’re getting staffed.
Let’s be very clear: Getting repped is an exciting step towards the screenwriting or TV writing career you’ve been putting so much effort into. However, it’s usually still a long way to go from initially getting signed to getting your first staffing gig in a writers’ room. Staffing, in most scenarios, usually takes years; rarely does it take only months. And when we’re talking about entry level writing positions, those do tend to favor more diverse writers at this time. In other words, the less diversity you have, and unless you write in a very specific genre, the longer you can expect it to take to land your first position in a room as a staff writer.
That doesn’t mean that you should plan to sit on your hands during this time; you will be expected to continue to develop new content with your rep, in order to up your chances in the professional space during this time, be it for staffing or professional development with an entertainment industry partner. The good news? No one is going to expect you to quit your job and write full time before the writing can get you paid. The need to make a living is something that industry reps certainly understand. Therefore, they will not expect you to develop new content at the same velocity as a full time writer. They will, however, seek to see that you are able to make ongoing efforts on behalf of your writing career if you really do want to see it move ahead.
Alright, now that I’ve gotten some bad news out of the way… Here’s some GOOD NEWS to end this blog post on: In this industry, nothing is impossible. Work hard. Work smart. Learn the industry. Understand how it works. No one wants to work with a novice. Continue to build your body of work and develop your craft. Get out there. Build relationships. Network. Challenge yourself to grow, to get better. To become your best. Do all of that, and nothing will stop you from pushing your screenwriting career forward.
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Thank you for the encouragement! I am always sooooo nervous putting out blog posts like this!
Thanks for this. I recently had to be a wet blanket to a writer who was thrilled to reach the quarterfinals of a second-tier contest.
It’s never fun being a wet blanket, but there is a purpose to it! Appreciate you being the voice of reason for other writers 😉
Great reality check, Lee. Well written and so very true. I’d add one more… if you really want to get noticed, produce your best script yourself. That’s right. Write it, cast it and produce it. Take the Coen brothers’ road.
I am all for it!!!! Not all writers are makers, but those that have the capacity to make their own projects should absolutely explore it!
This is one of the best articles I’ve read in years. The odds against a new screenwriter making it onto a TV writers team are almost as high as getting on the roster of an NFL team. No wonder we need good coaches. And as for all the writers getting signed by reps, that’s like finally being noticed by a scout. A step in the right direction. Certainly. But, you aren’t even on the playing field, let alone playing in the super bowl. So, what’s the moral. Write because you love the game, not because you love winning!
Thank you so much Leslie! Your support means the world. I am always a little nervous putting such direct, no-nonsense content out there, and can’t tell you how much it means to me that writers like are responding as you did!
Dear Lee: You are one of the few people who are honest on how high the bar is set.
Thank you so much! That means the world.
Thanks so much! Putting a blog post like this out there is not easy, so I really appreciate how well it’s been received!
As a writer, I often feel like people are telling me what I want to hear rather than brutal truth. There’s not much I can do with the former, but the later helps me become a better writer. Thanks for this post Lee!
Prime time isn’t what it used to be. As I understand it, the subscription providers are now focused on niche audiences to maintain viewer loyalty. If you can write a series that would generate a couple million avid fans you might get a shot. Speaking as an outsider who follows the industry. I write novels and one is being pitched at the moment by a seasoned TV writer for a possible series. I’d love to help write that!
Terrific article. I’m a professional television writer/producer, and I’ve taught screen and television writing. I written for every day part and audiences of all ages, but I know how very hard it was for me to cross over from children’s to daytime to prime time…and back. Now that I’m (mostly) retired I want to add another harsh reality to the list of challenges: age.
Anyway, you confirmed everything I know from experience, and I found your words extremely validating. Thank you!
Now I have to get back to my novel…