The Realities Of Working Screenwriters: Always Breaking In

A couple of weekend ago at Screenwriters World, I had the pleasure of speaking on a Breaking Into Hollywood panel along with Chris Soth, Barri Evans, Michael Tabb and Adam Finer. As we discussed the ebbs and flows of a screenwriter’s career, Mr. Tabb, a screenwriting professional now for 15 years with a number of sold specs under his belt, made an interesting and astute observation: Until you sell that million dollar screenplay, you are always breaking in. And when you do sell that million dollar script, everyone wants to see if you’ll be able to do it again. The audience was both rapt and confused, eager to hear it from the horse’s mouth, but perplexed by what this actually meant. After all, once you’ve broken in, isn’t that IT? Doesn’t that mean you made it? Don’t you then have it made? Not so. According to Mr. Tabb (and the rest of us on the panel who whole heartedly agreed), once you’ve begun breaking in, that’s when the hard work begins.

A friend of mine, who is a busy analyst and a BRILLIANT writer in his own right (I just read his latest fantastic screenplay) has been prone to saying that after years of writing, some producing credits and a respectable amount of industry success he is finally on the verge of his twenty-years-in-the-making overnight success. In an industry that is always in search of new, interesting content, why is that?

Let me break it down:

Once you’ve “broken in”, everyone will look to see what you will write next. And then, again, what you write after it. Are you a one trick pony, or will you prove able to deliver stellar, original, sellable content again and again? Will the fees your material sells for go up or go down? Will you be brought in on projects and take them to the next level, or will many more writers be brought in for a polish or a punch after you’re done?

If you did break in with a million dollar sale (or 750k, or 500k), everyone will look to see if you can match the quality and originality you’ve produced the first time out. If this is enough to catapult you to studio darling, if name producers and directors will now be reading your work every time. Heat and buzz are wonderful things to have, but they are squandered without follow through, without the next project with which you will once again engage the interest and pocketbooks of the marketplace. It’s happened more than once that a writer broke in selling a script for big money, only to spend the rest of his career trying to recreate the magic and freshness his screenplay delivered the very first time.

You will not only be competing for industry attention and industry relevance, you will be competing to keep your reps’ attention and belief that you will deliver strong, sellable work for him every time. You know that old saying: Keeping an A is tougher than getting an A? Nowhere is this truer then when it comes to representation. A writer’s job is to keep her agent or manager excited about her, so that the rep talks about her at lunches, tells everyone he knows how great she is in a room, what original ideas she has, how stellar her work is and how fantastic she is to work with, so that the seeds of interest are sown everywhere, again and again. The writer will keep her manager engaged this way by delivering great scripts on a regular basis, by talking great, vetted ideas, and by proving that she is 100% committed to every aspect of the work. In lieu of doing that, the writer’s agent or manager will instead turn his attention to other writers on his roster who are showing up consistently with strong, sellable work, or else look outside of his roster for new writers who could potentially pad his roster with consistent, promising, viable work.

So what’s a writer to do? If, once you get that first, all important industry “bite,” be it in the form of a sold script or an excited rep, you will still have to continuously break in again and again, what can you do now to prepare?

For starters:

  • Work on your velocity, learning how to produce strong, potential-riddled scripts again and again, and in a timely fashion.
  • Practice finishing a script every six months, including getting notes and engaging in elevating rewrites. Then, as your skill set improves, reduce that time to five months, and then four.
  • Learn how to take notes. Submit your material for reads, be they from industry friends or paid analysts, so that you are familiar with the process, and know how to take someone’s note and adapt it into your work.
  • Lastly, develop a repository of your stellar ideas. Deposit great ideas in there on a regular basis and learn to identify the great ideas amongst others that are just okay.

Practice doing all of those things on a regular basis and you will make your life significantly easier when the time comes to break in, again and again.