Top Industry Reps’ Advice for Breaking into Screenwriting

The other day, as I was clicking through computer folders, I found something I forgot I had: A treasure trove of screenwriting career advice, on topics ranging from screenwriting career mistakes to the importance of living in Los Angeles, straight from top literary managers and agents working in the industry today. I cultivated this advice when putting together my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES. And since I am a sucker for all things insight and guidance and inspiration when it comes to building a screenwriting career, I decided to share the statements of inspiration, caution and optimism shared with me by my very generous friends in representation here.

The topic of the day was, quite simply and as the title of this blogpost suggests, Advice. And more specifically: What advice do you have for new voices, emerging screenwriters in the feature and TV space?

Here is what my industry friends in representation had to offer: 

My old friend manager Jewerl Ross who reps Barry Jenkins (MOONLIGHT) and Matt Aldrich (COCO) told me: 

“I think that people who are talented, who are meant to be successful, are going to be. I just think it’s a matter of time. Time plus talent equals success. The only variable—if you have the talent, so the talent is invariable—the only thing that’s variable is time. Is the time going to be a month? Or a year? Or ten years? Or twenty years? But I think with the appropriate amount of time, plus the talent that you have, it’s impossible not to be successful. That’s just my view of the world. So if you’re one of these people with talent, you just need to be in the circumstance where you can grow your talent. Where you have a job that allows you to write—instead of working 40 hours, you can write 40 hours a week. So you’re growing your talent. If you are talented and you go to one of these schools—USC, UCLA, Chapman or something—and you’re sitting in a room, a seminar, where a professor has 15 students and he’s reading your writing, if you are talented, that professor is going to fall in love with you and help you and connect you to someone like me. Because for people who are that incredibly talented, someone is going to help them and invest in them along the way.”

Super agent and Verve partner David Boxerbaum had this to share:

“My advice to screenwriters is so simple. It’s just not to give up. Too many writers who are too talented and have a career they don’t even see in front of them yet, who are going to be very successful, give up too early. And I think the key is to be creative and express yourself through the vision of storytelling, and there are too many writers just giving up too soon and taking no and taking that and running with that. And running away from the business. I think people should run towards it, and more writers should stick in there and continue to work on their craft and try to chase that dream if they truly believe in it. I know it’s a train that’s hard to grasp sometimes, but I think if you really do want to be a writer and really want to be successful in this business, the only way to achieve it is to continue to work on it and believe in yourself and be passionate and don’t let NO stop you. You know? Knock down every wall possible. And I think if you look at most of the success stories in our business, it’s writers who have achieved that from never taking no and never stopping and never saying This is not for me. They believe this is what they should be doing in life, and they’ve chased it. I think that’s the most important thing you can do in our business.”

Founder of The Blood List and Brillstein Entertainment Partners manager Kailey Marsh said:

“The biggest thing with writers these days is they’re always stressing out over what to write. If you want to break into the industry you should just write something that you really, really need to write. The longer I’ve been doing this the more I realize who the true writers are, and who are the people who just want to be a screenwriter, it’s not a fine line at all. I have friends who have been writing a screenplay for two years and have never let me read it. So I just feel like if you really are a writer then you need to have something to show for it. If you’re telling me you’re a screenwriter and I’m like Cool, send me your script! And you tell me it’s not done yet, then you’re not a writer. I don’t start talking to people about scripts, most of the time, unless it’s so close to being done or it’s ready. When I call an exec I’m like “hey I have something I want to send you” not “Hey I’m going to send you something in a week and a half” because why wouldn’t I just call him in a week and a half when it’s done? Once you start to tell people you’re a writer you need to be a hundred percent ready. Or at least as close to one hundred percent as possible.”

Heroes & Villains manager Chris Coggins, who previously headed up development for EuropaCorp, said this, which I loved:

“I think the most important thing is to stay optimistic. Stay productive. Have a full life. Don’t be writing all the time. Maybe write five to six days a week. Because it’s your job—creating is a job. But you have to have fun with it, too. You have to get out. And always make your own stuff. You have an iPhone or an Android. You could make a movie on that. So write it and make it. Write something small and make it. The important thing is to just to keep going. There are people out there who want you to succeed. And try to find your community, because it makes it so much easier and plus, you can commiserate.”

Josh Adler of Circle of Confusion advised:

“The first thing I always say is, if you have a backup—if there’s anything else that you could see yourself doing and being happy doing, save yourself the time, energy, effort, and go do that thing now. It will save you a few years of difficulty, heartache, blood, sweat, tears. If you can’t, if there’s nothing else you can see yourself doing and being happy, then this business is for you, because there are many times during when I was coming up in this business, where I was beaten down, it was a horrible day, whatever it was, and if I had something else where I could have said, “Fuck it! I’ll just go do that,” I would have gone. But I always got to that moment and was like, “Fuck it! What else am I going to do? This is what I want to do.” And so I stuck with it. So yes, it’s a very hard business to break into. My piece of advice is if you have anything else that you would want to do, go do that. If you don’t, go for this full bore and don’t stop until you make it.”

Manager Lee Stobby, whose client’s script BUBLES topped The Black List a few years back, got down to brass tacks:

“I can’t do anything with a B+ script. I can’t do anything with an 8 out of 10. I don’t think anyone in Hollywood can. There’s no marketplace in Hollywood for scripts that just exist. Or are ‘fine’. There’s no room for that anymore. If you want to break into Hollywood, you have to be writing the best script that an executive read, not just that day but that month. That’s what you have to be striving for. If you want to break into Hollywood that’s the deal. If you are a more established writer this doesn’t necessarily apply but if you want to break in you have to establish this base of ‘no, this is the best thing in my abilities, I can’t make this any better than it is, this is as good as I possibly can make it’. You have to constantly be pushing it to the next level.”

Jennifer Au of Untitled Entertainment provided her two cents:

“Your work is a reflection of you. Yes, being personable is important, but before you get that chance, someone’s probably reading you, so make sure that it’s stellar. Take the time to put in the work. Be students of the game. Be really thoughtful about reading and don’t be lazy about your own careers. It’s finding your voice, it’s knowing yourself, it’s having passion for what you do. And that is reflective. And guess what? A lot of us have worked in the business for years. We’ve read a lot. I think passion is contagious. If you can captivate us and bring us into your world, and make us fall in love with that, that means everything. So love what you do, and have that come across, and through that love, take the pride in your work and your career. And then hopefully it will come.”

But it’s not all about what’s on the page; it’s also about how you perform in the room. Evan Corday of The Cartel spoke to that:

Figure out a way to come out of your shell. A lot of writers write and are not comfortable talking, and in any room you’ve got to be ready to jump in or your voice is never going to be heard and you’re not going to get the episodes that you want to advance your career. Or you are never going to be able to sell that original the same way that somebody who can even fake it for half an hour is going to be able to do. You know those opportunities are few and far between and you really want to take advantage of them.”

Finally, Infinity’s Jon Karas shared the insights he’s gained as first a WME agent, a lawyer, and now as a manager:

“You can’t control how much talent you have, but you can control how much originality you have. If what you are doing resembles anything that anybody is doing, stop. Think it through again. Come up with a way to be fresh, unique, original. Look at things like ZOMBIELAND for example. There’s a reason why that movie was so successful. It was cool. It was fun. It was unique. Think about things that are different, things that are special in some way. Don’t say, ‘oh these Young Adult movies work really well, why don’t I just write one of those?’ Well, if it wasn’t some hit book, nobody is going to care about your script. Think about whatever you’re doing, make it special, make it fresh, make it your own voice. So if you can do that it will establish your entire career.”

Now that we’ve gotten some career advice from top industry reps, I’d love to find out: What is the best, or worse, screenwriting career advice you’ve ever gotten?