Top Reps Advise: How Long Does it Take to Break Into Screenwriting?

All too often, I meet a new writer who just completed a first (or second) screenplay or TV pilot, who now expects to sell it, or go from emerging to working professional in something akin to (at most!) a calendar year. After all, one of the questions I’ve been asked most often is: “How long does it take to break in?” The prospect of becoming an overnight successes can be both alluring and exciting. It’s the story that everyone wants to be able to tell.

So how long does it really take to build a screenwriting career, to go from emerging writer to working professional? I usually say 3 to 10 years but… what do my friends in representation think?

Gersh lit agent Sean Barclay told me:
“It’s very unpredictable. I think we throw out the extreme as a little bit of a gut check to people. Hey – Are you in this for ten years? Is this a business trip or is this your business? And I think the answer is it takes different people different amounts of time but be prepared for a fucking journey. There’s a reason why people get compensated so well when they make it at the highest level because it’s a process, it is a multi-year journey, just to get in the conversation.”

APA’s Adam Perry shared:
“I say 3 to 5 years. You should have another way to supplement your income. If you sell a script early, it’s still a battle. Very few people just launch in a huge, huge way. Even when you sell your first one, maybe you make 50 grand that first year and then maybe the next year you make 75 and then the next you make a 100. You’re still fighting. Until you get to a point when you are one of the few writers in town that’s 4 or 5 films deep, 4 or 5 TV projects deep, and that’s when you’ve truly hit as a writer. And then it’s a battle to sustain. But you have to weather the storm in those first few years, or otherwise you’re in trouble.”

Super Manager Jewerl Ross added:
“When someone has failed to produce great work over the course of four or five years, maybe this isn’t for them. They usually will recognize it before I have to tell them anything. And maybe after four years of not being able to produce something as stellar as that thing they produced four years ago, maybe they need to go write prose or a book or short stories or poetry. Though it is my goal to make all of my clients famous writers and directors, that’s not going to be everyone’s path. And I accept the fact that most will fail. And some of the ones who make it may surprise me, and that’s okay. I don’t need to know everything.”

Manager Chris Cook of SkyWay Entertainment imparted his experience:
“Some of the biggest writers I know didn’t get a paying gig until four or five years into working their butts off… You also have to give yourself the time. To say, giving yourself a year or two seems just kind of foolish. I’m not going to tell you to forgo a job that is going to put food in your kids’ mouth because you want to be this screenwriter. You have to have a comfortable day job. But you have to sacrifice your free time and put in the hard work to write. And writing when you don’t want to write. Writing even when you’re stuck and figuring out what else you can do to move the ball forward.”

Anonymous Content’s Ryan Cunningham told me:
“It can take a long time for some, it can take a short time for others. I don’t think anybody should put an artificial clock on what that is. I think you have to use your own barometer of, do you love what you’re doing? Are you seeing a continual evolution of your craft? Are you getting better as you’re doing it? There are a lot of barometers you can use for that, both personally and externally. Are you enjoying what you’re doing? And does your lifestyle and what you want outside of your career accommodate that still? It’s no fun to be writing if your husband is bugging you that you have to get a real job, and God, we’ve gotta have kids now or you don’t spend enough time with your kids because you’re always doing this. That’s not going to be fun, and whether you’re getting paid or not, that’s not a good career, probably. So I think you have to be very cognizant of how it works in your own life. Some people could take a year, some people could take ten years. It’s unique to everybody’s situation.”

Bellevue Productions’ John Zaozirny cautioned:
“Scripts are not a lottery ticket, it’s going to take you years and years and years to make any money from screenwriting. There are exceptions but those are just what I said, those are exceptions. The general rule is it will take you years to make money, let alone a living as a screenwriter.”

Untitled Entertainment’s Jennifer Au told me this about how long you should keep trying:
“The idealistic answer is you do it as long as you can’t imagine doing anything else. And I say idealistic because I’m not looking at somebody’s mortgage or they just had kids—I can’t speak to that for everyone. But it takes a hunger. Every one of my clients’ first films, their first sale, hit at a different point. Because it’s about their personal development and their relationships and the tone of the town. And sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason why it’s not working. For the amount of time it takes to build in this town, it is harder to walk away and come back. It does happen. But I will say that that’s a very personal discussion about looking yourself in the mirror and saying, “Is there anything else that would truly make me happy?” And also, what would it take to get there? Am I willing to do that? Or am I willing to see what I’m doing here through? I once sat down with someone, a potential client meeting, and I said, “Are you in it for the long haul?” And they said something like, “I’m giving it two years, and then I’m out,” and my response was, “Great, well, I’m out right now.” That’s as long as it takes to get me a draft and for me to get it out there and for me to get you some fans, and maybe you haven’t even written the second piece by then.“