TWIC: What’s Your Screenwriting Career Plan?

Week ending 2/7/20. As before, all names have been changed to protect the innocent.

This week, I got back to work after a quick jaunt to Israel to see my 94-years-old grandmother. And over a number of meetings with writing clients that are relatively new to me, I was reminded that, if you want to build a screenwriting career, in most cases, you’re gonna have to have a plan in place that goes beyond the writing.

But first let me say this one thing:  there is no screenwriting career to be built without super-solid, going-for-excellence writing. I’m talking great pilots and/or screenplays. Full stop and without question. But for most writers, building and sustaining a screenwriting career is going to require more thought and planning than putting butt in chair and words on the page. Though I’ve certainly heard the saying that if someone drops a truly great screenplay in the middle of Sunset Blvd. someone will find it, I’m not really one for ascribing to that as strategy. So, in my experience, if you want to get to the career that you envision, you have to determine 1) what that career actually looks like, 2) whether or not it’s viable, and 3) what you’re going to have to do to get it.

Not sure what I’m talking about?

Here are a few samplings of conversations I had this past week.

Susye, a young up-and-coming writer who came to me by recommendation from one of my long-time clients, wants to be a TV writer. As in, she really, really wants to get into a TV writer’s room, and work her way up the TV writing ladder. Rolling back her sleeves and putting in the hard work does not in any way intimidate her. She has been focusing on writing TV pilots and building her body of work, which is great. But all of those pilots have been written with her best friend and co-writer Brian, who lives with his wife and kid in Atlanta. The problem? Brian has no intention of moving to Los Angeles. In fact, he has absolutely no desire to staff. Which means that the team that wrote those pilots is not actually available to staff. And you don’t staff half of the team that wrote a particular script. So… despite how much she likes writing with her best friend, Susye now has to reinvent her body of work if she wants to have the samples required to get her staffed. 

(which reminds me… I am wayyyy overdue with that blog post about writing partnerships that a few of you asked for. I promise, I will start working on it!)

And then on Friday, I met with Judah, a writer I’ve known for a long time, but with whom I’ve not sat down in years. So when we met, we caught up on everything he’s been up to since the last time we connected in 2016. Turns out Judah wrote a horror feature. And a 1/2-hour sitcom. And a late-night packet. And he wrote a 1-hour procedural. And is trying his hand at a sci-fi feature. And he is also doing improv, and taking some acting classes, just to see. I had to explain to Judah that while I love how productive and prolific he is, and am a huge fan of his natural curiosity, throwing spaghetti at the wall and waiting to see what sticks is not strategy. Especially because he told me that many of these things he wrote with a “I’ll write whatever they’ll want me to” idea, rather than actual direction or sense of strategy. Reactive writing, if you will. One friend was close to getting some funds together for a low budget horror slate. Another friend told him she might be able to get his comedy pilot (if he had one) to her comedy-showrunning cousin. You get the idea. And Judah just wanted to be ready for any and all opportunity, so he kept reinventing himself for every possible opportunity, rather than honing in on a clear, focused, deliberate career strategy.

And the down side for Judah? No one in the industry, in my experience and at least at the start of a writer’s career, is looking for a jack of all trades. Over the years, all of my writers who’ve built careers from themselves had a clear understanding of what they did best, and were able to do it again and again in exciting new ways, and build a strong brand that became the foundation for their success. 

As Echo Lake Entertainment’s Zadoc Angell told me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: 
“I had a woman at my church recently who is sending me her drama feature and is going to send me a comedy pilot, and I have no idea—even before I start reading—where she sees herself in the business. There are so many different kinds of TV shows and movies, especially in the beginning, you have to pick the lane you want to be in. You can always reinvent yourself through writing. But you’ve gotta be great at something at the beginning so that you can brand yourself to the community and then get advocates in the community to advocate on your behalf, because they know what they’re advocating. We know we’re advocating for X writer who’s really great at doing Y and Z. Go. If I can’t kind of categorize a young writer, then I don’t even know where to begin.”

Let’s be clear: when most writers first come to me, I know that many are doing so in lieu of having a comprehensive plan in place prior to seeking me out. In other words, most writers come to talk to me because they recognize needing support and guidance as they consider the various paths available to them, in order to make smart decisions about everything from the right career destination to their unique and cohesive screenwriting brand.

To me, being smart about your screenwriting career means putting serious thought into every career-related decision you make, and potentially not only looking at what you are doing rightnow but also what you should be building up towards 2- or 3- steps ahead. 

And another thing: Sometimes career strategy can be simple. Write a particular type of script. Develop a particular, cohesive body of work. Submit your work. Build pedigree. Seek representation. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. But, most importantly, effective career planning requires knowledge, awareness and an understanding of what the journey will both require and demand. Much like going on a road trip, you have to first determine where you want to go, and then identify which roads you need to take in order to get there.

So what’s your career plan?