You Finished Writing Your Screenplay or Pilot. What’s Next?
So you completed a new screenplay or pilot, and want to get it out there? Great! Unfortunately, there’s a ton of literature out there pertaining to the craft, and much less so on the industry/business end of things. That’s where I come in! So… let’s break it down: What do you do next?
First, take a moment to celebrate. The journey of an emerging screenwriter is riddled with challenges, which means that you have to celebrate each and every win when it comes. Because, you know, balance.
Once you’ve completed your well-deserved happy dance, consider that all too often writers go from typing THE END to trying to get their recently completed work out into the professional space too quickly. If there’s one bit of advice to emerging writers that we hear again and again from agents, managers and producers, as well as working writers lamenting old mistakes, it’s this: Don’t take your screenplay out willy-nilly before it’s ready. It’s just not that simple. Instead, this is the time to gather information. Get your ducks in a row. You’re going to need a plan.
Your most obvious first step should be to get your screenplay or pilot vetted before you get it out there. Having people who possess an understanding of developing scripted content, and whose opinion you respect, read the work and sign off on it is critical to its success. Not everyone is going to fall madly in love with your work, but you want to get a thumbs up from someone who is going to be honest with you, who has a deep understanding of the craft, and whose story sensibility you respect. I can go on about vetting for a while (and previously have) but that is NOT what this blogpost is about, so let’s leave it at that.
(that said, if you do want a deep dive on script vetting, check out Screenwriting Mistakes: Not Vetting Your Work).
Once your screenplay has been vetted and, at least for the time being, locked, gather all the information you need for the project at hand, putting it together proactively, rather than waiting for someone to ask you for it, then rushing to figure out how to best satisfy any request. Before the project goes out, be sure to develop an effective logline. Most loglines take time and finessing, so be sure to try out different versions of your logline, and run it by writer friends and writers group members for feedback. Every word counts, so make sure to give it the time and attention it deserves. I personally like to see both a basic logline and a more elaborate logline paragraph. Some writers also like to develop a synopsis to have on hand, as well as a quick 2-minute pitch, just to have it ready in hand.
For more on putting together an effective logline, check out this great blogpost from Screencraft.
With your logline in tact, consider the comps, i.e., comparable projects, for your pilot or screenplay that, if shared, would help illuminate the tone of the material, or give the reader a sense of where the material lives. The use of comps in query letters is one that draws contrasting opinions: some think it’s absolutely necessary, especially when limited to a short logline, in order to try to nail down the material’s vibe and stimulate a read; others find it to be an old school approach that no longer tracks. In the end, it’s up to the writer to decide what works for them. I can tell you that when my working writers take out a pitch, comps are more often than not brought into the conversation in order to get the desired impact.
Next, consider your personal connection to the material. In this point in time, the industry is doggedly drawing a connection between story and storyteller, so be ready to illustrate what makes you the right writer for the project at hand. It could be literal (based on or inspired by your own lived experience) or more opaque, such as thematic choices that are meaningful to you and evident on the page. If your project bares a lot resemblance to other projects that have come before, be sure to call out its differentiators, i.e. anything that would uncheck the derivative box, and provide a same-but-different take that makes it feel distinctive and fresh.
Keep a running list of the projects’ accolades. Whether it’s high scores from The Black List or significant contest placements, make sure you aggregate all the information in one place, so that you are always able to reach for it should anyone ask. Know which placements hold meaning for the industry, and which are just for you to celebrate.
(for more on submitting your screenplay or pilot to screenwriting competitions, fellowships and labs, look out for my upcoming blogpost which will be addressing just that!)
Finally, any time a screenplay or pilot goes out, you want to be ready with material that will answer the question: What else do you have?
This means that you don’t only have to have the one project vetted and ready to go, but that you are prepared with its follow-up and all of the supporting information that goes along with it, logline, comps and all, should anyone ask. And… if you’re being strategic about it, your second script shouldn’t be just any old script written at any old time, being sent now simply because it was asked for and once upon a time completed. Instead, the script that will come second to your lead pilot or screenplay should be one that is not only ready for the professional space, but shores up the case for the writer that you want to be. Your second script should fall in the same or similar genre as your lead script, in order to help solidify your brand. Put side by side, the two scripts should tell a clear, focused story about who the writer is, while making the case that you are no one trick pony.
Of course, there are exceptions to these rule. If your lead script happens to win a HUGE screenwriting competition or land you a position in a coveted TV or feature writing fellowship, your second screenplay or pilot is not going to be as critical, at least for some. But, in lieu of such placements, you always want to have both your lead and second script vetted and ready to go.
And then… there’s who you’re going to send your screenplay or pilot out to.
There are a number of websites out there that are dedicated to helping writers connect the work to the marketplace. Don’t make decisions about where to invest your time and resources when you’re feeling restless and frustrated; instead, investigate them thoughtfully, and consider which such website, or combination of them, could help facilitate the exposure that your work deserves. Whether it’s Virtual Pitch Fest, Stage 32, Roadmap Writers, The Black List website, or any other such organization, come to it with a plan.
If you have a list of existing industry contacts that could be helpful in the development of your screenwriting career or the exposure of your work, approaching everyone you know should be your first line of attack. However, it’s important not to go about reaching out to your contacts randomly; instead, do it thoughtfully and methodically. Make a list of everyone you know. Consider whether the relationship is one that makes it easy enough to ask for help, or whether you should look to reconnect first, before making a big ask. Consider how to foster the relationship; only once it has been fostered can you even explore asking for help.
Lacking in industry contacts and looking to get your work out there via cold query? Don’t just send query letters promoting your screenplay or pilot out at random to names that have popped up on your Twitter feed; make a strategic decision based on how the script would be best served. First, consider this: Is the script primed to be representation bait, or is this the sort of screenplay or pilot that is somewhat quiet in nature and therefore will not make a big splash with representation, making it more of a candidate for producers that have previously worked in the same space?
If your logline is exciting, focusing on a unique concept, the sort that can stand out and stimulate interest from representation, start putting a list of managers together, populated with the names of managers that you have very specific reasons for approaching. For more on this, check out my previous blogpost, How to Get a Screenwriting Manager. The most important thing here is to do your research, know why you’re approaching who you’re approaching, and be clear to communicate that when you reach out to them. Your managers list should become an ever-evolving document as you continue to do research and learn about those reps you would like to work with, so that you can use it again and again, every time you’ve completed, vetted and prepared a new pilot or screenplay that you want to get out there.
If your screenplay is a quieter one, smaller, more execution dependent, consider taking it directly to producers who work in the same general space, as those scripts tend to thrive when it’s about the making of it, rather than selling or going for a big industry splash. Most established industry producers will likely not be open to reading unsolicited material; look for those who are prominent in the independent sector, who’ve made a career of taking on projects that may be smaller and less studio-friendly.
Most importantly: Have a plan. You want to approach the industry and get your work the exposure it deserves knowing not only what you’re doing, but why you are doing it. Cliché or not, luck all too often does favor the prepared. So take these steps in order to give yourself and your writing the best chance out there.