10 Tips on 'Breaking In' as a Screenwriter
Tell me if this is you…
Night after night, you lounge in front of your HDTV, your fingertip bruised from pressing the guide button on your remote, watching hours of second-rate programs and thinking, “Are you kidding?! I could do better than that…”
Then one day, it dawns on you: “Hey! I could be a screenwriter! I could quit my job at the Gap, hang out at coffee shops all day with Final Draft installed on my laptop, and take a break from my iced soy vanilla mocha-latte-chinos just long enough to walk to my mailbox and pick up six figure checks for residuals and bonuses.” And so, with visions of Oscar nominations and unlimited free time floating about in your head, you sit down and write a screenplay.
So far, so good… then what?
You finish your masterpiece, send it off to a few agents, secure representation, and sell your spec for an ungodly amount of money, launching a career that will take you to places you never imagined. This could happen… I mean, anything is possible, right? Sure, but you honestly have better chances of winning a million dollar jackpot on penny slots in Las Vegas on Chinese New Year. Translation? Probably won’t happen that way.
Does that mean you should file your screenwriting pipe dream away with other impossible notions (like successful Hollywood marriages and the hope that Ben Affleck might eventually learn how to act — just kidding, Ben. You rock. Say hi to Jennifer.)? No, it does not. Writing for t.v. or film is a perfectly legitimate career choice, but it requires determination, ingenuity, and a lot of hard work. Still interested? Then here are ten tips that can help you break in:
1. Write a Really Great Script
Pretty obvious, right? By looking at what’s actually being produced, you might believe this isn’t important. But it is. Even producers who make nothing but schlocky crap get tired of reading… well, schlocky crap. Write something original, with a sound structure and great characters. Let the producers be wowed by your writing ability so that they can buy your script and turn it into scholcky crap.
2. Enroll in Film School
Well, easier said than done. Film schools are typically expensive and acceptance is competitive. And if you don’t want to end up feeling like Sallie Mae’s divorcee, you may want to try something a little easier… excellent film schools (like USC’s School of Cinema-Television and NYU’s Tisch) offer seminars, summer programs, and workshops that are much more available. The good news is that in the past five years, a whole new crop of smaller, independent film schools have sprung up all over the country, and many of them offer excellent programs.
It’s not so much what you’ll learn at film school, but who you’ll meet. Film schools hire industry professionals to develop curriculum and teach classes. What does this mean for you? It means these people are being paid to help you start your career. As a grad, the better you do, the more street cred the school gets. When I interviewed for my first development job, I met with a guy who had graduated from USC ten years before me. It was my first interview and I was hired. After that, I never questioned the power of an alumni network.
And you’ll meet other students who are also on their way up, so the key is to make friends. Friends help friends and you never know who will hook you up later. The industry is full of people who are willing to give someone else a break… we’ve all been exactly where you are. That’s exactly how I sold Ghetto Dawg 2. The producers wanted my friend (whom I met in film school) to submit a spec and he didn’t have time to write one… so he gave them my name and the rest is history.
3. Volunteer at a Film Festival
If you don’t have a lot of free time to commit, volunteering at a film festival is the way to go. You’ll get to see movies, meet people who are connected in the industry, and have the chance to prove what a hard-worker you are in a short amount of time. There are film festivals all over the world, so it’s not like you have to live in New York or LA. A good place to start is by inquiring with your state’s film commission — they are usually very helpful. When you volunteer, give yourself the goal of establishing contacts and look for people who are willing to read your script and pass it on if they like it.
4. Get a Development Job
Working in development is not easy. As a creative assistant in the 90s, I remember working 10-hour days, spending my entire weekends reading scripts, and doing very little that could be deemed creative. But, I accomplished several things. I got to read a lot of scripts which helped me see what other writers were writing and what producers were buying (and more importantly, what they were passing on). I met a lot of actors, writers and producers who felt obligated to read my scripts because they knew they’d feel guilty the next time they came into the office if they’d turned me down. I also learned a great deal about producing which made me a better writer. I also sat in on story meetings and saw what they were like before sitting in the hot seat myself.
I lasted about 8 months in development, but the short time I spent was invaluable for my career.
5. Make a Short
Write it, shoot it, screen it. The writing credit is forever your’s. Scrape together whatever you need and write a really good short. Once you’re done, pimp it mercilessly to everyone you meet. Exposure is the key.
6. Win a Contest
Put your money where your writing is, and if you win, it’s a cheap way to let someone else promote you. Research your contests carefully (some are scams) and pick only the ones that are asking for exactly what you have written. Entry fees can be steep ($25—$100 per script), so make sure the prize is worthy enough for you to break out the cash.
My thesis screenplay from college won a screenwriting award. For months, agents called and asked me to send it to them. The script still hasn’t sold, but it did impress a manager who offered to represent me, and he still does.
7. Intern for an Agent
Yes, I know working for free sucks. But, having an agent submit your script carries much more clout than you doing it yourself. Spend time in an agent’s office, pay attention to the type of scripts he/she sells, and then, after you’ve proven how hard you’ll work for free, ask him/her to read your script and give you feedback. Here’s the important part… listen to the feedback and revise your script. You’ll end up with a more marketable product and the agent may be willing to let you submit your next script to him/her as well.
8. Attend a Writer’s Conference
Writer’s conferences can be great, or they can be an enormous waste of money. Some are scams, and some have excellent industry professionals that are accessible and helpful. So, research them well. Find out exactly who the speakers are and what they’ve written, produced, or represented. Most conferences offer one-on-one meetings (for an additional fee) with the speaker of your choice, so it’s a good chance to hone your pitching skills and get feedback on your script. Chances are, you’ll also meet other writers who know other producers, and so on… Conferences are also a great reason to take a vacation (I went to the Maui Writer’s Conference two years ago), especially if you want to use your vacation time to write.
9. Do a Re-Write For Free
I’m mentioning that word again — free. A big mistake that a lot of writers make is that they place a monetary value on their own time. When this happens, writers don’t want to waste their time writing for free. Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, place value on the projects and people.
I get paid to write. It’s what I do for a living. However, I recently met a cool guy on a film set and we spent the day talking. It turns out that he was in the process of producing his first low-budget short and was looking for a writer to adapt a play he’d secured the rights to. I enjoyed hanging out with him and offered to do it for free. Translation? I helped him out. He introduced me to the director who liked what I did on the short, and asked if I’d be interested in doing a re-write on another project he was working on (and get paid). Was doing the short a good investment of my time? Absolutely. I ultimately ended up getting a paid project, and it allowed me to develop a professional relationship with two very talented up-and-comers that I enjoy working with.
Remember this… no matter how much you make writing, you are never too good to work for free. Because if longevity is your goal, favors and connections are worth more than dollars and cents.
10. Be Original and Gutsy
Finally, number ten…
You can write a terrific screenplay, but no one will know if no one ever reads it, right? So… if you want people to read your screenplay, you need to come up with a clever way to set you apart from everyone else.
Here’s an example… Last week, I was driving on Sunset Boulevard when I noticed a billboard from a writer begging someone from NBC to read his screenplay. Under the big, bold letters was his web address. I was impressed to say the least. Did I want to check out his website? Sure. Did I? Yep. Unfortunately, the website was very amateurish and the synopses of his available screenplays weren’t very interesting, but hey — the guy had guts. Now, if you can come up with something just as creative, and follow through on the delivery (which brings us back to Tip #1), NBC might just call you and ask to read your script.