From my perspective at Screenplay Readers, I see the odds that are stacked against screenwriters every day, with every script that comes in and piles up in our queue, and I can’t help but think that many of these screenwriters sending in their scripts don’t share that perspective.
I also can’t help but think that knowing how stacked the deck things are for screenwriters starting out is essential to a screenwriter taking the right steps to get sold and represented.
That is, if a screenwriter doesn’t understand the odds stacked against her, and what those factors are that make up those odds, from where I sit, it seems highly unlikely she’ll be able to break through and get her script sold.
But as it is in most cases, that perspective only comes through years of hard work, grinding through the Hollywood machine from the “ass end,” so to speak, and exposure to all the little things that total up the long odds.
So below, I’ve provided a bit of a “crash course” for screenwriters who may not have had a chance to get chewed up and spit out, or who haven’t been able to be exposed to many of the day-to-day obstacles for screenwriters, either because they’re not living in it, or because they’re geographically isolated.
OR, maybe they’ve just been writing in a vacuum, and are only now realizing they need to poke their heads out and CONNECT with people in order to get their screenwriting career on track.
So for those of you with talent and drive, but who just haven’t been exposed as well as you should’ve been to the long odds of Hollywood, here are my Top 5 ways to splash some cold water in your face, so you can better understand what you’re up against, and grow some much required thick screenwriter skin.
#5 Get one of your scripts produced
If you’ve been a one-man or one-woman show thus far in your screenwriting career, one of the best ways to get a wake-up call is to get one of your scripts made into a film. Whether it’s a short, feature, or whether you’re in Hollywood or Cheyenne, Wyoming, it doesn’t matter.
Get one of your scripts produced by an amateur- or independent- or even student-film company, and you’ll be instantly thrown into the collaborative mishmash that is filmmaking. It’s a web of intrigue, a string of compromises, and a Gordian knot of ego, no matter what scale of film you’re working on.
Without that first-hand experience of working with awesome producers, asshead directors, incompetent editors, over-cautious DP’s, and all the myriad types of freaky humans in film, you’re at a disadvantage to how the machine in Hollywood works.
You’ve got to EXPERIENCE the day to day give and take on a production, to be able to appreciate it, and to be able to incorporate that give and take into your screenwriting career.
Not to mention, being on set for a film that’s being made from your script gives you invaluable first-hand experience on how expensive, difficult, confusing, dramatic, or funny your words on the page are.
That insight affects your screenwriting forever. Realizing – FULLY REALIZING – that you are not making a film by yourself, and that your script’s words have actual consequences, for better or for worse.
#4 Get a job at an agency or production company (or intern!)
If you can take a month or two to work or even intern at a small production company or an agency, or even a studio, you’ll see first hand the amount of scripts, packages, and film projects, they have to deal with on a daily basis.
You’ll be able to get inside the head of the busy agent, or swamped producer, and you’ll have a new understanding of why it’s so bloody difficult to get anybody of consequence to read your script, because you’ll have spent 8-12 hours a day with these people, in this environment, for a long period of time.
When you do, you learn their rhythms – when they find time to read, how they read, heck, even IF they read.
Also, WHAT they read. What do they find time for, and what do they say they’ll find time for, but ends up on the floor next to their desk?
Also, how fast do the tastes seem to change? That is, are they looking for cop buddy movies one week, and cowboy films the next? Or does it stay the same from week to week? Do different agents/execs in the same company have different rhythms and tastes? (My bet: They sure do.)
I’m not guaranteeing the work experience will be pleasant, or high-paying (especially not if you’re an intern), and many places to work for in Hollywood can be wicked on a stick, but I guarantee that the insight you gain as a screenwriter will be a net positive.
#3 Send out 100 query letters to agents
If you haven’t done this already, it’s a must. Now, it might FEEL like you’ve done it, because maybe you’ve sent your script or query letter out to 4, 5, or even 20 agents or studios.
But FEELING like you’ve done it is not the same experience as ACTUALLY SENDING OUT 100 QUERY LETTERS.
Bust open that Excel spreadsheet and list out 100 target email addresses (or snail mail addresses, if you’re still living in the 20th century). And then go down that list and send to each.
Then, note the responses you get. And/or non-responses. Trust me, sometimes a NO is a blessing, relative to never hearing back from anybody. And that empty, silent sound of 100 submissions ending up fruitless brings any idealistic screenwriter back down to Earth FAST.
But that’s exactly where we need to be if we want to succeed as screenwriters: Earth. With our feet on the ground, taking action step after action step forward. Not up in orbit, in the vacuum of space, by ourselves, thinking how wonderful our scripts are and how talented we are, no matter how true that may indeed be.
#2 Read for a script contest or film festival
Diving face first into a pile of scripts sent to you from a script contest can be exhilarating. For about 3 minutes. After that, it’s liquid hell.
It wouldn’t be so bad if most scripts were AWESOME, but the sad truth is, they’re NOT.
Which means you’re gonna be reading mostly BAD scripts.
But me TELLING you this is but an abstraction. To really LEARN IT, and FEEL IT, you’ve got to LIVE IT. Spend two weeks as a reader for one of these contests, reading garbage day in and day out, and you’re gonna walk away with some AMAZING insight, and I guarantee you’ll be applying that insight to your own script as soon as you get a free moment.
#1 Visit AFM in Los Angeles
If there’s one place that can suck the wind out of any idealistic screenwriter, and get him grounded in the harsh realities of the commerce of screenwriting, it’s the American Film Market, held annually in Santa Monica, California.
Any film market will do, but AFM is one of the biggest, and you owe it to yourself to drop in someday and witness, first-hand, the sheer amount of NON-blockbuster, NON-studio, NON-quality films there are out there trying to get sold. And I’m talking about FINISHED FILMS.
From helicopter action films starring TV actors from the 1980’s and 90’s, to super-obscure horror that borders on pornography, to terrible films based on 19th century literature, AFM has it all. To be fair, many exhibitors and sellers who attend have a ton of respectable, quality films on their slate.
But the sheer volume of ludicrous, half-baked films, is something you must behold in person. As well as the atmosphere of the place.
These are 20-, 30-, 40-year industry veterans who have been making good money by churning out what many folks would consider B or even C films.
And the whole experience is valuable to you as a screenwriter for two key points:
1) Driving home that this business is A BUSINESS FIRST, then an art form, AFTER.
2) You’re not only competing with the big boys writing the “A” movies. You’re also competing to get your script bought or made by one of the less-than-A producers. (Or, on the other hand this could illustrate that the market is actually larger than you’d imagined, and therefore your odds are actually BETTER since there are more potential purchasers.)
Again, I have much love for AFM and it’s a great market full of all ranges of quality. But if you’re looking for a splash of reality, and insight into some of the less glamorous machinations of the film business, in order to use that insight to better your chances of succeeding as a screenwriter, AFM is a brisk, zesty splash indeed.
My recommendations stand. Live these experience, rather than just reading about them in this blog, or rather than just saying “Oh, I knew all that…”, and your skillset as a screenwriter will double.
Bottom line: It’s one thing to learn how to fly on a flight simulator program. It’s another to get in a plane and take the yoke. Take the yoke!