Reader Question: What is life really like for a beginning screenwriter who has just broken into the business?May 5th, 2016 by Scott
Reader question from Eric Harris:
What is life really like for the beginning screenwriter who breaks in with a manager/agent, maybe sells a spec? Do they start taking meetings, competing for open writing assignments? Are they chewing their nails because it’s an unstable profession? No one ever gives a detailed explanation of what it’s really like and what to expect. Are they writing for free with producers in hopes that it will get set up?
Eric, let me take this opportunity to frame the conversation by offering this reminder I post regularly just so everyone understands this fundamental reality about breaking into the business as a screenwriter or TV writer: It is really, really hard to do. The odds are long, so the chances of anybody being in the position your question suggests are slim.
There may be others out there in the online screenwriting universe who claim otherwise. Learn the keys to selling a million dollar spec script! My advice: Run away from those people as they are not dealing with you honestly and almost assuredly out to take your money, and little else.
Okay, now that we’ve established that, there is another fact: Every year hundreds of writers do manage to sell a script, obtain representation, land a gig on a TV series and the like. It is not impossible, a sentiment worth the double negative.
What happens when a writer breaks in? Well, that depends on the writer… what they wrote… and what you mean by “breaks in”.
If you hit a grand slam and sell a movie spec script — not an option, but an actual sale in the six figure range — here are a few things you may expect to happen:
* If you sold the script via your manager, you will meet with agents for additional representation. Screenwriters from the Old School often only have an agent or in some rare cases, just an entertainment lawyer to handle them. I don’t know what the percentage is with Young Turks, but my guess is perhaps half of them have dual reps: manager and agent. Yes, it’s 20% commission as opposed to 10%, but having an agent as well as a manager can offer certain benefits. For more background on the roles of managers and agents, go here.
Note: You’ll also meet with lawyers as you will need one to handle your contracts. That’s another 5%, but trust me, do everything you can to get a damn good lawyer.
* That spec script of yours that sold is not just of value to the company that bought it to develop into a movie. It is also valuable to you as a writing sample. Depending upon the splash your deal made, you could find your reps sending it out to a lot of studios, financiers, and producers. This will result in the vaunted “bottled water tour” wherein you do a ton of ‘meet and greets’. This is a crucial part in establishing the foundation of your career as a writer. How you do in those meetings — how comfortable you are, how knowledgeable you are about the craft, how well you mesh with people in the industry — is a big deal. This is Networking with a capital “N”.
Rule of thumb I’ve discovered about Hollywood: People like to work with the people they like to work with. So apart from your talent, voice and ability to translate a story onto the page, if you come across as someone who will be enjoyable to work with, a problem-solver, not a problem-creator, that can go a long way in helping you secure gigs.
* You will be invited to premieres, industry screenings and other social events related to the business. This is also time for Networking with a capital “N”. And let me say, at some point, if you do not know names and faces of the players in the business, you will want to start doing that ASAP. This is not only important in understanding the ebb and flow of who is where and who is doing what relative to project acquisition and movie development, the fact is Hollywood is a small community. You will almost invariably be out shopping, jogging or wherever, and bump into these people. Yet again Networking opportunities.
* Assuming you are a flavor-of-the-week, you may also expect to meet industry types at lunch meetings. For some thoughts on how to handle yourself and what to expect, read my post Let’s do lunch.
* The sale of your spec script would almost certainly qualify you for membership in the Writers’ Guild of America, so at some point you’ll have to pony up a $2,500 initiation fee plus 1.5% of applicable gross earnings. Once you are official, you will be invited to a WGA new members meeting. I’m actually still in touch with a couple of writers I met when I had my welcome to the Guild meeting back in 1987. Oh, be sure to sign up for the WGA movie series, a great deal to see movies at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills.
* You will meet with your reps to strategize. You may go after Open Writing Assignments which will require you to be able to read a piece of material, analyze it and come up with a take you can pitch. You may go out with an original pitch. In either case, you will need to work on your ability not only to pitch, but work a room. You and your reps may determine it’s best for you to write a new spec script. There’s no etched-in-stone plan, everything is malleable and dependent on you and current business opportunities. But bottom line, you will be expected to be creative and productive.
So no matter what happens in terms of the whirling dervish of Hollywood life of someone who sells a spec script, you need to keep your eye on the ball: Writing. That’s one great reason for you to develop solid writing practices now so they are in place once you do break into the business. Even after you break in, you will want to continue to write at least one spec script per year to maximize your chances of widening your connections and setting up projects, while continuing to get better at the craft.
That’s just a few things you can expect if you sell a spec script. It is much more common to break in by getting representation alone, no spec deal, in which case you will likely find yourself writing multiple drafts of one spec script (or more) your reps can take out to market. But that’s a whole other subject.
GITS readers who have been there, what can you add to the subject for Eric? Please head to comments for your thoughts.
[Originally posted August 4, 2014]