How to get jobs as a screenwriter/script doctor?
June 4, 2016 11:28 PM   Subscribe

Simple enough -- how to get work in this line. Examples from real-life cases/people who did it are appreciated.

I had tried to focus on screenwriting some years ago, got a little interest in one script of mine but my aversion to directing it myself evidently killed the potential around it (no one who was interested wanted to direct it for some reason.) Most of my scripts I couldn't even get anyone to read, so after a while I gave up and tried to do a bunch of other jobs that have also all failed or led to an unhappy life.

Recently I volunteered to doctor a script for someone I already know, and I was happier doing that than I'd been at my work for a while. So I'd be happy to do more work along those lines, I think.

Now, background on things I've done before:

Someone told me to start out in theatre: I've written some plays that have been produced including one that gets played fairly often, but that's brought me no recognition nor any other job offers. (And honestly, when it comes to theatre I think my attentions are more worthily put on revivals than on making new material.)

I did some work for a small production company as a reader and making suggestions for improving scripts, but my experience there was that the authors were never very willing to let their work be tampered with; and I had to read a lot of really awful scripts (I eventually quit because my brain couldn't take it anymore) so that wouldn't be any kind of path to happiness unless I had some sort of guarantee that it would lead to a writing job (unlikely, I suspect).

A cousin of mine once asked me to write a screenplay adaption of a book he'd optioned, but he evidently didn't like the script I came up with and he gipped me on the pay he'd promised, so that went nowhere (and I'm barely on speaking terms with him anymore.) He never did end up making the movie he'd planned.

And as mentioned, I couldn't get useful people to even read most of my original scripts, and I have fewer contacts now than I did 10-15 years ago when I was trying before.
posted by Peregrine Pickle to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The bog standard reading/listening for this sort of thing is John August and The Bitter Script Reader. All of the screenwriting blogs I used to read (as a film/tv buff, not a script writer) usually had a blog post that added up to something like, "So you've moved to Hollywood, right? 'Cuz that's where all the script reading and pitching happens."
posted by xyzzy at 3:06 AM on June 5, 2016

It's a tough business. But you probably know that already.

A cousin of mine once asked me to write a screenplay adaption of a book he'd optioned, but he evidently didn't like the script I came up with and he gipped me on the pay he'd promised

Be prepared to face this sort of thing, not just from clueless relatives, but from actual people legitimately working in the industry. At times, you might have to threaten arbitration to get paid. Also, expect your script to be tampered with extensively by people who know nothing about story structure and scriptwriting. It may be maddening. Be sure that you are contractually limited to x number of rewrites so that you can walk away after 3 drafts or whatever and many ridiculous demands while still having fulfilled your contract and (hopefully) getting paid without TOO much of a battle. This has been the experience of most of the screenwriters and script doctors I know.

It's also my impression from them that contacts are everything. You say you have few now though...I'm not sure how one goes about building them, but I'm sure some of the industry-savvy Mefites will have more advice.
posted by tiger tiger at 5:37 AM on June 5, 2016

Writers Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Jose Molina have a podcast.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:23 AM on June 5, 2016

John August says: A script doctor is a screenwriter, and you get work as a script doctor by being recognized as a screenwriter.

But as for "how do I get recognized as a screenwriter," all of the answers seem to add up to skill and luck. Have a good script, get it in front of someone who likes it. Boost your visibility so more people see you:
- Have a good website with a resume that flatters you.
- Have a blog; make posts that make you look like you're good at this.
- Get on Twitter and follow the people you might hypothetically want to work with; have tweet conversations with them;
- join in the #scriptchat discussion on Sundays;
- go to the networking events. Be in LA or NYC, unfortunately.

(NYC has less money and more indie films but those are still opportunities for work.)

If you think that sounds like crappy advice, I entirely agree. That's why I'm aiming for post-production work myself.

If you're dead set on writing, you might think about TV. There's more spots open for writers, the work is a bit steadier, and you get to hang out with other writers and talk story every day. Same networking rules apply, though.

here's another blog to look at and a website that looks suspicious because there is no visible person attached to it.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 6:47 AM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, don't get discouraged when projects fall apart. That happens all the time at every level, and nobody makes their debut without several failed projects behind them.

Other ways to get visibility:
- win a contest
- win one of the contests that people have actually heard of and respect
- win a fellowship
- if you have a specific script that you think is ballin', start promoting it specifically. Make a twitter account for it. Make a website. Make some promo art. Pass the script around to everyone you know. You could even make a sizzle trailer, although that seems bonkers to me.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 6:57 AM on June 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

FYI - "gipped" is a racially derogatory word that implies that Roma people are cheats and thieves.

I have been paid as a script doctor (the job is usually called "writing screenplay coverage" in my experience). I'm pretty good at it and I know people who are phenomenal at it-- but none of us make enough cash to make a living by it. And all of us came by it by having solid writing and film credentials in addition to our script-doctor skills. Several of the ppl I know who write excellent coverage are NOT screenwriters by the way, which is probably heartening for you. But they are very knowledgeable about screenplay structure, and about film in general, and they can write analysis in a clear, concise, readable way (one coverage style guide I've worked with suggested writing like a Variety film review).

One thing that's hard about script doctoring is something you've already found out- individual amateur writers tend to be defensive about getting notes and they won't want to pay you once you critique their work, and even if they do, they won't hire you again.

A better strategy would be to get hired by a company that gets a lot of pitches and scripts- a production company, a screenplay contest, a filmmaking funding body, a network, etc. But even then, writing coverage is kind of a thankless job. The writers of the really good scripts tend to already be personally linked to someone they trust who can do it for them, so they don't need coverage; and the shitty scripts get a NO, not a "here's how to improve this", so they don't need much coverage either- mostly just a synopsis, a brief summary of what the strengths/weaknesses are, and a yes/no. That takes 2-3 pages and it'd be hard to find a company that would pay you much to write coverage on a stack of bad scripts.

You could also try to work in TV as a story editor- that's the person who makes sure the TV show's story has an arc that works consistently over multiple writers' scripts. There's only one or two on each show so it's hard to break into, but once you're in, it pays ok (long TV hours sometimes, and you're still a freelancer, but you can live on the salary).

If you're in a city where TV shows get made (LA, NYC, Toronto, Vancouver, etc), there's usually a few job openings per season, and if you have any facility with kids programming, animation, or lifestyle TV, that's an easier way to get a foot in the door as there are more of those shows and the arcs are easier to wrangle, so it's likelier a relative newcomer can get the work. It's hard to get hired cold, though- you might have to intern your way into it, which may or may not work for you. Good luck- I agree that it's fun work, but I know from experience it's hard to make a living!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:08 AM on June 5, 2016 [2 favorites] has a podcast called Making the Sausage where the host interviews people in various jobs in the television/movie industry. He always asks them how they ended up in their current job, and the stories mostly boil down to "moved to Hollywood, hustled, made connections, talked to people, ended up in this particular job." Episodes that might be useful for you are the writing partners, the people who script TV promos, and the game show writers.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:47 AM on June 5, 2016

If you're asking about Hollywood or similar type screenwriting work, and you're asking how to get noticed, the two primary vectors at this point if you don't have a relative in high places is either The Black List or producing your own work on youtube etc until it's amazing and someone notices it. It used to be that winning one of the prestigious competitions (The Nicholl still means something, and Slamdance and other large-city film festival winners tend to at least get an agent as a result if they did not already have one) was your outsider ticket, but at this point you have to be careful since there are many many scams.

You actually get hired via an agent. You generally either get an agent off a really spectacular spec script or two or three (generally original material, either for film or TV now) that you manage to get in front of them somehow, or getting noticed via film festival or going viral or whatever.

But the joke about how everyone in Hollywood is working on a screenplay...that's only sort of a joke. It is no easier to break in today than it was 15 years ago, and actually might be harder now that crews are smaller and tighter than they used to be, and the way the industry works is very different. This is not a Mordor you just walk into.

If you're not listening to ScriptNotes already, you can subscribe to get access to the back catalog, and there's far more real world real screenwriter talk there than in any book you can buy. The Writers Panel is fairly TV-centric, as is Children of Tendu, but both are worth at least listening with one ear. If you are in LA, the Writers Guild Foundation is the outreach arm of the union, and they put on a ton of programming available to the public, with extraordinary panelists who know they are speaking to a very specific audience, and you don't get much realer talk than those.

I'm not sure if by "script doctor" you're meaning you want writers to pay you to read and provide feedback on their unproduced scripts or if you mean like how Carrie Fisher or Joss Whedon get paid a million dollars to do an uncredited fixer pass on a script at midnight the day before principal shooting starts. In the first case, writers who write spec scripts don't have any money (produced writers never write for free again, they either get hired to write specific things or they shop ideas around until someone pays them to write it but either way the employer provides the feedback - if you want to be *that* person, you will need to become a producer, which as far as I can tell comes from either being born rich and connected or toiling away on nearly budgetless projects wearing most of the hats until one of them hits and the writer or director likes you enough to bring you along), and also you could probably throw a brick in any coffee shop in town and bounce it off at least two "script consultants", knocking over the coffee they bought with all the money they've made doing it. In the second, first you must become the master before anybody is going to be calling you to be the master (and, as those two have both noted, it doesn't really work like that anymore because studios don't throw around that kind of money on writing anymore).

I would say the first step is to pull out all your unproduced work and figure out if you have two spectacular spec scripts, or two that might be spectacular with another draft or seven. There's been several rounds of "how do I get an agent" discussion on ScriptNotes that's probably the most reliable information out there.

If you want to get a feel for a certain kind of DIY production ethic that's behind the stuff hitting big at film festivals right now, definitely find those festival websites and track down the writers and directors of the winning/buzzy films. I don't know that there's any single compendium of their conversations, but the Duplass brothers are probably the best example of that class (honestly, so is Kevin Smith, and his talks and writings on writing/directing/producing are worth it, because even if you don't like his films you can't deny he has made a bunch of them, mostly with very little money).
posted by Lyn Never at 8:47 AM on June 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

FYI -- being a script "doctor" -- i.e. doing short-term rewrites or "weeklies" for studio movies that are going into production, is usually only something people get to do who have already achieved a lot of success as screenwriters. The pay is VERY good. But you have to already be top of your field.

You can do rewrites on smaller films, or films that aren't set-up yet, without having achieved that much success. However you still need to be known around town to get those kinds of jobs, and usually have to have representation to get you the rewrite work.

You can always do rewrites on movies that are non-union, student films, etc just by knowing people in the industry and impressing them with your writing sample, if they bother to read it (which they won't unless they are a friend of yours.) The money won't be much, relatively. But it could be a foot in the door to future opportunities.

Being a script "consultant" is something you can do if you have given notes to people (writers, producers) who like what you've done for the script, and can recommend you to others. The "previous screenwriting career success" bar is much lower for this kind of work -- lots of people who haven't had movies made can still be good consultants. Pay varies. There are well-known story consultants like Lindsay Doran who make top dollar -- and then the cousin of the associate producer who gave him good notes on a student film he made twenty years ago, that he may pay a few hundred dollars to, for notes. It depends who you are.

Writing script "coverage" is something that development people tend to do. A lot of entry-level jobs in Hollywood have you writing coverage (a synopsis and analysis of someone else's screenplay) as a way for people to categorize a script on their desk, and decide if it's worth reading. Contests also offer "coverage" as a way to judge how good a script is. It's not rewriting work or doctoring work.

This industry is not for the faint of heart. Know what you're getting yourself into. It's just as hard to make it as a screenwriter as it is to make it as a hollywood actor/actress.
posted by egeanin at 9:41 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

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