How should I approach screenwriting?
April 19, 2006 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Writing for the silver screen (from a novice's view). I have the idea that I can write a few good scripts (screenplays) and if they make the grade, find an agent and make some side money. What is right and/or wrong with this idea?

Something is telling me that this is not the right approach.

1) I know nothing about making "pitches" to Hollywood types and/or agents.

2) I've researched the AskMe archives regarding pitches and taglines, but I'm not comfortable with offering up unfinished work.

3) Is it typical for writers to submit screenplays to agents? Or should I be writing in a different format?

4) I have a huge amount of original material, all based on personal experience.
posted by snsranch to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
here's what I've come to understand about screenplays. please understand that this comes from the perspective of someone who has never written one.

1. unless you're already established, no pitch or tagline will get a bad screenplay bought.
2. no lack of pitches or taglines will prevent a good screenplay from being bought, if you can get that foot in the door in the first place.
3. agents like to represent people who have sold work. it's far more rare to get an agent based on the quality of a single unsold manuscript. when you've got someone who wants to buy the material, THAT'S when you get an agent. you say, "let me get you in contact with my agent," then you call an agent and say "studio [x] wants my screenplay. help me negotiate." bang, you're agented.
4. the trick about getting the right people to seriously read your work is one of the great mysteries of hollywood. that's why busboys do things like slide manuscripts under bathroom stall doors while famous people are taking dumps. desperation is the order of the day out west, unless you can finagle some decent contacts. do what you can to get your face in among the right crowds and hope for luck, is my advice.

hope this helps.
posted by shmegegge at 8:21 PM on April 19, 2006

Sad to say, the fallacy here is that you expect Hollywood types a) to recognize a good script and, on the off chance that they might recognize quality material b) not to take a good script and rewrite all the decent stuff out of it in order to work in more explosions.

If you want to write screenplays avocationally and you can make some contacts among independent film people (directors, actors) and particularly if you are willing to take on large chunks of scut work, then you can possibly get your work produced. Should one of the finished films you work on get some buzz at a festival, that might lead to an assignment to do some writing on a larger-scale film, and that assigment could result in some money coming your way.

But understand that there are thousands and thousands of people out there who are trying to do the same thing, without even so much thought of (eventual) money -- they just want to write movies because they love to write movies. So, in essence, you are competing for a job with people whose entire purpose in life is to do that job, and to do it for no pay.

If you want to write for the pleasure and satisfaction of writing, then by all means write. But you are making a mistake if you define success in this kind of field by a financial reward.
posted by La Cieca at 8:22 PM on April 19, 2006

My impression is that you have to take babysteps. I imagine you'll have to write some mediocre scripts first because it will take some time to learn the craft and then keep working on it for a few years and if you are lucky you might get one of them on film one day. I've heard that you should have a few great scripts written before you approach an agent. You seem to be way ahead of yourself. But its worth trying if you ask me.
posted by Aghast. at 8:23 PM on April 19, 2006

This probably won't help either, but i'm in a sort of similar situation. i've had the plan for making a B movie for many years. (and no, not an independent film. Independent films are arty and thoughtful. Made by directors who care about their message and their craft. My movie will have fake blood dispensed with a firehose.) (And killer robots.)

(And Zombies)

After much research the plan that seems the most appealing is to follow in the steps of people like Robert Rodriguez, i'm going to do as much on my own as possible. Writing, directing, camera-work, lighting, editing, sound... whatever. i'm lucky in that i have a lot of friends who work in different aspects of television, photography, and production. When i don't know something and i can't find it on the internet, i will ask them.

(And scantily clad vampires)

i want to do some shorts; mainly for my own amusement, but more to find out where i'm really weak. From there i hope to move on to bigger and better things.

(And a monkey dressed as a pirate)

The trick of it seems to be to just do it. People are a lot more interested if you have something to show them. It may be rough, it may be silly, but it's miles better than just saying 'i have this idea...'

And worst case scenario: my grand project never gets made, but i have a lot of fun learning some skills that i've been curious about.

(But no ninjas. Ninjas would just be gratuitous)

Good luck!
posted by quin at 8:44 PM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you for the excellent commentary. (I'm actually very inspired now!) To continue this discussion consider the following:

1) I can't imagine actually making any money let alone actually getting a film produced in the next couple of years.

2) Just to get started, do I submit an actual screenplay? (Yes, I can write them.)

3) I still don't know the best way to approach an agent/studio/production company?
posted by snsranch at 8:52 PM on April 19, 2006

...that's why busboys do things like slide manuscripts under bathroom stall doors while famous people are taking dumps
Now there's a screenplay.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:06 PM on April 19, 2006

I'd recommend checking out some books about screenwriting. Many contain sections on trying to sell a script. Two in particular are:

"Adventures in the Screen Trade," by William Goldman
"Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay," by Andrew Horton

The latter is a bit artsy, which may not be your thing. A big theme of every book I've read is revising and rewriting, over and over, getting friends to read and give you comments, etc...

My impression is that the zeroth law is formatting. Make sure every line of your script is in proper form. Scriptwriting software like Final Draft makes this trivial. I'm sure there are also LaTeX templates out there as well. Definitely don't write it in a standard word processor.

Other than that, from talking to a couple parents-of-a-friend TV producers and a writing professor who's sold some stuff, a big hurdle seems to involve getting somebody to simply read your script. When you've got producers who have piles and piles of scripts on their desk, they're going to pay attention to the ones that somebody they trust has pointed them to. Before the agent, I'd recommend trying to get some sort of a connection. How is up to you. Maybe just start asking people what their spouses/parents/friends in L.A. do (and then maybe buy them drinks for a while).

In short, don't worry so much about pitching. That comes a good time after you've actually gotten somebody to read what you've labored over.

Oh, one more thing I've been told, which has prevented me from ever exploiting a connection: make sure that the first script you hand in is gold, or there won't be a second time.

And yeah, don't concern yourself with making money. Concern yourself with letting your mind play, and buying lottery tickets.
posted by dsword at 9:51 PM on April 19, 2006

Make the movie yourself!

Clerks, Hollywood Shuffle and innumerable other films were self-financed.
posted by frogan at 10:53 PM on April 19, 2006

There's no... side money in screenplays. If you're a paid screenwriter, then you'll be a screenwriter and very happy with the money you're making and having another job will be, well, superfluous. Because your job will be screenwriting.

First thing you should do... write a script. You don't need anyone to give their approval, you don't need anyone to sign you to anything, because it's just you and the page. That's why screenwriting is a popular fantasy -- "here's something I can do all on my own and then it'll make me rich and tagentially famous!" Some useful tools... look around for classes. Community colleges might have a screenwriting class you could take, or UCSD extension or any similar school. I'd stay away from those big conference-type screenwriting classes -- I'm a proponent of the workshop approach. Find a class with ten or twelve people in it where you each write a script and discuss what you're doing and read each others' works. It'll motivate you to write, and should give you some building blocks and teach you about the form (and it's a very specific form). I see you're in San Diego -- it's close enough to L.A. that there might be a decent semi-pro screenwriting community there, but I have no idea. Books are a good helper, too. I always suggest Vicki King's "How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days." Great for structure and hand-holding, but reviled by some, usually snooty people. It's a nice starting point. My ex wrote a screenwriting book. I won't suggest that one, but you'll probably stumble on to it. I'm sorry if you do.

So once you write the script? Rewrite it. No, seriously. Then throw it away. I swear. This works. Then write another one. And another. Are you tired yet? Because you know what's coming next? What? Yup, another script. You're getting good at this.

After that? Agents and pitches and selling and so on and so forth? Come back in six months, after you've written the script (yes, the one I told you to throw away, but you and I both know that you didn't take my advice on that. But you did on the rewriting thing, right? Right?!?!), and ask us more then, because that's a whole 'nother bag of weasels.
posted by incessant at 11:28 PM on April 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Okay, I am actually a working screenwriter with a produced feature. I write this from my hotel in LA having just got back from dinner with my agent...

Here is how to get into screenwriting. It worked for me and it worked for every screenwriter I know (including my friend who finally got his first professional gig six years after doing what I am about to suggest...)

You learn everything you can about writing screenplays from reading books, reading screenplays, watching movies, the internet, whatever.

You write a screenplay which you think is good. You revise it until you cannot make it any better. You then submit it to screenwriting contests, in particular the Nicholl Fellowship. (Google it).

If your writing is good enough, it WILL make the quarter finals. If you don't get there on the first attempt, keep trying.

Once it makes the quarter finals, you immediately call entertainment attorneys in LA. (Once it is in the quarter finals, feel free to email me and I will give you their numbers). Ask them to read the screenplay (they will). Ask them to help you find an agent.

They will send your script to agents. Hopefully by now you are in the semi finals but if not it may still work. Come to LA and meet the agents. Hopefully one of them will sign you. If not, rinse and repeat.

Once you have a decent agent you will get work.

That is how every working screenwriter I know (who didn't go to UCLA) got into the business.

My friend who just got his first job did exactly this and kept at it for six years. He worked in regular joe jobs while he was doing this. He kept sending me his scripts, which I always enjoyed (we started at the same time and met on misc.writing.screenplays). Six months ago a producer called me and offered me a rewrite and asked me if I was interested. I was too busy. She asked me if there was anyone else I could recommend. I gave her his email.

He of course by this time had a bunch of excellent writing samples (and an agent). He got the job almost immediately. Now he's up for his second job and (I hope) about to cruise his way into the big leagues. But only because he stuck at it.

In my case, I did what I suggest above and flew to LA to meet agents while my script was still in play. I got an agent but my script never made it to the finals. I started working almost immediately afterwards and have worked solidly in Hollywood ever since.

So, forget pitches (you will learn that later). You ned one killer script. That's all it takes.

Anyone who is (a) sufficiently talented and (b) sufficiently motivated WILL make it into the business. I've never met anyone who was both (a) and (b) who didn't.
posted by unSane at 11:31 PM on April 19, 2006 [37 favorites]


1. the vast majority of people who think they are (a), aren't.

2. you can sometimes still make it if you are (b) but not (a).

3. You will never make it if you are (a) but not (b).
posted by unSane at 11:33 PM on April 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm another working screenwriter, and unSane's advice is very good. I have some additional thoughts, but first, a question:

Do you really, really, really want to do this?

Because right now, there are tens of thousands of people living in Los Angeles who passionately, desperately want to make a living as screenwriters. They are waking up at four in the morning to revise their umpteenth unsold screenplay before going out to work at their day jobs as mailroom clerks in talent agencies, or as tour guides on studio lots, or as writers' assistants on sitcoms, where they network like hell with everybody they meet at every level of the industry... unless they have day jobs waiting tables or working in copy shops, in which case they are networking like hell in an attempt to get a job as a mailroom clerk or a tour guide or a writers assistant. And they will live these lives for as long as it takes to achieve their dream, even if it means staying in that minimum wage job at Kinko's for a decade.

And you know what? They aren't even your main competition. Your main competition consists of the people who have already done all of that and gotten agents and sold scripts. Because when an agent reads your script, he's going to ask himself, "Should I really take time away from clients with established track records to pound the pavement on behalf of this new, unsold writer?"

And by the way: if you do get an agent... and he does sell your script (or get you a studio assignment)... you're still not on easy street. Nearly half the members of the Writers' Guild of America (the union for film, TV, and radio writers) have zero income in any given year. Remember, these are the guys who have already broken in and sold scripts--and nearly half of them get no work at all in a given year.

Now, if you've read all that, and you're still burning with a desire to do this--then don't let me discourage you. If it's your dream to be a screenwriter, and you really can't imagine yourself being happy doing anything else, then by all means pursue your dream. Life's too short to do anything else.

And for that matter, if you have no expectation of your scripts ever getting bought or made, and writing them is just a fun hobby like building model train tracks, then, again, don't let me discourage you.

But if the money is the main attraction for you, then you need to know that--statistically speaking--you will get a better return on the time spent by working at McDonalds and investing some of your salary in lottery tickets.

OK, enough discouragement. On to the practical advice...

My only quibble with unSane's comments is: while the method that worked for unSane and his friends is a good one, it isn't the only one. I, for one, never made it to the Nicholl Quarterfinals--by the time I was a good enough screenwriter that I could probably have done it, I was already a working TV writer, and was therefore excluded from the competition.

Unlike with law or medicine, there is no single commonly accepted path to making it in this profession. You'll therefore find it helpful to hear as many individual stories of how people made it as possible, and take the bits and pieces from each that seem to apply most to you.

So, here are things I did along the way to selling my first script:

1. Moved to Los Angeles.

1A. Went to USC and got a MPW ("Master of Professional Writing.") With hindsight, I would not recommend this. I learned some stuff, but I would have learned a lot more by taking the tens of thousands of dollars I spent on tuition and using it to make a bunch of short films, and then a full-length film on digital. (I know you say you want to be a writer, not a director, but you learn a HUGE amount about writing by actually seeing your stuff made.)

2. Became a writers' assistant for a TV show. This gave me a chance to familiarize the show's star and the head writer with my work, and ultimately got a staff job on the show. Having this TV job didn't help my film career anywhere near as much as I thought it would. True, it made it very easy to get agents and producers to read my scripts--but my scripts still had to be good enough to impress on their own merits, and it took a long time to my screenwriting to a good enough level to do this. (The show I was writing for was a talk show, and what I was writing for it was page after page of jokes. This didn't hurt my storytelling skills, but it didn't help them, either.)

3. Learned everything I could about movies. Watched hundreds of them. Read scripts. Read books on screenwriting (but never fell into the trap of believing every rule proffered in every book.)

4 Wrote scripts. Got feedback from other writers--whether aspiring writers like I was, or professional writers like I hoped to be. Rewrote those scripts. Wrote new scripts. Got more feedback. Revised my new scripts. Revised my old scripts. Etc. By the time I finally got a paid screenwriting gig, I had written 8 or 9 feature film scripts, plus a bunch of sitcom specs, a full-length play, a one-act play,a bunch of short stories and a novel. (These were all things I wrote "on spec"--IE, I wrote them on my own for no pay, in the hope of selling them afterwards.) In addition to all that unsold spec work, I had also sold a short story, some magazine articles, and a full-length humor book. Plus my three years on staff at an Emmy-winning TV show.

5. Networked as much as I could. I'm pretty bad at shmoozing, but just living in LA, you end up making contacts and meeting people. I also made contacts through my undergraduate alma mater's alumni network. I also wrote and directed a few short films, which I submitted to festivals, where I ended up meeting more people. After all that, I ended up moving to London (long story) where I had to make a whole new set of contacts... Finally, some contacts I had made a year or two before ended up getting one of my scripts into the hands of a European producer looking for a writer. He liked my script; I got hired; and an Oscar-winning director is now attached to my script. Voila! Overnight success! And it only took me a little over 10 years.
posted by yankeefog at 6:53 AM on April 20, 2006 [6 favorites]

Read Kung-Fu Monkey and the other blogs he links too. He is a working Hollywood screenwriter that blogs about how to write scripts and get them sold. From what I can tell, look forward to a few years of fairly anonymous writing for a studio before you get anything of your own made.
posted by ChazB at 6:59 AM on April 20, 2006

4) I have a huge amount of original material, all based on personal experience.

This is the only thing that threw up red flags for me. I spent five years as a script reader and I can't tell you how many screenplays I read that were poorly disguised auto-biographies. If you want to write about yourself the first time out, feel free. Everyone does it (hell, even I did it, and I knew what to avoid). But after that, steer away from it.

This is good advice for lots of reasons, but mainly these two: 1. you probably aren't as interesting to other people as you are to yourself (it's hard for people to write objectively about their own experiences) and 2. when people criticize your writing, they are also criticizing you, and that can lead to hurt feelings ("But that's how it REALLY happened!")

Good luck.
posted by ColdChef at 7:03 AM on April 20, 2006

unSane nailed it. Every working screenwriter (in the American market) that I personally know took that route (via Nicholl) and that's the route I plan on taking.

Nicholl deadline is annually on the first weekdeay in May (ie, May 1 unless May 1 is on a weekend). Their web site is here.

Making the "top 10%" at Nicholl is easy. I've done it every time I've entered. QFs is harder. I've never made Semis, but hope to his year. Anyone who's made QFs or higher will have their name, script title, and contact info sent to agents and producers. The higher you place in the contest, the higher quality agent/producer that will contact you. Simple as that.

What can separate you from the others who make QFs and higher (and myself) is doing what unSane suggests: call them once you found out you've placed in the contest.

Also, don't take this the wrong way snsranch, but as someone who's slaved over many a spec screenplay, I can't tell you how quick my eyes are to roll at people who wanna break into Hwood as writers tell me they haven't written the script "yet".

Lastly, I recommend these:

- screenwriting from the heart by James Ryan (my fave book on screenwriting and very different from every other book on the market)

- on directing film by David Mamet (for its storytelling info)

- a good screenwriting software program (I recommend Movie Magic) (note that our own whl is having a contest right now where one of the prizes is Final Draft, a software program that's very popular in Hwood, despite it being poo and having terrible support. I'd take it for free, though. :)

- and I gotta disagree with dsword. That Horton book is awful. In fact, if you wanna pay the shipping, you can have mine. Email's in profile.

On preview, Yankeefog's got some great advice as always.
posted by dobbs at 7:10 AM on April 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I'll put forth again: any MeFites who wanna swap scripts for feedback, I'd love to get a little writer's group going where we each do 10 pages a week and swap 'em. Anyone who's interested, lemme know...
posted by dobbs at 7:14 AM on April 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Some other blogs of interest:

Josh Friedman
John August
Chris Lockhart
The Artful Writer
posted by dobbs at 7:19 AM on April 20, 2006

unSane's advice is obviously good, but this is smug bullshit:

Anyone who is (a) sufficiently talented and (b) sufficiently motivated WILL make it into the business.

That's an insult to the many, many talented screenwriters who don't get lucky—and if you don't think luck is a big part of it, you're fooling yourself and are due for a big comeuppance someday. I know someone who wrote good scripts, got an agent, got a director, got producers lined up, the backing fell through, the director got interested in another project, the agent left the business, blah blah, you don't want to know all the gory details, the point is being good isn't good enough, getting an agent isn't good enough, nothing's good enough except having the luck to have everything go right, all through the long-drawn-out and painful process of getting a movie made. Screenplays are like sperm: for every one that makes it, millions don't. It's fine to dream, but be aware of the odds.

Oh, and even if your script does get backing, it's going to get torn up and rewritten until you barely recognize it. That may or may not be important to you.
posted by languagehat at 7:30 AM on April 20, 2006

lh, it depends how one defines 'making it'. I agree with unSane. I know people who make a living as screenwriters who've never had work produced (ie, nothing they've written has been produced but they have been paid to write); I know people who make a living as screenwriters who've never had their own work produced (ie, never had a credit, though words they've written have been produced). But they're still screenwriters. They work because they are talented and tenacious (and prepared), and I think anyone with those qualities will make it in some sense or another.

When I made the QuarterFinals at Nicholl, I was thrilled. However, I assumed that was the end of it. I wasn't aware that my name was going to be released (at the end of the contest) to prodcos and agents. I thought only the 10 winners were announced. I also didn't call any of these people as I suck at pitching and summarizing my own work (things I'm working on).

When I didn't win the contest, I immediately began reworking that script. I was 10 percent through and it had improved and changed drastically when the phone rang and I started getting emails from agents and producers asking about the script. I was not prepared for this. I was no longer satisfied with the screenplay that had placed in the contest and I didn't have another script or draft to send along. Oops.

In retrospect, I was an idiot for not just sending in the draft that placed (I sent in nothing). Being prepared for anything goes a long way. I've learned my lesson.

Who was it that said "The harder the work the luckier I am"? I agree with them.
posted by dobbs at 7:53 AM on April 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

unSane's advice is obviously good, but this is smug bullshit:

Anyone who is (a) sufficiently talented and (b) sufficiently motivated WILL make it into the business.

That's an insult to the many, many talented screenwriters who don't get lucky

It is not an insult to anyone. It's the truth. I have also worked as a producer and I can tell you that there is no huge reservoir of brilliant unproduced scripts out there in Hollywood, or of brilliant writers who despite their incredible endeavors simply can't make it past the gatekeepers.

Yes, luck is involved, but only to the extent that luck is involved when you throw tennis balls into a bucket. Eventually one will go in. If it doesn't, your aim isn't that good, or you aren't throwing enough balls.

I know a lot of writers. I do not know any who are any good and really dedicated themselves to getting into the business who didn't. I do know several very good writers who have never *really* committed to writing-as-a-career who have not made it.

I am not saying the Nicholl is the only way into the business, obviously not, but it is the only once where you can state the steps required, and know that if your writing is any good it will get noticed. It, and the various screeenwriting programs at universities around LA, are the defacto point of entry into the business.
posted by unSane at 8:07 AM on April 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

By the what, what Dobbs said.

The first question you will be asked after someone reads your script and likes it is "what else you got?".

It is incredibly helpful to have another good script to send them.

It is amazing how much most people have written before they make it into the business. Often as many as eight or nine full length feature specs.
posted by unSane at 8:12 AM on April 20, 2006

Question about the Nicholl and comment...

1) Aren't most screenwriting contests such as that really geared towards dramas or other "serious" or "artistic" type products? What are the odds you might do well with a silly (but funny) comedy or well written and original action movie?

2) My comment - While it helps to be a great writer I think having a killer idea is also very very important. Sometimes more important than being a good writer. One of my best friends is a production exec at a studio and I know of two scripts they bought just for the idea. They then promptly dumped the entire script...kept the idea and hired a whole new writer.

My feeling would be don't start writing until you know you have that killer idea...otherwise all the great dialogue in the world will not sell your script. (subject the change without notice!)
posted by UMDirector at 8:50 AM on April 20, 2006

UMDirector, Nicholl claims to be searching for one thing: a good story well told. They say genre doesn't matter. That said, keep in mind it's much more difficult to get multiple people to agree on what's "funny". To win Nicholl you have to get past 6 different judges (each with their own biases, quirks, preferences). When someone doesn't laugh at something they're reading (which they've been told is a comedy), it's unsuccessful. Dramas and action scripts don't have to rely on something as fickle as a sense of humor. Yes, Dramas and Action flicks have to meet other criteria (rising conflict, compelling characters, etc.)--but comedies have those expectations as well. Greg Beal (who runs Nicholl) has flat out said that Comedies rarely win Nicholl. However, this is not because he (and other readers) do not like comedies--they do, but rather because it's more difficult to make 6 people laugh at the same thing for 90 minutes.

Also, the second most respected screenwriting contest in the world is Austin, which has a deadline of June 1 this year, which may be a bit easier for people to meet than Nicholl's, whhich is days away. Austin also allows entrants in the category of Comedy whereas Nicholl puts all scripts head to head. I think they may also have a Sci-Fi stream.

This round table discussion may be of interest to those reading this thread and/or thinking of entering contests.

As for not writing until you have a "killer idea"... well, my thoughts are that a) you won't be much of a writer if you don't write until you've got the killer idea and b) in the hands of a great writer any idea can be made killer. Of course, Hollywood may have a different take on Killer than I do.

Also, many writers start with a character, and not an idea, and find the story while writing. If they're not writing, they'll never find the killer idea.

Screenwriting requires a particular skill which, imo, is absent from other kinds of writing. The only way to improve that skill is to keep doing it.

More web sites people might want to check out (though I hate the place)
Message boards at Done Deal
posted by dobbs at 9:11 AM on April 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

FYI: Similar threads can be found under the tags screenplay and screenwriting. (The tags above aren't particularly helpful.) Also, this gem.
posted by cribcage at 9:21 AM on April 20, 2006

Wow -- y'know, there's a level of hope in this thread that I think is wildly overdone. If I were browsing through this, I'd just think, "Oh, so if I do this and this and go to this and enter this and call this and if I have any talent, then I'll become a screenwriter," which, of course, is bollocks. As virulent as unSane is and no matter how many successful writers he knows, I'm siding with LH -- success comes not-that-often, there's no sure-fire way to make it in Hollywood no matter how much talent and ambition. Anyone who tells you different would also like to hook you up to an e-meter.

Now, how's that script coming? That's all I care about. The rest will come later, much much later. For now? Get writing!

Seriously. Stop browsing mefi and get back to writing. I like that line on page 2, but make sure the scene doesn't fall flat at the end.
posted by incessant at 9:31 AM on April 20, 2006

I almost agree with unSane and Dobbs about talent and hard work vs luck--but I don't quite agree.

Anecdotally, I would guess the median time to break into the entertainment industry falls somewhere between 5 and 10 years. (In my case, it took 5 and 10 years--I started trying in 1995, broke into TV in 2000, and didn't break into film until 2005.) Where you fall into that range has a great deal to do with talent and hard work--but it has something to do with luck, as well.

It's also a fact that everybody has a finite number of years to spend trying to break in before they either give up or have to stop. This number is certainly largely a factor of dedication-John Doe might only be dedicated enough to persist for a year, Richard Roe might persist for his entire life. But it also has a luck element. Maybe Richard will live to be 100, or maybe he'll get hit by a car at age 25.

So. If (number of years it takes you to break in) > (number of years you can keep trying), you will break in. If not, you won't. And both of these numbers have a luck component to them...

What I always say is that the only way to be guaranteed success as a writer is to have talent, dedication, and luck. If you only have two out of those three, you can frequently simulate the remaining one--but there is no guaranty.
posted by yankeefog at 10:02 AM on April 20, 2006

Oh, one other thing to throw into the discussion:

I (and others) have casually been using the phrase "sell a screenplay." Actually, most screenwriters get most of their income from studio assignments rather than sales of original specs.

I think the fantasy of every aspiring screenwriter is that you write a script, take it to a bunch of producers, and one of them buys it and makes it into the movie you imagine.

What is much more likely is: you take your script to a bunch of producers and (if it is professional quality) a lot of the producers like it. But they don't want to buy it because it is too similar to something they already have, or too different from the kind of thing they usually produce, or too big, or too small, or too something else. But if you're lucky, one of the producers owns the rights to a novel that is similar in spirit to your script, and so he hires you to adapt the novel.

This is how I got my first gig.
posted by yankeefog at 10:14 AM on April 20, 2006

Hope is a wonderful thing when you're chasing a dream as elusive as screenwriting. I say take as much hope as you can from folks out there doing it. If you focus on the odds against you, you'll never make it.

That said, I actually agree with unSane and the others: if you're determined and at least a little bit talented, you'll eventually find a way to break in on some level.

And YankeeFog pretty much nailed it. Being determined might mean spending five to ten years working low-paying day jobs while writing every chance you get, networking at every opportunity, entering competitions, participating in writing groups, reading, taking classes, etc. You will likely be exhausted, overwhelmed, overworked and underpaid. I've been working steadily at all of the above for five years, and am just this month sending out a spec script to agents and managers to get representation. I've waited until now to do so, but along the way, I've gotten to know half a dozen agents and managers, a handful of t.v. showrunner and dozens of professional writers who might refer me. Now that I feel like I have something that will be well received, I'm making my move.

Breaking into screenwriting is the hardest thing I've ever tried to do (and I've prosecuted multi-million dollar cases in federal court), but I firmly believe that it is possible to achieve, if one is willing to sacrifice the many things they may have to along the way.
posted by whl at 11:09 AM on April 20, 2006

I've been working on the path that unSane laid out. I got my original screenplay finished three years and am now working on adapting things (historical events, novels, etc.). I'd highly recommend finding something to adapt to have in your portfolio.

I've taken lots of classes and write every chance I get, so that when I do break into the quarter- or semi-finals, I'll be prepared, as others have mentioned.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 11:23 AM on April 20, 2006

I can only offer you the personal anecdotes of someone who worked in the film business because there is no science to it. It's a great deal of luck and persistence and everybody will tell you that.

I got out of school with a BA in Film. And it was nearly - that's nearly - worthless in getting work in the field. What it did give me is a good network of friends who were also having trouble getting work in the field. Eventually, though, one or would get a good gig and you'd get an "in." I got some good gigs writing industrial and commercial material and even some TV sketch comedy stuff. But I made no money at all.

I wanted to write. But I needed to pay the bills. What I did was get in the business as a Grip thinking that eventually I could get exposure to the other skills and perhaps work my way up through the producing staff and meet somebody to give a script to. This it turns out was a terrible idea. When you grip - your a grip. You way get a rare chance to transition to Art Department or something like that but it's horizontal and essentially all on set labor is advanced forms of furniture moving. I spent eight years essentially furniture moving.

Simultaneously I had this very good friend and former college room-mate who did stand-up comedy and wrote for stand-up comics down in LA. He did it for free for about three years. He simply got business cards printed that said "Screen Writer" and passed them out to entertainment types who came to clubs.

Then there was the TV writers strike. And he got a call. He really had no idea how to produce material for the format - excepting through our lame-ass production experiences in college. But he got a gig writing a couple of monolog spots every few weeks (when his jokes got chosen) for a rather prominent late night show. All this time he kept writing screen-plays with "specific" rising stars in mind - exploiting a particular stars demographic and skill.

With that he went to industry parties and spread rumors that "Eddies" people were into a script he had written. After about a year "Eddies" people called and said they weren't interested - but their friend, "Sinbad's" people, were. He sold his very FIRST screen-play for over a hundred grand. That is very rare.

Now another mutual friend simply did this. He wrote scripts. Scripts that unless he was Bruce Willis's best friend would never see a 12K in million years. But he wrote them.

Then, through a network of friends like me and our mutual bud down in LA he got some investors and he began producing these scripts himself. Small little films. Then eventually after eight years he got one in at Sundance. He then got a deal with Focus in 2004.

So. My point is this. It's either networking or independent producing that increase the "luck" factor. That takes time, good friends, and dedication.

But it CAN be done. Good luck.
posted by tkchrist at 12:29 PM on April 20, 2006

Response by poster: I can't give enough thanks for the greatness in this thread. I leaves me feeling both exhilarated and intimidated. That's good. Thank you all.
posted by snsranch at 5:10 PM on April 20, 2006

I just came back to this thread because I wanted to cite one of Unsane's post in another thread. I re-read tkchrist's comment, and I wanted to point out one thing:

His friend was very, very lucky.

If the WGA (the film and TV writers' union) had caught him scabbing during a strike, he would have been excluded for life from joining the WGA, which would have meant he could never work for a WGA signatory. This includes all live-action network TV shows and most major studios.

The buzz I've been hearing is that the WGA has turned a blind eye to most scabbing work in the past--but it has taken a more militant tone of late, and if there is another strike, you do NOT want to scab if you ever want a good career as a film or TV writer.

Seriously. There are few hard and fast rules in Hollywood, but "Don't scab if you ever want to work again" is one of them.
posted by yankeefog at 12:56 AM on June 6, 2006

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