To be a professional screenwriter is to run a small business. And like any business, you will be more successful if you establish a strong brand. For screenwriters, your brand is what kind of script the buyers know you can execute well.
Most commonly this is the genre you write in. Most writers, myself included, do not like the idea of being pigeonholed. But it happens and it’s much better if you decide which pigeonhole to be in rather than leaving it to someone else. Plus, there are many good reasons to become known for a specific genre.
First, studios maintain actual lists of writers that they know can deliver in certain genres. If you’re on the sci-fi list, when they need someone to rewrite a sci-fi script or adapt a sci-fi novel, you might get the call. People in the business admire writers who can do a lot of different things, but being a generalist means you’re not a specialist. They won’t think of you when they need the specialist.
You may be thinking, “Well, I just want to write and sell original scripts, so I don’t need to be on those lists.” But given the state of the business where studios are obsessed with underlying IP (intellectual property), it’s hard to make a living writing only original material. Wouldn’t you rather make your rent money adapting a book than working at Starbucks? And it’s a lot easier to get original stuff produced if you’re regularly working on assignments. So you do want to be on those studio lists.
Another reason to have a strong brand is that it is much easier to sell a pitch in a genre you are known to do well. If you’re pitching a broad comedy hoping to get someone to pay you to write the script, you’ll have much better luck if you’re known for writing hilarious broad comedies. If all your previous work is in the horror genre, producers will question whether you can deliver the funny.
A third reason is that buyers and agents tend to specialize as well. I’ve told the story of getting my first agent here before. I had sent around the romantic comedy that I wrote as my Masters thesis at USC (the screenplay that became Sweet Home Alabama). One particular producer liked it a lot, but didn’t buy it. So I sent her my next script – a big action adventure. She told me that her company came very close to buying this second script, but decided they just didn’t have the relationships with the directors and stars that do action adventure. They made comedies. The good news was she offered to help me get an agent.
But that story illustrates how you have to match material to the appropriate buyer. As your career develops, you’ll make contacts and fans in the business. As in my case, the fans you make with your first script will be the people who make movies in that genre. If the next script you write is something radically different, most of those contacts will be useless to you. Yes, in my case I got an agent… but because I switched genres I didn’t get a sale.
Your brand isn’t solely limited to genre. Some writers are known for writing great dialogue, or writing jokes, or writing female characters or writing action, etc. If a comedy project needs a punch up, the studios call the joke guy. If they want to attract a famous actress to a part, they get the writer known for writing great roles for women to do a pass on the screenplay. Being particularly good at something means you can get work.
To some extent this is out of your control. Sure, you can intentionally hone a certain skill, but chances are you’re already good at some things and weaker at others. Most likely, your strengths lie in the genre and type of material you’re most passionate about. So play to your strength and passion!
Savvy writers think about their brand and plan their spec work accordingly. As illustrated above, I didn’t do such a good job of that when I was starting out. Imagine what kind of work you most want to be doing ten years from now. You should be writing and pitching material that will lead you in that direction. An old coworker of mine had a little sign above her computer that said, “Is what you’re doing today getting you where you want to be tomorrow?” You are building your brand with every spec script you write and every pitch you do. Choose your subject matter wisely.
This applies not just to specs. It can be difficult to turn down a work in this business, but remember: if you take a job that’s off-brand you will dilute your brand. Obviously you also need to seize on opportunity, and opportunities aren’t always perfect. But sometimes making a smart short-term decision can actually hurt your chances of long-term success. Sometimes writers will do off-brand jobs under a pseudonym for this reason.
Once you’re an established screenwriter, it is possible to broaden your brand and what you do. Once you’re known for broad comedy, adding action comedy to your repertoire is simply a matter of writing the right spec – but ONLY do this after you’ve firmly established your broad comedy brand. And if you manage to become an “A-list” screenwriter, your brand is “A-list.” But that doesn’t happen after one or two movies. You have to build your career to that level. That will be a lot easier if you consciously pursue a brand.