Last week I began talking about how you can make a plan for your screenwriting career. I discussed the need to build up a portfolio of material to show potential reps and buyers. Sample material is how you get attention and jobs in the industry. And who knows, every once in a while you can sell a spec. I’ve done it.
Since you are writing spec material to build up a portfolio, you should think strategically about what your portfolio says about you. Your sample work is creating a “brand” for you as a screenwriter. When selecting which of your ideas to write, you should have an eye toward intentionally shaping your brand.
News flash: There are a lot of very good writers out there. There are a lot of very good writers with credits and experience and contacts. You obviously need to be a good writer to have a screenwriting career, but you also need something more. You need to offer the industry something it can’t get anywhere else. That thing is your voice.
A big part of your brand is the genre you work in. Specializing in one genre is wise, especially when you’re starting out. You might be able to pull off two if they are similar. Your brand might also include a particular aspect of writing that you’re particularly good at (“my scripts are in touch with the youth zeitgeist,” or “I write spectacular action scenes.”) It could include a thematic or stylistic aspect (“The humor in my broad comedies is really edgy,” “My sci-fi scripts contain subtle social critiques.”)
If you are known for something specific, then producers and executives will think of you when they need someone to do that thing on a project. You’ll be much more likely to get adaptation and rewrite assignments. Also, everyone has personal tastes. If you build up a group of contacts with one spec, you want the next one to be in the same genre to increase the chances they’ll like it. Finally, if you are pitching an idea, you will need a sample similar to that idea to assure the buyer you can pull it off.
When you are first starting out, you probably ought to write whatever moves you. It may take a while before you really find your voice. Don’t lock yourself into a direction too quickly. But once you’ve got a few scripts under your belt, you should start to figure out how you want to brand yourself.
Some writers know exactly what kind of thing they want to write. If you spend every night watching horror movies and you’ve always dreamed of being the next Wes Craven, you’re set. Most writers aren’t so clearly focused.
Start by thinking about what kind of movies you love. I encounter far too many young writers who are trying to write a movie that they wouldn’t pay to see themselves. Why would you do that?
Next, think about what you like to write and what you’re good at. Sometimes what a writer writes isn’t quite the same as what they most like to watch. If you love romantic comedy but can’t write witty dialogue, that’s probably not the best brand for you to pursue. Usually it isn’t hard to settle on a type of movie that you both love and that you can write well.
(You may want to poll people who have read your work – your writers group, your agent – to find out what they think you’re good at.)
Next, you should examine the marketplace. If you really want to write musicals or westerns or courtroom dramas, you will find Hollywood today a very frustrating place. Try to identify a dozen successful movies from the last five years that would have fit your brand. (Keep this list… it will be a resource to target producers, stars, and other folks who might be interested in your work.)
Okay, so let’s say you love musicals but Hollywood doesn’t really make them anymore. That doesn’t mean you have to give up the business. Can you apply your love of musicals to a genre that is viable? Alvin and the Chipmunks, Magic Mike and Pitch Perfect weren’t musicals in the traditional sense, but they all had strong musical components. Maybe you can write comedies set in the world of music, or biopics about famous musicians.
The Same But Different
You don’t want to just mimic what’s already successful, though. Believe me, I see writers try to do that a lot. Remember, what you have to offer is your unique voice. So think about what you can bring to the commercially viable genre that isn’t currently out there. What’s your fresh perspective? This will help you hone your brand so it is uniquely yours.
If you are already somewhat known in the industry – whether you have produced credits or a few sales or you have representation – then you already have a brand based on the material you’ve previously sent out. Try to define what your current brand is. Does it match the brand you want to have?
One reason for more established writers to write specs is to shift their brand. Maybe they’ve grown bored with the genre they’re in, or maybe the industry has changed since they started out and their brand feels dated. The average screenwriting career is something like eleven years. If you want to beat that average, you need to reinvent yourself periodically.
It’s probably not a great idea to try to radically shift your brand. It’s difficult to jump from family comedy to torture horror. Instead, make a subtle shift. Maybe go from family comedy to more edgy comedy. You might plan your shift in several steps. The idea is to keep the valuable reputation you’ve built, but show people you can do more.
Once you know what brand you are trying to build, select material that will help you get there. Develop your next two or three spec ideas to highlight your brand and also show a bit of range within it. Develop a couple of pitches that fit your brand for when you get meetings from your specs. Research the market and the competition in your corner of the business. Remember, these are still ideas that you love and are excited to write. But you're choosing the ones that will also help advance your career.
Our plan is starting to come together in terms of what we’re going to write. Next week I’ll discuss how to incorporate getting your material read into the plan.