Friday, December 19, 2014

8 Truths for Building a Screenwriting Career

News flash: it’s very hard to break in to the screenwriting business. It’s equally hard to stay in it. There are many more talented people who want to write movies and television than will get the chance. The difficulty level can lead to mindsets that harm your chances of success. Here are eight truths that will help you avoid mental traps:

1. There is no “wall” between you and the industry, no secret password to break in.
For new writers it can seem like Hollywood is surrounded by a big wall, and they need to find some secret door to get past it. This can lead them to stalk industry insiders, or to try embarrassing gimmicks to get attention, or to fall prey to promises of, “if you just buy my product or seminar, you will be able to break in.” But in fact Hollywood is always on the lookout for fantastic new writers. Yes, you have to network. Yes, contests and pitch fests can help get you noticed. Yes, it will take time, determination, and a lot of rejection. But most people fail not because they lack access but because their material really is not yet as great as they think it is or because they don’t put in the required effort. So focus on creating better material and then getting it read, and stop looking for the “secret” way into the business.

2. It is always hard.

Two stories: After Sweet Home Alabama came out I was looking for a new agent via my manager. We were having difficulty getting agents to even read my new spec. I said to my manager, “Wow, I thought this would get easier.” She replied, “Oh no. It’s never easy. Get that out of your head.”

Second story: I got to have dinner with David Seidler (writer of The King’s Speech) at a WGA event. I asked him if winning the Oscar changed anything. He told me a story about going to a meeting (after the Oscar) where he thought he was being offered a writing job. It turned out he was competing against five other writers for the gig – four of whom also had Oscars. He said, “All that changes is you move to a higher level of competition.”

3. You need luck, but it will do you no good if you are not prepared.

Ask any writer how they broke into the business and their story will inevitably contain a moment where they got very lucky. It can make you think success is random. But here’s the thing – everyone who makes the effort gets those lucky breaks. And if you stick with it, you will continue to get even more breaks. The writers who succeed are those who are prepared when the opportunity comes – prepared with good material and professional work habits.

4. Stop blaming outside forces for your lack of success. Even if it’s true, it won’t help you.

You hear a lot about ageism, sexism, racism, etc. in the business. Statistics back up the claim that it is harder for non-white, non-male, non-young writers to succeed. But if this applies to you, you can’t use it as an excuse. Whining won’t change things. And it can be a trap – I’ve seen writers refuse to accept that their material needs work because they blame outside forces for their failure. As a result, they never improve. If the playing field is tilted against you, you really have only two choices: give up or work harder. (The same applies if you have dyslexia, a family to support, or any other reason you blame for your failures other than the quality of your material.) The reality is that it’s hard for everyone, even young white males.

5. It is a business. If you want to be a pro, you have to learn the business side.

If you want to write screenplays as a hobby, you can write whatever you want and not bother to learn about the business. But unless you are independently wealthy, your screenplays will then be doomed to remain unmade. If you want to earn a living at writing, and you want studios or independent financiers to pay for production of your movies, you need to take the business side seriously. You have to follow the trades, network, learn to pitch, learn to incorporate studio notes, etc.

6. Nobody owes you. You have to earn it.

Nobody cares how badly you want to be a screenwriter. They only care how good your material is and how professional you are. Fortunately, passion can help you become a better writer. But only if you don’t feel entitled to a career. Focus on proving that you deserve a career. Be humble, work hard, and be willing to learn.

7. Being selfish holds you back. Being nice, generous, and cooperative opens doors.

Ask not what your industry contacts can do for you, ask what you can do for them. You will need help to start and maintain a career in Hollywood. People like to help people that they like. So remember the golden rule and treat people as you would like to be treated.

8. Watch your back.

Despite the above, be aware that there are many people who will try to take advantage of you, including some straight up con men that prey on desperation. Don’t let that make you overly cynical or suspicious – that will hurt you as well. But do your homework on people. Make sure they’re who they say they are. And seek legal advice when dealing with contract issues. Don’t be afraid to say no if something feels creepy or unfair. It can be better for your career long term to turn down the wrong offer. 

Keep these truths in mind as you climb that difficult mountain that we call a career in screenwriting.

1 comment:

fredman said...

Nice points, Doug! I saw Reese Witherspoon interviewed this past Sunday on 60-Minutes and thought of you.