Tens of millions of people dream of being professional screenwriters. Hundreds of thousands each year go so far as to actually write a screenplay or teleplay. But most have a very idealized idea of what it means to be a film or television writer. In this post I will attempt to give you an honest description of the life of a screenwriter.
Screenwriting is hard work.
Yes, being a professional screenwriter means you sometimes get to go to premieres and swanky industry parties and hang with movie stars. You get swag and invitations to free screenings. But most of the job is sitting by yourself writing. Often on deadline. You don’t get to write only when inspiration strikes you. Feature writers have to spend hours every day writing (though you can work in your pajamas if you like). If you work in television, you will go to the office every day and work long hours (pajamas are frowned upon in most television writers' rooms).
And, you have to do the business part of the business. You will have to go to a lot of meetings and pitch yourself and your projects. You will have to deal with things like complex taxes, health insurance, and contracts. You have to keep up on the trades and you have to network. This is true even once you’re successful – in fact, the more successful you are, the more time you’ll spend on business.
And this is a high stakes industry. Film and television is unbelievably expensive to produce. Most people in Hollywood genuinely want to make quality product, but the producers’ and executives’ main responsibility is to make product that turns a profit. People are not there to coddle your ego or help you achieve your artistic dreams. You have to have a thick skin, because if they don’t like something you’ve written, they will let you know. There’s too much at stake to worry about your feelings.
Screenwriting is entrepreneurial.
Many people think it would be great to work for themselves, but I find few people really have the temperament for an entrepreneurial lifestyle. Most film and television writers I know live in nice houses and drive decent, late model cars. A few have mansions and expensive sports cars. Many send their kids to private schools. When you work in Hollywood, you tend to get paid very well.
But you will be constantly scrambling to find work. There are far more talented, hard working writers than there are jobs. For feature writers, the typical contract period for a draft is twelve weeks. These days, most contracts only guarantee one draft. So you will generally be in need of a new job at least once a year. Often you will have to do many pitch meetings over months to get a paying job. Even screenwriters with long lists of credits find themselves without income for extended periods. It’s stressful. You can write on spec, but the spec market has always been a long-odds game, never more so than in the last few years.
If you get a job on a television show, you can probably assume you’ll be working for four months or so… as long as the show doesn’t get cancelled (and of course most shows get cancelled their first season). You will spend that four months trying to make yourself valuable so you get brought back for the next set of episodes. When you are fired or your show is cancelled, you will enter the high-stress competition known as staffing season. It’s like musical chairs where the majority of people don’t get a chair. It used to be not getting a chair meant a full year of unemployment. These days with cable and online networks doing year-round development, there are more opportunities outside of staffing season.
Bottom line, you have to have a high tolerance for risk and manage your personal finances well.
You will not have creative control.
It can be enormously satisfying to work in a creative industry. But do not imagine that you are going to write whatever you want and it will be shot exactly the way you say. In the feature world, executives, producers, directors, and stars get to give you notes on your script. If you are unable or unwilling to execute those notes, they fire you and find a writer who will. They may do that even if you do successfully execute their notes.
Writers have more power in television, but not all writers. All writers who are not the showrunner are there to serve the showrunner’s vision. The showrunner has final creative authority on everything. Except, of course, the showrunner also has to answer to studio and network executives. Showrunners have a lot of power, but not absolute power.
One advantage in television is that if you are on a writing staff and you write something, it will almost certainly be shot and put on the air within a few months. In features, even if you sell a script or are hired to write or rewrite something, the odds are that you will still never see it on screen. I don’t have a reliable source, but I’ve heard the statistic that only about one in ten projects at studios actually get produced.
I’m just going to do independent films.
Great! Make sure you have a job to support yourself. It is nearly impossible to make a living writing independent films. They generally pay little or nothing up front. You will usually make decent money if the film is distributed and is at least moderately successful, but fewer than 1% of independent films achieve this, and it will probably take 5-10 years from when you finish the script.
There are bigger budget independent films that do pay screenwriters decently, but these gigs are pretty much like studio gigs in that producers, executives, and directors will require you to conform the screenplay to their taste and needs. The advantage is that everybody is generally working toward higher artistic goals than the studios. But they still need to make a profit if they are to stay in business.
If you write independent films you should be aware that most independent film writers earn their living rewriting studio films (and often not taking screen credit to protect their artistic brand).
It’s not so bad.
If you do have the right temperament, being a film or television writer can be a great job. What is the right temperament? You have to be dedicated, hard working, and talented. You have to have a certain level of business savvy and salesmanship. You have to be collaborative, willing to compromise the right way to move a project forward.
If you’re not discouraged by what I’ve said, you may have the temperament to be a professional film or television writer. I wish you luck. With the right attitude, it is a great joy having something you contributed to viewed by millions of people. If things go well, you sometimes even get to see your vision achieved in a way that makes you extremely proud. And there are those premieres and parties and free movies to enjoy along the way.
The Three Stages of Screenwriting
"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review