Why are you writing your script?
Forget about loglines and pitches. If you can’t answer that question in one sentence then you have a serious issue.
Each year, about 50,000 scripts are registered with the WGA and over 6,000 are entered in the Nicholl Fellowship Screenwriting Competition. There are a lot of people writing screenplays and, on the surface, it looks like the odds of you being a success seem remote at best.
Only around 100 spec scripts are sold each year and only up to 5 writers receive a Nicholl Fellowship each year. Additionally, from 1986 to 2009 there were 111 scripts that won their writers a Nicholl Fellowship and only 14 of those actually were produced.
- 50,000 scripts registered each year in WGA
- 6,000 entrants in Nicholl Fellowship each year
- 100 spec scripts sold each year
- 5 Nicholl Fellowship recipients each year
Those are the types of numbers that will be thrown at you by the pessimists who want to squash your dreams. Don’t pay any attention to the statistics because they don’t tell the entire story.
Anyone can spend $25 to register their script with the WGA and anyone can enter a contest but how many people can write a great, or even a really good, screenplay?
In an interview on the Done Deal Pro website, Screenwriter Ryan Condal puts it like this, “there are about 2,000 working film writers in any given year. This means that there are 2,000 people that make a real living at this”. Make it your mission to tell a story the best possible way, learn your craft and work hard to execute it well on the page. Condal further drives home the point, “For reference, the National Football League employs just shy of 2,000 players every year. While their median salary is a little higher than ours, it makes a sobering point—screenwriting is insanely competitive. And only the strongest will survive”.
You must decide what your definition of success is as a screenwriter and how hard you are willing to work. If you have just one great story that you have to write, by all means write it but if it has to sell for a million dollars and be made into an Academy Award winning film and that one script is all you are going to devote yourself to then good luck becoming the next Harper Lee. It just isn’t gonna happen.
Each script you write is an opportunity to push yourself further into the world of skilled writers. Don’t be lazy. Work at it.
Whenever someone gives me a script to read, the first thing I ask them is “What do you want to do with this?”, to which there are several possible responses.
- “get representation”
- “make it myself”
- “sell it”
- “enter it into a competition”
The easiest road to getting quality representation is by selling a script or making a strong movie yourself. So if your primary motive for writing a script is the hope that it will land you that manager or agent that will make your life easier, you are probably a little off target.
There is no question that an agent and manager can help you with your writing career but are you even ready for that? Think of an agent as a sales person. After all, they get paid a commission off of what you get paid. If you don’t get paid then they don’t make money and if you can’t help them make money then what good are you to them?
So they are going to judge you based on one thing; “can this writer make me money?” and it is your job to prove you can so let’s look at how an agent (and manger) can make money off of your talent.
- Selling a spec script is probably the best way for an agent to make money right now but it is also easier said than done. You wrote a script that is marketable, well-written and shows off you as a writer who can be trusted with executing the essential elements of telling a story. If that is the case, then the agent will not only see the potential to sell your spec but will see that he can get you in front of the right people to land paid writing gigs…a double shot of commission love.
- Paid writing gigs = a cut for the agent. You get a job writing for Law and Order: Sioux City and they get paid week after week or you get hired to write Transformers 9: You Thought The First Eight Sucked and they get a cut. It’s commission, baby, and they got to get theirs.
Let’s say an agent offered to sign you right now. Are you prepared to meet with Steven Spielberg and pitch him on why you should write his latest movie concept? What other specs do you have that are ready to be put on the market? In other words, can you do it again, write a great script that will impress people enough to pay you good money for?
Yes, there is value in having a script that will land you an agent but this should be a secondary goal because it is SHOW BUSINESS and that means….MONEY MONEY MONEY which means if you want to be THE GUY then you have to make the people who have the money to pay you feel comfortable that they are going to get a good return on their investment.
“I want to make it myself”
Great! It has never been easier to make a film and writing something that you want to produce yourself is a pretty strong goal with lots of upside, if you can pull it off. But you aren’t going to be able to make a movie all by yourself so you’ll still need to write something that inspires the talented people whose help you need, especially if you are going to ask them to work for free.
Making movies is hard work that requires a lot of people. The first step is writing a script and that script better be damn good because you are going to invest a lot of time and money into seeing it come to life. If the script is bad, it is improbable, at best, that the movie will be watchable, much less good.
Don’t be lazy and think you can just work it out on set. Not only is it unprofessional, it is a horrible habit that can’t be supported in the industry. Movies get shutdown well into pre-production all of the time because the script isn’t up to snuff and unless you are a rich bastard with a desire to finance all of your own films, you are aiming to work in the established system of moviemaking and lazy screenwriters don’t make it very far.
“I want to sell it”
In wanting to sell it, you realize it is essential that you write something awesome that navigates it’s way through the cynical web of gatekeepers, readers, producers, junior agents, managers and whoever else will read the damn thing, so that it will break through all the other crap out there and stand out. You are an unknown quantity so your writing is all that will speak for you and it better be really good stuff or a really amazing concept, ideally both. Aim high, very high, because if you work really hard and are able to put it all together and write a really good script then somebody is going to notice and it will only lead to good things… like representation.
“I want to enter it into a competition”
Why? There are only a handful, perhaps less, screenplay competitions that can get you any kind of traction in Hollywood and the chances of winning a prize in one are remote. That is not to say you shouldn’t take the leap, write your $50 check and send in the masterpiece but don’t do it unless you are clear about why you are entering.
You want to see if you measure up to the other people out there entering contests? Cool, then take a shot. If you do well it can only help give you more confidence in your writing. Just guard against expecting it to do well. There are too many things out of your control once that script is sent in. Don’t take it personally if they just take your entry fee. KEEP WRITING.
Now, there are some contests that are worth a shot, but I still contend, only after you feel like you have really done all you can to improve as a writer should you spend the money.
Conviction matters and your response to the question of why you are writing your script might be different than the ones above but you still need to know the answer if you want to be taken seriously.
I met a guy who spent three years writing a screenplay for a well known superhero franchise. The series had been re-booted (a term I have grown to hate in Hollywood) but the re-boot wasn’t nearly as successful as was expected so this guy took it upon himself to write the next film in the series. He admitted to me that he had never written a screenplay before so he had learned by reading a bunch of scripts and reading some books. Then he set out to write the film he thought his hero should have starred in.
Though I did not read the script, I saw it tucked away in a specially designed, locked, metal brief case with the character’s logo on the front. He had flown 1,200 miles hoping to speak to the producer of the franchise and drop off the script that he wrote on spec.
The funny thing is that the producer took his call. It came after his being persistent and borderline stalkerish but the guy actually took the call and talked to this kid.
I don’t know what happened with the kid’s script. I am pretty sure he managed to drop it off somewhere and flew back home hoping for a call that never came. He was a little nuts but he had passion and he got further down the road than he ever thought possible.
When I asked him why he wrote it, he said it was because he loved the comic book superhero so much, had such respect for the character and felt strongly about the direction the next film should go. He knew it was a long shot, improbable, at best, that his script would even be read by anyone that mattered but he was entirely committed to the process, enough to spent three years of his life on the project. He was proud of what he had done, what he had accomplished, even though, as he put it “I’m not a screenwriter and I probably won’t ever write another one but I just had to write this and see what could happen…see if I could do it”. Three years later, he had just gotten off the phone with the producer in charge and was happy, content, excited with where his effort had taken him. He was boarding a plane the next day to go back to his real life but he said he loved that he did it, as crazy as it all seemed.
This kid had no aspirations of being a writer. He just loved the superhero and thought the filmmakers got it wrong and couldn’t resist the impulse to create a version he wanted to see up on the big screen. As crazy as everything this kid did was, I admired him for it. He had passion and he had a work ethic and he wasn’t gonna do all that work and let someone answer a phone and kill his dream by not letting him speak to the guy he needed to speak to. So he kept calling and he flew to LA and he completed his mission.
If you have half of his passion for your own writing then you are gonna be fine and you can toss those stats about registered scripts and competition entrants aside because you will be on the other side of those stats.
There will always be room for good storytellers and great writing. Focus on those things. Make it your mission to become a master at the craft while pushing yourself to tell great stories.
Whatever your answer to “why?”, you wrote a script and there has to be a reason. Too many people write without a cause and it is reflected in their script. You better know why you are about to embark on the journey of writing a screenplay before you begin. Otherwise, you have guaranteed that your only way to succeed is through pure luck and there really isn’t much of that in screenwriting.