Q&A: Any Advice for a Screenwriter Trying to Break into the Industry?

Q&A: Any Advice for a Screenwriter Trying to Break into the Industry?

This question comes in from Mike on Twitter.

Q&A: Any Advice for a Screenwriter Trying to Break into the Industry?

Though I am not a screenwriter, and my body of work is mostly focused on documentary and reality television, I do know what it’s like to be on the outside of “the industry” looking in. I’ve also worked on scripted projects, I’ve worked with screenwriters, and I do have some idea of what it takes to break in from a writer’s perspective.

I’d like to first outline the two general approaches to breaking in to entertainment, whether your focus is writing, directing, producing, editing, or any number of jobs related to the field.

The first approach is the entrepreneurial approach. This is the most celebrated and yet least practiced approach because of its difficulty. The entrepreneurial approach essentially refers to you, the writer (or director, producer, etc.), treating your craft as a small business, developing a product, and then bringing that product to market yourself. Writers who are successful in this approach will write scripts on spec and solicit literary agencies and production companies with them. The successful results can play out in two ways: you could sell your script outright, or your script could work as a business card and open up writing opportunities for you on future projects with companies.

The second approach is the apprenticeship approach. This is the most common path to success in every discipline of television and film (and probably every other industry in the US as well). The apprenticeship approach essentially refers to you, the writer, sacrificing your time and energy and working as an assistant (or other entry-level position), learning from those who have been successful in your field, and eventually moving up in the industry until you are a full-on screenwriter. Writers who are successful in this approach will start as production assistants, eventually become a writer’s assistant, and then move up within the writer’s room.

Now, I would be totally negligent if I didn’t warn you about the difficulties and drawbacks to each approach. While the entrepreneurial approach seems incredibly exciting from afar, it can be very time-consuming and painful in practice. Many writers who take this approach will spend the same amount of time as apprentices learning their craft, writing scripts, and trying to sell them. There is no guarantee this route will be successful, either. So, you could spend five, ten, twenty years writing scripts and trying to sell them and still never sell a script. The most common reasons for this lack of success is that you aren’t developing your network like the apprentice is and you aren’t studying and practicing writing scripts that the market is willing to pay for. If you get rejected or ignored after shopping your first script (or first ten scripts) around, your success depends on your willingness to learn and grow. Unfortunately, many people become discouraged in the face of rejection or immediate failure and quit outright, guaranteeing that they will never reach success in that pursuit.

Apprenticeship is the tried and true approach and the one with a much higher probably of success, but it doesn’t come without its drawbacks. First, it’s very difficult to nab that first job in film and television and film unless you already have connections. Second, much of television and film is based on freelance work and projects can be as short as a week or a day, so stringing together consistent work can be difficult. Third, if you do manage to find success and work your way up the industry, there’s a chance that, by the time you are a writer, you’ll have compromised so much of your creativity that you aren’t able to produce much that is new, groundbreaking, or unique. There is a responsibility that comes along with the apprenticeship route to stay vigilant, stay creative, and spend a lot of time outside of work pursuing passion projects and further developing your skills.

So, now that I’ve outlined what I’ve seen as the two approaches to breaking in to television or film as a writer, it’s really up to you to decide which approach works best for your personality. There’s one thing I’m sure of: if you want it enough and are willing to work at it… and I mean really work at it… you will be successful. Understand that you are entering an industry where working 12-hour days is expected, and working 15 hours a day or more is common. You are competing against people for jobs who are willing to and have sacrificed things like family, friends, and free time to be successful. Do you fit in to a world like that?

If you think so, then the path forward is simple. If you’re taking the entrepreneurial approach, start writing scripts and shop them around to every production company, producer, literary agency, or agent in town. If no one buys, try to learn more about screenwriting, write a new script, and repeat the the process. If you’re taking the apprenticeship approach, try to get in touch with every coordinator, production manager, production supervisor, or line producer you can find on IMDb via e-mail or social media and introduce yourself, compliment them, and ask them to keep you in mind for any future production assistant positions. If you’re feeling especially bold you can arrange informational interviews with these people and ask them genuine questions about their experience in the industry. Your initiative might inspire them to hire you or pass your name along to someone who is hiring assistants in the future.

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