My writing partners and I have been writing screenplays for about 3 years now. We’ve found moderate success. We’ve written 3 screenplays and one TV show. We’ve sold an option on a script. We’re in talks for a couple of other things. We have a great attorney, but no manager and no agent… yet. We’re not WGA… yet.
We assumed that once we sold a script, we’d be “in” and that it’d be “easy” from there on in. We were wrong.
It has been the most passionate, challenging, encouraging, pulse-pounding, smile-inducing, hand-raising, heart-racing, head-scratching, hair-pulling, wrist-slitting, higher-power-questioning, mind-numbing experience I’ve ever gone through. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
As we continue our journey, 4 things have consistently popped out in my head as the “building blocks” of a screenwriter. Without these 4 things, you will never make it in this crazy world. (It’s yet to be seen if we truly have these 4 things or not.)
Trying to break into screenwriting is a long and hard road. Notice that I said just “trying” to break in is a long and hard road… not breaking in. There is no guarantee at the end of the journey. So, you better be sure that you are passionate about, not only movies, but writing. If you are not truly and deeply passionate about what you are doing, you will not sustain.
We’ve gone through a lot in our 3 short years… from bad script notes to rewrites to being replaced to falling-outs to lies & deception to long drawn out contract negotiations… The only thing that has kept us going is the fact that we LOVE writing.
I feel like I have stories within me that need to be told. I love movies. I love the power they hold. The power to entertain, to take you to worlds you never dreamed, the power to challenge, and the power of escape. To have written a screenplay is like learning a magic trick to me. I feel like I’ve been let into this world of creation, shared by Steven Spielberg, William Shakespeare, and God himself.
The first thing I want to do in the morning is write. The last thing I want to do at night is write. I want to write movies that show my girlfriend how much I love her, to teach my son a lesson, and to tell my friends how much they mean to me. It’s in me and I have to get it out or I don’t feel like I’ve lived.
Because of this, no matter what obstacle comes my way, I will be writing today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of my life, even if it takes that long to “break in.”
You’ve got to know what you’re doing. I think there are many people who are born talented writers. Others have to work at it. Everyone strikes that balance to some degree. No matter where you lie in the talent department, you need some education.
I have not been to school for screenwriting, so I can’t speak to that. But I have read basically everything I can get my hands on.
It’s important, first of all (of course), to get a handle on what a screenplay looks like. Learn the rules. There are any number of books out there about the how-to’s of screenwriting… or you could just pick up a script and “see how they did it.” That’s how I first learned the proper screenwriting format. Buying software such as Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter does this for you.
But secondly, you need to learn the “secrets” of screenwriting. Screenwriting is unique in a number of ways and you only realize this as you start writing.
The first step is to watch a lot of movies. The more movies you watch, the more storytelling comes naturally to you.
The 2nd step is to read a lot of scripts. What better way of learning the craft than seeing how the greats have done it before you.
The 3rd step is to read a lot of books. I’m going to recommend a couple of resources here that aren’t books, but to me are way more important.
wordplayer.com – this is the single greatest resource I’ve found anywhere on screenwriting. 48 columns written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, the screenwriting team behind Aladdin, Shrek, the Mask of Zorro, & the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. These columns opened my eyes to that “new level” of writing. Ted & Terry share some amazing inside information here from their many years in the business.
Artful Writer Forums – In a very close 2nd to wordplayer is Artful Writer, a website started by Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3&4, Superhero Movie). Part of his website features a forum with a section called “Ask A Pro.”
In this section, people have posted questions for professional writers, and each thread on there is like taking a class. The professionals posting their thoughts include John Turman (Hulk, Silver Surfer), Mike France (GoldenEye, Fantastic Four), the Wibberleys (National Treasure, the 6th Day), Jeff Lowell (Sport Night, Spin City), Tim O’Donnell (Growing Pains, Phil of the Future), Tim Talbott (South Park, the Stanford Prison Experiment), Derek Haas (3:10 to Yuma, Wanted), Ted Elliott (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean), and Brian Koppelman (Rounders, Runaway Jury.
Go there and you can spend days getting a free education.
The old saying, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” Well, it’s true. When it comes down to it, you could write the best screenplay this side of Casablanca, and if you have no one with connections to give it to, no one will ever see it.
This has been tricky for us as we’re still in Atlanta. The way we’ve gotten around it is just asking around… following every lead we can. Following up on every friend who says “hey, I’ve got a cousin who worked on this show…” No one you meet is not worth meeting. Get to know people. Don’t just take advantage of them, befriend them. No matter how low on the totem pole they are, they could be running things down the line. If you’re outside of L.A. find people in your own area who share common interests. Hollywood is a collaborative business, so collaborate.
The other way we meet people, more than any other, is through the wonders of the world wide web. Get on a forum of other filmmakers. I think you’ll be surprised by how willing some people are to help you. Find out emails of Agents, Managers, Producers, Execs, and just give it a shot. We’ve blindly emailed over 100 “business folk” and got about a 10% response rate. (That is 10% actually returned my email). Part of this is due to our having sold something before, but I believe nearly as many would respond to a quality script.
All this is moot of course if you don’t have a great product. You’re only as good as your latest script. So, make sure you have something of quality to present before you contact those directly involved. They can’t help you if you can’t help them.
Writing is 90% observation, 90% persistence, and 0% math.
This screenwriting thing is a long and bumpy ride. You’ve got to be in for the long haul. And I mean really long.
Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio gave themselves 10 years to break into the business. Rossio made the observation that “anyone who worked at a job for 10 years invariably became an expert at that job.” Therefore, they would give themselves 10 years to become experts and if they didn’t break in by then… well, who knows what would’ve happened. They did it in five.
Five Years is still a long time. Remember how long High School was? Add to that Freshman in college.
If you’re not willing to give it that much time, at least, you’re probably not cut out for it.
For me, part of what keeps me going, besides my love for the craft, is having writing partners that encourage me… having parents that encourage me… a girlfriend that encourages me. It’s important to surround yourself with people who keep you going.
I have a feeling that I’ll always be writing to some degree… and I hope the Hollywood thing happens soon. It would be really hard to hang around for another 7 years with nothing to show for it, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.