Screenwriters: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Movie premieres, Oscar parties and write-ups in People magazine – such is the stuff of screenwriters’ dreams. But in truth, most screenwriters spend their days in quite a different reality. Those in the know understand this profession can be “feast or famine,” with a continuous supply of starry-eyed newcomers ready to write away in hopes of their big break.
“Most people see the occasional six- or seven-figure deals and assume this is how screenwriters live,” said Graham Flashner, a producer and screenwriter who was Emmy-nominated as co-executive producer of the 1999 miniseries Joan of Arc.
“The reality is that a very low percentage of writers live that way,” Flashner said. “Most writers are struggling every day to prove themselves, and aren’t getting to make those big splash sales. They’re writing script after script to build a name.”
Some screenwriters break into the business by selling spec screenplays for projects that may or may not make it into production, but at least garner some attention. More often, screenwriters network to find jobs in entertainment and find studio jobs as screenplay readers or production and development assistants.
“It’s a great way to keep your hand in the industry, as well as your finger on the pulse of what people are doing out there,” Flashner said. “It can give you a sense of what’s being favored commercially and what not to do.”
Film school, particularly in the Los Angeles area, has proven useful for many in the areas of networking and developing contacts for jobs in entertainment. In terms of learning the screenwriting craft, film school is not as necessary a component as hands-on experience, according to Flashner.
“For some people, film school definitely does help and it depends on what school you’re at,” he said. “But for a lot of people, film school is not any closer of an answer. It’s what you make of it.”
Flashner, who started in the industry as a screenplay reader and development assistant, generated interest and secured an agent off the first screenplay he wrote. He found agency representation to be an invaluable asset to his career, and said it doesn’t have to be terribly difficult to attain.
“The truth is there’s always a way in. Agents make their living off selling people, and they always need new resources,” he said. “It’s just not easy to get to them. That’s where connections come in, anyone from family members to old classmates – anyone you can think of. That’s not to say you can’t get work without an agent, but it’s a big boost.”
With or without agency representation, the screenwriting profession is undeniably full of challenges. It is fairly common for writers to be pulled off a project mid-stream only to see their work rewritten by their replacement. The creative vision writers passionately pour onto the page may be returned with editorial comments guiding the project in an entirely different direction. Many screenwriters maintain side jobs in entertainment to keep the bills paid. Nevertheless, Flashner stressed the importance of writing every single day – even if only one page – and never getting discouraged by obstacles.
“It’s very hard to make screenwriting a full-time work week if you’re not being paid on a project,” Flashner said. “You’re not always getting the recognition you deserve; most people come up in the ranks and by the time you hear their name, it turns out they’ve been in the industry for the past eight or 10 years. It’s a combination of talent, luck and connections, never giving up on yourself and never stopping writing, ever.”
Come feast or famine, Flashner has no doubt that he chose the right career path. There is “no bigger thrill,” he says, than seeing one’s own name included in the final credits at a movie screening. There are also few jobs in entertainment that offer such flexible hours and such a wide open opportunity for traveling and meeting fascinating celebrities. But above all else, it allows him to make a living doing what he loves.
“I love when something works and I get on a roll, writing out visions that have been in my head,” he said, explaining the appeal of his career. “It’s that zone where you lose track of time and everything is just flowing. Nobody else has compromised that vision. It’s just me and the script”.
The trajectory of each screenwriting career differs wildly. You can’t predict which way a bucket of water will flow when tipped from the top of a mountain. Will it follow a pre-gouged path? Will it carve it’s own? Will it flow around a rock or over it? All I can say is that the only preparation you can do is continuously write and good fortune will come to you in the most surprising way possible. Don’t make career plans that are too rigid?
Mull over this Zen proverb – You can’t hit a target by aiming at it.
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