I was fortunate enough to score a seat at the sold out industry panel featuring screenwriting powerhouses Terry Rossio (Shrek), David Hayter (X-Men), Mark Fergus (Iron Man) and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon). They waxed lyrical about the state of the film business and how to boost your chances of becoming a paid screenwriter.
The whole movie industry has changed from one which nurtures storytelling to one that is production based. That is, the average screenplay with a means of production and a built in audience will get shot before the great screenplay without any attachment or film finance.
Studio films tend to be greenlit on the basis of box office and property momentum and all the elements being in place, rather than assessing the dramatic competence of the film script. You get it. They’re business decisions more than creative ones.
Writers still need to be mindful of the mental and emotional real estate in the public consciousness. What matters to a wide audience most?
Despite the paucity of quality material, scriptwriters should still write what they feel passionate about and not be discouraged by the mediocrity of many films produced.
There really is a scarcity of good cinematic ideas and studios are hungry for good stories with minimal financial risk. Don’t emulate the path or screenwriting techniques of other successful screenwriters. Be inspired by them, but do not follow. Create your own path. Find your niche, your voice and write about what best represents your view of the world. Your film script may not get you produced, but it will get you noticed if it is well written. You may even be hired for a writing assignment.
Populate your scenes with tone and character. This can be more important than plot. Every moment needs characterization and feeling. The action should also be an indelible part of the story, but a deeper resonance in your audience makes a good screenplay great. Action sequences shouldn’t be interchangeable or able to be removed from the script without affecting the story. Nor should they simply be spectacles for the sake of demonstrating artistic wizardry.
Not all luck among screenwriters is created equal. Luck in the film industry occurs when opportunity meets preparation. Louis Pasteur famously said that chance favors the prepared mind. So go and create your own destiny by screenwriting constantly. Get notes, rewrite. If you’re tired, take a break and watch movies. But don’t forget to get back to your screenplay. Most emerging screenwriters never finish their first screenplay. Not you.
The key advice for emerging writers is to get a job in the film and TV industry closest to what you want to do. Failing that, get any job to learn the practicalities of the film business. If you can’t get a suitable role, network both online and in person.
The proportion of WGA members unemployed ranges from 50 to 93% at any given time. Do not misconstrue this as downtime. Your creative mind and fingers should always be working. Perfecting your craft puts you ahead of the pack. So hone your craft. Put in at least 10,000 hours of writing before you call yourself a professional writer. When you finish one movie script, start another. Get the screenplay to its best possible shape before showing it around. This should normally take 4-6 months of solid writing. Any longer may not produce any further benefits.
Honor your writing voice and your individuality. A certain amount of fear and self-doubt will drive you deeper into your creative well. If you always know where you’re at in a movie script, there is little room for spontaneity. Be wary of over-outlining. This can be as dangerous of writing before you’ve worked out your story.
Show your work to respected professionals before it gets sent out to the wider entertainment industry. Take notes objectively. Some are useful, some aren’t.
Writing is a solitary activity, so take steps you ensure you’re not always alone. Network, attend screenwriting events, converse with like-minded people. Think of it as group therapy. Support and nurture each other. Contact your fellow script writers when you’re feeling low and encourage them when you’re feeling high. Share your triumphs and your woes. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Juggle multiple screenwriting balls in the air until a specific project gains traction. They could be poems. novels, comics, plays or other literary works. Consider claymation and webisodes to break into the industry.
Agents are a necessary part of a screenwriter’s career. They have access to inside film industry information. They know the current slate of writing assignments and will keep you connected to the industry so you can concentrate on your writing.
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