Building Your Screenwriting Career

Lee Jessup, career strategist, discusses ways to break into the industry. Spoiler alert! It’s going to take time and it won’t be easy. But you already knew that.

Making it as a screenwriter is possible – but it’s not going to be easy. People ask me why I remain optimistic about a writer’s ability to break into the industry, and it boils down to this: I see people, friends, clients and colleagues, break in every day. But those who break in had to work at it, to stick to it in good and bad times, and keep working towards their goals. The more prolific you are, the better your chances.

While you may have every faith that your first script is as good as it’s going to get, the one consistent common thread that I found between all the writers I know who broke in is this: All of them wrote all the time, produced new content on an ongoing basis, be those feature scripts, TV pilots, short stories or graphic novels. The more you write, the more opportunities you will have to hook fans and make a case for your future career.

Approach your career professionally. You wouldn’t submit a resume for a high-profile job without reading it over carefully, giving it to a few seasoned friends, and getting sufficient advice and feedback, would you? Same goes for your script. Make sure that it’s as vetted as can be before it goes out into the professional space. There are no re-dos here. You want to give every script you write the best chance you can.

Writing is only half the game. Many writers HATE when I say this. Sure, once upon a time you could hang out in your living room and write throughout the night, only to mail your script to Hollywood and get a check in the mail 6-8 weeks later.

In today’s competitive marketplace? Not so much. In the here-and-now, preparation, networking, and deliberate, ongoing strategy make up the other half. Meeting expectations is key. Set expectations for yourself and meet them. Working screenwriters are expected to produce new work every 3-4 months. Give yourself 6 month windows to develop new work, and deliver on that promise.

Having a number of strong scripts will set you apart from the pack. Set goals for contests, for networking, for getting your script out there, and make sure that, every time, you meet those as well. Know your brand – and develop towards it. You will make everyone’s lives – including yours – significantly easier if you recognize the genre you are strongest in, and develop multiple pieces, potentially in multiple formats, within it.

Representation knows how to sell a strong brand; lack of clarity only causes confusion and, therefore, hesitation. Equally, development and production executives will seek to work with an “expert,” one who knows everything about a particular genre and is able to execute within it again and again.

On a personal front, here are a few rules you should always adhere to: Be nice. To everyone. Doesn’t matter where you meet: At a pitch event. In an elevator. Outside of the office of the executive you’ve been invited to meet. Today’s lowly assistant may just be tomorrow’s studio head. It will serve you best to be nice to everyone you meet. It may sound like a cliche, but it’s true: Never let personal behavior be your undoing.

For all its stature and glamour, Hollywood is a small place. So be nice to everyone you meet, without exception. When you’re nice to others, they are happy to extend a helping hand. Nobody likes a victim. Even if you believe, without any shred of doubt, that your agent sold you out, that a studio stole your idea, or that your writing partner screwed you over and took with him the better part of your creative work, find a way to be graceful about it. At least upon initial meetings.

Whether you succeed as a screenwriter is not entirely in your hands. Elements such as industry needs, trends, and sheer luck may subvert even the best efforts from the most talented scribes out there. What is in your hand is the ability to devise and methodically follow focused strategy to ensure that, win or lose, you will have no regrets.


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