Can you sell your first screenplay to Hollywood, make lottery-type money, and follow that up by selling pitches for millions while coasting on easy street? Believe it or not, many novice screenwriters believe all of that when they first consider a career in screenwriting.
Here we offer five misconceptions that screenwriters often have when they look ahead to their screenwriting journey.
1. Your First Script is Ready to Market
Your first script is your worst script. Plain and simple. You haven’t had the time to hone your screenwriting skills, instincts, or style. You haven’t had the time to learn the fundamental guidelines and expectations of the film industry. You haven’t had the time to make those necessary mistakes, and you haven’t had the time to learn from them. The art and craft of screenwriting is something that needs to be cultivated.
Furthermore, Hollywood is all about bridges. Making those bridges takes networking, luck, and above all else, great scripts. The worst thing screenwriters can do is jump the gun before they’ve honed their craft and go on to market scripts that aren’t ready. Why? Because the efforts made while networking, as well as the luck that may have come forth, will prove to be a waste when the powers that be read that script.
They’re professionals. They read and consider hundreds of scripts per month. They will see each and every lesson that was not learned, and they will see each and every mistake that shouldn’t have made it to them. And those bridges will be quickly burned for good.
Even the greatest screenwriters bombed on their first try, so screenwriters should take comfort in knowing that all screenwriters, even the great ones, start from the same place.
Don’t market that first script. Feel free to test it out in contests and, by all means, seek any feedback that you can get. But don’t market it. It’s not ready. And more importantly, you’re not ready. Not yet.
2. You Can Sell Pitches to Hollywood
This isn’t the '90s. The screenwriting boom of that decade fizzled quickly, and any remnants of it were extinguished after the financial crisis of 2008, which changed the way Hollywood works. Studios dropped the many “term deals” they had (producers and writers that the studio bankrolled on lot to develop potential films) beyond major names, and they’ve become very frugal with their spending ever since. The few pitches they do buy are from already established producers and writers. Anything else is a gamble, and studios don’t like to gamble.
Ideas are aplenty. Everyone seems to have a “great idea” for a movie. But in this day and age, it’s not good enough, and it only adds an extra step for the studios or powers that be. They’d have to buy the pitch, then hire a writer (or pay the screenwriter that pitched it to write it), and likely have to hire more writers on top of that.
In short, if you’re not the writer of whatever latest hit, and if you’re not J.J. Abrams or anyone equivalent, odds are selling a pitch is going to be difficult, but even more likely, impossible.
Pitches don’t sell. Amazing scripts do. However, that leads us to another common misconception…
3. Your Spec Scripts Will Get Sold
The spec market took a hit after the screenwriting boom of the '90s and, yes, even more so after 2008.
According to Vanity Fair, In 1995, 173 specs were sold. In 2010 the number was 55.
Studios were no longer paying for original material developed and written outside of the studio walls or beyond trusted production companies.
Instead, spec scripts are all too often used to attain viable writers for possible assignments that have been developed in-house. That’s not to say that a hot spec script won’t sell. However, more often than not, they don’t.
This is a fact that could be shocking to some novice screenwriters. “Why even bother then?” Because a hot spec script can lead to opportunities. And opportunities in the film industry are hard to come by for those not already embedded within it.
Spec scripts are keys. They open doors. Sometimes they end up being a lottery ticket, but that’s never something anyone wants to bank on in their lives. Speaking of lottery tickets…
4. Selling a Screenplay or Being Hired to Write One is Like Winning the Lottery
We’ve all read the stories of Shane Black selling The Long Kiss Goodnight for $4 million, Joe Eszterhas selling Basic Instinct for $3 million, Tom Shulman and Sally Robinson selling Medicine Man for $3 million, etc. And sure, in the 2000s, before the financial crisis hit, we saw David Koepp selling Panic Room for $4 million, Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilli selling Déjà Vu for $5 million, and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay selling Talladega Nights for $4 million.
Those are lottery-type numbers to behold. Even the more “run-of-the-mill” deals that are featured in the trades on a more regular basis are awe-inspiring to most screenwriters. $200,000 against $400,000 (meaning that the writer gets $200,000 first and another $200,000 if the film gets greenlit) or any variant as far as six-figure deals go. That’s a lot of money. Screenwriters dream of getting that six or seven-figure check handed to them.
First and foremost, to debunk this misconception, in many cases, yes, those deals are very similar to the lottery. However, not as one would think. Lottery winners are few and far between, considering the population of the world. It would be silly for anyone to invest their time and money in expecting to win the lottery, right? The same could be said for screenwriters hoping to join the six or seven-figure club.
Let’s talk about those six-figure deals (and know that this applies to both seven-figure deals and as low as five-figure deals).
$200,000 doesn’t come in a single paycheck unless you are a high profile screenwriter that can demand such. Instead, it’s separated into various installments. So a screenwriter that signs a $200,000 against $400,000 deal isn’t getting one check in the hope of a second. Many elements come into play thanks to very detailed contracts written by entertainment lawyers and aided by Guild regulations.
Instead, that screenwriter might get $50,000 upfront for what is considered a first draft. Now $50,000 is a lot of money to be sure. However, you need to take into account the ten percent an agent makes, the five percent (or more) an entertainment lawyer takes for facilitating the contract on the writer’s behalf, and then what the government takes as well. At this stage, perhaps the writer has a manager now too. That’s advisable but also costs another ten percent. So before taxes, we’re looking at a possible take-home of $35,000. Taxes may account for almost half of that, leaving the screenwriter with $17,000 give or take. Not much given the significant numbers of the contract, right?
“But hey, that’s just the first check.” Well, it depends. Most contracts dictate that after the first initial payment, every other possible payment after that is for a draft of the script, meaning that for each further draft written (after notes are given by development executives, producers, directors, and sometimes talent), another payment is offered. Here’s the rub. That screenwriter can be replaced at any time. So even if they write a second draft, get that second payment, have all of those deductions taken away from that amount, the powers that be could decide that maybe the script they bought needs a new writer. The payments then stop there. No $200,000.
Now, this is the broadest of examples. However, it rings true all too often in big contracts, as well as smaller ones, because there are different levels of screenwriters. We’ve covered this well in How to Survive the Screenwriter Grind. Those six and seven-figure deals all too often represent just the top one percent of working screenwriters in the industry.
A majority of the working screenwriters out there are making five-figure deals, the most successful of which are barely scraping that six-figure barrier. Now imagine the same deductions taken away for a mid to high five-figure deal.
In short, selling a script or being hired to write one is sadly not equivalent to a winning lottery ticket.
5. When I Get X, Everything Will Be Easy
Speaking from experience, the grind of being a screenwriter is an ongoing saga.
However, novice screenwriters seem to believe in the golden ticket.
It starts with attaining representation. Screenwriters feel that once they attain a manager and/or an agent, their problems will be solved, and their struggles will be over. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those agents and managers have to now sell your script (or ability as a hired writer for assignments), and they also have to sell you, a newcomer with no experience. That’s their grind because it’s a tough job.
But then maybe they do that job well, and a sale is made, or an assignment is attained. See Misconception #4 on that one.
Then maybe something gets produced, hopefully with a name cast. “Surely, people will see my name on the screen, and I’ll get more assignments and maybe even sell that spec script.”
In a perfect world, yes.
However, there is no golden ticket into the hallowed doors of Hollywood. In the end, it’s still a business, and the life of a screenwriter is an ongoing saga. Momentum often derails. Deals fall through. Months and years go by with nothing. Representation can be lost because if no money is coming in, clients are dropped.
It’s never "easy street" for screenwriters.
Therefore, screenwriters should embrace each and every hurdle they pass. They should covet that first ScreenCraft Genre Contest win. They should covet representation that may be attained. They should covet that first paid gig and never take it for granted because all too often, that first paid gig will have to last for a year or more.
Never get comfortable. Never be complacent. Never believe you've made it once and for all because with every hurdle passed comes another and another.
These five misconceptions that novice screenwriters have are just a few of many, but they have the most significant effect on their dreams and aspirations. These breakdowns aren’t meant to discourage. Instead, they’re intended to prepare the screenwriter for the journey at hand.
We all know that screenwriters do become successful and see their dreams and aspirations come true because each year, we see more and more movies being made. Screenwriters write those movies, and those very same screenwriters started exactly where every other screenwriter does — in front of that screen with that blinking cursor staring back at them.
Screenwriters should use these now-debunked misconceptions to their advantage.
This knowledge will better your odds and keep your head out of the clouds so you can see that blinking cursor staring back at you, taunting you to start moving those fingers on the keyboard — hopefully leading you to a fantastic and engaging story to tell, to sell, and to prosper from.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies