There are two general paths for screenwriters to choose from early on in the pursuit of a screenwriting career. Down the road of success, these paths surely can intertwine, however, screenwriters need to know what to expect when they head down each of those paths.
The major issue online and in various books and seminars is that there’s a conundrum in relation to novice screenwriters and the screenwriting advice that they face from the powers that be in Hollywood versus the Independent Film community. Furthering the dilemma, the comments field on social media and forums surrounding screenwriting advice are full of equally contradicting information.
“You need to focus on marketable concepts.”
“You need to write whatever you want.”
“You need to write what studios want.”
“Just go make the film yourself.”
“Spec scripts don’t get made.”
“Assignments are what gives a screenwriter a career.”
Hollywood and the Independent industries are two very different beasts to tackle. They each have their own hurdles and freedoms, sure. However, those paths are very different. A screenwriter with an indie mindset isn’t going to do well in the studio system. A screenwriter with a studio system mindset isn’t going to do well in the indie market. There is some gray area to be sure, however, there clearly needs to be a line drawn between the two to give novice screenwriters a more level-headed approach towards whatever path they initially choose.
The Studio System Screenwriter Path
First and foremost, the money is there. Billions of dollars waiting to be spent on all types of movies. Sure, a majority of them are bigger tent pole projects, but let’s be real, Hollywood is making more movies of all shapes and sizes than they ever have. Franchises, dramas, comedies, horror, action, suspense, thriller, etc.
The notion that Hollywood is making fewer quality movies beyond the tent poles is false. Let’s face it, even back in the 60s and 70s, many terrible movies were being made amongst the classics we now hold high. This hasn’t changed and never will beyond that fact that again, more movies are being made in Hollywood than ever. Sure, it’s not always the studios developing them, but they’re at least taking part in the financing and distribution.
From the perspective of the novice screenwriter, the studio system is set in its ways, which sadly offers many Catch 22 scenarios. You need representation to be considered by the studio powers that be. However, in order for you to get representation, the agents and managers want you to have a proven track record that they can benefit from.
They want a hot script. But how can a script gain some heat without the traction of powers that be reading it? And even more frustrating, novice screenwriters can’t submit to the big agencies and management companies because of their No Unsolicited Material submission policies.
Screenwriters basically have to find ways to circumvent those Catch 22s, because it is true that representation is a key component in the studio system.
Beyond that, the path is fairly “simple,” for lack of a better word. Screenwriters must develop concepts that are a hybrid of what they enjoy writing and what the powers that be are willing to pay them for.
Those eventual scripts are then marketed to producers, development executives, studios, representation, and talent using networking, queries, etc.
Contests and fellowships like ScreenCraft’s own can be utilized as well, as long as they have proven and strong Hollywood connections.
Skipping past the obvious constant rejection and utter silence that novice screenwriters face for years, when they do make it through the door with whatever spec script that has caught the attention of the powers that be, a whole new game begins.
In the studio system, spec scripts (those written under speculation that someone will buy and produce them) are all-too-often never produced. They are more so used as calling cards for writing assignments, which consist of concepts and stories that the powers that be have acquired for adaptation, or ones that producers, development executives, and studios have conjured.
The few times that spec scripts are actually produced usually have multiple writers attached from purchase through release. Some rewrites are more substantial than others. Sometimes the original writer is signed for at least the first couple of drafts, with other writers brought in for dialogue change, tone and atmosphere enhancement, and polish drafts.
All-in-all, the studio system screenwriter is often a hired hand, going from assignment to assignment. Once they attain a particular track record, their spec scripts can be pitched to varying degrees of success.
The advantages are clearly the money that is available to any given production. IF a script is sold or an assignment is written, the screenwriter can rest assured that IF the script goes into production, it’s going to be made with the best in the business as far as technology, crews, talent, etc. And even better, IF it is made well, it will be seen by a wider audience through studio distribution.
Those are a lot of Ifs, mind you. And yes, there should be a small sprinkle of sarcasm in that paragraph above because we all know that so many scripts never see the light of day and so many movies suffer from either over-production, over-development, too many hands in the cookie jar, and sure, can often be directed, written, acted, and marketed horribly, despite all of the money and assets that Hollywood has to offer.
This is the life of a studio system screenwriter, in the most general of definitions.
The Independent Screenwriter Path
“Just go make the film yourself.” That’s often the advice trope that you find in the comments section of screenwriting posts.
The problem is that it simply can’t apply to all screenwriters because movies are expensive to make. And making them well is even more costly. And making them at all is not as simple as a few people and a camera.
Anyone that has attempted to make an indie short or feature knows this all too well. The anomalies that are ever-present and have seen much success and acclaim are just that, anomalies, at least when you consider the thousands of horrible indie films made each year.
The term “independent screenwriter” is somewhat of an oxymoron these days, since most screenwriters in the indie world are auteurs that direct and/or produce their own material as well.
Generally speaking, there are far fewer “assignments” in the indie world, as far as screenwriters being assigned by a producer to write a script. Why? Because the indie world is where filmmakers go to make their stories the way THEY want to.
There are also far less spec script sales because of that. Generally speaking, the spec sales in the indie world are technically made through the studio’s specialty companies, which often means that they aren’t really independent films compared to others made 100% outside of the studio system.
In short, if you’re going to be a screenwriter in the indie world, you’re either going to also be directing, producing, and/or finding an indie director and producer to partner up with. And if you get to that stage, yes, a whole new game begins.
Money. Despite what you may have heard and despite the anomalies that exist where X movie was made with little to no money, it’s expensive to make a movie. Even an indie. If you’re content with taking a single camera and shooting something simple, and then thus ensuring (most of the time) that no one is going to see it outside of your local community, great. This is the place to be. However, if you want to make a quality movie, it costs a lot of money to do so. Even in the indie world.
Many trope comments will say, “Just go find a rich doctor, go directly to a financier, etc.” Easier said than done.
If you want to be a screenwriter/filmmaker in the independent world and make a living out of it, be prepared to work hard. Very hard. Be ready not only to write, but possibly direct, produce, be a location manager, be a casting director, be a grip, etc. Studio system screenwriters work hard as well, but…
That’s the life of an independent screenwriter, in the most general of definitions.
The Gray Area
The film industry, no matter which path you choose initially, is not a black and white world. We see major movie stars in indie films all of the time. We see major studio directors tackle smaller fare. We’ve seen studio screenwriters like Larry Gross (48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Geronimo: An American Legend) head to the indie world with such indie films as Chinese Box, Prozac Nation and We Don’t Live Here Anymore.
Gross told Film Maker Magazine:
“The motives of a screenwriter foraying into the indie world are very much the same as the motives of a director foraying into the indie world. I got interested in writing for indie films when I had a viable career in studio films because my films weren’t getting made in the studio world, even though I was paid very satisfactory sums for [writing] them. And if they were to get made, they would go through so many hands and there would be so much intervention by the money that there would be very little chance of the work turning out the way I wanted it to.”
He went on to say:
“For me, it’s a difference of quantity. In the independent world development process you’re working with a smaller number of participants. There’s no autonomous class of people called “development girls and boys” in the indie world. Generally, there’s just a producer, a director and a screenwriter, and that’s it. Or an actor, maybe. But, at the studio level development is an institutional, experiential world in and of itself itself where people live and die before a single frame of film is shot. There’s a whole technique and strategy for negotiating that world. In the indie world, development occurs under the rubric of, “We’re making this film in a different way.” Now, in some people’s case, that may be a delusion, a fantasy, but it’s still a very present reality, relatively speaking. You are developing in closer proximity to production. There’s not a huge institutional thing standing between you and production to be negotiated. There is, however, a great deal more discussion in the indie world of making the script fit the physical realities of budget. In the world of the studio, you have this fantasy that you have an unlimited amount of money to make the film that you’re going to make. If anything, the constraint operates the other way. You’ve got to make sure to write in the things that will be more expensive and more spectacular.”
Keep in mind though, that Gross had made a name for himself (and lots of money) in the studio system before he delved into independent film. But overall, there’s obviously a gray area with respect to the two very different paths a screenwriter can take.
You can play in both “sandboxes,” however, you can’t play by the same guidelines and expectations.
If you’re writing a big action thriller, you can’t merely “go film it yourself,” as people all too often say, if the powers that be in the studio system aren’t responding to your work. Even if you’re writing a drama, it’s not as simple as just going off on your own to make it. And at the same time, when you’re writing in the studio system, you can’t expect a majority of your specs, or even any of them, to get made. And you can’t expect your studio draft of an assignment to be shot as written either.
You can certainly jump from one path to the other. However, you have to always acclimate your approach with each of them individually.
Those different paths lead to very different worlds. And they are all too often for very different people. Some screenwriters are built for the indie world. They want full control and are willing to sacrifice for it by putting in the hours, weeks, months, and years to get a single film financed and produced, to varying degrees of success.
Other screenwriters just want to make a living telling cinematic stories and have no desire to become directors, producers, etc. They understand the machine and that they will have to make sacrifices of their own as they are only one of many nuts, bolts, and gears that make that studio system machine run.
The key thing for novice screenwriters approaching the crossroads of the studio system and indie world is to know and understand what expectations to have, and then based on those expectations they need to choose which path best fits them.
What journey do you want to go on? What sacrifices are you willing to make? What sacrifices are you not willing to make? What are you content with? What kinds of stories do you want to tell — and which path can better tell that story?
Your initial choice is so important in regards to the approach you take towards your screenwriting dreams.
So choose, but choose wisely.
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