Are you going to be ready if your screenwriting manages to draw the film and television industry attention you’ve been striving for? It’s an important question that the average screenwriter doesn’t bother to ask themselves — but one that must be given a lot of thought if you really want to be a professional screenwriter.
You’ve honed your craft. You’ve written some amazing scripts. You’ve won a contest or fellowship and managed to parlay that into film and television industry calls and meetings. And believe it or not, they’ve said YES. They want to hire you onto the writing team of a major show or they want to assign you to write a feature film.
Screenwriters are so used to rejection that they forget that — holy crap — this might actually happen!
Cynics will say that seeing success in Hollywood on any level — as far as getting paid to write — is like winning the lottery, so don’t get your hopes up. That’s just not true. Whether it’s a ScreenCraft competition winner like Lindsay Golder getting staffed on a major network show like Fox’s The Mick, or yours truly getting meetings at nearly all major studios early on in his career and then managing to nab a Lionsgate deal — and then later a miniseries assignment with a name cast — while living 2,000 miles away from Hollywood.
It happens. Novice writers are getting pursued, desired, and hired more often than you’d think. And when it does happen, it happens fast. It’s a whirlwind experience and before you know it you are thrown into the Hollywood fire of development and screenwriting. If you’re not prepared to take that heat, you won’t be in that Hollywood kitchen too long.
So here is some of the best screenwriting advice that you’ll read to help conjure a plan and a training process to be ready once Hollywood finally comes calling for you.
Train Yourself to Write Under Professional Feature Deadlines
As a Hollywood screenwriter, you have to learn to write under strict deadlines.
The standard contract for a feature screenwriting assignment will generally stipulate that the writer will have just ten to twelve weeks to finish the first draft of a script.
That means you could have less than three months to write a script from beginning to end. And here’s the further rub — if what you hand in isn’t up to par with their expectations, you can and will be replaced quickly. That first draft has to be amazing and you have to learn to write an amazing draft within three months — a draft that is the equivalent of what you would deem a final draft in your normal spec screenplay process writing by yourself under no contract deadlines.
To put this into an even more specific professional perspective, know that the general feature contract you’ll be given will stipulate various stages of payment. So if you’ve been offered X amount, don’t get too excited because that contract amount is split into draft levels.
Here’s a break down of a contract payment, based solely on the guild minimum stipulations for WGA signatory companies (non-signatory companies do not have to comply with this).
So as you can see, there are many times within a general contract where the writer can be replaced and miss out on the dollar amount that was initially offered.
With deadlines, you’ll have ten to twelve weeks to finish that first draft, yes. But for final drafts, rewrites, and polishes (IF you are retained for those), the deadlines generally drop to just two weeks for each.
So needless to say, you have to learn to write under such deadlines.
The days of taking four, five, six months, or beyond to finish that script need to be over right now as you read this, if you want to train yourself to be a professional screenwriter. You can’t simply wait to be in that position and expect to learn by trial by fire. Once you fail under that pressure the bridge you’ve worked so hard to build will be burnt and your reputation for other potential jobs will falter.
So start creating whatever development and writing process you need to get that first draft done in no more than three months — and then just one to two additional drafts within two weeks for each.
Once you’ve trained yourself to do that, you’ll be further ready for success when it comes calling.
Read ScreenCraft’s 5 Ways Screenwriters Can Streamline Their Productivity!
Train Yourself to Write Under Professional Television Deadlines and Format
We are in a golden age of television — the likes of which we’ve never seen before due to the expansion of content platforms beyond major and cable networks. There are many opportunities and those opportunities to excel as a television writer for network, cable, or streaming channels are ever growing.
But just as it is so vital for writing features, you need to be ready to write under industry deadlines as well. And with television, the speed at which you need to do that drops from three months to just a week or less. No, that’s not a typo. The television industry works at a pace one hundred times faster than any other medium, be it writing novels or writing feature screenplays. It’s a high pressure and ultra fast-paced environment — albeit with the added positives of working with a creative support group within the writers’ room.
So ask yourself, if you want to break into television — or if you want to be that double threat able to bounce back and forth with mastery between television and features — can you possibly fathom finishing a series episode in less than two weeks for an hour-long procedural or less than one week for thirty-minute sitcoms?
It can be done. Professional writers are doing it every week. So you need to train yourself to be able to do that as well. And you simply accomplish that by going out and doing it under such mock deadlines.
When it comes to formatting, you need to know and understand the general industry guidelines and expectations. There are variances per series and per series type for sure, but the general breakdowns are essential to the knowledge you need to have to be prepared for success.
Read ScreenCraft’s The Screenwriter’s Simple Guide to Formatting Television Scripts to learn more on that!
Understand and Prepare for Travel and Relocation Plans
We live in a technological world centered around digital social connections that allow for people to collaborate and work for industries while thousands of miles away from bosses, peers, and counterparts.
Yours truly has enjoyed a screenwriting career complete with paid deals and paid assignments after relocating to my home state of Wisconsin to raise our children close to family. It is possible in this day and age to not only be discovered outside of Los Angeles, but also to live and write away from the hustle and bustle of La La Land.
But it comes at a high cost.
Opportunities aren’t as plentiful when you’re outside of Los Angeles. Partly because you can’t be there for the industry meetings to pitch yourself for assignments and partly because, yes, there is a stigma that comes with being an out-of-town writer — at least for many managers and agents that want their clients readily available for those water bottle tours.
So you need to make a decision whether or not you’re going to be able to relocate to Los Angeles — if you’re not there already — or at least be ready to travel for a week or so at a time to attend those water bottle tour meetings.
As we mentioned before, success comes fast.
Be ready and prepared with contingency plans if you happen to find yourself in a situation that calls for you to be in town — either temporarily for meetings or on a more permanent basis.
Do you have the funds to travel to Los Angeles for meetings?
If not, maybe apply for a credit card that can offer you some time to pay a trip off. Utilize AirBnB for cheaper lodging. See if there are any other writing peers that would be interested in traveling with you to share the costs.
Do you have the ability to make the move to Los Angeles permanently, or at least for a good chunk of time?
If not, you need to be ready and willing to communicate that to whoever has approached you. And understand that if you want to be a television writer, you will NEED to move to Los Angeles or New York (depending on where the writers’ room for the series is based). There are no workarounds for television writers. You need to be in that writers’ room.
So if you’re looking to make a living as a television writer, know that you either need the freedom to move and live there during the writing season of the series at the very least — but more realistically you need to make the move on a permanent basis because turnaround within television writers rooms is high.
Train yourself to write under the tight film and television industry deadlines, be able to write within the confines of multiple television formats and prepare yourself for any and all possible travel or relocation needs.
You can’t wait until the opportunity presents itself. You can’t expect to make that transition at the drop of a dime. Success comes fast and you need to train yourself to be ready for it.
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