You’ve won the contest, been granted the fellowship, made it onto an industry list, or at the very least have generated some considerable momentum as a screenwriter from that first noteworthy screenplay — now what?
Whatever the circumstance that led you to some success may be, you’ve found yourself scoring some major industry phone calls or meetings. You may have even nabbed a reputable agent or manager. Congratulations.
But if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve experienced the first signs of the sophomore slump. The calls have stopped coming in. The leads that you were elated by haven’t come through. The heat you generated has gone somewhat cold. If you nabbed an agent or manager, maybe they’re not calling or emailing as much. The meetings they got you led nowhere, and it feels like you’re losing them — seemingly dropping lower and lower on their priority list.
Don’t worry. You’re in good company. It’s happened to the best of us. In fact, it’s actually a rite of passage.
Even the most heralded debut writers and directors have suffered from the sophomore slump. Kevin Smith went from the success of Clerks to the financial failure of Mallrats.
Neill Blomkamp was launched into the Hollywood stratosphere with District 9, only to fall to the ground level with the underperforming Elysium.
And as you eek through this depressing — but inevitable — stage of your screenwriting career, you’re bound to struggle with the follow-up to the script that got you where you hoped and prayed to be months prior.
Here we offer five ways to avoid the inescapable sophomore slump so you can get back on that horse as an even better writer with an even stronger second effort.
1. Don’t Linger with That Winning Script — Move On
Yes, it’s utterly invigorating to finally see someone validate your work. Whether it’s a win, a high placement, or a successful marketing and networking campaign for your script, it’s a thrill to see those kudos coming in.
But take it from the professionals — it doesn’t last.
The dream misleads you into thinking that all you need to do is win or get read, attain that representation, and then enjoy the profits of sure-thing script sales or paid assignments.
It just doesn’t happen that way for most, and you certainly don’t want to pin your hopes on the single quick road-to-success story that you read in some screenwriting article or interview. And know that most of those stories are actually a condensed bi-product of that writer struggling and failing for multiple years prior.
When success does come, take some time to enjoy it for sure. Celebrate. And then get ready for the next one.
Every industry meeting, phone call, and lead is icing on the cake, so just roll with whatever comes your way but always have your eye on the next script because often that first successful screenplay is just a key into the first door of many. Hollywood is always looking ahead, never behind.
So many screenwriters are tempted to ride that first success until they’ve run it dry. The secret to prolonged success is always staying relevant with more and more material. You need to show the industry that you’re not a one-trick pony. And the only way you can do that is to avoid the lingering effect and move on to the next as quickly as possible.
Whatever happens is out of your control anyway. If you wait by the phone or your email inbox, you’ll be letting the world pass you by.
2. Choose Your Follow-Up Script Wisely
The key is to use the information you’ve gathered through your industry meetings and calls — as well as any script market wisdom you’ve collected from representation — and gauge what ins and outs you may have.
If you’ve met some horror producers that are looking for new material, take note. If you’ve spoken with some development executives looking for certain types of scripts, take note.
Yes, you do have to write for you, but it’s a business. You have to understand that your next project has to be a hybrid of what you want to write and what you believe they are willing to buy.
Choosing your next script based on that criteria is not an exact science by any means, but it’s smart to choose very wisely based on the information your recent success has offered.
Ken’s Own Hollywood Anecdote #1: When my spec Doomsday Order garnered meetings at most major studios (but ultimately didn’t sell, as most spec scripts don’t), I was asked to pitch any projects I had in development. One of them was a sniper action drama. Nearly every one of the development executives was interested. Needless to say, after discussions with my manager (who I signed with based off of a studio referral that read Doomsday Order), my follow-up script was that very concept that had been pitched. When the sniper script was completed, it went out wide and led to Lionsgate picking it up.
Always write what you want to see in movie theaters, but do your best to find something that is also desirable to the many contacts you’ve made. You must choose, but choose wisely.
3. Challenge Yourself
There’s nothing worse in Hollywood than more of the same. It’s a fast-paced culture and yesterday’s hot script is today’s old news.
The worst thing that you can do is write something similar to what you already scored with in the first place. It shows complacency and an utter lack of diversity within your writing.
Yes, if you’re known for a particular genre, and your reps and contacts want to capitalize on that, you should stick with something that showcases those abilities. However, you need to challenge yourself by adhering to that without being complacent.
If your marquee script was about a bank robbery, the next one better not be about any type of heist. Instead, showcase your talents for thrills and suspense by writing a story of survival.
As a director, Ben Affleck went from The Town — a fictional story about bank robbers — to Argo — a true story about the rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran. Two very different stories, yes, but they also shared a similar tone and atmosphere of suspense, thrills, and quiet but powerful characterization.
Challenge yourself without losing what they loved about you in the first place.
4. Be Confident, Be You
Representation and industry contacts will all have their opinions about what should and shouldn’t be your follow-up — and those opinions will prove to be conflicting as well. They each have their own agendas, their own wants, their own needs, and their own philosophies and perspectives.
Yes, as mentioned above, you need to take in all of that information and shared wisdom for consideration, but in the end, you have to make the choice that makes sense for you — and you have to be confident in that choice.
The worst thing that you could do is bend to their will and write what they want you to write, especially if it goes against your own passions.
If you’re going to succeed in this industry, you have to dare to be different. You have to dare to stay true to yourself and who you want to be as a screenwriter.
If your reps and contacts are pushing against that, you’re going to lose your confidence (and yourself) if you bend to their will. Your passion will be extinguished, and when that happens, you’re no good to them anyway.
You can certainly attempt to live under the “one for them, one for you” philosophy, but that often runs its course pretty quickly unless you’re making a good, substantial living off of it.
Don’t be scared to be confident (not arrogant) and don’t be scared to be you. And make no mistake, you’ll be challenged on that front multiple times by agents, managers, development executives, and even yourself.
5. Hone Your Writing Speed and Process
The last thing you want to do is take a year to write that follow-up because by that time you will be long-forgotten in the eyes of the contacts you made.
By now you’ve hopefully prepared for possible success by learning to write like a professional.
Read ScreenCraft’s Are You Truly Prepared for Success as a Screenwriter?
Most professional script contracts offer writers ten weeks (give or take) to write the first draft, and then just a couple of weeks to work towards a final draft. That gives you roughly three months to finish a script as a professional screenwriter. If you haven’t learned to write a script in that short amount of time, it’s time to do so.
And in Hollywood, three months is an eternity — contract stipulation or not. Many screenwriting deals don’t play by the mandated Writers Guild directives. You may be asked to write the first draft in just four weeks or less.
Ken’s Own Hollywood Anecdote #2: When I was offered a paid assignment to write a miniseries that was already pre-sold in foreign territories, I had just two and a half weeks to write a page-one rewrite — 250 pages total. There was a pre-existing script that was horrible. I pitched my own take on the concept with the assertion that it would have to be a page-one rewrite (starting from scratch) that only kept the general concept and setting. Since it was already pre-sold in foreign territories, they needed it yesterday. They gave me two and a half weeks. I didn’t see my wife and kids for most of that time and spent endless nights at the local college library writing into the wee hours of the morning. It was trial by fire. Since then, I’ve honed my writing speed and process to be able to write a feature in as little as one month’s time — just in case.
Learn to write fast without losing quality. You’ll often find that writing under a deadline pushes you creatively. You’ll come up with even better material compared to the open-ended time frame when most novice screenwriters take a ridiculous six months to a year to write a single screenplay.
By doing this for your follow-up, you’ll stay fresh in the eyes of the contacts you’ve made, and you’ll be able to showcase the fact that you can write like a pro.
Don’t linger in the spotlight — move onto the next even as you enjoy the calls, meetings, and accolades. Be sure to choose your follow-up concept wisely. Challenge yourself to avoid complacency and to keep your writing fresh. Be confident in what you choose and why you choose it, never losing yourself in the process amidst any outside pressure. And be sure to prepare yourself for success by being ready and able to write under professional deadlines.
Do all of that, and you’ll avoid that screenwriter sophomore slump.
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