What are some dead ends that most novice screenwriters hit early on in their screenwriting journey?
Your screenwriting journey is guaranteed to be a long and arduous path. Very few screenwriters make it to the professional level within their first couple of years.
In fact, most “overnight” success stories are actually the result of a decade-long (or more) struggle to get read, get represented, get meetings, get paid assignments, get an original spec screenplay sold, get produced, and get hired again.
So take comfort in the fact that you need to pay your dues and venture down those naive dead ends that all screenwriters end up in at one point or another.
Here we attempt to steer you in the right direction to avoid dead ends that waste your time, your resources, and your emotions.
1. Avoid 50/50 Deal Offers
Any time you hear anyone offer a 50/50 split of any of an eventual film’s profits, run like the wind.
There are many different variances of this offer with many different sets of context.
Sometimes it’s a novelist looking for a screenwriter to adapt their book. Sometimes it’s a “producer” with an idea that wants you to write the script. Regardless, these deals do not exist in actual Hollywood contracts.
If a novelist wants you to write the screenplay adaptation of their book, you both still have to go through the process of trying to sell it. If — and this is a BIG IF — a studio actually shows some interest, the novelist will be paid for the rights to adapt their book and you will be paid for writing the script. They are two separate deals. And remember that the studio can actually decide to buy the rights to the book and decline your adaptation of it, leaving you in the dust.
If a producer has an idea and wants you to write it, they are inclined to pay you to do so. If they have a financial backer — financier, executive producer, or studio — you will get paid for your work, and the producer will attain a producer’s fee once the film goes into production. There is no 50/50 deal.
The caveat is one screenwriter coming to another and wanting to partner up on a screenplay. Then, and only then, is a 50/50 deal legitimate and worth pursuing.
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2. Avoid “Screenwriting Job Listings”
These types of offers often saturate “screenwriting job listings” — most of which are either not legit or wastes of time.
The listings usually mention a screenwriting assignment fee ranging anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000 (give or take). Other listings might be $40,000 to $80,000 (or any equivalent). These offers hook naive screenwriters with the five to possible six-figure amounts. And then they are often followed by “depending upon the production budget” or any equivalent phrases.
And the third part of the offer usually involves the mention of profit percentage shares on the backend. Anyone in Hollywood reading this is laughing right now because profit shares for screenwriters are misleading lies. Studios are known for the “creative” accounting, meaning that when all is said and done, screenwriters won’t get their promised share.
Gross points are given to A-List talent, producers, and directors. This is the profit share that is given before taxes and expenses (development costs, production costs, post-production costs, marketing costs, etc.). This is also given out before investors are given their investments back.
Net points are the leftovers after all of those costs, expenses, and investment paybacks are given. And because of creative accounting, those promised net points either make pennies or nothing at all.
Yes, some screenwriting job listings can offer legitimate paid gigs, but they are sadly few and far between. Most screenwriting assignments are delivered through representation and networking.
3. Avoid Writing Sequels, Prequels, Reboots, Remakes, or Spin-Offs
We all have our brilliant ideas for the next Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Star Wars, or Star Trek installment.
So does the mailman delivering your mail. He’s a big movie buff. So does the receptionist at your dentist. She loves Star Wars.
No matter how good (most are bad) they are, it’s not worth it to write them with the hopes of getting them into the hands of the studios overseeing those franchises. It’s just not worth the time and effort.
Since you’re a newcomer, you’ll likely spend a year writing the script. Then you’ll spend countless hours, days, weeks, months, and years trying to get it into the hands of those in charge of making those movies. But let’s rewind a bit. You won’t get it into their hands because they cannot accept unsolicited submissions due to legality issues. But you’ll try nonetheless.
We’re not saying this lightly. This happens — a lot.
That said, it’s perfectly fine to either write them for fun or write them as an exercise. It’s actually an excellent way to teach yourself how to become a studio writer — taking someone else’s ideas and characters and creating your own installment that fits in with or reinvents the franchise.
And on a secondary note, it’s perfectly fine to craft an excellent franchise installment and keep it on the shelf for down the road when you hopefully make a name for yourself through writing assignments or the sale of some original spec scripts. You may even find yourself at the right place, at the right time, with the right person that just happens to be looking for a new take on a current or idling franchise. But that’s lottery odds right there. Not impossible, but highly unlikely and not worth the time, effort, and emotions if you’re putting all of your hope on selling that franchise script of yours.
As you start, it’s a complete dead end to think that your sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, or spin-offs will be read or purchased by the studios in charge of those franchises.
Studios don’t like taking risks. They will always go for a proven screenwriter with hits under their belt. Newcomers aren’t allowed to play in those franchise playgrounds.
It would be cool though, wouldn’t it?
Bonus Dead End — Avoid Agents or Managers with No Clients
Look, we get it. Agents and managers have to start somewhere. Why not with you?
For context purposes, we’re not talking about new agents or managers that have worked their way up the totem pole in major agencies or management companies. In that context, yes, it might be smart to start with someone like that because they’re hungry, they don’t have clients to juggle, and because of that, you’ll get far more attention than you would with an agent or manager with multiple clients — and more successful ones at that.
No, we’re talking about those “agents” and “managers” that have websites stating their claim as representation. A simple search of their “company” in IMdBPro will prove that they aren’t worthy agencies and management companies to put your trust in.
On top of that, if any supposed agent or manager asks you for money up front, for any reason, run like the wind.
Dead ends are a screenwriter’s rite of passage. Most screenwriters fall victim to them. The wise ones catch on quickly. Hopefully, this will help you save your time, effort, and wasted emotions dealing with the realization that they are, in fact, dead ends that you should avoid.
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