What are the differences between the lifestyles of feature screenwriters and television writers?
Writing features and writing for television are two very different paths. Yes, in this day and age writers can bounce back and forth between the two mediums. However, once you have succeeded in one realm, it’s difficult to switch to the other because the lifestyles are drastically different.
It’s tough for a feature writer to find the time to write for television, and it’s even more difficult for a television writer to find the time to write features.
Here we will give a general overview of these two very different writing worlds so screenwriters can know what to expect when choosing the screenwriting paths they embark on.
The Life of a Feature Screenwriter
When you’re writing for features, the starting point is writing on spec — which means that you’re writing screenplays under the speculation that you’ll sell those to studios and production companies.
It generally takes a few screenplays to hone your craft. And when you’re writing quality screenplays that are turning heads, that doesn’t always lead to the sale of those screenplays.
Spec scripts are challenging to sell these days. It does happen, but when you compare maybe 50-60 spec sales sold per year (it fluctuates) to the thousands of screenwriters trying to accomplish that goal, the odds are clearly against most screenwriters.
But, again, it does happen. And if the stars align and you find yourself at the right place, right time, with the right screenplay, the odds no longer matter.
More often than not, feature screenwriters use their spec scripts to attain coveted writing assignments. Their spec scripts are samples showcasing the quality of their writing. If the development executives or producers believe that your writing aligns with the project they are developing, you’ll get hired.
When this happens, you’ll sign a contract. And that contract will be broken up into drafts. You will usually be allotted a couple of months to finish the first draft. Sometimes it’s less.
But you can’t start counting your money for the contract agreement because you can be let go after that first draft is handed in. Which means you’ll forfeit the rest of the portions of the contract beyond the payment designated for that first draft.
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The lifestyle of a feature screenwriter more often than not is a singular lifestyle.
When you’re writing on spec early on in your career before you’ve garnered any representation or paid gigs, it’s just you and that page — unless you have a writing partner or are sharing pages for feedback within a writers’ group.
You write scripts. You rewrite them. You get feedback and rewrite them some more. And then you try your best to market your screenplays to attain representation that can work on forwarding your career by getting you into Hollywood meetings.
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On some occasions, you can negotiate your own deals with independent filmmakers or lower tier mini-studios and production companies.
Read ScreenCraft’s How to Negotiate a Screenwriting Contract Without Representation!
If you do live in Los Angeles, you’ll be sent on seemingly endless Hollywood meetings.
If you don’t live in Los Angeles, you’ll be asked to fly in (on your dime) for a busy week or two of meetings, or you’ll be required to take phone conference calls. You’ll quickly learn that living in Los Angeles is not only easier as a screenwriter but increases your odds of success.
As we jump forward in your career, if you find the success you’ve been hoping for and become a produced screenwriter that is getting multiple studio assignments, meetings will become the norm for you. You’ll meet with your reps, development executives, producers, directors, and talent.
You’ll receive script notes from them all as well. Some notes will be suggestions that you can either apply or recant with your own ideas and concepts. Others will be directives that you need to apply as the hired-hand screenwriter.
And then, it’s back to that singular existence of you and the blank page.
When it comes to your spec scripts, yes, you’ll have more opportunities to pitch them to the powers that be. But even for established screenwriters, selling on spec is a very uphill battle.
So you market your scripts, work with your representation on deciding what script concepts you should be developing and writing on spec, and you try to attain those coveted writing assignments.
The Life of a Television Writer
This life of a television writer begins in a very similar fashion to that of the feature screenwriter.
You’ll start by writing on spec. In today’s Hollywood, it’s important to realize that television — which includes streaming channels — is all the rage right now. You increase your chances of breaking through by having concepts and spec pilot scripts for television shows — which is odd because most television specs, like features, are never sold — unless you’re an established writer with some hits or substantial writing credits under your belt. Yet Hollywood still wants to see them.
Some writers know that they want to work in television and focus solely on pilot scripts and writing samples. Writing samples are teleplays that you write for an existing show — preferably a popular series that shows no signs of being canceled or completed anytime soon.
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Other writers dabble in both feature and television scripts, hoping the fates will decide which path they will take first.
Whatever the circumstances, when you finally break through as a television writer, life is going to change drastically.
It’s no longer about just attending meetings and then going off on your own to write. Now you enter the writers’ room.
This is where the difference between the lifestyle of a feature screenwriter and television writer changes drastically. You need to move to Los Angeles. The only exceptions would be for shows whose writers rooms are based in New York or whatever other location. Most shows are based in Los Angeles or New York. Some in Chicago.
As a feature screenwriter, yes, you can technically live anywhere and enjoy a screenwriting career, as long as you’re willing to travel when necessary. But as a television writer, you have to be in the room.
When you are hired as a staff writer for a show — which is near the bottom of the totem pole below the showrunner, the executive producer, the producer, the story editor, and the more tenured staff writers — you step into an uber-collaborative environment.
You’re no longer writing on your own. You’re conceptualizing, developing, outlining, breaking a story, and writing with a room full of people. It’s competitive. It’s intimidating. And everyone is doing whatever they can to stand out the most.
At first, you’ll take your time getting a feel for the room, scared to step on anyone’s toes. Some opportunities to pitch story solutions will come as a test. But you’ll need to take the initiative if you want to stay on staff.
A staff writer is basically an employee of a company. And that company is the show. It’s a full-time job.
Feature writers work on a script for a few months on assignment or writing on spec — and they work wherever they want, beyond the required appearance at meetings now and then.
Television writers “clock” into a Monday through Friday job, in terms of having to be in a specific office space during specific office times.
You’ll go into the office in the morning, like a typical 9-5 worker in any industry. You’ll grab some of the free food for breakfast or enjoy some of last night’s pizza, which is still left within the room. You’ll all gather around the table or sit throughout the room on chairs or couches, depending upon the type of writers room you’re in.
You’ll chat with your fellow staff writers about nothing related to the upcoming task of writing to come. Then when the showrunner and higher-ups enter the room, you’ll focus in on whatever the day’s workload is, which usually consists of breaking story, breaking characters, discussing scripts in the works, looking ahead to upcoming scripts that need to be written, etc.
And it has to be a well-oiled machine. The term writer’s block has no meaning in a writers room. There’s no time for that. If the room stalls on their duties, that means scripts are late, production is delayed, and money is lost.
So each writers room will have its process. Some try to keep a 9-5 schedule (which usually means 9-8 or so) for the benefit of all so they can get home to their families. Others expect the writers to stay late, even if that means working 12-hour days and beyond.
And the work doesn’t stop when the season is over, and the staff goes on hiatus.
Television writers are always on the job in some way, shape, or form. And who knows if the show will be picked up for next season? Networks, in particular, can ruin a writer’s year pretty quickly with an unexpected cancellation. You can go from your dream job to right back where you were before you attained it.
It’s estimated that 90% of series fail within the first few seasons and almost every show eventually gets canceled. And when that happens, you’re officially unemployed.
So then you must get back out into the field and search for a new job.
Staffing seasons in Hollywood runs through April and May every year. That is when showrunners are looking for writers by reading sample scripts submitted by the representation of the writers. In June, the hiring can begin because everyone knows what shows have been greenlit, canceled, or picked up.
This tradition is slightly shifting due to the expanded platform of cable networks and streaming channels, both of which are continually developing projects every month.
If you’re lucky enough to become a staff writer, the pay is much different than that of a feature screenwriter. The nice aspect of the job of a television writer is that you have a more steady income coming in — but the intimidating part is that staff writers are always the first to go when budget cuts or writing staff shakeups come.
And then there are the issues of writing credits. Staff writers are paid a season’s worth of income spread out through the weeks that they are on staff. But that doesn’t mean that they are getting any writing credit. It’s not until you’re assigned to actually write the script the room has been developing where you get a writing credit.
As a staff writer, you may have supplied key story or character elements to an eventual script, but if you’re not actually the assigned writer to write the script for that episode, your work will be uncredited.
With that said, the nice thing about getting assigned to write the script is that you’ll not only get the onscreen credit, you’ll also get paid at least the WGA minimum for writing the script — $24,788 for half-hour episodes and $36,457 for hour-long episodes. If you are partnered with another writer, you split that fee in half.
So this lifestyle is vastly different than that of a feature screenwriter. It’s directly collaborative as you work within the setting of a writers room. The development process, writing process, and rewriting process are handled by committee, whereas the feature writer’s process is on their shoulders once they’ve received any possible notes and directives if on assignment.
So as you can see, the lifestyles of feature screenwriters and television writers are very different.
Television writers live a more structured professional life when on staff, complete with office spaces they work within, weekly checks, and a team of collaborators.
Feature screenwriters go job-by-job, which can be few and far between if you’re not a very established feature writer. But the pay can be good for less overall work compared to the lifestyle of a television writer.
Both have struggles, as any job does.
So when you choose your path — or when your path is chosen for you — hopefully this helps to level your expectations and give you a better understanding of the differences between the two lifestyles. The grass is always greener on the other side. It’s just a matter of finding what you’re more passionate about.
And, yes, you can do both down the road once you’ve built a great body of work.
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