Only the top 1% of working screenwriters make a living writing for major studios and production companies.
Most working screenwriters could be referred to as blue-collar screenwriters — those that are signing non-Guild low five-figure contracts for channels like Lifetime and Hallmark. Yes, there's a script market for Direct-to-Streaming action, science fiction, and horror thrillers that former A-list stars (and plenty of B, C, and D-list stars as well) make a living from, but nobody makes more movies than Lifetime.
Lifetime is a place where a screenwriter can build a resume of onscreen credits and compile a few noteworthy low-five-figure contracts that add up to a sustainable career as a paid screenwriter.
But it's not as easy as it sounds. There's a process. Here we share a general line of steps, guidelines, and best practices that screenwriters can use as a guide to starting their career as a working and produced screenwriter.
Know and Understand the Lifetime Brand
The first step is throwing yourself into their brand. The higher-brow Lifetime movies and series are usually developed by bigger stars and higher profile producers and production companies.
The best Lifetime entry-level opportunities for screenwriters can be found in the Christmas and Thriller genres.
Lifetime differs from Hallmark substantially in their Christmas movies. They are not seeking Christmas movies with magical elements (Santa, Elves, Christmas Miracles, etc.). Instead, they're looking for Christmastime settings and backdrops for romantic comedies and dramedies.
The thriller genre is the bread-and-butter genre for screenwriters when it comes to Lifetime. Lifetime is a female-driven network, content-wise, so they are interested in strong female roles within the thriller genre, including stories inspired by true crime stories.
Study the most up-to-date Lifetime movies being broadcast and streamed right now. And use IMDbPro to learn what is being produced and developed.
But before you start writing a script on your own for Lifetime, understand that spec scripts aren't the way to go.
Don't Bank on Selling a Spec to Lifetime
While there are certainly some exceptions, most Lifetime movies are not born through the network buying someone's spec script (a screenplay written on speculation that someone will purchase it). It's likely a waste of time to develop a spec script in hopes of selling it to the network. Because they have so many movies produced within the span of a normal production year, it would be nearly impossible to avoid overlap in concept, subject, and character elements that have already been produced or are already in development.
If you've done your research and know the Lifetime brand, chances are the concepts that you have in your head are already being developed or have already been produced. Or they've already been passed on for various reasons.
Lifetime is not a spec-driven platform. However, it is a sample-driven platform, as far as having a good stack of spec scripts to use as proof-of-ability. You need to have 3-5 excellent spec scripts that you can present as samples to showcase your talent. This is the case for any Hollywood situation where you are trying to get an assignment or representation. It's worth taking a year to hone your skills and build that necessary stack of samples.
But after that, you need an in.
You Need an In
By policy and for legality purposes, Lifetime does not accept unsolicited pitches or materials. This is to protect them and you. They only accept pitches and materials from agents, managers, and through referrals from those they have worked with in the past.
And here's a deeper look. The best way to get in is not through trying to pitch or submit materials to the network. You need to go through the production companies that they work with.
Lifetime rarely develops from within. They rely on a handful of production companies to do that work for them. So the best first step that you can take if you don't have professional and reputable representation yet is to find out who is currently producing Lifetime movies. There are a couple of ways to do this:
- Watch Lifetime movies and pay attention to the opening credits that showcase production company names.
- Go to IMDbPro and look up those companies.
- Look up Lifetime on IMDbPro, find titles currently in production or development, and see what production companies are attached.
You can then cold-query those production companies hoping that they will read your samples and consider you for pitching and writing opportunities.
When you cold-query them, briefly explain that you are interested in writing for Lifetime movies and have writing samples that you could forward for consideration for pitching and writing opportunities.
The Lifetime Pitching and Writing Process for Screenwriters
As mentioned above, Lifetime doesn't usually purchase spec scripts. There's an off-chance that one of their production company partners may show interest in one, but 99% of the time, screenwriters are put through a pitch process that could move to a writing contract. This is primarily because Lifetime wants a very particular type of concept, story, and characters.
Here is the general pitching and writing contract process that screenwriters will encounter with Lifetime and their production company partners.
Note: Different production companies will have different variances of this below process. However, this process is a confirmed example that has been utilized for Lifetime and production company partner contracts.
1. The Pitch
The pitching phase is obviously unpaid. Nobody gets paid to pitch. You'll be asked to create extended loglines for any of your ideas. Again, these will likely be for Christmas movies (see details above) or, even more likely, for thrillers.
The extended loglines will be 2-3 sentences explaining your concept. You need to feature:
- The protagonist (usually a woman)
- Their ordinary world
- The conflict they're facing and the situation they're in
- The struggles they go through
- The end (develop an excellent twist)
Yes. A twist is a must. Lifetime and the production companies are always looking for unique and surprising twists. That's what stands out most to them.
Don't give them a full synopsis yet. And don't be overgenerous by giving them an outline. You'll be giving them free material that they'd otherwise pay you for.
Just offer a 2-3 sentence extended logline. And they will usually allow you to send multiple pitches, so it's best to offer them 3-5 of the best pitches you can offer.
If the production company (and Lifetime) likes the initial pitch, they'll ask you for a synopsis. You also provide this as an extended part of the pitching process.
A synopsis should be 1-2 pages (no more than that), covering the beginning, middle, and end of your story. It introduces character names (presented in CAPS when first mentioned) and covers the major beats of the story.
The format should include:
- Centered title of the story in bold as a headline
- Writer(s) names below it
- A 25 to 45-word logline in italics
- The body of the synopsis
Just tell the story in broad strokes and utilize good paragraph spacing to make it readable. They don't need a scene-by-scene breakdown yet.
3. Signing a Contract
If you've gotten this far, congratulations because you've (hopefully) made it to the contract phase. As we said before, different production companies may have variances in their process.
Most contracts will pay you a small commencement fee. Without breaking any NDAs, let's just say that it's a three-figure amount. You'll then be tasked with creating an outline for the script. Don't worry. You're usually paid for this once it is turned in.
When you sign a contract, they will break down the steps of payment, which usually entails:
- First Draft
- Rewrite Draft
- Followed by additional rewrite drafts through production
Keep in mind that you can be either replaced, or they can move on from the project at any time, which means the payments can stop at any time as well. The good news is that Lifetime usually sticks with the original writer(s). Due to development and production budgets being so low per project, it's cheaper to retain the original contracted writer(s).
Beyond a possible small commencement fee, your first job will be to create an outline.
The outline is basically a numerated beat sheet.
- Usually 7-8 pages long
- Anywhere from 35-45 beats
You can take your 1-2 page synopsis and build on it, creating a beat sheet for the screenplay. This covers every single story and character beat. You won't have every single scene in the outline, but it's the closest thing to a scene-to-scene breakdown. With each beat, you'll communicate what's being seen and said. No, that doesn't mean you include dialogue. You're just telling them what's happening in the scene/story beat.
You can always ask your contact if you could receive an example of what they prefer for their outlines. They'll usually give you samples from previous projects. When you get those, copy the format to a tee.
Generally speaking, you'll likely have a week or two to complete these. It's best to get to work and get it done as fast (but as well) as you can to showcase your abilities to deliver great work quickly.
Once the outline is reviewed by the production company and/or Lifetime, you'll receive notes and requests for tweaks and changes.
It's usually at this point where it's a do-or-die situation for your contract. If it's just not working out to what they had hoped, they'll move on. You'll get paid for the outline, but the rest of the contract will be dismissed.
5. First Draft
Once again, congratulations if you've gotten this far. You've accomplished what most never will — you've become a working and paid screenwriter.
Depending on the production company and needs of the network, you're usually given a month to write the first draft. Sometimes they'll tell you to take your time. You may even be allowed two months. But it's a fast-paced business, and it's best to assume that a month to a month-and-a-half is the deadline to shoot for, regardless of what they say (unless they need it sooner).
The outline/beat-sheet will be your guide. Stick to it because that's what they approved. You'll obviously need to add additional scenes as glue to keep everything together, but the outline/beat-sheet will help you write the script fast.
If you haven't watched and studied other Lifetime movies in the same genre you've been assigned to write, you're already behind. You don't necessarily want to copy other Lifetime movies' exact structure, but there is certainly a mold to follow.
Once you finish the first draft and it's ready to turn in, you'll be paid upon delivery (within 2-4 weeks).
The first person to read it will be your contact person at the production company (and/or their readers). Notes could come within a week. Sometimes they may take two to three weeks.
When you're on an assignment like this, notes aren't negotiable. This isn't feedback to consider. You need to apply the notes as requested. If you need elaboration, feel free to ask them. This is part of the development process. They will have wants and needs on their end.
You are paid out for any requested rewrites. The rewrites are usually lesser amounts paid. The production company will get the draft to its best on their end through their collaboration with you before they take it to Lifetime.
When it is sent out to Lifetime, you'll have to wait for their notes to come back. Once those notes are applied to the script, you'll go through the submission process again.
How many drafts there will depend on how well you are in line with their needs and wants. And sometimes, when casting happens, necessary changes will need to be made. Production rewrites and polish drafts will be requested.
7. Production Bonus
Not all projects get produced. That's the reality of the film and television industry. However, Lifetime has a great reputation. When they get a writer on contract, that writer will see their best odds of getting one of their scripts produced.
If you're comparing the odds of getting produced through a major studio or production company to getting produced through Lifetime, Lifetime offers you the best odds of success — by far.
A production bonus contract clause entails the rest of the promised contract amount. When you first sign a contract, there's a final amount of contract money you can make. You're not guaranteed that full amount because the contract is paid out in the stages mentioned above.
If you haven't exhausted that final amount via multiple rewrite fees, you'll get the rest of the amount when the film goes into production.
Thus, any amount you've already received for outlines and drafts will be subtracted from the overall contract amount that was agreed upon — the rest left over (if any) is the production bonus that is paid out within a couple of weeks after principal photography begins.
When You're In, You're In
Here's the great thing about writing for Lifetime. When you get a script produced, there's likely more work for you if the collaboration process has gone smoothly on your end.
While the contracts aren't life-changing money compared to the six-figure deals (or even the WGA Minimums) you've read about with major studio movies, a few Lifetime screenwriting gigs can amount to a good blue-collar salary.
Produced credits are gold for screenwriters, especially with a major network like Lifetime.
If you're getting paid to write screenplays — with the best odds of seeing those scripts produced — you're far ahead of the competition out there. At the very least, it's a good place to start your screenwriting career.
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, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies