10 Things I Did to Become a Professional Screenwriter
What steps can screenwriters take to better their odds of becoming a professional screenwriter?
Everyone has — or will have — their own story to tell when it comes to their screenwriting journey. There's no single way to become a professional screenwriter.
But it's good to hear from those that have seen some success. What did they do to break through? What steps did they take along the way?
There are three general tiers of professional screenwriters:
1. One Percenters
These are the Aaron Sorkins, David Koepps, Terry Rossios, Joss Whedons, Simon Kindbergs, and so many more. They are the elite. The ones the studios go to with their hottest properties and franchises. If they’re not making the six-figure uncredited rewrite deals, they’re making the seven-figure big assignments. Needless to say, they’re not grinding it out as much as the rest.
2. White-Collar Screenwriters
These are the screenwriters that are getting the middle of the line jobs. They’ve had some hits — and some misses — but they keep getting hired. They’re making those high five-figure assignments that are just on the cusp of six-figure paychecks, or they’re making those low six-figure deals — depending on the contract and how the payout is structured.
Read ScreenCraft's How Much Do Screenwriters REALLY Make?
They’re working. They’re pitching. Maybe they’re dancing between film and television assignments, writing more mid-level features, or living somewhat comfortably in between more substantial paychecks spread out from year-to-year.
3. Blue-Collar Screenwriters
These are the screenwriters that have managed to break through that barrier most novice screenwriters feel is impenetrable. They’ve gotten some meetings. They’ve likely attained representation. They’ve had some options and some paid assignments — usually mid to low five-figure deals.
Some have even had some produced work with a name cast. However, the jobs are few and far between, and the paychecks are nowhere near that of white-collar screenwriters. One year might give them hope until they see another year, or two, or three go by without any deals. They’re not quitting their day jobs. They’re not going all in. But they have earned money on some Hollywood or indie productions and have likely received some produced credits.
I'm a blue-collar screenwriter.
I have many studio meetings under my belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies.
I've been lucky enough to have had a development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple paid 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.
My most recent paid assignment was a Chicago-based indie feature — Hunter's Creed. It was sold to Cinedigm for distribution and will be debuting October 6th on DVD in 3500 Walmart locations and on all VOD streaming platforms.
I've been grinding away in the film and television industry for twenty years — most notably beyond screenwriting as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures — and managed to survive as a screenwriter after relocating with my family back to our home state of Wisconsin to raise our children close to family. Ironically, I had to move 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles to get my first paid writing contract — a Lionsgate deal.
So with that background shared, here are ten things that I did to become a professional screenwriter — ten things that may help you attain the same (hopefully better) success in your screenwriting journey.
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Every journey is unique to each individual, but I can assure you that the steps I took made a difference not just in my journey, but the journey of many other successful professional screenwriters as well.
This is my story.
1. Read Every Screenwriting Book I Could Find
I started my screenwriting journey in the late 1990s, during the screenwriting boom where spec scripts were selling for millions left and right and screenwriting educational books were beginning to take the nation by storm.
I didn't go to film school. My education was in the Film & TV aisle at Barnes and Noble. I read every single screenwriting book I could find. I couldn't afford to buy them all, so I read them in the store.
Some were good. Most were bad. But I didn't put any single one on any pedestal, beyond The Screenwriter's Bible, which offered less secret formula jargon and more practical guidelines and expectations. I found something that I liked in almost every book I read — cherry picking tips, advice, and practices and then applying them to my own process.
When you're first starting out, don't just dive into a screenplay and wing it. Read the best (and sometimes the worst) screenwriting books and cherry pick things that you can attach to your own process and mentalities.
Read ScreenCraft's The Best Screenwriting Books For Screenwriters!
2. Thought Outside of the Box for Continued Screenwriting Education
In 1996, as I was still living in Wisconsin (three years before making the move to Los Angeles), I decided to do some unique research. I had read so many screenwriting books that I knew that I needed some more information.
So I took matters into my own hand and went to the local movie theater with a backpack full of notebooks and pens. I bought tickets for Twister and Mission Impossible — two of the hottest summer blockbusters of the year. I created an original grading card that I would check throughout the movie, similar to that of the studio script coverage that I had read about in screenwriting books.
Much of it was grading the audience reaction to certain moments of the movie.
When the movie was over, I went out into the lobby and began to poll audience members on their way out of the theater. To "legitimize" myself, I lied and said that I was working for whatever production company had made the movie. I interviewed multiple people and asked them about their responses to the film, plot points, the concept, the characters, and their overall reaction.
This gave me excellent research results that I could apply to my own screenplays.
Whatever your out-of-the-box screenwriting education is, find it. It may not be grading movies in the theater and polling the audience afterward, but whatever it is, find some way to tap into the nuances of screenwriting and filmmaking that can't be found in books.
3. Made the Move to Los Angeles
Many of you living outside of Califonia will hem and haw at this. And know that I'm fully aware that you can achieve some success as a screenwriter while living outside of Los Angeles.
As mentioned above, I didn't become a paid professional screenwriter until after I moved away from Los Angeles. But, I wouldn't have garnered the experience and contacts that put me in that position had I not lived and worked in Los Angeles for several years.
Trust me. I get it. We live in a digital world. You can write anywhere. You can network online or by visiting film festivals and writing conferences.
But there's nothing that matches the benefit of living in Los Angeles for an extended period of time. The connections you can make, the meetings you can attend in person, and the relationships that you can develop while living in Los Angeles are priceless.
Trust me. I lived there for a number of years. And I have also been living 2,000 miles away. There's a big difference, as far as the amount of adversity you face and opportunities available.
If you think you can't possibly make the move, stop and make sure that you're not declaring that notion out of fear, risk aversion, or insecurity.
It's a big step — and it's a scary one. But it's well worth overcoming any fear, taking on any risk, or facing any insecurity that you'd be a small fish in a big sea of bigger fish.
If you possibly can — just do it. Make the move.
4. Explored Many Entry-Level Industry Jobs
When I first moved out to Los Angeles, I became a movie extra. Not because of some hope that I'd be discovered as the next movie star, but to simply get onto movie sets and see the process first-hand.
I worked on the Oscar-winning Traffic for 12 hours onset within a San Diego high-rise hotel as a stand-in and background actor. I watched Steven Soderbergh, and Benicio Del Toro deliver their Oscar-winning work. I learned how scenes were blocked, shot, and performed.
I also worked at a company called The National Research Group, which was tasked with handling studio test screenings. I was the guy standing at various Hollywood locations handing out free tickets to test screenings. I then had the freedom to attend those screenings and see some big studio movies in their early edits.
It's essential to embed yourself within the industry that you're trying to get into in any way, shape, or form. It gave me a knowledge and experience base that I could refer to in meetings. It informed me as a screenwriter because I knew what it took to shoot even the most simple of scenes. And the test screenings gave me a barometer of what audience and studio expectations were when it came to movies.
Do whatever you can to get that first taste of the filmmaking process. Remember, you can't start at the top. You need to work your way up from the bottom.
5. Was Always Writing
Early on in my screenwriting journey, while I was working entry-level industry jobs, I made sure that I was always writing. I never put all of my eggs into that first script's basket. I finished my first script and moved onto the next before marketing it.
It took me three scripts to truly understand how to write an engaging cinematic story that wasn't self-indulgent, over-indulgent, or full of naive mistakes. And because I kept writing — as opposed to writing and then marketing a single script — I was able to enhance the quality of the work before any industry insider had their eyes on my writing.
Your first couple of screenplays are your worst. That's not to say that they are crap and won't go anywhere, but you need to hone your skills before you show Hollywood any of your work.
6. Took Some Leaps of Faith to Get Inside the Walls
I had been on movie sets through my background actor and stand-in days but burnt out on being in that movie extra environment where you're essentially treated like cattle.
One year, my wife and I were looking for a new apartment. We found one on a website, not knowing where the location was until we got to the address. To my utter surprise, the apartment was right across the street from Sony Studios, which was the former MGM lot of Hollywood lore.
Needless to say, we moved there. I tried to get into the studio by applying to corporate jobs, but since I had no degree, it was difficult to escape that stigma.
I would jog around the studio lot, which was about a mile in radius. As I passed each gate, I slowed down and gazed longingly at the people going in and out. I wanted to be one of them. I needed to be one of them.
One day, fed up, I walked over to a Sony Security Guard and asked, "How do I get a job here?" Two weeks later, I was a Sony Security Guard — another entry-level job. I worked my way into the VIP Gate assignment.
That eventually led me to an office position where I would work my way up to become the studio liaison to incoming film and television productions, as well as to the studio's incoming executives and term deals.
I worked with the production offices of Sam Raimi and Adam Sandler on a regular basis. I also worked on many movies on the studio-end of things.
But I wanted to find a position that could help me in my screenwriting journey.
One day, a new executive walked into my office. He was new to the lot and needed a Sony badge, as well as parking and building clearance. We had a good rapport, so I decided to take another leap of faith. I told him that if he needed a script reader, I had interned for a major director and could offer coverage samples.
By chance, he was looking for a new reader. I sent him my samples, and within two weeks, I was a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
Two leaps of faith that paid off in dividends and gave me the knowledge and experience I needed to become a professional screenwriter.
7. Chose My Next Script Wisely
When I got those first three screenplays out and honed my skills, I stopped and thought long and hard about the next script that I was going to write.
My first script was an anthology of horror stories centered with the common theme of storms. Each of the four Twilight Zone-like installments had something to do with a storm. But at the time, no one was interested in making anthology movies by an unknown writer.
My second script was a terrible step backwards with a story about a screenwriter moving to Los Angeles and trying to break through (sound familiar?). It was naive and self-indulgent.
My third script was a character piece that no studio would ever dare to bother with — and I wasn't a filmmaker so I couldn't shoot it myself. However, it was written well, having learned those necessary lessons from the first two scripts.
So when it came time to write my fourth script, I decided that I needed to take the time to choose my next script wisely.
By this time, my wife and I had decided that I should leave my Sony job to stay at home with my newborn son and focus solely on my writing. This was the time to shine. It was "succeed with the next script or move onto something else" time in my life as a new father.
I knew that I needed to write something compelling enough to be remembered — something that had twists, turns, and surprises. The script I choose would be the script that would garner me representation and studio meetings.
It's so important to choose your next script wisely. You need to write something that you want to write — but also something that Hollywood wants to buy. My first three scripts didn't offer that vital combination. This fourth script did.
8. Networked with Multiple Degrees of Separation
The internship that I had with a major director garnered me the chance to become a studio script reader and story analyst — my best screenwriting education. That internship was the result of networking.
My best friend had been the director's assistant. He was cast in a reality series, leaving the director short-handed. My friend recommended me to him, which led to me learning how to write script coverage.
Now, sometime later, after I had left my Sony position to focus on my writing, I needed to go back through even more degrees of separation to market my new script.
I had exhausted my Sony contacts. They liked it but weren't making that type of movie.
So I decided to go back to my Wisconsin roots. I found a Wisconsin university alumni group of graduates that were working in the film industry. The only connection I had with them was Wisconsin. My wife, however, had attended the university, so I thought that was enough.
I sent a query email to a bunch of those contacts and only heard back from one — a junior executive at Paramount. He liked the logline and requested the script. Silence. No response from him for a couple of months.
But then one day, I had a voicemail from a literary manager requesting a meeting. It turns out that his friend was the junior executive I sent my script to. It tracked well at Paramount, and he suggested to his literary manager friend that he sign me right away.
This led to meetings at Disney, Sony, Warner Brothers, Dreamworks, and Universal.
Later on, my first paid writing assignment came about through a contact that also grew up in Wisconsin. Based on that connection, they took a chance on me, which led to a couple of assignments — one of which was the eventually produced script for Blackout.
You need to work those contacts no matter what degrees of separation.
Read ScreenCraft's Maps Screenwriters Can Use to Build Their Industry Network!
9. Learned to Write Fast and Write Well
While the script didn't sell to any of those studios, it allowed me the clout to get into the conversation for other opportunities.
My manager and I worked on my follow-up script. We chose a concept wisely, and I was told that I needed to write something fast so that the heat of my recent meetings didn't extinguish.
I began to develop a writing process that allowed me to rewrite as I wrote and finish a tight first draft within just ten days. I would later develop this process during my Blackout assignment, where I had only a couple of weeks to write a 250-page miniseries screenplay.
Read The Script Lab's 10 Simple Steps to Writing a Final Draft in 10 Days!
Taking six months to write a screenplay isn't going to cut it in the big leagues. You need to learn to write fast — and well. Give yourself a three-month deadline. When you get comfortable with writing a final draft in that amount of time, give yourself two months.
Writing quality work under strict deadlines is a skill that every agent, manager, development executive, and producer yearns for in a screenwriter.
10. Built Personal Confidence Void of Ego
Because I was well-versed in screenwriting education, took steps outside of that box to learn more, made the scary but bold move to relocate to Los Angeles, got into the industry walls through entry-level jobs and leaps of faith, worked multiple degrees of separation for networking, chose my concepts wisely, and was always writing more and more screenplays to hone my craft, I had built a level of confidence.
And if you showcase confidence in your work and your abilities within correspondence with industry insiders — void of ego — you'll set yourself apart from many of the other screenwriters trying to break in.
It takes time to build that confidence. And Hollywood will smell false confidence a mile away.
There are no such things as overnight successes. Those headlines are media-fueled. Most overnight successes are the result of upwards of a decade of struggle and failure.
These steps built confidence and offered me a knowledge and experience base that helped in email correspondence, conference calls, events, and meetings.
These ten things can help guide you in your own screenwriting journey and guide you towards the path to a screenwriting career.
Take what you like from my story and leave the rest. But know that you need to do everything you can to build your stack of scripts, your knowledge and experience base, and your confidence. That is what it takes to become a professional screenwriter.
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
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