3 Entry-Level Places to Get Your First Paid Feature Screenwriting Gig
There you are — dutifully producing great work and you're ready to get your first paid screenwriting gig. The one question you have is — how.
Despite what many screenwriting websites declare, there are no online screenwriting job boards that offer paid feature screenwriting gigs. You'll find some places that say they do. However, most are lower-level production companies looking for scripts to consider with "potential" payment options.
We will be talking about legit avenues screenwriters can take to build their credits and screenwriting resumes.
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 annual 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. At the very least, it's an excellent place to start your screenwriting career.
The Lifetime brand banks on its thrillers. They generally leave most of the Christmas genre to Hallmark (see below), but you'll still see a stream of more realistic Christmas romantic comedies come through their cable, satellite, and streaming platforms.
Thrillers are the Lifetime go-to, though.
How to Pitch Yourself for Lifetime Opportunities
Like most professional Film/TV industry screenwriting gigs, you need an in. But the great thing about Lifetime (and the other two options below) is that you can create your own opportunities to network.
Again, the stack of samples you have will be key. They don't have to be directly linked to the type of thrillers that Lifetime makes. But they need to showcase that you can handle suspense, thrills, and great characterization.
When you have that stacked deck, you will need to do your research. No, you can't call or email Lifetime directly. That's not how it works. Lifetime works with multiple production companies (U.S. and Canadian), and that's your in. Those companies develop concepts and pitch them to Lifetime. The best thing you can do is head to IMDBPro and look up what companies are making recent Lifetime thrillers. Then you can query them and pitch yourself as a screenwriter ready, willing, and able to tackle writing assignments.
Read ScreenCraft's How Screenwriters Pitch, Sell, and Write for Lifetime for more on that process!
We're going to rinse and repeat for these next two, as far as how your approach should be. Hallmark specializes in more wholesome content. Their Christmas catalog is aplenty and ever-growing.
- Movies about single women who find love at Christmas
- Movies about families who reunite at Christmas
- Movies about families of single women who reunite and find love at Christmas
That's the general formula. If you can showcase a talent for writing romance, comedy, and some wholesome family drama, you're going to stand out.
Like Lifetime, Hallmark is very prolific in developing, producing, and releasing features. Far more prolific than any movie studio. And that means there are lots of jobs for screenwriters.
How to Pitch Yourself for Hallmark Opportunities
As we said, rinse and repeat from what you learned about pitching yourself to Lifetime. Adjust that process to the content and do your research. IMDBPro is your friend.
VOD and Direct-To-Streaming/DVD/Blu-Ray
You've seen the titles, the poster images, and the casts. VOD (Video on Demand) and Direct-To-DVD/Blu-Ray are where former (and sometimes current) stars go to continue to make good money. It's also where B, C, and D-list actors (and unknowns) pay their dues for a good paycheck.
Many of these types of features are presented within three high-demand genres:
- Action Thrillers
- Horror Suspense
- Science Fiction
Production companies and their distributors know that audiences love this type of content, whether they are guilty pleasures or hidden gems.
Most production companies that handle these types of features pre-sell projects based on packaging. They have a concept, a marketable name, and a budget. Sometimes they have a script, sometimes they don't. But their development executives are always looking for new writers. Why? Because they're cheap and they're non-union.
DVD and Blu-ray markets are virtually non-existent these days. Streaming has taken over that previously lucrative market. You'll still see releases come out on those platforms. However, most of these films go to cable/satellite VOD, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and iTunes.
How to Pitch Yourself for VOD/Direct-To-Streaming Opportunities
Rinse and repeat again.
- You need the samples.
- You need to do your research.
- Go to cable/satellite VOD, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and iTunes.
- Scroll through the action, horror, and science fiction genres.
- Scroll past the mainstream studio movies until you get to the backlog of VOD/Direct-To-Streaming titles
- See what production companies are producing them
- Query them and offer your services
"Wait, Can I Sell My Specs to These Three Entry-Level Places?"
We haven't talked about selling your spec scripts to them, have we? Well, the hard truth is that it's pretty difficult to sell a spec script anywhere these days. You can pitch them in a query letter, yes.
Read ScreenCraft's Writing the Perfect Query Letter for Your Scripts!
However, the best thing that you can do in your query is mention that you are interested in any writing assignments they may have to offer.
If you have a well-written spec that falls under the umbrella of what these companies are producing, it may be worth a shot. But you must understand that 99% of what all three places produce stems from writing assignment contracts.
Paying Your Screenwriting Dues
Knowing where the screenwriting gigs are is great, but what's more important is knowing how to land one. Let's talk a little bit about the realities of the Film/TV business when it comes to screenwriting.
The Corman Approach
Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, and Martin Scorsese didn't jump from being unknown directors to working in major studio movies. They, along with many other esteemed names, paid their dues working for legendary producer Roger Corman in his low-budget movies.
And most of those movies are considered legendarily bad.
- Simple concepts
- Formulaic stories
- Predictable characters
- Low production value
Most people don't understand that these films were written, directed, and produced with total self-awareness. Corman knew that his movies were simple, formulaic, and predictable. And he knew that he would have to make these films on extremely low budgets. Because of that, he was a highly prolific filmmaker.
The now-iconic names mentioned above paid their dues by working on Corman films because the work was aplenty, they earned good paychecks, and they were allowed to do what they dreamed of doing most — making movies.
Most screenwriters don't start their careers working on studio movies. Roughly 1% of working screenwriters do. The majority of working screenwriters are writing non-studio movies for smaller production companies. And those production companies are usually not guild signatory companies, which means that they don't hire members of the Writers Guild of America (or its international counterparts).
This is where entry-level screenwriting gigs are aplenty. Most screenwriters don't realize this. They strive for that big spec script sale (only a few dozen spec scripts are usually sold yearly, and most are never produced). They hope that they'll somehow be considered for limited major production company and studio assignments, not understanding that most prominent companies and studios prefer to go with established writers.
Sometimes it takes novice screenwriters a decade or more to realize this. Others — the wise ones — are ready, willing, and able to pay their dues, just as those above iconic names did.
Finding entry-level places that unestablished screenwriters can go to find those converted first paid screenwriting gigs is not only a good option for you but it has been a good option for some of the biggest names in cinema. And the amazing element is that these places usually stick with the original writers (which means you get your IMDb credit), and most of them lead to produced features released on major streaming platforms, networks, and sometimes, if you're lucky, theaters.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let's briefly talk about what will make you worthy of consideration for these contracts.
Being Ready for Consideration as a Screenwriter
Before you get too excited to read about these entry-level, you still need to be ready for and worthy of consideration. Development executives aren't just going to hire anyone.
Have a Strong Stack of Specs
You need to showcase your skills. And you do this by taking the time to build a stack of strong spec scripts that you will use as samples. And these samples are what will (or won't) get you the screenwriting gig.
One script isn't enough. You need to show that you have a body of work that proves you can write — and write well. Three to five excellent spec scripts are a good start. And you want to ensure that most of them are in the genre that the production company or network you approach (see below) specializes in. That's important. They want to know how you and your writing fit into their sandbox.
Write Like a Pro
Lastly, you need to train yourself how to write like a pro. As a pro screenwriter, you must learn to write under strict deadlines. Guild contracts give you roughly 10-12 weeks to finish a first draft. However, non-Guild contracts aren't hindered by guild contract guidelines. Because of this — and because most non-guild contracts fall under the umbrella of the below entry-level avenues you can take — deadlines are much more strict. This is primarily because these companies make a lot of movies and need to deliver to their platforms and distributors quickly.
So, you need to be able to write fast (and well). Most non-guild contracts give the writer just four weeks to finish the first draft. And then a couple of weeks for each rewrite. You need to be ready to collaborate well and work fast.
Read ScreenCraft's eBook The 10-Day Screenplay Solution: Learn How to Write Lightning Fast!
Take the time to build your stack of excellent spec scripts and train yourself to write like a pro, so you're ready for success.
Lifetime, Hallmark, and VOD/Direct-To-Streaming.
- These are the uncelebrated entry-level places screenwriters can go to make a living and pay their screenwriting dues.
- These are the places where most working screenwriters find legit paid contracts.
- These are the places where screenwriters are seeing their scripts actually produced and released.
Don't make the mistake of looking down upon the content. If you're cynical about where screenwriters are making a living and what type of features they are writing, you're going to find yourself where most such screenwriters do — in the unproduced and unpaid line.
Treasure every paid screenwriting gig you can get. Learn from those experiences. Hone your screenwriting. Enjoy getting paid to write screenplays. And remember all of those iconic names that paid their dues working for today's equivalent to what Roger Corman made a career (and fortune) doing.
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, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies