5 Ways Undiscovered Screenwriters Can Get Writing Assignments
How can screenwriters capture those first coveted paid writing assignments?
Most undiscovered screenwriters make the mistake of focusing solely on getting their original spec scripts sold and produced. The hard truth is that it's more than likely not going to happen. The Spec Market is undoubtedly on the uprise, but even when it's going strong, only somewhere between fifty and one hundred spec scripts are ever optioned or purchased per year. A select few of those, if any, are actually produced.
Writing assignments constitute the bread and butter of every working screenwriter. That's where the consistent money is.
Every development executive and producer in Hollywood need screenwriters to write the many concepts that they have in development. And most of them don't want to pay an acclaimed screenwriter that can demand upwards of seven figures. That's where undiscovered screenwriters come into play — those that can work on the cheap.
Here we offer five ways that you, the undiscovered screenwriter, can attain those coveted paid screenwriting assignments.
1. Train Yourself to Write Under Strict Deadlines
The days of taking months to finish a single draft of a script need to be long gone for you.
The standard contract for a feature screenwriting assignment will generally stipulate that the writer will have just ten to twelve weeks to finish the first draft of a script. When you work with non-WGA production companies, that deadline frame can be drastically reduced to as low as two weeks for a single first draft.
So now is the time to train yourself to be able to do that. Companies and studios will be looking for writers that can work under strict deadlines. Having an excellent writer that needs multiple months for a single first draft is less desirable than having a good writer that can deliver one in a few weeks or less.
And it does you no good to wait until you are in that situation with the thought of trial by fire process adaptation because if you burn out or can't deliver by that strict deadline, you've burned a bridge that could have led to multiple assignments — not to mention the fact that referrals and resumes are a big part of the selection process of assigning screenwriters to an assignment.
So it's time to adopt a new streamlined process right now.
While ten to twelve weeks still offers you two-and-a-half to three months, it's advisable to cut that down even more to four weeks or less. While this may sound impossible, know that hundreds of working screenwriters are doing it now. Make the necessary adjustments you need to make and train yourself to write fast, but well.
One suggestion to increase your productivity with that in mind is to adopt the "rewrite as you go" process.
When you first sit down to write a script, you manage to deliver ten pages. The next time you write, you begin by reading those first ten pages. As you do, you rewrite and tweak those first ten pages — fixing typos, cutting down description and dialogue, shortening scenes (if not deleting them), working on pacing — then you write on from there.
Let's say you write another ten pages during that second session. During the third session, you again read what you’ve written — now twenty pages — and rewrite them.
You repeat this pattern as you write that first draft.
The results? By the time you write FADE OUT at the end of the draft, you’ll have a much more focused, tight, and flowing first draft of your assignment. If you set ten-page goals (or whatever variance), you could have one hundred pages in just ten days or within two to three weeks if you aren't writing in consecutive days.
Make the necessary variations to fit your own process, but stick to this “rewrite as you go” process as best as you can and reap the benefits. When you can honestly say that you can work under strict deadlines, and then prove it by doing so, your reputation will precede you and put you into the assignment conversation more down the road.
2. Develop and Write Niche Genre Spec Scripts
Spec scripts — those written under speculation that they'll sell — are the keys to opening writing assignment doors of opportunity. They act as the calling cards to your skillset as a screenwriter. So you have to choose wisely when selecting each spec script you write.
Writing a quirky dramedy or basic dramatic script isn't going to get you many — or any — assignments. There are certainly cases where you can show off your unique voice through those types of scripts, but the problem is that no one in the industry wants to read those types of screenplays. You'd have to get such scripts produced through indie filmmaking, which is a whole different beast unto itself, to get noticed. And even then, the content can't be anything but spectacular.
The key to writing buzz-worthy spec scripts is to tackle niche genre concepts that pop. Horror and suspense thriller scripts are often the most desirable for development executives and producers to read. Those types of screenplays are the cheapest to produce and have the most loyal fanbase as well. A Quiet Place was a perfect example of a niche genre script that did amazingly well at the box office. Hollywood wants to develop more of those types of films.
When you can showcase some skills within those niche genres, having broken through with such screenplays, writing assignments can often come calling in the right situations.
The same can be said for action and science fiction. If you can write fantastic action set pieces or display some visual flair, development executives and producers may be in need of that for their latest projects that they have in development.
And because you are a newbie, they don't have to pay you the top-dollar price that established screenwriters would ask for. They don't want million-dollar screenwriters. They want one hundred-thousand-dollar (or less) screenwriters.
So the screenplays you choose to write on your own can and will often dictate your screenwriting assignment future. So choose wisely.
3. Master the Arts of Collaboration and Self-Reliance
To be considered for an assignment, you have to be able to showcase that you are both collaborative and self-reliant.
Development executives and producers need to be able to trust you to bring something of your own to the table while also having the ability to take ingest notes, feedback, as well as story and character requests.
When you're writing on assignment, you're taking someone else's concept and characters and wrapping them into your own approach and vision without diluting the dynamics that the development executives and producers were attracted to in the first place.
In short, you need to take what they give you and make it better without changing the core of what they love about it. For the best breakdown of how to handle that writing assignment, Read ScreenCraft's 7 Ways Screenwriters Can Survive and Conquer the Writing Assignment!
4. Market Yourself to the Right Producers and Companies
You're not going to go to Lucasfilm and get assigned to the latest Star Wars universe entry.
The big production companies and major studios are going to be working with those seven-figure screenwriting stars, so you need to position yourself onto the next tier or two down.
You need to do the research and find out which producers and companies are best for you, based primarily on the genre spec script you've written (read above). There are hundreds of mid-level production companies and producers that are developing and making some of today's most successful movies.
Pay attention to the many company logos and names that you see before the credits of genre films you see in the theater or stream online. Go to IMDbPro and look up movies that are similar to your projects and find out what companies are making them — and then look up the staff and find a way to email them your query.
Read ScreenCraft's Writing the Perfect Query Letter for Your Scripts!
And when you do pitch your spec script to them, mention that you are ready, willing, and able to take on writing assignments as well.
It's a process, yes, but when you get someone to read your work finally, and they like it, it's an open door for possible writing assignments.
And don't forget that you also need to make sure that you're attaching yourself to projects that you have a passion for. If you're just chasing the money and can't fully identify with an assigned concept, that will show in the work, and you'll burn a bridge rather quickly.
5. Create Your Own Opportunities Through Networking
Your first big writing assignment should not be your first writing assignment. Like anything, you need to start small and work your way up as you gain the knowledge and experience to tackle something bigger.
Networking is a crucial part of being assigned to a project. The industry revolves around relationships.
The idea is to get the word out to any contacts you have within the industry that you're looking for writing assignments. Exhaust every connection you have in that respect. You're going to need those standout spec scripts for work samples, mind you.
Beyond your current network, you have to learn how to branch out to other possibilities. Attending film festivals like Sundance and Austin can be vital to creating opportunities to meet with not only development executives and producers but especially with independent filmmakers.
Independent writing assignments are more like partnerships, but you can and should find a way to be compensated.
Read ScreenCraft's How to Negotiate a Screenwriting Contract Without Representation for more on how to go about doing that!
But Before You Do Any of That...
You need to be ready. Another hard truth is that you can't expect to get writing assignments based on just one or two scripts you've written. You need to take the time to hone your skills, including some of the ones we've mentioned above.
The faster you adapt to a true working screenwriter schedule and skill set, the better your chances of nabbing that first big writing assignment.
You need to be confident about your own work without showcasing an ego. You need to have a stack of three to five solid niche genre screenplays. You need to be able to tackle a big project on your own while also understanding and respecting that you're writing somebody else's project. You need to approach the right people and be sure that you're taking on projects that you have a passion for yourself. And you need to create your own opportunities as well.
Writing assignments aren't just given to anyone. You have to earn the right to be hired for a project. You do that by honing your skills, creating a body of sample work, being collaborative and self-reliant at the same time, and getting yourself out there to showcase that you're ready, willing, and able to take on such a challenge.
But when you get one, make sure you learn all you can about the screenwriting assignment contract. Luckily, we've got you covered!
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