9 Screenwriting Truths I Learned the Hard Way in Hollywood
Whether it be through screenwriting books, panels, seminars, Youtube videos, or blogs like ScreenCraft's very own here, screenwriters are often bombarded by words of wisdom, declarations about the film and television industry, and stories about this or that successful screenwriter and how they got to where they are today.
Information is power and screenwriters should be seeking it out, but sometimes you need a more personal touch. You need to hear beyond the general declarations and rhetoric and get some personal insight to create a context that you can relate to. You need to not only hear the success stories, but the failures as well.
So that's what I'll be doing here in this post. Many of these truths you've heard or read many times, but here I'm offering the personal experiences — successes and failures — to back them up in hopes of helping help you, the screenwriter, adapt the lessons learned to your own situation.
For context purposes, here is the breakdown of my Hollywood journey thus far.
I've worked in the film industry since 1999, starting in the trenches as a movie extra — just to get on set. I then worked briefly for the National Research Group, handing out studio test screening tickets to annoyed citizens and tourists. I eventually interned with Grease director Randal Kleiser, learning the ins and outs of script coverage.
After moving across the street from Sony Studios, I would jog around the perimeter, peeking into the gates. I'd watch Sony employees and crew members coming in and out of the studio with their Sony badges. I longed for one. I applied for assistant positions through their job website to no avail. One day, fed up, I walked up to a Sony Security Guard and asked, "How do I get a job here?"
Two weeks later I was a Sony Security Guard.
I talked my way into working the VIP gate where I was face-to-face with Hollywood's A-list on a daily basis. From there, I talked my way into an office position and eventually became a studio liaison for Sony Studios, working directly with incoming film and television productions, as well as incoming studio executives and term deals (talent like Adam Sandler and Sam Raimi that had production offices on lot).
Now I was working on the studio end of major productions like the Spider-Man franchise, Men in Black II, Charlie's Angels, Bad Boys II, S.W.A.T., Something's Gotta Give, 50 First Dates, Zathura, and The Da Vinci Code, to name a few. I was playing basketball with Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison Productions crew. I had my own studio golf cart where I'd often escape into the magic of Hollywood, driving around the studio and seeing Steven Spielberg drive past as giraffes and other exotic animals were herded to a stage near cranes that were transporting space ships to an adjacent stage. Only in Hollywood.
I then became a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures, reading, analyzing, and writing studio coverage for hundreds of screenplays and novels from both established and up-and-coming screenwriters and authors.
I left the studio after my first son was born to stay at home with him as I focused on my own writing. Once I started to gain some momentum, I had representation and many studio meetings under my belt. After relocating back to my home state of Wisconsin so my wife and I could raise our son (now sons) closer to family, I managed to sign my very first paid writing deal with Lionsgate. Two writing assignments with Larry Levinson Productions followed, 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. In 2014, I was named as the grand prize winner of ScreenCraft’s Action & Thriller Contest for my spec script The Enemy Within.
Now, as I'm hot off of a recent trip to Los Angeles with some successful meetings under my belt and an amazing meet up with an iconic screenwriter — Jim Uhls (Fight Club), perhaps the most genuine Hollywood figure I've met — allow me to reflect on what I've learned after all of these years... the hard way.
1. It's Not WHAT You Know, It's WHO You Know
My first representation came from a referral via an alumni to a Wisconsin college that I didn't even graduate from. I sent them a script, they worked at Paramount, put it through their system, it tracked well, and that person gave the script to the guy who would eventually become my manager. That manager took the script out wide, leading to meetings at Sony, Warner Brothers, Dreamworks, Universal, and Disney.
My studio assignment that was produced with a name cast () came to me from a fellow Wisconsinite that was now a successful producer and executive. We connected based solely on our Wisconsin connection. He read my spec scripts, loved the writing, and offered me the job.
Two young college students — both named Molly ironically enough — attained dream internships at Sony after they connected with me as a fellow Wisconsinite.
I had the dream opportunity of pitching a sequel to the Rambo franchise and actually having the rights holders like it enough to consider the eventual script. That opportunity started with someone I knew from Quora, where I've been a top writer for the last four years.
Friends, I'd love to tell you that in the end, it all depends on the quality of your writing. I'd love to say that your talents will shine through any trials and tribulations that come your way. I would love to, but it's just not so.
In the film industry, it is who you know to a large degree.
But don't worry, if you don't know anyone you can make such connections. You have to look into your life and the people around you and find some connection within the film industry. Even if it stems from people you may not have directly met. Perhaps you find an alumni from your high school or college working in the film industry. Perhaps you have a friend of a friend of a friend within the walls of a movie studio. Whatever it may be, you need to seek those people out — and exploit that connection to sometimes pride-swallowing degrees.
2. Who You Know Doesn't Always Matter
All of that said above, despite the contacts I had made during my time as a Sony studio liaison working with incoming film and television production, executives, and talent, none of my varied success came from any of them.
Despite the contacts I had made as a script reader for Sony Pictures, no deals came about.
Despite Adam Sandler snapping my ACL in two while I was covering him in a basketball game. Despite him fetching me water, helping me off of the basketball court, and despite one-on-one conversations with him before and after, no big screenwriting opportunities materialized.
Who you know doesn't always grant you the opportunity you need. And when that realization comes into focus within your mind, you have to shift gears, keep all cynicism at bay, and find another path.
3. It's Not About BACK WHEN, It's About RIGHT NOW
My back when memories are pretty stellar.
I worked for major productions through my studio liaison position at Sony. I mingled with A-List talent, producers, directors, and executives on the studio lot.
I worked at Sony as a script reader under the late Hollywood legend John Calley. I learned how to spot a great script. I learned the guidelines and expectations — what they loved and what they hated. And I used all of that in my own writing.
In turn, I then had some great momentum early on in my screenwriting career. Courted by major studio executives. Sitting in their big offices. I eventually made some money with that Lionsgate deal and some studio assignments. I even had something produced with a name cast. In short, I've been blessed with what thousands would kill for (metaphorically speaking).
But, that was back when, and this is right now.
None of the back when means anything. At the very most, such history garners me an extra foot in the door.
But overall, it's never about what you've done prior. It's what you're doing now.
Don't dwell on the past. It doesn't matter if a year ago, X producer said that your script was brilliant, or you placed in the top ten percent of the Nicholl Fellowship, or you won that big contest.
Let that go. It's worth mentioning in your queries. It gives you validity, sure. But inside your body, mind, and soul, you can't cling onto the past. It'll drive you crazy when no one is calling. It'll break your heart when no one is getting back to you. "But so and so loved it, why can't you?"
Focus on the now, not the back when...
4. Nobody Knows Anything
William Goldman said this. And there is no truer statement about the film and television industry.
I've had scripts that have impressed others enough to hire me for paid gigs only to see those very same scripts outright rejected by other producers and development executives.
I've been told countless times that relocating back to my home state of Wisconsin was a mistake and that my screenwriting goals would never happen two thousand miles away from Hollywood. One Lionsgate deal, two assignments, and a produced miniseries with a name cast proved otherwise.
No one knows anything. Use this as both a cautionary phrase and as one that gives you hope.
The industry insider that has told you that your script is brilliant and it will surely sell, sell, sell? He doesn't know anything. Thus, don't put all of your eggs in that one basket.
And when another says your script has no market and will surely NOT sell? She doesn't know anything. Don't throw the script away. Understand and listen to the general guidelines and expectations of the industry, yes, but don't let these people force you to make any rash decisions.
5. Stack Your Deck
One script is not enough. It's not. You WILL NOT sell your first script. So just get that out of your head right now.
I speak from experience. When my first marque spec script Doomsday Order went out and I got all of those meetings at major studios, I was cursed from the get go. It happened too fast. I didn't have a follow-up script to offer.
The most common question you will get in a studio meeting after discussing the script that got you into the door is, "What else do you have?"
"Um, I-I'm working on some stuff... developing..." Done. You've lost them. You're not a screenwriter yet in their eyes. You, at best, have potential. And potential doesn't get a deal offered or a contract signed.
You need more to bring to the table so that when they do ask that question, you can have those additional scripts in hand. You can show them that you're not some one-trick pony, one-hit wonder, or weekend warrior.
So when you finish that first script, don't even market it. Don't even try to get representation. Don't even send it out to anyone. I implore you. No matter how good it may be. Stop. Write some more. Get at least three great scripts in your deck. Then take them all out.
If it is all about luck — and it really is much of the time — you can't sacrifice those lucky moments by not having more to show them when they ask. Those lucky moments may never return. So stop, take a step back, and make sure you have a stacked deck before you put your cards into play.
6. Don't Trust the Buzz and the Kudos
I've had amazing Hollywood meetings that I've walked out punch drunk with the kudos that were thrown my way. I've had producers and development executives rave about my scripts and writing. Such experiences will intoxicate you.
Don't trust it.
You can revel in the moment for awhile, but you must quickly bring yourself down from the clouds and know that just because they seem to love you, doesn't mean it's a done deal. Just because you had a great conversation with someone, doesn't mean they're going to sign you. Just because they love your script, doesn't mean it's going to be optioned, purchased, or produced.
It's wonderful when meetings and emails go so well. Screenwriters need that boost amidst the constant rejection. But for survival, you have to learn to see past the buzz and the kudos.
I have one major motto when it comes to dealing with any positive lead — It's nothing until I'm signing on the dotted line.
7. Everyone in Hollywood Knows Each Other
It's very tempting in your communication with development executives, producers, agents, and managers to fluff your resume a bit. You may be writing a query email and feel the temptation to do so or misrepresent a contact, relationship, or "interested parties." Perhaps you're merely telling a half truth and you think that there's no harm in doing so.
Everyone in Hollywood seems to know each other because that approach will always come back to bite you in the ass.
My younger self sent plenty of exaggerated truths in hopes of impressing contacts enough to consider my work, only to learn that those contacts knew the people and companies I had mentioned. It's embarrassing and can burn bridges.
Furthermore, if you've showcased a bad attitude or any form of negative qualities, it's funny how word spreads so fast in Hollywood.
Keep it real. Don't over-exaggerate the relationships with industry people you may or may not have met. Don't over-exaggerate the "buzz" that your script has had. Don't over-exaggerate the "kudos" you've received.
Example: If your college friend is an intern at Dreamworks, has read your script and likes it, you shouldn't go email hoards of managers and agents saying that Dreamworks is interested in your script.
8. There's Always Another Goal You Will Struggle to Attain
The struggle never stops.
Too many screenwriters think that once they win that contest, everything will fall into place. Then they think that once they attain representation, the deals will come rolling in. When they get that first paid writing gig, they believe that more will soon come. Surely when they get a script finally produced with a name cast and their name in the opening credits, studios will come calling.
I've personally reached all of these pinnacles and I can attest to the fact that the grind of being a screenwriter never goes away for most of us. When you reach one level of success (contest win, representation, paid gig, produced credit, etc.) another desired and seemingly unattainable level quickly appears.
You just have to keep pushing forward and never get comfortable.
9. Always Take the Bottle of Water Offered to You
When you do manage to get your work noticed and nab a manager, you'll go on what the industry insiders call the water bottle tour. This consists of many general meetings that your manager will set up with various development executives and producers.
They've read your script (or their assistant gave it rave reviews in coverage) and have seen some potential. Now they want to meet you and get a feel for what and who you are.
When you go into each meeting you'll be offered a bottle of water.
Now, pride might temp you to say, "No thanks." Good manners might tempt you to do the same.
Disregard either and take that bottle of water.
I learned the hard way. I was at a meeting at Joel Silver Pictures on the Warner Brothers lot years ago during my own water bottle tour after Doomsday Order attracted lots of attention.
The development executive welcomed me in and introduced me to two or three other executives. It was a casual group and they weren't intimidating by any means. I was, of course, offered a bottle of water and I declined politely. As the meeting went on, things were going great. They loved the script. We had an amazing report.
Then I was asked to pitch my follow-up script.
My throat seized. I couldn't get a word out. My mouth dried up. So here I am, with these four development executives staring at me, and every time I try to speak, it leads to coughing and silence.
"Do you want some water?"
Again, out of pride or naive politeness, I declined. More silence ensued until I could finally — barely — talk again. The meeting was over five minutes later.
What started out so well, ended so embarrassingly.
Always take the water bottle.