Paths to Becoming a Professional Screenwriter
So, you’ve made the exhilarating decision to become a professional screenwriter. That’s exciting! But, as you might know, the entertainment industry is a difficult one to break into – now more than ever before.
Becoming a professional screenwriter is the dream, and though writing a great story or script is absolutely essential, the trick to breaking in is understanding the business so you can make that dream a reality. There are many books and sites that cover this topic bit by bit, but we’re here to be your one-stop shop for all things screenwriting.
Within this page, you’ll find tips, advice, and helpful resources to answer any question you might have about what it takes to be a working screenwriter today.
Table of Contents
The Screenwriting Industry 101
The entertainment industry has changed a great deal in recent years. Film was considered the ultimate format that every writer wanted to work in, but television is in its latest Golden Age and writers are jumping at the chance to get in on the action.
The Film Industry
The industry is virtually unrecognizable from where it was just 5, 10, or 15 years ago. There was once a booming spec market where up-and-coming writers could expect big paydays. “Specs,” which are original feature film scripts (as opposed to TV scripts or scripts based on existing stories or properties), would be sent out to the spec market (producers and executives that buy original screenplays) by representatives, with buyers throwing out more and more money to get the rights to the script and make the film. IRON MAN 3 writer and director, Shane Black, was famous in the ‘90s for selling scripts for seven figures. The odds of that happening 25 years ago were low, but today it’s basically impossible.
The Spec Market
Today, the spec market is strong but not as overflowing as it once was and the paydays are similarly not as boisterous. The most scripts bought in the spec market in one decade is 175 in 1995. How many sold in 2021? 34. It’s not the lowest number ever, but it’s not what it used to be, and it speaks to the rising amount of material based on intellectual property, such as popular comics, novels, and podcasts.
And, just because a script is bought doesn’t mean that it gets made. This doesn’t mean that if you want to be a feature writer that there isn’t a market for you. However, it means that your script is as much a calling card to get jobs to adapt those intellectual property projects.
The Television Industry
In film, the director is king, even if they’re following someone else’s script. However, in television, the writer who created the show stays on the project while the director is often swapped out, and many creators also serve as showrunner, making decisions about every aspect of the show.
On the television side of the industry, what was once just a couple of broadcast networks, made up initially of CBS (1926), NBC (1927), and ABC (1943), before being joined by FOX (1986) and the WB and UPN (both in 1995 before merging into the CW in 2006). It wasn’t as hard to maintain an audience as long as you had shows on-air. So, this handful of networks would make series with large episode counts.
For example, the infamous I LOVE LUCY ran for six seasons and averaged 30 episodes in one season (35 in season one and, at its fewest, 26 in season five). By the ’90s, episode counts had lessened, with shows like ER and FRIENDS averaging 22-25 episodes per season.
The Broadcast Network Era
When broadcast networks ruled, so did the pilot season. Pilot season is the process by which these networks choose their next big hits. It starts in the fall, as writers and their producing partners pitch their original ideas for television shows (pilot scripts) to network executives. Heading into the holiday season, the network makes their selection from all of these different ideas, and makes choices based on what they “need,” which is based on their network “brand,” audience demographics, and what shows they already have.
During pilot season, networks would choose dozens of scripts to be filmed from January to March in the new year. Once everything is filmed, and remember it’s only the first episode, the networks then choose which shows deserve a full season. And because broadcast networks make their money from advertisers (commercials, sponsorships, and product placement, similar to how YouTube and influencers operate today), these network executives, and the creators and stars of the shows chosen for a full season, fly out to New York where many advertisers operate, and “sell them” on the new shows in the hopes that the advertisers will want to spend heavily on advertising. These events are called “upfronts” and they still happen today, with the broadcast networks and other networks and platforms.
Where is TV Now?
Today, there are more networks and platforms, including cable networks (which have commercials but you pay more to access them, like Bravo, AMC, FX, BBCAmerica, etc.), premium cable networks (these don’t have in-show commercials and you pay for a premium package to access them, like Starz, Showtime, HBO, etc.), and streaming platforms (you pay individually for each in a monthly subscription and need an internet-connect device to access them, including Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, etc.).
With so many networks to choose from, there are more shows than ever, but the 25 episodes per season are rare and still happen primarily on broadcast networks. Most shows receive an episode order from their network or platform from 8 to 13 episodes, though some shows are allowed to write for the number of episodes they think the story needs, like FLEABAG, instead of having a set number before the writers’ room begins.
What Does This Mean for Writers?
What does this mean if you want to write television? It means there are more jobs than ever, which is great. However, it also means you’ll spend less time working on one show, in what’s called a writers’ room. Think of how long a show is on air. A 22-episode show airs from September to May, but a 13-episode broadcast network show will likely air either in the fall or in the spring, but not both usually. If a show airs for nine months, that’s essentially how long the writers’ room operates.
For streamers, it can depend. A 10-episode show could have a three to four-month writers’ room, but some contracts require a longer length. Lower episode counts and time in the writers’ room mean that a writer will be paid less. On top of that, the number of writers working on one show has also declined.
Similar to how the number of episodes determines the amount of time it takes to write a show, it also impacts how many writers they need to write on staff. For example, GREY’S ANATOMY had a short first season of 9 episodes, and approximately 8 writers (including writing teams), but the second season had 27 episodes and a writing staff of approximately 14 people (this assumes that the all writers in the room were given one episode to have their name on).
So, while there are a lot more shows to write for, and possibly more staff writing slots because of the number of shows, you won’t be working for most of the year on one show. This means writers could end up working on more than one show in one calendar year to ensure they make enough money and may need to network more to gain access to more opportunities.
As for upfronts and pilot season, that has also changed. Some streamers have commercial breaks (Hulu, Peacock), but the ones that don’t don't need to woo advertisers at upfronts. Cable, premium cable, and streamers also don’t feel the need to stick to a strict schedule that follows the school year by launching shows in the fall the way broadcast networks do. These other networks can debut shows whenever they desire.
As you're looking to launch yourself as a professional creator, understanding these changes will help you to understand the operation of the industry, and how to navigate it.
Build Your Portfolio
You can have all of the connections and access to financing in the world, but none of it matters if you don’t have the scripts. In today’s market, you can’t just have one script either. We all have grown up watching movies and hearing stories, which has trained us all to understand the structure at the core of all screenwriting, even if we don’t necessarily know the vocabulary used in the industry. This means that the bar has been raised for anyone wanting to be a screenwriter. To prove that you’re not a one-hit-wonder and help people understand what makes your writing voice unique, you’ll need multiple scripts to stand out from the pack and prove you have what it takes to build a career.
What Script Format Should You Focus On?
In the last few years, there has been an explosion of streaming platforms, each with its own mandate to fill, and looking for the most alluring library available to bring in new subscribers and maintain the current subscribers. This means, there have never been more opportunities available to up-and-coming screenwriters. But with so many networks and platforms available, where should you focus your time to get the best return? That depends on what your long-term career goals are.
As mentioned before, the spec market used to land writers of all skill levels big paydays. Today, the market still exists, but it doesn’t operate with the same number of scripts bought in a year and they typically start in the low six figures.
If you’re a writer with one script you want to sell, but not build a career, features are definitely the way to go. Just know that selling one script is a difficult option because you likely will struggle to get in the door of the industry on your own.
If you’re looking to work in features long-term, you’ll want a couple of feature scripts that show off your unique voice that are similar but different enough that they show some range. The benefit of working primarily in features is that your schedule is determined by deadlines to turn in drafts of any project you’re hired onto or set for yourself. Outside of that, you can basically set your own schedule. Just be sure to make time for networking and meetings your reps will want to send you on, as this helps you get ahead on different opportunities.
In addition to writing original scripts and selling them, feature writers are often hired onto projects, such as when a studio like Disney is in need of a writer to pen the latest Marvel installment. In these moments, the studio has a list of people they want to talk to (based on who they know or want to know, and their credits), and writers meet with the executive on the project to pitch their “take” or idea of how the movie should look.
What are OWAs?
Another option is OWAs, which stands for Open Writing Assignments. These are lists of projects at the major studios (Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, etc.) that track projects that need writers to rewrite projects they already have drafts of or a concept they want to develop in-house. There is some debate among writers as to whether this is a reliable way to build a career.
It takes a lot to work consistently in features, but if you can establish yourself with a solid spec script (even if you don’t sell it) and are a pleasure to work with, then you can build a career with a mix of originals and assignments.
What to Include in a Portfolio for Feature Films
To break into features, you’ll need at least one script to get noticed but ultimately you’ll need a couple if you’re looking for representation. This helps establish your voice and brand. Features need to have a really strong hook that you can see the trailer in. However, if you’re more interested in small, character-driven films, like Best Picture-winner CODA, it may be worthwhile to also learn how to produce a film and make your own. CODA was bought by Apple TV+ at the Sundance Film Festival, so creators looking to break into the industry could take the independent route and make a splash.
Writing TV Pilots
The beauty of working in television is potentially more consistent work, meaning a more consistent paycheck. And those jobs can last for years. This gives you a structure and the ability to dive deep into character work, where features have slightly more focus on the plot (though still character-driven).
On the other hand, seasons are shortening, so you’ll likely have to jump from show to show more often in order to make enough in a calendar year. Many fellowship organizers point out that it is often just as hard to get staffed on a second show, as it is to get staffed on your first one. This is why NBC included one-time staff writers in their fellowship relaunch in 2022.
It's been a wonderful 18 months of writing and now I have finished. pic.twitter.com/NineqijlbB
— Michaela Coel (@MichaelaCoel) August 18, 2019
What to Include in a Portfolio for TV
To get into television writing, you’ll need a portfolio that really shows your voice. You can write multiple pilot scripts based on your original ideas, a feature spec script, or even a television spec script. A television spec is your version of an episode of an existing show, preferably one that’s currently on air. You can also take a feature script you have and turn it into a pilot script if you think there’s a bigger story and want to dive deeper into the character.
Another option is to write short film scripts or sketch comedy. The structure of both are very similar, but the latter could be easier to build a full career on as there is a variety of shows and streaming platforms like YouTube available to you. Dramatic short films are great for launching a career, as they’ll show off your skills, but there’s not as much money in writing short films as there is for features and television writing.
That said, when submitting to representatives for consideration, shorts are a great addition to have in your portfolio. When writing, always write to the format that best serves the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t stretch a simple idea into a movie or television pilot if you can tell it better in a 20-minute short.
What Genre Should You Focus On?
You have to consider the genre that you want to work in if you’re going to be a screenwriter. Your genre helps to tell what kinds of jobs you’re available to write and helps create a brand for you along with your unique voice. This doesn’t mean that you can’t crossover in genres, but you want the way you enter the industry to be clear.
Should You Write What's Popular?
Yes. And no. Both.
Writing in a genre that you're comfortable with will most likely result in a better script. You know the conventions, you understand the pacing — you're in your comfort zone and you're probably writing something that you really love.
However, there are certain genres that make breaking in a little easier. If you look at the data, action and adventure movies have been the king of the box office for over a decade straight, offering an almost guaranteed return on investment and naturally making them highly sought-after material.
Following action and adventure, horror, comedy, and drama also have huge audiences, so if you're interested in showing your range and appealing to studio execs and TV showrunners, take a look at which film and TV genres top the list.
But if you're not incredibly concerned with keeping up with what's hot, let's dig into a handful of genres that you might want to sink your teeth into.
True Stories & Intellectual Property (IP)
Movies based off of true stories are pretty self-explanatory — and are also extremely popular right now — but Intellectual property, or “IP,” is any material that you can buy the exclusive right to adapt into another format. For example, HUNGER GAMES is a book series that the studio bought the rights to turn into a series of movies. Both movies and television are filled with IP, whether it’s true crime, a significant pivot in history, or a wildly popular comic book.
The main reason that IP has become so popular is that it brings a built-in audience, so you’re guaranteed some eyeballs regardless of what they think about the trailers or influence from reviews. For example, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was critically panned but the first film still made a great deal of money with $569 million worldwide on a $40 million budget. Though, IP is not a guarantee of success as seen with the release of MORTAL ENGINES.
For writers looking to adapt their own IP, you have to be careful when choosing what you’d like to adapt since you don’t necessarily have access to the rights, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. There are a lot of stories that are in the public domain that you can use.
If you’re interested in a novel or article for an adaptation, look at the publisher’s website and look for their rights section. Here, you can either search the title you’re interested in to see its status and what rights are available, or you’ll find the contact information to the department you can reach out to for the information.
Animation is more than just Saturday morning cartoons. It includes features, television, and short formats for adult, kids, and four-quadrant (projects that appeal to men, women, and people of all ages) audiences. A four-quadrant animated film would often apply to Pixar films, particularly UP and WALL-E, even if we often assume Disney/Pixar films are meant for kids only. SHREK is also a very successful animated feature with wide appeal.
You’ll find a lot of adult-centric animated projects on television, including THE SIMPSONS, BIG MOUTH, and RICK & MORTY.
If you’re a comedy writer, you should absolutely consider writing an animated pilot, whether it’s kid-focused or an adult comedy. These formats are filled with ample amounts and are a great way to train yourself to churn out lots of jokes, no matter how fantastic, as there are no limits to what can be seen on screen.
However, it should be noted that not all animated projects are covered by the writers’ union, the Writers Guild of America (WGA). Instead, those productions are covered by The Animation Guild (TAG) and IASTE (which is the union representing crew members, or “below the line” crew in productions). This has led to tough negotiations to ensure that writers receive equal pay to WGA writers. Some animation writers’ rooms are covered under IATSE, which is the union that covers production crews.
Most film and television projects fall into one of two genres: drama or comedy. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a light-hearted drama (also called a dramedy) or a dramatic comedy. In fact, many television shows merge the two, but you’ll notice there’s always one with a stronger emphasis.
Dramas focus on a more serious tone and can merge with many subgenres. For example, family drama, mystery drama, period drama, teen drama, etc. You’ll notice that the first word is the sub-genre that specifies what kind of drama it is.
In television, most dramas will be an hour long (with or without commercials), though there are half-hour dramas, like UNDONE.
True stories are often seen in the drama space, particularly on the Black List, which is a list of the best unproduced screenplays being passed around the industry that year, as voted on by producers. In recent years, there have been a good amount of scripts on that list based on true stories, with some going on to get awards season attention, like KING RICHARD, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, and IMITATION GAME.
Comedy film and television projects show off a more humorous tone, and may or may not have a comedic premise. For example, a film about a guy bringing home his girlfriend to meet his quirky family could be the drama JUNEBUG, but it could also be the comedy THE FAMILY STONE. However, an over-the-top comedy premise could be tougher to view through a dramatic lens, such as ANCHORMAN, whose premise is to parody 1970s news anchors.
In television, comedies are typically 30-minutes long, though there are hour-long comedies, like THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, CHUCK, and MONK.
Sci-Fi & Fantasy
There are varying degrees to how intense sci-fi and fantasy projects appear on screen. Both are built around the idea of world creation with fantasy centering on magical or supernatural elements, whereas sci-fi centers on science and technology. When watching either, these projects might seem impossible, but with sci-fi, there should be an element of truth or social commentary behind the science or technology element. For example, THE EXPANSE is set in the distant future and depicts humans living in space stations and other planets, a conversation often held today among people.
Examples of science fiction in television shows are THE EXPANSE, STRANGER THINGS, and STAR TREK, and the films STAR WARS (which is arguable fantasy as well), SNOWPIERCER, and EX-MACHINA. Examples of fantasy on television include GAME OF THRONES, THE WITCHER, and OUTLANDER, and the films THE LORD OF THE RINGS, TOY STORY, and MALEFICENT.
These films and television shows don’t have to exist in worlds that we’ve never seen before. “High-fantasy” is the term for fantasy with entire magic systems, in fictional worlds that look and operate completely different than our own, much like LORD OF THE RINGS. But there are also fantasy and science fiction projects set in our own world in the “near future.” Modern or near-future fantasy would be the series THE MAGICIAN, while near-future sci-fi would be the film LOOPER.
For beginning writers, you can write whatever you’re passionate about, however, it’s going to be easier to sell or produce on your own a script that is set in modern or near-future times. This is because they will not require expensive clothes and sets, allowing them to keep their budget low and easier to produce.
Genres each have a reaction they want to elicit from the audience. Dramas want to make you feel, sometimes even cry. Comedies want to make you laugh. The goal of a horror film or television show is to scare you, and there’s a wide range of ways to make that happen. Whether it’s a straight scream from murderous scares, like you would see in SCREAM, or more psychological thrills from a film like GET OUT, either style keeps the audience on their toes.
There are many kinds of horror films, like the meta-horror film CABIN IN THE WOODS, gothic horror CRIMSON PEAK, and comedy horror HAPPY DEATH DAY.
The action-adventure genre is defined by the action-driven set pieces in the thrilling journey that the characters go on. The big set pieces are the element you want to highlight when writing these scripts. These films can be for adults, kids, families, or four-quadrant audiences, however, they tend to be for everyone.
Modern action-adventure films rule the box office with the intellectual property of popular comics and books behind them, like Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, the FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise (inspired by a true story article), and the HUNGER GAMES films.
There are many movies that families can watch together without worrying about the kids seeing something the parents don’t want them to (GHOSTBUSTERS and SIXTEEN CANDLES were once considered PG and they both have explicit sexual references).
However, “family-friendly” typically refers to films that are targeted toward families with young kids, such as Disney and Pixar films and television shows, or Netflix’s THE ADAM PROJECT. They are often more comedic in tone but can vary from family-life, like YES DAY, to large-scale action-adventure family films, like JUMANJI and all its sequels.
Enter Competitions & Fellowships
Every year there are dozens of competitions and fellowships working to find “undiscovered” writers and help get them established within the entertainment industry. As the number of competitions and fellowships have grown, they have become a great way for writers to give themselves deadlines to stick to, however, it can be overwhelming to apply for them all. Which you apply to will depend on the career you desire, your budget, and the kind of writing you’re pursuing.
How Are They Different?
The primary difference between a competition and a fellowship is their mission. Both want to help launch writers in either film or television writing careers, but fellowships offer in-depth assistance and training over an extended period of time, helping shape your brand as a writer, and ensuring that you’re ready to debut to the industry and get to work. Competitions are looking for writers with strong voices, and focus more on selling and developing scripts that act as your calling card.
Both want to launch you, and both want to help develop your voice, but the mission of a fellowship is to develop writers, whereas competitions are looking to develop scripts.
Another difference — and this impacts what you have the bandwidth to apply for — is that competitions typically cost money to apply and fellowships do not. To make use of your investment, this means you want to ensure that any competition you submit to will provide you with the desired promotion and development services if you win or place highly.
While fellowships do not typically require an entry fee (though some do, like the Sundance Lab), their submission periods tend to overlap and are not as spread out across the year. In the past couple of years, they’ve spread out more, with the Fox Fellowship opening its submission window in late fall. However, the bulk are in the spring and typically have similar submission requirements but different essay questions that take time to assemble. Just like you don’t want to spend money on every single competition, you similarly do not want to burn yourself out attempting to apply to every fellowship opportunity gathering the necessary materials.
Why Are Competitions and Fellowships Important?
While many professional writers break into the industry and launch their careers without the assistance of competition and fellowships, these opportunities have proven to be an incredible option for anyone struggling to get their foot in the door, especially if they live outside of Los Angeles. Plenty of past participants can attest to that.
Even though so much of the industry is remote today, it can still be challenging to make connections with a rep or executive without face-to-face interaction or an introduction by someone you know in the industry. For example, Shiwani Srivastava, who lives in San Francisco, submitted her comedy script to Screencraft and found success through the introductions that came out of entering, even though she didn’t win the top honors.
“I am not based in Los Angeles. I am in San Francisco and I thought the only way to get out there is to start entering contests and see what happens. And because of ScreenCraft, an opportunity did knock. They put me in touch with a manager... he really understood what I was trying to do with my stories. ScreenCraft put me in touch with a major studio, who expressed interest in my script, which is beyond my wildest imagination.”
Fellowships and some competitions work with writers to develop their work, teaching writers how to work with executives and take notes later in their careers. ScreenCraft competition alum Maria Wilson regularly utilizes these opportunities, saying:
“[ScreenCraft has] this wonderfully hands-on approach that helps clarify how to take actual steps towards your goals. From strategizing on game plans to answering questions and concerns to connecting me with other finalists, I’ve just felt super supported throughout. They even got my script read by a number of reps, and facilitated a meeting with the manager that I’m now repped by.”
Many writers can write a fantastic script but don’t have the branding or networking skills to get their break. Others can “sell” themselves easily, but similarly don’t have access to get the needed facetime, and their strong scripts just aren’t getting the attention they desire. Executives and representatives are inundated with people selling them ideas, so they rely on people they trust to connect them with the people and scripts, and both competitions and fellowships do just that while also helping develop you and your portfolio into a clear package.
What Do Competitions and Fellowships Offer?
TV fellowships offer training on how to work in a writers’ room so that you can have a voice when you do get in the room. These fellowships include NBC Launch TV, Disney ABC Writing Program, Paramount Mentoring Program, WB Writers Workshop, and others. These fellowships train you by developing your writing, setting you up with meetings, and having weekly workshops and lectures with industry professionals over several months (some for up to a year).
There are some feature fellowships, but most are in television, and the goal is for the people selected to be staffed on one of their television shows at the end of the program. The Nicholls Fellowship, Universal Writers Program, and Sundance Screenwriting Lab are all focused on features (Sundance also has a TV Lab). Some programs cover both, like the ScreenCraft Fellowship. These are similar to both fellowships and competitions, in that, there is often a monetary prize, mentoring and networking opportunities, and development. But they vary between each.
Competitions are known for offering prize money to the top-performing scripts, however, it’s typically not enough to live on alone, which is why they also offer industry exposure, sharing your script in the hopes that a producer or representative will want to take your script to the next level. Some will also provide development notes and help workshop your script and any marketing materials before sending it to their connections.
Both fellowships and competitions need the people who come out on top of the submissions to succeed long after they’re selected. Your success isn’t just great for you, it’s also great advertising for them, which is why you’ll hear so many testimonials from contest winners and fellowship alumni that the people behind the scenes went above and beyond for them.
What to Do After You've Completed a Competition or Fellowship
The work never ends, even after you’ve applied or received high marks in a competition or a fellowship spot. To prove you’re here to stay as a working screenwriter, you need more scripts! You also need to keep growing your network, both by meeting others in the industry and by paying in forward and helping other up-and-coming writers.
If you won some prize money, it’s likely not enough to live on, but the money you make from the connections you’re introduced to is invaluable. At its core, your routine will be the same as it was before between writing and meetings, it only continues to grow.
Build Your Network
The entertainment industry isn’t about who you know, it’s built on who knows you. You can have the greatest screenplay of all time and it won’t matter if you can’t get it in front of people with industry access. A network takes time to build, but the impact lasts a lifetime if you know how to give as much as you receive.
Writers groups are a great way to level up your writing while also networking with others. If even one writer finds their way into the industry, you’re one degree closer to that same access. The most crucial aspect of a writers group is consistency. Relationships take time, so if you’re able to meet consistently you’ll find that, along with the improvement of your writing, your relationships will also improve.
There are many ways to find or create a writers group, but it’s always best to start by reaching out to people in your writing network that you already know. They might have a group they can connect you with or vouch for you to join (depending on the level of expertise).
If you are still working on building your network, look online. There are great podcasts, like The Screenwriting Life, hosted by screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Lorien McKenna, and The Act Two Podcast, hosted by screenwriters Tasha Huo and Josh Hallman, and their listeners talk to one another online. The Screenwriting Life has an active Facebook group and people often reach out for assistance and to share scripts. Twitter is also a great way to follow hashtags and find writing communities.
One thing to keep in mind as you’re looking to connect with people is your skill level and genre. You do want a slight range of skill levels so there are people who are better in some areas and can challenge you, but it shouldn’t be so great a range that someone can’t keep up with the conversation. Some people like to work only with people who write a similar genre and focus on either film or television. Other groups have a mix of genres and formats, but you want at least one person who writes the same genre as you so that there’s someone who knows how to pitch ideas that make your script better, and you can do the same for them.
Follow Writers on Twitter
Following a new agreement with agencies and the WGA, as well as more writers’ rooms moving to remote work-from-home, writers have embraced social media to new heights. You can follow hashtags, filmmakers, and writers on social media (particularly on Twitter), where many put out calls to read up-and-coming writers and highlight writers for staffing gigs. (You can see our list of our top 20 writers to follow on Twitter here.)
It’s been ten years since I moved to Hollywood to carve out a career in film and TV
— T$E CHUN (@thetzechun) April 3, 2022
List of Communities
If you’re looking to participate in more niche communities that aren’t as public, look into forums and message boards, which are populated with passionate writers like yourself. These platforms share resources, job opportunities, scripts, contact information, and so much more as long as you’re open to asking for it while being an active part of the community’s conversations.
A great place to connect with other writers and filmmakers all over the world is Stage 32, which is filled with “lounges” that members (for free) can post in and get to know one another. Another option is SimplyScripts, which isn’t just a great way to find writers, but it is also a great resource for finding scripts.
Find a Mentor
If there’s one thing that sets you apart from all of the other screenwriters vying for a career in screenwriting, it’s the guidance of a mentor who can share all that they’ve learned, introduce you to their network, help with your writing, and keep you from making rookie mistakes. But how do you find a mentor? Some come through connections through your network, however, if you’re still building your circle, then Mentorship programs, Workshops, and Fellowships are a great way to land one of these experts.
One of the best-known mentorship programs is the Paramount Mentoring Program, which falls under the list of TV writing fellowships. Run by Carole Kirschner, the program pairs new TV writers with working producers, executives, writers, and showrunners, with the goal of training them to enter the industry as professional TV writers. Other great options are the ScriptReader Pro Screenwriting Mentorship, Humanitas New Voices, and the Screenwriters Safari Retreat.
ScreenCraft Writers Summit
Trying to build your network? The ScreenCraft Writers Summit might be your answer. If you’re not used to networking online with other creators, the ScreenCraft Writers Summit is a fantastic weekend filled with inspiring, Oscar and Emmy-winning writers, showrunners, productions, competition directors, and more. In addition to all that you will learn, there is an ongoing chat room for all attendees to not only share what they’re learning and working on but also make connections that last beyond the exciting spring weekend. To ensure you get everything you need while participating in the Summit, you’ll want to take steps to prepare, including making a schedule for yourself so that you’re assured to have time to prioritize the speakers you want to hear and still have time to talk to your fellow writers.
We should state upfront that, while query letters can work, it is also an uphill battle. Be sure to do your research on the companies that are open to receiving query letters and if there are specific rules when submitting. The internet is a fantastic resource for finding emails, social media avenues (such as LinkedIn), addresses, etc. so that you know where to reach out to.
How to Write Query Letters
Just like any other correspondence, there is an etiquette you can use as your guide. For instance, consider starting your letter with a thank you for taking time out of their day to look at your query, and making sure that you make your intention clear.
Always write a query letter that is specific to the company and person. They will know if you simply copy and paste their name into a query letter. To find the best people to submit to, research other writers you admire that have the career paths you view as similar to what you want. Use sites like IMDbPro and trade sites like Variety, Deadline, and The Tracking Board to find out who their reps are and get their contact information. Always try to find the right person and their individual email addresses, instead of physically mailing them. Anything mailed to a company’s address will likely be thrown out or returned, unfortunately, so don’t waste your money on the postage when emails are free. Many company websites also have a general email address, but you want to avoid using these. Instead, try to find the individual’s email address or the format the company uses (such as email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
A great way to get the recipient’s attention is to make it personal. Reference a recent project of theirs, or how their mission statement aligns with your goals. You need them as much as they need great material, so quickly establishing a connection is a great way to have them wanting to see what you’ve written.
You have very little time to get the recipient to read your email and win them over. Therefore, keep your language casual so it’s more enjoyable and not so stilted and formal. At the same time, don’t waste any of the precious, limited time you have in your email by making jokes.
Remember, you’re selling your script, not yourself, even if you’re reaching out to representation. You want them to know your voice, and the best way to do that is with your logline. The logline should show the protagonist, their dilemma, their want/goal, obstacles, the tone, and any world elements that set it apart from the everyday world that we live in if needed. It’s a lot to get down into a couple of lines, so you should definitely read loglines and practice writing them to ensure that you put together the best one to sell your story and voice.
Get a Job in the Industry
For many aspiring writers, getting a job in the industry is a fantastic way to build your network and practice your craft. However, writers’ assistant jobs are notoriously challenging to get without knowing someone with access, and production jobs are great for meeting people but require long, physically demanding hours.
There are many writing jobs you can create for yourself or seek out while working on your scripts on the side, such as copywriting, podcast writing and production, article writing, etc. That said, there are a few consistently popular routes available to you, and many of them can be done remotely, even if you’re not yet in Los Angeles.
Become a Script Reader
If you want to write scripts, then you need to read scripts. It helps you find your voice and style, see how the pros do it, get inspired, and learn what’s trending in the spec and pilot market. With so many production companies, agencies, management companies, script competitions, and fellowships, the role of an industry script reader is in high demand. It’s also a flexible position that many can do on the side of their full-time job, while others use it as their main job as they move up the ranks in development. Most companies will require you to submit a sample of “script coverage,” which are one to five pages of formatted notes (depending on who’s reading them) that study the structure, character arcs, marketability, etc.
Write a Cinematic Book
If you’re not set on embedding yourself in the industry, writing a piece of IP that grabs the town’s attention for adaptation has proven a great option for writers who enjoy all forms of writing, not just screenwriting. The trick is to use screenwriting tools to shape your story, whether it’s a comic book, novel, or other. This means utilizing cinematic visuals in your prose, engrossing set pieces, and a strong three-act structure that makes a close adaptation easier to keep fans of the original material happier.
Become an Assistant
Becoming a television writers’ assistant is a tried-and-true method of building a screenwriting career. But these roles are not easy to find. You often need to have a connection to the room you work in, either by having a rep already, knowing people in the room, or working as an industry assistant that’s connected to the room (ie. you're a showrunner’s assistant or an assistant to the creator's agent).
If you don’t know anyone, then start looking for roles that are adjacent to a writers’ assistant. For example, the big agencies (UTA, CAA, WME, etc.) have “floater” positions. These are entry-level assistant positions that haven’t been moved yet to a permanent desk and, instead, move from desk to desk to help whoever as needed. Then, when a position on a desk opens up, you move into those spots permanently.
These are great to help you understand the industry, who the main players are, and meet other people in the industry to network. The goal here would be to work on literary desks, as these represent working screenwriters. Then, if a client gets their own show at a network or streamer, you can potentially move over to work as a showrunner’s assistant, writers’ PA, or writers’ assistant.
Another way to move into the industry without connections is to search for temp agencies in Los Angeles (ask them if they work with entertainment staffing when you interview) and use those temporary administrative positions to network and look for an entry-level job.
While challenging, it’s not impossible to find your way into these positions and they can lead to staffing roles if you make a good impression, have solid and creative input, and prove to be a strong collaborator. A writers’ assistant’s job is to keep track of everything said and worked on when the staff is together writing the show, keeping it organized, maintaining the show bible, staying on top of drafts, and anything else the room needs. If there isn’t a Writers’ PA (a job that can often lead to a writers’ assistant position), you’ll likely also be ordering lunches and snacks, going on errand runs, etc.
Create a Coverfly Profile
Your online presence is just as important as your resume. That doesn’t simply extend to Instagram and Twitter posts, but getting involved in niche platforms so that people who look into you can see that you’re dedicated to screenwriting.
Since Coverfly is used for dozens of competitions and fellowships, maintaining your profile on the site is a great way to show that you’re invested in your career while also taking advantage of some of the perks that come with the platform.
Free Stuff to Take Advantage Of
Having a Coverfly profile includes a host of free programs, including Pitch Week, the Red List, Live Reads, Coverflyx, and Fee Waiver.
Pitch Week gives writers the chance to have virtual pitches with people in the industry, both producers and representatives. Coverfly connects people based on your profile and projects and what the professional’s mandates are so that no one is wasting their time with meetings that won’t lead anywhere.
The Red List
The Red List is a compilation of the top scripts in the industry, using the aggregate scores accumulated from the various submissions of your scripts.
For Live Reads, Coverfly has partnered with the Storytellers Conservatory to host robust virtual live reads of your scripts. This free program makes it possible to foster and maintain a sense of community between writers and performers even when we can’t always see each other in person.
Since it can be challenging to find a strong network of peers to share scripts with one another and provide notes while building connections, Coverfly offers CoverflyX. CoverflyX, short for "Coverfly eXchange", is a free service that allows writers to get peer notes on their screenplays in return for Coverfly tokens. Coverfly tokens have no monetary value and cannot be sold or bought. Instead, writers can earn tokens by providing notes on the work of other Coverfly users, and in turn, they can exchange those tokens for feedback on their own projects.
Fee Waiver Program
Lastly, there’s the Fee Waiver program. The goal of the program is to help find great stories from talented writers who may not otherwise be able to afford some of these talent-discovery programs. We believe in opening doors for talented writers. This is a way to open the door a little wider. For writers with lower incomes, submission fees may prevent them from entering a script or accessing great educational content. So, in conjunction with these amazing partners, Coverfly has launched a fee waiver program that is based on merit and financial need, to give all writers access to the valuable programs on Coverfly.
The Coverfly Rank is a metric that determines how well you’re doing in competitions and coverage scores in relation to other projects on Coverfly. It is based on the qualitative score and a heat bonus. The former looks at your scripts’ performance in any submissions to contests, fellowships, and writing programs through Coverfly’s aggregate system. The heat bonus applies to any current script that is working its way through different submissions. In addition to these two scores, you also receive badges, so even if you have a script you’re no longer submitting, people looking at your profile can see badges that highlight your past performance.
Why a Coverfly Profile is Beneficial
A Coverfly Profile makes it possible for you to showcase or present your work to industry users and the general public. Think of it as a portfolio that someone can view if they’re thinking about hiring you.
Coverfly has thousands of vetted industry pros scouring the database (agents, managers, producers, executives, etc.) to find potential clients or scripts to option, shop, or develop. Plus the Coverfly Writer Development Team acts as a liaison that helps those in the industry find scripts through Coverfly.
And because you never know what an industry member might be looking for, it’s best to keep your profile as up-to-date and as complete as possible, just like you might treat a personal website.
Learn How to Pitch
It may feel daunting to pitch an entire screenplay, whether for feature or television. After all, you likely wrote it in isolation over an extended period and, while you know every inch of the story, summarizing it down in a few minutes that’s enjoyable, feels like an impossible task. However, pitching is not simply an issue of “selling” your script. In fact, the executive has likely already read your script (or they’ve at least read their assistant’s notes on it), so why would you need to tell them what happens? The reason is that even though you’re talking about your script, you’re not so much pitching the script as you are pitching yourself.
Why is Pitching Important for Screenwriters?
You need to be ready to pitch your script in any kind of scenario and venue, whether a formal meeting or an elevator pitch. Why? Because you're actually trying to prove yourself ready to be a professional screenwriter. Producers and representatives alike are looking for writers that they can bring in on different projects, not just the ones you generate yourself, and they want to ensure that the person who wrote that script in isolation knows how to play well with others. They’ll do this by looking for passion in your voice, an understanding of emotional arcs and structure as you tell your story, how you interact in a more casual conversation, etc.
Tips and Tricks for Pitching Your Script
You do not have to be a born salesman in order to make a great pitch, though it doesn’t hurt. If you have a few tips and tricks up your sleeve, no one will ever have to see how nervous you are and will fall in love with you and your pitch.
The first thing to understand is the “halo effect,” which is essentially the idea that if your positive outlook on what you're talking about shines through, then others will view it positively as well. You love your script, you know your script. So tell people what you love so much about it that’s unique and exciting.
There’s a fine line between confidence and ego, and the halo effect helps with this as well. If happiness and passion are infectious, then you don’t need to inflate anything else or try to make yourself seem bigger. Also, remember that anyone you meet with has your resume or a list of credits. If you have a rep, they will have called ahead of time and given their own pitch of you as a writer, so you’re there to “make good” on that rep’s pitch. They won’t have misrepresented you, so there’s no need to be cocky. You want to make a genuine connection so that it lasts, and the best way you can do that is by being yourself.
According to producers, another great and helpful tool is using visuals. This can be a visual deck or casting cards with people types you imagine in certain roles. After the pitch is done, it’s always a smart idea to send your script (this is for instances where you have a general meeting, not a specifically pitch meeting), pitch deck, or any other materials. It helps keep the conversation going as your reps can follow up on the materials a couple of weeks later.
Virtual/Online Screenplay Pitches
In the last few years, pitches have expanded beyond rep-set pitch meetings and general meetings, to now be slightly more informal with virtual pitch meetings and online pitch events. By not being in-person, there are some elements that writers need to be aware of and prepared for.
For starters, not being in-person can make it tougher to keep the energy of the “room” up as people are in their home environments, instead of a professional one, and there are more things around that can distract them. That means you will need to keep your energy up a little higher to hold their attention. Before the meeting even begins, however, you need to test out your tech setup. Have a clear space, and nothing distracting in the background, as well as ensure that your video and audio work without any issues. Tech delays can aggravate those you speak with, making a bad impression, and cutting into the limited time you have to make that connection.
The Elevator Pitch
Not all pitches happen in a formal meeting. You could be at an industry event or a party among friends and meet someone new with whom you want to share your story. In these moments, you need to have your “elevator pitch” ready to go, to grab anyone’s attention in just a few seconds. To do this, you’ll need to know your logline and what film and television projects are comparable (also called “comps”) so that you can prove that there’s an audience for your project. Whatever you do though, don’t give them your ending. You want to keep them hanging so that they’re interested in reading that script or seeing a pitch deck. Less is definitely more in this situation.
You want to practice your pitch so that there’s no hesitation when it’s time to jump into your elevator pitch on a whim. Test out your logline and ways to discuss it casually (even if it’s memorized and not actually so “casual”) with friends or online services so that you have the best pitch possible.
ScreenCraft Virtual Pitch
After formal meetings and informal pitches, there are also pitch events, like Screencraft’s Virtual Pitch. These allow you to practice your pitch, offering advice on how to improve it in the future, and also help you to make connections with other writers and professionals, making it a great networking opportunity.
ScreenCraft’s Virtual Pitch features professional screenwriters like Vanessa Taylor (SHAPE OF WATER, GAME OF THRONES), Ben Cory Jones (INSECURE, BOOMERANG), and Nicole Perlman (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, CAPTAIN MARVEL). They often share great insight and remind writers not to rush their pitch as the listeners want to hear and love their story and you. As nerve-wracking as it can be, everyone is rooting for you, and this safe space is a great reminder to give your best virtual pitch and get individual, face-to-face feedback.
Find a Rep
It might seem at this point that with all of your connections, you don’t truly need an agent or manager, but that’s definitely not the case. In addition to helping you meet people and mold your career, representatives also do a great deal of work so that you can focus on writing. They also know what’s happening and trending in the industry, helping to guide where you put your focus so that you can combine the stories you’re passionate to write with what the experts know will have the most significant impact.
However, just because you think you want an agent or manager, doesn’t mean that they’re ready for you. Though these roles technically work for the writers, their taste and ability to select great talent is what helps them establish their careers. Therefore, you’ll find that rep when you’re ready for one.
When’s a Good Time to Find a Rep?
So, when is a good time to sign with an agent or manager? As mentioned before, when it’s time they’ll find you. This means that all writers will all have to put their work out into the world before it’s actually ready, and you shouldn’t be upset if you initially get pushback. That early feedback is essential for knowing where you stand amongst your peers. You can test your scripts in your writers group, submit to a competition, or get professional script coverage.
When your script is ready for the next level, the people who have read it will let you know. When you have multiple scripts at this level, then you’re ready. You must have at least a few scripts that consistently show your unique voice and a clear brand.
Agents v. Managers
The line between agents and managers often appears blurred, but they are, in fact, two distinct roles. Most writers take on a manager first. There’s no formal contract, but the agreement gives the manager 10% of any money made while the writer is with the manager/management company. In return for that 10%, managers set their clients up with general meetings, help them develop scripts, assist in choosing opportunities that fit their brand, and more. Managers, technically, cannot solicit work for their clients. What defines “soliciting work” in this situation is where the lines become blurred.
Agents tend to sign writer clients, via a contract, after they’ve gotten a credit or two under their belt. Agents can look over contracts and solicit work for their clients. The big agents also practice packaging as they assemble all of their clients to push projects through. This was a major point of contention during the dispute between the WGA and agencies in 2019. Agents are not allowed to serve as producers on their clients’ projects, while managers can, and use packaging to use this as a workaround.
How to Get Repped as a Screenwriter
You have a strong network, you have multiple scripts, and everyone who reads those scripts believes you’re ready to be a professional screenwriter. Maybe you’ve even placed in a competition or nabbed a spot in a fellowship. Now, how do you get representation for your writing?
You’ve put so much work already into your career, and now it’s time to put all those tools and skills you’ve gained to use. Talk to your network to see if any of them would recommend you to a manager (or agent), submit to competitions where people who place highly have access to representation, and find ways to get your work out there so that people can see your brand, potentially through social media and other writing mediums.
Check out our guide to learn more about finding representation.
If you believe your script is ready and you're ready to launch yourself into the entertainment industry on your own terms, start by testing the waters through a virtual pitch, get script coverage from a professional, or submit your script to a competition or fellowship.
Whatever you do, just keep trying because this constantly-evolving industry has never been more interested in telling stories from wide-ranging and unique voices.