How to Make it in Hollywood: Advice from a Screenwriting Competition Winner

by Shawn Forno on October 30, 2020

Xavier Burgin won the 2018 ScreenCraft Drama Competition with his feature ON TIME. He has since signed with a Literary Manager at Brillstein Entertainment Partners, an agent at CAA, and released his documentary Horror Noire via Shudder. Xavier shares his experience as a screenwriting competition winner, what he is working on now, and his advice for how emerging writers can take the next step in their career.

How to succeed in Hollywood: Screenwriting advice from a competition winner

What have you been up to since winning the ScreenCraft Drama competition in 2018?

Xavier Burgin: It's been an amazing amount of work happening since I won the Screencraft Drama competition in 2018. The accomplishment I'm most proud of is directing Horror Noire, a documentary focusing on the history of black people within the horror genre from the 1900s to today. I'm absolutely ecstatic with how it came out, plus anyone can watch it on Shudder for free right now.

Screenwriting obstacles and challenges

What were some of the biggest obstacles to getting your screenwriting career started?

XB: To be candid, I still feel like my career is getting started. I'm still working to get my first narrative piece off the ground as a writer/director. Still, I'd say it's access.

A couple of years ago it would've been impossible for me to pitch in some of the rooms I've now walked into. You can have amazing work, but without access, the hurdles can oftentimes feel insurmountable.

As your career takes off, has anything been easier than you expected? Tougher? Any flat out misconceptions?

XB: It's a marathon, not a race. I've learned that building your career can be a slow climb. Unless you're already rich, have rich parents, or rich connections, the industry is entirely different. Hollywood is not a meritocracy. You need talent (of course), but wealth plus connections can often overshadow this.

As a writer and/or filmmaker, you need to be ready for this reality and never allow it to stop you from pushing for your projects and vision.

How to write genre screenplays: Horror

What draws you to the horror genre? What are some of your favorite horror films or TV series? And what do you see for the horror genre moving forward?

XB: Horror is a genre that can both terrify you and offer an escape from the insanity of the world. Terror is just as potent at eliciting an honest, guttural response to the world as laughter. We as humans crave terror in our entertainment, it's just a case of what type of terror most resonates with us.

When I think about horror, these are the films I always come back to:

  • It Follows
  • The Haunting of Hill House
  • Don't Breathe
  • Get Out
  • American Horror Story Season 1
  • Hereditary
  • The Witch
  • Train to Busan
  • Eve's Bayou
  • The Platform
  • Event Horizon
  • Candyman

I'm hoping the genre really embraces telling non-traditional horror stories. Films and TV that specifically center black and brown stories with those same people at the helm. For me, I feel there's an untapped amount of stories the genre should embrace. I also can't wait to see more sci-fi horror that, while scary, focuses on a heavy dive into lore in the same way we've seen the Alien series do so.

How did Horror Noire come together?

XB: I always make sure to give credit where it's due. Horror Noire began with the book of the same name written by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman. Ashlee Blackwell of Graveyard Shift Sisters went to her and said she wanted to build something bigger with this amazing wealth of knowledge. They then partnered with Stage 3 Production to put the initial idea together.

Shudder became interested in the project once Jordan Peele won his Oscar for Get Out. From there, Shudder & Stage 3 Productions wanted a young, black filmmaker who understood this world, its impact, and could bring a vital vision to the team. That's when I became a part of the project.

How to find a manager or screenwriting agent

You have a very clear focus for what the types of projects you want to make and the stories you want to tell. How did you find advocates whether reps, producers, ScreenCraft, etc. to support and share that vision?

XB: I met my agent a year or so ago after winning the Screencraft competition. I'd been on his radar for a good amount of time, but it was a combination of the work I was doing, plus mad love from his assistant that led me to partner with him at CAA. My manager has also been keeping up with me for nearly four years before we decided to work together.

I've noticed it's more important to keep creating and finding ways to make yourself visible to the right people vs. trying to "get" a manager or agent. If someone's interested and sees your talent, they will make it known. By allowing that to happen, I've been able to build a team that intrinsically believes in my vision, first & foremost.

What are you’re working on now?

XB: My writing partner (Tommy Wright) and I finished a horror mystery feature known as A FAMILY REUNION. The story focuses on a young boy in the deep south who figures out his connection to an African deity that provides his family with generational wealth, talent, and prosperity. The story delves into generational divides within black families, along with asking the question of how steep a price we, as black people, would be willing to pay for the freedoms we, on a societal level, cannot attain without violent shifts of infrastructural power in America.

Currently, I'm writing a pilot for an Afro-futuristic sci-fi show that focuses on black culture and the state of the world after the collapse of the American empire. I have to keep this one under wraps, but it's been fulfilling writing on a topic I truly haven't seen before.

Finally, in a complete 180, my writing partner and I finished writing a script called XPLORE. The story focuses on a soon-to-be-divorced black couple who try to work out their problems through the use of a new app they created together. This one is a favorite of mine because it's a romantic comedy set in Silicon Valley. Personally, I've always wanted to see more representation within the space of technological achievement.

There's more work I'm putting together, but I'm excited about where these projects could lead. It's also been really fulfilling working within the sci-fi/horror/fantasy space.

How to make it as a screenwriter

If you could give aspiring writers one bit of advice from a craft standpoint, what would it be?

XB: This may sound obvious, but hone your ability to write as much as you can. You can learn the intricacies of production through trial and error, but nothing sets you apart quicker than people realizing you're an incredibly talented writer. Write as much as possible, but also try to read as much as possible too. You need to see how other great writers articulate their vision. Use that build your own unique view.

If you could give aspiring writers one bit of advice from a career standpoint, what would it be?

XB: You need to be ready for the long haul. You could become an overnight success or it could take you a decade to "make it." I've been working as a filmmaker for nearly a decade now and I'm still considered in the infancy of my career. I recommend that anyone who wants to be a filmmaker ignore "overnight success" stories. They're seldom real and when you peel the cover back, you'll see an individual who has probably been working for years before that break happened.

Anything you want to plug, talk about, or share with the ScreenCraft audience?

XB: This is very random, but I highly recommend everyone watch "Infinity Train." It's a cartoon show I decided to check out on HBOMax. It is some of the best storytelling and world-building happening in TV right now. You're missing out if you don't give it a shot.

I've been far more focused on my work, so I've pivoted away from having a prominent presence online as I used to, but I want to implore any filmmakers who have questions or need advice to reach out to me. It's not hard to find my contact on the net. I can't help anyone get a show or film off the ground (for now), but if you're wondering about what you should do next in your career, I'll always try my best to give advice, and if I don't know it, I'll always be upfront about that.

Enter an upcoming screenwriting competition and take the next step in your screenwriting career. And be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter with tips from industry pros, inspiration from fellow screenwriters, and all the competition and industry updates you need to know to get ahead in your screenwriting career.

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