What to Expect (And Not Expect) as a Pro Screenwriter for Features
What should screenwriters expect with a career in writing for feature-length films?
It's only natural for screenwriters to dream big when it comes to writing feature-length movies for the big screen and small screen (TV movies). And, by all means, dream big. However, there are also industry realities to contend with that screenwriters can't escape.
To survive the screenwriting grind as you pay your dues and move your way up the Hollywood ladder, you should hope for the best but also prepare yourself for less than your best-case scenarios.
With that in mind, here we present a brief overlook of what you should (and shouldn't) expect with a career as a professional screenwriter writing features.
You Don't Need to Live in Los Angeles, But It Helps
As you try to sell feature spec scripts (original scripts that you haven't been hired to write) or get hired for writing assignments (writing scripts for producers, development executives, and studios), living in Los Angeles isn't a must, especially in these ongoing pandemic times that limit the number of meet-and-greet meetings.
Note: If you have aspirations to write for TV/Streaming series platforms, you need to be in Los Angeles, or where the series writers' room is. And if you're aren't there when you're hired, you're going to need to relocate.
Email correspondence, phone calls, and Zoom calls have proven to be a viable way for feature screenwriters to pitch their work and themselves. And writing assignment collaboration between screenwriters and producers/executives/directors can be easily done through those types of correspondence as well.
However, living in Los Angeles can drastically increase your odds of success when it comes to signing with managers and agents. Representation loves clients that can be at their beck and call when it comes to face-to-face meetings. While the pandemic has limited those types of meetings, they will certainly come back strong when the time is right. And they're even still happening today.
Living in Los Angeles also helps screenwriters attain access points to the industry they otherwise couldn't have access to while living hundreds or thousands of miles away.
In short, if you can live in Los Angeles, it can be a huge benefit when you're first starting out. And you should always be open to relocating to Los Angeles if you start to get some momentum.
However, if living in Los Angeles is out of the cards, don't worry — you can enjoy screenwriting success living outside of Los Angeles. You just need to be prepared to work harder in your marketing and communication.
Screenwriters Need to Be Collaborative
When writing on paid assignment or working on a paid second draft of your spec script, notes from development executives, producers, and directors are not feedback. The hard truth is that notes are usually non-negotiable. Applying these notes is part of the job you're being paid for when you're under contract. They represent the wants and needs of the company, producer, director, lead actors, etc. You can and should defend your opinion as the hired screenwriter, but make sure you choose your battles wisely and be ready to concede.
If you fight too hard — swimming against the current of where your employers want to go with the script — you can be easily replaced due to creative differences.
So, go into the process with a collaborative attitude and do your best to master the art of balancing your voice and vision with the needs and wants of those that have the power and ability to make your script come to life.
You Need to Be Able to Write Fast — and Well
The days of taking three months, six months, twelve months, or more to write a single draft are long gone the day you become a professional screenwriter.
Most professional contracts for assignments (or writing a second draft of your spec script someone has picked up) offer you, at most, a couple of months to finish that first draft. Sometimes your deadline can be as soon as one month or less.
After that, if you're retained for additional rewrites after you are given development notes, you usually only have two weeks per rewrite.
So, you need to be able to not only write fast — but well.
If you can start to train yourself to write under strict deadlines like that, you'll be ahead of the curve. And you'll also prove yourself in Hollywood's eyes while creating a reputation for being a highly collaborative and efficient screenwriter.
A Majority of Screenwriting Contracts are Assignments, Not Spec Script Sales
The hard truth is that the chances of you selling a feature spec are very low unless you are an already-established screenwriter. Even the most in-demand screenwriters struggle to get their passion projects and spec scripts sold and produced.
The spec script market is still alive, and, yes, Hollywood is actively searching for original, new, and exciting scripts. The issue is that those are very hard to come by. Most screenwriters make the mistakes of:
- Writing their version of what's already been done to death.
- Following trends that the studios are already exhausting.
- Writing spec scripts that are ridiculously expensive to make (space operas, fantasy epics, etc.).
So, it's not about Hollywood not wanting original scripts.
It's about the fact that it's a highly competitive spec script market with established screenwriters in the mix, as well as thousands upon thousands of spec scripts from unknown writers that have to make their way through the filtration process to be discovered.
Screenwriters should do their best to write original spec scripts. But you need to understand that they are primarily used as writing samples to gain representation and to be considered for writing assignments.
Again, hope for the best. There's nothing wrong with that, and there is no reason why you can't be one of those examples we read about in the trades. But don't set your hopes too high on that happening. Instead, write some amazing spec scripts and use them as writing samples to get representation and
It Takes Time with Years of Peaks and Valleys
Any overnight success you've read about in the trades with a screenwriter selling their first script for six figures has usually been a story-in-the-making for multiple years.
It takes time. And you need to understand that even when you finally sign with a manager/agent, option that first script, get that first assignment, or luck out and sell that first script, those successes are just the beginning of an ongoing grind.
- Managers/agents can drop you if it's not working out.
- Options usually go repurchased in the end.
- Scripts can be sold but never see the light of day as they sit on the shelf.
- Produced scripts can be drastically changed because of the director's different vision and/or budget cuts, casting issues, or you've been replaced by other writers somewhere along the way.
Each success and goal you achieve along the way is a further step forward in your career. Just go into the process knowing that one victory does not mean that it's easy street from then on.
Some professional screenwriters see a couple of years between paid gigs while others get on a hot streak and enjoy some lightning-in-a-bottle success.
There Is No Such Thing as Bottom-Feeder Work
- Indie movies
- Cheesy SyFy Chanell features (Sharknado)
- Hoky Hallmark Christmas Movies
- Formulaic and predictable Lifetime thrillers
- Soap operas
It's interesting to see novice and unproduced screenwriters call this type of work bottom-feeder jobs. They don't realize that the screenwriters who write them are accomplishing what most at their level never will accomplish— getting paid to write screenplays for a living (and sometimes seeing them produced).
Remember two things:
- Don't be too proud to pursue these types of platforms and paid gigs. They can be very lucrative and afford you the opportunities to stay in the game.
- Don't be ashamed of those types of credits — and the low IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes ratings they sometimes come with — because, again, you're doing what most never will. You're making a living, learning the business, and building a resume.
Most of the most prominent directors, movie stars, and writers began working on what many would call low-brow or bottom-feeder work. It's part of the process.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed, as well as produced and upcoming Lifetime suspense thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies