Finding and applying for a job is usually a simple process. An application form, followed by an interview, followed by the job itself. This process does not apply to screenwriting jobs. The road from being an amateur screenwriter to making it your full time job is long, twisty, and rarely consistent from one person to the next. Everyone finds a different path, and that’s ok.
Speculative writing, or a “spec script” as it is better known is both the most glamorous and the best known screenwriting job. Picture the screenwriter sitting down at their desk typing out their masterpiece feature film script before sending it out to the world. It’s all their work, their own original characters, world, story, and it is a complete artistic expression.
Professional Spec Writers
Well there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that this job does exist! Established screenwriters can work with their agents, managers, producers, and any other pertinent connections to put together their dream project to be bought by a studio. The financial reward widely varies. You can option your script for as little as $1, or well into seven-figures depending on how much heat and clout you have in the industry. The bad news is that the screenwriter almost always needs to be established. In the 90s speculative writing was at an all time high, but nowadays it’s far rarer for spec scripts to be bought out of the blue by studios. It’s not uncommon to hear the adage “the age of the spec script is dead” from disillusioned writers on Twitter.
That’s not to say the allure of speculative writing is truly dead. Turn over any rock in Hollywood and you’ll find a dozen screenwriters working on their big idea. It can be as simple as a screenwriter getting an idea and working on it in their own time, or pitching an idea to a studio, attaching producers, stars, and a director, working on Hollywood’s hottest in-development script.
The type of script can vary wildly too. If you’re a writer/director you may be more likely to write a script that perfectly fits your individual style and aesthetic. If you’re a jobbing screenwriter who has a good relationship with a director, you might want to write a script for it to suit that director’s strengths. The key to professional spec script writing is to stay mobile and be open to any opportunities that come your way.
Emerging Spec Writers
So yes, there are barriers to entry, undeniably, but don’t let it dash your hopes. The chances of an amateur unrepresented screenwriter selling their script to a studio is low but then again, the chances of any screenwriter selling their spec script to a studio is low nowadays. The good news is that writing your spec script can open other doors for you.
If you have the right combination of luck, skill, and a little bit of hustle, a killer spec script can win screenwriting contests for you and score you representation and heat that way. I’ve known many screenwriters who place as finalists or semi-finalists that can still use their success to land representation. Whenever an agent or manager receives a query email they’re always going to pay more attention to a writer that has proven their screenwriting abilities through various well-recognised accolades. You can find more information on finding representation here: Finding Representation is Weird Science.
Just remember, some screenwriting contests (like Nicholl and Austin Film Festival) have a better reputation than others. While winning your local film festival’s screenplay competition is an admirable feat, you should aim high for the biggest rewards. Winning a competition gets your name into the hands of producers, agents, and managers keen to bolster their rosters with new exciting talent. This was how I broke into the industry!
You don’t just have to rely on other though. If you’ve written a spec script and you want to direct it, go for it! This is how Damien Chazelle broke into the industry:
Additionally your spec script can serve as your calling card. Sure, your script may never be produced for a menagerie of reasons, but if your voice is strong and the story is great it may get you attention from the right folk who may hire you for another job. Speaking of which…
Screenwriters are like contractors. We have a specific set of skills that are attractive to those who need us. If you have proven your chops as a comedy writer and a producer is desperately looking for a writer to do a draft on a hot intellectual property, they may get in touch and hire you for their project.
Professional Contract Work
This is what I mean by being a contractor. You’re no longer working on your own project, true, but for-hire work is not only profitable (not as much as the astronomical fees of much-desired spec scripts but certainly enough to make a very comfortable living) but also more reliable. It snowballs. The more you do good work for-hire, the more you’ll make a name for yourself as a craftsperson willing to do the hard industrious work of creating a great story.
Generally it’s the job of your agent or manager to make sure that your ability gets seen by the people who are looking for writers. Don’t be shy with your representation. Although it may not feel like it, they do work for you. Make your wishes specifically known and communicate clearly to avoid any misunderstandings.
It often works in reverse too. Studios put out “open writing assignments” where any known screenwriter can cast their hat into the ring and submit a pitch. Most commonly Marvel Studios use this method to get a wide array of screenwriters and filmmakers to take on their properties. Hypothetically imagine that next year they put out an open writing assignment on a Hulk movie and screenwriters can make their pitch on what their Hulk movie would be. Whichever pitch is most appealing gets the job. C. Robert Cargill has been very open about the process of writing for Marvel:
There’s a slight stigma that for-hire work is like selling your creative soul. I couldn’t disagree more with that sentiment. When you submit pitches, studios are looking for your voice, no-one elses. They’re asking for your unique perspective so being creative is directly rewarded. Even if it’s just doing a punch-up of a well-worn script you can still use your own creative voice to make a mark on an otherwise tired project.
Emerging Contract Work
And look, even if you’re not an established screenwriter this may be the best way to get a taste for what it’s like. You can offer your services on Fiverr and work with other up and coming filmmakers to get some produced films under your belt. All you need to do is sign up for an account, write up a sales pitch about why you should be a screenwriter emerging filmmakers want to work with, set your own fees, and see if there’s any interest. Patience is key. You may not get any bites for months, then one day you may be invited to a project that’ll change your life.
Social media is a great alternative as well. This is a networking business so it’s a great idea to get involved with groups on Facebook (try investigating local groups), Twitter (look into #pre-WGA or #emergingwriter for other like-minded screenwriters eager to connect and work together), or Reddit (r/ProduceMyScript, r/screenwriting, and r/filmmakers are full of emerging talent looking to work together) who are open to working with new screenwriters. If you are going to film school get involved with your peers and start making movies. Here you can accrue much needed experience and meet the future of Hollywood.
The possibility of paid screenwriting work is more possible than it ever has been. Craigslist often has lo-fi filmmakers seeking collaborators on your local boards. Networking on Stage 32 can open doors to producers that you would never normally have access to. Upwork can help you refine your writing skills through writing screenplays for advertisements. The possibilities for paid writing are wide and waiting to be uncovered.
What was once the ugly duckling of the screenwriting world has recently turned into its dark horse, churning out pop culture’s biggest obsessions and gaining unprecedented artistic credentials and financial rewards. It’s often said we live in a golden age of TV and screenwriters are at the forefront of the revolution. The old adage “Films are for directors, TV is for writers” is still somewhat relevant even today.
So how do you end up writing TV? Well, there’s two main methods.
You make a name for yourself in the industry, have shown yourself to be a shrewd financial investment, are known to be reliable, industrious, willing to work with others, and maybe you’ll be able to pitch a TV show to network. This involves writing a TV pilot, and often a series bible to go alongside it. This pilot is then (theoretically) purchased by the network, a pilot is made, and if it is picked up, you become the showrunner and get to run a “writers room”, a group of other screenwriters who help you produce the content needed in the future.
Craig Mazin underwent this process when he first decided to write Chernobyl. Granted, like many TV shows in the streaming age, some conventions of TV writing were discarded for Chernobyl (Mazin wrote all episodes himself) the insight into the creation of the show is still very interesting:
This is a dream scenario for many and it is not easy. Showrunners are usually experienced writers who have put their nose to the grindstone for years so that they can reach the position they’re in. It isn’t likely that you’ll be a showrunner out of the gate, but it is more likely that you can…
The Writer’s Room
Be part of a writer’s room. This is almost certainly where the most employment lies in modern Hollywood. Up-and-coming writers with a hot TV pilot script can submit it to showrunners who are looking to build their writer’s room. This is usually done through an agent or manager who knows showrunners looking for talent. However, since the WGA fired their agents some showrunners have taken to Twitter to fill their writing rooms. It’s not exactly frequent, but if you keep your ear to the ground you may strike gold.
If the showrunner likes your pilot they may invite you for a talk, and if they like you after that, you may be invited to their room which often functions much like a day job. You show up to the room in the morning, figure out whatever narrative task is assigned to you that day, then go home in the evening.
That remind you of anything?
It’s like a normal job. You submit an application, you go for an interview, then you get the job. Sure it sacrifices the romance of screenwriting at the altar of practicality, but the novelty of the job fades as a regular pay cheque becomes more attractive.
If you’re anything like me though a single question is probably running through your head: “How do I break in? How do I get my script’s in these people’s hands? It feels like this business is intentionally exclusionary!” To which I say, yes, yes it is.
Find Your Own Path
Flawed as it is, a Darwinian sensibility that only the greatest will make it means that writers who haven’t yet proven themselves are rarely afforded any opportunity to sit at the table. Those who can’t financially justify entering countless competitions, spending hours a day writing and researching, or who otherwise have bigger responsibilities are discounted from the start. Some have argued that this is part of the reason why people of color and working class writers are underrepresented in Hollywood. Unfortunately that’s the way it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to break in.
Every person I’ve talked to in this industry has a different story of how they broke in. Some, like me, won a contest which got them representation, essentially getting their foot in the door. Others were in adjacent jobs, like being a producer, and found themselves drawn to writing instead. Others just get plain lucky and meet the right person at the right time. The crucial idea is this:
There is no one path. You have to find your own.
So be creative. You can try and walk the path of others but I am skeptical that it will help you. If you’re a writer you’re already a creative problem solver so use that skill and devise methods of breaking through. It may take a long time. It may happen overnight. There’s no way of knowing for sure. The best thing you can do is keep writing, keep improving your skills, keep your ear to the ground and approach each opportunity thrown your direction with an entrepreneurial and tenacious spirit.
No matter the screenwriting job there’s several rules of thumb you should always try abiding too. Firstly, it pays massive dividends to be amicable and co-operative in Hollywood. Filmmaking is an inherently cooperative business. While many misanthropic and eccentric auteurs have made their home here, 99% of us have to learn to work with others. Sometimes you’ll be working with your colleagues for years on a project so be sure to be the best possible version of yourself that you can be.
Luckily, screenwriters are given a small amount of room to breathe here. The stereotype exists that we’re an anti-social and reclusive lot. For me and many others that is 100% true. However, that does not mean we can hide away from the world and hope success comes our way. It pays to learn how to turn on your inner extrovert in bursts so that you can do the networking required to make a name for yourself out there.
When you’re showing your scripts to others make sure they’re in the best shape they can possibly be, starting with the easy stuff. If your script isn’t formatted properly then you’re likely going to be dead in the water, so take care of this first. You can learn more about standard industry formatting here: Script Formatting 101: A Guide for Impatient Newbies. Arc Studio Pro offers a full suite of options that’ll make your script conform to industry standard.
Also, gauge your expectations on how financially feasible being a screenwriter will be. Screenwriting is undeniably lucrative if you’re successful, but many emerging screenwriters have a second job on the side to keep the lights on while you do the hard work needed to break into the industry. While the amount your script can be optioned for or be sold for widely varies, the WGA minimums offers a great guide to set your expectations.
Screenwriting is not a regular job. I know if I would have told my parents when I was younger that I wanted to be a screenwriter they would have heavily discouraged it knowing, correctly, that it is not a simple job to get. It requires an unknown blend of skill, tenacity, and plain dumb luck. That being said you can improve your chances by learning more about the industry and the different jobs therein.