The biggest issue for screenwriters is getting your big break, which probably won’t be the first break you get. So all screenwriters need to find ways to continually get their work noticed. If you’re like me, your email is bombarded daily—stuffed to the max, in fact—with ways for screenwriters to break into Hollywood. Sadly, pretty much all of them are total crap.
Navigate how to break into Hollywood with Screenwriting Pitfall #8: Pick My Script!
Thinking about all the CONVENTIONAL WAYS for a screenwriter to get noticed, I’d have to admit, there are plenty of good options out there that you could try. However, most of them come with a price tag, so systematically going through all those options will deplete your bank account. Over the years, I’ve tried many of them. Way, way, too many. And the ones I haven’t tried, my screenwriting friends have—and warned me to pass them by. In this pitfall, I’ll take on the 3 Best Ways to Break Into a Screenwriting Career and tell you why even the best ways are long shots. I’ll also go into detail about what you could be doing, based on TRENDING WAYS TO GET YOUR WORK NOTICED.
In the extra material, I’ll share a story about a breakthrough that looked like a done deal, but it went bad. It’s an ALMOST-STORY. All screenwriters have them, so take heart. It’s kind of a right of passage. Not that I want you to have an Almost-Story to tell, but it’s important to share these stories. They are part of being a screenwriter, and the more you know about these kinds of pitfalls the better. Not that I want to temper the buzz of any potential deal, but understanding how to handle your excitement and the reality of the business will be a huge advantage as you go into any negotiation over your script.
As my producer keeps telling me, ‘Don’t get excited.’ He has to say it to me after every meeting we take—after we leave with a feeling that they love us. They love our material. It really pumps me up. I envision signing contracts and going into production within months. Unfortunately, Hollywood meetings are a bit… Hollywood. They always leave you smiling, even if they already know they’ll never partner on your project. So, I’ve learned to listen to my producer and save my excitement for a signed contract. Or better yet, as my talented friend Nicole Jones-Dion likes to say: “A check that clears the bank!” (Yes, Nicole has some good Almost-Stories to share, as well.)
TOP 3 WAYS TO BREAK INTO HOLLYWOOD—According to Conventional Wisdom:
1. Win a Screenwriting Contest:
Do you think you can win the California state lottery? Then you’ll be drawn to this screenwriting break-in standard.
Sure, people win the lottery, but most people don’t. Screenwriting contests are a lottery, EXCEPT not all contests are created equal. At least if you win the state lottery, you know what you’re winning. Screenwriting contests vary in prizes and whether they pay out on time, take some collection effort on your part or don’t pay out at all. So, that’s one issue. But when it comes to giving you a BREAK into the business, the Nichols Fellowship is the only contest that matters. (Yes, there are several other contests that have helped careers, but nothing with the consistency of Nichols, so to mention them is misleading. Those other contests have real benefits, but they are can’t guarantee to jumpstart a career.) Now, Nichols doesn’t guarantee you anything, either, but it’s the gold standard. A win or a high placement means something in Hollywood. You can’t say that about any other contest. I’m sorry, but it’s true. When we’re talking across the board in some kind of Hollywood consensus, a Nichols win is a career breakthrough kind of win, because it means something to ANYONE in the business. Especially the people you want to get your script to—managers, agents, actors, producers with first look deals! The A-Listers that are working all the time.
EVERYONE wants to read a Nichol’s winner! It’s a query letter all by itself. HOWEVER, I have heard of writers that won/placed in Nichol’s, got their shot and then it fizzled. So, not even the best screenwriting contest can ‘make your career.’ It can give you a huge lift, but you still have to work hard, have multiple scripts at the same level as your winning script and hustle to get it in the right hands.
2. Get an Agent or a Manager:
With this one, it’s like having a Fairy God Mother. If you get an agent or a manager, every script you write will be sent around town and your career is made. You just sit back and write script after script, as they get produced by your hard-working agent or manager.
If only. Screenwriters only get agents and managers when they have a successful track record of scripts that became produced films. And those films can’t all be low budget fare with unknown talent. If by some chance you get in front of an agent or manager, without a track record, be very careful and check them out. Odds are that they can’t do anything but tied up your script. And if they ask for money… RUN!
Here’s the thing… agents are for working screenwriters that have built up a track record of sales and want to get to that next level. So, if you’re new or only have a couple of script options with no produced scripts, you aren’t ready for an agent. So, if you have no film credits, do not look for an agent. Remember that line from Tootsie? Agents field offers. If you don’t have a ton of offers—big money offers—no agent that you’d want to have as an agent, will want you. If you should happen to run across an agent that does want to sign you, and you have no credits… RUN! (You see a trend here?) Whatever they are offering is a scam.
Managers are slightly different, but I’d have to say the same goes for them. If you insist on finding an agent, you need to have some kind of track record or buzz. You also need several polished scripts and 20 high concept ideas ready to go. (They will pick through your ideas, and tell you which ones they can sell.) If you find a manager that wants to sign you, but you have no credits… RUN! It’s probably a scam. You’ll come across a lot of scams taking this agent/manager route.
Do your research. How does the manager make their money? Are they a Manager/Producer? Are they an Actor/Producer? Do they have a day job in real estate? You’d be shocked at how many managers are not making a living as a manager. What kind of industry contacts do they have? Where have they worked, before becoming a manager?
You need to ask questions, and they better have good answers. Can they pitch your kind of script? Do they have industry contacts in your genre or medium? Are they film and TV? It matters if you’re one and they’re only the other. Even if they are trying to branch out, do you really want them to ‘practice’ on your script? You’d be better off representing yourself in most cases. If you wrote an action script like John Wick, could they pitch it to Netflix?
Remember, THEY WORK FOR YOU, even though it will feel like they’ve come down from heaven to help the lowly screenwriter. If that’s the vibe, it’s not healthy. And it’s not legit. Sure, an A-List manager could act that way and maybe rightly so, but that’s why you do your research and decide if the fit is right for you. I’ve never had a manager or an agent, but I tried hard to find a good manager for several years. I did not have a track record to impress the good ones. But, I was never desperate enough to let a questionable ‘manager’ squeeze me for money or waste my time. I can waste my own time, thank you! For me, it made more sense to get to Los Angeles and make my own contacts. You have to decide what’s right for you. If you can find an up and coming manager who believes in you and you believe in them, go for it! Just be aware of what you’re agreeing to, and how easy or hard it will be to fire them if things don’t work out well.
Consider a Pocket Client Arrangement, when you approach a manager. It means they represent you on a script-by-script basis. It’s a good way to begin a working relationship, for you and the manager, and it doesn’t tie-up everything you write. They will pick the script or scripts, they represent and can shop it around town. Anything they don’t take, you can still go out with other scripts, directly to producers, based on your own contacts and leads. This kind of deal is common among established managers, who really can’t take on a new full-time client, but they really believe in one of your scripts. (Probably the one that placed in Nichols.)
3. Stumble Across a Producer in an Elevator & Pitch Them Your Amazing Concept:
If you pitch a producer like your paparazzi taking Nicole Kidman’s photograph, don’t expect any love in return. Producers like to do business with professionals. Guerrilla pitching is not professional and could permanently destroy any chance of getting to that producer again. Going for some cutesy way is a bad idea, too. I remember a story that was passed around about a screenwriter that went to elaborate lengths, sending gifts to a producer—as a thank you in advance for reading his script—for a week. It all led up to getting the script, which was delivered with a pizza box. As the story goes, the producer was really looking forward to seeing the script. So, in a way, the clever campaign worked. But the script was awful. The producer only read a few pages and passed. Guess the screenwriter should have spent more of his clever attention on a solid, high concept script, before getting it into the right hands.
WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING:
Looking at the three conventional ways of breaking into screenwriting, only two of them really work, and even they aren’t fool-proof in a business-plan-of-attack kind of way. They won’t work for everyone and they still require follow-up and hustling, on your part, to see them through to the end. So, thanks a lot, Ann! Right? How am I really helping you through this pitfall? Well, I’m glad you asked!
I’d like to challenge you to take control of your career, by focusing on one of your polished screenplays. Something that everyone you know thinks is ready to be filmed and loved by audiences. (And that means people that know a good screenplay from one that needs more work.) I challenge you to take that screenplay and find a way to get it out there in a form OTHER than a script.
Sorry to say, the best way to break into a screenwriting career right now is not with a screenplay. Not that I’m saying you don’t need a screenplay or that you shouldn’t pursue any direct pitching you can do with working producers, but if you have a high concept script, you might want to consider other options to get it noticed. These are trending options, that don’t look like they are going away anytime soon. And they come out of the fact that… Hollywood doesn’t like to read!
But it LOVES to watch! Consider all the ways that your favorite Hollywood Insider could VIEW and be entertained by your script’s concept:
- Make a teaser trailer of one kickass scene, post it on YouTube or Vimeo.
- Create a blog about your concept as the main character. Tweet like them, post like them, create a world and entice with your storyline.
- Create a podcast of your script. Convert your script into something that can be voice acted, like an old radio show, but now they call it podcasting. I’ve mentioned this before, so Google Fiction Podcasts.
- Make a short film. Whatever your skill level and whatever you have available for creating your own production, write something amazing to make the most of those tools. It only has to be 3 minutes long. And there are several online ways to get your short film out there, plus short film contests offer good exposure and networking opportunities at the event. And unlike screenwriting contests, people have to WATCH what you submit to judge it.
Now, many of the above aren’t things you can do on your own. You will need a team around you, but teams are easy to find when the work not only benefits your career but theirs. Just remember to maintain control of whatever you create. Protect the work with contracts, and find collaborators that give as much as you do to a project, including their talent and their ability to market the finished product.
Bottom line, the conventional wisdom ways to advance your screenwriting career are easier to do. However, their success rates are low. On the other hand, the option of creating a project in addition to writing an amazing, A-List level script sounds daunting. It’s more work! Yikes! But having some kind of project to sell your script is just the way Hollywood works right now.
Creating a project to sell your script takes more work, but offers more reward. The key to success is finding a project you can pull off in a professional manner, with the least amount of cost. Easy, huh?
No one said screenwriting is easy. Getting a script noticed is even harder, but if you are all-in, the above options are worthwhile to consider.