Question: What’s the quickest way to be a successful screenwriter?
As a producer and former VP of Development for production companies based at Sony, Universal and Disney, I have had the privilege of working with award-winning writers, directors and actors. Through my experiences, I have found that there are neither shortcuts nor substitutes for having a GREAT writing sample. To land an agent or be considered for open writing assignments, you should actually have more than one. The most successful writers and filmmakers I know got to where they are by developing a strong body of writing material; and their success did not happen overnight.
Judd Apatow, Aaron Sorkin, Matthew Weiner all worked diligently at their craft for years, continuing to hone their talents before they became famous. Fame only came about as a result of hard work and consistently turning out quality material. In the case of Matthew Weiner, he had written an amazing spec pilot called Mad Men over six years before it got made. While no networks were interested in doing period pieces at the time, the quality of the writing was so outstanding that it captured the attention of David Chase (the executive producer and creator of “The Sopranos”). Matthew went on staff of The Sopranos and became one of the show’s top writers.
For years there was still no market for a period piece about the ad men of Madison Avenue during the 50′s and early 60′s. However, Weiner’s great piece of writing which contained fantastic dialogue, rich characters, conflict and subtext continued to be a cornerstone of his career which brought him more work, which in turn led to even more and more work.
Six years after Matthew wrote the pilot for Mad Men, an executive at F/X who had always been a fan of the script was hired by AMC to head up their original programming. AMC did not have a specific mandate, and the executive was given great latitude to put whatever she wanted into development. She remembered Mad Men and put it into production. Through Matthew’s experiences, working with David Chase, he learned how to become a show runner himself. The rest, as they say, is history.
The moral of the story…
Every great career is built on a cornerstone of great writing. I hear aspiring writers frequently comment about the number of movies and series that are made which are poorly written. There are myriad reasons why that might happen, such as a movie being based on an enormous, pre-existing brand like Transformers where the players involved are well-established, and wherein special effects are the dominant concern. While other reasons might abound, no executive intends to buy a script that is poorly written.
Great writing is a process. Every great writer I know always says that he or she is continually learning to be a better writer. Rarely is a script ready after a first draft. It often requires several drafts. Sometimes a script is a stepping stone to the next one.
What do Michael Hazanivicius, Paul Haggis, and David Seidler have in common? When these writers sat down to write the scripts for The Artist, Million Dollar Baby, and The King’s Speech, it’s unlikely they did so thinking they were going to win an Oscar. All of these films were great underdogs. Who would have thought in the age of Hollywood’s love affair with special effects and high octane excitement that the film to take home gold would be a silent one? Or that a movie about a young female boxer who dies after losing her legs would be another contender? Or that David Seidler who wrote a small play and began the story forty years prior would also be taking home gold? All these writers knew at the time was that they had stories to tell, and went about telling them exceedingly well.
While it’s good to be eager and want to get your script into production right away, it is also important to be patient with yourselves; put in the time to take the necessary steps that will make your scripts outstanding, and enjoy the process.
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