Business of Screenwriting: Becoming and Staying a Successful Screenwriter

It surprises me that new writers believe that writing is all they have to do to have a great writing career.  Not so fast folks.

Writing a screenplay will NOT open all those magical doors for you.  Let me share with you the game plan that you must follow to get into the movie business and to stay in the movie business.

Hollywood-Walk-of-FameFirst of all you need a body of work to make it in the film business.  That means at least three to four really terrific scripts.  You will also need to have at least three in the same genre.  If you’ve written two comedies and a thriller you aren’t ready.  If you want to write comedies it will take about ten of them before you are good at it.  There’s an old saying in show biz that: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”.  The point to a body of work in the same genre is that in Hollywood writers are more likely to get a writing job than to sell a script.  To get a writing assignment the producers want to see a few samples of your work in the genre that they need a writer for a rewrite or a punch up.

OK, now let’s say you have that wonderful group of fresh scripts to show.  Now you should hire a professional consultant who has history in the film business.  You must check out each consultant prior to making that first phone call.  Find out if they are working on feature film screenplays, but their only professional experience is in television.  Find out if they’ve ever worked on a level above “reader” for studios or producers.  Find out how long they worked at these jobs.  It’s very easy to hang a consultant sign on your door… anyone can do it.  Google these people and make an informed decision.

Now that you’ve had a pro review your script and have followed their notes you will want representation.  That’s a huge undertaking.  You must attend film festivals, writer’s conferences, seminars and anything else you can find that will be attended by film professionals. Follow up with a thank you note for their great advice, speech, etc.  This will open the door for you.  After that you should follow up with an email about your scripts.  Highlight the best one that you want to send to them.  Make sure you have a good query letter.

Let’s say that an agent agrees to read your work and loves it.  Now you must meet with them and have a successful meeting.  Don’t argue with them, don’t dismiss their advice, be polite, be on-time, be nice to their assistant.  Don’t drone on about yourself, but be sure to share something personal to let them know who you are.  Ask questions.  Listen to their answers.

If you sign with that agent you will think your work is done.  This is a crucial mistake.  Now your work really begins.  You must keep writing and keep coming up with new screenplay ideas.  Share those ideas with your agent and see what they want you to write next.  Make their life easy for them, they will absolutely appreciate it.  Try to make some “contacts” on your own.  Learn how to pitch a story in ten minutes.  Practice this pitch over and over again until it is complete, concise and interesting.  Don’t overcomplicate your story but pay attention to the characters that populate the piece.  Simply tell the who, what, where, when, why and how.

Remember not to call your agent just to ask “What’s happening”.  They hate these calls.  If you have new project ideas, or if you’ve met an industry insider that wants to read your work, then you call your agent and discuss this.  Believe me they will want to take these calls and they will tell you what they’ve been doing for you.

From now on your work will consist of self-promotion, planning, writing, meeting with people, coming up with new projects, writing more complete scripts and continuing to make people aware of you and your work.  You can think of yourself as a shark in the water, always moving forward and always searching for the next meal (goal).

You will have to continue reading books on screenwriting and the business of film.  You must see as many movies as possible, both old and new.  Learn a bit about psychology so that your characters will make sense in their dealings with dilemmas.

You will be entering a world where everyone has the attention span of a gnat.  Everyone is looking for the next gold ring, hot writer and great idea.  Your job is to be in their faces with the answers to their prayers.  Get social with development executives, have drinks or lunch with other writers, go to screenings and talk to strangers.  Forget your shyness and need for solitude.  You can’t afford to let up… ever.  After awhile you’ll find all of this has become a part of who you are.  If you do it long enough, you’ll get it right and it won’t be so very difficult.

Writers often have a short shelf life so your objective is to get in and stay in.  It takes a lot of persistence, but it is well worth the time and effort.  Wait until you see your films on that big screen.  There is nothing in the world to compare with that feeling.

mind-your-business-michele-wallerstein_mediumFor more information on all the above, Michele Wallerstein’s book:  “MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide to Your Writing Success” may be purchased via The Writers Store and Amazon.com, in paperback and on Kindle.

4 thoughts on “Business of Screenwriting: Becoming and Staying a Successful Screenwriter

  1. Patrick Mahon

    Thank you for the hard truth, Michelle. Big fan of your book too.

    It can be difficult as an aspiring screenwriter to look 10 years ahead and think about what you REALLY need to do to get to a self-sustaining point, as opposed to being taking in by the lottery ticket mentality of the overnight big spec sale.

    The road map you provide is invaluable and unique. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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