Landing Your First Assignment

There’s more opportunity out there for new scribes than just the fabled spec sale. In fact, writing assignments represent a more reliable path to a genuine livelihood.

When most aspiring screenwriters imagine their successful against-all-odds assault on Hollywood, they think in terms of a big spec sale that changes their lives overnight. But there is also a less glamorous, more realistic way to break into the industry—and that’s a first writing assignment that sets them on a path to becoming a genuine working writer.

“It’s certainly quite difficult,” says veteran screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop I, II, III, The Big Easy, Turner & Hooch), a two-time former president of the Writers Guild of America, West. “But it does happen. It happened to me—I got a writing assignment in 1981, before I qualified to join WGA, because I was cheap.”

And today, with studio and production company development budgets severely challenged, that tried-and-true strategy for making a name for yourself as a newbie is as viable as ever.

But it requires a different perspective—and different skills—than creating a successful spec. “It means taking an idea or a draft of an existing script and making it better,” says Petrie. “And then being able to take it up yet another level and make it better again. And that’s a different skill set than sitting alone at home for six months or a year and writing a good spec.”

For example, Petrie notes, a new writer lusting after that proverbial first assignment must be able to research and identify producers with projects in development, then figure out a way to make contact and form a relationship with them. “Then you have to be able to deliver high-quality work on a deadline. You have to be reliable and easy to work with. And, if you can do good work and do it on deadline, it represents to a producer that not only can you work alone, but you can also work collaboratively, that you have the imagination to take ideas other people offer and incorporate them into your own work.”

Of all the new writers Petrie has ever encountered over the years, only a minority can combine all of the traits required to become a working writer in Hollywood. “But I’ve also seen it happen over and over again during my career,” he admits.

Among the more recent are the Los Angeles-based, husband-and-wife team of Brian Pittman and Rachel Long, both of whom had been cranking out specs for years before they joined forces in 2008 and began chasing assignments. Like many others, they completed several non-paid assignments as a sort of apprenticeship.

After being sought out by Pittman and Long at the writer-focused Austin Film Festival in 2008, Petrie asked to read Pittman’s finalist script, a drama spec titled Stranded, and liked it. That led to a friendly, ongoing relationship and an assignment to do a quick rewrite of a low-budget thriller, Silver Falls, already in development and now in production at Enderby Entertainment where Petrie is a partner. Petrie is also now slated to direct Stranded under the Enderby banner.

Despite the project’s relatively low pay and non-WGA status, Pittman and Long embraced it as a key opportunity to advance their careers—and nurture a relationship with Petrie and his producing partner Paul Hudson. “Maybe it wasn’t an opportunity to go buy a condo in Utah,” says Long, a 2002 Chesterfield Paramount Fellow, “but it was absolutely an opportunity to show what we had to offer as screenwriters.”

“We took that assignment on faith and looked at it as a way to help out a producer,” states Pittman. “Our basic perspective is that you have to open the door any way you can.”

After years of dedicated hard work, the Silver Falls assignment jump-started a career for Long and her husband.

“The exhilarating thing about assignments,” Pittman explains, “is that you’re dealing with a project that is going to be in play and a movie that is going to get made, because the team and the funding are already in place. Everybody’s on board and they’re just looking for a writer. That’s a far different experience than taking a script around town for months, or even years. Getting assignments means you are a working writer.”

In turn, that reveals a clear path to a real career, as opposed to a dream. “Our goal now,” Long says, “is to meet as many people in the industry as possible and try to bring their stories to life.”

And based on the exceptional quality of their work on Silver Falls and the fact that they delivered a script ahead of their deadline, when producer Hudson began his search for writers for a $100 million production of 1950, a Korean War drama, he hired them to write the script—a job that will now get them into the WGA.

Since then, they’ve also landed another assignment, a World War II story, and become self-supporting as screenwriters.

Going Where the Money is

If your goal is to become a full-time working writer rather than the hyped-up subject of a single glowing spec-sale article in Variety, assignments are the way to go, notes Jeff Morris, who also launched his career with initial assignment work. Today, he’s a full-time, self-supporting screenwriter repped by WME with a couple of spec sales under his belt to boot.

“The total amount of money paid out for assignment work versus specs is much bigger,” he states. “That’s where the work is. It dwarfs spec sales by about 1,000 to one, probably.”

Given that, if he were ever forced to choose between assignment work and specs, he would opt for the former, Morris admits. “That’s because you can keep working and make a good living every year.”

And if regular work and a consistent livelihood is your goal, there are also non-traditional ways to go about achieving it.

For example, Halle Eavelyn, another L.A.-based scribe, has exploited the booming Internet world of personal expression and quest to find people who want their life stories—or some other idea they have—turned into a movie and are willing to pay to see that happen.

Her first break came via her cousin’s girlfriend. She hired Eavelyn to develop a script that went on to sell as a spec. “I was paid to help develop the story and then ended up being co-writer of the script,” Eavelyn says. “Then it sold. Now, I’ve done a dozen of those scripts and I am making my living as a screenwriter.”

But regardless of whether your path passes through Hollywood, or a more adventurous route such as Eavelyn’s, there are certain traits that are required for success, Morris observes:

“You have to have the skill sets and be able to execute,” he says. “It has to be on the page. But there are a lot of people in this business who can execute. But after that, it’s a matter of whether your story sensibility lines up with that of the producers. For example, if it’s a comedy project, do you and the producers find the same kinds of things funny? Do you view life in a similar way?”

And, adds Petrie, you must be able to take notes and work collaboratively. “Some people have very good writing samples, but if you give notes, you find they resent them or are defensive,” he explains. “And there are others who just can’t deliver under the pressure of a deadline. Those are the two things that really separate the ‘almost there’ from the people that make it.”

As a newbie, you also have to be willing to work in “good faith,” says Morris. “I spent six months developing the story with the first producer I worked with—the legendary John Davis (Predator, The Firm, Mr. Popper’s Penguins) of Davis Entertainment. It was a warm place to work, but it wasn’t easy. A good producer challenges you and that makes you better.”

At the same time, Morris says, a new writer must pick projects carefully. “You have to pick ones that are right for you,” he states. “I had a ton of meetings after my first spec sale and I looked at a lot of projects. But, not all of them were right for me and my sensibilities. And one easy way to get quickly driven out of the business is to go after a project you don’t feel you can execute but you want to chase the dollars.”

If a project isn’t right for you, walk away, he advises. “If a studio is willing to pay you a lot of money now for an idea you don’t really like, they’ll be willing to pay you similar money in the future for something you do feel good about,” he says. “But if you take on a project and don’t do a good job, you will end your relationship with that studio on the spot.”

Consequently, it helps to have some smaller assignments under your belt before you pursue bigger ones, Long says. “My advice to new writers is that in order to get your ‘first great assignment,’ make sure it’s not your first great assignment. You need some experience before that really comes along.”

Must you live in L.A. to start getting work?

“It obviously helps,” admits Long. “But if you’re a good writer and you can go to the Austin Film Festival, or you can get to L.A. and attend some WGA functions, or you can get to Sundance—you need to put yourself into the places where you can find producers who have stories to tell and are looking for writers.”

Even short of that, however, new writers outside L.A. break in each year, too.

For example, Tucson attorney Ray White and his Long Island-based writing partner, P.J. McIlvaine, won a paid assignment earlier this year to write a mob drama, La Vedova Nera (The Black Widow), developed and produced by New Jersey actor Dennis D’Amico and funded by co-producer and cardiologist Leonard Moss.

“I had written a treatment for a Marilyn Monroe biopic they are producing and they liked my work,” White says. “And P.J. had two produced movies to her credit (A Merry Little Christmas, My Horrible Year!). The producers liked our backgrounds and story sensibilities, so we got the job writing the new film. So, not only do new writers get assignments. But new writers not based in Los Angeles get assignments, too. You just have to get out there and find the opportunities—and be ready.”

Based on her unique experience, Eavelyn agrees that there are ways to overcome the many obstacles that make it so difficult for new writers to get that first break. “There are ways around everything, and as long as you are constantly tenacious and you believe in yourself, you can get there,” she states. “It’s not that unusual.”

Morris concurs. Despite long odds, he says, new writers land bona fide paid assignments every year. “The industry needs people to break in every year. The advantage to the industry is that, relatively speaking, new talent is cheap. And that’s why they give significant assignments to new writers, because they have an idea they’re working on, but they don’t want to give it to a $1 million writer. They need a $100,000 writer. And that’s how you get your first big break, and the studio gets what they need.”

For such studio jobs, you’ll need an agent or manager. For smaller jobs, you can get them on your own. It’s all about how hard you try and how much you believe in yourself.

But that’s true in any endeavor.

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9 thoughts on “Landing Your First Assignment

  1. Pingback: Legal Issues to Consider Before You Write Your First Assignment « Ethan Y. Bordman, PLLC

  2. Pingback: Writing Assignments Versus Spec Sales | LA Screenwriter

  3. JJ

    I kinda stopped reading after the part about how Petrie was hiring writers at non-WGA rates… Think about this people. This is the great lesson here. Even a man who was two-time WGA President will turn around and find a way to pay writers less than they’re worth. And the joke of a guild that supposedly protects writers in this town is powerless to do anything about it. Bravo Petrie. What a standup guy, doing your union proud.

  4. Carter Cammack

    It’s interesting and often alarming to notice just how many writers are named on some films now. I’ve seen as many as six names on a screenplay credit. If the script doesn’t live up to the potential of the concept, it will get rewritten until it does, or until they give up and start shooting. I rewrite my own specs every 2 years to keep the fresh.

  5. Cam Cannon

    Dan is fantastic. He’s been my mentor and friend for years, and I was fortunate to also work on a few drafts of Silver Falls. Of course, Brian and Rachel came in and KNOCKED IT OUT OF THE PARK on the rewrite. Great article!

  6. Larry Brown

    This is a great article. As an aspiring screenwriter, the spec sales are what grabs your attention. You get caught up in what studio is buying the most specs or what genre is selling the most. After reading this article, the numbers aren’t as scary because there are other opportunities out there. I guess the key is to keep writing. Prepare for your opportunity.

  7. Billie Jean

    I love this article. I’ve been wondering how to break into assignment writing for a while. I used to work at one of the major studios as a courier. I would go throgh the recycle bins to read scripts that were thrown away. Most were crap but some of them had interesting ideas that were just executed really poorly or out dated. I would take those and make a new treatment for them. It was really good practice.
    Then, I became friends with an assistant that let me read stuff that was sent to her production company that they didn’t have time to read. I would write notes on the ones that had potential and she would send them back to the writers. It was really sad how many didn’t take the notes or didn’t take them well. One even sent back a perfect treatment incorporating all the notes but rewrote it in a totally different way that was worse than the original. I wanted so bad to take these scripts and fix them but didn’t want to deal with the writers.
    Since screenwriting is not a writers medium like prose, or even TV, I think assignments are the best thing for a screenwriter. I had already planned to make getting writing assignments my focus in 2012 so, this article came right on time. Thank you.

  8. Fred Bluhm

    John: thanks for a much needed article on a subject that should be covered more often. I think that it’s important to stress that if you want to make a living as a writer in Hollywood, do it because you love to write, not because you want a home in Malibu. And “newbies” must understand that getting credit for what you do, especially in the beginning, is more important than the money. If you’re good, and can deliver, one will lead to the other. And when you do land a job, take note of what Daniel Petrie Jr. says about being resentful or defensive about notes: remember, it’s their movie, not yours; just be glad you’re writing, and maybe, even, getting paid for it.

    On another note: if you’re new in the business and in between assignments, or not working on a script or story of your own, don’t sit idly by the phone waiting for it to ring… give yourself self-assignments; I wrote a script based on a book by Winston Groom (who wrote Forrest Gump) because I liked the book, and the story was based on a topic I was familiar with – Vietnam. I did it for the exercise, so to speak. And And if you see a new book come out that everyone is raving about, and that you think has the possibility of being made into a movie some day, take a stab at writing your own version of the screenplay – then compare it to the people who are paid to write it. See how yours compares to theirs.

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