Lee Jessup is a seasoned career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on guiding and supporting screenwriters as they parlay their screenwriting prowess into a focused and dynamic screenwriting career. Follow Lee on Twitter @leezjessup
There are a slew of things, facts, figures, that every screenwriter should know, should have studied, should understand when they are trying to break in. Some of them will come up in conversations, other will show up in your work. Some of these things will be seen as givens to many. For others, they may be new bits of information, but no less critical. But there are, without a doubt, things you HAVE TO KNOW, HAVE TO DO, if you want to be taken seriously in the industry.
YOU HAVE TO READ INDUSTRY NEWS
On a regular basis. I don’t care if you get it for free from Deadline.com, or if you pay for The Hollywood Reporter, start understanding this industry and marketplace. This world that you’re trying to penetrate has been ebbing and flowing, changing and changing again. While you don’t have to be able to track every shift, every change, or know every studio or network head by name, you should know, in general, what’s happening out there. Ask yourself: What did we learn from the summer of 2013? And how are broadcast networks doing this fall season, vs. the one that came before? Why is Breaking Bad being called the TV show that changed TV forever? Whichever your sector, it’s up to you to gather the information about what’s trending there.
YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE STANDARDS
120 pages or less. Courier 12 font. Standard margins. Even if you don’t choose to use them, know what are the most popular screenwriting programs out there. It’s easy to find out (if you are indeed reading this on the ScriptMag site, just check out the rotating banners). Don’t not use these software programs because you don’t have the information that every aspiring writer should know out there. Get the information, then choose for yourself.
YOUR FIRST SCRIPT IS MOST LIKELY TO NOT GET YOU THERE
No matter how much blood, sweat and tears you’ve put into, your first script is most likely to not be the one you get traction on. And telling an industry insider that this is my first script is NOT going to do you any favors; it will only make you look like a novice. This is a craft. You have to practice your skill set. I know I’ve said it before, but I keep running into writers who tell me they have the one script they’ve been working on for five years and don’t want to write anything else, so I have to say it again: If you have one script, you’re not trying to build a screenwriting career, you’re trying to get a movie made. Agents and managers don’t bet on potential; they bet on what they see in front of them. So if you can’t show them that you’re gonna deliver the work again and again, don’t expect them to take a chance.
KNOW THE TALK. WALK THE WALK
As a writer, you have to be an authority. You have to know what you’re talking about and understand what the industry expects. Whether you choose to participate in an academic program or decide to educate yourself auto-didactically by reading screenwriting-centric material every day, you have to be able to talk to agents, managers, and creative executives in a way they understand. Know what the midpoint is, and dark night on the soul, a character arc and reversals. Read Save The Cat and Story and Screenplay, and decide what of this works for you in your craft. You don’t have the luxury of not knowing what the other guy is talking about when you’ve been called up to meet.
YOU HAVE TO WATCH, LISTEN, READ
Trying to break into TV? You better be watching episodic narratives, consistently. Writing a horror film? Watch everything in that sector and become an authority on it. Read books and articles, listen to what’s trending in your genre. You have to write material that will fit in today’s market, and there is no way of knowing without keeping up with what other people are watching. There’s nothing worse than talking to an executive about a specific TV series, having them ask for an example of a current show in the same vein, to which your answer would be something like I don’t really like what’s on TV. They are the ones who are making what’s on TV today, or staffing their writers on it. Saying you don’t watch it indicates that you have no interest in what the market, the culture and the audience is responding to.
RESEARCH EVERYTHING, FROM YOUR SCRIPT TO EXECUTIVES
You have to know that what you’re writing about is true and feasible, just as well as you need to know the executive you’re meeting with, be it at a sanctioned meeting or a pitch event. In today’s world and with the internet at our fingertips, information is everywhere. Writing a screenplay that is technically or historically impossible or coming unprepared to a meeting with an executive makes you look a lot less then unprepared; it makes it look like you’re not taking the industry seriously.
UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS
In order to appear professional, you have to know how things work in the industry space. Agents aren’t waiting for writers who don’t have a killer, ready-to-sell screenplay. TV staff writing jobs or open writing assignments aren’t ones you can just apply for somewhere. Even if a production company likes your screenplay, it doesn’t mean they’re going to buy or even option it right away. Understand how the industry works so that you could properly manage the expectations you’re working with.
- More Writers on the Verge articles by Lee Jessup
- Balls of Steel: The “Magic Trick” to Selling Your Screenplay
- Script Angel: Writing on Spec – Should You Write a Film or TV Script?