Writing a TV Movie & Breaking Into the Business

Lynn Grant Beck began her career as a playwright in New York. She moved to LA in 1996 and got her first job as an assistant in the television movie department of Kushner-Locke. After that she became a Creative Executive at Interscope Communications where she went to Australia to shoot PITCH BLACK with then unknown Vin Diesel. She left Interscope to pursue writing full time and has also worked as a script consultant and writing teacher at Santa Monica College. Her television movie 12 GIFTS OF CHRISTMAS premiered on Hallmark in November, 2015.

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The hardest part of building a career as a screenwriter is breaking in. As the major studios continue to reduce the number of theatrical films they produce each year (and base more and more of them on comic books) the difficulty of breaking into theatrical feature films has never been more difficult. But as the number of broadcast, cable and online TV networks continues to increase, the need for original television movies has never been greater. Individual networks cater to a specific audience and often produce a specific genre of film, so if you write a television movie that caters to the needs of a specific network, the odds of selling one are greatly increased.

This is the Golden Age of television and even though there are currently a vast number of opportunities, the business is still extremely competitive. It’s still exceedingly difficult to land a coveted job on a series without an agent or manager, but it’s entirely possible to sell a television movie all on your own. Once you have interest from a producer and/or network, then you can reach out to agents and managers, because the best time to secure representation is when you have a “deal on the table.” Getting a produced credit lends a screenwriter legitimacy, which opens doors to valuable networking and more work. Even if you have representation, it is your responsibility to build your career and TV movies are a great way to start.

The true secret to becoming a successful screenwriter is to become a really good one and it doesn’t happen over night. Writing is a craft that must be honed through educating yourself and putting in hundreds of hours in front of your computer. The good news is there are so many resources now available to writers in the form of books, online courses, blogs and webinars that you have no excuse not to become the best writer you can be. The industry constantly evolves so it’s important to continue to educate yourself in both the craft and business of screenwriting throughout your career. A key component to your education is reading the type of scripts you want to write and television movie scripts are no exception. Watch specific movies, then read the scripts to see how they’re translated to the screen.

Many writers make the mistake of attempting to launch their career by starting at the top, rather than at the bottom. They write a big theatrical spec script, then approach agents and managers with it. When the agents and managers refuse to read it or do read it, but pass on it, the script never sees the light of day again and the writer is no further ahead in his or her career. The reason that this approach usually fails is that the number of spec theatrical scripts sold each year is extremely small. (SpecScout.com is a great resource to track theatrical script sales.) The vast majority of these scripts are sold by writers who already have representation and/or a track record so it’s extremely difficult to compete in this arena. You’re far more likely to have success if you get your script into the hands of a producer who is working either in the independent film world or in television movies. The average feature takes years to produce, but the most successful TV movie producers make multiple movies a year and they continually need product. What they’re looking for is very specific, so if you cater your script to the type of movies they make, the odds that they’ll read and consider buying your script are very high.

The prevailing wisdom is that you should write the type of movies you like to watch, but there’s another strategy to consider. If you want the best chance of selling a TV movie script, you should write one for the networks that are currently producing the most movies. Broadcast networks, basic cable networks, premium cable networks and online networks are all making original movies, but by far the two networks which currently make the most movies are Lifetime and Hallmark. Lifetime makes about 60 films a year and Hallmark plans on making 75 original movies in 2016. Both networks have a loyal fan base and they need product. Both networks are also “female driven,” which means that your protagonists must be female. By and large Lifetime produces melodramatic thrillers and Hallmark produces family friendly romantic comedies. The latter’s new movie channel, “Hallmark’s Mysteries and Movies,” produces family friendly mysteries and romantic dramas. If you aren’t familiar with the movies on these networks, pick up your remote and DVR a bunch of them. The movies on both of these networks have numerous commercial breaks so you definitely want to to tape them. When you decide what you want to write, time the act breaks so you get the formatting correct.

One of the most valuable resources screenwriters have today is IMDb.com (Internet Movie Data Base). IMDb has valuable information about every movie that television networks produce, including the names of the producers. So do your research. Go to the network websites, look at the movies they’ve made in the past year, then go to IMDb and see who’s made them. IMDb Pro has contact information as well. Most writers far prefer to send an email than to make a phone call, but in a day and age when producers get inundated with dozens, if not hundreds of emails every day, email is not the most effective form of communication. If they don’t know you, you run the risk of them deleting your email without even reading it. Calling a producer is far more effective. Time is the most valuable asset in Hollywood, so always be respectful of peoples’ time. Keep your call short and to the point. Watch one of the producer’s recent movies, give them a brief compliment, then tell them you wrote a TV movie for the network they work for and ask if you can give them the logline. If they pass on your idea you can ask them if they’re looking for anything in particular. If there is something they’re looking for, you can then ask them if you could write up a treatment for that idea. If they don’t like your script idea and aren’t willing to share what they’re looking for, politely thank them for their time and tell them you’ll think of them again when you have your next script. Even though making phone calls can be uncomfortable, you can begin to establish a relationship with producers. This is next to impossible to do through email. If you’re far too shy and uncomfortable to call producers, then send them a query letter via old fashioned snail mail. Since everyone else sends emails, producers don’t currently receive a lot of query letters and they will read them. Again, be short and to the point with your query letter. Respect the producer’s time.

When a producer agrees to read your script, make sure it’s as polished and professional as possible. Use professional screenwriting software to make sure the formatting is correct and have at least one person read your script to proof it. Spelling and grammar mistakes are the signs of an amateur writer and will taint the quality of your writing. One of the best ways to get feedback is to join or start a writers group. There are dozens of them on Meetup.com, but again do your research. Look for a group that has professional writers. That way not only will you get good feedback, but you may also get access to valuable contacts and networking information.

Lastly, stay up on industry news. There are numerous websites that detail who’s making what on a daily basis: HollywoodReporter.com, Variety.com, SSNInsider.com, Deadline.com, etc. When you take a meeting with a producer you want to sound knowledgeable about the current state of the entertainment business, as well as professional in the craft of screenwriting. There are so many opportunities in television. With new networks premiering all the time and over 400 series currently in production, the sky is the limit. But first you have to break into the business and writing and selling a TV movie is a great way to start.

Learn how to cater a TV movie script to the specific needs of an individual television network and increase your odds of selling it in Lynn’s webinar!

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