What Are Your Real Chances of Screenwriting Success?

Writers know it’s not easy to launch and sustain a writing career. The odds aren’t necessarily stacked in your favor. But, what exactly are your chances of having screenwriting success? Corey Mandell‘s answer might surprise you.

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The first thing we need to know in order to answer this question is the size of the competition. If we were to ask how many people want to be professional screenwriters or TV writers, the number would be astronomical. But also irrelevant. Because most people who want to be professional writers don’t actually do anything about it. They are the dreamers.

So, how many people do something about it? How many actually sit down, put fingers to keyboard, and try to write a script? Nobody knows for sure, but I’ve heard from people with access to some pretty credible information on this front that every year there are approximately one million people worldwide trying to write scripts. Obviously, this is an educated guess at best, but let’s say it’s right.

If we were to ask what percentage of these one million people will end up launching and sustaining a career, the answer would be a hope-crushingly small number, many magnitudes less than one percent. But, luckily, that’s not the right question to ask.

Because while it’s one thing to sit down and try to write a script, it’s another thing to finish that script and rewrite it over and over and over until it’s the best it can be, and to then repeat the process with the next one, and the next. And what percentage of writers are truly dedicated enough over the long haul to put in the countless hours of hard work required to succeed?

When I ask agents, managers and writers for their guesses, their answers range from five to 20 percent. And since it’s better to err on the side of overestimating the competition, I’ll go with 20 percent.

Twenty percent of one million is 200,000.

And if we ask what percentage of these 200,000 people will launch and sustain a career, the answer would again be a hope-crushingly small number. But, we still haven’t yet defined the true size of the competition.

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The reason being that just because someone writes a bunch of scripts doesn’t mean those scripts are necessarily good. In fact, if you ask agents, managers, producers, and studio readers, they’ll tell you that the vast majority of scripts they read aren’t even close to good.

So, to get a handle on the real size of the competition, let’s divide all scripts into the following five categories:
1. Really good to great
2. Good
3. Decent
4. Bad
5. Truly terrible

What percentage of scripts submitted to the industry fall into each of these categories? This is a question I’m fairly confident I know the answer to, since I’ve asked dozens of agents, managers and producers, and always get the same responses.

One percent (or less than one percent) of all scripts fall into the really good-to-great category.
About four percent fall into the good category.
And 95 percent or so are in the decent-to-truly terrible categories.

Given these estimates, there are approximately 2,000 writers (one percent of 200,000) able to write really good-to-great scripts, and another 8,000 writers (four percent of 200,000) who put out good scripts.

And since agents and managers will tell you that, in order to have any real shot at a career, you need to be writing scripts that are at least in the good category, we can safely ignore the 190,000 writers cranking out decent-to-truly terrible scripts.

Therefore, the real competition is the approximately 10,000 writers who are able to consistently write good-to-great scripts. How many of these writers are working?

The WGA reported that 4,760 of their members earned money last year writing for TV or feature films. This number obviously doesn’t include anyone paid under the table for non-union gigs, but let’s ignore them and stick to the WGA numbers.

Approximately 48 percent of these 10,000 writers are working, and 52 percent are not. This figure lines up with reports I’ve read that about half of the WGA members are employed and half are unemployed.

Script EXTRA: WGA West President Howard A. Rodman on How Hollywood Really Works

Obviously, the better your material, the better your chances of a career. To keep things simple, if we assume that most of the 2,000 really good-to-great writers are working, that leaves around 2,760 jobs for the 8,000 good writers. (These estimates are based on a collection of oversimplifying assumptions, but this article was reviewed by several agents and managers and they all felt these numbers were close to reality.)

Now we can finally answer the question regarding your chances of success:
If you write really good-to-great scripts, you have a damn good chance.
If you write good scripts, you have somewhat of a chance.
If you write decent-to-truly terrible scripts, you have no chance.

Which leaves us with the more important question: Where do you fall in this mix?

Without knowing how strong your scripts are, it’s impossible to know what course of action you should pursue in order to maximize your chances of success.

If you’re able to write really good-to-great scripts, your path is clear. You need to be consistently producing new material and getting it read by as many people as possible. Hopefully, things will eventually line up for you, and you’ll sell something, or get your first paid writing job—either on a TV show or a feature assignment.
But if you can’t yet write to this level, submitting your scripts to the industry is a terrible way to proceed.

The agents and managers I bring into my UCLA classes always identify one of the biggest mistakes writers make as going out to the marketplace with scripts that aren’t strong enough. You only get one shot at that critical first impression, and most writers waste it on a weak script. Even worse, scripts submitted to the industry are graded through coverage, and these readers’ reports are put into a database accessible to all the other production companies and studios. If you’re submitting scripts that aren’t well-reviewed, these reports will follow you around like a bad credit score, making it harder and harder to get anyone in the industry to want to read your future scripts.

Script EXTRA: Top 10 Tips on Choosing an Agent

Most people don’t ask themselves how strong their scripts are, or if they do, they get the wrong answer. Because writers don’t send a script out if they don’t think it is at least good, if not outright great. Yet, the industry gatekeepers (agents, managers, producers and readers) say 95 percent of the scripts they receive miss the mark. Which means a hell of a lot of writers are overestimating their abilities. Instead of realizing they need to improve their writing and doing whatever it takes to make that happen, these folks keep submitting scripts that get weak coverage, thus shooting themselves in the foot.

Many of these writers will end up blaming the dismal state of the industry for why they can’t sell anything or land a job. But for 95 percent of folks, the industry isn’t the problem. It might be a convenient excuse, but that’s about it. The real reason is that they can’t yet write really good-to-great scripts and aren’t taking the necessary steps required to change this situation.

And since we all have the ability to become a much stronger writer if we are willing to put in the long hours of dedicated practice required to learn, develop and master the specific tools and skills needed to write at the highest levels, we all control our chances of success. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we all control our chances of success. Which means at the end of the day, we must accept full responsibility for our success, or lack thereof.

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11 thoughts on “What Are Your Real Chances of Screenwriting Success?

  1. DCfilms

    Good article but it never addresses what actually makes a really good to great script.

    When Peter Benchley wrote Jaws he sold it on the strength of the premise alone. The book itself might fall into the decent category if your judging it on its literary merits or it might even be bad. But judged on its potential to sell based on the premise alone it fell into the really good to great category.

    It’s worth noting Benchley was commissioned to write the first three drafts of the screenplay having never written a screenplay in his life before fulfilling the ‘its not what you know but who you know’ adage.

  2. jerlan

    I have always wanted to write a script, but I just couldn’t execute one. I don’t know how to start and i have lots of ideas in my mind. But any how, this article is so helpful…

  3. James Chisholm

    I am in the process of writing a script. I will finish this current script, then write another, and another, etc. I have no problem with that kind of challenge. You can never achieve perfection, but you can get close. And, I understand that once a script is built, it becomes a collective effort to make a movie, based on the script. So things can go very right and very wrong in a collaborative process. That is just life.

    My viewpoint here is how can one rely on agents and managers to judge whether or not a script is good to excellent, when in fact these people are not directly connected to the audience through a feedback loop to the paying audience at an early stage of the game. That said, there is a feedback loop when people don’t go to the movie, after all the expense of producing the thing, which strikes me as very cart before the horse approach.

    My belief is that having groups of writers rewrite scripts in Hollywood is the industry’s collective attempt to try to emulate what appeals to an audience by having a wider base of writers rewrite scripts.

    Still, having three or four writers rework a script is not as strong as having a cross sectional audience to test material. Then the writer who originates a spec script, could with a finer tuned skill, write scripts that audiences would tend to love in terms of the movie produced.

    Polling professionals in a statistical sense on what is good and what is bad in terms of scripts is more than one step removed from the market of concern, which is the actual audience. Script writers need to have means to get closer to their audience to test their material. For example, in comedy, a comedian writing a script for a movie and testing their ideas out in front of a live audience has a far better chance of producing a well received movie, as opposed to a screenwriter who is working in isolation with no feedback loop other than readers, professional agents and managers. See my point?

    The above-mentioned database approach (the intranet amongst studios which lodge readers comments) is designed to cap potential bidding wars on spec scripts, and as a system is not designed to obtain a cross sectional audience view on scripts. There is a fundamental problem with how that system is designed, as it doesn’t allow for true audience viewpoint.

    I could see one way to test audience acceptance of scripts: make a Nelson Group style review of scripts based on scripts converted to verbal read throughs. My belief is the technology exists today to do this (in Final Draft, you can assign voices to read through scripts – the basis to do this as a technological strategy is there already), but no one has put this together as a strategy to improve movies via live audience participation. You could then have read throughs lodged on a website for review and vote system on script strengths and weaknesses. Prizes for audience members doing most read throughs.

    My belief is this would strengthen movies being produced in Hollywood.

  4. Hugo Istay

    Who runs this Database of bad writers? How can you fin out if you’re on it? I don’t know about the USA but in the UK such a database would be illegal if the writers didn’t know they were on it… any more info on this Database?

  5. Gail

    Excellent points and all generally true, both Corey and Michael (I’ve seen that happen to a few TV scripts I’ve written). Yet subjectivity and bad calls (or taste?) cannot be ruled out. Just look how wide reactions vary to even ideas, or finished films! So Billie, you should probably use those recommends to get yours read by a company that does similar types of films – shouldn’t (s)he? And I’d love to hear which reading services you recommend. I’ve landed on a couple in the past with no comprehension of subtext whatsoever – and fairly poor spelling skills!

  6. Michael Lent

    Great piece, Corey. Dave, as writer and producer, I’d say that the reason so many smart people are working night and day to create mediocre or even bad movies has to do with the collaborative nature of the product. There are just so many moving parts and so many people weighing in. A solid script or concept is just the beginning. They get tugged this way and that in the development stage. In production, a great line delivered with bad direction or by a bad actor will sink like Minnie Mouse delivering Shakespeare. Making a movie is a tremendously hard endeavor that can take years to see through to the end. Write a great script today and you’ll sit with an audience a few years from now to see if it held up.

  7. Billie Harris

    A very informative article. Thank you. I’d be interested in your reply to David’s comment.

    Here’s another question for you. Is there anyplace we can have a script read to tell us whether it’s a good to great script, a good script, or if we fall in the 95% of decent to truly terrible scripts? I’m not necessarily talking about script reading services because I’ve used those and I can’t praise them enough. They’re wonderful, and for me, well worth the prices. The readers have done excellent jobs telling me what I’ve done wrong and making suggestions for improvement. All four I’ve written received either “recommend” or “consider” scores.

    But IF (note the caps) a producer ever asks to read one of the scripts, I’d like one that at least falls in the “good” category to send him. How can I find out or can I assume in receiving a “recommend” from a script reader it falls in that category?

  8. David Durand

    Nice, thoughtful article. I can confirm what you say about “dreamers.” I used to be a dreamer until I realized that I needed to finish ONE screenplay as a start instead of starting more screenplays. I was actually complimented on even FINISHING my screenplay by my cousin who is in the film industry and someone who has been involved in producing some small films. The producer, who gave me very useful feedback, suggested that most successful screenwriters write 10 full screenplays before succeeding. Did you have a number for that?

    My other question is why are so many bad films made if there are so many great writers out there? I have seen countless movies where I have felt that if I had written the script, I would never have expected anyone to buy an option and would definitely not have expected it to go to distribution. What is your theory on why bad films are made?