Lessons Learned From Trying to Break Into Professional Screenwriting

Here’s $100 worth of free advice from a failure in the Music Industry

Who Should Read This

If you write for fun and want to make a living writing, you’re in the same boat as me, so why not work together a little? The hardest part about being a Writer is the actual sitting down and doing work element — without written products, there is nothing to share, nothing to sell. Yet even after that part is done, there’s the nuisance factors of promotion and marketing.

Courtesy of Trey & Matt via South Park

What this article aims to address is how to best spend your time on the salesmanship of your work and maximizing your dollars spent. There is no quick fix, no one main artery to tap into. As painful as it might seem, the most valuable asset you can employ in this avenue is Patience.

When you’ve made the decision that your piece is ready for public consumption, to be judged, and hopefully find its way into the right hands, let my experiences of the past couple years serve as data as you make decisions. No two stories of failure or success are the same.

Getting Your Work Noticed: Amazon Studios

At first I had really high hopes for this potential market. Maybe it was me projecting the success of Netflix onto Amazon with regards to original content, but in hindsight, I think I was right to be excited. Before I ever got into paying money for contests, I went to Amazon Studios. A lot.

First I submitted a TV pilot, then a feature screenplay, then another TV pilot, and each time I could see the piece downloaded 1 time by the Amazon staff in Private. Then the rejection form letter.

No feedback at all, but considering the work had just been read for free with the potential for a business deal, hey, who am I to complain?

Then I submitted the first official draft of INFAMY. Within 48 hours it went through 3 downloads. In Private. The rejection letter still came, but for once it seemed like there was some excitement. Reader 1 didn’t say No right away. Reader 2 didn’t say No right away.

If Reader 3 had the checkbook and said No, then I can understand the business mentality — the No wasn’t a verdict on quality, just on what they wanted to make. Nothing personal.

That’s when I decided to polish up INFAMY and try submitting to a contest or two, because if it got their attention that much, well, why not? Oh, right, spending money to enter contests. There’s confidence and talking big, and then there’s put up or shut up and I finally got to that point. Rock ‘n roll!

Getting Your Work Noticed: Contests

There are only two major Screenwriting contests of note for breaking into the scene — The Nicholl Fellowship and The Austin Film Festival. Just consider this a fact of life. Any other contest is just another contest. Unless you get first prize…and even if you do…

The point of this is that you can spend a lot of money entering contests that don’t matter — but, as Shore Scripts helped for me — the money spent can give a little validation along the way.

Encouragement in screenwriting can take forms outside of the words inside the piece itself. Contests offer specific criteria, deadlines, and other useful prompts which can be recognized and internalized for later use. Learning how to find where a piece fits is almost as important as the quality of the work itself, practically speaking.

In the Summer of 2016 I had two feature screenplays written, plus a couple TV pilots, and wanted to aim for a contest. I missed the Nicholl. I want nothing to do with Austin, Texas. Shore Scripts was the only contest I found with a window I could hit. So I did, and made Quarter-Finalist with INFAMY.

Money well spent
That wasn’t the point. I was determined to have a Nicholl Fellowship caliber script ready for 2017. So I got started…Three short stories became one script.

The point of aiming high is simple — if there’s only one big Open Mic stage, be ready for the chance to shine. Be better than everybody else. Be willing to go first or last. Know the performance inside and out.

Reading over the Judging Criteria for the Nicholl Fellowship, I like to think my project scratches all the itches. With some patience, I’ll get to find out whether or not my perception is valid.

For the Nicholl Fellowship Contest, I paid the extra fee to receive Reader comments for my entry.

If you’ve been writing long enough, then you know how hard it can be to find dedicated Readers among family, friends, and even strangers on the Internet. Even then, what good is the input of somebody who just “doesn’t get it” because they lack the Mind’s Eye for reading a script? In this case, spending extra cash for access to the Industry makes sense.

Getting Your Work Noticed: Hosting Online

It’s a famous story among the Aviation industry that Herb Kelleher originally sketched out the idea for Southwest Airlines on a cocktail napkin. When something has inherent quality, it kind of doesn’t matter how it gets into the world — it just has to make it into a way of being shared.

Storytelling is similar, in that even the best formatted pile of garbage won’t be interesting, and an amazing work of staggering genius can be a hot mess of convention violations but be appreciated as an artistic achievement.

The reality of screenwriting is that your work is your resume. If you don’t put anything online for people to read or evaluate, they won’t want to take the time to find out if you’ve got the magic.

In this day an age, it’s totally reasonable to be hesitant about somebody ripping off your idea or work, but that’s a problem as old as time. Can somebody lift from you? Sure! Will they lift from you? Only if you’re worth it.

Let that sink in a minute. If you’re doing some great creative writing and world building, the knock-off will never be as good — and, financially speaking, if they did do it, there’s a strong chance you’ll find out eventually. Want to hear the cold, hard truth?

You could post your life’s work online for the world to see, read, and download, and you’d still have better odds to be killed by a lightning strike than be ripped off and cheated out of millions of dollars.

This is where Patience comes in again. Are you willing to put cash up front to cut in line? How about take some inspiration from fishing and throw a line out and wait for a nibble that could become a bite?

What I found during my research is that there are people willing to take advantage of you, and there are ones who are there to support you.

After spending time on Reddit’s r/screenwriting I got a chance to interact with Franklin, the Founder/CEO of The Black List. It’s a site offering access to the Industry by way of a monthly hosting fee. $20 per file per month.

As if that already doesn’t seem a little chippy considering text is cheap, The Black List has an internal Reader system that gives scores to the works uploaded, which in turn affects the ranking for Industry audiences. After reading a half-dozen complaints directed toward Franklin from the community, I engaged him to get some clarity.

The following is a paraphrased version of our back and forth on Reddit, according to my perspective mind you, and if you want to read the whole thing I’m sure it’s archived by now. You might see it differently. Anyway, here’s the TL;DR summary:

Me: So how are you getting consistency among your Readers? Is there a rubric or basic checklist?
Franklin: No, I believe in my Readers and all art is Subjective so there’s no reason to have such a thing.
Me: Wait, so even basic stuff like Character consistency or Three Act Structure aren’t even considerations?
Franklin: They may be, but my Readers are qualified and let’s be clear, a lot of people who think they will make money screenwriting are not able to put together work that gets Industry attention.
Me: So you’re telling me that even while you know you’re taking money from people trying to buy a dream that you know they probably can’t achieve, you don’t have a problem with that?
Franklin: We have many success stories and provide a valuable service.
Me: Okay, so worse odds than a Lottery Scratch Off? Glad we cleared that up.

There was no way I will ever give Franklin a penny of my money because his business model is shady and shitty. I don’t play people like that. I don’t want to be played like that. I don’t want you to get played either.

That’s why I found a good home with Script Revolution, and present it as direct contrast to The Black List for good reason.

CJ Walley is an accomplished Writer in a lot more avenues than I’ve tried to cover here. Featured by Amazon. Featured by The Black List. Optioned.

He’s also proven to me that he’s an incredible Software Developer by creating Script Revolution, putting it out into the world, and taking the risk of doing something new.

It’s only fair that I would sit down, make peace with the idea of making things public, and put up or shut up. Every day I’m grateful for the opportunity to link up with somebody like CJ who invests in the community instead of hustling it. What he built for me to use inspires me to make it and turn around and point at those who helped and give them credit. Philosophically that’s some Ride or Die level shit in my book.

Looking Ahead

As a Musician, you don’t have to preach at me about the odds of making it, of being more than a One Hit Wonder. As a Screenwriter, I’ve found that the pool of talent is a whole lot smaller than people might think.

Guitarists are a dime a dozen. Writers are the Goose that lays Golden Eggs.

In my view, there’s more than enough room for all of us Writers in the Industry. We’re in a very interesting time where Hollywood and A24 type entities have to compete with Netflix and Amazon for content. Throw in the up and coming generation with YouTube and home production tools, and the future is highly Creative. Diverse voices. New perspectives. Interbreeding.

Do I think I achieved my goal of writing a screenplay that is competitive in the Nicholl Fellowship? Absolutely. Did I spend the cash to have it registered with WGA West? For sure. Is it the best thing I’ve ever written? For now.

After these couple years working on the craft, I can safely say the most important lesson I learned is “What’s next?” is the question that better have an answer when opportunity knocks.

“Sure, that one was great,” the Agent or Label Rep will acknowledge, “but that was yesterday. What do you have for me today?”

Note: While Do Unto Others was my Nicholl Fellowship project, I did use some reader plus craft critiques to revise INFAMY and also submit that for 2017. Both entries include Reader feedback. There’s a time before the emails in August with any indication of results…get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.

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