Are you contemplating a career as a screenwriter? Or maybe you've been writing screenplays for quite some time and are starting to second guess your path? While I don't often write screenwriting-related blogs, it's no secret to my readers that I've been writing screenplays for nearly 25 years as part of my pursuit of being a filmmaker. I've had many doubts along the way. I've also made many mistakes. This is something of a cautionary tale relating to my own efforts in this industry. And I have some advice for people who are starting out.
When I was 19 years old, having taken a Super-8 filmmaking class and written my first screenplay, I decided I wanted a career in film. My father told me I was "wasting my talent". He specifically meant my writing talent. My parents have never offered much in the way of career or life advice, so I've always remembered his words. At the time, I didn't have the life experience to understand what he meant, and he didn't offer an explanation. But recently, I have begun to think he was right. I have wasted my writing talent.
Like many writers, I showed an aptitude for it at a very young age. But talent alone is not the reason a person becomes a writer. There has to be an internal force, a motivating drive: writing is a difficult and solitary pursuit. When I decided at 19 for film to be my life's focus it came from the most innocent and naïve place: I loved writing and I loved movies. I knew I wanted to be a director, but at that time unless you could make an expensive 16mm film you had no means of impressing anyone. I thought I could channel my visionary efforts into writing screenplays - and I thought perhaps it might be a way to earn a living. I proceeded to invest in books on technique and formatting (one had to learn the techniques of script format, as there was no screenwriting software in those days), and got to work.
The industry was quite a bit less congested back then, and a little more personal. Query letters were actual typed letters sent in the mail - with an enclosed Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. There was no online database like IMDb to use to search for contact names or addresses. Finding people to query required physical effort and I took frequent trips to the video store, library and post office. There were different financial needs then too: purchasing the latest edition of the Hollywood Creative Directory; a good printer able to handle 100 page manuscripts; postage. A batch of query letters was a time-consuming mail-merge project. The internet changed everything - info, access, networking - but it also likely increased competition. There weren't as many people pursuing screenwriting in the pre-internet, pre-dime-a-dozen-screenwriting-contest days, and I found it relatively easy to get read, even at major companies.
Less than 2 years after writing my first script, I signed with my first agent. It seemed completely reasonable to me, based on news reports at the time, that I could sell a screenplay for $400,000. My early writing efforts consisted of fairly on-target commercial things (serial killer stuff after "Silence of the Lambs"; a British romantic comedy after "Four Weddings and a Funeral"). If I had followed that route I might have eventually become a successful screenwriter (I almost sold the British rom-com to Norman Jewison). But simultaneous to writing standard commercial fare, I was also writing really weird shit that I wanted to direct. Worse, I liked the really weird shit. It was creative. It was my unfettered imagination. It was like nothing that was playing at a theatre near you.
With an adolescence spent in the theatre, I didn't understand then where The Screenplay stood in terms of its artistic or literary respect. It is not like a stage play, which can be published and can earn its creator respect of the highest literary cache. A screenplay, in and of itself, is never considered "finished" (people liken it to a blueprint), and the creator of a script is still at the bottom of the industry's creative totem pole - never mind that none of the other geniuses can do their work unless the screenwriter does hers. In practical ways, I also really knew nothing about what a screenwriter does. This ignorance led me astray for quite a long time.
Being a screenwriter is not like being a novelist: your life is not about writing what you want and then selling it. This is a tough concept for the beginning screenwriter to fully grasp, because when you're starting out ALL you're doing is writing whatever you want. It wasn't until the past few years, when I became friends with other writers and filmmakers online, that I really got the complete picture as to what the professional screenwriter does (taking meetings & "auditioning" for writing assignments) and what skills she needs to have (building an outline from an idea, analyzing story & structure, writing via committee). The original screenplay, in most instances, serves only as the writing "sample" - which isn't to say writers don't sell their original scripts, but that is not how a screenwriter typically makes a living, nor are most studio films based on original work. If I'd really understood all of this when I was 19, I might have tried harder to somehow pursue filmmaking rather than filmmaking-via-writing. But I kept writing. And writing. And rewriting. And querying. Always believing in the dream.
Over time, I moved away from both the weird and the marketable varieties of screenplays. I entered the phase of Serious Dramas. Those scripts did reasonably well in the Nicholl Fellowships (the industry's most prestigious writing contest, sponsored by the Academy Award people). But I was still spinning my wheels: I've always had just enough positive feedback to keep me going, without making significant headway. Fortunately, digital video had become accessible by the turn of the century, and I was finally able to make my own movies: mega-cheap things with no crew, but I was able to resume the visual storytelling education I'd abandoned in the late 1980's after being unable to afford the switch from Super-8 to 16mm film.
In 2008 I experienced my first major accomplishment - and stopped being a contest bridesmaid: I won a Fellowship in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts, joining the ranks of previous Fellows such as Spike Lee, Julie Taymor and Tony Kushner. It helped me to finally get serious about my mission. I finally, finally realized that I needed to brand myself. I needed a specific focus, and I needed to be able to communicate to people exactly what sort of filmmaker I intended to be. I'd always loved big genre films, but my writing had been more deeply influenced by foreign and independent dramas. I made the decision to combine these two passions and write character-driven work tinged with genre elements like science fiction, horror, etc. I occasionally veer from that mission, but when asked I always state "character-driven with hints of genre" as my self-declared brand.
Could I make it now as a professional screenwriter? Realistically, no. (There was a period in my early-to-mid 20's when the answer might have been "maybe".) I love what I write & can't seem to stop; I imagine my scripts as completed films that I desire to see. But in the world of franchises, adaptations, sequels and remakes I think my writing is back to looking like "weird shit" again, even though I've finally become very good at what I do. But more importantly, I know I would not do well writing within the confines of what the industry demands. And to some degree I've always known that: my desire to be an independent filmmaker stems from a passion for having at least some autonomy for my vision. I also simply do not have the requisite skills mentioned above: developing someone else's idea into an outline (I don't even outline my own work); analyzing story and structure to pitch ideas, rewrite projects, etc.; congenially playing along with conflicting demands... and don't get me started on the trend of Bake-Offs. Now that I know what it entails, I understand it is not the career for me.
Could YOU make it as a professional screenwriter? It's entirely possible - especially if you have a strong grasp of the business, and of the obstacles you will have to embrace. You also need to understand your skills and motivation: know who you are as a writer, and what you hope to get out of it. The more specific you can be about these things, the better. (In hindsight, "I love writing and movies" was not a great reason to pursue an almost impossible career.) Brand yourself as early as possible; for one thing, it will help you focus. It also may help you find a manager who may be instrumental in getting your career to the next level. Again, it doesn't mean you can't write other things - but there's a reason why actors are typecast: people want to immediately understand how you fit in to the industry. Being an "action" writer is marketable in the same way as it is for an actor. It may sound counterintuitive, but it's actually much harder to get work (as writer or actor) if you're trying to "do it all."
Simply put: if you want to succeed as a professional screenwriter, you have to love the game.
But here's what I really want to impart to new screenwriters, or people interested in film who may be on the fence: if you are toying with pursuing screenwriting versus pursuing something else, pursue the other thing! I cannot overemphasize this! If it's a toss-up between writing YA novels or writing screenplays, write YA novels. If you're trying to decide among jobs in film and possibilities beyond screenwriting are on your list, choose the other thing. And if you feel you can make a decision between being an artist versus doing something else, do the other thing! (The rest of us just can't help ourselves.)
Anyone who's passionate about writing will find more long-term fulfillment in writing something other than screenplays. I say this as someone who LOVES writing screenplays... But over time, there is little to show for what I have learned, accomplished, or written. I can't publish my life's work, and most people - industry included - hate reading scripts. I have a body of work that I can't even effectively share with people! If you write because you want to be expressive, creative, want control over your work - or credit for the vision - write something other than screenplays. I have dabbled in many other forms of writing, but screenwriting was always front and center: if I could do it again, I'd put novels first. It's not too late - I plan to start writing novels, but I know it could be years before I'm as comfortable with fiction as I am with screenplays.
Similarly, if you're considering a career in film, I'd advise you to pursue anything except writing or directing. Get a real skill - like editing, visual effects, production managing, sound recording, etc. If you have a technical skill you will be able to make a living in the film/television industry! Until recently, the most successful people I knew in film all worked on the production or tech end - it's marketable, it's tangible, it pays. It's also a great way to meet people and learn the ins-and-outs of both filmmaking and the business... which you can use to your advantage when you're ready to write/direct your own film.
If screenwriting is the only thing you've ever wanted to do, you will pursue it regardless of what anyone may advise. And that's probably okay, because I know you'll be smarter about it than I was - for one thing, you're starting out with access to a wealth of information. I encourage you to be aware that given the whims of this industry, it is just as likely that you will accomplish your goals via an indirect path as a direct one. Again, in hindsight, I wish I'd pursued editing. Editing was one of the skills I excelled at in my first filmmaking class. If I'd pursued editing I likely would have had a decent, even great career (though possibly difficult and competitive) - and very likely could have gotten further by now with my writing/directing. I WISH someone had told me as a young filmmaker to pursue something this practical as the first step!
Can I still make it as an independent filmmaker? Possibly. I've put in the hard work of learning to tell a story both visually and on paper. I think my wisdom, maturity, communication skills and sense of humor are real assets at this point. And I've got a couple little coals in the fire. But I've been around long enough to understand that Not Everyone Makes It. Sticking around is more than half the battle. But eventually the stars literally need to align: the right people need to like a script at the right time... and then we'll all need more luck to secure financing, the perfect cast and crew, etc. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a village PLUS a happy confluence of events to make a film!
I also wonder sometimes: if I could tell my 19-year old self what I know now, would I have listened? There is something to be said for pursuing your own path, no matter how twisty and harrowing it may be. But at some point - and 25 years may be that point - it is easy to wish that things weren’t always so bloody difficult. In recent years I've begun asking myself: has this struggle been worth it? I had lived without regrets for a long time, but as the lack of a successful career ties into other middle-age absences, one starts to wonder. I wish I'd had the career of Lars von Trier. I recognize it is too late to have the career breadth I once dreamt of. But, more than ever, I'm a storyteller to the core. And I still see writing as my only viable ticket out of poverty. One way or another, I will find a place in the world for my stories.