If you’re expecting to read today’s article and find nothing but advice on how you can be a better creative writer… do me a favor, and leave that idea behind.
Because we’re not going to talk about creativity for screenwriters. Creativity is subjective. It doesn’t matter how creative you are, or how creative your neighbor is, even in this industry.
Today, we’re going to talk about business. Business should always be the focus for content creators looking to write and sell their screenplay.
In content creation, there are millions of potential pathways writers can go down when they want to create something. This is a problem with screenwriters who only focus on the creative, and turn away from the stuff that matters.
When you’re writing a screenplay, you still have to produce content that will sell.
You need to ask yourself questions like: “what are they buying? What are they making right now?” Not what you see on a screen now! I’m talking about what they are buying NOW.
If you’re able to answer those questions, you’re already ahead of the game.
First, we’re going to talk about buying cycles, and why they’re crucial for screenwriters to know how to navigate.
Stay Ahead of the Curve
Let’s be clear: just because a piece of content has lasted a long time on the screen, does not mean it’s a profitable idea for the now.
By “the now,” I mean: everything you’re seeing on the screen was created at least 18 months and up to 10 years ago. With few exceptions, you can’t mimic what you just saw and loved.
These shows were created (idea to paper), sold, developed, produced, and distributed to mass audiences over a long period of time, and started in a completely different buying cycle. This is where screenwriters need to stay ahead of the curve, and stick to what the current cycle is buying.
The only way to do this is to track the trades, look at what’s being bought and sold right now–look at what stories are trending and selling, look at the personalities, the stories, things like that–in the industry, and remain connected to those trends.
It’s that simple.
If you’re writing material based on what you’re seeing today, you’re already years behind, and you’re probably creating stories that won’t resonate with development executives (the buyers) the same way they did two years or a decade ago.
The main thing is to get relevant.
You do this by connecting with executives, talking to writers and producers, and forming relationships on a regular basis.
These people are the ones who will help you get through the door to sell your screenplay, if you can demonstrate that you understand what is sought after (ooh right – and write good material).The key to “becoming relevant” in Hollywood is connecting with executives and forming relationships on a regular basis. Click To Tweet
Get Your Screenplay to the Right People
When it comes to selling your screenplay, there are a few ways you can do this.
But first, you need to know where to find your buyers.
These buyers–financiers, producers, etc.–are scattered across various networks, studios, and production companies who are known to buy screenplays and make movies out of them.
The buyers, commonly knows as development executives, work for production companies that have overhead or first look deals with a financier or work directly for a network or streamer. And in some cases networks and streamers have both production companies in some kind of development agreement and an internal development staff.
The last place you can find a development exec is with a producer who is connected to the development apparatus at a network, studio or streamer, but does not get paid (thru an overhead or first look deal) to be exclusive to a financier that wants them under contract to control who gets what first.
The important thing to know, you are looking for someone who works in TV or feature development – (from the bottom up) a creative executive, director of development, VP development or executive producer. You are also looking for an executive producer, showrunner or writing producer of some kind in episodic TV production.
Finally, you need to make sure the person you have connected with knows that you are sending material to them. If you do not, your work will never be opened. “Unsolicited Material” (a draft or idea sent without a request from the exec) is NEVER opened. It is returned or tossed in the unsolicited file (at some places is the trash). I will talk about how to connect later.
Let’s Talk About These Buyers
Now, let’s talk about the buyers, the producers who are attached to studios, networks, streamers and also work independently.
You must sell to these people, first and foremost. These are the people who will open doors for you if they like your work.
If you’re not a known writer, and you don’t have any relationships or connection to these people, nothing you submit will ever get read. It’s unsolicited material as I said above.
These scripts almost always go into the wastebasket, never to see the light of day – or more importantly, the eyes of a development executive who can or will buy your idea.
From my experience, you can tell just from how the envelopes look when you get unsolicited material; they’re unopened, unblemished, spotless and they have been sitting on a desk for months. You can tell looking at the pile that no one has even bothered to open them, touch them, or even read them.
Don’t send unsolicited material. Ever.
Not in person, not via email. Never. If you do, it’ll be a waste of time for both you and any potential recipient you’ve somehow made contact with.
Learn How to Network
In order to get over the unsolicited problem, you MUST network with development execs, producers and to some extent writers. The top areas to network in the film and entertainment industry are Los Angeles, New York, and London, England. It’s really in Los Angeles. LA is the headquarters of film production from the start of an idea to the post finishing and delivery
Wherever you live, you want to make connections with people in these areas. And making connections with the people who can and will read your work happens in town – NOT on the phone. The exception to this rule is the writer who wins an award at a festival or writing competition of note that development, agents and managers track to see who is rising up to the top of the amateur ranks.
You have to get to know professionals in these locations by networking. Networking is a young aspiring screenwriter’s most powerful tool. Without it, you’re going to constantly scrape by, and never break that glass ceiling you’re trying to shatter in a wildly competitive industry.
This is more than just picking a place to visit.
Talk to the Right People (and Join Their Environment)
One of the simplest ways I can advise you to enter the industry and network right away, is to jump in with both feet and so you can learn how to find the right people to work with–and for.
You need to find a way to live in these places, and dedicate yourself to networking and building connections as much as possible. That starts with getting on a desk as an assistant. A producer (a working producer who has shit on the air or in theatres in the past 18 months), an agent, a manager or an exec at a studio, network or streamer. ALL of these jobs are paid – no pay and it’s probably bullshit – say thank you and walk out if there’s no money. You have to make a living!
THAT IS THE ENTRY INTO THE SYSTEM and use it to your benefit – there are no shortcuts. The work is shit, the hours suck and you have to take advantage of your youth, free time and low overhead.
Sure, it’s nothing glamorous, and the pay is nothing special, but it’ll get your foot in the door and you’ll be able to start networking with the right people almost immediately.
By sitting on a desk, you can start meeting those development executives, managers, and so forth. Your goal should be to setup and take three networking meetings EVERY day M-F! Coffee, lunch (even if it’s with your co-workers at the kitchen or water cooler with leftover take out from the night before), and drinks on your way home. Network, network, network and build connections.
Once you build those relationships, prepare your “I Am A” statement: “I’m a writer. Currently working as as assistant on [insert exec name]’s desk and I’m looking for work as a [insert next job you are looking for (ie: …writer in dramatic television)]”
This can be awkward if you’re talking to a stranger, but it’s definitely possible to bring it up to a new colleague, boss, or professional in your new industry position.
The truth is, most people in senior and hiring positions are open to helping your, smat participants who show that they are hard working, relevant (understand the industry they are working in) and show up engaged, especially from a person they’ve come to know and have connected with.
What About Pitching?
Short answer? You don’t.
You never pitch. Don’t even think about it.
Producers and financiers aren’t going to buy your screenplay through a pitch.
They’ll buy your screenplay through exposure, through proof that clearly shows your material is standing out above the rest.
You do this by entering your scripts into events, like competitions and festivals.
Alternatively, if you’re not interested in submitting your screenplay to a competition or festival, you can create a short film instead. This isn’t the best option for everyone, but it can work.
This could also open up opportunities for getting noticed on that side of the industry, as far as accolades are concerned.
How Can You Protect Your Work?
Unfortunately, when you’re a writer in the film industry, you always run the risk of getting your work copied, stolen, or plagiarized.
Even the most successful screenwriters face this issue. It happens.
There’s no way to avoid it. If you refuse to explore that risk, you’ll be hiding your work forever, and it’ll never see the light of day.
You can try to protect your work and file a copyright form with the Library of Congress. It’s an affordable option for young screenwriters. I wouldn’t waste your time with the WGA registration process.
How Do You Make a Screenplay Attractive to Buyers?
There are two paths to follow: 1) write an original piece of material (mostly a feature) and ; 2) write a spec of a current show that is on TV.
Writing an original idea and entering it into competition will get noticed by the festivals, competitions and that community really fast. The buyers who track what is rising to the top will find you. You will likely not find them.
Writing a spec of a show that is on the air now will demonstrate that you can write story, character and plot in the format that the showrunners can use. Your job as a baby writer is to deliver a draft to a showrunner so they only have to rewrite 5-10% of your work. Writing a spec that show you have that skill will get you an opportunity to interview and maybe write for a living. Then it’s up to you to deliver on the next phase of your career -new ideas and breaking a season.
And finally, you really only need to focus on a few key things to make your screenplay attractive to buyers:
- Write good material that people will want to consume
- Write with structure, form, and attention to detail
- Write differentiated, dynamic characters
- Write what the industry is buying right now
I know it sounds obvious, but once you have those down, you’re more prepared than countless other writers who don’t even know where to start.
DO NOT expect any shortcuts. They don’t exist.
If you write good material, network wisely, and engage with the industry with a plan, you’ll be able to write and sell your screenplay with confidence you didn’t know you had before.