For a community obsessed with breaking in, you’d be forgiven for thinking the amateur screenwriting world talks about nothing but what it’s actually like to work in the industry. Sadly, that’s not the case, as very few of those giving advice have ever made it, and those that have tend to get ostracised for their heretic-like views that go against the grain. Here’s ten things I feel you need to know based on my own experiences – CJ
For context, I’m defining “breaking in” as getting your first sale or assignment from an industry member or prodco, not getting your first option, and not selling or writing a short (although these are all respectable achievements). Please also remember that my experience is limited to indie film, and I cannot talk about what it’s like at a studio level other than from what I’ve seen people close to me go through.
Some of these points may be relieving, while some may be crushing. The vital thing to know is that you can do this. You can fill any gaps in your skillset with education and practice, and this journey toward your dream is a marathon, not a sprint. As ever, what we do isn’t rocket science; it’s art. You don’t need to know about thermal o-ring expansion and thrust metrics, you need to focus on being a creative with a professional mindset first, and everything else will come in time.
1. The Industry is Kinder Than Often Portrayed.
Much of the content shared within the amateur scene paints the film industry as cold and callous toward writers. This isn’t helped by the tone of many pitching sessions, which can come across like a moody episode of Shark Tank. Some people, particularly those on the periphery, quickly let any modicum of influence go to their heads and use it to talk down to others. I’ve seen some insensitive advice come from writers I know aren’t working and even from entire platforms run by individuals who have turned apathetic to their peers. None of this is helped by the fact film is so rooted in the US, where most industries are heavily corporatised, and people are brainwashed into immediately asking “how high” when told to jump.
The film industry is made up mostly of, guess what, other creatives, many of whom have tried writing at some point in their lives. These people have the same mindset and neuroticism as you and thus are more like allies than enemies. These people have also chosen to pursue film over law, manufacturing, or government. We are all cut from the same cloth. The exception is probably executives who are under so much stress that they have little time for pleasantries and must make many tough decisions quickly.
Don’t let the behaviour you see on film sets (portrayed or otherwise) mislead you. The shoot itself is a relative blink of an eye compared to the work done overall on a project and has to be run militarily to meet schedules, with people sometimes feeling exhausted and stressed to the point they are curt with others.
When you are approached, it will be in a way that feels friendly and informal. Sure, people may have done a deep dive through your online profile and even gone as far as an FBI check (seriously), but that’s professionals doing their due diligence.
Example: When I first chatted with my long-time collaborator, Shane Stanley, we bonded over riding motocross bikes as kids. My co-producer and head-of-transpo, Neil Chisholm, is another petrolhead I can chat all day with, while I like to join our frequent production manager Karen “Kay” Ross occasionally for online tea parties in our finest attire. I could happily get a beer with all these people and consider them close friends, while I initially met them as colleagues.
2. Specs Are Rarely Made, Especially in the Form They Are Found.
There is an obsession in the amateur screenwriting world with selling specs, and it’s entirely at odds with how the industry behaves, more so now than ever. It seems the long-gone era of unknown screenwriters regularly seeing record-breaking sales and becoming the biggest names in the business cannot be shaken from people’s minds.
The writing side of filmmaking has some pretty simple economics at play; supply vs demand. There is no shortage of spec scripts from an ever-increasing hoard of aspiring writers now connected globally with a keyboard at their fingertips. Competition is rife, with film production itself growing at a much slower rate. The result is far more options for producers looking for content. Savvy producers, however, know the marketplace well and are aware of their own logistical limitations. They have a good idea of what they need and what they can make; thus, they are looking for great writers just as much as they’re looking for great scripts. This means it’s more likely you will be presented with the offer of an assignment over an offer to buy a script.
With the above in mind, seeing your spec scripts as a portfolio showcasing your voice, creativity, and craft is best. It’s healthy to relax your preoccupations with getting a sale, as this can become lottery-type thinking if left unchecked. I meet far too many writers with all their eggs in one basket, offering a single blockbuster script they’ve re-written two dozen times with the belief it’s their ticket to fame and fortune should Speilberg or Cameron read it – typically all based around a concept which has already been done to death.
Furthermore, even if your spec is bought up to be put into production, it will be vulnerable to change as it’s adjusted to meet what the production team can deliver and “developed” by those who see flaws that need addressing. That’s before even getting into the shooting stage, where actors put their spin on things, and days simply don’t go as planned due to unforeseen complications.
Example: I have a spec script that’s nearly sold and gone into production twice but has since spawned two entirely new scripts instead that better met needs at the time. Sometimes, starting afresh makes sense rather than butchering something brilliant that can be made later. Perhaps one of the most brutal examples of having a spec changed, however, is Brian Helgeland having his script Payback radically rewritten after it was shot and despite him being the director – he was sacked just two days after winning an Academy Award, which proves nobody’s safe at any point.
3. You’ll Be Expected to Know Your Craft.
While this may seem like a glaringly obvious point to make, it’s an area few screenwriters fully address. Having read Save the Cat is not knowing your craft. Appreciating that a three-act structure is a beginning, middle, and end is not knowing your craft. Being able to format something that looks presentable is not knowing your craft.
The craft of screenwriting encompasses many areas but is predominantly based on the art of storytelling with an understanding of why we tell stories, what they achieve, and what makes them entertaining. To an artist who cares about their work, that alone is a life-long commitment to continuous exploration and learning.
Beyond storytelling, you will be expected to be a master of composing quality prose, able to turn around treatments, and preferably understand how films are made, along with an appreciation for what markets demand.
If you think a five-act structure is somehow in competition with the Hero’s Journey, can’t put together a synopsis for a complete story without “feeling your way through it” first, find writing a logline a chore, have a problem not using profanity in dialogue, and can’t rewrite an action scene so it can be shot for one-tenth of the budget, we might have a problem.
Ultimately, the room should look to you as the person who has well-thought-out answers to story-related questions and methods of addressing story-related problems. This is your passion, right? So, it’s only natural it will be your expertise.
Of course, it’s reasonable to say the fact you have broken in proves you have the skills to deliver. But herein lies a problem with many aspiring screenwriters – they build scripts based on feedback rather than craft, which seems to be becoming more common. Something designed by a committee is not the same as something designed by an authority, and the former owes itself to the group and the latter to the individual.
The craft side of screenwriting can be formidable, especially to the creative mind, which can struggle with academia. As someone who hated school, I suggest leaning into what you love by studying the history of your favourite films and learning more about the lives of your heroes. Turn what you’re putting off into an indulgence. Also, I’m the first to admit my dyslexia holds me back, as it can make my proofreading seem lazy. All of us who care about this are constantly learning and improving.
Example: While chatting with a director once, I used the word MacGuffin to describe something I’d seen in a film, and they stopped me in my tracks to exclaim how shocked they were that I knew what a MacGuffin was. No writer they had worked with in the past had been familiar with the term or what it meant, and they screamed with delight that someone finally spoke their language. That’s a well-known plot device too, which shows how ignorant many screenwriters can be.
4. Your Affairs Should Be in Order.
Okay, that sounds slightly darker than it needs to, but the principle is the same. Making a film is a big deal with a significant investment necessary and many jobs involved. A project can fall through over paperwork, and if it does so, the cost to all affected could be horrific. You don’t want to be that person, especially that new person, who drops the ball and loses everyone their paycheck.
The most basic task, yet still often shunned, is registering a copyright claim through a credible institution. Sadly, many writers baulk at doing this simply due to cost, and while I appreciate the issue, the long-term problems this can cause mean those savings made now will pale into insignificance compared to what may be lost in the future.
This isn’t simply about protecting your intellectual property from theft, which is critical. This is about production companies being able to go through a due-diligence process that satisfies other associated parties they need to work with by showing they own the rights to the content they are making. Put simply; they are purchasing a piece of property from you. They need a paper trail demonstrating they’ve done so in good faith with the understanding that, to the best of their knowledge, you created it, and no other entity currently has the film rights to it. The screenplay is the foundation a film is built on, and if ownership comes into question, everything topples down with it. This paper trail is called a chain of title, and as a writer, you will need to sign one if you want the completed film to see the light of day. The best-supporting evidence you can provide to assure others you have written a script is a copyright claim from when you completed it. The correct place to register that claim is subject to the region(s) you and the buyer are located. Since most English-speaking films are made in the US, it makes sense to register through the US Library of Congress (LoC), where the country’s copyright office resides.
In some cases, this will be the only form of evidence deemed acceptable. Sadly, this area has become clouded with additional supporting registration libraries, such as that provided by the WGA, that don’t offer the same level of legal recourse. It’s made even more complicated when you factor in the likes of the WIPO Copyright Treaty, which falls under the Berne Convention, and the countries that are signatories. There’s no one-shot answer for all writers in all countries, but the most common advice is just to spend the damn fifty bucks and register with the LoC.
There’s not a great deal else a screenwriter needs to have in order, but it helps to have your bank account details ready (especially for international transfers), a permanent address, proof of ID, a passport, and knowledge about how any income is going to impact you in terms of taxation. Many artists choose to take their income through a limited liability company, which needs to be registered and have its own business bank account to operate. Long story short, you don’t want to become a stumbling block when things start happening because you failed to plan ahead.
Example: A fellow writer of mine ran into an unexpected issue during the production of his first film that put him through a lot of stress. He sold the film rights to a screenplay which shared the name with a radio show he’d also written. The night before shooting began, a union flagged that the script may have already been produced since something already existed with the same title and author. They blocked the production from continuing as a result. Thankfully, since my friend had all his paperwork in order, he could provide evidence that all was correct in time for the block to be lifted and for the production to go ahead on schedule.
5. You Most Likely Won’t Be Earning the “WGA Minimums” That Get Shared Around.
People generally don’t like to talk about how much they earn, especially in sectors where the top brass make millions, and writers are no exception. It’s a crass conversation, but since screenwriting jobs are rarely advertised with compensation, there is little in the way of a barometer for people to work with. This isn’t like being a wedding photographer, where you can see how much other photographers charge. It’s all a bit opaque and mysterious, not to mention somewhat enchanting when it’s known that even first-time writers have made deals in the six or even seven figures.
The result has been people turning to the WGA Schedule of Minimums, one of the few documents out there that give examples of compensation for sales and assignments in both film and television, and any writer could be forgiven for getting excited about those numbers, especially if they live outside of an expensive city like Los Angeles. The thing is, these minimums are subject to two things; the prodco being a WGA signatory and the budget being above a certain amount (currently $1.2m). The issue here is that this represents the tiny pinnacle of the industry that is the Hollywood studio system. This is like looking at silicon valley wages within the biggest tech companies and thinking they apply across the board.
The reality is that most production companies are not beholden to these rates, even those contained within the pretty much unknown WGA Low Budget Agreement, which cuts those aspirational minimums by as much as 75%. They are not beholden to anything, and thus they can offer you whatever they feel is fair compensation while knowing full well they aren’t in a bidding war, and since you’re uncredited, this is most likely the first genuine offer you’ve ever received.
Look, the correct answer to how much compensation is enough is simple – it’s down to you. How much are YOU willing to take? The message to take away here is that the numbers being banded about by people dreaming of a big payday do not represent what the average working screenwriter tends to receive, not by a long shot.
Plus, even if you do get a job with a WGA signatory, the scope of that job may be truncated significantly, you may be dropped, or they may not play fair and use tricks like never acknowledging they’ve received a draft, so you technically can’t invoice them for having written it. Being part of a union is great, but it’s never perfect.
And here’s the rub, most payment agreements for writers are subject to a schedule tied to the project’s completion status, e.g. 25% for a first draft > 25% for a second draft > 25% upon greenlight > and 25% when shooting commences. Plus, most producers don’t have financing but need scripts, so there’s always the chance you’re hitching your wagon to someone trapped in the endless purgatory that is the pitching circuit. Yikes! Welcome to the world that loves to promise jam tomorrow.
Example: One of the reasons I recommend people study their heroes is so they can see the struggles those people went through before they made it big and made millions. One of my favourites is Tarantino writing Dusk till Dawn as his first writing assignment for a modest $1,500 (around $3,200 when adjusted for inflation).
6. You Won’t Get Representation by Default.
Another axiom spread within screenwriting communities is that the party buying your screenplay and/or services will require you to work through an agent, and you’ll be recommended to a reputable one if you don’t already have representation. Again, this conflates what may happen typically in the big league with what should happen in the little league. Truth be told, the last thing an indie producer wants to do is bring in a third party who will complicate matters and create more paperwork. Furthermore, few agents are attracted to a writer with only one indie deal to their name.
The reps worth having are looking for writers already getting regular work, so they can jump in, exploit what’s there, and take a cut. If that sounds like a bit of a catch-22, congratulations, it is.
The bottom line here is that your first deal is likely to be between you, a producer, and, if you choose, an entertainment lawyer you may bring in to consult over the contract.
Example: I’ve met very few screenwriters happy with their agent, and having dealt with agents as a producer trying to cast a movie, I’ve seen how they can sometimes do more damage than good, especially those with limited experience. I’ve also seen new writers get so hung up on their first contract and so obsessed they will get screwed out of money that they’ve paid an entertainment lawyer more to go through the fine print than their actual writing fee entails.
7. You May Be Rewritten, You Could Get Replaced, and Your Credit Isn’t Guaranteed.
Yep, it’s entirely possible your big break-in movie crumbles into something you barely recognise, and there will be nothing in the public eye that proves you ever worked on the project.
I say you “may” be rewritten when in fact, it’s more realistic to say you “will” be rewritten in some form, as it’s pretty much impossible for a script to make it from first draft to released movie without some changes, be that through need or ego. Producers must address daily challenges, actors make tweaks, and editors have tight runtime constraints to consider. Delusions that what you’ve written is some sort of bible that’s chiselled into stone need to be left at the door. A script is an organic beast at mercy to the saying; there’s the story you write, the story you shoot, and the story you edit.
Being replaced tends to be more of a common issue for those working on bigger projects for prodcos with a pool of writers to pick from, so be careful what you wish for, as there’s plenty of trouble at the top. That said, I have seen writers replaced on projects at an indie level. This may also be the plan a producer always had in mind, where they buy your spec because they like the concept and barebones behind it and then bring in their favourite writer to implement their notes and give it their voice. They may even do this as a ghostwriter and go uncredited, leaving your name on something you barely recognise and perhaps don’t want to be associated with.
Your contract will dictate the terms of your credit, but there is a basic rule here; no sane producer will guarantee anything since they don’t know how script development will go. You may also not see the credit you’ve been given until you see the released movie. At this point, it will be tough to do anything about it as a non-unionised individual without a reputable lawyer on speed dial and funds ready to fight your case.
Example: I’ve been very fortunate when it comes to getting rewritten, as I’ve been the sole writer on all my feature-length projects from start to finish, while working with a director that respects the words are in the shooting script for good reason. That said, I was present for the shoot of my first movie, and we ran into issues that meant significant script changes were inevitable. As I tore pages out to help keep things on schedule, it felt like I was tearing parts of my soul out with them. The first time is the toughest because you’ve yet to see how the resulting scenes are still likely to be brilliant and sometimes even better due to tweaks.
8. You Might Not Be Welcome on Set.
This will be welcome news to some of you and heartbreaking to others, as the desire to be on set varies significantly between people. If you are excited about the prospect of being around stars and taking selfies on location, it’s best to hold back on packing your bags for now.
Writers have limited use on set during a shoot. It’s another mouth to feed and person to manage, with the added risk that a writer can easily become a big problem. Some writers are incredibly precious over their material and can butt heads with the director and actors when things don’t align with their vision.
Writers who are very close to the production and have a great working relationship with the director will be more welcome. However, still, they’ll need to make themselves busy helping out in any way they can to justify the expense. The simplest way to keep a writer busy is to make them the Script Supervisor, which I’ve done and found a lot more stressful than it looks.
#Setlife is something you either love or hate, with lots of “hurry up and wait” along with gruelling days that can be cold, dusty, blazing hot, or stormy. So, even if you get invited to watch your baby being made, be prepared to find the experience emotionally and physically challenging.
Something worth preparing for, regardless of if you are on-set or otherwise, are potential emergency rewrites. If you are on-set, you’ll need a laptop, the latest copy of the script, and most likely a copy of Final Draft to ensure you can write anywhere and deliver new pages in the file format needed. If you aren’t, you need to be contactable and ready to jump into action with solutions, even if you are in a different time zone.
Example: I know of a director who had a writer show up just for one day on set and still managed to completely derail part of the production. They got talking to a lead actor who was enquiring about their role and told them the character they were playing was secretly gay. This caused great confusion, mostly because the script had been rewritten since the writer’s involvement, and that part of the character’s backstory had been removed because it clashed with other aspects of the rewrite. Cue one actor completely bewildered and confused about how to prepare for their scenes.
9. You Will Be a Small Cog in a Much Bigger Machine.
It’s time to leave your ego at the door, as you’re now collaborating with a team, and somebody else owns the rights to your writing. This can be a tough pill to swallow for those who think the writer is the star of the show and believe everybody should be coming to them for creative direction and approval. This isn’t your movie. I say this because I get the impression that many aspiring writers see themselves as becoming pseudo-writer-directors, calling the shots and dictating the terms with the actual director hanging on their every word.
The reality is usually the opposite, with the director the centre of the universe and the writer more like a rock somewhere in an asteroid field on the cosmic horizon. It has to be that way as the director is the chief executive of production, the decision maker, who consults with their department heads as needed. It is them who have the final say on actors, locations, costumes, props, lighting, plus everything else, and more importantly, they take responsibility for it as the person the producers feel best to handle their financier’s investment. They have most likely earned that level of control through decades of effort, which must be respected.
Going from the person who dreamt everything up in the first place to someone who may not see their words turned into reality until the completed film is released in their country is a humbling journey to go on. However, you have chosen to relinquish control in exchange for compensation and a writing credit on something you’re hopefully proud of.
I find peace knowing I have creative ownership of the draft I hand in. I will always have that. That’s my take described as vividly as I can with my words. After that, it’s a gift to the cast and crew to bring their own creativity and voice into.
This is why being on the same wavelength as your collaborators is critical; your vision and their vision will never be too far apart.
If you want influence, then the time to indulge in that is during the development stage, where it will likely be a small team involved. This should be an enjoyable and creative time, so don’t let stress hinder that pleasure. Know that you’ve been entrusted to do the job because people believe in you. However, also know that some industry members treat their writers like glorified typists.
There may also be additional tasks for you to do once the film is complete, such as being interviewed and writing various length synopses to be handed over to distributors. How much you lean into this is up to you, but it’s your opportunity to build up your profile and stay involved, so perhaps next time you’re involved in a production, you’ll have a little more clout than before.
Example: I once had an actor approach me desperately needing a short screenplay to shoot. I put together a great little script for them that still makes me chuckle to this day. They brought in a director with concerns over the script and wanted to chat. During that meeting, she made it clear they didn’t like the story, which they saw more like a comedy skit, and wanted something completely different. Having written the script as a favour and sensing where things were going, I pulled out and left them to it. The resulting short film turned out to be nothing short of bizarre, completely losing the original tone and rife with clunky dialogue that took the story in a weird direction void of humour, turnarounds, and theme. Sometimes you’re the passenger in a car crash, and, worse still, your name gets printed in the paper to go with it.
10. Your First Release Probably Won’t Be a Blockbuster or an Oscar Winner.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to go straight to the top of the Hollywood pyramid, but it’s improbable for someone unknown. Screenwriters are obsessed with this possibility however, and many platforms selling services encourage it because those who think they’ll get rich and famous overnight are willing to gamble more to get there. The filmmaking world is a strange beast too, where making small, low-budget films can be perceived by many as somehow worse than making no films at all.
Indie film doesn’t get much coverage in writing communities, mainly because of the lack of glamour associated with it. It is tough. It is nothing like the studio world. People smirk at releases that go “straight to DVD” like it’s a failure. There will be little to no wrap party, and the premier, if there is one, will be attended mainly by the cast and crew. The film, assuming it gets through production, will be lucky to be picked up by the kind of distributor film snobs roll their eyes at and won’t be playing on the big screen at your local theatre. That’s reality. As consumers, we see the film world like an iceberg, with the summer releases at the top, the remainder of studio slates below, and maybe some big prodco releases just above the water line. In the depths hides a much bigger world of movie-making that fails to get the respect, admiration, and exposure it perhaps deserves because, as an art form, film is inherently elitist. This means that, while you may be pleased as punch to be simply having a script made, you may find it challenging managing the expectations of your friends and peers, who have yet to compartmentalise these two worlds. It’s a real test of ego, and modesty goes a long way.
The decline in long-tail returns has also made the above much more arduous, since streaming has replaced video and DVD. The dream that your little film will become a cult indie hit is more of a fantasy in today’s crowded marketplace.
Those hoping for a “festival darling” would be wise to lower their expectations too. The awards scene is subject to massive PR campaigns at best and utterly corrupt at worst, depending on who you talk to. That’s the higher level of award shows too, with the lower levels often operating more like rackets, as producers desperately throw money at lucrative entry fees and are left to wonder (quite rightly) if they paid indirectly for their trophy and toward the ceremony as a whole. That’s not to say that great films aren’t discovered and elevated through the festival scene, just that only a tiny few are, and it’s not as puritanical a system as many want to believe.
There’s little salvation to be found in the world of film critics either, despite many claiming to champion low-budget films. They’ll trash your production for its green screen, lack of explosions, and lesser-known cast, before picking apart your writing because, guess what, most of them are writers themselves, with no experience and thus no empathy for the constraints you face.
All this ultimately means your first feature film writing credit, as monumental an achievement as that is, probably won’t be sending you straight into the big league and setting you up with a lucrative career for life. Like getting your first job in any industry, it’s the first step up a very long ladder – or shuffle up a slippery pole, to be more accurate.
Example: I’ve seen the same process all too often. A writer gets a taste of what they think puts them in the world of A-listers, and they quickly show their true colours. They use the opportunity to look down on others and become braggarts as their ego spirals out of control. I’ve seen people act like they’ve “made it” over the most petty and tenuous events that either only seem big because other amateur writers tout them as such, or are blatant BS because the individual is being drawn in by someone dishonest who wants to exploit them for free. Then the comedown, when it all goes nowhere, and everyone is watching, is painful to watch, often resulting in that person disappearing off the face of the planet because they feel so much unnecessary shame.
The running theme of these points should be pretty easy to spot; the amateur world does not prepare us for the reality behind beginning a screenwriting career because it’s focused almost entirely on the pinnacle of one. This distortion can cause those experiencing the rare advancement into the professional world to suffer shellshock or even disappointment when they aren’t making a Hollywood blockbuster.
The remedy is to stay realistic about what the typical screenwriting profession entails and maintain a healthy degree of humility while remaining thankful we’re that one in a million who achieved the seemingly impossible.
The fact is, breaking into any level of film, respected, glamorous, lucrative, or otherwise, is a huge life achievement and an attainment that gets more competitive by the day. Don’t let other people’s unrealistic standards stop you from feeling proud.
Bonus Point. The Amateur Side Will Seem Like Madness.
While we should never lose our roots and always be proud of where we came from, any stint in the filmmaking world will inevitably contrast with what’s talked about in forums. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those communities per se; it’s just that the demographics are disproportionally made up of people with very little insight who are forced to speculate rather than talk from experience. This means lots of Chinese whispers, gossip, misinformation, and ultimately pushing of bad advice that feels right and pleases the masses but steers people in the wrong direction.
There’s a good reason why you don’t see many pros sharing their opinions in these places, and that’s because it can be a punishing and distressing experience. They are effectively hounded out for telling the truth, and you may suffer the same fate when you return to share your experiences. It can be tough to lose that sense of kinship and community and even tougher to know you can’t always send the elevator back down to help the next person that needs it.
Example: As a child of the Internet, and a long-time forum user, I was a frequent contributor to numerous screenwriting forums on various platforms. I loved the engagement with my fellow creatives and enjoyed those times immensely. However, the more I learned about the reality of building a screenwriting career, and the more I saw success, the more pushback I received against the advice I was giving. Not just pushback from aspiring writers but the admins, gurus, and moderators who control what gets posted. I’ve been threatened with a ban from Reddit’s r/screenwriting because of sharing links to my articles that answer people’s questions in detail, I’ve been told I’m not welcome on Facebook’s largest screenwriting group because I’m “too nice” to beginner writers and should give them more “tough love”, and this is before even getting into the trolls and haters that stalk me daily – simply because I choose to share what’s worked for me, and warn others of the pitfalls I’ve avoided. C’est la vie!