We’re at that point where it’s time to revisit my annual blog about forming a plan to succeed in screenwriting not only in the next twelve months but over the years it typically takes to break in. Christmas is a great time to pause and reflect on where we are and I like to keep this guide updated with any new information I find while keeping it in context in regard to the current state of events. Needless to say, the landscape has changed considerably once again – CJ
Well the rollercoaster never ends, does it? They say “may you live in interesting times” as a goal but I totally empathise with anybody feeling weary right now. 2022 has been a very strange year for me as little of it has been focused on writing and instead all about producing. My second film, Double Threat, launched to little pomp and ceremony at first but went on to surprise everybody, including the mainstream press, when it entered the Amazon Prime US top ten and managed to climb as high as #4 in the charts. Not bad for a low budget movie shot on the side of a hill during the pandemic and based on a script written in only a few days by yours truly. In the background, Shane Stanley and me had been working hard on post production for our latest movie, Night Train, which is ready to release in the US in theaters on Jan 13 and on-demand on Jan 17. The trailer has gone down remarkably well.
Outside of my activities as a writer-producer Script Revolution has continued its steady growth and boasts over 14,000 members with over 12,000 scripts. The success stories continue to flow in too with more news on writers optioning/selling their material than ever.
As some of you know, I was asked last year to expand my Turn & Burn screenwriting guide into a book which launched in Jan. This quickly became a best seller on Amazon for a short while and has gained 25 glowing reviews along with a remarkable endorsement from a former director of UTA’s story department.
A Period of Contraction
Being brutally honest about how I see the film industry landscape right now, it’s not good. The economic forces at play are causing people to understandably tighten up on their finances and that means spending less on entertainment as a result. Meanwhile, rapid inflation means the cost of making movies has also gone up dramatically. It only makes sense that demand should decrease but, as we move into an era where people are more concerned about getting by than getting rich quick, it feels like supply is also on the downturn. As ever, those screenwriters keeping things lean and focusing on their love of the craft should be able to weather this storm while hopefully coming out on top. As they say in the stock market, buy when people are fearful and sell when people are fearless. There is no better time to start building relationships with those determined to get to other side.
Take a Moment
As ever, the best place to start is with stopping… or at least pausing. We all had a lot of time (too much time) to think during the pandemic lockdowns and hopefully you’ve come out of those with a surge of energy. The problem is how confused that energy most likely is right now. We’re living in a world of increased uncertainty were a lot of people have significantly adjusted their viewpoints and trajectories. Don’t feel along if you’re a little lost. What’s important is taking the energy we have and directing it into the right places. It’s very easy to simply throw mud at the wall with screenwriting and that can quickly become so exhausting it kills our passion completely.
When it comes to recapturing or revitalising our passion, a great place to start is by revisiting some of our favourite films to remind ourselves about what we love and how those films, along with the filmmakers behind them, went through a similar struggle as ourselves to become accepted and admired.
You should be aware of what’s being released too, even if you haven’t been to the movie theater in a whole. If you haven’t watched a recent release then please do and take note of what a modern movie looks and feels like. You need to get out of the common mindset that the industry needs a rival or you may get left behind.
Create two logs if you don’t have them already; one which lists all your successes, never mind how minor, and one logging any positive comments you have received for your work. You are going to keep these logs updated and close to you and, when you feel like you’ve achieved nothing, these will be on file ready to remind you that you are progressing. Here’s how my achievements log has grown over time;
2012 — 38 words
2013 — 56 words
2014 — 259 words
2015 — 785 words
2016 — 26 words
2017 — 46 words
2018 — 201 words
2019 — 438 words
2020 — 1016 words
2021 — 842 words
2022 — 1577 words
My numbers demonstrate that these things aren’t linear. I had a lot going for me in 2015 but the wind disappeared from my sails and I went through a quiet period before a director approached me in 2018. Growth is often jagged so try to the see the trend which is hopefully headed upward overall.
On the topic of logs, make sure to photograph any written by hand to keep them safe. If you’re taking them digitally, make sure you have an easy to use, reliable system that preferably syncs between your devices.
In fact, now’s a good time to review your whole software strategy from what you are using to write/format to how you are backing up your data and see if it’s the best and most cost effective solution for your needs. Don’t default to using Final Draft simply because people say you should. When it comes to backing up data, cloud based storage is now incredibly cheap. No excuses. I know too many people who’ve lost their notebook or their hard disk contents.
If you’ve fallen out of the habit of taking reflective walks then it’s time to go out on one and ask yourself what makes your voice special along with what weaknesses you feel you need to tackle. Give yourself two aims for the year; to write a script that’s 100% in your voice while appropriate for today’s market place and to overcome a personal craft or networking weakness via education and practice.
Ultimately, try to free yourself from the fear that the break-in screenwriting scene generates with its conflicting advice and critical feedback. Fear is your enemy. It’s time for you to clear your mind and make the choice to no longer live in fear of rejection. It’s time to re-find the eager writer you were when you started this dream.
Personal story; I’m a b-movie junkie and a product of the 90’s backlot rebel movement. The films I’ve always loved are quirky, hard-hitting, and controversial with very mixed reviews. The nature of the business has changed a lot in the decades since many of my favourite films were made and they would struggle to get funding and theatrical releases in this day and age. I had two choices; compromise my values to become more commercial or stick with what I love and accept that things are going to be tougher. I chose the latter, nailed my colours to the mast, and stopped looking for approval. Not only did my writing become better for it, the industry opened up to me more because it became clear where I best fit. Now I’m writing and producing the kind of gritty films I love to watch. The catalyst was ironically giving up. During a down period, I turned to my favourite films for comfort and found inspiration and strength as a result.
Search Out Your Tribe
Something you can always be doing is not only building your network but also pruning it. The latter point is important because it’s just as important to cut out relationships with toxic people as it is forming new ones with powerful ones. You need to separate the wheat from the chaff and shake off what’s holding you back. Cut ties with intrusions, unsubscribe from email subscriptions that bother you, and leave communities that make you feel bad about yourself. I generally advise staying away from forums in general as they are often full of trolls and misinformation. Walk away from companies trying to convince you you’re missing out while they hound you for money. Know that most of the people forcing dogmatic advice down your throat are failing and have little to no real-world experience in the industry.
The tribe you build will grow into your support group in time. These are the people who will champion you and cheer you on when you need it and you can return the favour. You must however do your due diligence. Identify working professionals who share their experiences and advice. You are one search on IMDb away from checking someone’s credentials, so there’s no excuse. This is a world rife with imposters, bullshitters, and hucksters surrounded by bitter and deluded amateurs. There are people who want you to believe the sky isn’t blue because it benefits them in some way. You absolutely must know this because it’s what I see most often killing people’s chances.
Most people in the industry are more than happy to build connections. Search out your heroes and dare to approach them. A-listers aren’t likely to be within reach but there‘s countless others who helped make your favourite films happen out there. You may be surprised who you link hands with and doing so will help you realise you can be part of this “elite” world.
Film events are the best place you can go to connect with people in person. Look at the events scheduled and pencil them in providing you can afford the time and the travel costs. Focus particularly on the social meet-ups as this is where you’ll do your best networking — providing you’re clearly there to bond with people rather than make a hard sell.
Most importantly of all, diversify the tribe you build beyond other screenwriters, particularly those at your level. Broaden your horizons by building links with filmmakers working in all roles, particularly producers and particularly people one step higher up the mountain.
Personal story; I used to hang out on a lot of screenwriting forums and never realised at the time how destructive and deluded a lot of the advice was. I made the mistake of trusting people on face value too often and went in directions that sent me backward. Reading factual books on movie making didn’t just help me see how wrong many are in their approach, it made networking in person much better too as movie history tends to come up a lot in conversation. I’ve had to cut a lot of people out of my circle over the years and, while that’s been tough to do, it’s left me with a tight group of friends who constantly inspire and humble me.
Review Your Presence
You need to appreciate that you effectively have two key things you’re promoting as a screenwriter; yourself as a creative who can work on assignments and your portfolio of spec scripts which are ready to be made. However, you must know, and this is a bitter pill to swallow, that spec scripts rarely sell in today’s marketplace. Modern screenwriting careers are built on getting regular assignments with spec scripts acting more like writing samples than anything else. Yes, Shane Black did effectively walk into CAA on a recommendation and walk out a few months later with a seven figure cheque and yes, Joe Eszterhas did scratch some notes on a napkin and sell the idea for millions but these are the exceptions that prove the rule and happened decades ago. You need to position yourself as someone willing to turn other people’s ideas into screenplays and in it for the long-term because that’s likely going to be your bread and butter in terms of a career.
I’ve spoken about the importance of presenting yourself as an artist with a strong voice before and this is an ideal opportunity to review how you‘re projecting your offering. Does it represent you accurately? Is it appealing to those you’d like to work with? Look at everything from your bio (you do have a bio, right?) to your profile pic. Run your name through Google to see where and how you are appearing and try to keep it all in sync.
Now for a tougher question; does your portfolio truly represent you? Does it contain your best work? Does it represent your voice? Is it concise? Is it all free of glaring typos and grammatical errors? Are you losing people before they’ve even gotten to page one?
2020 has seen the rise of the synopsis and 2021 has seen the rise of the package. Prodcos don’t have time to triage entire screenplays and production companies want to see scripts with a multitude of additional materials from character descriptions, to location details, and a lot more. If you don’t at least have a synopsis for each of your scripts, you are holding your marketing efforts back significantly. We are moving into an era where aspiring screenwriters are going to have to start thinking more like producers. Filling the “gap” between a logline and a read is currently a great way to get ahead. Don’t believe a synopsis is powerful? My producing partner and I once got the offer of funding for a concept I’d written a two page synopsis for only that morning.
Plus, of course, know that you‘re always welcome to join Script Revolution and add your bio and portfolio for free. It’s a site I created for this very purpose.
Personal story; Perhaps it’s because I come from a marketing background but I was very quick to get my scripts online and easy to read back when most screenwriters kept themselves and their material locked away. This paid off for me in 2018 when a well established producer was reading a popular blog of mine. He liked what I had to say, read more of my articles, and wanted to check out if my scripts lived up to my opnions. A few clicks later, he was on my website looking at posters that got him excited and reading my features which led to me getting my first Hollywood feature assignment. Three years later, I have a feature film released in North America and I’m both a writer and a producing partner on two more projects we’ve made together. Now I also have a production company website to help keep the message clear.
Plan What You Can
You cannot predict what the year will bring or how you are going to feel during any period of it so try to hold back from setting out an overly burdensome writing routine. Instead, focus more on how you can best facilitate your ability to write when you have the time and motivation. That means making the act of writing as easy and enjoyable as possible. Do not conflate making work hard and making work worthwhile. Artists need to be comfortable and empowered to perform at their most optimal. Pressure is not the same as inspiration.
Your tools and your workspace should be a priority as these are extensions of yourself and no different to a musician’s instruments or painter’s studio. You need to be using screenwriting software that really enables you to write within a space that has the right vibe. Don’t get too precious about it but address issues such as having software you find clumsy, an operating system that crashes, or a workspace that’s full of distractions.
List the scripts you absolutely have to write in your lifetime. The ones that really stick with you and mean something. Is it the right time to tackle any of these? There’s nothing wrong with concluding now isn’t the right and making that decision is important because you need to shed any guilt you have about not tackling them just yet.
Based on the weaknesses you’ve identified (we all have them), make a list of craft related techniques you would like to trial. This could be anything from writing better prose and dialogue to getting your head round scene and story structure. My Turn & Burn screenwriting guide might help you here.
List what you really feel like doing. Now list what you feel you should be doing. Can you merge these two together? Do you need to make sacrifices? This is harder to do than it seems so take your time and be brutally honest with yourself.
Establish where you are on your journey and be realistic about it. It can take a long time to break in, a lifetime in some cases, so don’t feel negative about your situation. Now establish where you want to be in three years and be realistic about that. How do you connect the dots? If you don’t know, the first step is to try to find out.
Personal story; When I came to write my second feature assignment, I knew my biggest weakness at the time was writing conclusive final images after the finale. To address this, I sat down, fired up Netflix, and watched through dozens of films to study how they wrapped things up in those closing moments. After copious notes and analysis, I was able approach the final scene in my new project with a new found strength which resulted in me writing a really impactful and conclusive end scene. The key was making something that would take some time and effort into a fun, indulgent process with a clear goal.
Broadcast Your Wares
Now you have a better idea of your offering, you can identify and target your corner of the market. This is laborious and certainly not something you can do overnight. It can take years to zone in on where you need to be and find the people you need to be working with. Therefore, this is an ongoing task you should begin early and can start as simply watching the kind of films you love and taking note of who’s making them happen. Keep in mind that IMDb Pro has a tracking feature so, if you’re a member, consider following the people who have stood out to you.
Once you have an idea of whom you want to reach out to, and this again is an ongoing activity, it’s time to start swallowing frogs. It can be really hard to make contact with a filmmaker but you must get on people’s radar. It’s time to reach out. How formally or informally you do this is up to you but don’t ever send scripts without first asking if someone wants to read them and don’t spam every contact you can find with a generic message. Be selective, professional, and considerate, and most of all, be yourself.
Consider that industry members, particularly those in the earlier stages of their career, often search the internet for new material. There are a few sites you can upload your material to for free. These include; Script Revolution, Simply Scripts, Stage 32, and Coverfly.
Keep in mind that blogging is a powerful way to talk to a wide audience. You are a story writer so you have the upper hand here, not just in terms of being able to string together some prose but also in terms of tapping into deep thoughts and expressing them with an emotional edge. Blogging is where you can go to broadcast who you are and encompass a wide spectrum of your views from your motivations behind writing, to views on the craft, to feelings about the industry. Plus, you can of course send the elevator back down to share your reflections on your experiences and advice for others facing your earlier hurdles.
Ultimately, you need to break out of the comfortable but fruitless little bubble a lot of amateur screenwriters live in where they constantly beg for feedback, enter competitions, buy evaluations, and pay for consultancy while failing to progress any kind of career. A lot of it is designed to trap you within it and extract as much money as possible while you hope to get the validation you crave and a boost up “the system”. Spoiler alert: there is no system and they are mostly just emptying your pockets because they themselves can’t make a career out of writing.
Personal story; My perspective on the industry as a working writer-producer and founder of a script discovery platform is a unique and enlightened one. Every successful writer I’ve spoken to has told me they owe that success to networking above all else. How you network is up to you but two things that work well for me are; being a superconductor (helping connect people who should be talking) and reaching out to offer a favour rather than asking for one. The critical thing is to stop sitting around waiting to be discovered.
Indulge in Your Passion
As mentioned earlier, do not try to plan your year out too specifically. You don’t want to turn your passion into a chore but then you don’t want to get lazy either. The best way to stay motivated is to indulge in what you enjoy. You want to stick at this for as long as you need to make your dream a reality, right? So you understand it needs to be enjoyable to make that happen otherwise you are going to stop punishing yourself and quit? You need to have fun learning and allow your curiosity to explore and make exciting discoveries.
The more fun you have writing, the more fun will make it onto the page. Fun is entertaining and entertainment is what you are trying to create. Even if you are writing the most hard-hitting and tragic material your mind can manifest, you still need to be going into that with an intense passion and positive intent.
Self inflicted misery is only going to hold you back. Drop the mindset that good results only come from doing tough work. You’re not at school anymore. There’s no teacher to try and impress with your exhaustion and word-count. You’re an artist not a worker-bee and artists create by playing with what’s around them.
Your biggest enemy is procrastination so try to reduce that and get into the writing by breaking it all down into chunks. Balance your expectations and tell yourself to work on your latest project for thirty minutes and see where it leads. If you feel worse after thirty minutes, walk away and recharge or try something else. If you find yourself engrossed and lose track of the time, run with it until you feel your mind is tiring out.
There’s also nothing wrong with structuring your day to achieve a healthy work/life balance. If you want to finish by 6pm so you can nurture other areas of your life, permit yourself to do that without any guilt. Cabin fever is a very real problem so you may have to remind yourself to change up your routine and take trips outside.
The critical thing is that, when you write, you write without fear or obligation. Save your doubts and criticisms for the downtime and reflective periods. Write while feeling reassured that you are the best writer you’ll ever be right now giving yourself all the opportunities you can offer right now. Be proud of that while humble enough to know that you will grow over time.
If you only write one short script in this coming year, that’s not failure providing you write with absolute passion and come out of the other side feeling fulfilled in your artistry. Writing six features that feel like a slog, lack any energy, and don’t represent you is not the goal and has little worth.
So avoid turning your dreams of breaking in into an unpaid office job from hell where you are your own nightmare boss and write while knowing that every keystroke is progress and an investment in your future.
Personal story; I grew up as a huge Tarantino fan and was surprised to enter screenwriter communities only to hear cries of “you’re not freaking Tarantino!” from various self-proclaimed gurus and consultants. The advice was clear; do not dare write like this highly successful writer-director or people will hate and blacklist you. That hit me hard and killed my motivation as I found myself second-guessing where my inspiration stemmed from. However, the more I studied the life of this artist I admired, the more I realised how much he had swam against the tide before breaking in. This caused me to actually double-down on following the path of my influencers with a similar attitude and it was then that things really started to happen for me. Do I write like him as a result? No. Is my artistic inspiration clear in my work? Probably. Do I approach being an artist like him? Absolutely.
It’s essential that you love and nurture yourself along this mammoth journey that may become one of the longest and most intense chapters of your life. Completing the first draft of a script can often be a significant task taking weeks or even months to achieve while working on it full time. This is a lot to put ourselves through emotionally and it’s important we have something to look forward to once we cross the finish line. While writing can mostly be all the reward we need, it’s still nice to acknowledge that we’ve completed something we set out to do.
Plan out a bunch of rewards. It doesn’t matter how small they are as it’s the principal behind them that really counts. It can be getting pizza with friends or treating yourself to a new t-shirt. It’s these moments you’ll remember and look back on.
Personal story; It took me six years to get that first feature option, six and a half years to get that first paid assignment, and seven years to get that first green light on a movie. I celebrated a lot during those first six years even though I didn’t earn a dime for the duration. I barely remember the moments I hit fade out or received good news but I do remember a beautifully vivid montage of telling my friends and family about my latest news and celebrating over a drink.
The key to success in 2023 is going to be about maintaining a healthy attitude based in personal motivation and determination despite how dour things may look economically. Now is the time to embrace positivity and inspiration while others see the light at the end of the tunnel shrinking and give up.
Keeping going isn’t necessarily about working harder or even working smarter; both of those benefits will come as a bi-product of throwing the concept of work out the window and replacing it with absolute creative indulgence that’s driven by passion and empowered by freedom.
Now is the time to sit down and write with a love of writing itself so we are ready for the opportunities that will still be out there.
Make this coming year one based in pragmatism and optimism. Have fun becoming a better writer, making new connections, and building a portfolio that better represents you an as artist.