Beware Screenwriting Quicksand

Something I see every day that really pains me are screenwriters walking into the equivalent of career quicksand. I see this happening on various stages of writer’s journeys and sometimes they aren’t so much aimlessly wandering into trouble as gleefully diving right in to thunderous applause. Sometimes they are pushed. Here’s what I think screenwriters looking to build careers need to look out for while treading very carefully.

Before I get into this, I want to state that I’m not naming any names. I’ve come to learn over the years, while working my way up the system, that corruption runs thick throughout the amateur screenwriting community and it gets worse day-by-day. Sadly, it’s just not worth facing legal battles or the hordes of cultists that defend these companies and individuals. There is a lot of money at stake and people don’t want to lose it. So anyway…

Paid Exposure Services

The early steps on your screenwriting journey are most likely going to lead you to some form of paid exposure service. These suck you in by preying on three key things all new screenwriters suffer from; the need to be validated, an urgency to be discovered, and having zero industry contacts to approach.

The process is usually a case of “rating and ranking” but the ratings are done by unknown individuals and the ranking has ambiguous value. In many cases, myself included, people know individuals employed to rank material and are sorely disappointed by their credentials. There’s a general rule at play here; people who can identify great scripts don’t work for minimum wage. They become producers or executives earning significant money. There also tends to be a lot of mystery surrounding the industry members they claim value their ranking. Mystery to the point they won’t even tell you who’s reading your material. The genuine effectiveness of these services tends to be clearly demonstrated in their poor success rate which shows they do, in no way, justify their high costs.

What’ll trap you and suck you in deeper is the human propensity to gamble when costs and odds are low. This is exasperated with subjective material because the gambler can often believe they just need the right eyes on their script so the next roll of the dice will be the number they are looking for. That works for the service owner too who can always claim subjectivity and certainly not their low quality readers and flawed ranking system is the only thing holding you back. As you waste more and more time and money trying to game these systems, your situation will become increasingly desperate, making you increasingly dependant on a big win. Worse still, in a bid to chase the limited and conflicting feedback, you are likely to start hacking up your material to please the next reader but find yourself chasing your tail and losing your artistic voice in the process.

How to make it out alive; If you are going to use paid exposure services, try to limit it to those that offer something definite in return for a fixed cost, are transparent about their process, and have a list of genuine success stories. If you are going to add gambling to your strategy, only do it with money you can allocate as okay to potentially throw away and be prepared to walk away with nothing. Try to avoid changing your material too much unless there’s a clear consensus across the feedback that you agree is holding you back. Look at some of the higher quality services out there that use reputable readers but understand that they cost in the hundreds of dollars for their time and effort. Appreciate that, in some cases, the ranking lists are 100% fake and created by groups of writers starting their own brand to try and woo industry members to take notice. Ultimately, work on improving your craft rather than your scripts and focus your funds and energy into effective networking.

Competitions and Festivals

Until more recently, screenwriting competitions became the de-facto standard for lost amateur screenwriters to throw their money at in the hope they will break-in. In fact, entering at least one of “the big three” is a sort of rite of passage for many. The main issue with competitions is we’ve seen a huge explosion in the number of these appear on the scene since competition portals have opened up allowing screenwriters to upload their scripts to one place, add their credit card details, and submit to a multitude of impressive sounding competitions with low, or even sometimes free, entry costs.

There are so many issues with the screenwriting competition world, it deserves a whole blog post of its own but it basically boils down to this; there is pretty much no standard a competition has to meet and zero transparency on their part. You don’t know who’s judging your material (it might be your direct competition) and you can’t even be sure your material is even being judged in the first place since the organisers have no obligation to prove it. Even some of the more “reputable” competitions have had their requests for readers publicly outed for paying incredibly low fees ($10 per script) with some readers reporting they were told to only read a few pages and/or never got paid for their time.

Competitions tend to be designed to suck you in with the claim of being linked to a glamorous industry event such as a major film festival but the reality is their awards ceremonies are often a tacky parade of winners being handed awards paid out of the prize pot with photos taken against a logo wall on a red carpet. It’s all faux Hollywood-esq success bolstered with competition names containing key words like “golden”, “international”, and “independent”. The tiers tend to be ridiculous with huge numbers of niche categories so more screenwriters can be given award status which they’ll go on to promote to other screenwriters and result in more entries the next time around — which can be as often as monthly. In some cases, every single entry into some competitions has resulted in an award being handed out by default along with a digital laurel to display in people’s social media feed. It’s one thing to receive a participation trophy, it’s a whole other to pay for one.

Long story short, you could start a screenwriting competition today if you wanted to and nobody is going to question what you’re doing. Nobody of note is going to care either because industry members generally don’t rate competitions bar the most popular and their interest tends to extend as far as having an assistant request copies of the finalists. Those that place highly and win even the most reputable often report little in the way of real world success, many finding that they simply entered another tier of having to hand over money for the festival passes needed to “maximise their opportunity”. This is the trap. It’s easy to believe competitions are a route to success and enter as many as possible over and over.

How to make it out alive; Look at competitions as a subjectivity lottery with the hope, but not expectation that you’ll maybe win a valuable prize rather than kickstart a career. Understand that the term “film festival” denotes a group of people in the same place watching films and that’s it. If you do want to try your luck, seek out competitions with genuine success stories that either come as a result of their high standing or the efforts the organisers go to in a bid to connect their winners with industry members who can help them. Never sit around waiting for results and glumly believing “there’s always next year” when you don’t advance as it’s costing you precious time. Avoid the portals that list hundreds you can enter through their system as they are incentivised to push you into buying as many entries as possible so they get their commission.

Screenwriting Communities

One of the biggest elements missing from the average screenwriter’s life is a sense of close kinship with others on the same journey. With it being easier than ever to start up groups via website forums or social media groups, there are lots of communities out there to join online and participate in with the hope of learning more about the craft, the industry, and the real-world prospects of your material.

The issue with screenwriting communities is they tend to be full of other writers just as lost who are prone to clutching at straws for answers. It can often truly be a case of the blind leading the blind with the truth sometimes buried deep within the mass of miss-information, half truths, outright lies, and toxic arguments. Users rarely have to use their own full names and, even when they do, often try to make out they’re something they’re not in a bid to raise their status above others. Most conversations tend to be driven by a consensus or general fawning over opinion leaders meaning they can suffer really badly from the stupidity of crowds effect. Pleasing answers or those that serve the general narrative tend to be those that solicit the most upvotes/likes and thus, true or not, appear validated. Worse still, a lot of those easy answers tend to lead to the paid exposure services and competitions mentioned above as so many believe they work. Those that run communities can also have questionable motives, again often linked to status, which means they do not like to be challenged and, along with the community, often drive out those offering the most valuable information. I’ve watched working execs credited on major international blockbusters hounded out of forums. I’ve seen long-time studio writers simply give up trying to help people and walk away.

However, that said, the real issue with screenwriting communities is that they are havens of procrastination and, if you’re looking for a distraction that feels like work, they are a perfect way to talk about writing without actually doing any writing. They are addictive and the need to give your opinion along with the ongoing drama and debates highly tempting. Writing groups can be just as much as a trap too as can be any group challenges or collaboration activities. Avoiding working on your scripts is a big issue be it actively or passively and doing so while being exposed to a lot of bad advice is self defeating.

How to make it out alive; If you feel the need to participate in screenwriting communities, try to take part in those where people are using their real names and do your due-diligence as much as possible. The worst advice has a habit of being broadcast the loudest so you’ll often be looking for the more subdued voices within the rabble. But even then, appreciate that, even at a working level, everyone’s experience of the film industry varies. If you’ve become addicted, set strict time limits, turn off notifications, and ween yourself away. You’ll soon realise how much better off you are. Focus instead on building a close tribe, preferably of writers on the same part of the journey or a little ahead of you.

Script Consultants

Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach. Those that fail, consult. Harsh, but on the most part, true. People who can write good scripts are employed as writers. People who can improve scripts are employed as producers and executives. Good writers who know how to improve scripts are only targeting amateur writers if they themselves have little value to the industry. You don’t need to do much more than throw a consultant’s name into IMDb to confirm this for yourself as you’ll immediately find they most likely have little to nothing in the way of working credits. What will throw you though is their massive online following which seemingly validates their opinions.

Screenwriting consultants like to be seen as gurus and often gain cult-like supporters as they engage in what seems like a sadomasochistic relationship where they judge their clientele harshly and those writers lap it up as “tough love”. A by-product of academia, a lot of studious people need someone to hand their homework into to feel like they are progressing and, just like trying to please teacher, few are prepared to accept they are maybe being mislead by someone who lacks the knowledge, skills, and experience to succeed in the real world. Consultants love to theorise about the art of writing and career building and beat others over the head with those theories — even when the writers they criticise go on to out-perform them and prove them wrong.

Consultants can often be found loitering around on social media sites like Twitter and various screenwriting community forums making very forthright statements about what does and doesn’t work while telling new writers they really need a consultant to look at their work. They tend to lure people in with ambiguous claims of industry experience along with even more ambiguous claims of influential contacts they can pass good material to. Writers get sucked in to resubmitting work over and over to see if it’s improved but the more enterprising consultants widen their product offering to gain lateral sales, often having books and seminars to offer and/or slipping news about their own material into their news feed. Many operate as social media influencers and utilise the same methods to artificially inflate their status from buying followers (just check their engagement level) to participating in blatant product placement to sharing affiliate links. If you aren’t on guard, you can easily slip into what’s effectively an alternative universe of logic created within a failed writer’s head.

How to make it out alive; Think hard about how you to prefer to learn and determine if paying someone to critique your material suits you or seems like an effective way to learn the craft. Look at books and seminars by proven professionals and consider if those are a better investment while following the blogs and status updates of real working writers until you have a mentor. Yes, there are some pro-level consultants out there who genuinely work with production companies to improve their material but understand that they are very expensive (they help people make millions) and, while probably able to tell you how to make your material more commercial, probably can’t help you get it to the right people and can never be sure what’s the ideal direction for you as an artist.

First-Time Directors

At some point, if things are going well for you, a message will come your way from a director and this will be a momentous occasion. Needless to say, I‘m about to ruin this for you. Chances are, if you are raising your profile gradually, the first batch of directors reaching out to you are going to be first-time directors and you need to be very wary. It’s easy to get a little starstruck by the title but anybody at any point in their life can suddenly decide that they are a director and want to make a hit film. It’s likely the messages you’ll receive off first-time directors are overly bombastic and excited. You need not let the infectious enthusiasm lead you astray as there’s a good chance you are being approached by someone who’s very naive.

Let me explain the process a first-time director goes through and it’s a well known process within the indie scene but one that’s rarely communicated outside of it. A first-time director has a script they love and goes to a funding source, most likely an affluent family member, and sets off to make what they believe is an ultra low-budget “indie darling” that’s going to win Sundance and maybe get an Oscar. I wish I was exaggerating. If they manage to get the project going at all, it will come in over-budget, over schedule, and they’ll have over-paid for pretty much everything (except the script). They will then find out the festival scene is pretty much a huge money making racket, win a few meaningless awards, fail to find a buyer, and submit to the predatory contract of a next-to-useless distributor who gives the movie away to a streaming service. The family member who funded the whole mess eventually takes a bath for a five figure sum and never talks to your director again while nobody sees the movie either… which you’ll be thankful for because it will be terrible. It’s the movie maker’s monomyth and it happens tens of thousands of times a year.

You’ll get sucked in because you’re a nobody and you’re desperate for any writing credit you can get. You’ll allow yourself to buy into the same dream that your combined artistic talents will negate any need for a coherent strategy and believe that the opportunity is a rare chance to get valuable exposure. The reality is it’s a zero exposure opportunity because, as mentioned, nobody is going to know the film exists. Worse still, you may get dragged into a seemingly endless succession of brain melting re-writes, perhaps of your own material, which you’ve sacrificed for someone else’s dream of making it big. All-in-all the trip to Crazy Town and back will maybe cost you a few years of your life and one spec script from your portfolio plus the ongoing worry someone is going to unearth the finished film and your name will forever be tainted.

How to make it out alive; When you’re approached by a director, you need to do your due-diligence and you need to be led by your head and not by your heart. Understand that you are a born fantasist and, while it may be easy to imagine things working out as a pleasant surprise, it’s more likely events will follow the same path they have countless times before. A first-time director should be starting small, probably writing or at least co-writing their own material, and building a strong team around them. A director with nothing in the tank is a huge red-flag. If they approach you with no intention to pay but promising profit-sharing then understand how illogical that is. If they believe the movie is going to be a hit and that’s down to the great script then they should be willing to invest now to secure those future returns. All they are really trying to do is offset the risk on to you. If they claim they have no money to buy the script or your writing services then, guess what, they just admitted they don’t have the money to make the movie either. There’s a simple trick here to see how much you’re really valued. Rather than say “no”, say “not now” and see if they stick around… or even respond after that point.

Low-Rent Representation

If you hang on on writing forums, you’re going to be regularly told that having an agent and/or manager is the secret unlock code to getting into Hollywood and you’re going to be told that a lot by writers who don’t have representation. You’re also going to find that reps do not come to you. You have to understand that most reps walk the wilderness with their jaw hanging open, waiting for sustenance to fall into their gaping maw while rarely going hungry. Few are proactive when it comes to acquiring clients so you’ll feel a degree of pressure to go out and shake your scripts at pretty much any agent or manager you run into in the hope of getting signed and kicking off chapter one of your Cinderella story — after all, that’s how writers get started, right?

The movie industry is a strange beast with the attention span of a humming bird and the memory of a goldfish. You are a nobody until you are a somebody and thus what looks like a catch-22 exists; you need to get noticed to gain representation but you need representation to get noticed. I’ll go on to why this is a fallacy in a minute but the result is you reaching out to reps and that’s a very questionable dynamic mainly because you’ll be dealing with the kind of people who are so new to the scene that they have zero existing contacts to sign and no leads to follow. You know the paid exposure services I mentioned earlier? You know how I said they have a very mysterious pool of people serving as their “industry members”? Well, have you connected the dots yet?

So, what’s the trap here? Ideally, you want a rep who’s willing to kick doors down to get what they believe to be valuable material in front of the right parties. A rep with zero contacts and zero passion to get you noticed is most likely using a leaching strategy where they attach themselves to as many writers as possible in the hope a script gets picked up and they get their percentage. It gets worse if they have strong (mostly terrible) opinions on writing as they may push you to start hacking up your material, especially if it doesn’t align with their limited contacts. Where it gets really dark is when managers have their writers sign contracts that effectively hand over all intellectual property rights after rewrites and thus they acquire the writer’s portfolio over time as if it’s their own. Your specs become their specs. Yikes!

How to make it out alive; I can’t remember where I read it, I think it was maybe Powerhouse, but the advice from very experienced agents was “get an agent when people can’t believe you don’t already have one”. That’s when you need someone to take things to the next level for you and they’ll need to woo you when that time comes. That time however is going to be hidden behind years of you working as your own agent/manager as you get over your fear of networking and self promotion and work at kicking (well maybe lightly tapping) those doors open. Yes, it’s hard, really hard, and beside talent, it’s the key difference between a keen amateur and a career writer.

Social Media

We’re all gradually coming to terms with what a time-suck social media is becoming with the need to not only be on various platforms but also regularly posting, reacting, and engaging with each user base. Given that we are in the entertainment industry and social media is often touted as an effective way to get ahead, there can be a pressure to build a following, especially now that writers are having their online “clout” measured as part of their overall value.

In moderation, social media is a great way to share valuable content that you create and keep followers updated on what you are doing. It is true that people like to live vicariously and will appreciate what you have to share. However, moderation does not make social media powerful. To avoid feeling completely lost and inadequate, you have to dedicate a lot of time and energy to gain any kind of momentum.

It’s a game of monologuing and many writers do it under the fantasy that an industry member is going to notice their witty posts, check out their bio, seek out their scripts, and slide a blank cheque under their nose. That’s not impossible (I broke in off the back of blogging as did Diablo Cody) but it is highly unlikely and subject to a massive on-going investment. You really don’t need a Facebook page as a writer and spending all day sending out invites isn’t going to launch your career. Neither is engaging in Twitter arguments, posting coffeeshop pics on Instagram, or interviewing yourself on YouTube. In fact, this only increases your odds of having said something that will put an interested party off when they eventually Google your name looking for any red flags. It also increases your chances of becoming addicted to narcissism and the anxiety, depression, and dysfunction which comes with it.

How to make it out alive; Know the difference between rampant self promotion and methodical networking. Your audience lie behind the movies you will write and will build very slowly in time. Accept that, even if you pen a hit movie and it’s released tomorrow, you are still just the writer in most people’s eyes. Yes, those around you will most likely be impressed that you are in the movie business and writing feature films but lauding it over them is crass and will only lead to building an ego that can’t handle criticism or rejection, which is going to come to you in spades compared to praise and validation. Look at online networks where your posts, status updates, blogs, etc can get in front of actual decision makers and collaborators rather than other screenwriters.

Small-Time Producers

So, I’ve saved the worst until last. We are truly in the Wild West now, without a gun, riding a three-legged horse, where being on a wanted poster might just be our only five minutes of fame. Getting into bed with the wrong producer might just be the easiest way to die in Hollywood and it can be something near impossible to predict and almost entirely down to circumstance. Chances are, if you’ve gotten this far without going under, you are somewhat prepared for what may come but you are going to still need to be wary.

Firstly, the term “producer” is so overused and ambiguous that, while sounding prestigious, is near meaningless. Technically speaking, I’m a producer and, if you check IMDb, you’ll see I’m credited as such but I’m just a guy working out of his sister’s old bedroom in Stoke-on-Trent. I’d struggle to even get a short made if it was just me running the show. The truth is, even if you connect with a producer who has credits, they can easily be the kind of credits that come from filing SAG paperwork and not from helming a feature film project with any kind of executive decision making. This is important because, and it feels a little strange to have to point this out but here we are, producers are supposed to produce things. Many can’t.

If you don’t know about it already, most movie projects and producers float around in an endless world of pitching. Pitching to studios, pitching to other producers, pitching to investors, pitching to whoever will listen, over and over in the desperate hope of gaining attachments/funding/pre-sales/greenlight/the meaning of life/etc. This can go on for years with producer’s entire “careers” consisting of taking meetings and never making movies, often going where the wind blows in terms of what’s “hot”, but usually always going up in budget to make up for lost time. Many of them, as much as they may big their projects up, are trying to hopelessly peddle something with zero market value and lack the kind of co-producers needed to give people faith they could pull things off anyway. The danger is getting sucked into this world with your material contractually tied up with someone and constantly getting being asked to rewrite it in the hope of impressing the next executive — often while not getting paid.

How to make it out alive; Do your absolute best to do your due-diligence on producers, combing through all projects they are associated with to establish their roles and impact. Focus on how often they work with the same people over and over as an indication of their ability to deliver and retain team members. If they aren’t willing to commit to you as a writer (i.e pay you) then work on a noncommittal basis with them and set clear boundaries. Ultimately, hold them to account. It’s their job to identify valuable material, secure it, and set the wheels in motion to acquire and make it. It’s not your job to effectively become an unpaid intern. Know your worth and always be ready to shake yourself free when someone else is pulling you under.

To Conclude

I hope the above has armed you with knowledge to some degree and perhaps made you realise where you might be slowly becoming submerged. It’s really easy to take a wrong turn as you work your way up as so many people are either pointing you down the wrong path because they are lost or enticing you into a dead end for their own gain.

As ever, a tried and tested approach applies; learn from those who have succeeded, study the craft, put in the work, and patiently build your tribe while maintaining your artistic wellbeing.