So, I’m in a weird but exciting place right now. A feature film I’ve written is set for release in North American very shortly. It’s going to be stocked in Walmart, Best Buy, and Amazon to buy on DVD and available on multiple streaming platforms. It’s been an exhilarating couple of years from unknown amateur to working screenwriter so here’s the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way .
My journey from first contact with Shane Stanley (a multiple Emmy award winning director and executive of producer of Gridiron Gang) in March of 2018 has been a bit of a blur. We’ve come a long way in what feels like a flash and our first collaboration together “Break Even”, a female-led low-budget action-thriller starring Tasya Teles , Steve Guttenberg, Ivan Sergei, Joanna Pacula, and James Callis is set for release on December 1st in North America. We have an official website, we have Instagram and Facebook feeds, we have press releases, and I blogged about my experience on set over on Stage 32 in my series “Breaking In with Break Even” Part 1, 2, 3, and 4.
My head’s still spinning from it all and, needless to say, a lot more has been going on in the background as a result of all this. As a take a breath and prepare to step into a new world of virtual red carpets, critic reviews, podcast interviews, and more, this is the perfect time to reflect on the key things I’ve learned.
You Must Do Everything You Can to Get Noticed and Break-In.
That sounds pissy and obvious but please don’t underestimate what I’m saying. Screenwriters who want to break-in really do need to do EVERYTHING they can which means covering every possible channel to success and doubling down on it. Most writers I see are only covering a fraction of the bases needed.
Networking is naturally chaotic and we can align with the right people in the strangest of ways. In fact, if we are to standout in this highly competitive environment, those strange ways may be our best opportunities. In my case, I was discovered via blogging and those blog articles led to my website where my scripts were hosted and available to read immediately. If I hadn’t stuck my neck out and entered the blogosphere, if I hadn’t had those channels in place to funnel back readers to my bio and portfolio, I would most likely not be in the position I am in now.
Relying on nothing more than competitions, queries, and pitching is not putting the odds in your favour. Lingering around on forums hoping someone notices you and reaches out is effectively hiding under a rock. You need to be putting yourself out there via every channel and medium you can find. Pretty much everyone in the film industry say they owe their success to networking, so stop waiting and network like hell.
It Doesn’t Get Harder When You Turn Pro. It Gets Easier and More Fun.
I listened to so many people tell me that moving into a professional screenwriting career only makes life harder but I have found the opposite to be the case. I had an absolute blast writing Break Even and have loved every moment of working with Shane Stanley who, alongside Kurt Patino and Danielle C. Ryan, I’m currently co-producing our new action-comedy feature “Double Threat” with.
Writing with some “light at the end of the tunnel”, i.e you’re getting paid and going to see the script get produced is incredibly motivating. I wrote the first draft of Break Even in six weeks around my day-job and wrote my last greenlit feature in just two. Writing as a keen amateur was often way harder because of the lack of direction and the frequent worry that all the effort was ultimately pointless. Do not fear writing professionally. The film world is full of kind people who empathise with what you’re going through as a creative. You must however find and nurture the motivation needed to slog through the hard years trying to break-in.
Writing for a producer also helped me get over my fear of collaboration. I was worried people would steamroll over my words and throw back lots of conflicting notes. The reality is that 99% of what we shot was near identical to my original draft and every suggestion received an improvement.
You Can’t Be Precious About Your Words When It Comes to Production.
My experience on set watching Break Even being filmed was a wonderful (and rare) experience. I was on-hand to answer questions and there to help actors work through their rehearsals which quickly taught me not to be overly precious about my writing. I soon learned that the script really is a gift to the cast and crew which should give them the opportunity and inspiration to bring their own creative ideas to the table. Everybody should be permitted to explore and discover because that’s what being a creative is all about.
For example, in Break Even, Tasya Teles actually redrafted one of her monologues so it was a little more personal to her and thus more heartfelt on camera. When she came to me to respectfully ask if she could make some tweaks, I felt it was a huge compliment that she wanted to own the character so much. In another example, I watched Steve Guttenberg constantly rework elements of his scenes (something he told me was the best advice he ever received from an acting teacher) building up more and more tiny beats to get the most from every take.
As writers, we will always have that first submitted draft to go back to if we ever want to show our personal take on the story. That’s archived in black & white. I challenge any writer to be open to ideas, trust the team around them, and then say for sure that their original version was better overall.
Care About Your Voice Now Because It’ll Matter to You Come Release Time.
In an attempt to appeal, it’s easy to steer away from our true artistic selves and toward what look like easier opportunities. I’ve been there. I’ve written blockbuster budget young-adult supernatural specs thinking it would generate interest when I really loved writing pulpy action-thrillers. Now I’m so glad I took those out of my portfolio and doubled-down on my true passion. Break Even is a film I can point to with pride and say, “Yes, that’s my writing. This is the kind of film I want to be known for.”.
We can often believe that money and glory will easily compensate for compromising who we are but there’s plenty of horror stories of writers who’ve made that mistake. In many ways, we should ask ourselves, “Who don’t we want to be?”, and make an effort not to misstep along our journey. When I watched Joanna Pacula deliver the surly speech I’d written for her character Crowe about the nature of mutual exploitation, I knew that sticking to my guns had always been the right thing to do.
Something that’s unavoidable once an initial cut of the film has been made is that it’s forming into a product and must compete in the market-place. This is where the rubber meets the road and you’d better be sure that you’ve written something that will compete in the marketplace with a strong, passionate, and unique voice.
Indie Film Writers Who Want Careers Need to Think and Act Like Entrepreneurs.
I’ve spent nearly a decade now watching hopeful writers jerk themselves off to the idea of being in the WGA, writing for the big studios, and being able to boast about their six-figure income. That’s never appealed to me and I didn’t used to understand why. After having watched Break Even go from concept to completion and moving onto a variety of other projects, I come to discover the reason; there’s corporate writers and there’s entrepreneurial writers. Some want to sit in an office, wait for instruction, and return home with a regular living wage. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. However, deep in my heart, I’m a hustler willing to wear a variety of hats to punch above my weight and ready to take some risks to stand out in my genre.
It’s very hard to survive and flourish as a writer within the indie filmmaking scene if you aren’t prepared to think and act like an entrepreneur. This is a world where you have to be willing to roll the dice and YOLO your entire life because you believe there’s an audience out there that others are failing to appreciate. Again, Break Even, with its wide scope of female characters that challenge gender-norms, was a tough sell at first but soon won people over, getting more and more support until it found a home with a highly capable female led distribution team who genuinely appreciate what it’s doing and want to share that with the world.
As DVDs are stamped, files are uploaded to servers, and packaging is printed, I find myself watching the second production of one of my feature scripts (Double Threat) unfold, this time as a writer-producer with my own production company (Rebelle Rouser) involved. While I dreamt for many years of being in this position, I never thought it could become a reality. Oh, how wrong I was. You can move up the industry ladder fast if you’re hungry and willing to reinvent the rules.
So, stick to your voice, be proud of it and broadcast it to the world unapologetically in any way you can. Find fellow artists on your wavelength and become stronger in unison via collaboration. Have a blast creating with your friends and take the risk you want to take together. Don’t let anybody convince you to hide away, sell your soul, and become a worker bee. You deserve to follow your dreams and I hope that’s all the motivation you need right now to keep fighting for them.