Building Craft and Breaking In; Three Budgets for Aspiring Screenwriters

For a long time before my first professional screenwriting gig, I was known for being a screenwriter who didn’t spend much money trying to break in. While this was partly because my financial situation simply prohibited anything but a very minor expense, what some people don’t know is that I blew what little savings I had in my first two years writing and that taught me an important lesson; I’d gotten nothing back of any value and needed a different strategy.

When we first get into screenwriting and decide we want to pursue it as a career, it can be hard to find any sort of direction. It’s too easy to just keep mindlessly writing scripts and searching for some sort of magic bullet that gets our work in front of the person who’s going to make our dreams come true. What doesn’t help is that there are many in a similar position, frantically looking for easy answers and more than willing to pay-to-play if they think they have to. The result is break-in communities packed tight with writers who are susceptible to the advice of the deluded and the offers of the deceiving. Communities all too often believe in and promote products and services that are unproven at best and scams at worst. It can all too often look like the answer is to spend more money but, while there’s some wisdom in knowing you have to speculate to accumulate, the reality isn’t so simple.

We have to accept the constraints of our financial situation but not let it hold us back any more than we need to. One of the most powerful things we can do is embrace lean-living (something I want to blog more about in the future) and that means sticking to a budget. Wasting money is bad enough, but to waste it on things that make us feel futile about our future and question our ability is completely self-destructive and does more harm than good.

I’m writing this article in the hope it provides a much more realistic approach that educates and empowers writers on different budgets. Sadly, I can’t go back and snatch the credit card out of my hand when I bought those evaluations, competition entries, and mailing lists, but I can hopefully stop others from making the same kind of mistakes. As I’ve written in other blogs, these kinds of services didn’t just take my money, they took my self-worth, my motivation, and my will to live with it.

I’ve based each budget around the concept that we need four different elements to flourish in this industry; Craft, Creativity, Networking, and Tools. In terms of stating the budgets themselves, I’m not giving a specific monetary value as costs are always changing and the break-in community is global. Please keep in mind that I broke in after six years using the low budget approach but with the benefit of having a lot of free time to complete tasks. If you are working full-time, you’re going to find it harder to put the hours in and really there’s no substitute for that. This is why the concept of lean-living is so important and why I hope to talk about that in detail soon.

Look, a note before I get into this; as a human being, you have an alarmingly high vulnerability to low-odds high-return schemes that are more or less gambling. Screenwriting itself could be argued to be a form of gambling since many are hoping for that glimmer of good luck with the right script that will make them rich and famous – hopefully this article will sway you away from that mentally. A lot of screenwriting services are there to exploit your desperation for their own profit just the same way a lottery or casino does. You need to know that you are highly at risk of becoming addicted to these schemes but you also need to know, unlike lottery pools or casino payouts, winning isn’t what many make it out to be. Hoping for a golden ticket into Hollywood is fundamentally futile because the people trying to sell you one are actually the Oompa Loompas and far from Willy Wonka.

I also want to add this; the rate you can learn is highly subject to embracing the academic methods that work best for you. Knowing you are a better book learner than classroom student, or vice-versa, is incredibly powerful. It’s prudent to Google “learning style”, take a few tests, and reflect on the results as soon as you can to avoid wasting time and money on products and services you cannot take full advantage of.

Low Budget

Read that as zero to low budget. I appreciate some of us have nothing or next to nothing to spend. Thankfully writing has one of the lowest barriers to entry of all the creative pursuits. Don’t feel you are cut off. Just like myself, you can absolutely do this while scraping by.

Craft

I recommend reading as many books on the topic of writing, film history, and artistry as you can and, providing you live within a civilised society, you most likely have access to a library. Check to see if they have the staples like Storyand Screenplay; The Foundations of Screenwriting and don’t be afraid to ask if they can get the books you want sent across from another library or even ordered in especially for you.

Since you’re here, you are more than aware that there’s plenty of wonderful blog platforms out there such as the one run by Stage 32 but also be aware there’s various podcasts well worth your attention such as ScriptnotesBritflicks, and Joined Up Writing. Try to mix things up with a variety of opinions and do your due-diligence on who’s handing out the advice.

Creativity

It’s proven that wide spectrum of cultural stimulus makes us more creative and we are currently blessed with a tremendous number of free resources. Not only do we need to be watching films but we also need to be taking in the entertaining, educational, and inspirational in other forms.

YouTube is jam packed with videos that have no limit in terms of obscurity and can be an effective research tool. Vimeo leans more toward traditional film. Meanwhile, free movie streaming services like Tubi provide sizeable collections of more cultish classics. Of course, you have your terrestrial broadcasting, cable, and satellite platforms to consider too, many of which have their own streaming sites or apps. Yes, you’ll be a little behind the latest releases but there’s thousands of great movies out there to catch up on.

It’s worth leaving the house and taking part in other creative pastimes too away from writing such as painting, sculpting, singing, gardening, and much more. Even just attending an open-mic in your local bar should provide you with some artistic stimulation for the cost of a couple of drinks.

Networking

When it comes to having a place to promote ourselves and host our scripts, there’s sites such as Script Revolution (which I run), Simply Scripts, and Stage 32, which are all free to use and proven to work.

The oldest form of networking and script promotion still exists i.e querying. For those totally green to the business of screenwriting, this is the process of contacting an industry member and asking them permission to send your script to be read. Personally, I haven’t queried in over five years because I’ve always found the returns on time investment incredible low. Just know it’s an option should you open up a line of communication with someone who may benefit from your material. Never ever pay to query or pay to be read by anyone claiming to be making movies.

Networking is always shown to be, by far, the most common way screenwriters break-in and LinkedIn dominates here. Don’t be afraid to reach out and form new connections, engage with other members, and post your own content. In fact, for me, posting articles led to director reading my work and giving me my first assignment. Plus, having a social media presence is of some value to you, especially in the eyes of potential representation, so well worth starting to build as early as possible.

If you’re located in a larger city, there’s a good chance there’s a filmmaking and/or screenwriting group who meet regularly that you can join for the cost of a bus ride and a cup of coffee. However, beware having too much time sucked out of you by those with a remarkable talent for procrastination.

Tools

You’re online already so you’ve got that covered. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be using dedicated screenwriting software so take a look at free options like TrelbyRaw Scripts.comWriter Duet, and Highland 2. When it comes to any office documents, you can use Google Docs and calls to any industry members can be made via Skype for free. Dropbox is a brilliant backup and cloud storage solution with a free tier for users under 2gb.

As for what you use to type on, you don’t need anything powerful for screenwriting as it’s just word processing. An old second hand or gifted laptop will likely be more than powerful enough. Personally I used an iPad someone gave me with a Brydge keyboard I purchased that turns it into a tiny laptop with a touchscreen. If you want to buy new, times couldn’t be any better right now with ultra cheap Windows and Chromebook laptops currently available for around $200 upwards.

While you’re learning, you may as well download the Final Draft demo to at least check out what it actually is and realise you’re not really missing out on much in terms of features. You don’t need to buy a copy of it until you turn pro. Quit worrying about it. Stop listening to people who say you need it.

Medium Budget

Read this as between just scraping by and having some walking around money to hand. What’s important here is not to become too complacent and start spending recklessly, especially in just a single area that you’re convinced will work for you.

Craft

Now’s your opportunity to start buying any books you can’t obtain from your local library but are keen to read. Try to diversify topics to cover filmmaking, artistry, and self development if you can. If your learning style fits with it, you can consider buying access to webinars but again, do your due diligence on who’s hosting them first.

You’re going to be tempted to throw money at screenwriting consultants but I’ve yet to see a working writer credit any sort of career to having used one. In fact, I know of a few who quit writing altogether after using their services. My view on consultants falls very much in line with that of Geoff Latulippe.

Creativity

This is perhaps where having extra money to spend is going to make a big difference. You can now make the choice to subscribe to services such as Netflix or Hulu and visit the movie theatre on regular occasions. You can rent the movies you want to watch and purchase the equipment that’ll make watching them a pleasure and do them justice.

It isn’t just about film however, trips out to museums, galleries, and various creative events can help with inspiration and research plus, of course, there’s going on holiday to experience new cultures and ways of thinking.

Networking

Consider creating your own website and registering a personal domain name. Sites like Wix make it easy for anyone to build a good looking site now. Don’t get too hung up on it. Having your own site won’t launch your career but does plant a flag in the ground and give you somewhere to put everything like your portfolio, bio, and articles.

Travelling to events is now within your reach so take the opportunity to at least experience one film festival and meet your tribe. Which events you can attend are going to be subject to your location and funds. Since I’m in the UK, I travel to Raindance now and then to catch up with certain friends and attend some screenings. Many larger cities have a filmmaking association you can join who hold regular meetings and seminars.

Since you’re meeting people in person, you may want to get some business cards printed. It’s perhaps a little formal for the industry but cards are cheap to get printed and you want to maximise your opportunities.

Tools

Using the software that brings out the best in your writing is just as essential as a painter finding the right brushes or a musician finding the right instrument. I try to keep an up to date list of all screenwriting software options here. Download the demos and invest in what works best for you. The good news is that screenwriting software is relatively cheap.

Many get an IMDBPro subscription for networking purposes but its use for that is questionable. It is however worth getting your account sorted out on there so filmmakers can start adding your credits on their projects. Yes, the short script you gave away for free still counts. Having IMDBPro will also help you evaluate any industry members that approach you looking to collaborate.

You may want to invest in a mid level laptop that has a large high-quality screen and good keyboard. This can seem indulgent but it’s the tool you’ll be working closest with and thus you need to feel comfortable with it.

If you’re already on Dropbox then upgrading to a business account will give you another level of backup protection with roll-back functionality on file versions. When it comes to storing all your notes, a cross-platform app such as Evernote with the Premium subscription means your notes will be backed up too and easy to synchronise between multiple devices.

High Budget

When I state high budget, I am basically implying you have money to burn and don’t care if you get returns. However, with some paid services there is the moral question in helping fund them while knowing they are preying on your financially vulnerable peers.

Craft

If you have a lot of money to spend, you are into bootcamp, fellowship, workshop, and university course territory. To be frank, there’s actually not a great deal you can do to improve screenwriting craft using money. It’s an art form that’s easy to learn and benefits mostly from deliberate practice and objective reflection. The general consensus from working writers is that you do not need to spend money to become an employable screenwriter. Based on my own experience, I absolutely agree with them.

Creativity

If there’s one thing money can buy it’s experiences, lots of experiences, experiences that hopefully inspire you and nurture the creative side of your brain. Now a new Porsche probably isn’t going to enlighten you but an extended stay in a different country most likely will. I’m not talking checking into a five star hotel and visiting the local galleries here. I’m talking about engraining a radically different culture into your mind by immersing yourself into it for a long period of time. That’s an option to you.

Back at home, those occasional visits to the movie theatre can become a subscription which may also get you into the pre-screenings for the latest releases. Meanwhile, your living room can be blessed with the kind of setup that would make the average geek green with envy — perfect for playing those old movies as if you were attending their premier.

Networking

In some ways linked to the above, having a lot of money gives you the option to relocate. It’s the old cliche to move to Los Angeles in the hope of breaking in and certainly not advisable to anybody struggling to get by since the cost of living there is so high and competition so strong. However, if you’re rich enough to take the hit, it is going to put you logistically where the action is.

You can also start to look at funding your own projects, namely short films which you’ve written and might help you get through a few doors if not, at least, connect you with industry members via employment alone. It’s cold but business is business.

Festivals can also be a different world for you as you have facility to buy passes which give you access to everything, stay overnight at the closest hotel, and ply those you want to spend your time around with the booze they may need to value your company. Note that you don’t have to buy any highfalutin attire for said events even if you are a big spender. Looking too formal will only alienate people from you.

You can also look at things like competition entries and Black List evaluations with an attitude of spreading your bets and understanding that some people will love your work while others hate it.

Tools

You may as well buy a copy of Final Draft and become familiar with it which will save you a bit of time figuring things out when you turn pro. It’s nice to know how to view and add notes, how to mark changes in drafts, and how to lock pages when you go into production.

When it comes to your laptop, you get to boast the latest Macbook which will make you all the envy of your coffeeshop companions and mean you have no excuses when it comes to blaming your environment for any procrastination.

Conclusion

What I hope this goes some way to prove is that money isn’t really a factor when it comes to breaking in as a screenwriter although it can often seem like it’s the only answer. With an entry level computer, some free software, a library card, and an internet connection, you have everything you need to compete and break-in. Money does bring some minor benefits, mainly focused around lifestyle, but generally delivers very low returns.

The lesson to take here is that knuckling down and scraping by is a perfectly viable strategy given that we’re putting the hours in when it comes to honing craft, nurturing our creativity, and building our networks.

So take that $50 you were going to spend on entering some unknown screenwriting competition and ask yourself how many books you could buy, where that could take you on a day out, how many movies you could see, or how much pizza that is to help you get through those long nights searching for new connections. Turns out the golden ticket you’re looking for is you so value what’s inside your soul over what’s inside your wallet.