My Secret Formula for Breaking-In as a Screenwriter

You see it every day on the forums, how do I break in? What’s the Goldilocks porridge of scripts that will guarantee success? How do I create that magic bullet? Who do I need to talk to to make it all happen? What’s Hollywood looking for? DEAR GOD, PLEASE TELL ME WHAT THIS CRAZY TOWN IS LOOKING FOR!? I empathise with this dilemma and I’m going to outline what I feel is a genuine strategy toward getting your foot in the door as a working screenwriter.

I’ve always professed that I don’t believe there’s a magic formula to breaking into screenwriting. There’s just never been enough data for me to see any pattern that suggests one route over another and I’ve done a ton of reading and research on the subject. Serendipity plays a huge part since the main factors that cause industry members and writers connect are either subjective (they like your voice) or logistical (they find you convenient). In the more recent years, I’ve suggested staying unwaveringly close to our true artistic voice and writing shoestring budget single location specs in the hope of aligning with an industry member with similar taste. After all, this was how I got my own first feature script option.

This was until I myself got swept up unexpectedly into the film world and whisked over to Los Angeles to see inside the sausage machine. As someone who was pretty much doing everything to not have a Hollywood career (I was writing very cultish material and not promoting myself) this was an unexpected but welcome and enlightening experience. I have learned so much in the past twelve months it’s been mind-blowing. I knew a lot about the history of film business before this happened but only now do I have any real insight on the state of the current market.

When reflecting on what I now know, the biggest issue that really stands out to me is that most amateur screenwriters are relying on a very outdated method to break-in. I’m talking about a method that was getting tired thirty years ago. This method revolves around endlessly producing studio budget spec scripts, usually in response to what’s currently in the box office, and querying as many industry members as possible in the hope of the sale. This method did once have a huge competitive advantage. Sitting down to write a completely speculative script, contacting producers via phone, and then mailing out bound copies was a significant barrier to entry that kept most competition out the market. A market that, at the time, was buoyant with wide-ranging studio film slates, benefiting from long theatrical runs and providing huge long-tail returns on video and DVD. A steady trickle of spec scripts through the letterbox and a marketplace were a films as obscure as Donnie Darko could still massively prosper after getting panned by critics meant alignment was far more likely. Plus, if you were writing specs and querying during this era, you were probably already close to the film industry in some way and aware of what was and wasn’t selling. In this age, it was far more common to become a multi-millionaire off the back of spec sales, supply and demand being such that studios, wound into a frenzy by savvy agents, were trying to outbid one another on limited material. Of course, those that sold their first specs quickly became desirable for many future assignments and lifetime careers were born by default off the back of those sales.

Enter the cheap modern PC and suddenly writers are no longer bound by correction fluid and ink ribbons. Enter the Internet and suddenly writers are no longer bound by envelopes and stamps either. Now anybody with a word processor and an email account can bombard Hollywood with their wares from the comfort of their home anywhere in the world and thus supply and demand alters radically. Meanwhile the marketplace for film is adjusting dramatically too with $100m+ blockbusters increasingly dominating the theatres and streaming gradually replacing physical media. Everything changed yet here we are, acting like it’s still the early nineties and we’re going to bump into a young Shane Black while we collect our seven figure check from the CAA offices.

The first part of my formula is to lose the obsession with the huge life-changing spec sale and start focusing on getting entry-level writing assignments. Specs now serve mainly as calling cards that demonstrate craft ability over anything else. It’s important to know this because many writers treat their spec scripts like a winning lottery ticket they’ve yet to cash in and worry everyone is trying to sneak into their safe and steal. They give away very little about what they’re about and try to make people jump through hoops to read them. Personally, I fully support the complete whoring of spec scripts online and making it as easy as possible for people to read them. It’s just so unlikely your material is going to be stolen and you have to maximise that fleeting opportunity somebody might experience your voice, especially when you are a nobody. It’s hard to throw all that precious work out there knowing it will probably never get made but you have to have faith that, when the opportunity comes, you can keep producing the same kind of material on demand and take just as much pride in that. After all, this is our job.

Now, when it comes to those specs, you absolutely have to have somewhat honed your craft before you share your material. You must be a competent screenwriter with storytelling skills that surpass those of the average industry member. You have absolutely no value to the market if producers, directors, and actors are reading your scripts and feeling they could do a better job of executing the premise. It’s also essential that you understand screenwriting craft is so much bigger than formatting, spelling, and grammar. These are superficial obsessions that pale in significance compared to being able to create compelling entertaining stories that provoke an emotional response and teach life affirming values. You need to be able to walk into a room with confidence and be able to explain why you make the storytelling choices you do. Getting to this point does take a lot of work, often years of work, and it’s too easy to jump the gun. If you don’t feel you are there yet, it makes far more sense to study like crazy and produce short scripts as active practice.

With your screenwriting skills polished to a suitably bright lustre, it’s time to start thinking like a producer. What is a producer? Well, in this context, it’s someone who takes creative ideas and turns them into a product using investment capital with the understanding said product will be worth more on the marketplace than the money spent, in which chase they will pay back the money borrowed and share any profits. Therefore it’s imperative to appreciate that producers are looking for commercial material to produce. I cannot emphasis this point enough. There is no reason, other than having to get rid of money, that a producer is going to find appeal in a script that’s likely to cost as much as or more than it’s likely to make back in sales. Now, if your response is that sales are entirely subject to the stars attached to the project then I have to ask you, what on Earth do you think you’re bringing to the table as a writer? This is the entire reason why we write great characters because, when combined with a great story, that high value talent will want to sign on as attachments and that gives the project further investment appeal. Long story short, it all starts with the script. It always has.

My advice is to have at least one script in your portfolio which leans toward being both highly commercial and cost-effective to make. Now, I appreciate these are somewhat enigmatic factors to evaluate but we can make some basic assumptions. For example, material that is cultish, pretentious, and impenetrable is going to struggle to sell tickets and, if it requires something on the scale of Pirates of the Caribbean to shoot, going to need to make a fortune to even so much as break even.

There are two principals you can follow here to help determine if you have something both appealing to the mass market and low cost to make. The first is to consider if the script would perform well in a major screenwriting competition or festival. If so then it’s most likely not very commercial. That sounds absurd but these channels tend to be heavily focused on craft and biased toward niches. Their entire purpose is often to highlight material outside of the commercial realm. It’s important you know this as, if you’re writing to try and win awards within the introspective arena of writing, you are probably distancing yourself form the commercial arena in the process. The second principle to consider is this, if you won a life changing amount of money tomorrow, say $1m USD, would you agree to have every cent invested into one of your scripts rather than paid into your bank account? That’s not just thinking like a producer, that’s now thinking like an investor too.

Spoiler alert; producers aren’t here to help you fulfil your aspirations as an artist. They’re here to make their investors more money. If you’re adamant you want to make weird little movies that nobody sees then it’s going to be infinitely harder to find work, since getting paid is always going to be subject to making somebody else more money. Yes, those values do sometimes overlap but it’s rare, too rare to bet a potential career on. Either way, you can still keep adding non-commercial material to your portfolio regardless. I’m just advising you spread your bets and play the better odds.

The ultimate goal here is that an industry member reads your work and feels, at the very least, that you have proven you can do the very thing they are looking for from a screenwriter — produce blueprints for profitable movies. It may even be the case that they feel an urgency to make the script of yours they are reading but it’s important not to expect that to happen. Generally speaking, a script is going to be less than ideal for immediate production because there’s just so many variables to consider that’s going to put a producer off. The aim is to inspire, to stir up belief they can develop a concept they love, or rekindle faith in a rewrite of an old project.

So where to target? In my opinion, the most opportunity lies in low-budget high-concept action-thrillers that feel glamorous. These are both highly popular and easily scalable. Producers know these kind of movies will sell worldwide to a broad audience while also knowing the higher the capital they can raise, the higher the returns they can make. They can have a very easily achievable minimum budget with a very prosperous ideal budget. That’s a lot of wiggle room meaning they can work with $500k to $5m and still make the kind of percentage returns their investors are looking for.

That means you should write in action and you should write in prestige but always be considering production value. Now, that’s tough to appreciate when your production experience is non-existent but I’ve provided some tips here. Just try to lay off the exploding buildings, fully rendered CGI worlds, and sinking ocean liners.

There are also a few other things to also consider. Trying to set up something that could easily be grown into a franchise is going to have value in the eyes of investors who will want to exploit any IP they invest in that generates good returns. Consideration for global appeal shows market awareness, so try to be savvy on what does and doesn’t do well in regions like Asia. Also know that day-player-bait is great for attaching high-value talent to drop in and spend a day or two on set playing an interesting supporting character.

What you want in your portfolio is at least one enticing, energetic, and compelling property weighing in less than one hundred pages that proves you can write something worthy of attracting talent and getting a theatrical release without breaking the bank. While this may feel very generic it does still mean there is room for your voice. Don’t look at this as selling out so much as broadening your offering. Is this cheapening yourself? I prefer to see it as simply being realistic and appreciating what’s there for the taking.

So, the next question is, how do you promote that property to potentially interested parties? Well, you need to look for avenues where you can make producers aware of what you have on offer but aren’t focused on a preference for arty material. This means pretty much all competitions and evaluation services are out of the question. Pitching provides a much better alternative since you are buying time with a specific industry member and thus removing the obstacles (stuffy readers) along the way. Listing sites that provide an even playing field and aren’t subject to casino like rating systems are another viable option. IMDB can provide the contact details for industry members that are producing low budget films and are thus more likely open to submissions and keen to find writers who are highly commercial but currently unknown.

Ultimately though, you want to be creating your own trade show and that trade show is your social media presence. It’s open every day and you get to broadcast, reach out, and interact with the other participants at your will. Growing your social media audience is one of the most powerful things you can do and pretty much the online equivalent of in-person networking. This is where you don’t just want to be promoting your work but also yourself so it leads people to your work. This is where interest in one of your blog posts can lead someone to check out your portfolio, read a script, and reach out with a writing assignment (I know it happens because it happens to me and it happens for others).

Building your social media audience takes time but you can start investing in it while you hone your craft. A little bit every day goes a long way. The important thing is to connect with and engage with industry members rather than talking exclusively with your peers. Other writers aren’t going to produce your material and are most likely going to drive you down a road of obsessive introspection and pretentious aspirations.

It’s also important to simply be patient while writing with passion. In many ways you can’t force this through but you can use a “build it and they will come” approach where you get everything inline, ready for when the right industry member looks into who you are and what you have to offer. That’s when you want material in your portfolio that aligns with those browsing.

So, that’s my formula that I know works. If it seems simple and modest then good. Simple and modest works. Write something you know all your friends and family would love to go see and get a kick out of watching. And you know what, have a blast doing it too because that fun you have writing will translate on to the page and, before you know it, you’ll hopefully be having just as much fun watching it getting captured on camera while knowing you’ve made it onto the first rung of the ladder.