by Fin Wheeler
1. Can I get rich quick?
Seen a million dollar spec sale splashed across the news? Walked out of a mega budget movie and thought you could do a better job than those well-paid writers?
You can’t watch a one hour TV drama about lawyers and start defending high-paying clients the next day. The same is true for screenwriting. Learning the industry and the craft takes time.
Most screenwriters take at least a decade to break in, and very few of those ever receive such large amounts per sale.
2. When will I get an agent?
There’s a list of accredited agents on the WGA website. But most agents won’t take new writers.
It’s expected that, as a screenwriter, you’ll make your first few spec sales on your own. The knowledge you gain writing, rewriting, marketing and selling those specs gives you the maturity to conduct yourself in a professional manner.
Agents are much more willing to take a chance on a writer who has already proved their talent and their respect for the industry.
3. When will I make money?
A lot of screenwriters never entirely quit their day job. For example, each year half the professional writers who are Writers’ Guild of America members report no income from writing. Even if you “make it,” you may only get a sale or a writing gig once every two years. The rest of the time you’ll have to supplement your income with teaching, appearances, or a regular day job.
4. How much money will I make?
The first few weeks I was at film school, there were guys who just kept asking this question. Every new class we had, every new guest speaker, the first question was always about pay checks.
You wouldn’t go up to the counter of a fast food restaurant and ask the staff how much money they make. You wouldn’t go to a concert and call out between songs, ‘Hey, how much money do you make?’ If you desperately want to work in entertainment, but your major concern is making big money, there are several fields far more lucrative than writing.
If you have genuine queries about screenwriter rates and fees, the industry standards are listed on the WGA’s website. (The WGA is the union for writers.) But you also have to be aware that many smaller producers will only work with non-WGA writers, meaning they will force you to do more work and you’ll get a much lower rate and benefits. It’s best to speak to an entertainment lawyer if you have questions about a specific project.
5. What screenwriting manual or class will give me all the answers?
Each script you write will be different. Sometimes, even each draft of the same project will require a different approach, so there’s no one approach that will work every single time.
The more you write, the more knowledge and craft you gain. Buying a book or paying to sit in a class won’t change that.
6. Does plot software work?
When it was first created, music companies invested heavily in hitmaker software. The movie and television studios saw the success of those software packages and immediately invested in plot-making and plot-perfecting programs.
These programs sound great in theory, but just because a successful formula can sometimes be predicted for a three minute pop song doesn’t mean you’ll ever be capable of doing the same for something as complex as a long-form screenplay, which has a thousand more moving parts and variables.
A computer programmer can watch a thousand award-winning films, but they weren’t there when the writer came up with the concept, they have no understanding of how and why the script was developed the way it was. They have no knowledge of the casting, shooting, or the post-production process. And even if, by some miracle, they could accurately identify and analyze all those elements, past successes are no indicator of future success. Our culture and our tastes are changing all the time.
If plot software worked, studios would have no need for writers.
Screenwriters are hired for their ability to think about story, talk about story, analyze story, write and rewrite. Articulating how and why you wrote your screenplay is just as important as the text itself. No shortcut software will ever be able to help you think like a writer, you have to actually be one.
7. How can I get a mentor?
You can’t. Not a good one. Professional screenwriters are too busy pitching for jobs of their own. Most writers are freelance, or have to take time off from their paid jobs to write their own projects. It’s unfair to ask that they sacrifice that time for you.
Read interviews and screenwriting articles online, watch shows like Writers’ Room, hosted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash, and listen to the audio commentaries on DVD’s. It’s also possible to ask the occasional intelligent question at live Q & A’s at film festivals. The one piece of advice all professional writers give is, “Keep writing. Just keep writing.”
8. How and when will I be famous?
Screenwriters aren’t famous. Some Oscar-winning screenwriters have a reasonably high profile, but they all still lead relatively private lives.
A writer is someone who observes; to do that we need privacy. If fame is what you seek, try acting.
9. How much time will I get to spend on film sets?
The writer is most active prior to pre-production. Listening to audio commentaries on DVDs can give you a realistic idea of how much time a writer spends on set of big budget, mid budget, and small budget films.
Generally speaking, the larger the budget, the less likely the writer is to be on set. On medium or smaller projects, the writer may be allowed on set at certain times.
10. How do I meet the right people?
The industry is lousy with people who claim they can write better than every professional screenwriter. You need writing samples, not boasts.
While you are writing your first three projects, spend a little time each week on online discussion boards. Also attend screenwriting conferences. Make sure you don’t ever post or say anything negative or snarky. Occasionally ask intelligent questions. And when someone else picks on you, make sure you are professional in your (non) reaction.
Over time, your consistently professional behavior will get you noticed. Don’t worry that you won’t be heard over those who are louder. Producers and development executives got where they are because of their ability to ignore the white noise and spot talented professionalism.
11. How do I get them to say ‘yes’?
Hard work and luck.
Your spec has to be of a truly excellent standard, and it has to come to their notice just at the right time.
You can’t control what’s trending, but you can create a portfolio of top-quality projects. Hard work will always improve your chance of being lucky.
12. Writing is hard, lonely and boring. Is there a shortcut?
No. If you don’t enjoy writing, why do you want to be a screenwriter?
13. Power; when will I have it?
When you write your specs. The writer gets to decide what the world of the story will look like, who the characters will be, the adventures they’ll have, and what they’ll achieve. We writers may not get much real-world power, but we do get to create entire new worlds, and sometimes we get to see those worlds come to life on film.
14. Why do I have to write in three acts?
Some artists have had success in experimental film. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle films have achieved cult status. But, if you want to work in the commercial/independent film industry, you do have to know and use three Act structure.
15. Is there creative freedom in film and TV? / Will screenwriting be artistically fulfilling?
Most paid writing gigs are re-writes, which can be less than artistically inspiring. But every screenwriter can create their own specs. There you can quite literally be as wildly creative as you can imagine.
So, there is always scope for artistic fulfillment, recognition, and success in screenwriting. All you have to do is keep writing.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.