5 Steps Toward Your Big Break

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by Angela Bourassa

I had the privilege of attending Scriptfest this past weekend on behalf of LA Screenwriter (and my own writing career), and I must say the whole event was a wonderful success. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall, I found the classes, the interactions, and the opportunities to both pitch and network extremely beneficial.

Emily and I will have several articles for you over the coming weeks on our favorite takeaways from the event. Today, I’d like to share the wisdom of Lee Jessup who led a class entitled Screenwriter Business School.

Lee is a screenwriting career coach. I know – it sounds like a made up job. And in a lot of ways, it is. Lee comes from an industry family, and she got her first paying job in film at the age of sixteen. She never expected to coach screenwriters, but after helping out a few friends, more and more writers began seeking her advice. Today, her coaching clients include aspiring writers as well as Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated scribes.

Preparing for Your Big Break

Lee estimates that it takes screenwriters three to ten years to make it in this business once they’ve found their voice. That’s not exactly encouraging news, so what can you do to help speed up the process? Here are five steps. Number one is obviously the most important, but all of these steps should be taken at basically the same time. It’s not a staircase; it’s more like a break dance.

1. WRITE 2-3 GREAT SCRIPTS IN THE SAME GENRE

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To become compelling to representatives, you need two to three solid specs in the same genre or in very similar genres. If you have one comedy script, one drama, and one horror, managers won’t know what to do with you. And you probably won’t become particularly adept at any of those genres.

If you’re writing for TV, you need two current pilots (meaning they would work on TV now, not three or more years ago) and a current spec. You should also have three to five ideas ready to pitch at any time.

If that sounds like a high bar, it is. Aspiring screenwriters need to show that they are dedicated, that they take their craft seriously, and that they’re in this business for the long haul.

2. GAIN A PEDIGREE FOR YOUR WORK & YOURSELF

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Get “recommends” from top coverage services or well-respected readers. Win or finish near the top in respected contests like Nicholl, the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition, Big Break, and The Launch Pad. Don’t bother with small screenplay contests – most of them are just trying to take your money.

Build your brand. Go to networking events if you live in a production city. If you don’t, build an online presence through YouTube videos, a web series, your own podcast, or a witty blog.

3. READ SCRIPTS, WATCH MOVIES

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You write horror movies? You should know all of the current horror movies and be well versed in the classics. Want to write a police procedural? You should watch at least the pilot of every police procedural you can find. Be a fan of the medium you want to be a part of. And read scripts. Try to read at least a script a week. Reading current scripts is preferred, but there is something to be learned from every script. Bad scripts will show you what to avoid. Good scripts will show you what to aspire to.

4. LEARN ABOUT THE INDUSTRY

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The closer you get to your big break, the more time you should spend educating yourself about the film industry. Learn the names of the studio heads, follow current spec sales, learn about the most successful screenwriters and the ones who are hot right now. Websites like The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline, and SSN Insider are great for the latest news. Sign up for the daily emails and read them. Within a few weeks, you’ll be amazed at how much you learn.

Podcasts are great for learning about craft and industry news while you work out, drive, or stare at the ceiling. Lee recommends On The Page, Nerdist Writers Panel (for TV), The Spin-Off (for TV), and Martini Shot.

5. WRITE MORE, WRITE REGULARLY

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Once you have your two to three specs, don’t stop there. Keep writing and developing as much as possible. If you don’t have the luxury of writing every day or for hours at a time, Lee suggests carving out a schedule that works for you and sticking to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s one hour three times a week or a page a day or ten pages a week. Whatever you can make happen, do it.

6. (Bonus Step!) BE PERSISTENT

It was said several times over the weekend by several smart people: A career in screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint. You simply can’t expect to write one script, sell it for six figures, and move on. There was a time when that was possible, but that time has passed. Your first script won’t be any good. It just won’t. But the next one will be better. And the one after that will be even better. Stick with it, give it your all, and be open to growth, and you’ll do just fine.

This is only the beginning of Lee’s advice. Learn more about her and her services (including a free trial of her screenwriters support group) at LeeJessup.com.

3 thoughts on “5 Steps Toward Your Big Break

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  1. What’s an example of a TV pilot that wouldn’t work now as opposed to three or more years ago? Something like Breaking Bad or Mad Men would still work today, right? Thanks for the article.

    1. Sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner! You want shows that have just completed their first or second season. Shows that are further along in airing have already used too many plot lines, and particularly in comedies the characters can start to become a little too flat and focused on punch lines. You definitely do not want to do a show that is no longer on the air. Pamela Douglas (tv writing teacher at USC’s master program) recommends not taking more than 6 weeks on a spec script so that way you can update what’s in your portfolio regularly. Good shows to do right now would be Brooklyn 9-9 (very popular), You’re the Worst, Last Man On Earth on the comedy side, The Flash, Halt and Catch Fire, The Knick, Penny Dreadful, How to Get Away with Murder would be good on the drama side.

    2. Sorry I didn’t write sooner! You want a show that finished either it’s first or second season last spring. You do not want a show that is no longer on the air or that is in the middle of its first season (the exception to the latter is if it’s a super episodic series like “Criminal Minds” or whatever its equivalent is this season). Good ones to do this year would be Brooklyn 9-9, You’re the Worst, Halt and Catch Fire, How to Get Away with Murder, Penny Dreadful, The Knick, The Flash, etc. Hope this helps!

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