How Long Until Screenwriting Success?

Success Kid

by Fiona Wheeler

It can be confusing when you first start trying to send out your specs. You sign up for this email list and that, and soon you’re fielding a dozen emails a day offering the perfect service to fix and sell your screenplay… for a price.

Many writers starting out want success and they want it now, but the truth is that writing isn’t an instant art form. Great writing, profound insight, and talent: these are things that take time, patience, and a lot of hard work to develop. There’s a saying that it takes ten years to become an overnight success. Lee Jessup insists that it takes three to ten years to find success as a screenwriter from the time that you find your voice (not the day you finish your first spec).

A Lesson In Patience & Persistence

Evan Daugherty hit the headlines in 2012 when his spec Snow White and the Huntsmen sparked a bidding war between six studios and he scored a six figure sum, but he’d written the screenplay long before that.

Back in 2004 Daugherty graduated from NYU Film School having written several big budget specs. He moved to LA, then made another really smart move: he listened. No studio was going to take a big budget chance on an unproven screenwriter. So he set about writing bare bones specs.

Daugherty wrote Shrapnel and entered it in the Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest, which he won. The win got his work some traction, and him an agent. Shrapnel was later sold and produced under the title The Killing Season with John Travolta and Robert De Niro.


When Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a massive success in 2010, Daugherty dusted off his spec about Snow White, did his research and found out that producer Joe Roth would be the one to pitch it to, and then asked his agent to send the spec to him.

Evan Daugherty knew he wanted to work on big budget projects, and he took a path that improved his writing craft and industry knowledge so that, when there finally was a real opportunity for success, he had the knowledge to recognize his potential, and he’d accrued the resources to be able to go for it. Those things can’t be bought, and they aren’t learned overnight.

Assessing Your Goals & Taking Steps to Achieve Them

In his book The Psychology of Screenwriting, Jason Lee says, “The essence of producing writing is understanding psychology, your own and that of others, the two being indivisible. Otherwise the writer produces flat caricatures…without depth, unbelievable to the audience; this tells us nothing about the human condition.”

todolistIf you’re desperate to become a famous writer, and you’ve decided you’re willing to do anything and spend any amount to make that happen, maybe it’s time to really question why. There really aren’t any famous screenwriters. Perhaps there are better paths to celebrity, if that’s what you long for.

If writing is truly what you’re after, but you are stuck on your current spec, then a good script consultant could help. Someone with experience will provide you with an objective, professional perspective on your work, helping you figure out just how far you have to go before you find success.

I like working with a script analyst from time to time. I also buy script assessments occasionally. I know there are many screenwriters who hate script assessments with a passion, because they’re typically done by non-writers, but I see that as a plus. Films aren’t made for writers. Nor are they made by writers. It therefore makes sense to test your screenplay, and get feedback from someone who is more familiar with the non-writing aspects of the industry. I learn as much about Industry assumptions as I do about my script each time I get feedback, so to me it’s always money well spent.


Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.

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