Creating Your Screenwriting Brand

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by Fin Wheeler

Many early-career screenwriters rebel against the idea that your first three scripts have to be of the same genre and style, but that continuity helps the industry get a handle on you and your skill set.

Ask any up-and-coming screenwriter what the hardest part of getting produced is, they’ll say it’s getting on the radar of the right producers. Ask an established screenwriter what the hardest part is and they’ll say remaining on those radars.

Making Yourself Easily Identifiable

Screenwriters need to get, and stay, on the minds of the deal makers. But how do we do that in the right way?

Firstly, producers are very short of time. To remain on top they need to pour most of their time and attention into fostering relationships with investors, top directors, top actors and the most promising of the emerging crop. They also have to keep up with the ever-changing distribution landscape. Building and maintaining relationships with screenwriters is way down on their list of things to do.

There’s no point wishing they’d alter their priorities. If they spent their time mentoring one or two inexperienced screenwriters instead of building their list of contacts, how could they have the resources to produce a film?

The business is what it is. Producers are time poor. We screenwriters need to find ways to be easily identifiable.

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If you heard, “She’s kind of Charlie Kaufman in heels,” you get that the screenwriter in question is female, has a distinctive voice, and you’ll probably expect a little style and sophistication thrown in there, too.

Without ever reading a word she’s written, you know how you’d label her, what projects you think she’s suitable for. It’s good branding and a good label because it’s clear.

Stephen Gaghan, writer of Rules of Engagement, Traffic, and Syriana in an interview at the Austin Film Festival said, “I’m in the adult-serious ghetto. That’s my pigeonhole.”

Writer/director Anthony Mingela of The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley, and Cold Mountain said, “In America, before they make a film, they always ask you ‘what shelf is the DVD going to be on?'”

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We may not have DVDs so much anymore, but the premise remains true. Producers specialise in genres. Their investors like to invest in only certain things. And their marketing and distribution chains are specialized to cater to this.

Building Your Base

As a screenwriter trying to break in, you can write any spec of any genre you want, but if you write ten specs in ten different styles and genres, you’re probably never going to pitch the same producer twice. Every single time you finish a new spec you’ll have to do your industry research all over again.

If you write three or five noir thrillers in a row, you’ll have your list of relevant producers right there. Over the years, you’ll build up name recognition and you’ll slowly get on their radar as a screenwriter who reliably turns out new work.

The other good thing about writing three or more specs in the same genre is that you get better. Every genre has its own rules and expectations. If you pay to see a horror movie you know there will be early deaths, you know the general arc of the story and you know how many twists you need to see before you’ll feel you got your money’s worth.

Color Yourself Talented

Screenwriters tend to fall into two groups: those who like coloring within the lines and those who don’t. The three-of-a-kind way of writing helps iron out the weaknesses of both.

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I fall into the first category. I like learning a whole new set of rules and working within that structure. The first spec in a new genre can need an awful lot of rewriting and still it can sometimes feel like the training wheels are on. I often have to get feedback and then do another few rewrites based on that.

By the second spec in a genre, I start to get comfortable and experiment a little. By the third, I thoroughly know the structure and expectations of the genre. By the time the third one comes around I’ve worked out how to best marry my distinctive voice with the quirks of the genre to create a piece that’s both fresh and unique but still hits all the marks.

Those who hate rules and love to break them can find it hard to write three of a kind because their second attempt is often more of a mess than the first. If they’re smart, by the third they stop ignoring the rules and start incorporating the expected structure.

Think about it from the producer’s point of view; do they want a writer who doesn’t really respect or understand the genre? Or are they after someone who does?

It’s much more satisfying, stylish, and fun to subvert the rules of a genre once you fully understand what they are and how they function.

What If Your Genre is ‘Off Trend’?

There are always going to be fads in film. Pirate movies are out, wilderness treks are in, family road trips are in, musicals are out…

The truth is, every trend is started by a film that no one believed was on trend. The producers made it anyway and it became a runaway hit. We fall in love with a film because it’s different from everything that’s come before. It’s unique yet universal.

Trends are like tide: they come in and out. Write what you love and the rest will come.

The only “wrong” genres for emerging screenwriters are blockbusters and adaptations. From a producers point of view, you look like you’re one of those hacks who went to a movie at the mall and decided to make a quick million as a screenwriter.

All the top screenwriters who do get to write the blockbusters originally got noticed for their impressive portfolio of original screenplays. They had a distinctive, unique voice. That’s what lead to the bigger adaptation projects.

If you fell in love with films because of a comic book movie, you didn’t fall in love with all comic book movies, you fell in love with one particular idea. At its heart it’s a story about one person who feels they’re like no one else. The protagonist struggles with harnessing a new skill set, a few bullies at work pick on them, then finally they find some work/life balance (or they accept that they’ll have to forgo a meaningful personal life).

Your protagonist doesn’t need to wear a cape and their underpants on the outside. You can write that story as an action, a thriller, a drama, or a zombie comedy. Once you break, producers can then consider you for other genres.

As for adaptations generally, all the good stuff is bought up by studios before its even published.

Producers aren’t looking for a screenwriter who refuses to write originals. Screen stories are about emotional engagement with the reader and the audience. Who wants a writer who won’t emotionally engage?

If Hamlet speaks to you like no other work of fiction, write a semi-autobiographic work about a perennial post-grad student who travels home to the family business and deals with all his unresolved familial issues.

If you want to write screenplays for yourself and never have them read or produced, then write whatever you want. If you hope to be a part of the industry, it’s not enough to just work hard. You also have to be strategic.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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