Strategizing The Launch Of Your Screenwriting Career
Being a screenwriter is a paradoxical endeavor. On one hand, screenwriters are told to be unique and original and write the stories burning inside of them. And on the other, they’re told to write to the market.
Write something I haven’t seen before.
So you write that highly personal screenplay a producer, agent, or manager hasn’t read before. Then they reject it. The reason? Not commercial enough. Mixed messages? More like opposing messages. What’s a writer to do?
As infuriating as the business may appear, there is some logic to it. This conflicting advice refers to the purpose of your screenplay and the stage of your career. Do you want to get noticed? Do you want to get signed, or do you want to get paid?
There are story ideas that you write for yourself. And there are story ideas you write to be sold. Your job as a screenwriter is to ideally find the intersection of the two. That’s where your manager (and agent) comes in to play. You pitch a dozen (or more) story ideas that you’re most excited about.
Your manager will help you prune your idea tree into ideas that have a greater likelihood of selling. If you are at the early stages of your career and you are building your body of work, developing your craft, or finding your voice, you can probably write those stories less likely to sell.
A good manager will vet your ideas with you and advise you which ones to write accordingly. If you disagree with them, there is always joy in writing a screenplay for yourself. That’s fine. Just don’t try to force it into the sales lane.
Getting On The Map
During the early stages of your screenwriting career, your primary job is to get noticed by the industry. You can be more “original and unique” in your screenplays. Managers can market your “bold and loud” scripts around town to showcase your particular voice. This will get you some meetings with agents, producers, and people who can potentially move your career forward. Perhaps a meeting might even lead to a writing assignment? If you’re lucky, you might even score a sale.
Initially, screenwriters should be writing for the town rather than audiences. As frustrating as this may be, the town is the industry gatekeeper that will open doors for you and may eventually allow your personal project to be produced. The town likely knows more people than you, so even if they can’t move your projects forward, they may know people who might.
The Stunt Script
Some writers make a splash around town with a “stunt script.” A shameless publicity stunt. This is a screenplay so outlandish that it has no chance of production. Ever. But a stunt script will get you and your writing noticed. Stunt scripts can be a spec of an existing TV show, a reimagining of a well-known character such as a modern version of Snow White, or something totally original. This is your time to swing for the fences.
The most famous example was Billy Domineau’s stunt spec of Seinfeld called “The Twin Towers” in 2016. Let’s unpack how this could have gone wrong, but did the exact opposite. Seinfeld hadn’t been on air since 1998 and 9/11 happened in 2001. And the “Twin Towers” episode was a comedic take on a global tragedy. It was a highly risky move on Domineau’s part. The writer’s audacity sent shock waves throughout the industry and got Billy noticed. He wrote on Family Guy and other shows.
You may not personally be comfortable with taking such a risk which carries a high chance of permanently hamstringing your career. Not to mention the blowback for defiling an iconic film or TV show.
That said, the town has some latitude for outlandishness and individuality. In that case, you might want to write that defining screenplay with a meta angle – something with a heightened sense of awareness that poke fun at familiar tropes.
Alternatively, you might want to go bold with your R-rated comedy and go where no other screenwriter thought you would. And you did. Not into films you can’t watch with your mother? You might want to consider a revisionist take on a famous figure, such as a hip George Washington (or Hamilton), or something that flips traditional paradigms on their head.
If you’re not feeling like going right out there, there is still a remedy for you. In terms of breaking in, the industry leans more towards drama projects because they travel better globally both on screens and in the film festival circuit. Consider your prestige or elevated screenplay to break you in. Dramas (bar period) are generally cheaper to produce and help producers build their slate. These types of projects will also boost the careers of producers as well as your own.
Comedies are trickier unless they are really broad. Most countries produce their own comedies that cater to their social and cultural palette.
Once you start gaining traction as a screenwriter, the industry will ask what other scripts you have. At this point, it’s ill-advised to branch out into other genres. The only sin worse than claiming to be an expert in all or wildly-conflicting genres is not having a follow-up script.
Newer screenwriters need to be recognized as an expert in one genre (this can be a hybrid) for at least a few years. Every genre has some wiggle room. If you like horror you might consider psychological, monster, or even comedy-horror. You need a base genre to market yourself in and an adjacent genre to flaunt your range.
When you hit the big time, you can play the field as much as you want because your reputation will carry you.
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