“Success in screenwriting today is more about a series of small breaks.”

One writer who keeps reinventing himself is Woody Allen. He went from stand-up to writing short stories for the New Yorker. After that, he wrote Play It Again Sam, a Broadway play.

He adapted the play into a successful film. After that, he wrote several similar broad comedies –Bananas, Sleeper, and Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.

Apparently, he just wasn’t satisfied writing in that sub-genre.  Allen and Marshall Brickman teamed up to write a more thoughtful comedy, Annie Hall.

Allen continued to reinvent himself. His film, Interiors looked and felt like a Bergman film. Allen constantly raised his sights and has now racked up an impressive number of Oscar nominations, at 17.

Ben Affleck started out as an actor, then got together with his friend Matt Damon to write a film they could play the leads in. After winning an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting, he had a pretty good career as an actor.

At some point he made a series of bad decisions –acting in films that were out of his wheelhouse. The gangster film Gigli is probably the most notorious example. Affleck’s stock started to drop. Then he decided to try directing, and turned out to be very good at it. After directing a few films, he struck gold, winning Best Director after making Argo.

Screenwriter Callie Kouri, known for her comedy, action-thriller Thelma and Louise.  After a dry spell selling screenplays, she created the TV show Nashville and found herself reinvented as an Executive Producer and showrunner for a TV hour drama.

Writers generally find themselves pigeonholed into some category; (generally a genre), like kid’s feature animation, psychological horror, half hour single camera TV comedy, one hour police procedurals.

Agents and managers like this, because it makes their jobs easier. When studios are looking to hire a feature comedy writer, they look to guys like Judd Appatow. The guy has a track record. They don’t try to get him into historical drama.

Occasionally, writers often get tired of writing the same type of material. If they don’t get tired of it, the powers that be may grow tired of them. Whatever the reason, writers, along with actors, and pretty much everybody in Hollywood reinvent themselves at some point.

Sometimes screenwriters reinvent themselves because they need the money. Let’s look at the career of Brian Godawa. The screenwriter’s big break was selling the script for To End All Wars, which was then produced and garnered great reviews.

Godawa says he learned a difficult lesson about Hollywood. Success in screenwriting today is more about a series of small breaks. After switching to writing horror scripts, he sold Descent of the Gods, and was given the opportunity to direct it.

After that, the screenwriter started pitching a movie version of Noah, but was turned down because Darren Aronofsky had a similar project. Godawa wrote his version of Noah as a self-published novel, and it was pretty successful.

The money from that novel has helped him afford to keep writing screenplays.  Since then he’s been writing novels and screenplays –both – one to pay the bills and the other to do what he loves.

I was lucky to have a long, productive writing career. Over the years my writing partner and I re-invented ourselves many times.

We got started writing for Norman Lear’s shows like One Day At A Time, and The Jeffersons. Lear’s show tended to engage in social commentary. After audience tastes changed, we made an effort to write for shows like ALF, 9 to 5, and Newhart.

During the WGA strikes, we wrote for animated (non-WGA) shows like Winnie the Pooh and Beetlejuice. Later, we created our own animated series.

We wanted to write edgier, darker comedies. We had written an episode of Tom, (Tom Arnold’s show), called Tom’s Thumb, in which he cut his thump off in the garage.  It was darkly funny.  We showed the script around and got an assignment on Duckman.  After that we spent two years on Dilbert and wrote for South Park.

Some people get the big break like Godawa, then have to switch genres because of a slump. If you get a break, and things cool off, think about writing other genres (especially low-budget, like horror). And consider TV. You have to do what you can to stay in the game.

Image credit: Creative Commons, Gigli sucks, 2011  by Maurina Rara, is licensed under CC By 2.