You can break into screenwriting in a million different ways. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you have to do it “their way.” Like everything else about this town, the only rule is there are no rules. You succeed in your own way.
There’s a good reason, then, not to be too laser-focused on a specific goal. If you start out with the goal of writing only historic dramas, you’d be well advised to consider other opportunities. The journey from where you are to where you want to be can be quite circuitous.
This may come off as obvious advice, but I think people need to hear it. You need to be flexible to be open to whatever opportunities present themselves. Give yourself more ways to break in – don’t limit yourself.
You may think you can’t be artistically fulfilled writing “x.” If you tell yourself you’ll never write a TV show, or a cartoon, or god-forbid, a reality show, or a documentary, or even a web series, you’ll be limiting your chances at success.
The way it works for most screenwriters is they break in writing anything they can, and then branch out from there. Once you find a niche, and get experience writing – several things happen:
You become credible in other people’s eyes, especially if you sustain employment for a year or two and you have a reputation for delivering a quality product. People in the business start to see you as a professional – even if you’re “just” writing an animated web series. If your work is solid you will get more work.
All this will, hopefully, result in you getting representation. If you’re being paid to write, you’re way more likely to get an agent or a manager. Once you start making money, there will be people interested in collecting their ten percent.
Having representation means you can start writing that historical drama, and have it sent to producers and studios. When material is sent from an agent, producers are much more likely to read it. They don’t worry so much about getting sued, and they know the quality will be better than the stuff that comes in off the street.
Of course, your historical drama has to be a kick-ass script. Agents hate to send out “just average” material for a very important reason. They have reputations, too. If they constantly send out mediocre material, imagine what will happen? Studios and producers will stop answering their phone calls. They’ll be out of work.
Once you’ve got that foot in the door, you need to continue to produce quality product. This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of writers who assume their agents should send out whatever they write.
Another thing that happens with your foot in the door is, as your career grows you will hopefully impress your boss and your colleagues as a writer. So breaking in and staying in are important. Maintaining a reputation as a good writer is just as important. Once the people around you come to like you and your work, the more opportunities will present themselves.
As a case in point, my partner and I worked on some TV show staffs (which are great places to build a network of fans and supporters). On the TV show Alice (run by Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis – writer/creators of I Love Lucy) we made friends with several writing teams.
One of the teams, Bob and Howard Bendetson, moved on to ALF and took us with them. When they moved on to Newhart, and brought us with them, too. Another team, Jack Carrerow and Lisa Bannick, took us with them to “9 to 5.” And so on.
Similarly, we worked with a TV showrunner named Brian Levant on a few projects, and he liked us enough to take us with him to other shows. After a while, he embarked on a feature directing career, making family friendly comedies like Beethoven, and Problem Child.
Here’s what I mean about getting your foot in the door. My partner and I went to USC Film School, and wanted to write feature length screenplays. When Levant moved in to features, he took us with him we wrote a feature called Blowhard, a spoof of Die Hard with him at Imagine.
When he got a job directing The Flintstones, for Speilberg, he took us with him. We helped him break the story, which was then pitched to Speilberg to get the greenlight. We were two of eight writers selected by Amblin to receive “written by” credit on the film.
However, when the WGA found there were eight names on the script, they balked and decided there could only be three names, or the names of three teams on the written by credit. They created a new rule just to piss us off. Still we wrote various drafts and worked on the set rewriting material when the stars (Rick Moranis and John Goodman) wanted changes.
We had our foot in the door, and ended up writing some produced feature films. Similarly, my partner and I wrote the pilot for The Wild Thornberrys animated TV show. When the show spawned two animated feature films, The Wild Thornberrys Movie and Rugrats Go Wild, we received writing credits on those projects, too.
Our example pales in comparison to other writers who got their foot in the door in TV, and wound up writing award-winning feature films.
James Brooks started writing documentaries for David Wolper (producer of ‘Roots”) and wound up winning an Oscar for his screenplay to Terms of Endearment. Paul Haggis went from writing One Day at a Time (a show I also worked on) to winning his Oscars for Crash and Million Dollar Baby.
I guess I shouldn’t really be so modest. The Flintstones won the German Screen Award 1994 (believe it or not – shared this honor with Schindler’s List). The screenplay also won the Razzie Award that year. I’m still waiting for my golden statue.
The point is, get your foot in the door, do good work, and get noticed. Admittedly, my partner and I had a reputation for being “good in a room,” meaning, we came up with jokes and story ideas, on the spot, under pressure. That’s a skill that will get you noticed.
Whatever your strengths are, let people know about them – always be doing your best work. You can break in doing something, whatever clicks at first – and later morph yourself into the writer you really want to be.
If you’re having trouble finishing a draft, or a re-write, feel free to talk with me, a produced screenwriter, at 310-850-4707.
Image credit: Creative Commons, The Wild Thornberrys, 2017, by Klasky-Csupo, is licensed under CC By 2.