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. Let’s say you start out to write only one type of script, say a period drama like Gandhi or Judgement At Nuremberg. How many of those types of films are studios making these days?
I think it’s great that you aspire to write a film like that. However, you have to think about screenwriting as a numbers game. Studios are more likely to buy horror films, thrillers, or comedies. Those films are cheaper to make and generally have a broader appeal.
In my opinion, you’d be well advised to consider other opportunities. The journey from where you are to where you want to be can be pretty circuitous. It’s not a straight line. You have to try different things. This may seem like 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. 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 limit your chances at success.
Break in any way you can. Once you have some success, you become credible in other people’s eyes. 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 reliable, you’ll get more work.
All this will, hopefully, result in you getting representation. If you’re getting paid to write, you’re likely to get an agent or a manager. They will be happy to take their ten percent.
Once you have an agent, you can start writing that historical drama. Your agent might even send it out. When producers get scripts from an agent, they are 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. They have reputations, too. If they continuously send out mediocre content, 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 write quality screenplays. Obvious, right? You’d be surprised at the number of writers who assume their agents should send out whatever they write.
So your foot is in the door. You’ve impressed your bosses with your writing. They keep giving you assignments. Breaking in is essential, but staying in is what you really want. Maintaining a reputation as a good writer is enormous, too. Once the people around you come to like you and your work, the more opportunities will present themselves.
I have friends who went to film school. They wanted to write a particular type of movie script. I’d encourage them to try writing for tv shows, or sketch shows, to try different genres. They weren’t interested. When certain opportunities arose, their scope was too limited.
Take a look at the way some famous writers broke in. James Brooks, for example, started writing documentaries. He wound up winning an Oscar for the screenplay for Terms of Endearment. Paul Haggis went from writing One Day at a Time to winning his Oscars for Crash and Million Dollar Baby.
Aaron Sorkin was a struggling playwright. John Ridley wrote for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. David O Russell made a short called “Hairway to the Stars.” Jordan Peele wrote sketch comedy before writing the Oscar-winning horror film, “Get Out.” Since then, he’s written and directed the Oscar-winning horror film “Get Out.” He’s totally reinvented himself.
Animators Trey Parker and Matt Stone broke in with South Park, and have since had success in features and on Broadway. Larry David wrote jokes for Fridays. Bill Hader wrote for Saturday Night Live. They both have successful writing careers.
The point is, get your foot in the door, do good work, and get noticed. Whatever your strengths are, let people know about them – always do your best work. Break in doing something, whatever clicks at first – and later morph into the writer you really want to be.
Should you stop writing what you love to write? Of course not. Just don’t rule out genres and formats that can get you produced, or get you representation. Don’t be a snob. Don’t rule out writing jokes for a comic. Don’t rule out writing for a web-series. Don’t rule out writing a play.
You are going to meet people on each new writing project. Those people have goals, too. When they move up, they will remember you. Stay in touch with them. Support their careers. You might end up working with them. They might mention you to a producer or an agent.
Keep an open mind. Try different approaches. Your break in story might be the story that inspires the next writer. Everybody starts somewhere. Maybe you’re Sean Penn’s stunt-man. Maybe you’re the voice of a cartoon character. Take advantage of the people around you.
If you’ve already broken in at some level and are aspiring to bigger things, keep writing. You’re in good company. Like most produced writers, your “overnight success” story may take a while. Look for different ways to get noticed. Don’t give up. No matter where you are in your career, no matter how difficult things look, you can always write your way out of it.