No one will ever explain to you what you should be doing as a features screenwriter.
There are no goals, KPIs, objectives, weekly paychecks, or other standard markers to let you know that you're making progress, not incompetent, and shouldn't be going insane.
There are a few partial and temporary exceptions to this general aimlessness, though.
When you're breaking in, it's obvious what the goal should be: Write a screenplay good enough to get attention. If you're lucky, that attention will get you a manager or agent who will try to sell it.
What you should write about and how you go about getting attention isn't obvious. But at least the next milestone is clear. And there are many resources to help you achieve it. However, it's hard to tell you're making progress until—all at once like in some kind of evolutionary explosion—you get a manager or agent.
If, after you have representation, you get a job, you'll know what to work on. You'll do your best at the job for which you were just hired. You'll have a contract with deadlines, so you know when this temporary exception to being rudderless is over.
So, what do you do when you don't have a job and aren't trying to break in? The high that comes with first signing with an agent or manager and your first batch of meetings passes quickly. It's a dangerous time, and you'll probably have no idea what to do when the momentum fades.
Let me go back to the moment when I broke in. What happened to me is instructive.
I first signed with an agent, who quickly moved agencies and brought me along with him. I found myself with a "team," including my fancy point agent and two other younger agents.
I met once with them in person, and, despite me asking for it, they gave me no guidance about what to write next. But they promised me lots of meetings.
Because it seemed like the smart thing to do because everyone else wanted both an agent and manager, I wanted to sign with managers, as well. I asked my new team of agents who, amongst the many reputable managers I had been meeting with, they recommended. But they were equivocal about all of them. Any might be a good choice, they said.
I signed with managers at a respected company that a few friends had recently worked at as assistants.
The managers were keen to "get me a win" or "get one on the board." That means getting a job someone pays you for. I was particularly keen on the same thing.
So I spent many months preparing for and pitching on the most dreadful material you can imagine. But I didn't get any of the jobs. I could tell my managers were let down.
All the while, I had the feeling I should be writing something new. If an original spec script brought about all these good things, it seemed like another one might bring more of the same.
I asked my representatives what they wanted me to work on next. I sent them batches of ideas. Ultimately, I sent over 70.
Between my team of three agents and two managers, there was an objection to every idea.
They never approved any of the concepts. We never settled on anything. My team never got behind a single idea. I was left to flounder.
If you're in a similar position, you, too, will probably be left without direction, with no clear advice on what to write next. I've seen it happen to many of my friends.
There are rational reasons why your reps will hate almost every idea you pitch them. It all boils down to the same thing: It's hard to sell just about anything, but it's easy to poke a hole in any good idea.
What happened to those 70+ ideas that I sent to my team in the months after landing on the Black List? In due time:
- I'd sell one in the room as a pitch.
- I'd write another on spec, although my first managers didn't want me to. One of them said, "He didn't have the energy to help me with the script." Within a week, that script got me another manager (who was wonderful), was sent out to producers, and got me months of meetings. It led to the next upswing in my career.
- My favorite of all the ideas ended up being announced as the next book by a beloved author about a year later. I spent a lot of that first year of having representation "soft pitching" that concept in general meetings. The day the book was announced in the trades, I received about 10 calls asking me if I'd like to write the adaptation. "Yes, of course I want to!" I said to everyone. However, within a few days, we learned that the publishers wanted a "Scorsese-level" writer and director.
I don't write this to vent, but as a lesson:
Your job as a screenwriter is to write new spec scripts.
Your reps will have objections to all your best ideas. Your script likely won't sell. Each idea will be too far-fetched, high budget, low budget, or similar to something else.
It doesn't matter. Write a new spec script.
Writing a new script is not only your job, but it's the only way to continue to bring about good things.
I plan to write more about how to choose what to write. But for the time being, here's simple guidance that's worked well for me:
Write your favorite two ideas. Simultaneously. Start your process on both.
Working on two ideas will relieve the pressure that comes from feeling like all your hopes are tied up in one project. And, soon enough, you'll find that one idea is easier to write, so you'll naturally gravitate to it.
Now you can then tell your reps you're working on screenplays. They'll forget what you've told them quickly, but they'll be happy that, first, you're writing, and, second, that they don't have to approve and choose what you're writing
Finish two new screenplays every year. You'll know they're done when you're not embarrassed to show them to your reps.
You can expect your reps to like one of the scripts well enough to "send it out wide" to producers. That means they're risking their own reputation to call 50 production companies and pitch your script.
No one knows if your script will sell. But you'll get meetings, make new fans, and might even get a job.
As Daniel Kunka says in this podcast that inspired me to write this, write your spec.
Despite what anyone says—or what your representatives won't tell you—your job is to write new screenplays.
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