Q&A: What Are My Chances?
Q&A[The question below is one I’ve been hearing in one form or another my entire career – not just from screenwriters, but novelists, marketers, and public speakers – anyone hoping to break into a career involving storytelling, creativity or independence. So the message contained in my answer is one you must remind yourself of repeatedly – especially in the face of those who will assure you you’re going to fail.]
Q: I’m two months away from getting my BA in Creative Writing for Entertainment. Throughout the two and half years in this program, I believed I’d someday have a career in screenwriting, until one of my professors, who has worked in the television industry for 30 years, told the class, “There is no such thing as a career in screenwriting. If you write a script, you’re just a scriptwriter. There is no specific career.”
It broke me in half. I felt like I’ve wasted two years on a career that doesn’t exist. My question is, what are the odds of a new writer getting their idea picked up by one of the major networks? If the idea is original and marketable will it matter if I don’t have any established credits to my name?
A: Nikki –
Your professor sounds like a bonehead, and his statement would come as a shock to Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes, Christopher Lloyd, Vince Gilligan, Robert & Michelle King, and hundreds of other movie and TV writers who are making a very good living with their screenwriting careers. Pay no attention to him.
My answer to your question is to stop thinking about odds and statistics. If you’ve stuck with this college program for 2½ years, and you’re already working on your series idea, then it’s fairly obvious you love writing. So keep at it!
Keep writing what excites you, as you improve your craft and study the business of film and television. Eventually it will pay off.
Selling an original idea is indeed tough – though not impossible – if you’re unproven. But your ultimate goal is not to sell an idea or even to sell a script – it’s to get work as a screenwriter. That will lead to other work, and more money, and ultimately the opportunity to sell your own ideas, or produce your own television series.
But the first step is always to have outstanding work to show the people in power: compelling, commercial ideas that are superbly written. Without exception, this is how every working screenwriter or television writer – and they are legion – began her career.
I’d also recommend my book Writing Screenplays That Sell, which covers the process of breaking in to Hollywood in depth. But most of all KEEP WRITING!
I’m 60, and I just finished my fourth screenplay. I can see my writing is improving, but it needs to get better before it’s ready for pitching to a buyer. From all I read if you want to be a screenwriter, plan on investing at least 5-10 years at this. You are competing with people with training, talent, and connections at the highest levels. There is no easy way in. Working in the in industry as a reader or for an agency would help a lot.
You can see what is being submitted. The best books I found on this topic are: Breakfast with Sharks by Michael Lent–must read this!, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors-Stealing Hollywood by Alexandra Sokoloff,
Screenplay: Writing the Picture by Robin Russin and William Downs, and The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. There are many more books you can read, but these are critical. Michael Lent charts the course for anyone going to LA to break in. He did it, and it’s a slow process. Be sure you can support yourself adequately before you enter the race. I write because I feel I must. I won’t be moving to LA, but I have some actor friends there. I realize the best I might ever do is enter a contest and get recognition there. Beyond that I doubt if anyone will even consider my work due to age and subject matter. I’m not writing to get rich or famous. It’s a calling to me. Good luck to all of you.
After more than 25 years in management sides of radio and TV, if I were a young graduate, I would move to Hollywood and get a job in the industry, and work my way up with dedication and networking. and it can be done. Tough but doable, if you hang in there. 2nd, Learn the industry… college was barely a start.
Perfect answer. Calling that Professor a bonehead was…., very polite. I’ve made a living writing for television out here in Nigeria for 10 years now; and there are a lot of young people coming through now as more film and television projects spring up. I believe it’s the same in Hollywood. There are so many new shows coming up. You just need to keep improving your craft as a screenwriter.
P.S: I was opportune to listen to you at Story Expo 2015. An experience I continue to cherish.