Monday, 15 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Five: Actual Writing Work and Agents)

And now, we finally talk about being paid to write scripts. Yes, a series all about screenwriting, and it's just now that we finally talk about actually making any sort of living at it.

Ah well, save the best for next-to-last, right?

As mentioned at the beginning, you don't need an agent to walk up to a producer or development person and pitch your idea. Procedure is much the same as the work experience discussion last time: find the relevant email, compose a short pitch and logline, and then send it off. Agents really exist to help with contracts, payment and get you past the 'unsolicited' material bit, but they do not get you work. You do. You still have to network and talk to people and pitch and all the rest of it. That will never change.

Also, note what I said above: I said pitch your idea, not guarantee a read or development or actually getting made. The reality of the industry is most of your money, and by proxy, most of your career, will come from development, rather than actual production and release. Indeed, that show or film you want to make will more likely serve as a calling card to work on a similar project that the company or producer is making: your period drama pilot may open the door to work on a series like Versailles or Gunpowder, or a crime spec onto Midsommer Murders or Father Brown.

But before any of that, having some independently produced material can also be handy: It shows you write well enough to have people want to make it, as well as have initiative. Sometimes, it can even serve as a demo of a bigger project (think Whiplash), or be a way to build your own brand with some other successes. So, what can you do?
  • Short films: Classic staple. Doubt I need to say much on them. If you didn't make many connections at uni, don't worry: Facebook has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of producers and directors looking for short scripts. It's as easy as typing in film or screenwriter and BOOM: a goldmine.
  • Webseries: Good if you have an eye for TV and want to show you can write a returnable/long running project. Plus, if you have a pilot idea, this can also act as a road test. Facebook and Screenwriting Staffing also put these gigs up in droves.
  • Plays: Loads of small theatres and festivals offer opportunities and competitions for material, some even doing full plays. Agents and other talent scouts attend, so it's a good way to get spotted and network. BBC Writersroom and London Playwrights' Blog are great sources for who has an open slot.
  • Radio and podcasts: The audience is smaller than film or TV, but the advantadge: lower costs, allowing more risks to be taken. Yes, you can just pitch straight to a producer on radio, and maybe get your work on BBC Radio 4, without any sort of 'unsolicited' hullabaloo. Welcome to Nightvale and Homecoming, meanwhile, are proof of how much narrative podcasts have become a force of their own, and not something to overlook.
  • Screenwriting contests and competitions: You pay a fee, and your film or TV script will be entered into a competition, with the prizes running from big fat cheques, to meetings with producers and agents. Even just placing highly can be a useful sales hook. Just like everything thus far, however, Be A Discerning Shopper: Check the prizes, credentials of the judges, fee prices, how long they've been running and if they've had any major success stories. Thescriptlab.com did a great piece on the best ones.
  • In addition, writing news scripts, adverts and other types of commercial, short-form content (known as copywriters) are also a common way to earn your keep as a new writer.
One I did not mention was Amazon Studios: you might've heard the Big A has a system of reading unsolicited scripts. A couple of years ago, I would have said give them a go, but nothing from their unsolicited slate has been greenlit in forever, since they started working with represented writers. The only thing of worth, the forum, has since been shut so, really, there's no point going there.

Now, let's say you do make it: you get a read, they like it and then the follow-up meeting goes well (once again, civility with just a touch of energy and healthy, non-creepy mania, is king). Sometimes, you may get your work greenlit, and suddenly, your movie or pilot is being made. In which case, congratulations! You've now got that rags to riches story that every student screenwriter dreams of.

However, moreso in TV than film, this will likely not be the case and, instead, the company will pay you some money for development, and then offer you a job on something they're working on (a commission) that is similar to what you pitched them. This can be rewrites on a film (an assignment) or work as a staff writer on a TV series. Rule here is don't be a snob: any paid work is good work, even if the premise doesn't seem like the most groundbreaking or original thing ever. You may laugh, but soaps, daytime television and kids TV are all the classic stomping grounds of new writers, so keep a good watch on them.

The mantra goes that it takes 'ten years' to make it in the business, and sadly, that's often not far from the truth (it's the one I'm living with right now). However, this does not mean 'ten years' till you get paid, or meet people, or get meetings or even get an agent: it just means you get into a good position to really advance your career, with some decent credits under your belt.

So, I've talked reading material, job prospects, networking and your first gigs. What else is there I could cover? How about some home truths, including one which is almost never addressed, but can make all the difference.

Join me for the sixth and final part when I talk about getting it wrong, and why that's not the end.

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