Monday, 8 March 2021

GETTING WORK WITHOUT AN AGENT - Screenwriter's Survival Kit

I'm repped now (thank you Andy Townsend!), but I spent several years in the 'wilderness' of the industry, without an agent. For new writers and out-of-school-students, this can be incredibly daunting: they've oft-heard the 'no unsolicited submissions/agents only' bit many times before, thus massively cutting down submission options. They may also have heard that big shows won't hire writers without one, or without a track record of credits. 

Can't get work without an agent - can't get an agent without work. What a Catch-22, right?

Well, not entirely. Your options will be more limited, to be sure, but as I've mentioned many times on this blog, the industry casts a huge smokescreen around itself (mostly for legal protection). Those walls and gates can absolutely be broken through and there are people out there who will take a chance on new blood. While I cannot sell you a magic ticket, nor would I, I hope the following will serve as a roadmap as to the avenues you can explore to train and earn.

Also, for the purposes of clarity, I'm specifically talking about paying gigs, not competitions, scratch nights or short film festivals, nor am I talking about self-funding projects like an indie feature. This is about commissions.

CAN I GET TV WORK? 

Yes, but get ready for it to be slow coming. TV that is more amenable to unrepped writers tend to err on the lower budget end, meaning it can take longer to make and, more importantly, fund if it's not an in-house production from a broadcaster.

One easy recommend is Children's TV: shorter lengths, simpler stories and, on the whole, lower costs than regular comedy or drama. Pre-school, in particular, can be really amenable to new talent if you have a good sample on hand and are, most importantly, enthusiastic to write for the series. 

Based on my experience, some of the things that they look for include:

  • Big and colourful, something cheery (but not bubblegum - the days of Barney are long gone.)
  • Contains an educational component (though doesn't have to be an education series persay, just simply with something that teaches kids a lesson about life or the world.)
  • Diversity
  • Humour - kids loves slapstick, goo and goofery. Just be careful of imitable actions (''don't try this at home, kids'')

BUT WHAT ABOUT ADULT WORK?

Sketch shows, if you pitch it right and have some cracking samples, may be willing to give you a show. Again, just bear in mind the profile: the bigger the comic, the harder it will be. Between the two, however, comedy allows for more moving about between kids and TV, so doing the above can make this a bit easier.

As for drama, the continuing dramas/soaps are seen as the 'traditional' way in, though most don't regard themselves as such (even Doctors, often treated as the beginner's show). Reaching out to the script producer is an option, though bear in mind they also work on the series and handle a variety of other responsibilities, so don't be surprised if it takes 6+ months before you get a reply. However, that's not the only way - storyliners are a job you can apply for and, even better, they tend to progress into script editors or writers, meaning there will usually be a new callout every couple of months.

WHAT OTHER WORK IS THERE?

  • Radio and podcasts: The audience is smaller than film or TV, but the advantage: 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. If you're into comedy, Newsjack is the classic entry point. 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 if you're interested. Audible do callouts from time to time, and don't be afraid to search 'audio drama' or dig into 'BBC Sounds'.
  • Games: While these can sometimes demand some level of experience, and you won't be right away on the next Assassin' Creed, the great thing here is an agent isn't needed, and there are fairly regular call outs for writers, or narrative designers, to work on a new game with smaller developers. Sometimes it's on a specific game, other times to join the company's writing department to work on several.
  • Online content: web animation, often no longer than maybe 2 or 3 minutes, has been coming more into its own in recent years. The views on Youtube are, frankly, insane. These tend to be, but by no means always, part of a bigger brand and a link will usually be provided on the channel to find them. There are also jobs to write live-action Youtube videos as well, such as being a researcher or copywriter, depending on the style of show.

WHO DO I SPEAK TO?

Exactly the same process as I discussed in the Networking article of SSK (read here if you missed it). Producers, script editors and head writers are your ports of call. End credits and IMDB are your friends.

WHAT WILL I GET PAID?

Use the Writers Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) website to check your rates, which covers all sectors of the industry and media.

I hope this is of use. Naturally, none of this is a complete guarantee: all work is tricky and competitive. However, this should clear away what can feel like some of the impenetrable mist.

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