Lauri Donahue

About Time (STPS #6)

How do you find time to write a screenplay, and how long does it take to write one?

Finding Time

Almost all big-time professional screenwriters worked at something else for years before they made their first dollar from screenwriting, and/or had long dry spells between screenwriting gigs.

  • Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester-by-the-Sea) wrote industrial shows and speeches for the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) was a musician and tended bar.
  • Dan Gillroy (Nightcrawler) was an admin for a theatrical producer and wrote for Variety.
  • Eli Attie (House, The West Wing) wrote speeches for Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

How can you get stuff written when you’ve got a day job, and maybe family responsibilities as well?

The obvious answers are:

  • Get up early or stay up late
  • Write on weekends
  • Write during your breaks and lunch hours
  • Write on vacation
  • Write on the job – if it’s OK with your boss (see below)
  • Write during your commute – as long as you’re not driving

I wrote the first ten pages of my first screenplay under idyllic conditions – on a porch overlooking a meadow next to a creek at my in-laws’ off-the-grid ranch high in the mountains of Southern Wyoming.  I had three kids under six at the time, but there were lots of relatives around to prevent them from falling in the creek.

I wrote the rest of the first draft in a spiral notebook on the subway on the way to and from my lawyer job in downtown LA. Then I wrote my second draft in Final Draft while taking a rewrite class at UCLA Extension.

Day Jobs

Finding screenwriting time when you’ve got a day job is especially important for a small-time professional screenwriter, since it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be able to support yourself from screenwriting alone.

What kinds of day jobs are best for screenwriters? There are many possibilities:

  • Jobs that are very undemanding and allow you to write on the job. For example, I once had a summer office job that required only about 30 minutes a day of actual work. The rest of the time I was free to write.
  • Freelance jobs that pay well on an hourly basis, so you don’t have to work too many hours to support yourself and can spend the rest of your time writing.
  • Jobs in the entertainment industry that expose you to contacts who can get you gigs (although these are often low-paying and exhausting).
  • Jobs that involve writing of any kind, so you can get better at it.
  • Jobs that develop your expertise in an area (e.g., the military, espionage, law, law enforcement, medicine, etc.) so that you can write about it realistically. You can also market this expertise to potential clients.

The worst type of job for an aspiring small-time professional screenwriter is:

  • low-paying,
  • physically and/or mentally exhausting, and
  • unconnected with writing or entertainment

If you’re stuck in a “worst” job, you could focus on getting a “best” one as part of your small-time professional screenwriter career path.

Reclaiming Your Screen Time

If you don’t think you have time to write, check how much time you’re spending farting around on your phone every day.

iPhones have the Screen Time function, and there are lots of apps that can measure how much time you’re frittering away.

You can set Screen Time limits and use apps like Forest (simultaneously, if needed) to break your phone addiction and free up your time and mental bandwidth for writing.

Hitting a Deadline

One nice thing about screenwriting contests, labs, etc. is that they have deadlines, which can be very motivating for some people.

Taking a class, finding a writing buddy, or joining a writing group (where you’re scheduled to present your pages for discussion on a specific day) can also compel you to get work done.

There’s also WRAC:

What do you do when you can’t get the words on the page and no one is around to keep you accountable? WRAC, Writer Accountability, was created to help writers set goals, be accountable and share tips and advice in a supportive community.

And if you feel like you’re suffering from writer’s block, check out this article.

How long does it take?

Big-time professional screenwriters typically get 12 weeks to write a first draft, as John August notes in his excellent blog.

Shorter deadlines may be compelled by production requirements.

For example, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote The Fault in Our Stars in six days. John August wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in three weeks.

On the other hand, Dan Gilroy noted in this interview, “If I had a year, I’d spent 11 months thinking about the idea and then four weeks writing.”

When I’m paid by the hour to write scripts, I need to keep track of my time. For example, it took me 67 hours (spread over several weeks) to go from a client’s basic idea (mail order brides + neo-Nazis in Ukraine) to a detailed treatment and then to a first draft of the script Odessa.

As with many things related to screenwriting, there’s no one right answer to the question, “how long does it take to write a script?”

Fantastic Ideas and Where to Find Them (STPS #5)

People on Quora and other discussion boards are constantly asking where they can sell their movie ideas, and people like me are constantly explaining that’s not a thing.

Yes, Joe Eszterhas once sold a script pitch written on the back of a cocktail napkin for $4.7 million, but he wasn’t just selling the bare idea – he was selling his services as a hugely successful screenwriter to go with it.

If any mere mortal (i.e., non-screenwriter) has managed to sell an “idea” to a movie or TV producer, I haven’t heard of it.

Yet the belief that bare “ideas” have commercial value persists. And, like with many other things connected with screenwriting, there’s an industry that takes advantage of this fantasy.

For example, there are sites like this one, where for “only” $7,000, the team will help you  develop your TV series idea.

Commas and Shit

Sites like Craigslist are full of non-writers who have “great ideas” for movies and “just” need a little help with the details. For example, here’s a recent ad:

Just need someone to translate my ideas into a script form and fill in the gaps with strong dialogue, characterization, pacing, etc.

“Fill in the gaps…”

In other words, DO ALL THE ACTUAL FUCKING WRITING.

Usually, the people with the “ideas” think those ideas are worth at least as much as the labor the writer would contribute. As Damien Owens describes the pitches he gets from wannabe “co-authors”:

I have loads of ideas for books. How about you do all the commas and shit and we’ll split the profits 50-50?

Also, the ideas usually suck, because if you’ve never written a script you have no idea what kind of idea is solid enough to support a full-length screenplay.

Collaboration

I raised this issue for discussion on the Done Deal Forum, and one person commented:

[the belief that] them bringing “the idea” and someone else bringing “the writing” somehow amounts to equal weight on the creative scales is monumentally delusional.

And as someone else noted,

In the real world, collaboration should be between two people who can each bring equal (or nearly equal) value to the table.

In short, no one is likely to take your great idea and turn it into a script for free.

If you want to do something with that idea, you’re either going to have to pay someone real money to write a script (which is a terrible investment), or you’re going to have to learn to write for yourself.

Finding Ideas

If you’re paying any attention to the news, or if you read books or magazines, you’re constantly bombarded by interesting screenplay ideas. You just have to recognize them when you see them.

The Scriptnotes podcast has a great recurring feature called “How Would This Be a Movie?”  A recent installment is here.

One point that the hosts make is that some news stories are more suited to features, some are more suited to TV, and some might make for great documentaries. Some news stories might be interesting in themselves, but not necessarily dramatic in structure, or they might lack a viable point-of-view character.

I’m always seeing stuff in the news that I think would make for a great movie or at least a story element or plot device. I can’t possibly write up all these stories, so I often share them on Twitter under the hashtag #plotdevice.

For example, here are a few recent ones:

The ones I keep to myself I save in a Word doc that now has more than 100 entries – including potential titles and loglines and links to source material.

If you build your own idea/story collection, you’ll never run out of stuff to write, and you’ll always have something new to pitch if the occasion arises.

High Concept

There’s a lot of disagreement about what “high concept” means.

Here are a few definitions:

  • High-concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low-concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that are not as easily summarized.
    High-concept narratives are typically characterized by an overarching “what if?” scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events. Often, the most popular summer blockbuster movies are built on a high-concept idea, such as “what if we could clone dinosaurs?”, as in Jurassic Park.
    Extreme examples of high-concept films are Snakes on a Plane and Hobo with a Shotgun, which describe their entire premises in their titles. (Wikipedia)
  • “High concept” is sometimes described in terms of [Successful Movie #1] meets [Successful Movie #2]. For example, my script Orbit could be described as Gravity meets Armageddon.
  • A “high concept” can involve putting a successful movie concept in a new setting: “Die Hard on a bus/train/boat/elevator/etc.”
  • “High concept” movies often involve gimmicks – often of a magical nature. For example, “What if a man had to live the same day over and over?” “What if a successful woman was transformed into a little girl?”
  • A “high concept” can also involve irony – “Brothers rob banks in order to pay off a loan to a bank and save the family farm.” (Hell or High Water)

A high concept can, in theory, make it easier for a script to get read. Once a movie’s been made, a high concept certainly makes it easier to market.

However, having a “high concept” is neither necessary nor sufficient in order to write a great script.

Low Concepts, Great Stories

Look at the recent nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. Most aren’t what I’d call high concept, but a few of them are.

For example, I think the following movies are at least arguably high-concept:

  • A Black police officer infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. (BlacKkKlansman)
  • A man falls in love with an AI operating system. (Her)
  • A CIA agent pretends to be making a making a cheesy science fiction movie in order to get American hostages out of Iran. (Argo)

However, a lot of my favorite recent movies (and Best Picture nominees) aren’t high concept at all. For example,

  • Two ladies-in-waiting vie for the affections of an ailing queen. (The Favourite)
  • A small-town woman seeks justice for her murdered daughter by putting up billboards. (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  • A high school girl has romantic relationships with two boys and longs to escape from Sacramento. (Lady Bird)

New Stories and True Stories

I’m a big fan of true stories. They’re also popular with big-time professional screenwriters and often do well at Oscar time. In 2018, six out of eight of the Best Picture nominees were based on true stories.

If you just start with an “idea,” you’re starting with a blank page. There’s a ton of work involved in turning that idea into a story.

If you start with a story from the news or history, then the characters and basic plot points get handed to you. Of course, many dramatic true stories have been turned into deadly-dull movies – like the $120 million snooze-fest I watched last night.

Some people love the freedom and challenge of a blank page; others find it intimidating.

Some people (like me) love doing research. Others find research boring, and just want to make shit up.

Making shit up can work fine when you’re inventing your own fantastical world or situation – if you’re writing an Avatar or a Get Out.

However, it’s usually not a good idea to make shit up when you’re writing about a real environment (the military, a hospital, a submarine, etc.) with which you’re not familiar. Making shit up in that context often results in scripts that ring false and recycle movie clichés about those worlds.

One reason I love doing research is that the details I find are often cooler than anything I could have invented. For example, I could never have imagined the pickled corpses featured in my script Treasure Road.

Adaptations

When you adapt something that already exists in dramatic form (such as a play or novel), you know it already “works” as a story, and often it already has a large audience.

This is why adaptations of comic books and best-selling novels, and remakes and reboots of movies and TV shows, are so popular with big-time Hollywood – they’re considered “safe bets” (even if that sometimes turns out to be wrong).

If you’re a small-time screenwriter, you probably can’t afford the rights to a big-time piece of IP, but there’s a planet-full of literary works in the public domain.

As of January 1, 2019, works published in 1923 and earlier are in the public domain in the US. Every January 1 from now until 2073, another year’s works will become available for screenwriters to freely adapt.

However, doing a literal adaptation of a piece of literature can be a bit like paint-by-numbers. Yes, you still have to decide what to include and what to leave out, but when you get TOO much handed to you there may not be enough room left for your own voice and originality.

One compromise is to take elements from existing IP and update them. For example, my script First Lady is inspired by Macbeth, and Two Pair is loosely based on The Comedy of Errors.

Which idea to pick?

So you’ve got a bunch of ideas and/or stories. Which one do you turn into a script first (or next)?

Lots of people ask whether they should write for “the market” or for themselves.

This article lists some reasons not to try to write “high concept” or for “the market.” For example:

  • You don’t know where “the market” will be by the time you finish your script.
  • Your heart might not be in it, and that will show in the writing.
  • High-concept premises are often just one-joke ideas or gimmicks that can’t keep a reader engaged.

Also, this script probably isn’t going to sell, no matter how “commercial” it is. (See STPS #2, Tell Me the Odds.)

If you’re writing for the sheer love of writing, write something you’ll love to write – whether or not you think it’s “commercial.”

Writing a script is hard. Most people give up before they finish their first one.

If you write something that’s fun for you, and/or that you’re passionate about, you’re more likely to:

  1. finish the script, and stick with it throughout all the necessary rewrites;
  2. produce a strong writing sample that could get you small-time screenwriting gigs; and
  3. do well in the few contests that matter, which will look good on your resume when you pursue those small-time gigs.

How to Become a Screenwriter in Five Minutes (or Less) (STPS #4)

I sometimes get asked on Quora questions like “How do I become a screenwriter?”

So here’s an answer you can read in five minutes or less.

Read at least two screenwriting “how-to” books

For example, you could try:

I think it’s a good idea to read more than one book because you don’t want to get the idea that there’s only one right way to write a screenplay. Different authors have different approaches that you may find more or less useful.

TAKE NOTES ON WHAT YOU LEARN.

Read at least five professional scripts

You can often find them by googling the name of the movie along with “PDF.”

You can also try Simply Scripts and The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb).

Your reading list should include scripts for movies that have been made in the past five years, so you can see what styles are current.

TAKE NOTES ON WHAT YOU LEARN.

One thing you should notice is that professional scripts have certain things in common. For example, they almost all have sluglines that look something like this:

EXT. RAIN FOREST – DAY

Some writers put sluglines in bold (which is a current fashion), and some don’t.

You should also notice that other things are different. For example, some writers use CAPS for objects and sounds a lot more than other writers do. Some writers write long, detailed descriptions of locations; others don’t.

One reason for this exercise is to get a sense of what a professional script looks like – what’s “standard,” and what’s more a matter of individual taste/style.

Another reason to read a lot of scripts (especially award-winning ones) is to get a feel for what “good” looks like.

Think about how these pro scripts follow (or not) the “rules” in the books you’ve read.

Follow along in the script as you’re watching the movie

Notice how words on a page translate into sights and sounds on the screen.

Notice how much detail is written out by the screenwriter, and how much is left to others (like the costume designer, set designer, or fight choreographer).

Come up with a screenplay idea/story

A good source for help with developing commercial story ideas is Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds.

It can be helpful to put your idea into logline form. One basic model for loglines is:

[Type of person or group] must [do or overcome something] in order to [achieve some goal].

You can also add details about where and when the story takes place, if relevant.

For example:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a restless farm-boy must rescue a princess and learn to use his supernatural powers in order to defeat an evil empire.

Create a beat-sheet

A beat-sheet is a short (1-2 page) outline of what happens in your script.

For example, you can use the famous/infamous Blake Snyder “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet.

The books you’ve read may have other models for this.

Some people don’t like outlining. They just like to jump right into the story and start writing. How you work is up to you. But you may find that having an outline will let you know if you’ve got enough story (or too much), keep you on track, and save you from wasting time.

Write a treatment or a scriptment

A treatment or scriptment is a longer kind of outline.

Again, you may prefer just to dive in. It’s up to you.

Try to write a screenplay

It’s a good idea to get script formatting software, like Celtx or Highland or Final Draft. If you try to write a script in Word or another standard word processing program, you may drive yourself nuts dealing with format issues, and the end result may not look professional.

Or, just can write your first draft in a notebook, and do your second draft using formatting software. (I decided I wasn’t going to spend money on Final Draft until I proved to myself I could finish a first draft by hand.)

If you finish, congratulations. You’re now a screenwriter. Most wannabes never make it to that point.

However, your script probably isn’t very good. Most first scripts are awful.

What if you want to be a GOOD screenwriter?

Then you’ve got a lot more work ahead of you.

Put the script aside

Don’t work on it for at least a week. You want to be able to see it with fresh eyes.

Don’t show it to anyone yet, however much you want people to tell you how awesome it is.

This would be a good time to start working on your next script.

Rewrite

Look back at your notes from the screenwriting books and scripts you read. Think about what makes a script good.

Compare your script to the professional scripts, in terms of format, structure, dialogue, pacing, description, action, etc.

Re-read the chapters on revisions in the books you read.

Read a book like Making a Good Script Great and apply what it suggests.

Rewrite again and again and again until your script is as good as you think you can make it.

Get feedback

Do NOT get feedback on your first draft. Get feedback on your BEST draft.

So where do you get feedback?

  • You could try Zoetrope.com for free (swapped) peer feedback or pay a screenwriting consultant (like me or Screenplay Mechanic, or check Sites, Services, Software, & Supplies) or put your script on The Black List.
  • Some screenwriting contests, like the Nicholl and Austin, also offer feedback – but you may have to wait quite a few months to get it.
  • You could take a screenwriting class – in person or online – and get feedback from your teacher and classmates.
  • You could form or join a screenwriting feedback co-up and swap notes with fellow writers.

Whatever you do, don’t be a douche about the feedback you get. Accept it with THANKS and graciously, even if you think the reader is an idiot for failing to recognize your genius.

And before you ask anyone for free feedback, read this – and don’t be that guy.

Rewrite again and again and again

Again, in between rewrites and while you’re waiting for feedback, put your first script aside and work on more scripts.

You could experiment with different formats (feature, TV, short, webisode, etc.), genres, and styles. Discover where your strengths and interests lie.

Get more feedback; revise; repeat

Repeat as needed until people who know what they’re talking about (not your buddies, not your mom) say it’s good, and/or you start placing in contests like the Nicholl and Austin and/or getting 8s and up on The Black List.

Keep in mind that it may take years, and many drafts of many scripts, before you get to this point… if you ever do. (Most people don’t.)

If you do make it that far – congratulations again!  You’re now a pretty good screenwriter.

Here’s some more good advice from a pro screenwriter.

Disrupting the Screenwriting Marketplace (STPS #3)

(Updated May 14, 2019)

In the wake of the rift between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) over packaging fees and other issues, screenwriters have been taking care of their own.

Writer LaToya Morgan created the hashtag #WGAStaffingBoost to promote writers looking for TV staffing gigs.

This was followed by write Arash Amel‘s #WGAFeatureBoost (for both WGA and non-WGA writers).

Senior writers are accepting the #WGASolidarityChallenge, reading junior writers and giving them a public boost. (I was lucky enough to get an endorsement from Eric Heisserer (Arrival), who was one of my mentors at the Black List Feature Lab.)

Many other similar efforts have sprung up in recent days, including in-person mixers.

Staffing spreadsheets and other resources include:

If I’m missing any, please let me know!

Request to list managers:  please indicate at the top of each list/link whether it’s a “closed” list, or who people should contact if they want to be added and what the list criteria are.

Find-a-Writer with the WGA

Most significantly, the WGA itself recently launched two new initiatives:

The WGA Find-a-Writer Database allows searches based on criteria like:

  • Job title
  • Genre
  • Areas of expertise (from animals to world history)
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age group (over 40 and over 50)
  • Transgender writers
  • Women writers
  • Disabled writers
  • Ethnicity
  • Languages

(A video update from the WGA is here.)

Self-Help in the News

Recent coverage of the self-help efforts include these articles in the LA Times and Hollywood Reporter.

Some of my favorite quotes from THR:

Showrunners say that in the absence of agent-submitted lists, they’ve been exposed to more new talent. “We have over 700 submissions this year, 200 through the WGA portal,” says Tara Butters, who has NBC drama pilot Emergence this season with writing partner Michele Fazekas. Fazekas adds, “The fact that we have hundreds more submissions this year than any previous year makes me wonder how many people we’ve missed out on in the past.

Bingo.

For every “gatekeeper” who has opened a gate, how many have closed one?

And contrary to concerns that underrepresented writers would fall through the cracks, Vernoff says that “with the largely white, cis, male gatekeepers on the sidelines this year and writers able to directly access showrunners,” she’s read the work of a more diverse group of writers this season.

As Deadline notes,

“Women and persons of color remain underrepresented relative to their percentages in the overall U.S. population, and discrimination worsens at upper employment levels,” according to the WGA West’s Inclusion Report Card for the 2017-18 staffing season. “On writing staffs, persons of color are mostly concentrated at lower levels. In 2018, only 24% of TV showrunner roles were held by women – and only 12% were held by persons of color.”

I’ll be VERY interested to see what next year’s stats look like.

Resources for Non-WGA Screenwriters

In addition to some of the lists above, non-WGA writers also have other tools to promote their work and seek gigs without the help of an agent. Some are free, and some are for-profit.

All of them are far from ideal, as discussed below.

Script-Listing Sites

Some writers have been able to launch their careers using script-listing sites.

The problem with for-profit script-listing sites is that the return on investment for writers is dismal. Only a tiny percentage of scripts get read, and an even tinier percentage of listings lead to options, sales, representation, or paying work.

These are a few of the best-known script-listing sites:

Screenwriting Job Sites

The problem with screenwriting job sites is that most of the “jobs” are what I call #GarbageGigs.

Either the gigs are ridiculously underpaid ($500 for a feature script) or they’re posted by people looking for free work (“You write the script based on my great idea and we’ll split the proceeds!”).

Although you can sometimes find decent gigs on these sites, virtually none are anywhere close to WGA scale.

Here are some sites that list screenwriting gigs:

Why are there agents?

As Vulture explains,

In the most basic sense, agents find jobs for writers and negotiate their pay. They get meetings for their clients with film studios or networks or showrunners, seek out openings on writing staffs, and find available projects in development. Writers then take the meetings and pitch themselves for jobs, and if they get them, the agent negotiates for the most lucrative contract possible and takes a commission of up to 10 percent.

Getting Jobs for Clients

Agents supposedly add value by obtaining and using knowledge that isn’t available to screenwriters, and by trading on their relationships with people who have the ability to hire writers.

For example, they’re supposed to know:

  • Who is hiring for what
  • Who wants to buy what
  • What’s the best price a writer can get

But as Vulture reported,

75 percent of respondents in a recent WGA survey said they got themselves their most recent jobs, not their agents.

Negotiating Deals

Lawyers (rather than agents) commonly negotiate the fine points of screenwriting contracts.

Also, agents involved in packaging deals are asserted to have a conflict of interest with their screenwriter clients, which is at the heart of the current WGA-ATA dispute.

Gatekeeping

Agents serve as “gatekeepers,” screening scripts and writers and only passing on the ones they think are worthy of consideration, and thus (supposedly) saving potential employers from the hassle of reading a lot of bad scripts or dealing with unsuitable writers.

This is, of course, not 100% effective, and producers sometimes complain about the quality of scripts they get from agents.

Worse, the wrong kind of gatekeeping can lead to a lack of representation:

  • As the WGA has reported, 91 percent of showrunners are white and 80 percent are male.
  • According to Women and Hollywood, on the top 100 grossing films of 2018, women represented only 15% of writers.
  • According to a study reported in the Huffington Post, between 1991 and 2000, women wrote only 14 percent of spec scripts sold — and only 9 percent between 2010 and 2012.

Advocacy

Agents are supposed to advocate for their clients, including protecting them from producer abuses and making sure they get paid on time. But as discussed in this Scriptnotes episode and elsewhere, that doesn’t always happen.

So do screenwriters even need agents any more?

Certainly, agents have been very helpful to many screenwriters, and many screenwriters are very fond of their agents.

But agents may not be as vital to the screenwriting marketplace as the ATA wants to believe.  And a modest technological solution could make them even less relevant.

Disrupting the Screenwriting Marketplace

The new WGA screenwriter services and private screenwriter initiatives are great, but they’re all limited in some way.

For example:

  • The WGA tools aren’t available to non-WGA writers.  Non-WGA writers can still work with ATA agents (until they qualify to join the WGA), as well as with agents who have signed the WGA agreement. But it’s always been notoriously hard for an unestablished writer to get read by an agent or manager – and that’s probably not going to change.
  • Some screenwriter spreadsheets are only for WGA members, and some are only for writers who have been vouched for by WGA members.
  • Finding and searching multiple spreadsheets and databases full of writers is inefficient for those hiring writers.
  • The existing script and writer databases lack the ability to perform highly granular searches. For example, what if you’re doing a M*A*S*H reboot and you’re looking for a Black woman screenwriter who is also a doctor, has served in the military, and has written a Grey’s Anatomy spec episode?

Script-listing and screenwriting-job sites have additional limitations:

  • Again, most of the gigs are garbage, so writers need to spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the decent ones.
  • Most of the listed scripts aren’t up to professional standards, and the ones that are can get buried in the dross. (However, some sites allow pro users to search for highly rated or award-winning scripts.)
  • Many sites cost money, and not all screenwriters can afford to use them.
  • With some job sites, screenwriters have no assurances of getting paid.

Technology to the Rescue?

Gavin Polone, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, noted:

I asked an experienced showrunner/high-level producer, who is currently looking to get staffed, to show me the WGA’s Staffing Submission System, which allows writers to submit themselves to three TV shows that are looking to hire. From my seat, the system was easy to use and worked fluidly but clearly lacked needed functionality. “I know that you need to submit to 20 shows to get three meetings to get one offer,” she told me, “so, from a numbers perspective, it isn’t enough.” This producer already had offers and wasn’t relying on the WGA app to get her a job. Though this program is impressive, the WGA needs to further build it out to make it effective, providing the ability to make more submissions (probably setting a time limit on when submissions expire and new ones are permitted) and, critically, the ability to follow up. One crucial duty of agents is to bug submittees that they should read a script that has previously been sent, which they probably do in 3 percent of cases, and the WGA’s system doesn’t yet surmount this very low standard of agenting.

He also suggested that there’s room for improvement — and it’s probably coming:

One thing we all know is that technology gets better with time until we don’t know how we could have lived without it. Years ago, I would routinely use a travel agent, but now, though I assume they still exist, the idea of walking into an office or calling someone on a phone to plan my vacation seems ridiculous. I bought my current car online without ever sitting in it. I found the house I now live in on Trulia and I may sell it on Redfin using that site’s 1 percent online system, which it claims sells houses faster and for higher prices than with a conventional, annoying real estate broker. The WGA’s Staffing System will improve quickly by offering more submissions and ways to follow up on them. I would think that they’ll then come up with a function that works for submitting pilot ideas as well. And, sooner than later, the guild will do the same for feature film assignments and spec scripts. It will just take time and the endurance of the membership.

An Immodest Proposal

I propose that a better screenwriting marketplace – one that could truly disrupt the current ecosystem, and perhaps make agents (and even managers) obsolete, would have the following features:

  • It would include a database containing both writers and scripts, for film, television, and perhaps games, graphic novels, and other media.
  • It would allow for differentiation between WGA and non-WGA writers and producers, but allow both on the same platform.
  • It would provide unlimited search criteria, for writers, scripts, producers, and gigs.
  • It would have a quality rating system, for both writers and those hiring them, where parties can give each other scores once a job is completed. (This is the model used by UpWork, as well as by Uber and many other “gig economy” platforms.)
  • The platform would be free to use at a basic level. It might charge for some “premium” features.
  • The platform would support itself by charging a percentage of fees for completed jobs – just as agents and managers do now. (Again, this is the model for job sites like UpWork, UpCounsel, etc.)  It would probably be viable for the platform to charge less than the 10% (for agents) and/or 15% (for managers) that screenwriters pay now.
  • It would allow for competitive, auction-style bidding for scripts and writer services (as on eBay).
  • It would allow for competitive bidding on writing gigs, subject to WGA minimums for WGA members, perhaps with some floors to prevent a “race to the bottom.”
  • Payments would be made via the platform and guaranteed by a set time (as UpWork and UpCounsel do now).  For example, UpWork has an escrow system, and UpCounsel guarantees payments of up to $5,000 within 10 days of an invoice.
  • Payments for WGA projects would be based on WGA rules, and the platform would integrate with the WGAW Start Button.
  • The platform would integrate with the WGA residual-tracking system.
  • There would be an arbitration process for non-WGA payment disputes (as many job sites have now).

All of these functions already exist in other online markets. They just need to be combined in one platform directed at screenwriters and those who employ them.

Ideally, I’d love to see this platform run by the WGA, as a for-profit subsidiary. (Yes, they can do this.)

Alternatively, this platform could be an expansion of an existing service like The Black List, or a brand-new business – maybe one started by a screenwriter. For example, screenwriter John August also runs a software company.

What do you think, writer folks?

Tell Me the Odds (STPS #2)

Hundreds of thousands of screenwriting books have been sold based on two common misconceptions:

  • If you buy the right screenwriting book and do what it says, you have a good chance of becoming a big-time professional screenwriter.
  • Most big-time professional screenwriters make lots of money.

Since I’m not trying to sell screenwriting books, I can explain why these things aren’t true.

Wannabes versus Script Sales

To figure out your odds of becoming a big-time professional screenwriter, the first thing to calculate is the size of the pool of people who also want to be screenwriters.

The population of the Earth is about 7.7 billion people. Although it sometimes seems like everyone on Earth (and certainly everyone in LA) wants to be a screenwriter, it’s probably not quite everyone.

So let’s just look at the number of people who are demonstrably interested in screenwriting.

Here are some stats, focused just on English-speakers:

  • About 372,000 people subscribe to the screenwriting reddit.
  • About 100,000 people listen to the Scriptnotes podcast every week.
  • About 13,000 people are already members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents screenwriters.
  • About 7,000 people enter the Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition every year. (This is the most prestigious and important competition for wannabe professional screenwriters.)

Pick whichever number you like best and plug it in as the denominator in your equation.

Now for the numerator.

Spec Scripts

A “spec script” is one that the writer writes without getting paid for it. It’s written “on speculation.”

Most writers have to write some number of spec scripts to serve as writing samples before they ever get paid to write.

But most movies aren’t made from spec scripts. They’re made from scripts that writers were hired and paid to write.

For example, a movie studio may want to make the next installment in a successful series or “franchise” (like Star Wars, Star Trek, the Marvel Universe, etc.), or the studio may have the rights to a book, comic book, toy, or TV series they want to adapt.

Almost always, an established member of the WGA will get one of these writing assignments.

One way that people “break in” as screenwriters (and get to join the WGA) is by selling a spec script for a movie. Scott Myers, in his Go into the Story blog, has been counting spec script sales since 1991.

As he notes,

Tracking spec script deals is not an exact science. To make the blog’s list, there almost always has to be some sort of article in the press verifying a deal, but even then that can get dicey because the term “spec script” is itself rather amorphous in meaning.

Some announced “sales” are really only options for as little as $5-10 thousand.

In 2018, there were 40 announced spec script sales. Since 1991, the range has been 28 to 173 per year.

But most of those 40 sales were by established writers – members of the WGA. How many spec sales were by first-timers?

TWO.

In 2017, there were 62 spec sales. Of those, a whopping seven were by first-timers.

So let’s take 5 as a round number representing newbie script sales in recent years.

  • 5 out of 372,000 reddit users is .0000134.
  • 5 out of 7,000 Nicholl entrants is .0007.

These are not good odds, however you calculate them.

Making the Major Leagues

The WGA recognizes just how hard it is to get in. As it says in its welcome to new members:

You are now a professional writer. You had about a five times better chance of hearing your name read at the Major League baseball draft this year than of getting this letter. Make sure your parents know that.

As the WGA notes,

Approximately 1500 players drafted into Major League baseball every year; approximately 300 new members admitted to the WGAW every year.

Obviously, if there are 300 new members in the WGA every year, most of them get in by doing something other than selling a spec feature script.

The other ways are listed here.

“Breaking In”

Let’s say you’re one of those lucky new writers who manages to sell a script this year, or you otherwise qualified to join the WGA.

Congratulations!  You’re now a pro!  You’re gonna be rich!

Right?

Wrong.

A first script sale is likely to be at “WGA minimum,” which is around $100,000. Take out 10% for an agent, maybe 15% for a manager, and maybe 5% for a lawyer, plus 1.5% for WGA dues.

You’re down to $73,500 before you even pay taxes.

If you live in California, you end up with about $55,000 after taxes. That doesn’t go far in a place like LA, where the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,371.

BTW, John August wrote a great article on screenwriters and money here.

Working Screenwriters

Many of the people who sell a script and thus qualify to join the WGA will never again make money from screenwriting.

In fact, about half the members of the WGA earn zero from screenwriting in a given year.

Of the roughly 13,000 WGA members, 5,819 writers in the WGA West reported earnings under the WGA’s contracts in 2017 – 1,940 in film and 4,670 in television and on digital platforms.

Again, that doesn’t mean all those people are “successful,” as you might define it (though some are). It doesn’t mean they’re working full-time as screenwriters or able to support themselves from screenwriting. It only means they earned SOME income from screenwriting in 2017.

According to one source, screenwriters in the US earn an average of about $77,260 per yearwhen they have work. (For UK numbers, see here.)

Here are some WGA stats from a few years ago:

Of the 1,799 WGA members who reported income in film last year, the median income was $93,482; thus, roughly 900 people earned more, 900 people earned less. The bottom 450 earned $32,652 or less; the top 450 earned $226,787 or more. Approximately 89 people earned above $663,400 (top 5%).

Again, it’s important to stress that screenwriting work is extremely irregular. From the WGA in 2011:

Most writers are middle class; 46% did not even work last year. Of those who do work, one quarter make less than $37,700 a year and 50% make less than $105,000 a year. Over a five-year period of employment and unemployment, a writer’s average income is $62,000 per year

For comparison, a Starbucks manager makes about $51,000. Oddly, there aren’t 3,000 books on Amazon.com about how to become a Starbucks manager.

So where do people get the idea that most screenwriters make millions?

Because of articles like this one, that focus on the handful of screenwriters who really do make the big bucks.

Should you give up on screenwriting?

If you got interested in screenwriting because you thought it was a fast-and-easy way to make a whole lot of money, you’re probably in for a big disappointment.

If you’re counting on screenwriting to pay off your student loans or let you quit your stupid day job, you probably need a better plan.

On the other hand, you have zero chance of becoming a professional screenwriter (big-time or small-time) if you don’t try.

It’s “worth” spending time screenwriting if you enjoy it — whether or not you make money.

Also, as I explain more in future chapters, although the odds of making big money are infinitesimal, pursuing screenwriting as a side gig (while keeping your stupid day job) can be a way to make a small amount of money doing what you love.