The Small-Time Professional Screenwriter (STPS)

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.

The Small-Time Professional Screenwriter (STPS#1)

When most people dream about becoming professional screenwriters, they dream about the “big time” – selling a script for a million dollars or getting staffed on a TV show, and going on to a lucrative career laden with Oscars and/or Emmys.

In reality, the vast majority of wannabe screenwriters never make a dime from screenwriting.

So are those the only two options?  Massive success or miserable failure?

No, actually.

You can also become a small-time professional screenwriter.

Winning Awards

I’m definitely small-time:  I’ve never sold a script, and you’ve never seen my name in the credits.

That’s not because I’m a terrible writer. My awards and recognitions include:

(So if I’m so good, why I am I not a big-time professional screenwriter? Because it’s FUCKING HARD, that’s why.  More about that later.)

Making Money

For more than 10 years, I’ve been making money from screenwriting, with repeat business from happy clients.

It’s not enough that I can afford to quit my day job as a lawyer, but it’s a good enough side hustle that I’m no longer eligible for the Nicholl screenwriting competition, and it pays for my MacBook and trips to places like Sundance and the Austin Film Festival.

Most importantly, I’m getting paid to do what I love most – and I can do it from anywhere in the world, including my back porch overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.

Here are some of the gigs I’ve had along the way:

  • For Amazon Studios, I did a rewrite of the feature Zombies vs. Gladiators.
  • With Shimon Gershon, the former captain of Israel’s national soccer team, I co-wrote a screenplay adaptation of his best-selling children’s books and consulted on several other projects.
  • For The Paz Brothers, I did a page-one rewrite for the feature Mars Camp, I wrote a treatment for JeruZalem 2, and I wrote treatments for two series.
  • For The Hive Studio, I developed a treatment for an animated feature. I also wrote a treatment for a web series and the script for a short.
  • For Jam Productions, I wrote the script for The Castle in the Forest, an animated short.
  • For 7Flying Fish Productions, I did a rewrite for Shoeshine Boy.
  • For private clients, I wrote three features and one pilot and did several rewrites.

I just finished a scriptment for a production company in Ghana, and I’ll be starting the screenplay on that project soon.

Does the world really need another screenwriting book?

Probably not, but I feel like writing one anyway.

There are more than 3,000 screenwriting books on Amazon.com, and I’ve read a fair number of them. A lot of them are good, and I recommend them. But many do have some issues:

They offer to sell you the “secret” of screenwriting success.

This is bullshit.

There is no “secret,” and very few people become good screenwriters – let alone successful ones — no matter how many books they buy.

There’s also no “one size fits all” screenwriting method that works for everyone.

They’re vague about the business end of screenwriting, and even make inane statements like “If your work is truly great, buyers will come to YOU!”

This is also bullshit.

To make either small-time or big-time money as a screenwriter, you need to be out there hustling.

They don’t talk about how to pursue small-time screenwriting gigs.

Why is this book different from all other screenwriting books?

So what’s different about this book?

It’s free.

It doesn’t claim to have the one “secret.” It suggests lots of different tools and methods people can try to learn screenwriting and get better at it.

It’s realistic about the terrible odds of ever becoming a big-time professional screenwriter.

It provides detailed guidance on how to try to make money doing small-time screenwriting gigs.

I’ll be writing this book a blog at a time. This is a work in progress. If you find it useful (or not), please let me know.

Charley Parkhurst Finally Gets Her New York Times Obituary

I was excited to see that Charley Parkhurst, the heroine of my script The Bushwhacker, finally got a proper New York Times obituary.

Here’s an excerpt:

Charley Parkhurst was a legendary driver of six-horse stagecoaches during California’s Gold Rush — the “best whip in California,” by one account.

The job was treacherous and not for the faint of heart — pulling cargos of gold over tight mountain passes and open desert, at constant peril from rattlesnakes and desperadoes — but Parkhurst had the makeup for it: “short and stocky,” a whiskey drinker, cigar smoker and tobacco chewer who wore a black eyepatch after being kicked in the left eye by a horse.

And there was one other attribute, this one carefully hidden from the outside world. When Parkhurst died in 1879 at age 67, near Watsonville, Calif., of cancer of the tongue, a doctor discovered that the famous stagecoach driver was biologically a woman. Charley, it turned out, had been short for Charlotte.

My Wonderful Week at the Black List Feature Lab

I’m spending the last few weeks of the year updating my neglected website and blog.

I’ve added a bunch of new articles and interviews.

I’ve also added a list of what I think are the best screenwriting contests, labs, and fellowships.

One of the best things to happen to me since my last update was the week I spent at the Black List Feature Lab in LA.

Here’s a blog I wrote about it, and here’s an except:

Screenwriters don’t often get pampered. They don’t often get spoiled. They usually don’t even get valued.

But during one week in October, 2016, seven of us were pampered, spoiled rotten, and valued.

Home base was a West Hollywood Airbnb straight out of Architectural Digest. There were mirrors on things I didn’t know you could put mirrors on. There was a dedicated appliance just for making margaritas.