I got this email the other day:
Please excuse the length. I apologize. I just feel it’s very important for me to ask you about this.
I’m a regular subscriber and reader of your column and website. It has had tons of great tips and info on the business and art of screenwriting. I’m a college grad with my major in screenwriting and am spending a lot of time trying to figure out my next move.
But as of late I’m having some very serious doubts and concerns as to my potential (or anyone’s) in becoming even moderately successful as a screenwriter. Naturally, as a writer I often feel overwhelmed and unsure as how I truly measure up and how to proceed. But the best thing I can do is keep writing – which I am.
But my concerns are also partially stemming from some articles I’ve read online lately via Final Draft’s ‘Script’ Mag from “industry” people. The expert(s) seem to be saying that Hollywood is pretty much a completely closed system and that all these online sites, such as yours, are not really helpful nor are contests. He suggests that unless we move to LA or know someone on the inside, that we have little to no chance of even getting our stuff read – no matter the quality. All I’ve heard suggested to help us from these insiders are things like: work as an intern in LA for little to no money or move to LA and network with people we’ve never even met. But I’m 36 and don’t have the time to take a route that could take years and years to get anywhere – if at all.
He writes that nearly all scripts are organized and prioritized into 4 piles at agencies and studios: Scripts from the professionals, then scripts recommended by other professionals, then ones from personal family and friends and lastly: the unknown pile – which is mine and about 99% of all aspiring screenwriters.
If this is true (which I’m sure it is) than how can anyone on the outside ever get read or have any chance at all? He (and others I’ve encountered online) seem against just about every viable outlet someone like myself can use to get a foothold: (cold query letters, contests, et.)
Now, I truly understand how difficult it is to break in, how the odds are stacked against most of us and all the incredible amount of work and time it takes to achieve success in this field. Of this I have no doubt. But I’ve already worked very hard and gotten very encouraging feedback on my work and will not change my dreams in spite of all the odds.
I plan on using as many of your services (query letters,et) very soon and really value your honesty and insights into the industry. But I’m getting scared that for me, it’s all in vein because I’m in the 99% pile of people who never seem to even get a chance.
Any advise would be greatly appreciated,
Again, thanks for your time and I look forward to using the services of your site very soon.
I’ve gotten quite a few of these types of emails over the years so I thought it might be time to write a post trying to answer these sorts of questions.
First some good news: There really are no rules in Hollywood and anything can happen. People have, and will continue to break in to the business with nothing more than a well written spec screenplay. When I moved to Los Angeles I didn’t know anyone and I’ve sold and optioned many scripts over the years. And I’ve known screenwriters a lot more successful than myself who knew no one in the business when they started out, too. So the quick answer is simply, yes you can succeed!
I was at a wedding a while back and the woman sitting next to me asked me if she thought it was realistic for her boyfriend to pursue a career as a screenwriter. I thought about it for a moment and I realized the question is not whether it’s realistic or not – it can be done so it certainly is – the question is: is it worth the effort?
As I see it there are basically three factors in determining ones success as a screenwriter; luck, talent, and effort. I define talent as the God given gifts that you’re born with (or not) that make you either better or worse at some endeavor. While talent can be improved on with effort we’re all born with a certain inherent aptitude that can not be changed. I would say that talent can only amount to about 50% of the equation maximum so you’re going to need to put in some effort and get some luck no matter how much God given talent you were born with.
So to “succeed” at being a screenwriter you need some combination of luck, talent, and effort and for the sake of this blog post let’s say you need to get 100 points to be “successful.”
Let’s say you have a lot of talent, 40 points of talent, and let’s say you work really hard, 40 points of effort, than you still need 20 points of luck to be “successful.” Let’s say you don’t have much talent, 10 points of talent, but you have an unbelievable, fanatical, obsessive work ethic and you stick with it for more than 10 years, 80 points of effort, then you only need 10 more points from the lucky bin to find success.
None of the things you mention like moving to Los Angeles, networking, working as an intern, entering screenplay contests, sending out cold query letters are absolutely necessary for breaking into the business. While none of these things are absolutely necessary, they’re things that can help you succeed (increasing your effort points and luck points) and the more you do them the more chance you have of succeeding.
You can’t control luck but there are certainly things that you can do which might put you in a better position to be lucky. Moving to Los Angeles is one such thing that can really help you with the luck part of the equation.
Working as an intern and being around the business increases your chances of being lucky but it also makes you a much more skilled writer (effort). You get a first hand glimpse at the who, what, and why certain projects get made. This can really help you in your writing if you follow successful projects and hone your own writing using this knowledge.
So if you don’t want to move to Los Angeles and you don’t want to work as an intern you still can succeed, but you’re still going to have to get to 100 points and you’re making it harder on yourself.
I think what you’ll find is that nearly everything that anyone recommends to help you succeed at being a screenwriter is geared towards increasing your skill level (which gives you more effort points) or putting you in a better position to get lucky. In my mind it really is that simple.
One misconception that I think people have is exactly how much effort is required to succeed. One nice thing about living and working in Los Angeles is you get a good look at how much effort other people are putting into this and you can more easily determine how you measure up. I’ve met many wanna-be screenwriters who think they’ve put in a substantial effort by writing two or three spec scripts and sending out 100 or so query letters for each of them. They’re surprised that they haven’t seen any results yet. But that’s not even a drop in the bucket in terms of how much effort it takes to become a professional screenwriter.
I also find that many new writers think that just writing is enough. It’s not. You’ve got to spend time marketing your work. No matter how great your material is you’re going to get rejected most of the time so you’ve got to get it out wide enough to give it a chance. I would say you should probably spend as much or more time marketing your work as you do actually writing it. Marketing your work can include networking, mailing query letters, working as an intern, or anything else that helps you get your work read. One common complaint I’ve heard from people who take the intern route is that they don’t have enough time to write, so in some cases I think going the intern route can backfire where you spend all your time making contacts but not enough time writing. It’s a balancing act.
So ultimately the question in my mind is not “can you succeed?” I know you can. But the real question is “is it worth the effort?” Are you willing to put in the time, do the work and do everything possible to succeed? If you’re not than I would say it simply isn’t worth the effort to you.
Think about all the things that people suggest you do to succeed. If you did them all don’t you think you would be successful? Yet we’re not willing to do them all because success is not worth it to us.
Suppose one determined individual…
1. Moved to Los Angeles
2. Worked as an intern in the entertainment business
3. Read as many produced scripts as they could
4. Watched as many movies as they could
5. Wrote every single day of their life turning out 4 screenplays per year, 20 screenplays every 5 years, 40 screenplays in 10 years
6. Went to networking events in and around Los Angeles and talked with directors and producers and constantly pitched their material
7. Entered a dozen screenplay contests per year
8. Sent out 2000+ query letters for every single script that they finished
9. Raised money to shoot some of their short scripts
10. Raised money to shoot some of their feature scripts
11. Did everything else imaginable to further their career as a screenwriter (just keep adding to this list everything and anything you could possibly do to succeed)
Obviously this person wouldn’t have time to do anything else except work on their career but don’t you think if someone did all of these things they would be successful? I’m not saying you should do them all, I myself never would, but if you’re not willing to do them all and you’re not successful than it’s really not a question of “can you succeed” it’s a matter of it not being worth the effort to you. There’s no shame in it not being worth the effort, you’re probably a better person for it, but the system isn’t rigged.
We’re all born with different amounts of talent and we all receive different amounts of luck during our careers so some people are going to have to put in a lot more effort than others to succeed. Even the most talented people are going to have to put forth a monumental effort to succeed at being a professional screenwriter. It’s a very competitive field. Since we can’t control luck and we can’t control how much talent we’re born with, if you want to be a screenwriter you need to prepare for a long hard struggle where you’re going to have put forth a monumental effort.
Maybe it’s not worth it to you to pack up and move to Los Angeles. Maybe it’s not worth it to you to re-tool your life and try and work in the business in some low level capacity. I certainly understand where you’re coming from in terms of your age and not wanting to start over. However, if you’re unwilling to do these things you’re going to handicap yourself and make the already long odds even longer. At the end of your life if you haven’t succeeded I would suggest that the main reason you didn’t succeed is not because the system was impenetrable but simply because it wasn’t worth the effort to you.
Now to get back to your specific questions…
I would say that working as an intern is the best way to learn the business and I would say that it’s probably the single best avenue to screenwriting success. Many successful writers I’ve known personally or read about started out as interns or low level assistants in the business. There really is no better way to learn the business than from the inside.
You ask, “how can anyone on the outside ever get read or have any chance at all?” While it’s not impossible to succeed from the outside, I do think you’re chances are much better if you get on the inside. So I would ask, is it worth it to you to make the effort to get on the inside?
I myself have optioned and sold scripts using cold query letters so I know it can work. But it’s not easy and you’ve got to send out a ton of letters to get any response. It’s the main focus of my blog since it’s been the main way I’ve marketed my work. If you haven’t already read my post How to Sell Your Screenplay (in a nutshell) check it out as it pretty much gives you all the nuts and bolts of doing a marketing campaign for your screenplays using cold query letters. I would say your assessment of the four different piles is probably pretty accurate so if you don’t know anyone on the inside you’ve got to send out enough scripts to eventually get read.
I myself have never had any luck with contests but I’ve probably only entered two or three in my whole life. I have heard of people who have had some success with contests and it’s certainly worth thinking about. I would steer clear of smaller contests where the entry fee outweighs any possible rewards from winning it. I wrote a post on contests which is here: Entering screenplay competitions. Basically if money isn’t an issue there really isn’t any downside to entertaining lots of contests, however don’t expect a win or high placement in a contest to do much for you other than give you some good content for your cold query letters.