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By Mark Sanderson · April 9, 2015
After I graduated from film school, I had the same misguided ideas as my fellow scribes – that we’d sell our first spec for a million dollars and build a career only writing specs. I didn’t yet realize that most working screenwriters in Hollywood make their living from assignment jobs – it’s the bread and butter of professionals. Yes, specs are necessary to gain experience writing and to showcase your ability, but the reality is that most of your specs will not sell and you might have to write a half dozen or more before one might secure you a coveted assignment job.
This was my personal story as I trudged through Hollywood with my first four specs and hoped for a sale to start my career, but the combination to the lock on Hollywood’s gates remained elusive. It wasn’t until my fifth spec landed in the top 1% of the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship entries that my work received notice. The script was later optioned by a new production company, produced into a movie and distributed globally, but seeing my dream come true was a long seven year journey from the first draft to first day of production.
The film was a success and my collaboration with the producers made them feel confident about my abilities and they hired me for my first screenwriting assignment job. I learned their sensibilities, how to give them what they needed, and quickly became a member of a team of writers they hired again and again. These successful working relationships are vital to a screenwriter’s success and that is why it’s vital to build your reputation as a team player and collaborator – not a diva who bristles from every script change. Filmmaking is an art, but also a business with millions of dollars on the line for a project and anything that holds up the forward movement toward production will be eliminated.
Another benefit of an assignment job, besides being paid as a professional writer, it allows you to work with different producers, executives and directors while you build your network of future employers and collaborators. I recently turned in the thirteenth paid assignment of my career and these jobs have resulted in six produced films and another one from my original spec sale. The reality is that I haven’t sold another spec since because I’ve been too busy working on assignments for producers. These are called “quality problems” and the steady work has allowed me to forge a screenwriting career. I still write a spec every so often when I really have a passion for an idea, but I have to weigh the time constraints on how it might affect my paid writing when I’m on under a deadline on assignment.
Okay, maybe your journey is different and you don’t sell a spec that gets produced, but it’s amazing showcase of your talents. This can garner interest and secure meetings with producers and companies. So, you score a series of meetings with producers – what happens next? You take every meeting you can because it’s your chance to be in front of them and pitch your new ideas to show that you are not a “one script wonder.” You’re going to compete with other writers for the job and some might have prior relationships with the producers, so you need to dazzle them with your talent and personality.
If a company has an open assignment and is looking to hire a writer, they want to feel confident you can execute their notes and work at your best under a deadline. When a script moves into the development phase, time is precious and schedules are vital to getting the script ready to attract a director, actors and move the project toward the ultimate goal of production. Even if nothing immediately comes from these meetings, they are important opportunities to build your network of open doors where you can return with new specs or pitches.
Okay, so let’s say you impress a producer who likes your work, thinks you can do a great job with their idea, and offers you a script assignment job. What’s the next step? If it’s your first job, there isn’t much negotiation with regards to the money offered because you are new and uncredited. Your first gig might pay WGA scale or maybe very little money compared to a big spec sale, but you have to consider the priceless opportunity that it offers. You’re now getting paid to write and collaborate with professionals, execute their notes, and have the priceless chance to show them you are a team player they want hire again.
They will offer you a contract and this is the time to find a good entertainment lawyer to look out for your best interests. The contract will stipulate many things, but most importantly your responsibilities for writing deadlines and the producer’s responsibilities for your payments, production bonus, credit and future residuals. After the contract goes back and forth between lawyers and the terms are ironed out, you sign it and it’s time to get to work.
The writing period varies between union and non-union contracts, so it can last anywhere between four weeks and ten weeks for a first draft. This is when your experience being able to write each day kicks into high gear, as there is no time to waste and the clock is ticking. My fastest assignment for a first draft was twenty days and I was given thirty in my contract. It is vital to work at your best as you’re under a deadline and screenwriting is now your job with all of the same responsibilities that any job involves.
Okay, so you finish your assignment on time or early and turn it into the producers. This is a great first step and now they have a contracted “reading period” to get back to you with their notes. No first draft is ever perfect, but you want to make sure it’s the best draft possible to shorten the development process and to convince the producers you were the right person for the job. I hear aspirants boasting about their first drafts being “vomit drafts” but you lose that luxury when on assignment. Your first draft has to be stellar and it’s a solid foundation for the producers to continue developing their idea. It’s doesn’t have to be a ten on the scale, but a solid seven certainly helps. It’s important to practice this discipline now on your specs and make every first draft the best possible draft and not a wasted endeavor that needs five more rewrites.
After the contracted first draft you will receive the producer’s notes and execute those notes. This is the draft that usually determines if you stay on the project or get fired. If you can’t execute the notes properly and move the script closer to a draft the producers need to secure talent and move forward, you will be fired and they will hire a new writer to finish the work. It happens and it’s not personal – it’s business. Never forget that Hollywood is a business and decisions are made with an eye on money and budgets.
Okay, let’s say you execute the producer’s notes and they love what you did. You’ve now graduated to another plateau where hopefully you can stay on the project throughout production. If you reach this level by doing everything you can to help the producers and director make the film, you will have made it over the hurdles that many writers do not – being the only writer on a movie who receives sole credit. Bravo! Celebrate your achievement and pray the film is distributed and garners good reviews. Now it’s time to go through the whole process again – securing a new job, getting paid, staying on the job and receiving credit. It doesn’t end once you finally become a paid professional.
This is when your solid relationships become a vital tool to secure your next assignment job. Hollywood is all about relationships and you’ll build your reputation from working closely with producers, executives and directors. I’ve been blessed to work with Academy Award® winning producers, veteran directors and Academy Award®, Emmy® and Golden Globe® nominated actors and I’ve learned precious knowledge from everyone during our collaborations. Besides working with many of the same producers again, I’ve been lucky to partner with a few of the veteran directors I’ve worked with and we have projects in the marketplace and continue to generate new ideas together as partners. I’m lucky they have also become my friends and mentors and I continue to learn from their vast experience.
Establishing a screenwriting career is difficult, but another hard reality to face is that not every assignment script you write is going to be produced. Sure, you’ll be paid and hopefully end up being the sole writer on the project, but the script can get stuck in “development hell” where it never moves forward to production. This happens for a myriad of reasons out of a screenwriter’s control including loss of financing, changes in the international marketplace, loss of a lead actor who drops out of the project, a change in directors or a combination of many issues that derail the production. Solider on knowing there are no guarantees the film gets made even when you sell a screenplay or write a script on assignment.
As you work on your current spec, think of it as a tool to best represent your original voice as a screenwriter. Don’t look at it only as something to sell, but consider how it fits into the bigger plan of your career and how it can get you noticed. If it doesn’t sell, it becomes a showcase of your talents and can open doors to meetings where you’ll compete for the highly coveted screenwriting assignment jobs. This is why you’ll always need to be working at the top of your game, so when you’re given an opportunity, you’re prepared and knock it out of the park. A screenwriting career might be elusive, but if you’re always writing and creating a solid body of work, you’ll standout from the rest and have a shot at success.
Mark Sanderson is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, script consultant, and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with over two-dozen screenplays written in genres ranging from comedy to drama—from his sketch comedy writing and performing as a founding member of The Amazing Onionheads and writing for MTV, to his thirteen screenwriting assignments, television premieres, and worldwide distribution of his emotionally compelling films—the indie WWII feature I’ll Remember April, Lifetime Network's holiday films An Accidental Christmas and Deck the Halls, the stylish indie noir feature Stingers, action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below and SyFy Network's Sea Snakes (aka Silent Venom), and the new thriller Mother of All Lies starring Franchesca Eastwood coming out in late 2015. Mark's films have premiered on Lifetime, LMN, Fox, SyFy, HereTV, NBC Universal and distributed globally.
Mark’s new book A Screenwriter's Journey to Success will be published in 2015 on Amazon, his new free mobile app Screenwriting Guru is available from Yapp, and his popular screenwriting blog can be found at My Blank Page. He offers screenplay consultation services on his website www.fiveoclockblue.net and check out his Youtube Channel for screenwriting videos and more advice on how to survive in Hollywood’s trenches.