Screenwriter Expectations vs. Screenwriting Realities

By Ken Miyamoto from ScreenCraft · August 20, 2018

Every screenwriter is destined for those inescapable reality checks when they first begin their screenwriting journey. Here we offer five chances for you to realize the gap between your expectations and the realities that you will encounter — in hopes that you’ll save yourself the misguided and misinformed time and effort while being able to focus solely on getting ready for the success that can surely come your way.

1. The Process of Writing a Screenplay Is Not Pure Bliss 

Most people considering screenwriting as a career usually have the misconception that it’s an easy job — the vision of sitting in a coffee shop or within the confines of their personal writing space as they utilize their vast knowledge of movies to write the movie concepts they’ve had in their mind that are inevitably going to be the next big box office or critical hit.

Early on in our careers, we believe that there’s no better scenario than being paid to conceptualize and write screenplays with complete freedom and abandon.

The reality is that writing a screenplay is damn hard. There are so many additional elements to consider beyond that great concept floating around in your head. While writing a spec script on your own can indeed be a freeing experience, when you’ve reached the level of being hired to write on assignment, it’s a whole new ball game.

Now you have contractual deadlines, predetermined story and character beats that you have to hit, and endless notes from development executives, producers, and talent.

Even if it’s your script, you’ll be asked by representation to do rewrites based on necessary elements required for them to make it more marketable. You’ll be asked by development executives, producers, and studio figures to rewrite it for any number of reseasons — good, bad, and everything in between.

To survive, you’ll have to be able to create a hybrid process of applying your own creative storytelling and balancing that with being able to apply the wants and needs of others.

It’s far from bliss. It becomes a job like every other where there’s pressure, stress, annoyance, bad hours, people telling you what to do, and you having to make changes or write things that in your eyes just don’t make sense.

Expectation — Bliss.

Reality —  Same struggles (or more) than any other job in any other industry.

2.  Your First Screenplay Is Not Ready to Market

There’s nothing wrong with testing the waters with that first screenplay by entering it into competitions, contests, and fellowships. However, you shouldn’t be blanketing the industry — managers, agents, development executives, producers, and talent — with queries.

The hard truth is that your first screenplay is your worst screenplay. Your writing has to evolve. Few knock it out of the park on that first try. The expectation in most screenwriters’ eyes is that they will, but the reality is that 99.9% of them don’t — far from it.

There are so many nuances and elements to be discovered. So many necessary industry guidelines and expectations that need to be learned and followed.

You acquire this knowledge and experience by trying, failing, adapting, trying, failing, adapting, and so on.

And one element that most screenwriters don’t understand when discussing this sometimes disheartening topic is the market response factor that you need and want to avoid. Let’s say that you’ve somehow made an impression with that first screenplay. Maybe it’s a great concept, or maybe you have an original voice that stands out. And let’s say that you get some phone calls or meetings out of it.

The first question they will ask you after you’ve small-talked about your script is, “What else do you have?”

If you don’t have any other completed screenplays, more often than not they will disengage and lose interest. If the people you’re meeting with are managers or agents, there’s not much they can do with a writer that has just one script. They don’t know if you’re a one-hit wonder. And sometimes them bringing you in because of a great concept within a script, or because of a unique voice, really means that they’re hoping you have more of that to offer. If all you have is that one sample, you’ve burned a bridge — even if they say, “Give us a call when you have more.” That usually means nothing in the industry.

You need have patience and take your time to accrue three to five solid screenplays before you try to market any of them. It’s worth the extra year or more to do so. Not only will you have more proof of validation, but you’ll also discover that you’ve honed your skills to the point where your latest script or two far eclipse the quality of your first.

Expectation — Your first screenplay is ready to market.

Reality — You’re better off taking another year or more to hone your skills and stack your deck with three to five scripts that are really worth marketing.

3. Most Spec Scripts — Even from Industry Professionals — Are Never Sold

Most screenwriters expect that every script they write will sell when the reality is that none of them likely ever will.

A majority of scripts written under speculation that they will sell are actually used only as samples for possible writing assignments. Very few movies that are produced are written on spec — meaning that the writer wrote them on their own with no contract or interested parties. A majority are either adaptations of intellectual property, remakes, reboots, or concepts that a studio or producer would like to take to script.

Writing samples are a way for studios and producers to gauge the talent of a potential hire. Certain writers may have a knack for the genre the concept is in, a desirable voice that can be attributed to the script and characters, or any other element that applies.

Hollywood is looking for more original concepts these days, but selling a spec as an unknown is usually unheard of. You can certainly be the first or one of the few, but that is no basket you want to put all of your eggs in.

This doesn’t mean that you stop developing original concepts — you need those types of scripts to stand out amongst the rest. But you just need to shift your expectations from selling your spec script to using it as a tool to open doors. Anything that happens beyond that is out of your hands. Keep your fingers crossed but don’t expect it to sell and be produced.

Expectation — My original script is going to be sold and produced.

Reality — It’s likely not going to be sold or produced. It is instead going to be a key to standing out, getting representation, and being in the conversation for paid writing assignments.

4. Screenwriting Paychecks are Not Equivalent to Winning the Lottery

Joe Eszterhas sold Basic Instinct for $3 million. Shane Black sold The Long Kiss Goodnight for $4 million. Tom Shulman and Sally Robinson sold Medicine Man for $3 million. David Koepp sold Panic Room for $4 million. Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilli sold Déjà Vu for $5 million. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay sold Talladega Nights for $4 million. And more recently, Max Landis sold Bright to Netflix for $3.5 million.

We’ve read about these big sales in the trades for years. These totals are a big reason why many people pursue screenwriting as a career. Even the six-figure deals you read about are desirable — $200,000 against $300,000 (meaning that the writer gets $200,000 first and another $100,000 if the film gets greenlit.

While those seven-figure deals are similar to winning the lottery, that’s not something you want to bank on because they happen few and far between.

Those six-figure deals are misleading (and almost as few and far between as well). That first $200,000 does not come in one single paycheck — and it’s not guaranteed money either. The total is broken up into different possible payouts. You may be offered $50,000 upfront for a big assignment paycheck like this. That’s considered to be the first draft.

So now you have $50,000 on paper, but studios won’t offer contracts without you having representation — and that representation takes a percentage. If you just have an agent, you’re looking at 10% paid to them. You usually need an entertainment lawyer to work on the contract as well — they take 5%. That brings your take down to $35,000. When the taxes are paid, you’ll lose close to half, taking it down to $17,000.

But that’s not a bad payday, and it’s just the first check — right? Well, the next installment is given after you’ve received notes from the studio, producers, and possible talent attached. You are asked to write a second draft to earn the next payment installment. Our generalized numbers say that you’ll be paid another $17,000 after representation takes and taxes.

In most contracts, there’s a clause that the writer can be replaced at any time after the initial acquisition payments (see above). So if you’ve written that second draft and they don’t like what they see for whatever reason, they can replace you with another writer and the payments for your “$200,000 against $300,000” deal stop right there. Instead of upwards of $300,000, you’ve only banked $35,000 after commissions and taxes.

This is a broad example, yes, but it’s so true. If you’re one of the lucky ones that get paid to write scripts, you’ll quickly realize that those six to seven-figure paydays are often a myth — and those that actually are true are only paid out to the top one percent of working screenwriters in the world.

Most working screenwriters sign five-figure deals — with a small percentage barely scratching the surface of those coveted six figures. And when you imagine the deductions mentioned above for commissions and taxes, the reality hits hard.

Expectation — Selling a script is like winning the lottery.

Reality — For a majority of working screenwriters, selling a script is more like earning a blue-collar salary at best.

5. There Is No Easy Street Moment for Screenwriters

When you win that big contest, competition, or fellowship, you’re not guaranteed a sale, option, or representation.

When you get that coveted manager or agent, you’re not guaranteed a sale, option, or writing assignment.

When you attain that first paid writing assignment, you’re not guaranteed more writing assignments or produced projects.

When you attain that first produced writing credit, you’re not guaranteed a comfortable career of consistent paid writing assignments, spec script sales, and more produced work. You can’t kick up your feet, relax, and expect the work to come to you.

Every screenwriter dreams of attaining any of these goals. While they are truly something to be proud of and not taken for granted — most screenwriters attempting this trade will never see any of these things happen — you need to know that one success or one screenwriting goal attained does not automatically ensure that the full screenwriting dream will follow.

Covet every success that you attain, but remember never to get comfortable, never become complacent, and never think that the struggle is over. It’s an ongoing battle.

Expectation — When you accomplish _____ everything will be easy after that.

Reality — You can win a major contest, and never get repped. You can attain representation, and never sell a script or be hired to write one. You can have something produced from your work, and never see another offer come your way.

These five expectations versus realities are just a few of the many misconceptions that screenwriters will undoubtedly come across on their screenwriting journey. The life of a screenwriter consists of many peaks and valleys. Your journey will ebb and flow each and every year with each and every trial, tribulation, and triumph.

This is not meant to dissuade, depress, or discourage you. This is intended to keep your head out of the clouds and save you from any extended heartache. When you know the realities to expect, you’ll be able to maneuver through the industry with so much more ease — and with clearer eyes.

Just keep writing and grinding away. Your screenwriting destiny will reveal itself.

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

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