Screenwriters are the architects of our cinematic experiences, creating worlds and characters.
If your imagination runs at 24fps writing for the screen is a dream job, it can also be the bane of your existence. The life of a screenwriter has been documented in various forms (see Adaptation for more information), it can fill you with creative freedom and leave you with feelings of rejection and frustration at no one reading your work. In Sye Fields book The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting, he tells the story of his time working for Cinemobile, where he read and wrote synopsis on more than 2,000 screenplays in two years. Out of those 2,000 screenplays, he only passed on 40 as recommendations. These figures give an indication of how hard it is to get a script read, let alone recommended for development.
Screenwriters can be engaged to work on an existing screenplay that needs a rewrite, or rework their script if optioned by a company. Writers are always working on their projects, and once the script is sold, they will need to let go of the material, letting producers and directors take over the reins. This is not always the case, on certain productions, the screenwriter can be modifying scenes as the camera is turning, they can be present on set and offer support and advice. Largely, however, once the screenplay is purchased it can be at the mercy of others.
A screenplay, unlike a novel, is a film played out in words on the page rather than the cinema screen. Screenplays can be developed in the following ways:
Original content from screenwriters.
Based on a novel.
Based on an article.
Adapted from a play.
Generated from a concept devised by a producer.
Screenplays are formatted in a particular way; you can use free software such as Celtex or pay for a package such as Final Draft. Both intuitively format your work into the correct style of a screenplay.
Any scripted drama will require the work of a screenwriter, whether adaptation or original material such as:
Short film (although many shorts are dialogue light they still require a screenplay)
TV drama (series and soaps)
Some corporate films shot in the style of drama.
Professional screenwriters have agents and are self-employed, the payment for their work is almost always modular. A screenwriter can receive payment from an option on a script, but may then have to wait 18 months for a further payment (either an extension on the option or moving into production). An option on a script is usually 10% of the overall payment price.
When working on a three-stage deal (2 drafts and polish) the screenwriter can be entitled to 50% of the fee up front, with the remaining 50% paid on completion.
Many production companies do not accept unsolicited work, meaning if they don’t know you personally or professionally they're unlikely to read your script. Some production companies do read unsolicited work; you can see here for more information. The best way to get people to read your work is to get out there and meet people in the industry. This can be tricky, especially if you are coming into the industry not knowing a soul. Fortunately, film festivals and discussion panels can offer you an opportunity. It's not prudent to thrust your script into a producer’s hand, however, instead, engage a producer in conversation, discuss what they were up on the stage talking about, ask for some advice, offer to send them an idea you have been working on - make sure you come away with a card.
You also need to read and read widely. Not just scripts but fiction, biography, plays, Dan Brown to Dostoyevsky. Read scripts too, of course, good and bad. Get to know your audience, go to the cinema and find out which characters connect to audiences. What makes big-budget tentpole movies successful, and why don’t mass audiences have time for smaller independent UK films?
One option for the aspiring screenwriter is to become a script reader for a production company. You will be allowed to rigorously critique other people's work and read a wide variety of scripts, spanning all genres and styles. Knowledge is the key ingredient to understanding what makes a great screenplay; you can apply this to your work going forward. Other screenwriters say their most productive time writing has been achieved by working non-industry-related jobs, giving them more time to work on their projects rather than being caught in a job that demands your complete service. You can look to MFJF for opportunities in the script reader pool, or ask small up-and-coming production companies if they have any scripts that need reading and critiquing. When looking for companies make sure they’re credible, look at the back catalog of the company and individuals involved. Not only do script readers provide coverage for production companies, they can also be found working for:
Film sales companies
Film finance companies
TV production companies
As you progress in your career as a screenwriter you will become aware that screenwriters are frequently given deadlines, so becoming a disciplined writer from the off will serve you well. Keep writing and building a back catalog of work behind you, you never know when you may need it. You will also need to develop a healthy response to criticism and be able to let go of your work if you have made the sale it can be re-written by others.
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