How to Succeed at Screenwriting

I spent time yesterday with a couple of different production companies – one of them a large company affiliated with a major broadcaster, the other a small London-based indie with a strong slate of up-coming productions and some very good collaborations. It was an interesting afternoon in many ways, not least because it gave me real insight into how a screenwriter needs to navigate their way to success.

With novels, it may be hard to write something that’s good enough, but at least you know what you have to do. Write a wonderful book, get an agent, get a publisher. Simple. Screenwriters, however, face a classic Catch-22 challenge. Production companies tell you to get a film agent before they’ll look at your work. Film agents tell you to get production interest first. So what do you do?

The clear advice from the production side is that you really do need a film agent. The agents who say they don’t take unsolicited submissions are basically lying. They don’t take bad submissions and don’t want to encourage waves of approaches from screenwriters who don’t have what it takes.

Based on what I heard yesterday and what I’ve heard previously from film agents, I’d advise:

  • Wherever possible, write for TV not film. The film industry in the UK is small, variable, and quirky. The major broadcasters (including Sky) are huge and voracious consumers of drama. British film agents make a good majority of their income from TV sources, not feature ones.
  • Develop your writing skills on whatever project you fancy, but recognise that you will probably need to get inside the industry proper at some stage. The classic route is to work as a staff writer on a soap – an Eastenders, a Holby City, or whatever. Alternatively you could work as a gopher for a production company, or almost any role at a major broadcaster.
  • The theatre is also a huge producer of quality screenwriting. If you can boast a decent track record in writing for the stage (which means the professional stage, even if at a fairly micro-level), film agents will take that very seriously as evidence of your ability to make it as a screenwriter. One production exec told me that, excluding the Eastender-type writers, perhaps 80% of the really good new screenwriting she came across emerged in one way or another from the theatre.
  • Be committed. It’s no use writing one spec project and hoping it’s so good that agents will be blown away. Film is a tricksy business. It needs a huge number of parts to come together if it’s to work: you need a production company, probably some outside finance, certainly a UK broadcaster, probably some strong international interest … and that’s before you even get to drawing up a slate of actors, director, etc. Because so many parts need to be pieced together, things do collapse for reasons that may have little to do with the script or the concept. So you would ideally need to have 2 or 3 well-developed scripts, plus a pocket full of further ideas that you’d be keen to develop. Those are the screenwriters most likely to succeed.
  • Network. These things do matter. The more you can collect names, make friends, build contacts, the better. Production companies will often option the rights to novels and the like, then need a screenwriter to produce a script. If they don’t know you exist, they won’t ask you.

And as always, of course, you need to be perfectionist. Writing that’s OK isn’t good enough. Only the obsessives succeed.

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