Almost every writer and every serious film fan at one time or another has considered writing a screenplay and how to become a screenwriter. Lured by the power of the big (or small) screen, and by stories of all the fame, success, awards and big, big money that other screenwriters have achieved, they get seduced by the fantasy of Hollywood.
Now no doubt some of you reading these words have already achieved a career in the industry. But my guess is that most of you are still at the 'breaking in' stage and are wondering if writing for movies or television is a silly pipe dream—or is truly worth considering. I'd like to help you answer that question by discussing some of the realities of the movie and television business and offering both the right and the wrong motives for pursuing Hollywood.
Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Screenwriter?
I've been teaching screenwriting classes and seminars for more than fifteen years, and I've worked with thousands of movie and television writers at various stages of their careers. But, whenever I'm with a group of would-be filmmakers hoping to launch their careers, I encounter two different myths about the Hollywood obstacle course that both lead to disappointment.
The first misconception is that Hollywood is an easy path to fame and fortune. Perhaps a writer watches some brainless TV show and concludes that anybody with the I.Q. of corn could write drivel like that. Then she reads about how Joe Esterhasz sold a spec script for slightly more than the gross national product of Portugal, while she's wondering how long she can get by on her $25 check from 'Big Rig Monthly' for her article on mud flaps. And then some polite, but chicken-hearted, publisher tries to let her down easy by saying that her 873-page manuscript about the Millard Fillmore White House years would be much better as a movie. So before you know it, she's typing 'FADE IN.'
She has fallen victim to the erroneous belief that writing a movie is no harder than watching one. She thinks that everybody who sells a script will be a millionaire and that because movies and TV shows are plentiful, relatively short and frequently mediocre, there really are no rules, standards or professional skills to worry about. In other words, that screenwriting is easy.
The other, more destructive, myth about screenwriting is just the opposite: a writer hears about the thousands of unproduced, unsold, unoptioned, unread and unopened screenplays floating around Hollywood and decides that his dream is absurd. Friends, loved ones and failed screenwriters will be happy to reinforce this belief with loads of anecdotes and statistics: everybody in Los Angeles is working on a script; it's not what you know, it's who you know; every writer in Hollywood gets ripped off; you have to live in Southern California; you have to be a young white male; and even if you could break in, writing movies is obviously a ridiculous, pointless, demeaning and hopeless pursuit for any serious writer to consider. In other words, screenwriting is impossible.
Not True Either.
The first myth described above ignores the years of pain, struggle and failure that precedes (and sometimes precludes) success for most working screenwriters. But, the second myth ignores the fact that about a hundred and fifty feature films, plus more than fifty TV movies and seventy weekly series are produced each year by the major studios and networks. And, for every film produced, an average of at least five scripts are developed and paid for. And these figures don't include non-primetime and cable television or the numerous markets for independent, educational, industrial, religious and adult movies and TV. Somebody must be writing all those stories.
Screenwriting, like any other form of professional writing, is a specific, learnable craft that requires study, talent, training, practice and an immense level of commitment. It is at various times frustrating, exciting, fulfilling, exhausting, lucrative, unfair, depressing, ego- gratifying and fun. And, it has a clearly defined set of standards, rules, parameters and methods for achieving both artistic and commercial success.
So, to decide if you want to commit your life to this particular path, ignore both the fantasies of wealth and fame and the prophets of doom and, instead, ask yourself exactly why you want to write movies or television.
Recommended Resources to Enhance Your Screenwriting Career
The Wrong Reasons to Want to Be a Screenwriter
Screenwriting is not a wise career path if you're choosing it for any of these reasons:
Pursuing screenwriting because an occasional spec script sells for a million dollars is like studying hotel/motel management because Donald Trump has a big yacht. Starving screenwriters are no happier than starving poets, and if the big bucks are your only goal, by the time (if ever) you get there, the trip won't have been worth it.
You Want to Weave Magic With Words
If your love of writing is based on the beauty, texture, breadth and majesty of the English language, you'll be much happier as a poet, novelist or essayist. Screenwriting 'style' is much closer to that of ad copy, comic books and the sports pages than it is to great literature.
You Want the Respect that Comes with Being an Acclaimed Artist
Dream on. Once you sell your screenplay, it probably will be re-written by someone else (often several others) until it's unrecognizable. You're usually persona non grata while the movie is being shot, and neither the status nor the financial reward given the average screenwriter is anywhere close to proportionate to his or her contribution to the film. If you want real respect in Hollywood, become a maitre d'.
You Have a Strong Visual Sense
I'm not even sure what this means, but I hear it all the time, and, if anything, I think it's detrimental to successful screenwriting. Sure you want to picture what is going on on the screen, but the important talent is the ability to turn action into words. If you think only in pictures and are very right-brained, pursuing a career in production design, cinematography or directing might make more sense.
You Want to Adapt Your Own Novel (or Play or Life Story)
This is hard to accept, I know, but trust me: if your novel or play wasn't published or produced in its original form, it's extremely unlikely it's going to work as a movie. And, by now, you're much too emotionally attached to your original story. You will never be objective enough about it to make the numerous changes necessary for it to become a commercial script.
The same holds true for your own life experiences (or those of your grandparents). Yes, your life has been thrilling, painful, passionate, moving and glorious for you. But, I'm afraid the mass audience really isn't interested.
(It's fine to draw on your own experiences, but only to provide an arena for a fictional story. And if you want to be both a novelist and screenwriter, choose separate stories that are best suited to each medium. Just don't mix the two until someone offers you money to adapt your work into script form.)
You Want to Improve the Quality of Movies
If you don't like the stuff that's coming out of Hollywood nowadays, and you find yourself gravitating to foreign films and Fred Astaire festivals at the local Cineplex, or if you don't see at least one current American movie a month, then screenwriting probably isn't for you.
I don't think you'll ever be very happy pursuing a career in an industry you don't like. And you won't be able to change Hollywood. The most you can hope for is to write the best screenplays you can within the parameters of the system. Or else blaze your own trail outside the mainstream arena with low budget, independent films. But success there, which is even tougher to achieve, still requires a basic love for the movies.
The Right Reasons to Want to Be a Screenwriter
Yes, I know I just said that untold wealth is the wrong reason for pursuing screenwriting. But if money isn't your only motive, and you know you want to write, then you can probably make more as a steadily working screenwriter than with any other form of writing. Just remember that it's a package deal, and all of the other rules and obstacles are included.
You Get to Tell Stories
If creating unique, captivating characters and taking them over seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve visible, bigger-than-life goals is the kind of writing that thrills you, then you should consider movie writing.
You Love the Movies (and/or Television)
You not only love seeing them, you relish the challenge of staying within a rigid formula and creating a visual story that is original, thoughtful and emotionally captivating.
You'll Reach a Huge Audience
More people saw last week's episode of 'The West Wing' than have read 'Gone With the Wind'. Makes you stop and think, doesn't it?
You Love to Write
Screenwriting may not employ all the big words in the dictionary, but you still get to spend your day lost in the power of language.
In summary, if you're wondering whether to begin (or continue) your pursuit of screenwriting, forget both the defeatist statistics and the dreams of glory and riches. And omit the word 'easy' from your vocabulary entirely; there is NO form of professional writing or filmmaking worth pursuing because it's easy. Instead, ask yourself if your joy will come from within the process of sitting every day at your computer and creating a story for the big or small screen.
If the answer is truly 'yes' and your motives match those listed above, then close the door, fire up your computer and start writing.