ANONYMOUS ADVICE: Your First Screenplay Won’t Get Made… and That’s a Good Thing

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Your First Screenplay Won’t Get Made… and That’s a Good Thing

brings together professionals from different parts of the industry to share advice they wish they had heard along their journey. We reached out to colleagues and asked them to share wisdom and experiences with an eye for advice that might shorten the trajectory of a writer or executive trying to take their to the next level. Why anonymous? We want our contributors to feel they can share openly and honestly, with the best intentions of our readers in mind, rather than with concern over judgement. These are opinions viewed through the lenses of insightful hindsight and do not necessarily represent the Tracking-Board or its partners.
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Your first screenplay won’t get made.

Sure, maybe you’re the exception to this statement, but, like Tyler Durden so eloquently said in FIGHT CLUB, you’re more likely “not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”

Look, I know this may sound harsh. I wish I could soften it. But, I promise, it’s not a bad thing — and when you finish reading this, I think you’ll agree.

You see, there’s a very common belief amongst early screenwriters and that is: because you wrote a screenplay, it’s not a win unless it gets produced into a feature film.

Well, I’m here to tell you… that belief is wrong. Dead wrong. In fact, it might actually be a good thing if it doesn’t get made.

Really. Truly. I promise. Let me prove it to you.

But how do I know this, Dear Reader? And who the heck am I anyway — other than a seemingly boisterous know-it-all? Well, I’m someone with close to a decade of development experience on both sides of the table — executive AND creative.

But before I can tell you WHY not getting your first screenplay made is a good thing, I need to dump a nice, icy bucket of reality over your head. Brace yourself, because we’re about to break down the numbers…

In 2014, before I made the transition to writing full-time, I was running development for a small production company in Beverly Hills and we fielded close to 600 screenplay submissions that year.

That meant, on average, I was reviewing close to two screenplays a day. Do you know how many of those scripts we optioned (or, more likely, squeezed a free option on)?

Five.

Yes, that’s right, after plowing through hundreds of scripts and taking dozens of general, “water bottle tour” meetings, out of all those screenplays, many written by first-time writers, less than 1% were deemed worthy by my boss — a mid-range producer whose heyday was, even then, long since behind him.

And even against those odds, he wasn’t able to make any of them.

So, now that your expectations have been realigned — and this article has probably made you thoroughly depressed — let’s admit to ourselves that your first screenplay won’t get made, and now let’s focus on why that’s okay — because it is. Here’s why:

Writing your first screenplay shouldn’t be about getting a movie made.

I know, this seems counterintuitive. Why even bother writing a screenplay if not to make it? Well, hear me out…

You have a movie idea. Congratulations. Everyone does at some point in their life. But let’s say you take that extra step and write it. First, that’s awesome. Some people NEVER get over that initial fear of putting pen to paper. However…

Just because you decided to write a screenplay does not make you a good writer.

Sorry, but it’s just a statistical fact. And, because you are not a good writer, your screenplay will not get made. You will not have the chops or experience to get past the Hollywood gatekeepers.

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t BECOME a better writer. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn the chops or gain the experience to beat a system designed to keep your ideas out.

Yes, you can learn it, and, no, I’m not here to tell you to go read the myriad of screenwriting books out there or pay a fortune to “screenwriting gurus”. Yes, there are valuable skills that can be learned from both of those resources, especially in learning the very basics of formatting, but, in my oh-so-humble opinion there is only one way to become a better screenwriter:

Read screenplays.

That’s it. That’s the secret. If you don’t want to do that, you don’t want to be a writer. And that’s okay. There are lots of other people that do.

But if you DO want to be a writer, find screenplays for produced movies. Find screenplays on The Young & Hungry List and The Hit List (or maybe non-Tracking Board sponsored year-end-best-of lists too…)

You can learn the basics there. You can learn what works. What doesn’t. What made it to screen and what got cut. You can learn style. Pacing. Structure. And you can absorb all of these things and apply it to your own writing.

And if you combine this with writing every day — even if only for an hour — your writing will improve. You will become a better writer, if not a good or — dare I even suggest it — a great writer.

But that’s probably not going to happen on your first screenplay.

In other words, do not spend years toiling away on that one story to make it “perfect”.

That’s a newbie trap. You can only make a turd on wheels travel so far. Remember, as we’ve established, your first screenplay won’t get made.

Put it in a drawer, start the next script, and, in a few years, pull that first screenplay back out again and laugh at how bad your writing used to be. I know I did. And hey, with the added experience, if it really is a great story, perhaps by then you’ll have the experience to figure out how to fix it.

More likely, you’ll just keep moving forward. Like a shark. Because that’s what a good writer does. They’re constantly hunting for the next great story so they can keep writing.

Look, I speak from experience. It took me writing five feature-length screenplays before I landed my first literary manager. And it wasn’t until my sixth script that I signed with a major agency and had my first sale.

And, as I spent the last three years producing other creative’s projects and turning them into features, all while landing on those coveted “year-end” screenwriting lists, it wasn’t until my TENTH screenplay that my own feature-length writing was FINALLY turned into a movie.

I’m not alone. Two of my closest writer friends had Warner Bros. snatch up their spec last year in a competitive auction for an ungodly amount of money. It wasn’t their first screenplay. Not even close. In fact, it was more like their twentieth. But they positioned themselves for this moment. They consistently cranked out new, good material.

Because of that, they met, and befriended, all the execs in town. And — even though their Warner Bros. project still isn’t anywhere close to production — the sale has made them desirable to producers. They’re “sellable” writers now. They’re on lists. Execs are actually buying their pitches and choosing them for Open Writing Assignments, as opposed to passing them over for someone more “established”.

And the great irony? They STILL haven’t had a movie made yet.

So why write a feature screenplay if it’s not going to get made?

You write it to improve your craft. You write it to get read.

To eventually get good enough that you get representation. That development executives want to take general meetings with you. That producers familiarize themselves with your work and think of you for projects and re-writes.

You write a screenplay to build your brand. And, if you’re going to be successful, your brand had better be “good writer”.

And when that happens you MIGHT just get your movie made. And THAT, my friends, IS a good thing.

Have some advice, an uplifting or eventful story you’d like to share, or need to vent? Please send ideas and credentials to [email protected]. Paid gig, if accepted and used.

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brings together professionals from different parts of the industry to share advice they wish they had heard along their journey. We reached out to colleagues and asked them to share wisdom and experiences with an eye for advice that might shorten the trajectory of a writer or executive trying to take their to the next level. Why anonymous? We want our contributors to feel they can share openly and honestly, with the best intentions of our readers in mind, rather than with concern over judgement. These are opinions viewed through the lenses of insightful hindsight and do not necessarily represent the Tracking-Board or its partners.
Whether working the mailroom on your first day or a seasoned producer selling their next hit, each of us can look back on our past and find that bit of advice we wish we had starting out. We hope these columns can refresh us on the truisms we’ve heard before, explore the obvious ‘why didn’t I think of that’ moment, or dive deep into the hard-to-swallow words we all need to hear from time to time. None of us get it right the first time, and so these guest writers open up from their personal experiences to help shine a light for the rest of us.
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