You’ll be judged on the quality of your creative work, more than qualifications
The skill you develop in the process of gaining the qualification can be priceless. The qualification itself is very little use. Success post-graduation will be determined primarily by the quality of the creative work you generate. In some circumstances a qualification from a respected institution is seen as an indication of ability and can make a development exec, producer or agent more inclined to consider your submission. But whether they continuing reading beyond the first few pages has nothing to do with the qualification and everything to do with how much they like what they’re reading.
Build a network of trusted readers to critique your work
Basic screenwriting fundamentals can be learned through self-study and a few trips to the library. A screenwriting course is worth investing in only if it helps you develop the critical acumen you need in order to identify the weaknesses in your work and to invent solutions. Most writers also need a network of wise and trusted readers capable of giving constructive feedback on works-in-progress and a university or film centre can be a good place to make those connections.
Start sending your scripts out – but don’t expect to hear anything back first time
Start with BBC writersroom, the one place that welcomes unsolicited scripts and gives feedback on work that shows promise. Individual writers used to be able to apply directly to the UK Film Council for development funding but those funds are now distributed by the BFI which indicates a preference for submissions from writer-producer teams. To meet producers contact your regional screen agency; they should be aware of who is active in your area. Most importantly, expect none of this to work, at least the first time.
Managing rejection is a big part of the process but perseverance pays off. I had been in contact with Film Agency for Wales for more than two years with very little success but last October, after two script submissions and one unsuccessful application for development funding, they put me in touch with an independent producer who has since expressed interest in optioning one of my scripts.
Hollywood studios and production companies scour competitions for scripts
Part of the seductive appeal of screenwriting is the idea that you can go from a poverty-stricken unknown to a wealthy success story in the space of a weekend. It’s the equivalent of Fabio Capello seeing you play street football on Tuesday and handing you an England cap on Wednesday. Except occasionally it actually happens.
The good news for British writers is that Hollywood doesn’t really care where you live. If you’ve written a marketable high-concept script that jumps off the page and has an appealing role for a bankable movie star then you’ve got a chance of making a sale. But how do you get your script out there?
Screenplay contests offer genuine opportunities. Not all are worth the entry fee but some, like the Nicholl Fellowship, are well-established launch pads for new writers. Many Hollywood studios and production companies request to read not just the winning scripts but those that make the top ten or twenty in the major contests. In recent years websites such as InkTip have also developed services that help connect screenwriters with entertainment professionals looking for new material.
Taking a backroom job in the film industry to get your foot in the door isn’t necessary, but if you do choose waitressing as your back up career you must have a stellar script at the ready
Most emerging writers need a second (and sometimes third) job to pay the bills and it’s not essential that these jobs are within the film or television industry. In fact, an enjoyable non-film job that pays well and leaves you plenty of time to write might be more beneficial to your writing career than an energy-zapping position on the fringes of the entertainment industry. In the last three years I have worked in a variety of roles from a film producer’s assistant in Beverly Hills to a twilight shift shelf-stacker in a supermarket in North Wales. I don’t recommend the latter but the former won’t magically launch your writing career either.
Working for a producer – reading the Hollywood trade papers every day and writing coverage of screenplays being considered for production – gave me valuable insight into the development process but what mattered most was that I was writing in the evenings and on my days off. I made a lot of connections but generating interest in you as a writer is only useful if you have a really good writing sample to show people as soon as they are interested. If you meet a producer while selling her tickets at a film festival and she tells you to send her one of your scripts (it happened to me in Toronto) she doesn’t want to wait six months for you to finish something. Have a stellar script ready to send out while the person who asked for it still remembers who you are.
Be prepared to spend three to five years trying to get a break: you need self-belief verging on delusion
The most helpful career advice I’ve received came from a successful screenwriter who advised my class to give ourselves three to five years of trying to break into this industry before we even think about doing something else. That’s three to five years of probably not making much money, not getting on the property ladder, not having any job security. Certainly, there are many easier ways to make money than writing. It’s hard work that often requires levels of self-belief that verge on delusion. Opportunities have to be unearthed so search far and wide. In 2009, after a year of false starts in Wales, I was in danger of losing my enthusiasm so I moved to Toronto on a working holiday visa through BUNAC’s (a not-for-profit work abroad organisation) Work Canada programme. I had three part-time jobs (at a theatre organisation, a film festival, and a concert hall) but it was such a stimulating environment that I found myself writing more there than at any other point in my life.
Any other advice?
The cliche is true: the more your write the better you get. It’s never too early to start networking but make sure you have something to show people once they find out you’re a writer. Be mobile, don’t wait for opportunities to come to you. Get work experience and intern as much as you can afford to. Don’t be afraid of screwing up, mistakes are just “research” for writers. Spend at least a day on a film set. Get close enough to the actors and director to see how they work with the script. Practice your public speaking, most working writers have to pitch stories at some point. Listen to Jeff Goldsmith’s free podcasts for Creative Screenwriting magazine; these in-depth interviews with working writers are goldmines of screenwriting wisdom. Travel, it will show you that your normal isn’t the same as everyone else’s normal, and will free you to write from your own experience. Don’t just watch films, read screenplays. Remember that good stories are full of conflict and emotion. Most of all, write every day. Or at least know that you are competing with people who do.
Stephen Davis is a freelance screenwriter, administrative handyman, and a graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. To follow Stephen’s screenwriting adventures, you can also find him on Twitter.