Ooooooooh, guess who’s back … back again. Spike is back (tell a friend).
Yes, that’s right: the 2021 Script Pipeline Screenwriting and TV contests wrapped up last night, and thus, I have emerged from my cave of reading to see the sun for the first time in months and share Hollywood knowledge with all of you emerging writers out there …
Bleh, yuck, ew—okay, I tried it. I attempted to make the label “emerging writers” work. It just doesn’t. It’s like I’m five years old, being forced to eat broccoli … or I’m Gretchen Wieners from Mean Girls trying to make “fetch” happen. I hate that label, and like Taylor Swift, it and I are “never, ever, ever, ever getting back together.” All of you reading this are back to being “baby writers” from now on. Sorry, not sorry.
Anyway. This year, Script Pipeline had a virtual awards ceremony for the 20 finalists in both screenwriting and TV. Winners were announced, prize money was awarded, laughs were had, and mimosas were poured (mostly by me). But honestly, even though only two people were announced as top dawgs, I like to think everyone got some level of value out of it, because the mixer quickly turned into a Q&A of sorts. We basically spent 3+ hours answering questions for these up-and-coming scribes.
And one topic brought up during the event requires further discussion. Because I truly believe it can help each and every one of you in your own writing careers.
The question was raised more than once about how the finalists should capitalize on this newfound “momentum” they have achieved. “What do we need to be doing right now so that in three years we don’t look back in regret?” asked Erin Muroski, the TV writing winner (Munch). This sentiment was echoed across the group. Each and every one of these folks had worked really, really hard to be a part of this exclusive tier, and none of them wanted to blow it.
The answer was almost offensively simple: for those of you who don’t have reps yet, use this accolade to get attention and reads on your material. Hollywood is a town full of overworked people, and getting someone else to give you their “stamp of approval” first always moves you up in the pecking order. If you meet a group of managers (or manager’s assistants) in a bar and say, “hey, I’m a writer,” vs. “hey, I’m a writer who was just named a finalist in this prestigious competition,” I’m just saying one of these options is going to get you a lot farther in the conversation. So, in short, now is really the time to up your networking game.
“Okay,” said one of the Screenwriting finalists, “So, let’s say a rep reads our work and wants to sign us. What sorts of things should we be doing to make sure that the new relationship goes well?”
This was another good question, and again, it has an almost offensively simple answer: you need to keep writing.
When you're a repped screenwriter, it's essential that you churn out multiple, high-quality screenplays for your managers or agents. This gives them the most firepower from which to work with. Did they hear about a hot production company looking for a sweet sci-fi series? If so, it doesn’t help them if you don’t have a sample like that. Or maybe, a studio executive is a fan of your work and wants to read more. You’d be out of luck if you only had one script that was ready for other eyes. Not saying that the exec wouldn’t want to read you in six months when the next sample was ready, but it’s always better to strike when the iron is hot.
“I have a question,” barked another Screenwriting winner, “Let’s say that a manager signed you off an awesome period drama you wrote … does that mean you need to write another period drama next? Is that what you’re known for from that point on?”
This was an EXCELLENT quandary, and it is going to serve as the bedrock for the rest of this article. Because the answer is also simple—but not so cut and dry. It depends a whole lot on your personal preferences as a writer …
I am steadfast in the belief that you should write what you’re most passionate about. Always, always, always. No matter the genre, no matter the logline. More than anything else, passion is what is going to resonate off the page and connect with audiences. Passion is going to dictate how good a screenplay ends up being.
And this sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? If you’re super entranced with a story, if you can’t wait to get home from your day job and work on it every single day, that’s going to come through in your writing, right? If you’re "meh" on an idea, and are only writing it because someone, somewhere told you “you need a romance sample, go poop one out,” you’re not going to do a great job, are you? If YOU, the original creator of the work, don’t care about it, then why the hell should anyone else?
In my experience, this is how the best scripts come to be. A talented writer has a kooky, hair-brained idea most people hear and go, “Psh, that could never work! Not in a million years!” I mean, seriously, how do you think the best script I ever read came into existence? And how did Lin Manuel Miranda feel when he first told people he was going to write a musical about Alexander-freaking-Hamilton with an entirely diverse cast and exclusively with rap lyrics? I guarantee you he was laughed out of at least a few dozen rooms. But Lin knew the exact right way to tell that story … to create that piece of content. And now, Hamilton is one of the most well-recognized pieces of art in modern history, and he’s an ultra superstar.
Hell, there’s a fantastic example of this from this year’s contest. Erin Muroski, the TV writing winner this year? The script that won her top prize is a half-hour pilot about a woman who is so lonely and so isolated, she fakes having cancer to get attention (this is called Munchausen by Internet, for those of you who are unfamiliar). On the surface, there are plenty of issues with that premise: the lead protagonist is utterly unlikable, not sympathetic, it’s all kinds of problematic, and likely offensive to some cancer survivors.
And yet, through all that, the execution of this script was sublime. Erin found a way to make me understand why this character would do such a thing. She made me understand and feel how lonely the protagonist was … I saw what drove her into action. All of a sudden, the unlikable lead was sympathetic in my eyes. I didn’t think she was right, and I didn’t like what she was doing, but I couldn’t look away either.
If Erin had listened to all of the naysayers telling her not to write this idea, she wouldn’t be in the position she’s in right now. She wouldn’t have the career momentum she has today. Because she trusted in herself, and her own writing ability, and wrote a script she was passionate about. A thousand other writers might not have been able to make that concept work … but this writer had the skill and the way into the story that did.
While we’re on this topic, let me diverge a little bit and address something else: Erin didn’t have just one script place with Pipeline this year … she had three make at least the contest Quarterfinals in 2021. This is a massive accomplishment, and yet, somehow people on the Twittersphere found a way to turn this happy moment sour. One person even went so far as to accuse Pipeline of “merely chasing writers with buzz,” or “picking those who paid us more money,” over writers who were playing the game straight up.
I'm pretty new to this company, but let me take a moment to call bull-fucking-shit on this notion.
If there’s a writer out there who has more success than you do, perhaps it’s because they are better at writing than you are. Perhaps they have mastered story structure, or know how to use emotion to bind the reader to the characters, or write dialogue that doesn’t send us to sleep. Maybe they have the skill to create more engaging scripts on a more consistent basis. Maybe, just maybe, ignorant Twitterer who said this, the problem is actually you.
Anyway, back to the original point …
Being a creator is tough. Nobody who knows anything about the business would tell you otherwise. You’re subject to massive amounts of external pressures, lack of validation, self-criticism, people telling you you’re wrong. But part of being an artist is pushing through these external factors and chasing your personal vision for the material. Trust me, if you try to please everybody, or write something you aren’t interested in only because someone else says you should, in the end, nobody is going to be happy.
Godspeed everyone, and happy writing. Oh, and congratulations to all the Pipeline finalists this year. Spectacular work all around.
*Feature Image: Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)