This is a big question, and we will definitely get to it, but let me start by offering an enthusiastic, “Congratulations on finishing your first screenplay!” Seriously, this is an accomplishment that 80% of people never succeed in seeing through. So you are already ahead of the pack by finishing what you started and not stalling out the first time you hit that writer’s block.
Now, usually a week after typing out “THE END,” I get an enthusiastic call from a writer who wants to know how to get their script to Brad Pitt because it’s the next big thing! I’m excited for you, believe me, but hold up a second and let’s have a little talk. Brad Pitt isn’t reading your script, and TBH you don’t want anyone to read a script only one week removed from the first draft.
Rewriting is a real thing and for further information on that topic, I will happily refer you to one of my Pipeline peers’ brilliant articles on notes. Spike Scarberry is a legend around here, and you should listen to everything he says.
What I say? Feel free to take, discard, chop up, or rewrite whatever the hell you’d like to from this point on because every creative journey is unique unto itself. However, I am sincerely hopeful that these next steps will help add a little direction to what can often feel like a directionless career in the arts.
It's very easy to leap too soon and get lost because you think you’re holding the next Best Picture winner. Masterpiece or not, the following steps are required of even the most well-known and established screenwriters. Yes, even the Aaron Sorkin’s of the world.
So, you wrote your first screenplay. Wonderful. But now it’s time to get to work ...
STEP ONE: Put Together Pitch Materials for Your Script
Once upon a time, this was not a requirement, but as soon as you pivot from that amazing imagination back into reality, you will find that selling a script today is a tough gig. Visual supplementation is more common now than ever. In fact, I don’t even consider my own projects ready to be sent out unless the script has some sort of supplemental accompaniment.
For a TV pilot you may need a pitch deck and/or a series bible to showcase the overall vision of the potential series. For a feature script you might need a small pitch package, but a one-sheet or treatment is absolutely crucial to have on-hand. Please put your full effort into the design of all pitch materials because anything that is poorly executed will only undermine the project. Also, use these materials as an opportunity to show off your voice or style, as well as your ability to concisely pitch your project to a room.
Trust me, at minimum, the exercise in creating supplemental pitches and treatments will make you a better screenwriter. You're more likely to see the holes in your story when you have to condense it down into a synopsis and one sheet. Better to see that during the writing process than after you think you're "done."
STEP TWO: Join a Screenwriting Group (or Several)
I'm very hopeful you already did this before writing your first screenplay; however, that is rarely the case, and that’s OK. Just find one now. The best way to learn the world of screenwriting is to be around other screenwriters—those less and more experienced than you. Writing is usually a solo endeavor, but this business is built on relationships, and you need to start making those as early as possible.
Naturally, you may need to wade through a few groups to find one that suits your needs, but don’t give up. Go to meetup.com and find a local group near you to try out. If nothing is nearby, try joining a group on Facebook or Twitter that meet on a weekly basis over Zoom.
A solid screenwriting group can be worth its weight in gold, especially when it offers the following: 1) Accountability, 2) Free notes, 3) Technique improvement, 4) Navigation knowledge of the entertainment industry, 5) Encouragement, and 6) Future connections.
The most well-traveled path of a writer “breaking in” to the industry has always been from the help of another writer. Go forth and make friends.
STEP THREE: Get Notes from Another Writer (Not a Family Member)
Yes, this step is inevitable and necessary. No one writes a perfect first draft. I will refer you back to Spike Scarberry’s article he wrote on notes, as well as his deeper dive into receiving feedback. Both are excellent, and I don’t need to expand upon them, except to mention where you can find notes on your work:
- Your screenwriting group should be offering feedback on partial reads of your script at least once a month. This is a FREE option, so take advantage.
- Paid notes services in a screenplay competition are an option for professional feedback, but be sure to choose contests that have a great reputation.
- Trade notes with another writer if the option is available to you. Most writers will jump at the opportunity for someone to read their work, so offer your services in exchange for a read on your own work. Win / win.
And yes, all of this will lead to rewrites. Mentioning in case that wasn’t clear as part of this step.
STEP FOUR: Write Another Screenplay
Yes, there are one-hit wonders (we've seen them happen at Script Pipeline firsthand), but if you have any ambitions of a long-term career in screenwriting you are going to need a portfolio of work to support you. I already provided an answer as to what constitutes a strong portfolio, so I won’t revisit that here, but I will emphasize that churning out new material is something a screenwriter is expected to do.
Producing new content on a regular basis is a trained skillset that producers and studios are going to want to see you master. There are a lot of setbacks in getting anything produced, so the screenwriter who can stick to a schedule and pound out pages, despite the curveballs being thrown their way, is a gem to be envied. Not only that, but the practice of diving into a new project provides momentum to you as a creative. It can be mentally exhausting if all your emotional eggs (so to speak) are in one basket, and when that basket ends up being passed on or scrapped, you can avoid having the wind taken out of your sails by focusing on the next idea on your long list of great ideas.
Don’t let your career ride or die on one project—it’s too important. Always write the next one.
STEP FIVE: Build Relationships with the Right Reps / Producers
This step should be ongoing no matter where you are in your career process. However, when you have a project ready to shop (after several rewrites, mind you) you need to be searching for the right kind of reps and producers who might be interested in the project. That means you need to do some research and be strategic in who you contact.
Typically, I wouldn’t encourage this step until you have several (good) scripts underneath your belt, but in case you do have that one-hit wonder on your hands, please understand that the entertainment industry is divided up via genre / budget-ranges / resources / and even preferences. Not everyone likes everything.
First, make a list of films / TV shows that have come out in the last 2-3 years that are similar to your own project in the above categories listed. Second, look up the production companies, producers, directors and managers associated with those projects and start digging for ways of contact via IMDbPro. Third, it is likely you will have to go through a manager or assistant to make contact (if contact is even possible), but there are several industry professionals who have active LinkedIn profiles, and that’s a great place to attempt a connection. Social platforms are also a good place to follow someone you think might be a perfect fit for your project.
Whatever mode of contact you choose just be professional and put your best foot forward. Even if they choose not to read your script, it is very possible you can gain a connection for future projects.
Keep in mind, the industry professionals you contact are looking for projects they personally find interesting and they think can sell or get you work. Play to their tastes and let them know why they would be excellent for the project you’re offering. Flattery can go a long way, just don’t overdo it.
STEP SIX: Repeat Steps with Every Script You Write
There you go. Not so hard, right? Good luck!
*Feature image by fran_kie (Adobe)