Standing in a Room Naked: Being a Screenwriter Without Representation
“How do I get an agent?”
“How do I get a manager?”
“How do I get paid and therefore show my friends and family I’m not a loser?”
If you’re looking for the answers to those questions, this is the wrong article. Luckily, the internet exists, and a Google search can set you on that path real quick.
Let’s be clear as well, I’m not anti-representation. That’s like being single and saying you’re anti-dating. No, I’m just finding myself, OK?! Learning to love myself. WHICH IS HARD. But when so many initial steps of a writing career start with “get representation” and that’s just not panning out, it starts to feel like you’ll never get there. And then you start to wonder if something is wrong with you and your work.
Is something wrong with you or your work?
Take a moment and do some inner reflection—are you and your work really ready for that pro level? Think about all the feedback you’ve gotten on your material, and how you’ve handled yourself on assigned group projects during your years in school. Do you feel good about your actions? Or do you owe Samantha from your 9th grade World Bio class an apology for making her carry all the weight of that Riparian Zone project?
But the answer is: no, not necessarily.
Let me paint you a picture ...
I once had a script Semifinal in the Nicholls that was a “fuck it” script about the hyperbolic manifestation of an eternal pushover gone off the deep end who decides to manifest her cheating ex-boyfriend’s murder only to find out she’s terrible at murdering. At this point, this was my favorite thing I had ever written, it was wacky and funny. Scott Pilgrim-esque. I got to express my frustrations of being a retail biscuit suffering mentally in all aspects of life. My writing group and my mentor loved it. I got nothing but pretty positive notes—heck, I was being affirmed by the freaking NICHOLL that it was good.
And if you don’t know, if you place in the Nicholl, even quarterfinals (though this one made it to the semifinals!), your logline goes out and reps and production companies email you and ask to read your script. Several reps asked to read it, and lo and behold …
It just wasn’t anyone’s cup of tea (and I didn’t know enough people to keep offering a pour). Or maybe it was, but they didn’t have a vision of how to sell it or move it around in the industry. So, nothing happened. And in this town, a lot more nothing happens than something happens, so it was business as usual.
What do you do when you just haven’t seemed to have found your tribe yet? Do you: a) lash out at the film industry for failing to notice your genius and blame Marvel movies? b) takedown other writers and belittle their successes? or c) just keep writing and accept, for now, you do not have representation.
Reps provide a lot of access to industry contacts. They vouch for your work and pass it to other industry folks who trust they’ll be sent professional (and currently marketable) material. Without having someone speak on your behalf, you are not vetted; you are not proven. You are naked in the mud entangled in the limbs of the masses also screaming for their screenplay to be read (see Screenwriting Twitter for details).
How do you get you and your work out of that mess?
My answer is a frustrating one, but it is an answer. You must give yourself agency over your work and your career. You must reach out to what’s in your means and take action:
Listen, I hear you—you didn’t decide to become a screenwriter because you wanted to learn to edit or produce. Maybe you’re located in a proverbial film island where no one is around you to help you make things. You’re already spending all your free time getting another script underway … It comes across as a really dumpster fire of an answer. And I am sorry for that.
But I’m also not wrong.
A screenplay is not a finished product. It’s like a blueprint to make a wonderful house. It could be great, and to the right set of eyes, they see all the possibilities of what this house could be just by looking at the drawing. But to the rest of us unskilled, not-at-all-architect people … we need to see the house and walk through it to appreciate what has been done. Or, for a lot of us new screenwriting architects, it helps to see the transition from blueprint to house is possible and you specifically can pull it off.
Making things will make you a better writer. Yes, writing and reading a lot of scripts are great ways to become a stronger writer, too. But seeing your work get translated into its final form is extremely educational. You could think something is very obvious in your script that gets missed—or a take on a character different than you intended, etc. It will help you become a better communicator to the people who need to come on board and make the project.
It’s also humbling.
Ever write your award-winning monologue and watch it get dropped on the cutting room floor because, despite the beautiful words, it does nothing for the pace of the story? You will. Making things puts you as the writer into the group project mindset—despite all of us wanting to shine, it’s the story that must shine the most to be effective.
That being said, I get you. Most of us don’t have money in our bank accounts to greenlight a feature film or even rent a RED camera package for the weekend. How are you supposed to make things when it is prohibitively expensive to make things?!
Here are a few things I would suggest. Take the ones that are useful to you, toss the rest.
- Look for small film projects, like short films, that need a writer. Many new filmmakers need material to practice their skills—shorts or scenes from larger projects are usually the fair. r/ProduceMyScript on Reddit is one such hub where available scripts are posted and producers and directors post types of material they are looking for. Is there money in this type of endeavor? No. Most of these people are making material to build their reel. But that also means it’s a chance for you to build yours.
- Would your script make an interesting podcast? Would you believe that the days of the radio drama are back?! Making an audio recording of your project is a much cheaper way to turn your script into a final product and build followers/listeners to show there is a market for your story. This does take some producer/editor skills. However, it’s a relatively low start-up cost and can get people listening to your words.
- Shoot a scene with your smartphone. Instead of making a huge production—find something small that you and a small group of people (maybe local actors, maybe friends and family) can block out and act in. Don’t worry about being the next Roger Deakins—you can even put the camera on a tripod and let the scene unfold around the stationary shot.
- Volunteer and work on set. I can’t recommend this enough ... it’s an indirect way to advertise yourself as a writer and a direct way to network. You are more likely to overhear someone needing a writer or some help on an upcoming project by being on set and meeting other filmmakers. People are more likely to recommend people they know than find some stranger on the internet. This is a way to make yourself not a stranger. Also, you’ll learn more about what other people do on set and have a stronger understanding of what work would need to be done to make one of your stories.
- Make a low-budget short film within your means. I’d recommend starting with something small—a short no more than 5-7 minutes with a single location and just a few characters—don’t overwhelm yourself! Short films can be small, intimate, and still be the produce-able end product you’re looking for to add to your body of work. Take a look at this one that premiered on ShortOfTheWeek featuring one actress (Meg Cashel), a rather standard apartment, and the quandary of a missing cat. The filmmaker, Brett Cramer, made this for less than $1,000. Not all, but many emerging screenwriters spend that amount in contests, coverages, and fellowship applications for their work in a year. But unlike those, this short is a finished product!
- Raise money for a short film. Ick! Produce, edit, now I’m telling you to crowdfund?! YES. The crowdfunding world isn’t going anywhere, and it’s a solid way to raise some funds to create a bigger production without living off of ramen noodles in a shoebox. If the project you have in mind is greater than what you can afford, crowdfunding can be the answer. Start looking at successful campaigns on platforms such as Seed&Spark to see how other filmmakers (including writers like you) are getting their stuff made.
While it’s always a good idea to keep on writing and querying, looking for your perfect match of a rep, making things will grow you as a writer and creator. It’s the equivalent of putting in some self-care while you’re on your own—and also can be extremely satisfying. Sometimes it’s hard feeling like you’re spinning your wheels and no one is seeing your work. It can be heartening to see some views on your posted short film, or enter it into a local film festival where you can go and meet more people like you.
It’s easy to feel lacking without having a rep backing you as a writer, but it doesn't stop you from being a writer. Embrace your nakedness.
*Feature Image: Mannaggia (Adobe)