Why Some Screenwriters Are Successful & Others Are Not
Updated: Jul 15, 2022
Having run Screenwriting Staffing, an online community that connects screenplays with writers, for 8 years, operating and participating in film festivals for over a decade, working alongside film commissions all over the country, and being a screenwriter myself, there are 12 reasons I believe some screenwriters succeed and some fail. Article written by Jacob N. Stuart. Be sure to submit to Season 4 of this year's Screenwriting Staffing Query Letter Contest.
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS MOVE WITH THE TIMES. This industry is constantly evolving and changing. Content is king, and streaming services are winning. The days of the 90’s spec script gold rush are long dead. Writers are not selling their spec scripts for seven figures anymore. A-list, established writers are now being hired to write remakes or sequels. Podcasts, video games, and books are being adapted into films.
Successful screenwriters understand that television is not just where the money is, but where the creativity is. TV allows writers to introduce more characters, tell longer stories, add more complex storylines, and have more creative control. Directors are often brought in for one or two episodes, whereas writers are brought on for multiple seasons.
Being in a writers' room allows a more consistent paycheck, whereas being hired to write a low-budget indie film will only pay your rent for a month or two. And often, the project doesn’t even go into production.
While film will always exist, TV is the best way for a writer to have a consistent income.
Successful screenwriters also understand that new writers are not being brought on to write blockbuster films. And as mentioned before, writers are not selling blockbuster movies to the studios anymore.
Screenwriters who consistently sell and work within the film industry understand they must think like a producer. They write low to moderate budget projects. They know that limited location and character count are essential if they want to sell their work and see it produced. They focus more on story and characters than action and special effects. When writers understand what it takes to make a movie, that’s when writers write movies that sell. Why every writer should have a low-budget script.
“Everybody has talent, it’s just a matter of moving around until you’ve discovered what it is.” - George Lucas
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS COLLABORATE. Done are the days a writer can sit in their home alone and hash out a 100+ page script, send it off to their agent (if they even have one), and get their work in the hands of buyers and professionals. It takes a team to make a film. Just having a script won’t sell your work; you must package it. You must come to a producer with something more than just a story.
The industry is saturated with scripts. Scripts alone don’t sell often. Packaged scripts do!
Successful screenwriters work with actors. They work with producers. They connect with a specific up-and-coming actor and write a role just for them. The actor then signs a Letter of Intent to work on the project. Writers also attach producers who have a more extensive network than they do. The producer will then go out and shop the script around. Writers will frequently partner with cinematographers to build their reel and shoot a sizzle trailer for their script.
There are hundreds of ways screenwriters can collaborate. Research any of your favorite writers. They didn’t break in alone. But, at the end of the day, it's your script (and vision) and your job to move it forward. Why screenwriters should work on-set.
"I think, at the end of the day, filmmaking is a team, but eventually there's got to be a captain." - Ridley Scott
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS STAY ACTIVE. Writing is a lonely profession. It’s even lonelier if you work within the film world. It takes years for projects to get financed and sometimes even longer to get made and released. You may be submitting your script to contests, but the waiting game is unbearable. Even when producers request your script, you may not hear back from them for months later (sometimes not at all).
Successful writers stay creative. They continue to add to their résumé,. They continue adding credits. They continue to foster new relationships. They research, travel, and read. If your feature film is optioned, start writing a new one. Once you write a new one, send it out to a producer. Then… go out and make a short film on a cell phone. Yes, a cell phone! Submit it to film festivals, collect awards, attend film festivals. It doesn’t matter what you are doing as long as you stay active, write, and film!
In 2019, I shot a short film on a mobile phone in under 18 hours. The film was made to pitch our feature film DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA. The short film won 5 awards and got accepted into 10 film festivals. Instead of just writing a script and waiting for producers to pick it up, we wrote and shot a short, then wrote the feature, then packaged the movie. It's about staying active. Learn how you can be a part of the film.
"Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee". – James Cameron
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS STAY FOCUSED. Let’s be honest. This industry is terrible at times. 10 screenwriters who broke in late but persevered.
Successful writers know that success does not happen overnight. Whether they work day jobs or are full-time writers, they write every day.
A lousy script is better than no script at all.
A writer writes. And if you want to make a living off writing for film or television, you better get in the habit of always writing.
If the idea of opening up your screenwriting software every day annoys you, then write a short story, a poem, a podcast -- just write. You must keep your mind creative. It’s just like any other craft. The more and more you do it, the better you get at it.
Successful screenwriters write even when they don’t feel creative. They write even when they have worked a 16-hour shift. Writers who put in the time see their work on the big screen. If you have a vision, stick with it.
"The good ideas will survive". - Quentin Tarantino
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS NETWORK. Probably the number one or two most important rule. This business is about people; don’t ever forget that. It’s all about who you know, not what you know. You can have the most incredible screenplay ever, but if no one reads it, then who cares? You have to get your script out there.
Successful writers go to film festivals, industry mixers, red carpet events, and panels. They are constantly taking down names and emails; passing out business cards. They ask producers what they need and ask how they can assist.
They send follow-up emails and add them on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media platforms. They invite them for coffee or a beer and find ways to COLLABORATE. Why screenwriters should use social media.
Successful writers understand that their network can be limited. But understand actors, directors, producers (even the lighting department) have access to those with MONEY. They consider everyone in the industry as a contact.
“How to get your script read? Film Festivals. Be around like-minded people doing the same thing.” – Sean Covel
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS PERFECT THEIR QUERY LETTERS & RESUME. Your script alone won’t sell itself. Your IMDb page won’t land you a job.
Successful writers understand that a query letter is needed when pitching their script. There’s not a producer (unless it’s a personal friend) who will read your script without first hearing what it’s about. Whether your query letter is written over an email or you're pitching your script in person, successful writers understand they must master their logline and 30-second elevator pitch. Spielberg said scripts are bought based on the concept.
A writer must sell their concept quickly and effectively, even before the producer reads the script.
Successful writers who land jobs, specifically on job sites, understand that just sending an email with their IMDb link doesn’t cut it. They must perfect their bio, their résumé, and their writing samples. They must understand how to properly format a screenwriting résumé that lists out credits, awards, schooling, skills, previous industry employment, among a plethora of other things. A screenwriter must stand out from the pack. Learn how to write a screenwriting résumé.
"It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it." - Jack Kerouac
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS SUBMIT TO THE RIGHT SCRIPT CONTESTS. Not all contests are created equal. In fact, I’d say there are only 15 (and that’s being generous) that are actually worth the money. If a contest can’t get your script into the hands of buyers and decision-makers, save your money. How to submit to screenplay contests.
Successful screenwriters know that contests are not the only way to success. But they do understand that contests do serve a purpose, especially for screenwriters with a limited network. They search for contests that have a good track record. They read success stories and testimonials. They talk to previous winners and read their interviews. They only submit to contests that, if their script reaches the finals, it will be read by top agencies, companies, and executives. Submit to Screenwriting Staffing's Season 3 Query Letter Contest.
"If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood". - Peter Handke
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS DON’T WORK FOR FREE. It’s simple, really. If a producer or company can’t pay you, how do you think they can finance a film?
Successful writers understand that writing is a profession, not a hobby. And just like any profession, you should be paid for your time and skills.
There’s a difference between collaborating with local filmmakers and working together to make a film. Where everybody chips in, all hands on deck, working together to build a reel or portfolio.
It’s also okay for newbie writers to work with newer producers with equipment and basic skills to see their short scripts produced. Film students, for example, are great filmmakers to work with. They have access to film equipment, mentors, and software.
But successful writers understand there comes a time a writer must only work for money and only work with those with produced credits.
Successful writers know not to get carried away with charging outrageous fees. Smart writers understand they must first get feature film credit. So even if they are only given a few thousand dollars at first (with maybe some back-end points), it’s okay because what they are working towards is their next job that will pay more.
If you don't have a proven track record, no one will pay you significant wages (even union wages). Successful screenwriters understand they have to accept a little less first and then work upwards of 5 to 6 figure jobs.
But ALL successful screenwriters understand they must be paid for their efforts -- regardless of how big or small.
Don’t waste your time on free work. That’s time that you could be writing your script or making your own film.
"Freelance doesn't mean free." - Unknown
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS UNDERSTAND WRITING IS REWRITING. You’ve heard it a thousand times, but how often do you do it? Amateur writers believe their first draft is perfect. It’s the most incredible piece of work ever put on paper. They usually send it off prematurely to producers and contests, never hearing back.
Successful writers understand that writing the first draft is something to celebrate, but millions of writers have done it before. The actual writing is in the 2nd draft, 3rd draft, and beyond.
Successful screenwriters look at the first draft like a fitted bed sheet. It’s needed before you can lay in bed. But the bed is still not suitable for sleeping or comfy. You must add a sheet, then a comforter, then a pillow, then pillow covers. That’s how successful writers look at writing drafts. The bed is not completed until you add the sheets to the mattress. A first draft is just the base, the premise of your story. Your proper character arcs, conflict, humor or horror, and creative visuals will only appear in future drafts.
Successful screenwriters put their first draft away for a few weeks then come back to it, sometimes only reading the dialogue. They understand and accept that the voices of their characters almost sound like their own voice. So they must really delve deep into each character, creating a unique voice.
Screenwriters who sell scripts only send out fully polished scripts. And even the best writers still seek out script coverage.
"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." — Elmore Leonard
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS READ PRODUCED SCRIPTS RELIGIOUSLY. Watching a movie does not make you a good writer. Reading scripts will significantly improve your writing. It used to be that you couldn’t read a produced screenplay unless you bought it at a store or online. Now the internet is littered with Oscar-winning screenplays. There is no excuse now not to study scripts by successful writers.
Successful screenwriters realize that story structure books and hero journey books will only take you so far.
Successful screenwriters know you can’t teach story, but you can teach screenwriting, and the best way to learn screenwriting is to study how writers format scripts, how they move from scene to scene, how they describe visuals, how they write less with more, and how they utilize white space.
I challenge you to read five published screenwriting books. Then read five Oscar-winning screenplays. Tell me whether reading the books or the scripts improved your craft more.
"We don’t need books to make films. It’s the last thing we want — it turns cinema into the bastard art of illustration". - Peter Greenaway
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS TARGET PRODUCERS SEARCHING FOR SCRIPTS. Amateur screenwriters think producers will search for them. Successful screenwriters know they have to look for producers. But not just any producer, but producers who are actively searching for scripts.
Collecting emails on IMDb Pro and pitching your script blindly will not land you a sale the majority of the time. Adding producers on Facebook and LinkedIn and sending them your query letter won’t warrant a read. But utilizing sites, like ours, that actively post adverts where producers are searching for scripts and writers is a good starting point. But it shouldn’t end there. They should be going to the American Film Market, Sundance, Pitchfests, and Screenwriting-Film Summits.
"If no producer, no movie." - Unknown
SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS ARE POLITE. Your attitude in this industry will make or break you. You’ve heard it before: Hollywood is a small town. Everyone knows someone. The six degrees of separation theory is a real thing in the entertainment industry. How you conduct yourself over email, social media, in-person pitch meetings, a writers' room, on-set, and anywhere else you gather will determine your level of success.
It’s a known fact, and I even do it with my films, that people would rather work with someone they get along with but less talented more than they would with someone more talented but has a bad attitude.
Being polite will open doors. And never underestimate the person in the room. The receptionist at the literary agency will very well be representing clients in 6 months.
Treat people how you would like to be treated, and you will be surprised how far you can go in this industry.
“Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.” - Franklin Delano Roosevelt
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Article by Screenwriting Staffing's Founder, Jacob N. Stuart
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