As the founder of Screenwriting Staffing, I’m often asked: “How can a screenwriter break into the industry?” This question is asked by nearly everyone, on every screenwriting panel, social network forum, and film class.
Here are 5 of the most universally popular suggestions:
Become a screenplay reader for a studio.
Join a writers’ group in your city.
Submit your screenplay into contests.
Take screenwriting/film courses at a local community college.
Write and Produce a “short” film.
While these strategies are all very practical, and may I add achievable…I did all 5, I’d like to offer a more subjective solution. Though it seems a bit unorthodox, I’ve found that one of the best approaches at achieving success in the screenwriting business is by “working on-set”; not as a screenwriter, but as part of the crew.
Why is my screenplay being turned down?
If you are reading this article, I am going to assume you, like many screenwriters, are searching for new and innovative ways to break into the business and sell your screenplay. So let’s start with this. Toss your “big-budget” screenplay to the side and strap-on a walkie talkie. It wasn’t until I worked on-set, on everything from studio films to zero-budget indie flicks, that I realized just how much work is put into the making of a film. Simply watching the “behind the scenes” portion of your favorite Blue Ray will not do justice to what “production life” is really like. Until you have hauled loads of equipment across uneven and treacherous trails, lit a daytime scene in a thunderstorm at night, or tried to record crisp dialogue near an international airport, you cannot truly say you have experienced life as part of the crew.
My first screenplay I ever wrote, just like you probably, required 6+ plus scenes to be shot at the Chicago White Sox Stadium (with sellout crowds), a funeral scene on the Navy Pier (during the winter), and a named actor attached (think Denzel Washington, “He’s Got Game”). The script did get optioned for a short period of time with Warner Bro’s on the back-end, but there just wasn’t enough money to make the film a reality, so the rights reverted back to me. But instead of being discouraged, I started taking into consideration what it takes to make a film, everything from money to time-frames. That meant I could no longer write scripts about high speed chases near the White House, or large wars near ‘The Great Wall of China’, and scenes that involved 2,000-plus men dressed in 1940’s World War II uniforms.
Solution? I began to write low-budget screenplays. Seeing first hand on-set how expensive it is to cast a large amount of characters (or even feed them) just blew my mind. The cost of renting a location (and equipment) was jaw-dropping. So I tailored my screenplay to the independent world. This does not mean you can’t write the next “Transformers”, but if you are looking to add some credits to your name then work on-set in a crew position, review budgets and call sheets, and take that experience and knowledge and write a screenplay that a person like you and me can produce.
I have no formal training in production, so now what?
If you think screenwriters are the only ones asked to work for “free” in this industry, you are DEAD wrong. Crew members, especially production assistants, grips, and craft service, are only given copy/credit. And the credit is worthless, because most of the time the film is never finished. The point I’m trying to make is that there are thousands of productions being shot today that would love a helping hand on-set. And most of the time, since you are working for free, the crew will be happy to show you around.
But for those who want to take a different approach, I suggest taking up Script Supervising. Script Supervising is a much easier trade to pick up than anything else in film, well at least for me, since it didn’t involve a lot of technology. If you are not sure what script supervisors do, I’d suggest doing a little research, but as far as the basics go, a script supervisor works directly with 4 of the most important people on-set: the Director, Cinematographer, Boom/Mixer (sound), and Actors. There is no other position on-set that allows you to work hands on with all of the “department heads” who make your screenplay shine. So, if you are going to be on-set, why not be holding a screenplay the whole time because, seriously, that’s what you do. You dissect it, analyze it, and study it. Not only are you watching how a screenplay is translated to film, but you can see how actors and directors approach action and dialogue in a screenplay (you would be disgusted to see how much is cut and mocked). This alone will honesty change the way you approach your next screenplay.
I understand how film is made, so I don’t need to work on-set.
Kudos, Spielberg. But working on-set is not just for the screenwriter who needs to scale down the budget on their screenplay. It’s for EVERY screenwriter, especially for those looking to make connections in this industry — which should be all of you. This day and age, the way films are being made (and those making them) has totally changed since film was first created. If you have ever been on-set in Hollywood, you will find out very quickly that the production assistant, who fetches coffee during the day, owns a petite production company with his buddy in Venice Beach. They own the equipment and have the skills, but they are missing one thing: a screenplay. Same goes for that girl on the second unit camera crew who graduated from film school last year with a 4.0, a reputable degree, and a huge amount of student debt that’s now looming over her. She learned how to operate a camera over a 4 year span, so she figures why not take side gigs to pay her bills. But in her free time, she raises funds on “Kickstarter” so she can begin her “directing” career. Point I’m trying to make is, don’t judge a person by their position on-set. Everyone in this industry is a connection worth having. Connecting on-set can also be so rewarding. Pass your cards out to everyone. Put your name, number, e-mail, and even throw something subtle on there that you’re a “screenwriter”. Tell people about what you are working on, your success, or just talk “favorite films”. Don’t forget about the actors. Have you ever been asked if an actor is attached to your screenplay? I have. Network! Add them on social networks, follow-up through phone and skype calls. Before you know it, you could be producing your own screenplay since you already know the cast and crew! At the end of the day, every starting screenwriter must hold a day job. So why not make your day job film-related? Believe me, don’t get run down by working on-set. It’s exhausting, and honestly, mentally discouraging. So just like any job, be balanced.
In closing, here are 5 things (in my opinion) a screenwriter should achieve while being on-set , so be sure to check these off if you land yourself some “crummy” on-set job:
1) Understanding production value, so you can write a screenplay that can be easily made (and making it easy for someone to buy).
2) Study the screenplay before production, so while on-set you can observe how film-makers translate and understand screenplays.
3) Make friends with the crew. Find out what they are working on when this production ends, and how you, as a screenwriter, can be of assistance.
4) Come to set excited and ready to learn. No one in this industry, or any industry for that matter, will give you a fighting chance if you don’t appreciate (or understand) the process of taking a script to screen. A novelist can read a book and mirror how it’s written. But can a screenwriter really write a screenplay if he/she doesn’t know how scripts are filmed?
5) Be sure to add your on-set experience to a resume. At Screenwriting Staffing, we often help writers with their resumes. Some do not have any credit as a screenwriter, but for those who have on-set experience, we try to incorporate it in, if anything, it shows you are knowledgeable in your industry.
– by Jacob N. Stuart
Jacob N. Stuart is an international award-winning, produced, and represented screenwriter. He has over 10 scripts produced to screen, airing in OVER 7 different countries. He is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, http://www.screenwritingstaffing.com, an organization that puts screenwriters and screenplays in contact with industry professionals. As the CEO for ScreenwritingStaffing.com, he and his team have produced over 125 screenwriting success stories — ranging from scripts sales, options, and paid writing jobs. While Jacob’s primary focus is screenwriting and story development, he has worked on the sets of: Glee, Intervention, Homecoming, Toddlers & Tiaras, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, and Pitchin’ In. IMDb | Jacob N. Stuart