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There Are No Shortcuts to Becoming a Working Screenwriter, Three Tips for Success in Hollywood

07.1.12 @ 8:06PM Tags : , ,

All too often people seem to think that you can become successful “by accident” — that by simply starting a funny blog or Twitter account, Hollywood will come knocking and give you millions. Unless you’re the child of a studio head or a famous actor, success comes from unbelievable amounts of hard work and dedication (and if you are, you probably don’t really need to read NoFilmSchool). A recent Los Angeles Times article about “Twitter sensation” Kelly Oxford (who just sold a spec script and has a new book deal) seemed to suggest that her stardom is merely due to her Twitter account, and not her years of hard work. In a fairly inspiring post, she sets the record straight, and in the process gives some insight into what really leads to success.

Here’s a bit from that post (her emphasis):

Twitter has connected me to other writers. Twitter has given me a fan base that is almost 50 times as large as my original blog. Make no doubt that famous and powerful fans have bolstered my ‘star-meter.’ BUT- There are plenty of other people on Twitter with all of the above and no career in writing. Why? Because none of these things matter if you can’t or don’t produce. No connections can get you a pilot sale, or sell your feature screenplay if you don’t fucking WRITE IT AND THEN SELL IT.

Her advice to aspiring writers out there?:

  1. Be a good writer. You don’t have to be amazing, but be a very good writer and above all have a point of view. Be honest when you write, because when you try to be something you are not, it shows (and when it shows it stinks)
  2. Write. Write a lot, all the time. Every day. Re-write. Never show people your first drafts, trust me, it’s crap. The beauty of writing is that you can take 4 days to write that one page and make that page so beautiful that people cry/laugh/shit themselves when they read it.
  3. Get your writing out there. Make videos, start a website. Self-publish and self-promote.

That last point is one of the great things about the advancement of technology and the internet. Anyone can be a screenwriter — you simply write a feature-length script and you’re there. By putting yourself out there, however, and making a website or series of videos — you increase your odds of getting noticed by proving your worth as a storyteller. These success stories are not shortcuts to Hollywood — these are people who are already prolific and are using social media and other outlets not only to make connections with peers, but as an outlet for their creativity.

That’s another important point that writers should consider. It’s not just about how good your work is. It’s no longer a necessity to live in Los Angeles or New York, but you’ve got to be prepared to get yourself out there. The connections you make on the internet will not only be a support structure, but they could potentially lead to a job some day. People like Kelly have used the internet to their advantage to make themselves heard, but if they didn’t already have the hard work to back it up, they would quickly fade away.

Social media might have become a buzz word in the last five or so years, but by using every single social media outlet to your advantage — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and even Pinterest — you can put yourself ahead of all of those who despise even the mention of those words. Until now, there has never been a time in the history of our culture where you could have immediate access to some of the more successful people in your business, regardless of your current status or lack of success (in this case Hollywood). But that’s exactly what Twitter allows — we can communicate with not only our peers, but those at a level we aspire to reach. Of course, anyone can use social media in this way, so the playing field is far more level than it was even ten years ago.

Kelly is now successful not because of Twitter, but because she was a prolific writer that used social media to her advantage in getting her name out there. Either way, it’s got to start with the writing, so if you’re not already doing it: read scripts, watch movies, and write pages.



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 22 COMMENTS

  • john jeffreys on 07.2.12 @ 2:07AM

    i write the weirdest shit

  • The next Diablo cody? hollywood works on trends. Audiences are mindless sheep. Who like regurgitated .

  • I’d just like to make an additional point which I personally think is important. I think that while all the above is true, I think one also has to consider that there is ALSO a large factor of “luck” in this. Hard work + talent + getting yourself out there != success. In general, all of those things are definitely prerequisites, but in most cases people still need some kind of break, and often those are largely down to luck.

    So, IMO, through hard work you get yourself to a place where you can “get discovered”, and then in most cases you need that extra nudge from a bit of luck to actually make it.

  • ” Either way, it’s got to start with the writing, so if you’re not already doing it: read scripts, watch movies, and write pages.”

    I don’t get it. You had a guy here a couple weeks ago urging would-be writers to consult Shakespeare, not Michael Bay, and you ran a 70 minute Charlie Kaufmann address which pissed all over the “screenwriting industry” blather. But somehow Joe decided that his own advice is more valuable? What’s the source of his expertise? His own accomplishments as a screenwriter?

    Guys, we’re not talking about lenses or zacuto here. If you’re not an authority on the question, why venture to advise others?

    • Joe Marine on 07.2.12 @ 8:58PM

      I’d venture to say that no one anywhere is an authority or final word on anything, but there are plenty of working professionals I would listen to when they talk about their specific craft. Literally everything I’ve said in this post has been gathered from other articles we’ve featured and from other working professionals. If you’re wondering why there are different people saying different things, it’s because there is no one right way to do anything.

      The statement you quoted from the post is in reference to the Scott Myers article – but I’m not really sure what part of that is me saying I know more than anyone else? The point of the article was to say that the playing field is far more level than it’s ever been, but all the technology in the world means nothing unless you’re dedicated and prolific (which is literally the point of Kelly’s post – which is what led me to write this).

      I would think that anyone aspiring to be a professional in any specific discipline would want as many different opinions as possible from as many different people as possible. We can only offer up information that exists out there and you have to make up your mind about what path might work for you.

      • john jeffreys on 07.4.12 @ 4:17AM

        roastin’ em joe. i love reading your retorts, they are so calm and badass at the same time.

        • And if only Joe happened to be right, it would be even better. It would help if he first proved that watching lots of movies and reading film scripts is the way to become a great screenwriter — a claim which he’s not offering as someone else’s opinion, but his own. Or if he demonstrated that the “playing field is far more level than it’s ever been”.

          But no matter. This is what folks want to hear in the indie world. They’ve been repeating this stuff for years, and will continue to repeat it.

          • If you want to make movies but don’t want to “read scripts, watch movies, and write pages,” that’s your prerogative… 100% of what we say here is our opinion. There is no way to “prove” any of it. Feel free to become a screenwriter somehow WITHOUT writing pages!

          • @Ryan Koo

            Don’t think the objection was to writing. Just the notion that watching movies and reading screenplays is adequate training for writing them. It’s a commonly held view, of course, which accounts for the hopelessly incompetent screenwriting one sees.

            [Sorry for the wrong placement and typos below.]]

            • Joe Marine on 07.4.12 @ 1:55PM

              This is a direct quote from the Scott Myers article where I talk about exactly that:

              “The only way to become a better writer is to write. That may seem simple enough, but good writing does not come from watching good movies, it comes from hard work and dedication — putting the fingers to the keyboard (or pen to paper if you are old school about your process). Simply writing will not necessarily make your scripts better — you’ve got to understand the structure intimately and study other scripts to see how professionals work through problems to craft excellent screenplays.”

              Wasn’t it self-explanatory that the playing field was more level than it’s ever been? Kelly lives in Canada (though she’s moving now), far from either of the film centers in the United States, and if it were not for her Twitter and blog, she may never have seen the kind of success she’s seeing, or it would have taken much, much longer. The point though, was that she worked hard and has been prolific for a long, long time, and she had the hard work to back up the clever Twitter account. Kelly’s story is where my statement comes from. Twitter didn’t exist 10 years ago – and it’s far more immediate than simply having a blog existing in space.

              So when I offer my opinions – there’s usually either direct physical proof (in the case of Kelly), or I’m pretty clear in saying that just doing one thing will not necessarily make you better at anything. This blog is not a place for negativity, and I don’t go around telling people what they can, and can’t do. You can read about how writing is terrible on plenty of other sites, but what good does that do – how is that a solution to incompetent screenwriting?

          • Oh hell, Joe, don’t take it so seriously, and give it up, you don’t always have to be right.

            No, it’s NOT self-evident that things are better than they ever are before. Wannabe filmmakers have been saying exactly that as long as anyone can remember, the same way they’ve been proclaiming that technology will democratize the medium (next week). That rotting chestnut goes back at least to the mid-90s, with the introduction of mini-DV. And before that, with 16mm.

            And whether you got the writing advice from Scott Myers or not, you’ve made it your own — without any evidence that it actually works. And tons of evidence that it doesn’t. If folks could learn to write screenplays by watching movies and reading scripts, they wouldn’t write the stupid, technically embarrassing crap they do.

            Strange: everyone claims to want embrace a “new paradigm”, but the preconceptions and the approaches remain the same, year after year. And so do the movies.

            Give up the received wisdom! It’s not doing you or anyone else any good. And happy filmmaking!

            • Joe Marine on 07.4.12 @ 3:16PM

              The Manchild Kickstarter campaign is all the proof I need that the film industry has been democratized by technology. Raising over $100,000 online just wasn’t possible even 5 years ago. Again, 5 years ago the cheapest film-like digital camera cost over $100,000. You can now get unbelievable picture quality for $20,000 an under – to the point where 35mm and digital is starting to become indistinguishable, and in some cases digital has surpassed film in quality. Tomorrow I could upload a movie online, stream it to any device I want, and start selling it immediately to people on any of those devices (whether it sells or not is another matter entirely).

              It’s not about being right, it’s about reality, and if you don’t want to take advantage of any of it, it’s certainly your choice. We can only offer up the free information – you’ve got to do the rest in your own career.

        • “Annoyed” maybe has a point. The odds of having a productive life as writer or writer/director in the U.S. are worse than getting into the NBA But encouraging large numbers of kids to strive for the NBA would be considered a cruelty and a deception, while giving encouragement to people who expect to make films is considered inspirational.

          Can’t speak to Ryan Koo’s success on kickstarter, but I think we can say it’s not the norm? And how much was family money? And how many people are prepared to spends years cultivating an online audience, the way Ryan did? And what kind of films are such people likely to make? If kickstarter and the like are going to bring in a new era, where is it? And how much longer can we expect this model to last?

          There’s never been a shortage of indie films, no matter what format they were shot on, how much they cost or how easy or difficult it was to raise money. There have always been far too many to market. And, if anything, there’s fewer places to make money on them today, and more difficulty getting them seen.

          Glossing over these realities serves what purpose, other than self-deception?

          • I don’t have the exact numbers handy but far less than 1% was “family money.”

            The thing is, watching movies and writing/reading scripts is not mutually exclusive with living life. This website is called No Film School because I personally believe being out in the real world and gaining life experiences and learning who you are is more important than spending a bunch of money to be in a classroom environment. No one is saying “watch movies, read scripts, do nothing BUT this.”

          • ” because I personally believe being out in the real world and gaining life experiences and learning who you are is more important than spending a bunch of money to be in a classroom environment”

            Or you can be a hack like tarantino btw on a side note just realised the opening of the graduate is exact as jackie brown …whaaaaat?!?!

          • @Ryan

            “The thing is, watching movies and writing/reading scripts is not mutually exclusive with living life.”

            I’m not advocating richer personal experience, though a life beyond a preoccupation with movies and TV might be helpful. The trouble is, when most people writing screenplays have as little reason to believe they can write well as they could perform creditably on the piano or violin at Carnegie Hall (for lack of years of work, exposure, well-formed sensibilites, objective knowledge of the literature, technical accomplishment), you’re not likely to get good results.

            I realize filmmaking is regarded ways unlike other art forms, thanks to the examples of not very talented people, who achieve extraordinary success, particularly from the no-budget realm. But if that’s to be the model here, hoping to succeed despite mediocrity, thanks to determination or good luck, so be it.

    • Cuz he gotz to rite articuleeez?

  • @Ryan Koo

    Don’t think the objection was to writing. Just the notion that watching movies and reading screenplays is adequate training for writing them. It’s a commonly held view, of course, which accounts for the hopeless incompetent screening one sees.

  • My humble 2 cents…my experience…

    Coming from ex-army and then construction laborer, blue collar background…to put
    myself through college and then…

    …MFA Screenwriting from UCLA — 5 feature specs, plus side course required for MFA. Met all requirements, plus additional 6 specs on the side; directed – edited experimental, multi media, image – driven silent short film and crewed on numerous student short films. Learn everything by doing. Getting the hands dirty.
    What works-doesn’t work in reality. Did more writing than my classmates before I even got into graduate film school and learned more from editing courses and producer – critical analysis courses than I ever did from screenwriting courses — because you’re breaking down the critical story aspects of what makes an image driven narrative known as a movie — not a play. Yes, read a lot of screenplays. Good and bad. Learned more from the bad.

    Only now…8 years after leaving LA — and being out of the network pool…are doors slowly opening.
    And most of it is because I’m showing directing samples of what I can do as a writer-director.
    A specific product made for a specific audience — called a movie — and hopefully turn a profit for my investors ahead of satisfying my artistic voice. Which means again, I’m responsible for someone else’s belief in me. a lot of other directors in the system would never think along these lines.

    History of screenwriting during the studio era of the 1920s-early 1960s, before everything went bust, which ushered in the new wave of 60s-70s — showed a prolific time for many screenwriters who were taking no more than 2 months to bang out a script and have it shot.

    Yeah…they were contract writers, which helped a lot, because they were already in
    the system…and a lot of those low budget b movies? They still hold up.
    The point is…scripts are not novels. They’re not plays. Once you understand that foundation?
    And you keep writing along those lines — image driven narratives ?
    And become your worst, toughest critic?

    Believe me — your writing will get better.
    It has to. Why? Because you’ve found out what works and what doesn’t work. It is about doing the work.

    I’ve studied some of these so called overnight successes. And the far and few between that were truly over nighters? It wasn’t because their writing was great and really stood out. It was because they had a very passable, average script, that could be shot for pretty cheap and fit a specific genre…with all the t’s crossed an i’s dotted and more than anything else: they got into the system…past all the gate keepers.

    Had nothing to do with luck or coincidence or being in the right place at the right time.

    They really knew somebody.

    You want to spend up to a year; 2 years on writing the same script? Go right ahead.
    I’ll keep writing different scripts in different genres for different budgets and keep shooting my own low budget digital work. I’ll push myself even more on the business-networking side of all this…INCLUDING submitting to foreign prodcos, because the audiences are changing…are global…and are digital.

    Because…when it’s all said and done — it’s about the work. You write no matter what. Over and over.
    Because for me, I don’t have the luxury of knowing anyone on the inside.
    No easy ride. No gravy train. No luck. No coincidence.
    Wouldn’t have it any other way.

    At this point. For now.

    • 11B (Recon Scout Infantry) 25th ID – Operation Desert Storm, 68W 4th ID, 92Y 1st CAV – Operation Iraqi Freedom. ARMY STRONG!!

  • “Make no doubt that famous and powerful fans have bolstered my ‘star-meter.’”

    I stopped reading right there ;-) Okay, I would’ve liked to have stopped there.

  • Thanks for the debate. Lots of good POVs. I know I’m a month late but after reading I’d like to share my opinions. There’s no right way to sell a script or get noticed. The only proven way to improve one’s writing objectively is by doing just that, writing, a lot.

    Now there are plenty of people who’ve gone through film school and sold a spec or have went on to get writing assignments for both film and tv. Then again there are plenty of others never to have stepped foot in a film program classroom who have done exactly the same. Reading scripts and watching movies won’t necessarily make you a better writer but it can teach you what has worked and not worked for other writers. Go on IMSDB. Upload any produced script listed and read the first 10 or so pages. What you’ll read is an industry “professional” script. Go on SimplyScripts and upload any one of the unproduced scripts submitted by an unknown writer, read 10 or so pages, if you can make it that far, and what you will often read is an “amateur” script. That is what I think anyone with eyes can take away from that option. The more you read, the more you’ll learn what worked and didn’t work.

    In terms of Social Media and its influence on films sales, it definitely has provided another option to get noticed. I personally know of someone who has met with development execs at ABC and NBC from a blog he writes. I’ve been acquainted with him for some time and coming from the midwest I will be the first to tell you he didn’t know anyone when he first arrived here. He took the time and effort to get to know others, be friendly, polite, work hard, write and network to help get some of these opportunities.

    It is a HUGE bonus if you know someone in the industry. If it’s family, then even better. Truth of the matter is it’s a close knit business and you really do have to pay your dues. So many writers, actors, directors become resentful and bitter because they want their work to be noticed. It’s not that they’re not as good or don’t work as hard it’s that the business itself can only function as the machine it is realistically with a certain number of successful individuals. Careers in show business are rare. A long career in show business even more rare. Some of the people in this business are the best in the world at what they do. That’s why they’re there and make the $$$ they do. If anyone is unhappy because of the Hollywood reality then it’s better to realize the business is not for you. You’ll be a lot happier by moving on to something that doesn’t drive you to such fury.

    I personally am very thankful to have all the different options available to me as a writer to gain a hand on the Hollywood door. There are many different avenues to get noticed you just have to have the right attitude to accompany the journey. Then again, if you write a great script, a fucking amazing script, and have the courage to put it out there again and again despite some initial rejection? Some one will notice it, and you.