How do you break in as a screenwriter? Find out from the people who can actually help.
There is no one way to break into the industry as a screenwriter. In fact, every screenwriter's story will be different, and most writers will have written and worked in a variety of different capacities in film and television before technically "breaking in".
That said, emerging screenwriters can take advantage of screenwriting fellowships, labs and competitions to get their work noticed and open up doors within the industry. Of course, thousands of writers submit scripts to fellowships, labs and competitions every year, and only a handful are selected.
So how do you stand out from the crowd to launch your screenwriting career? To answer this very question, Austin Film Festival in partnership with the Academy Education and Nicholl Fellowships Program held a series of panels in March 2016 in Los Angeles with a variety of gatekeepers and industry executives, including:
- Matt Dy, Director, Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition
- Greg Beal, Director, Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting
- Ilyse McKimmie, Labs Director, Sundance Institute Feature Film Program
- Angela C. Lee, Artist Development Manager, Film Independent
- Karen Kirkland, Vice President of Talent Development and Outreach, Nickelodeon
- Rebecca Windsor, Manager, Warner Bros. Television Workshop
- Amy Berg, Writer-Producer for Film and Television
- Barry Josephson, Producer, President, Josephson Entertainment
"Write the story that you are uniquely qualified to tell that is going to be the vessel for your unique perspective, for your vision, for your personal voice."
Check out the full podcast below. If you don't have time to listen now, I've pulled out key insights from each of the panel participants below the podcast.
Think about opportunities beyond film and television
Austin Film Festival's screenplay competition received 8,627 submissions in 2015, but they still want to make the submission process personal for every writer like they have since the beginning of the competition. AFF gives notes to each writer on their scripts for free, regardless of where they place. Matt Dy also acknowledges, “We now accept…digital series scripts, which is something that's really on the verge right now. I really encourage everybody to write one and submit one. That's a category that you have a good chance of advancing and perhaps winning.”
Break in without ever selling your spec script
If you're not writing a script you plan to direct, you're most likely writing a script to get you a job...writing a different script. Greg Beal of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships explains, "More often than not, scripts don’t sell. What [agents] hope to do is get [the writer] a job. That's how people break in far more often than selling spec scripts or even optioning a script. They break in on an assignment, but the assignment was generated by a spec."
Write the story that only you know how to tell
If your focus is writing a screenplay that you plan to direct that has an independent spirit and can be made for under $2 million, the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program Labs are likely a good fit for you. Ilyse McKimmie describes the mission of the labs: "Our mandate is discovery, so we're looking to discover authentic voices, to support people telling stories that we haven't necessarily seen told before on screen or seen told in this specific way. I think it's particularly appealing to us if a project feels like it has an urgency associated with it, there's a reason this is going to feel particularly resonant in contemporary culture." McKimmie also has some keen advice for emerging screenwriters: "Write the story that you are uniquely qualified to tell that is going to be the vessel for your unique perspective, for your vision, for your personal voice."
Get rejected, then show how you've grown as a writer since being rejected
As her job title as Artist Development Manager suggests, Angela C. Lee takes a longer view on how Film Independent can cultivate and develop the career of a filmmaker: "We...recognize one needs mentorship at many points of [one's] professional career, so that's something that's distinctive to what we do. We try to continue helping the filmmakers we support beyond their time at the lab." When it comes to applying to the Film Independent Labs, Lee offers, "For your applications, just keep things as concise as possible.... As someone who has been rejected by all the programs before I've gotten into them, rejection is part of it. And for our programs, we encourage you to reapply, and when you do,...let us know the changes that you've made from the last time so we know the growth of your work as a filmmaker and [at] the project level. That makes a big difference."
Shift your focus to discover new screenwriting opportunities
Karen Kirkland thinks many emerging writers make the mistake of dismissing the Nickelodeon Writing Program without giving it the proper consideration: "A lot of writers don't apply because they don't necessarily want to write for children's television.... Shift your mindset a little bit and think of the writing program as an opportunity, a foot in the door, a springboard into your career...." Kirkland notes that several writers who entered the Nickelodeon Writing Program and never thought they would write for children's television have ended up being staffed on Nickelodeon shows and creating series for the network. Kirkland also points out that Nickelodeon is part of Viacom, home of Paramount, MTV, Comedy Central, and several more networks, so writers should also think about the bigger picture with this opportunity.
With so much energy put toward trying to break into the industry, screenwriters may lose sight of what they are really trying to do—write great stories. Kirkland offers this advice to all of her writers: "Forget about the goal and focus on the process."
Be sure to listen to the full podcast for more advice and insights. You can subscribe to the Austin Film Festival On Story podcast on iTunes or find the show on Stitcher.