Around this time last year, I published the blog “A Plan to Succeed in Screenwriting in 2020”. I wanted to revisit this with all I have learned in the previous twelve months. Therefore, this is the same document redrafted with some new reflections. 2020 has been a strange year to say the least and its impact on the film industry so significant it will most likely be changed forever as a result. Let’s dive in — CJ
2020 has been a frustrating year for me, to say the least, but I’m hardly alone in that regard and relatively well off. Just when things got going and I had a film greenlit and ready to shoot in early summer, lockdown hit and we had to cancel indefinitely since we had a story featuring an elderly character. With the short-term future looking bleak, Shane Stanley and I fought like crazy for months to make something happen and thankfully a chance meeting in late-Sept led to a rapid development process and the production of our new action-comedy Double Threat which has now been shot. This also overlapped the release of Break Even in North America, our previous collaboration in film and my first released feature film as a screenwriter. During this time, I have expanded my role from writer to writer-producer and thus gained a tremendous amount of new insight as a result. Meanwhile, Script Revolution has continued to go from strength to strength with a multitude of partnerships forming, high-profile exposure, and regular webinar sessions with myself and Shane. Still, it’s been like running through mud compared to normal and I’ve watched entire organisations collapse as a result of all this turmoil. If 2020 feels like a year in your life you’ve had to write off, I don’t blame you.
So, let’s talk about putting a strategy together for the coming year, a strategy that should maximise your chances of breaking into the industry while maintaining a motivated mindset.
It’s Okay To Be Exhausted & Demotivated
The COVID pandemic has hit everyone hard and I don’t think we’re really going to take-in what a harrowing event we’ve been through in human history until we are on the other side. If there’s one constant I’ve seen throughout the writing community it’s that, while many have more time than ever to write, they simply can’t. Do not beat yourself up if your imagination is stalling out and you cannot get anything done. The subconscious worry about an on-going plague is a damn good reason to lack creativity and inspiration.
I usually advise hitting the brakes, reflecting, and recharging at the start of the year anyway but more-so than ever in 2021. There’s a reasonable chance we have at least another six months of getting through the worst part of this and you need to adjust your expectations for the year accordingly. There’s absolutely no shame in deciding that you cannot face the ongoing marathon of trying to break-in until this has all finally blown over.
The industry has faltered too. Don’t let any script consultant or guru tell you otherwise. I’ve seen so much miss-information spread by people claiming to be busier than ever. Yes, there have been opportunities, different opportunities, but the world of film is suffering from a horrific blow to its economics. Fewer movies are getting made, theatres are closing indefinitely, and entire departments of staff are being laid-off. There’s tricky enough waters to negotiate for highly experienced industry members never mind aspiring screenwriters trying to start careers.
Usually, I would advise reflecting on your screenwriting goals by winding right back and considering if this really is your big dream. However, with so much confusion and uncertainty out there right now, this doesn’t feel like the right time to be asking ourselves these questions. You may also be facing the screenwriting career mountain for the first time ever right now as maybe you’ve had your life shaken up by what’s going on and decided to try and break into film. If so, good for you, these kind of life events can really help us discover our dreams but know that breaking in is incredibly tough at the best of times and you’ve decided to enter during a very strange phase.
This is however a great time to read, watch, and reflect, an essential part of staying motivated as an artist which is often ignored. I still strongly recommend reading; Writing for Emotional Impact, Art & Fear, and Tales from the Script. These are three of the most powerful books I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot) that cover craft, artistry, and business. These are the three pillars we always need to building; how to be better storytellers, how to produce meaningful art, and how to find work that pays the bills. I also now recommend reading What You Don’t Learn In Film School and Adventures in the B Movie Trade to get some insight into the realities of the indie film world and what it takes to maintain a career within it.
Go rewatch some of your favourite films, assuming you know what they are. If you don’t, make a list. Do them justice and create the best viewing experience you can muster with no distractions. Turn those lights off. Wear some headphones. Do what you can to try to create a movie theatre experience in your own home. While reflecting what you’ve watched, look for patterns that may exist such as genre, tone, content, and influence. Where does your own writing fit among this? How about your aspirations? There should be some alignment between the art you enjoy consuming and the art you are driven to create.
Check out the original reviews for those films you love. Are they universally admired? Are they polarised? Where they hated when released? What was the box office performance like? Did they sellout from day one or did they go by unnoticed only to find cult status in time? It’s important you see that the films you love may be disliked by others. You need to understand the same can happen with your writing, especially if it’s polarising.
Seek out what you can on the making of these films and look up material that analyses them. You may be surprised by the struggles the filmmakers went through from concept to theatrical performance. You need to be prepared to go through the same struggles, the most prominent of which will be facing doubt from others at every level.
Now watch a recent release. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Just take in what the industry is currently delivering, how a modern movie feels, and how have things changed. Could your old favourites compete in today’s theatrical marketplace or would they go straight to video-on-demand? Do their stories and characters still resound or are they no longer high concept enough?
Create two logs if you don’t have them already; one which lists all your successes, never mind how minor, and one logging any positive comments you have received for your work. You are going to keep these logs updated and close to you and, when you feel like you’ve achieved nothing, these will be on file ready to remind you that you are progressing. Here’s how my achievements log has grown over time;
2012 — 38 words
2013 — 56 words
2014 — 259 words
2015 — 785 words
2016 — 26 words
2017 — 46 words
2018 — 201 words
2019 — 438 words
2020 — 1016 words
Note the crash in 2016. We all have good years and bad years.
On the topic of logs, make sure to photograph any written by hand to keep them safe. If you’re taking them digitally, make sure you have an easy to use, reliable system that preferably syncs between your devices.
In fact, now’s a good time to review your whole software strategy from what you are using to write to how you are backing up your data and see if it’s the best and most cost effective solution for your needs. Don’t default to using Final Draft simply because people say you should. When it comes to backing up data, cloud based storage is now incredibly cheap. No excuses.
You may have taken a thousand walks in the last six months already but, next time you do, ask yourself what makes your voice special, what weaknesses do you need to tackle.
If you’ve been trying to break-in for some time, it’s likely your head has become muddled with conflicting advice and critical feedback. That can generate a lot of fear. Fear is your enemy. It’s time for you to clear your mind and make the choice to no longer live in fear of rejection.
Personal story; I’m a b-movie junkie and a product of the 90’s backlot rebel movement. The films I’ve always loved are quirky, hard-hitting, and controversial with very mixed reviews. The nature of the business has changed a lot in the decades since many of my favourite films were made and they would struggle to get funding and theatrical releases in this day and age. I had two choices; compromise my values to become more commercial or stick with what I love and accept that things are going to be tougher. I chose the latter, nailed my colours to the mast, and stopped looking for approval. Not only did my writing become better for it, the industry opened up to me more because it became clear where I best fit. Now I’m writing and producing the kind of gritty films I love to watch.
Find Your Tribe
Something you can always be doing is building your network… and pruning it. The latter point is important. It’s just as important to cut out relationships with toxic people as it is forming new ones with powerful ones. You need to separate the wheat from the chaff and shake off what’s holding you back. This may be harder than ever during a time you’re trapped at home but, trust me, your life will be better as a result.
Cut ties with intrusions, unsubscribe from email subscriptions that bother you, and leave communities that make you feel bad about yourself. I generally advise staying away from forums in general as they are often full of trolls and bad advice. Walk away from companies trying to convince you you’re missing out while they hound you for money.
LinkedIn is by far the most exciting platform I’m seeing grow in popularity right now with huge amounts of positive interactions but also look at Stage 32 which is more film orientated. My own site Script Revolution is also growing a tight wholesome community you are welcome to become a part of. Most people in the industry are more than happy to build connections. Just reach out.
The tribe you build will grow into your support group in time. These are the people who will champion you and cheer you on when you need it and you can do the same for them. You must however do your due diligence. Identify working professionals who share their real world experiences and advice. You are one search on IMDb away from checking someone’s credentials so there’s no excuse. This is a world rife with imposters, bullshitters, and hucksters surrounded by bitter and deluded amateurs. There are people who want you to believe the sky isn’t blue because it benefits them in some way. You absolutely must know this because it’s what I see kill most people’s chances.
Search out your heroes and dare to connect with them. A-listers aren’t likely to be within reach but there‘s countless others who helped make your favourite films happen out there. You may be surprised who you link hands with and will help you realise you can be part of this world.
Film events are in a state of turmoil with 2021 looking uncertain in terms of their physicality. It’s important that you see people in person but you have to be realistic. Look at the events scheduled for later in the year and pencil them in providing you can afford the time and the travel costs. Focus particularly on the social meet-ups as this is where you’ll do your best networking — providing you’re clearly there to bond with people rather than make a hard sell.
Most importantly of all, diversify the tribe you build beyond other screenwriters, particularly those at your level. Broaden your horizons by building links with filmmakers working in all roles, particularly producers and particularly people one step higher up the mountain.
Personal story; I used to hang out on a lot of screenwriting forums and never realised at the time how destructive a lot of the advice was. I made the mistake of trusting people on face value too often and went in directions that sent me backward. Reading books on movie making didn’t just help me see how wrong many are in their approach , it made networking in person much better too as movie history tends to come up a lot in conversation. I’ve had to cut a lot of people out of my circle over the years and, while that’s been tough to do, it’s left me with a tight circle of friends who constantly inspire and humble me.
Review Your Presence
You need to appreciate that you effectively have two key things you’re marketing as a screenwriter; yourself as a creative and your portfolio of spec scripts. However, you must know, and this is a tough pill to swallow, that spec scripts rarely sell in today’s marketplace. Modern screenwriting careers are built on getting regular assignments with spec scripts acting more like writing samples than anything else. Yes, Shane Black did effectively walk into CAA on a recommendation and walk out a few months later with a seven figure cheque and yes, Joe Eszterhas did scratch some notes on a napkin and sell the idea for millions but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. You need to position yourself as someone willing to turn other people’s ideas into screenplays and in it for the long-term because that’s likely going to be your bread and butter.
I’ve spoken about the importance of presenting yourself as an artist with a strong voice before and this is an ideal opportunity to review how you‘re projecting your offering. Does it represent you accurately? Is it appealing to those you’d like to work with? Look at everything from your bio (you do have a bio, right?) to your profile pic. Run your name through Google to see where and how you are appearing and try to keep it all in sync.
Now for a tougher question; does your portfolio truly represent you? Does it contain your best work? Does it represent your voice? Is it concise? Is it all free of typos and grammatical errors? Are you losing people before they’ve even gotten to page one?
2020 has seen the rise of the synopsis. Prodcos don’t have time to triage entire screenplays. If you don’t have a synopsis for each of your scripts, you are holding your marketing efforts back significantly.
Also know that you‘re always welcome to join Script Revolution and add your bio and portfolio for free. It’s a site I created for this very purpose.
Personal story; Perhaps it’s because I come from a marketing background but I was very quick to get my scripts online and easy to read back when most screenwriters kept themselves and their material locked away. This paid off for me in 2018 when a well established producer was reading a popular blog of mine. He liked what I had to say, read more of my articles, and wanted to check out my scripts. A few clicks later, he was on my website reading my features and this led to me getting my first Hollywood feature assignment. Two years later, I have a feature film released in North America and I’m both a writer and a producer on our latest project together.
Plan What You Can
If the Covid pandemic has proven anything it’s that you cannot predict what the year will bring or how you are going to feel during any period of it so try to hold back from setting out an overly rigorous writing routine. Instead, focus more on how you can best facilitate your ability to write in the moment. That means making the act of writing as easy and enjoyable as possible. Do not conflate making work hard and making work worthwhile. Artists need to be comfortable and empowered to perform at their best.
Your tools and your workspace should be a priority as these are extensions of yourself, no different to a musician’s instruments or painter’s studio. You need to be using screenwriting software that really enables you to write within a space that has the right vibe. Don’t get too precious about it but address issues such as having software you find clumsy, an operating system that crashes, or a workspace that’s full of distractions.
List the scripts you absolutely have to write in your lifetime. The ones that really stick with you and mean something. Is it the right time to tackle any of these? There’s nothing wrong with concluding now isn’t the right time but making that decision is important because you need to shed any guilt you have about not writing them just yet.
Based on the weaknesses you’ve identified (we all have them), make a list of craft related techniques you would like to trial. This could be anything from writing better prose and dialogue to getting your head round scene and story structure.
We could be facing further lockdowns that give us a lot more free time and it’s important not to let it become a huge depressing vacuum of demotivated and unstructured monotony. List what you really feel like doing. Now list what you feel you should be doing. Can you merge these two together? Do you need to make sacrifices? This is harder to do than it seems so take your time and be honest with yourself.
Establish where you are on your journey and be realistic about it. It can take a long time to break in, a lifetime in some cases, so don’t feel negative about your situation. Now establish where you want to be in three years and be realistic about that. How do you connect the dots? If you don’t know, the first step is to try to find out.
Personal story; When I came to write my second feature assignment, I knew my biggest weakness at the time was writing conclusive final images. To address this, I sat down, fired up Netflix, and watched through dozens of great films to study how they wrapped things up in those final moments. After copious notes and analysis, I was able approach the final scene in my new project with a new found strength which resulted in me writing some great closing pages. The key was making something that would take some time and thought a fun, indulgent process with a clear goal.
Broadcast Your Wares
With a better idea of your offering, you can identify and target your corner of the market. This is laborious and certainly not something you can do overnight. It can take years to zone in on where you need to be and find the people you need to be working with. Therefore, this is an ongoing task you need to begin early and can start by simply watching the kind of films you love and taking note of who’s making them happen. The good news for you is, with so much of the industry shutdown, many industry members are receptive to new contacts reaching out to them.
Once you have an idea of who you want to reach out to, and this again is an ongoing activity, it’s time to start swallowing frogs. It can be really hard to make contact with a filmmaker but you need to get on people’s radar. It’s time to reach out. How formally or informally you do this is up to you but don’t ever send scripts without first asking if someone wants to read them and don’t spam every contact you can find with a generic message. Be selective, professional, and considerate.
Consider that industry members, particularly those in the earlier stages of their career, often search the internet for new material. There are a few sites you can upload your material to for free. These include; Script Revolution, Simply Scripts, Stage 32, Reddit, and the ISA.
Keep in mind that blogging is a powerful way to talk to a wide audience. You are a story writer so you have the upper hand here, not just in terms of being able to string together some prose but also in terms of tapping into deep thoughts and expressing them with an emotional edge. Blogging is where you can go to broadcast who you are and encompass a wide spectrum of your views from your motivations behind writing, to views on the craft, to feelings about the industry. Plus, you can of course send the elevator back down to share your reflections on your experiences and advice for others facing your earlier hurdles.
Ultimately, you need to break out of the comfortable little bubble a lot of amateur screenwriters live in where they constantly beg for feedback, enter competitions, buy evaluations, and pay for consultancy. A lot of it is designed to trap you within it and extract as much money as possible while you hope to get the validation you crave and a boost up the system. Spoiler alert: there is no system and they are mostly just emptying your pockets because they themselves can’t make a career out of writing.
Personal story; My perspective on the industry as a working writer-producer and founder of a script discovery platform is a unique and enlightened one. Every successful writer I’ve spoken to has told me they owe that success to networking above all else. How you network is up to you but two things that work well for me are; being a superconductor (helping connect people who should be talking) and reaching out to offer a favour rather than asking for one. The critical thing is to stop sitting around waiting to be discovered.
Indulge in Your Passion
As mentioned earlier, with everything so chaotic, do not try to plan your year out too specifically. You don’t want to turn your passion into a chore but then you don’t want to get lazy either. The best way to stay motivated is to indulge in what you enjoy. You want to stick at this, right? So you understand it needs to be enjoyable to make that happen? You need to have fun learning and allow your curiosity to explore and make exciting discoveries.
The more fun you have writing, the more fun will make it onto the page. Fun is entertaining and entertainment is what you are trying to create. Even if you are writing the most hard-hitting and tragic material your mind can manifest, you still need to be going into that with an intense passion and positive intent.
Self inflicted misery is just going to hold you back, especially within a world that’s going through so much pain. Drop the mindset that good results only come from doing tough work. You’re not at school anymore. There’s no teacher to try and impress with your exhaustion and word-count. You’re an artist not a worker-bee and artists create by playing with what’s around them.
Your biggest enemy is procrastination so try to reduce that and get into the writing by breaking it all down into chunks. Balance your expectations and tell yourself to work on your latest project for thirty minutes and see where it leads. If you feel worse after thirty minutes, walk away and recharge or try something else. If you find yourself engrossed and lose track of the time, run with it until you feel your mind is tiring out.
There’s also nothing wrong with structuring your day to achieve a healthy work/life balance. If you want to finish by 6pm so you can nurture other areas of your life, permit yourself to do that without any guilt. Cabin fever is a very real problem for many right now so you may have to remind yourself to change up your routine and take trips outside.
The critical thing is that, when you write, you write without fear or obligation. Save your doubts and criticisms for the downtime and reflective periods. Write while feeling reassured that you are the best writer you’ll ever be right now giving yourself all the opportunities you can offer right now.
If you only write one short script in 2021, that’s not failure providing you write with absolute passion and come out of the other side feeling proud and fulfilled in your artistry. Writing six features that feel like a slog, lack any energy, and don’t represent you is not the goal and has little worth.
So avoid turning your dreams of breaking in into an unpaid office job from hell where you are your own nightmare boss and write while knowing that every keystroke is progress and an investment in your future.
Personal story; I grew up as a huge Tarantino fan and was surprised to enter screenwriter communities only to hear cries of “you’re not freaking Tarantino!” from various self-proclaimed gurus and consultants. The advice was clear; do not dare write like this highly successful writer-director or people will hate and blacklist you. That hit me hard and killed my motivation as I found myself second-guessing where my inspiration stemmed from. However, the more I studied the life of this artist I admired, the more I realised how much he had swam against the tide before breaking in. This caused me to actually double-down on following the path of my influencers with a similar attitude and it was then that things really started to happen for me.
It’s essential that you love and nurture yourself along this mammoth journey, especially through these trying times. Completing the first draft of a script can often be a significant task taking weeks or even months to achieve while working on it full time. This is a lot to put ourselves through emotionally and it’s important we have something to look forward to once we cross the finish line. While writing can mostly be all the reward we need, it’s still nice to acknowledge that we’ve completed something we set out to do.
Plan out a bunch of rewards. It doesn’t matter how small they are as it’s the principal behind them that really matters. Usually, I’d suggest things outside of normal activity and thus relatively special but many of these are impossible or risky right now, especially around other people. While going out for a meal or taking a trip out to the cinema isn’t a possibility for many, it may be better to treat yourself to gifts that spice up your time at home.
Personal story; I’m a hermit and a minimalist who finds little satisfaction in materialist things and will often deny myself pleasure if left to my own devices. 2020 really kicked my ass and pushed me to my limits in terms of living without a social life, especially as winter drew in. To make matters worse, the wins that I’ve had have been tainted in some way, mainly by the fact I’ve been unable to travel out to be on set and be there with my team. Through this, I’ve rediscovered some simple and affordable pleasures from playing computer games (VR games in particular) to colouring books.
The key to success in 2021 is going to be about weathering the storm more than anything else and then trying to catch the surge of enthusiasm and determination on the other side and everyone jumps back and tries to make things happen.
Keeping going isn’t necessarily about working harder or even working smarter, both of those benefits will come as a bi-product of throwing the concept of work out the window and replacing it with absolute creative indulgence that’s driven by passion and empowered by freedom.
Now is the time to master all that is digital in terms of networking marketing. Now is the time to consume like crazy from the comfort of our homes, be it the films we want to see or the craft advice we want to learn.
Here’s the deal; things are going to suddenly turnaround fast when Covid is behind us and the entire industry is going to be shaken up as a result. This will be the time for disruption and change. This will be the time to standout and get noticed.
Making this coming year the one you rediscover yourself as an artist, get your digital assets in order, and prepare for a new chapter in film history.