Friday, August 1, 2008

Career #1: Hollywood Screenwriter

Welcome to the first entry of career month, and what better career to start with than the one I’ve still clearly got my heart set on: screenwriting.

Where to begin: Many aspiring screenwriters hope to make their start by writing a brilliant screenplay, and then dashing off to Hollywood with, it hoping that someone will buy it, and praying that maybe they can even stay attached as the director. And believe it or not, this actually happens, though it is more the exception than the rule.

One example of this is Troy Duffy, who signed The Boondock Saints to Miramax for $300K and a budget of $15M. Unfortunately, the sort of ego it takes to push your way into a deal like that is the sort of ego that proceeded to ruin it all for Duffy, having him make countless remarks about being Hollywood’s new hard-on, taking over the world, bad-mouthing celebrity after celebrity and just generally being a homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist cunt. Or to put it less crudely, it is an example of ego exceeding talent.

Most screenwriters face rejection after rejection, as there are very few film optioned per year, and even fewer actually made. Fewer still are the newcomers, as many films produced by the major companies are sequels and franchise films. The major studios get tens of thousands of screenplays a year. You know how many they actually make? Not nearly as many.

To give you some numbers, in 2007, Paramount Pictures made 11 films, of which 6 were remakes, 3 were franchise films, and 2 were original films. For the record, those two originals were Hot Rod and Bee Movie. In 2007, Universal Studios released 19 films, of which 7 were based on books or true stories, 4 were part of a franchise, and 8 were original screenplays.

In other words, statistically, your chances of being “discovered,” and your screenplay being picked up are about 1 in 20,000. Granted, that’s a lot better than your odds at winning the lottery jackpot, but it’s also considerably more work.

For television, similarly, many, many shows get pitched, significantly fewer are made into pilots, and fewer still make it into their first season. And fewer still into their second.

So what does this tell us? Well, it actually tells us two things. First, you have to be extremely lucky and talented to ever get your own TV show or film produced. But second, these production companies need people to screen all those screenplays. They need script readers. If you like writing scripts, you probably also like reading them, so this sounds like a fun way into the biz.

So, what exactly does a script reader do? Well, essentially you read screenplays and then you write what is colloquially known in the industry as coverage, which is essentially a short summary of the film’s plot, as well as a treatise to its marketability and potential demographic. Most importantly, the coverage is the short-cut to producers (or actors, or directors – the high-demand celebs hire script readers too, not just major production companies), telling them whether they should pass on it, that they might consider it if changes were made, or if you would actually recommend the script.

Some say that becoming a script reader is a terrible idea if you wish to make it as a writer, as the work is fairly draining. However, it is an invaluable insider’s look at how to get your work out there, (or why it will never get out there), and it can also make you invaluable contacts in the industry. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it certainly seems well worth doing, particularly when the alternative is an unpaid internship, which is illegal anyway, unless you’re getting a college credit, which I certainly won’t be.

How much does a script reader make? Script readers will typically make $40-$80 per script.

So, how does one become a script reader? Well, obvious as it sounds, you start by reading scripts. One very good online resource for this is a link my dear old Scriptwriting Professor gave me: Drew’s Script-O-Rama. Read a few of those, (make sure they’re the “scripts” and not the “transcripts”), and then write mock coverage for them. You’ll want to follow the proper format, so you may want to poke around online for some coverage samples. This should work quite well as a portfolio to show potential employers that you know what you’re doing.

If you’re fortunate enough to get script reading work for a large production company, you’ll get an insider’s look at which producers like to make what, and what to pitch to whom. You’ll have an added advantage over many of the other would-be screenwriters. You know the producers, and if they come to value your coverage on other screenplays, it’ll give you more pull when it comes to pitching your own.

At the same time, you’ll want to keep tabs with the script dept. to see if you can get hired on as a staff writer. This is a significant step up in your career, and for this you’re going to need to prove that you can write, which again, will require samples. Again, the best way to write good samples, is to read good samples, and perhaps read a few how-to books on screenwriting. For television, your script samples will be speculative scripts, which are essentially sample episodes of existing shows. Pick a show you’re really familiar with, preferably a TV show you adore, and write the script adhering to the rules of the show.

How much does a staff writer get paid? Well, staff writers rates are governed by the Writers Guild of America, in their schedule of minimums. This year, the minimums are $58.477 for an original screenplay and treatment, $21,585 for one half hour episode of television, and $31,748 for a full hour episode, just to give you some examples. Bear in mind that these are minimums, and that writers of primetime television shows will make significantly more. Also, you would have to join the guild.

If you make it this far, congratulations. You’ve just made your career. You may never attain fame, but you now have a lucrative career that you enjoy. If all goes really well for you, and after years of proving yourself as a rock steady staff writer, you may graduate to the status of script doctor. The word “doctor” here is right, because the really lucrative script doctors can make in a week what many conventional doctors make in a year, as much as $200K for perhaps 2 or 3 weeks of work. It’s like a doctor’s salary on speed.

There. Sounds easy, right? Well, wait a minute. Before you buy your plane ticket to L.A., you also need to be American citizen. If, like me, you aren’t, you need to apply for a work visa. This article is long enough though, so I’ll give applying for a work visa its own section.

Suggested Reading:

Hollywood 101: The Film Industry by Frederick Levy

Screenplay Story Analysis by Asher Garfinkel

Reading for a Living by Terri Katahn

500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Script Reader by Jennifer Lerch

How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King

How To Write For Television by Madeline Dimaggio


Inkpot said...

Thanks for this really concise and informative low down on what it takes to become a Hollywood Scriptwriter. Do you have to go to Hollywood though? How about Vancouver? Is that just where they make the shows rather than write them? Anyway, must look into getting a visa. Thanks Mal. :D

nosebleed insurance said...

Canadian doctor! The sky's the limit here where you can charge whatever the hell you want.