8 Things I Did To Land My First PAID Screenwriting Gig

8 Things I Did To Land My First PAID Screenwriting Gig

8 Things I Did To Land My First PAID Screenwriting Gig

Phil Parker
Phil Parker
8 months ago

We’ve all read those “14,962 Things You Should Do to Become a Successful Screenwriter” lists before, right? Well, halfway through this article, I will give you a slightly different kind of list. It’s a revolutionary, paint-by-numbers guide to how you can become a paid screenwriter, just like me...

THUNK! Phil falls off his chair. Rolls on the floor. His face stretched. Tears on his cheeks, laughing – or is he crying?

Sorry… I’m ok. (wipes his face/ retakes his seat) Where was I? Oh yes, the list. If I told you the real-life version of my career so far, the path I’ve taken, it would look less like a how-to guide and more like a demonically possessed 3-year-old had doodled on the page with a crayon.

And that’s why I’m here. I want to save you time and heartache by giving you a different kind of list. A list of things that I’ve actually tried and that worked.

But first, let me briefly tell you how I really f****ed things up.

When I was in my 20s and had some support from my family, I did what many in Hollywood suggest you do if you can – I moved to LA. I was so pumped about it, too, because I’d been accepted into the USC Grad program for film! I literally drove into LA with a giant smile, a joint between my lips, and LA WOMAN blaring from the speakers of my ratty Ford Tempo. I kid you not. After all, it was the 90s; the spec-script bubble in Hollywood hadn’t popped yet. Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black were gods, and I was determined to get me some of that action!

Christ, I was naïve.

My first year in LA actually looked like this –

  • My car was broken into twice.
  • I saw a guy get shot on the Venice boardwalk.
  • My neighbor was arrested for assaulting me.
  • A drug addict jumped in front of my car while I was driving.
  • My ex-girlfriend broke into my apartment.
  • I was forced to go to AA for being 1/1000th over the drunk-driving limit.

10 Things I Did To Land My First PAID Screenwriting Gig

It was like a season of Californication, minus the success. Admittedly, like Hank Moody, I was also my own worst enemy. While I was at USC, I partied too much in between one exhausting assignment after another. What I should’ve been doing is asking those who knew more than me – how do I make it as a writer in Hollywood? Instead, by the end of my USC days, despite my student film being in some festivals and my screenplay being a Nicholl’s semi-finalist, I was just an over-educated, under-employed, thirty-something schmuck. Yay me!

Being fresh out of college, young(ish) and dumb, and with no mentor (or clue of my own), I didn’t know how to climb the invisible ladder that is the feature-screenwriter’s career path in Hollywood. The internet was useless; it had just been born and was full of porn, not sites like Stage 32. I briefly joined a cult (an MLM, really) to try and pay the bills while I wrote, but you can guess how that went. So, eventually, I fled LA as if a flaming comet had been shoved down my jockstrap.

Despite all that craziness, my initial instincts had been right – I need to always put myself in a place where good things can happen, career-wise. One day LA may be that place for me again (God help me), but until then, it’s up to me to make things happen outside of LA, waaay outside, a.k.a. Australia.

What Are 8 Things That I Have Done Right That You Could Do, Too?

1. I TOOK AN ACTING CLASS

Not only did this help me come out of my shell a bit, but it got me around other creative people doing other creative things. I met a graphic artist who worked for some cable channels in Sydney. She heard I liked script writing and editing and suggested I try promo producing (I was unemployed at the time).

2. I GOT A JOB IN THE INDUSTRY

Some say this doesn’t matter. You can be a waiter/ waitress by day and a writer by night. Sure, but to hell with that. By becoming a creative producer, I got to hone my storytelling chops by focusing on what made programs worth watching and then figuring out how to pitch that to an audience through a promo.

3. I LET MY AMBITION BE KNOWN AT WORK

My colleagues and my boss knew I wanted to write screenplays. I was working on one morning and night. So when opportunities came up to write longer-form videos and pitch a new infotainment series, I was taken seriously – and I got the gigs! This eventually gave me my first produced, non-promo work to show others. That’s a significant advantage over just being a screenwriter with words on a page.

4. I TRIED TO WIN AWARDS

Like I said, I worked day and night on my script. When I had to hoof it 1.5km from my parked car to the office, I would edit pages as I walked. My arms ached with RSI and tendonitis, but it paid off. I won all kinds of awards and placements in contests. Hollywood peeps will tell you that only a handful of contests matter, but at work, they didn’t know that. Every success I had raised my stature a bit more and gave me opportunities I might not have had otherwise. So yeah, enter the 2nd and 3rd tier contests if you think it’ll help you, I say.

5. I FORMED A WRITING GROUP AND MENTORED OTHERS AT WORK

Like winning awards, this helped to raise my profile. Plus, we all learned something from one another and had fun.

6. I TOOK MORE CLASSES IN SCREENWRITING

You need to keep your skills sharp. Writing and reading every day are critical, but they’re also solitary pursuits. Finding a great teacher and surrounding myself with people jazzed about screenwriting was one of the most inspiring and important things I’ve ever done. It helped me get my spec script polished and finished and motivated me to start pitching.

7. I JOINED STAGE 32

What a great platform for pitching to industry peeps! Unfortunately, my spec script was a hard sell, genre-wise, so while I got lots of script requests through Happy Writers and made a great contact for the future, it never went any further. However, I refused to give up, and by being active in the lounges and connecting with members online, I found a BAFTA-winning producer who loves my script!

8. I JOINED A SCREENWRITING MEETUP

You can start one right here on Stage 32. We critique a film or each other’s 5 pages every two weeks. My active participation and my dedication to the craft got me noticed by our group leader, so when someone came to him looking to hire a screenwriter, he recommended me – and I got the job! That got me noticed by another producer in another country, and I eventually got that gig, too. Now, all that experience is gaining momentum and has made me attractive to an American producer (with juice) who may hire me, too.

Holy Flying Snowballs, Batman!

So that’s it. That’s how I got my first paid screenwriting gig - one action, one lucky break, one ounce of perseverance after another. Don’t get me wrong, it took years, and I haven’t “made it” by any means. Fark no! I’m still on Struggle Street! But opportunities are slowly coming my way now because of the groundwork I’ve put in. For some, it can happen fast; for others, it could take years, but as they say – if you give up, you have a 100% chance of failure.

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About the Author

Phil Parker

Phil Parker

Screenwriter

Phil Parker is an American/Aussie screenwriter in Sydney, Australia, who writes for producers and directors around the world. His assignments include CATSAWAY (bought by Image Nation), FLY GIRLS (BAFTA-winning producer attached and out to market), and FORTE (scored six-figure funding based on first...

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