How To Make Money in Screenwriting Without Representation

How To Make Money in Screenwriting Without Representation

How To Make Money in Screenwriting Without Representation

Welcome back, citizens of Stage 32! For those who don’t know me, I’m an award-winning writer, director, and producer who has written more than 50 screenplays and sold or optioned somewhere around 10. My day job right now is as a script doctor and ghostwriter, I’m developing a sci-fi heist movie called Quantum Theory (which I already have a composer for, but thanks guys!), I’ve been a development executive for 15 years, and I’ve been in showbusiness since before my mom stopped picking out my clothes. When I handed last month’s blog in to Stage 32's blog editor Taylor C. Baker for publication, she asked if I wouldn’t mind writing an article on how I’ve built a sustainable screenwriting career without the help of an agent or manager.

In fairness, I’ve had two managers over the years. Both of them were cases where a colleague wanted to build a reputation as a power player in Hollywood, where I signed on, and where life proceeded to get in the way. While I never made money or built any long-term relationships through the efforts of my managers, I have created billable income for them and I’ve supported their other clients. While these relationships never bore the kind of fruit that my representation was hoping for, my approach to them is precisely what drives my success.

How To Make Money in Screenwriting Without Representation

SHOWBUSINESS IS ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS.

Great cinema is never the product of one person’s creative vision. Great movies come from a cast and crew focused on empowering one another as a team, and on helping one another fulfill our creative potential. Building the relationships that lead to cinematic excellence and steady work is less about networking and sales in the corporate sense, and more about building a showfamily.

Seen through this lens, the role of an agent or manager is very much like the role of a romantic matchmaker. If someone were trying to marry me off, I would hope that person is someone who genuinely wants me to be happy! Sending me out on a constant stream of blind dates with the kids of their friends from church may give me the impression that this person doesn’t always understand what I’m looking for or what I need, but at least I’d know they care.

In today’s modern society, the reality is that most “matchmakers” are more like hired guns. Getting us married off is their job. Understandably, they’re looking to get that job done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

If this person’s efforts are my primary (or only) plan for building relationships in the industry, the likelihood is that most of my relationships will be pretty unfulfilling. Without taking an active role in building my family, I’m not giving myself the chance to find people I connect with in surprising and personal ways. Instead, the absolute best case scenario is that I’ll be choosing between a handful of people who seem like an obvious fit. More likely, I’ll wind up settling for whichever relationship is most convenient.

If you’re expecting anything - literally anything - about your showbusiness career to be convenient, you’re in the wrong industry.

How To Make Money in Screenwriting Without Representation

REMEMBER YOUR TRAINING!

Going all the way back to my very first blog on this site, Reality Checks from an Inspirational Cripple, I’ve maintained that it takes two simple things to succeed in showbusiness. One is the strength of our craft. The other is the strength of our community.

Half the job of building a showbusiness career is tied up in making the people around us stronger. Obviously, this means we can’t be working in a vacuum. Finding people we want to support, giving them unconditional support, and helping them realize their own goals on their own terms is a necessary part of developing ourselves as showpeople. When people rely on us, for screenwriting or anything else, it’s because we’re necessary. If we don’t actively make ourselves necessary to the community, then we’re pitching ourselves as a second-rate alternative to people who do.

Why do you think I write these blogs? Helping you achieve your goals makes me more necessary to the film community. Is it a coincidence that I’ve already sold one screenplay through Stage 32, or that it looks like I might be selling another? Is it a coincidence that last year, every cent of my rent was paid for through screenplay consultation and script doctor work? Investing in this community makes me valuable to this community. If some of the people here on Stage 32 have come to rely on me for professional guidance and reality checks, does it come as any surprise that they read my loglines when they need a screenplay?

SHOWING UP.

The importance of supporting other people’s work with live, in person elbow grease cannot be overstated. Sure, it’s possible to meet someone special over the internet. My wife and I met on OKCupid. I’m not about to sit here and tell you that seeking out and bonding with creative collaborators on websites like Stage 32 is never going to work.

Can you build a whole community of strong relationships, without ever actually showing up and pitching in to make one another’s dreams a reality? Would my marriage be as strong as it is, if I never physically showed up to help with the productions, the kids, the friendships, the goals and the heartaches that defined my wife’s life before I was part of it? Sure, internet communities can exist without physical interaction... but they tend to exist in far more structured, far less risky environments than film and television production.

“The show must go on.” If there’s a standard by which each and every relationship in showbusiness can be fairly judged, that phrase sums it up just about perfectly. Taking the initiative and building the trust that makes our relationships “bankable,” even in the face of catastrophic production problems or personal tragedy, is a responsibility that each of us must bear as individuals.

How To Make Money in Screenwriting Without Representation

WHERE DO WE EVEN START?

Volunteer. If there’s a theater company you like, I guarantee that they need help at the box office or the concession stand. If there’s a band you like to see, help them sling t-shirts. Find local indie film productions, and start helping out as a production assistant. Get involved in the performances and the productions you admire, and your community will start to include people whose work compliments your own.

Do you have any special insight into cultural or social issues which our media might be struggling to represent honestly and fairly? Consider offering your services to management companies as a sensitivity reader. Help their clients succeed. If you have special expertise or knowledge, offer writers and directors your consultation services. If there’s anything you can be doing to help other people in the industry succeed, without asking for anything in return, that’s exactly what you should be doing. If you’re putting that effort into people and projects you believe in, then how that work comes back to you won’t matter so much in the short term.

Rising tides will raise all ships, but all anyone ever thinks about is how their own boat is stuck in the mud. Be the one person who’s focused on the bigger picture, and who’s helping others get where they need to go. Our industry always needs strong leaders. If your experience or knowledge empowers you to lead in any way, make it your responsibility to do so.

“BUDDY, I JUST WANT TO WRITE SCREENPLAYS.”

Believe me, I hear you. In that case, I guess you really are just stuck until a manager or agent gives you that “once in a million” chance, and throws their weight into finding you the collaborations and partnerships that will fulfill your creative and financial potential as a screenwriter. Before you commit too completely to the notion that screenwriters don’t need to be showpeople, I do want to share one last, very compelling reason to make sure you invest the time and work into making your relationships with your showfamily and your audience as strong as possible.

When that agent or manager finally discovers you, and when they finally start shopping you around to all the production companies who might have a need for your work, the person you’ll be competing with…

...is me.

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About the Author

Tennyson Ewing Stead

Tennyson Ewing Stead

Director, Producer, Screenwriter

Tennyson E. Stead is a master screenwriter, a director, a worldbuilder, and an emerging leader in New Hollywood. Supported by a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 50 projects, Stead is best known for writing an...

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