Screenwriting : Getting paid to write by Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele

Getting paid to write

I was just wondering to I live in California to sell scripts, and get paid for it. My gf doesn't really want to move to Cali. And I still want to continue my dream. I've heard that you can sell your script anywhere, but I just want to make sure.

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Timothy: Let's say you get to California, what's your plan for selling a script? How do you intend to make a living while you're trying to sell a script? You may wish consider taking a week to visit LA and see if you can setup some meetings with producers or agents looking to represent writers. However, if you have no representation, without any track record, it can be difficult to get anyone to read your script. Here's the good news. Yes, you can sell a script anywhere. You can setup Skype meetings and work with others online. I do it all the time. Another route you may consider is entering a writing fellowship contest. International Screenwriters has one going right now. http://www.networkisa.org/fasttrack/ Screencraft has a fellowship you just missed. But they have them year round. Nickelodeon and HBO, Universal Studios and Cinestory also have fellowships. You can find several of them at www.moviebytes.com. Also search other festival websites like www.withoutabox.com. You nay also consider Nichols Fellowship and some other major script contests like Austin and Page, to see if your script gets any traction. Just know that you'll be competing against several thousand others. But it's a good way to begin building third party credibility while your still in West Virginia.

Dan Guardino

You got a smart girlfriend. Even if you are good at writing screenplays the odds of selling one are about one in 5,000. Moving to LA might increase your odds a little so maybe by moving you might have a one in 4,000 chance of selling a screenplay. Most people break in first and then sell a screenplay. So I would stay where you are and query people and call people and make connections that way. I never entered contests and I quit trying to sell screenplays several years ago but obviously Phillip has done pretty well entering contests so I would try that before I packed up and moved to La La Land.

Dionne Lister

If you have talent and are willing to work hard, you can sell a script from anywhere. And just a note: your post has several grammar errors, and if your work is not as polished as it should be, it doesn't matter where you are, you will have trouble selling it as you are competing with writers with lots of experience who won't have any errors and will look more professional.

Timothy Steele

Thank you Phillip I will certainly take your advice, Dan thanks for the heads up, Dionne yea!! I know I have grammar issues, still working I go through at least 4 drafts of a script before I will publish one

Antwon Taylor

I don't live in California, though I would love to in the near future, and I've sold two short scripts so far. And there's a good chance that one of my features could be next. I live in Virginia, so I think you already know where I'm going with this. Bottom line is, I am determined to not let my location hender me from accomplishing my dreams. But that's just me. Wish you much success.

Geoffrey Calhoun

I like the fellowship idea. This is why it's good to read everyone's posts. Thanks, Phillip!

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Geoffrey: I should probably take your advise on that. Reading everyone's post that is.

Timothy Steele

If I sell it do I still get like residual checks? Like if k sell a tv show, and it's good do I get the paid every time it comes on tv, or does that depend on how I sell it

Jody Ellis

@timothy To my understanding you get what are called residual checks for every time your show or movie appears on TV. However, this is a classic cart-horse situation. Don't get too far ahead of yourself. Write first. Complete your projects. Making money off them is another battle entirely.

Regina Lee

I have to agree with Jody here. That said, if you accept non-union work, there may not be residuals. Non-union work is not my area of expertise, but I believe that non-union productions do not have to offer residuals. We all have to start somewhere, and non-union work might be a good start. It's also possible that a job starts non-union but becomes union later; I'm not a Labor Relations specialist so I can't fully explain that process and the implications for residuals.

Regina Lee

In other words, your address is not what determines what is contained in your contract. The employer and their union or guild signatory status determine the nature of the contract.

Zlatan Mustafica

Humbly, if you are writing only to make money, good luck, really, good luck, because it will show in your written work and you are in for a lot of disappointment. Find that passion, write for the sake of what it gives you on a personal level and the work will improve and then you have a chance. Be honest with yourself because you sure will have to be honest with people you aim to sell your work to. You know? All the best to you!

Pierre Langenegger

Yep, as Jody said, write some good stuff before you worry about that.

William Martell

Here's the thing: the vast majority of screenwriting is assignments (adapting some book or comic book or whatever for a producer, or maybe pitching your story that meets their needs). Those things you pretty much have to be here for, because they love looking over your shoulder and having regular meetings with you. Once you're established, you can probably work from anywhere... but I'm still in Los Angeles because after 19 movies and dozens more sold scripts and assignments - they still want to meet me face to face. Script sales are a very very low percentage of the job. And the odds of selling a spec script are not that great. There are somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 scripts registered with the WGA, and then add in about as many with LOC (copyright) and we're looking at over 100,000 scripts a year... and none of those scripts vanish at midnight on Dec 31... scripts stay in circulation for around a decade. So that is ONE MILLION screenplays, and usually only 100 sell per year (and we've had recent years where only around 50 sold). So selling a script is a longshot. There are many more assignments than spec sales. But Carts & Horses - I sold a screenplay to Paramount and that's when I moved to Los Angeles. I think if you are young and single, move here because you can work in the industry somewhere and make connections. Heck, you can sit in a Starbucks and make connections.

Michael L. Burris

Anybody know where to get a Gardener's, Farmer's Market or Botany assistant's job if I were going to come fiddle fart in L.A. , Santa Monica around the grove or maybe Academy of Science and Motion Picture buildings or maybe even Disneyland.Just thinking a bit but they'd have to be low physical impact for me. Might be a good job to have as an observer of life while trying to break-in somewhere. Just thinking a bit. By the way do those landscape curator jobs have a special name out there and are they union for the most part? like I said I can't do too much physical crap and it's really not because I'm lazy. I'd even mow grass as long as I had good riding mower. Anyway, peace out and may you all remove your luck factor from success through hard work, desire and determination.

Timothy Steele

Thanks so much everyone

Brad Johnson

Really which Starbucks would that be?

Michael Eddy

You CAN sell your script from anywhere - but if you're starting out - and because LA is where the vast majority of the film business is located - it would behoove you to be there long enough to establish yourself - and more importantly - get an agent based in LA who will get your work out into the marketplace. Once you're established - as long as that agent is still there - you can move elsewhere. Although there are agents who will tell you to stay no matter what. Some because the thought is that if your work has you up for a writing gig along with a few others - but they all live in LA and are immediately available for meetings - and you're not (even if you're willing to jump on a plane and pay your own way back) - it's easier for them to stay local and just cross your name off the list.

Joe Bell

Alright, here's a question, and this is for anyone who's had some routine success selling spec scripts: With such terrible odds against ever selling a script (albeit better than Powerball odds), is there a pattern in the scripts that rise to the top? And I'm looking for something more specific than "great writing." I know there's no magic formula, but there might be a pattern for success. Any ideas?

Regina Lee

Hi Joe, my 2 cents - It depends on the genre. For many genres, I think a good strategy is to write efficiently. "Overwritten" scripts require much more mental energy to digest, and an exec is more likely to say, "This is really dense and hard to get through. I'm going to make my intern read/cover it for me."

Michael Eddy

Joe - listen to Regina. At one point - I had optioned and/or sold 9 of the 10 specs I'd written. And one of the 9 was made. But there's no pattern. I wrote in different genres all the time - comedy, thriller, action, historical. The magic formula probably IS great writing. You need to stand out from the crowd - and believe me - there's a crowd - and you also need to be site specific. By that I mean - you need a smart agent who can send your work to a company or studio LOOKING to make that type/genre of script. Just being great isn't enough. You also need to be smart (or have someone smart on your team) and have a LARGE DOLLOP of luck. And as much as one might not want to believe the latter and think that talent will win out - trust me on this. I could give you at least 3 examples in my own (realistically successful) career - in which luck and timing played an immense role. And had any of those 3 proved a bit luckier in their outcomes - I could have been an Oscar nominated (or winning) multi-millionaire writer.

Regina Lee

Aw, thanks, Michael. Joe, my S32 Next Level Class covers strategies on hooking your reader. https://www.stage32.com/classes/How-To-Hook-Your-Reader-In-Only-5-Pages If they put down the script after page 1, it doesn't matter how good page 2 is. We all have to earn every page.

Dan Guardino

Joe. I agree with Regina and Michael. Like Michael I have sold script and written them for hire. Overwriting is probably the biggest thing that prevents newer screenwriters from breaking in. Unlike most forms of writing screenwriting has a certain cadence which comes from writing economically. Since it is usually the one thing that gives newer screenwriters the most trouble and takes a lot of practice to get over people will assume the writer is inexperienced if their script is overwritten. Also the script is going to make them work twice as hard and if the reader has a pile of scripts to read through the trash can is going to look awfully appealing to them if you are going to make them work too hard. Here are some tips for write more economically: Avoid large blocks of dialogue. Keep action lines to three lines of under and four at the very most. Write only what we can see and avoid character’s thoughts. Don’t describe every detail in the scene. Avoid describing character’s every movement. In other words paint your scenes with broad strokes and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Avoid words that can usually be eliminated such as “are”, “and”, “there”, “it is”, “it's”, “to go”, “to say”, “is”, “to be” and words ending in “ly” and “ing.” You can usually eliminate first words of dialogue such as "Well", "No", "Yes", "Of course", "I mean", etc. Eliminate words like "hello", "goodbye", "please", "thank you", and "you're welcome" unless used for irony or emphasis. Avoid having your character ask questions but when they do don’t have the other character answer if the audience will assume what the answer would be. Replace the "to be" verbs with an active verb or eliminate them entirely. For example "She is in uniform" becomes "In uniform.” "It is dark outside" becomes “Dark, " etc. Make all your action immediate. Eliminate words like "suddenly", "then", "begins to", "starts to" and just make the action happen without any sort of temporal qualifier. For example: "Suddenly, he runs off." becomes "He runs off." "She starts to climb" becomes "She climbs." This is what I do when I write screenplays. They are just some suggestions not rules someone has to follow. Hope this helps someone.

Joe Bell

Regina - Hmm, that would be a bummer (getting dumped over "density"). So brevity is still the soul of wit, eh? That's the challenge then, to say something new enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to get away with being brief. Tough assignment.

Regina Lee

Just use your common sense. For most people, they'd prefer to read a fun, breezy John Grisham novel than a 1200-page literary novel. Same principle.

Sylvia Marie Llewellyn

Very informative thread. Thanks everyone.

Regina Lee

Adding to Dan G's list of tips - don't describe too much of the set design or background action. If you take pains to describe a guy in the background crossing the street in a city, or a juggler in the background at a circus, a reader expects those characters to become significant later on. If they don't become significant, you burn your goodwill with me. I'm thinking, "Why the heck did I expend all that mental energy picturing the background action if there's no payoff or no point?" You've wasted a reader's mental energy on an inconsequential detail, and therefore, that energy is gone. Think like Chicken Little. Don't cry wolf and use up a reader's goodwill on details. Use it when it counts.

Dan Guardino

I agree with Regina.Great minds think alike. LOL Just describe action as it is happening. Keep descriptions brief and in the present tense. A huge turn off are big blocks of text, therefore keep your descriptions to 3 lines - 4 at the maximum. Describe only the relevant information. It is not necessary to describe every single detail of the scene. Paint the scene in broad strokes and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Details are nice but in large amounts will burden the script. Avoid describing a character’s every movement. Blocking is not the screenwriter's job. Extraneous character movement is very distracting and will slow down the read. The faster your script reads the better your odds.

Michael L. Burris

Joe, one aspect I've been paying attention to a little bit is "audience forces" , it takes an immense amount of idle time and research on boards like IMDb and as much as I wish you could always remove your luck factor I believe a lot of it is luck in timing and following what production companies are doing. I've drove myself nuts trying to learn it but if you have enough idle time to dedicate to it, it may indeed override "pulse of America" because although that is what truly drives it, its also production company preference. No one man will ever truly understand all and sometimes I think even with exec.'s its more about guesswork, preference or mood of the day. This is a numbers game but just as much art an instinct. Research it a little if you want but I guarantee it will make your brain swim trying to really grasp it. One other thing: is there a magic formula or "magi bullet", no but it is a lot to do with parallel's.As with anything trying to think like them never hurts odds and to be quite honest I don't think it has a lot to do with writing but yet it does. Peace out all.

Michael Eddy

Going back to what Dan said earlier - a screenplay never allows you the luxury of a novel. You must be as concise as possible. Choose your every word carefully and with precision. Paint a picture for the reader, but be brief. Remember - there are still readers who will look at the last page first - and the number on it. And if it exceeds their threshold number (rule of thumb used to be 120 pages for a feature - now - probably closer to 100-110 - but I defer to Regina on this), they'll be thinking "long" before they even read FADE IN back on page one. I had this beaten into me once by a producer who loved my draft of a script - and then said - "Now, just cut 15 pages". I did it and he said, "Fantastic. Cut another 10 and we're in business". I was convinced that there wasn't another 10 to cut - every scene worked and was necessary. So before I went in and damaged the script by excising muscle and bone rather than any extraneous fat - I decided to start on the first page and surgically remove single words in the dialogue. Single lines or parts of lines in the description and so on - and when I got to the final page - doing nothing but that - I had taken out another 10 pages. Tightest draft I've ever written without changing anything at all in terms of plot, scenes, character or dialogue.

Michael Eddy

Or adding to Regina's post about breezy Grisham novels - get yourself a Shane Black screenplay and give it a read. They're a blast. They're not only tight and cool, but he makes the reader part of the action - complete with fourth wall breaking asides and commentary. Very distinctive voice and style. I wouldn't suggest trying it yourself - but have a look just to see how cleverly it can be done.

Joe Bell

Hmm. I posted a comment, it showed up double, I deleted the "duplicate," and they both disappeared. Sorry 'bout the confusion. Probably something with my browser. Anyway, Michael Burris, what do you mean by "audience forces?"

Regina Lee

Michael Eddy - yeah, for most genres, I'd recommend 100-110 pages. If you're writing GLADIATOR, I would expect the script to be on closer to 120-125. For a fun comedy, closer to 100-105. I'm looking at a log of the last 8 feature scripts I read this month. They range from 92 pages (a UK indie thriller) to 125 pages (an older draft of a period drama adapted from a novel).

Michael Eddy

Thanks Regina. Makes sense. Genre specific page count. The best script (IMO) in my arsenal runs 127 pages - period drama/thriller in the vein of CHINATOWN and I wouldn't change a word (of course if I gave it to you to read, I'm sure you might have some suggestions. I've lived with this one a long time and done a lot of revising both for pay and on my own). Not sure what the shortest screenplay I've ever written clocks in at - but I don't think I've ever come in under 100 pages. Gladiator was co-written by John Logan - a playwright. Not sure what that says re: length. Just thought it was an interesting tidbit.

Regina Lee

Hey Michael, like you, I don't recall ever developing a US script under 100 pages. However, my international friends who work on indie movies say their foreign sales agents are used to 90-100 page scripts, which feel on the short side to me too. For a reader's morale, I'd try to come in under 125, even for a period drama, but a great script is a great script. Off the top of my head, the longest script in my file is AGAINST ALL ENEMIES by Jamie Vanderbilt, adapted from the book by Richard A Clarke. It was on the Black List in 2005. It's a whopping 203 pages!! I'm quite sure it's the only script I've ever encountered of this length - an outlier for sure.

Regina Lee

For hour-long TV, my friend repped by Gersh says his agents tell him to aim for 59 pages. I thought it was good advice, and now that's what I generally advise too. Same principle as pricing something at $9.99 instead of $10.00. Morale. :-)

Jody Ellis

Regina can I ask, for tv scripts, does that include the teaser, or is that 59 pages for the 4 acts? I'm writing my first pilot and feel a tad lost, lol

Regina Lee

Yes 59 all in. The 60th page would be the title page.

Jody Ellis

Thank you, good to know!

Regina Lee

To clarify, I don't think it would be detrimental to receive a 60-63 page TV pilot. As discussed, those agents feel there's a psychological advantage in being the 59-page script when other people have submitted 60+ page scripts. But the difference is minimal in 1-2 pages. That said, I'd rather see a sign for a $9.99 item than a $10.00 item.

Michael Eddy

Regina - I have a copy of Aaron Sorkin's script for STEVE JOBS. All talk, no action - and 187 pages long. If I ever handed in one that long - they'd be out to other writers for revisions and I wouldn't get hired for a while. And - it reads and plays more like a 3 act play than a movie. I see a lot of plays on Broadway - and many of them - with intermission - run over 2 and 1/2 hours. ALL THE WAY - by Robert Schenkkan - ran 2:45 - and was brilliant. I saw it twice and was never bored for a second, He won the Tony Award for Best Play two years ago - and it's been adapted for HBO.

Michael L. Burris

I think it is the force that should drive your agent as to prioritizing and what they are trying to do filling needs of production companies they are currently working with. It really should be their headache more than the writers but asking an agent about this and how you can work together moving to meet the demand might improve odds but it is all about writing first and maybe abandoning your own agenda, idea's or passion to tweak things to what the agents need and search for that production companies demand. It is ever-changing requiring luck in timing as well.Regina and Dan are probably more on pulse with aspect of writer. I don't understand it all but its just about trying to think like an agent and agent trying to think like an exec. in terms of needs or wants because that should drive your agent more than an individuals endeavor no matter how much they sugar coat or tell you your own agenda is important. Own agenda abandonment sucks but maybe it can improve odds. Thinking of how to navigate things myself at times and not always sure if I'm right. Find out what has been optioned as soon as you can with Big Six, Cable, Independent and digital media for television, read was has been optioned if you're lucky enough to find it. Find out what other working writers are reading because there is something about what they read that is or had drove their new option Could be they read to avoid the rehash at times too. Some of it is random but much is not. It's work and you'll get tired of reading stuff. The "pulse of America", Audience force, and want of exec.'s either need or want is in there. I believe that anyway. For movies look at what's next projects and see where parallel's lie in what you are doing, have done or thinking about doing. This is one area where I eliminate critical mind just seeing what is whether I like it or not. You can find slated projects through 2018 if you look or seek. I know I'm not the best of writers, I know some people don't like reduction method I use in writing and yes I still write and re-write myself honing skills constantly and that is important but what to do with a "spot on" work having skills par to everyone else has is where in the key to success really lies I believe. Currently I need a writers group to make my skills par but I also won't abandon my style which is a tougher way to write but it is my belief that, that reduction method will eventually cause more concise scene and character knowing on the page. Directors aren't dumb and can pick up this style especially with known characters. It's tougher with unknown characters though. I guess I hate to elaborate when writing a work but maybe we really don't have to we just have to convey. Elaborating conveyance in best possible way is what directors do. That's the way I see things. Well enough rambling from the 'mind of Mike". Peace out all.

Regina Lee

Michael Eddy - I think if Jamie Vanderbilt or Aaron Sorkin is planning to hand in an extremely long script, their producers have properly managed Sony's expectations in advance of script delivery. :-) Because yeah, otherwise, someone will be doing a spit-take!

William Martell

1) A friend of mine put together a film and cast it and found financing in a Starbucks in Studio City. Just from regular customers (who have starred in movies you've seen), etc. I used to write in Priscilla's Coffees in Toluca Lake - two blocks from Warner Bros - and name any actor, director, writer, etc for a movie or TV show shooting at Warner Bros and they came in at least once a day. They get to recognize you, and even know you. That's the accidental bonus of living here. You are waiting to cross a street with Gene Hackman and ask him to hit the walk button. You are in line at the grocery store behind Bridget Fonda. 2) The over written thing is part of just writing a competent screenplay - that is a basic. Next you want your screenplay to make the reader feel something - have an emotional reaction. As each piece of the skill is learned, you get closer and closer. When you write the screenplay with the idea that everyone wishes they had thought of that makes the reader laugh and cry, has a great role for a current hot movie star, and is something that can be made for much much less than it will return at the box office (ROI), then you've got a good chance of selling a script. Very few scripts do those things. 3) The script I sold to Paramount that got me to town was a BODY HEAT like thriller, about a decade after BODY HEAT when the people who had been promoted up the ranks at studios had fond memories of films like that and wanted to make one of their own. It had a perfect murder - you could actually kill someone and get away with it in real life - based on a loophole in the law that I'd stumbled upon. Great male lead - Noir takes good people and has them step over the line into bad... and like it. Great dramatic moments. The female lead was also an interesting character - we actually had people fighting for that role at one time. The film had some plot twists that made readers gasp, and an ending that was haunting. Oh, and as a thriller - lots of suspense and plot twists, with a small cast and limited locations and not many stunts or FX... inexpensive to make, but full of things people would pay to see. I'll bet you want to know how to get away with murder, huh? The first director onboard was this guy who did the Madonna "Vogue" video - and I argued that some guy who made a music video was a crappy choice for a dramatic feature. Problem solved itself when he was hired by 20th Fox to direct the next sequel in their big franchise. You can look him up. By the way - by the time they hired him, some others had rewritten me... because I was a "baby writer" and studios always want someone with a big name to rewrite the script. The project went through a dozen writers - including one with an Oscar - before Paramount shelved it. They could never get the right cast assembled at the same time. This is typical. Only 10% of scripts bought or commissioned ever make it to screen. Hard to get all of the pieces in place at the same time. The big lesson that I learned from that was that you need to strike while the iron is hot - take as many meetings as you can right after the script sells and makes the trades, and line up assignments. I did not do that, and had to wait until the second deal to line up jobs. Most of what I wrote after that second sale did not get made - some novel adaptations, some pitches that I was paid to script, I think there was even a comic book (indie revenge comic). I also managed to use that heat to sell some more scripts to cable networks (the new market at the time) and some got made. 4) I have written a stack of screenplays - and lightning hasn't struck on many of them. Just as getting all of the cast people available at the same time, getting all of the roles and elements to line up in the screenplay at the same time is tough. They aren't all going to be winners.

Michael Eddy

Regina - after years of watching "Make Room For Daddy" with Danny Thomas - I think I can manage a pretty decent spit take. But as Mark Rylance asked in "Bridge of Spies", "Would it help?"

Louis Sihler

You can live anywhere...

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