Arguably the most important job in film and television is that of the screenwriter.
The industry simply can’t run without them. But just because screenwriters are needed doesn’t mean that it’s easy to become one. Writing a screenplay is difficult, and subsequently breaking into the film industry is often even more challenging. So if you want to make screenwriting your full or even part-time job, here are some things you need to know.
The first thing you should consider when contemplating becoming a screenwriter is how much you really want to do it. As has been aforementioned, becoming a screenwriter is an arduous undertaking. In fact, it’s so difficult that in an advertisement for her MasterClass on Writing for Television, Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” and more) says:
“If you can think of any other thing you want to be almost as much as a [screenwriter], anything, go be it.”
That being said, it’s a far better use of your time to embark on other projects or careers if you’re unsure as to whether or not you really want to be a screenwriter.
If, on the other hand, you are unwavering in your desire to become a screenwriter, there is another thing you should consider: what kind of pieces do you want to write?
On a broad scale, the easiest way to figure this out is to first decide whether you want to write feature films or television scripts, and to then determine what genre(s) you want to work within. If you’re having trouble deciding about this, reflect on the films and television shows that you watch and/or enjoy the most and use these to guide you. For example, if you predominantly watch films like “The Bourne Identity,” “Black Swan” and “The Dark Knight,” you’re likely to be more interested in writing feature-length thrillers than comedic sitcoms.
Once you’ve determined what type of screenwriting you want to pursue, you can then seek out the relevant educational sources that will best help you reach your screenwriting goals.
The avenues through which one can learn to write screenplays as well as gain the industry knowledge and terminology necessary to become a screenwriter are as many as there are screenwriters. That being said, most screenwriters pursue their industry education through school, programs and workshops, internships or a more DIY method.
The following information may help you decipher which general route is best for you.
In addition to and sometimes in place of the classroom, you can also learn the ins and outs of screenwriting and the film industry at large through internships. This internship does not have to be at a large studio, nor does it have to necessarily be a writing internship.
At smaller studios, you will have the opportunity to be more involved with scripts — even though you likely wouldn’t be writing them yourself. Development interns have the opportunity to get hands onand work on the development of scripts. As a reading intern, you’d be reading scripts for a studio and advising whether or not they should seek to further develop and produce them, another good chance to get close to scripts.
As with most anything, there is a do-it-yourself approach to learning the information necessary to be a screenwriter. Though, unlike the prior methods, you won’t be able to add it to your resume, here are some ideas for learning the craft of screenwriting on your own:
As has been aforementioned, there are multiple routes one can take to become a screenwriter. Here are just a few examples.
Screenwriters pay varies tremendously.
A non-union writer may write for free or a specified fee for a client. Union writers, on the other hand, typically exact a certain, higher fee along with higher-paid projects. Particularly for the latter group, it’s not uncommon for low-budget films to pay $60,000 and high-budget films to pay in the millions.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA), both the East and West branches, is the predominant union representing thousands of members. They help screenwriters get the best deals possible, and aren’t afraid to take drastic measures if they believe their members are being cheated. (For example, at the time of this writing, the WGA has gone on strike against screenwriting agents.)
As you embark on your journey to being a vital member of the film industry, here are some resources that may help you along your way.
1. Film Courage
A hub for all things pertaining to filmmaking, Film Courage’s YouTube channel, podcasts and website are a prime resource.
2. The Hollywood Reporter’s YouTube Channel
This media company’s Writer’s Roundtable videos, featuring group interviews of some of the industry’s best screenwriters, help answer questions you may never think to ask.
3. "Story" by Robert McKee
Considered the “screenwriter’s bible,” this book is a vital resource for even the most seasoned screenwriters.
4. "Save the Cat!" by Blake Snyder
A core book of most collegiate screenwriting programs, you will be hard pressed to find a screenwriter who has not read this entry-level book.
A prime screenwriting software used by many industry professionals. The most basic version, which features online access, is free.
6. Script Reader Pro
This website is a prime resource for every screenwriting related “how to.”
Another great “how to” source complete with podcasts and a website that keeps you up to date with the best screenplay competitions to join.
J.P. Pressley is a writer, entrepreneur, and an asthmatic former two-sport college athlete (basketball and track). Is he a jockey-nerd or a nerdy-jock? The world may never know. You can learn more about him at his personal website.