Screenplay Junkie #5: Breaking Into the Biz

Adam Volk is a wannabe screenwriter trying desperately to break into the industry and cram his hack drivel down Hollywood’s gaping maw. Each week he examines one aspect from the wonderfully demented world of screenwriting.

Imagine trying to simultaneously pass a kidney stone, ride a unicycle and put together an IKEA filing cabinet — all while being chased by an amorous 300 pound gorilla — and you probably have a rough idea of what it’s like to try and make it as a professional writer. I mean, let’s face it, as a potentially glamorous career writing is somewhere up there with canine proctologist and McDonald’s fry cook; a grinding, demanding and often frustrating experience where success is measured in rejection letters and the number of times someone calls you a talentless hack. But if Darwin has taught us anything it’s that fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and socially inept masochists become writers.

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was five years old and scrawled a crude crayon-filled story about Optimus Prime and Scooby Doo joining forces to rescue the cast of Gilligan’s Island. Since then my writing has only marginally improved, but I’ve also managed to finagle my way into getting a full-time job writing video games. It’s only been over the past two years or so however, that I’ve also begun seriously trying to break into film and television — unsuccessfully thus far, I might add. I’ve sent scripts to a number of agents and producers, read everything I can about the industry, pimped and schmoozed with everyone and anyone who will listen to me and of course, when I have a spare moment, I write like hell. What I’ve learned from all of my struggles is that breaking into the entertainment industry as a writer is damned hard — not unlike say, pounding your head against a wall until you’re either knocked into a slobbering unconscious heap or the wall starts to crack.

So how does one go about breaking into the business as a screenwriter? Well, let’s be honest, if I knew that for certain I wouldn’t be writing this column, I’d be sipping margaritas in a hot tub in Burbank and telling Sumner Redstone to go screw himself. That being said, I have met a number of talented and successful film and television writers over the years and the one piece of advice I’ve been given time and time again is this: write a spec script.

A spec script (short for speculative script for those of us unfamiliar with Hollywood’s snooty vernacular) is a script that’s written for the sole purpose of being shopped around on the market and without being commissioned by a studio or network. For television in particular, spec scripts are the bread and butter for unknowns and rookie wordsmiths like myself looking to get their feet wet. Strangely though (or perhaps fittingly in Hollywood’s case) there’s usually nothing original about spec scripts. You know that awesome idea you have for a new show about a robot stripper who moonlights as a detective? Yeah, no one cares. Instead, television specs are usually based on an already existing show (generally something that’s still on the air and has about three seasons worth of episodes). The idea is that it gives producers, showrunners and head writers a way to judge potential talent by looking at an already established show.

Unfortunately, networks avoid specs for their own shows like the bubonic plague since it potentially raises a number of legal questions. So if for example, you wanted to land a job as a writer on a show like Weeds you might write a spec script for an episode of Entourage (and vice versa). In most cases though, writers stick to the most popular shows, meaning that producers and agents are flooded with spec scripts for series like Battlestar Galactica, Heroes and Lost.

A few months ago I managed to get in contact with a television producer in Vancouver who was trying to get a new series off the ground. I quickly attempted to convince him that I’d be perfect for a junior writer or writer’s assistant position (both of which are grunt, foot-in-the-door type entry level gigs). Fortunately, he was kind enough to agree to consider me (assuming the funding comes through), but has since informed me that if the pilot does take off he’ll want to see some of my work, which means hauling out a spec I’ve written for the Showtime series Dexter (a show similar — at least in tone — to the series he’s trying to get off the ground). Again, it seems strange to write something based on an already existing show and pour my heart and soul into a script which will never even come close to production, but that’s simply the nature of the beast. Hollywood doesn’t care about any of my original ideas. It simply wants to see if I can swim in the same waters as the big boys.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Matthew Weiner for example, originally wrote Mad Men as a spec script while he was working on the television show “Becker” and while most studios won’t touch an original TV spec with a ten foot pole, as an established TV writer Weiner managed to get the spec onto the desk of David Chase, who read it, loved it and immediately offered Weiner a staff position on The Sopranos. Only after Weiner left the show seven years later was he able to get Mad Men off the ground with AMC.

It’s stories like these that keep wannabes like myself chasing after that light at the end of the tunnel. A few months ago for example, I co-wrote an original television pilot spec with a friend of mine who works as a network writer for the Discovery Channel (and who can open the kind of doors a no-name like me can’t quite reach). The show is an animated comedy about life in the video game industry and while we’ve even managed to land a few meetings with a couple of networks, realistically the chances are pretty slim of it actually heading into production. Regardless, the television specs I’ve written – both original and otherwise – are all part of the game. In this sense specs are the tools wannabes like myself use to try to chip away at the towering and seemingly impenetrable walls of the entertainment industry.

Fortunately, there’s another method for struggling writers like myself to break through those walls: the film spec. Each year Hollywood options thousands of spec scripts from the unwashed and unknown masses of writers. What’s more, unlike television specs, these scripts are entirely original and while only a fraction of optioned scripts are ever made into feature length films, even a spec script which never goes anywhere can land you an agent, snag the attention of a producer or director, or earn you a gig as a story consultant or script doctor. Hell, Robert McKee — author of the now seminal screenwriting book “Story” and widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on writing for film and television — has sold numerous scripts over the years but not one has ever been produced.

My experience with writing a film spec has been almost as difficult and discouraging as my attempts to break into television. Two years ago for example, I spent almost ten months writing and polishing drafts of a film spec and — on the advice of a friend of mine who works as a executive assistant for a production studio in Toronto — I used the script to apply for the Canadian Film Centers prestigious Writers Lab program (founded by Academy Award winner Norman Jewison). The script was an action-drama about an aging hitman who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and sets out to rectify both his personal and professional life before he dies (with the overall narrative following the five stages of death). Unfortunately, I was rejected for admission into the CFC’s program, but I used the opportunity to shop the script around to an agent I knew who at the time had left Miramax to form a start up in New York. Again, he was nice enough to give me some feedback and encouragement but declined to take me on as a client. It’s a depressing experience getting rejected, but unfortunately the spec submission is all part of the process. Sink or swim. Survival of the fittest…

In the end, it’s impossible to know if any of the spec scripts I’ve written (or will continue to write) will go anywhere. In fact, there’s a common held belief in Hollywood that it takes on average about 10 years for a television or film writer to gain any kind of success and that’s assuming I don’t actually suck (which is of course, a possibility lurking in the mind of any self-respecting writer). And even if through some miracle, I do break into the biz anytime soon, statistically speaking television and film writers in both Canada and the U.S. generally make lousy salaries and often have to struggle to find and maintain a steady income (despite the common held public notion that writers are overpaid hacks raking in millions).

Yet despite the odds, despite the statistics and despite the many rejections I’ve experienced, being a writer is who I am and there’s nothing else I’d rather do. Because even in failure there’s some measure of success, as each script I write teaches me something new, challenges me in new ways and helps me improve my craft. Which leaves me right back where I started from – chipping away at the entertainment industry…one spec at a time.

  • I liked reading about your experiences, Adam.

    Back when it was being produced, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was one of the few television shows accepting unsolicited spec scripts and story pitches from people without agents because the producers thought that there wasn’t enough talent in Hollywood to generate story ideas for a show like Star Trek.

    TNG also had writing interns, but I can’t recall how that was set up.

    I’m wondering if getting a script made by an independent filmmaker is a worthwhile endeavor.

  • Brian Huntley

    I read your article and liked alot of what you had to say. All I can do is implore you to continue pressing forwarsd in the development of your ideas. If you can’t get a producer or manager and or agent try a venture capatilist. Try getting someone who has the money for your film to produce it. All you have to do then is find ditribution anfd I know I know independent films arent always the way to go. But if the industry want open a door it’s up to you to create a door. Remember you can do it and open times the battle is really in our own minds. God blessing and suceuss over your work and dreams you can make it

  • Steve Nash

    Your continued efforts will get you everywhere i hope. The one ommision from your blurb is where on earth you send the Spec Scrips too? Every agent etc says they do not accept unsolicited mail etc?