Many of the questions I’ve been getting recently from my students have been about what kinds of scripts young writers should focus on writing.
Is it true that you should start out writing thrillers? Is it okay to write an indie drama or a movie based on your own life? Is it true that you shouldn’t write a TV spec script if you’re over 30? If you’re working on your second script, does it have to be in the same genre as your first one? Should you write the screenplay in your heart, or the one you think you can sell?
As different as these questions may seem, they all boil down to some common concerns: How do you brand yourself as a writer and communicate exactly what you have to offer to a producer? How do you present the right kinds of screenplays to showcase your talent, break through the walls of Hollywood, and get producers to perceive you the way you want to be perceived? And how do you write the right scripts to launch your career, while holding onto your voice as a writer.
What Hollywood Wants You To Believe
It seems like every day, there’s another screenwriting guru offering a different “sure-fire” plan to sell your script.
But the truth is, nobody can tell you how to sell your script.
Hollywood is a fickle lover, whose tastes change by the minute. What’s popular one moment is out of vogue with the next clock tick. And anyone who pretends to know different is probably trying to sell you something.
If you’re going to break in, you’re not going to do it by timing the market, pitching some half-baked “commercial” idea, or playing by the same rules everyone else is following.
You’re going to do it by honoring the unique voice that distinguishes you as a writer, writing material that demands the attention of anyone who reads it, targeting the producers who are most likely to respond to you as a writer, and building the long term relationships with them that eventually lead to a sale.
Selling-out is for professionals
While it’s true that producers do buy half-baked scripts all the time based purely on their commercial appeal, they don’t buy them from emerging writers like you.
If that’s the game they want to play, they have hundreds of choices of sell-out-scripts from professional writers with existing relationships, and far more impressive pedigrees than yours.
Breaking into Hollywood as an emerging writer means inspiring a producer to take a chance on you. And it’s far more likely that they’re going to take a chance on a young writer with script they love, than on one more aspiring sell-out with a script they don’t.
It all starts with the script
If you think about the most successful writers in Hollywood, they all have one thing in common: a unique and authentic voice that is common to all their writing, regardless of the genre, and distinguishes them from any other writer.
This is the writer’s brand. Not some external idea that’s imposed on the screenplay, or a hot marketing idea derived from some get-rich-quick book. But the writer’s unique way of looking at the world, and expressing themselves in words, action and dialogue.
Your brand is inescapable. Because your brand is you.
Think about successful writers like Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, PT Anderson, Nora Ephron, Diablo Cody, Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers.
These writers didn’t choose their voices, artificially brand their voices, or artificially manufacture their voices by following some external formula. They found their voices by writing the world as they saw it, and writing the movies they wanted to see on the screen, exactly the way they wanted to see them.
Your brand as a screenwriter isn’t some genre aesthetic, or something you impose on your writing to please the fickle tastes of Hollywood. Your brand is who you are at your most authentic. The unique way that you see the world. The things about you that you’re afraid to express to other people. The things you got picked on for in high school. The things that are weird, embarrassing, ugly and beautiful about you.
These things—the very things we try to hide away in our everyday lives in our quest to be “normal”—will be the same things that ultimately lead to your success as a writer. If you can learn to express them honestly on the page.
Learning to write honestly is the hardest challenge.
If you’re like most people, since were in second grade, you’ve been taught to do things properly, not to stand out, and to present yourself in a way that is acceptable to other people. Before long, it becomes so natural for us to subvert our primal impulses and conform to the expectations of society that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it, at every moment of every day.
This urge has probably served you well in your life. If you followed every impulse you had at every moment, you probably wouldn’t have a lot of friends.
But you’ve probably met some people whose true self just seems to shine through a little more brightly. Who seem to be able to be true to their impulses, even as they get along with the people around them.
And if you’ve spent any time with people like that, you’ll notice how powerfully others are drawn to them, and the lengths perfect strangers go to in order to spend time with them.
These are people who have mastered both the art and the craft of life.
The art of being true to yourself, and the craft of presenting that truth in a way that others can understand and connect to.
This is also the task of the writer.
Learning a process of writing that reconnects you to your instincts. And then learning to present those instincts in a form that others can understand.
This is also the art of branding. Noticing the natural voice, and the natural instincts, that already exist in your writing, and then shaping them into a form that can make producers salivate.
Where to begin?
While it may eventually be helpful to your career to have more than one screenplay in the same genre in your library, or to write a project that has obvious commercial appeal, finding your voice as a writer begins with following your passion.
Building a career in Hollywood is a long game. And in playing that game, you’re going to write a lot of scripts. Some of them are going to sell. And some of them are not. And some of them are going to get passed on when you write them, and then become the hottest thing on the market 10 years later.
You can’t control Hollywood. You can’t even predict it.
But you can control yourself.
Avoid the teachers who teach you how to conform to the rules, and seek out the ones that push you to find your own voice and inspire you to bring it to the surface.
Choose the projects you’re desperate to write. Or the ones you’re afraid of writing. Because those are the screenplays that are closest to your heart, and to your truth.
Gobble up every bit of learning you can get, and then allow yourself to forget it, so that you can follow your instincts and respond to the unique demands of each individual project, even as you hone your craft as a writer.
Keep writing, and keep pushing yourself, until each script is so true to your vision, and so important to you, that you know it was worth writing whether it sells or not.
Pitch your screenplays to the producers whose work you love, and whose tastes match your own. And put your focus on the relationship, rather than the sale.
Before long, you won’t have to think about your brand anymore. Because your brand will find you. It will be present in every word you write, and shine brightly through your whole library of work, and every interaction you have with a producer.
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