“Your ideas are your currency”.
David Koepp, screenwriter and director.
(I wrote this report for my Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship Module)
This report makes a reflection of the challenges that contemporary screenwriters face today and mentions some of the opportunities they have to start a writing career, as well as the skills they need to succeed in their creative sector.
Being a screenwriter in the 21st century
Today, many screenwriters are moving to the Internet and other mediums, as digital filmmaking and scripting techniques represent a new area of development because the kinds of stories told are impacted on by the creative possibilities and financial economies of scale of digital techniques, including the inter-relationships between forms of screen media (movies, games, subscriber and mobile television). This way, screenwriters are being reinvented as content creators (Maras, 2009, p. 184)
Regarding this, professor Ian Staples (2015) – lecturer of Scriptwriting at the University of South Wales – said during an interview that in order to become visible writers, we should try to look for opportunities on the Internet by writing digital content for advertising or as transmedia storytellers or transmedia producers. The Producers Guild of America coined this term by referring to “a person(s) responsible for a significant portion of a project’s long-term planning, development, production, and/or maintenance of narrative continuity across multiple platforms, and creation of original storylines for new platforms (Macaulay, 2010)”.
Transmedia can spread its narrative world through web sites, apps, television, cinema, books, comics, web series, online video games, stand alone video games, social media, forums, alternate reality games and flashmobs. Some examples of transmedia storytelling include parodies, memes, alternative endings, false previews and openings, mashups and adaptations (Producers Guild, 2016).
On the other hand, Joe Rendón (2015) – Mexican filmmaker, producer and screenwriter – considers theatre as the easiest way to have job opportunities these days because it is more approachable than film and television. For instance, he released his play Puros Cuentos (Pure Lies) last year through the microteatro format, which is a dramatic representation of a short play of less than 15 minutes. It is like a short film, but on stage.
Another characteristic of this format is it gives absolute freedom of approach and vision. It is also ephemeral because the plays are performed for a short period of time and although they are short plays, they must contain the characteristics of a traditional play. They are neither performances nor improvisations because they require a script and pre-production. Rendón (2015) thinks microteatro is a good way to start a writing career since writers do not need a big budget to get their plays produced.
Cosme (2015) affirms that the opportunity to become a writer in Mexico is within the television industry, as this country produces and exports its own “telenovelas” (romantic serial dramas) to more than 180 countries in the world. Moreover, he says television is a medium where writers may receive steady revenues, as they are paid per episode.
Wyn Mason (2016) – freelance TV and film director and course leader for MA Scriptwriting at USW – thinks writers need to have their own projects, such as scripts for film, TV, theatre and radio; ones that they have conceived of and developed themselves, as this is their chance of developing their own individual voice. Also, he considers it is useful to work for others, to look out for schemes, internships and work experience. This could be a way of getting work writing for soap operas where they can earn money and develop their crafts.
Regardless of where a writer decides to start a career, there are many qualities that they need to have today in order to succeed. Among the four people interviewed, three of them (Mason, Staples and Rendón) agreed that determination (believe in yourself, have a thick skin); hard work and perseverance are necessary abilities that every aspiring screenwriter must develop. Likewise, professor Mason suggests not being overly self-critical because too much self-criticism can stifle a writer completely. Also, the aspiring writer needs to be driven by a need to say something, rather than just being in love with the idea of being a writer.
Professor Staples (2015) adds ‘luck’ to the qualities that a writer should have today: “Being in the right place and in the right time; meet producers, give them your script, make them like you. Do social networking, do not be arrogant, and make your own luck. Everybody’s looking for content.” Furthermore, Cosme considers that knowing other languages enlarges the possibilities of all the aspiring Mexican writers to study and find job opportunities abroad, especially in Hollywood.
Cosme (2015) affirms that networking is the clue to succeed in the screenwriting world to get good references by a well-known writer or producer in order to have an opportunity and be noticed. Professor Mason also agrees writers should do networking, not only with other writers but also with actors, directors and producers. Staples concluded by saying: “This life is not about what you know, but who you know.”
Michael Hauge (1988, p. 263) – best-selling author and story consultant – also highlights the importance of making contacts by going to parties, attending film seminars, volunteering to work on someone’s film and by telling everyone you are a screenwriter. This author says it is relevant to watch as many movies as reading scripts; be informed about the movie business and to join a writer’s group in order to make sources of contacts, get information, feedback and moral support.
Robert MacKee – Fullbright scholar and coach of 60 Academy Award Winners – says that the difference between a ‘good writer’ and a ‘great writer’ is;
Time to move to an understanding of life that gave them material worth experiencing, so when they mastered the technique they had something to say […] So it takes talent, perseverance, living as deeply as you can and letting life experience accumulate to where you have some sense of irony and how things really work […] you have to be ruthless with yourself (The Craft of Screenwriting, 2015).
MacKee emphasizes that some writers never become successful because either they do not have the talent to write or they have low standards: “They look at the worst of movies that get made and they say, Well, that’s a bad film, but it got made. And I can write that, or better even. And they do not measure themselves against the finest (The Craft of Screenwriting, 2015).”
Wyn Mason (2016) believes another problem aspiring writers face when trying to enter the industry is they send their work off too early and to the wrong places. Writers should research the field thoroughly, so they send their work to people or companies who would potentially be interested. He suggests not wasting everyone’s time by sending our work to the wrong people. It is better to study the market place first and know how it operates.
If screenwriting is so hard, undervalued and underpaid, why people are still doing it? The four people interviewed said they decided to become screenwriters because they love to tell stories but, specifically, Rendón (2015) mentioned he had to learn the art of storytelling when he studied filmmaking, as he wanted to direct and produce his own stories. Learning that skill helped him to adapt other people’s work, as well. Also, he took acting lessons to understand his actor’s feelings and needs. Last year, he was the head writer of the web series Tenemos que hablar (We have to talk, 2015) and directed the play Huevos, Jefe (F*ck you, boss, 2015).
Wyn Mason (2016), on the other hand, chose to dedicate his life to writing because in writing he feels as if he can have his say and present his understanding of the world to others. Likewise, he finds creating something from nothing to be hugely satisfying. To simply imagine and then seeing the fictional world and characters coming to life by being performed is absolutely thrilling for him. “It’s the best job in the world!”, he said.
Regarding revenues, Ian Staples (2015) says one of the reasons why screenwriters are being less paid than before is that today directors and producers invest millions of dollars in a film or TV series and do not want to take risks in hiring someone they do not know or someone who has not got any experience. Therefore, another challenge screenwriters face is changing other people’s perceptions. Winning a screenplay contest or getting a short film or a play produced could be a way. “I was an actor when I started, but I have always wanted to write, and I always did write. People thought of me as an actor until I produced my first show […] Then, when I went to the meetings, people were like Oh, so you write now. That kind of changed the way they thought of me, really (Staples, 2015)”.
The evidence suggests that becoming a recognized screenwriter takes years of hard work and practice because developing a great story takes time and it requires skill, commitment, perseverance and also flexibility and humility when taking feedback and advice from others. Moreover, aspiring screenwriters should consider working for other people before becoming freelancers or script consultants in order to learn from others and to do networking. At the same time, they should create a portfolio with samples of their work (short scripts, spec scripts, short stories, blogs, work produced on stage or screen) to use as a calling card when meeting potential employers or clients.
In summary, aspiring screenwriters should be open to all possibilities. For example, radio, theatre, digital content and advertising could be good places to start a writing career, as TV and film are not the only mediums where they can be employed. Also, they must show skill, determination, self-confidence, endurance and a high frustration tolerance because it takes a lot of time to achieve recognition and mastery in this field.
Who said it was going to be easy, anyway?
Cosme, R. (2015). Online Interview with Alma Ramírez, 5 November. (Translated from Spanish)
Hauge, M. (1988) Writing screenplays that sell. Elm Tree Books-London
Macaulay, S. (2010) PGA: Transmedia producers have arrived (Online). Available at http://filmmakermagazine.com/6673-pga-transmedia-producers-have-arrived/#.VpHy7cDJyfU (Accessed: January 10th, 2016)
Maras, Steven (2009). Screenwriting. History, Theory and Practice. Wallflower Press
Mason, W. (2016). Online Interview with Alma Ramírez, 8 January
Producers Guild (2016). Credit Guidelines for New Media. Available at http://www.producersguild.org/?page=coc_nm (Accessed: January 11th, 2016)
Rendón, J. (2015) Online Interview with Alma Ramírez, 1 December. (Translated from Spanish)
Staples, I. (2015). Online Interview with Alma Ramírez, 11 December
The Craft of Screenwriting (2015). Storytelling Master Robert MacKee Discusses Story, Writing Philosophy and Screenwriting. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/screencraft/storytelling-master-rober_b_8350460.html?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=postplanner&utm_source=twitter.com (Accessed: January 10th, 2016)