Saturday, June 30, 2012

So...You Want to Be a Screenwriter—Snap out of It!

I am a screenwriter.  I started writing professionally as a screenwriter.  I will always be a screenwriter because it's fun and I'm hooked and I'm good at it.  But, I say this with all sincerity and compassion—do yourself a favor and start writing novels and self-publish.

I say this because there is no market for screenplays.  I say this because so many screenwriters think a sale a year will make them rich (NOT!).  I say this because, as the wonderful John August (Big Fish, Go, Charlie's Angles) says, " ... you’re never as broke [as a newly employed screenwriter] as when you first start making money."  There is no real outlet for screenwriters to be writers and find an audience as writers. Just consider the Writers Guild of America's (WGA) statistics from its 2011 Annual Report (2012 report for 2011 isn't out yet):

Out of roughly 10,500 members, in 2010:
So, even screenwriters who have "made it" and join the WGA number under 5% annually.  Of these, even a smaller percentage make "big money."  What about all the other screenwriters?  All the many thousands who are not in the WGA, but who think it's only a matter of time before their lottery ticket gets hit by lightning on their birthday on a leap year?  They beat their heads against the gatekeepers walls and doors and write their fingers to the bone and make NO money—ever.  This is the vast majority of screenwriters.  This is the reality of the movie and TV business.  It's called "the business" and not "the art" for a reason.  But, "the business" is stacked against you (us).  It is siloed and a closed shop.  It is designed to keep you out, not to invite you in.  Everything about Hollywood is designed to make it as hard as possible to "break in."  None of this reality check will not stop anyone who wants in, however.  Once bitten by the bug it is impossible to talk reason into the smitten (I know of what I speak, I'm one of them).

And so this missive.  If you have to write screenplays, fine.  Go for it.  Just know there is no market for them.  Everyone is competing for the same, few potential buyers (and I mean few), and there are already 10-thousand professionals who are inside the walls and have preferential access due to their WGA status.  Sorry, it doesn't matter that you have the best story ever written—no one will ever read it, due to the closed system. So, where do you sell your script?  The indie film market?  Most producers will ask you to write for free or pay you a couple thousand and promise to pay Guild minimum when they make a sale.  Good luck with that.

So, where else will you sell your great American screenplay?  Nowhere is where.  If you can't get a studio to buy, or a production company, or a legitimate indie producer, there is no other outlet.  Like I said, there is NO market for screenplays outside of these few and restricted points of sale.

But, there is hope. You are a writer. You don't have to beat your head against Hollywood's door.  You can write something else, you can write somewhere else!  The world of writing has changed forever, and is changing as I write this.  Writers can actually make money, find readers, and find satisfaction in their work through the wonderful world of self-publishing and e-books. But, you've heard about all this.  You know about e-books.  "That's fine," you lament, "but, I'm a screenwriter."  So, drop the "screen" part and just be the other part (hint: starts with a "w" and ends with an "r").  You can do this, honest. 

Writers, nowadays, can ill afford to specialize if they want to make a living doing what they love; and for the first time in publishing history it is actually possible for a writer to make a living writing.  Writers have to diversify with their work: short stories, plays, novels, novellas, screenplays, etc.  Most of these can be put up on the Internet and generate readers and money.  I know screenwriters who have put up old short stories (20 years old!) and people buy them.  And they are feeling like real writers for the first time in their lives.  They have fans, they have market share (small as it is) and they are making some money.  Not with their screenplays—nobody wants those, nobody will read those, nobody cares.  But, e-books and short stories and novellas—you bet.

If you are a screenwriter who must write screenplays, knock yourself out.  But, do yourself a favor and learn how to write prose fiction.  Self-publish and discover a world that has been custom built for you as a writer.  In this new world, people won't rewrite what you write, people won't tell you to turn all your characters into robots, people won't hire other writers to completely fuck up your story and you will actually be appreciated and thanked (imagine that) for doing what you do. You may not get rich, but you will make some money—guaranteed more than you will screenwriting! 

So, consider my words.  Consider what is waiting for you on the Internet right now.  Consider actually writing for readers and not for trust-fund-baby, wannabe-writers playing movie producer (because that's who most of us screenwriters end up writing for—not Paramount!). Just consider ...

Now go be brilliant.

(Note: Some have said to me that this post makes self-publishing sound like it's easy and a bonanza for money. NO, NO, NO... none of this is easy.  My point here is that screenwriting will get you basically nowhere.  Self-publishing will at least get you somewhere... not a panacea, but a real outlet for your work.  No such possibility exists with screenwriting.)

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