Spec Screenplays as Samples?Complications Ensue
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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Alex Steele of the Gotham Writers' Workshop was kind enough to send me a copy of their new screenwriting book, Writing Movies. Contrary to what I say in Crafty Screenwriting, they believe that even if you don't sell your well-written feature screenplay, it can get you work.

You would think that would be true. In my experience that wasn't the case. At least not at the studio level. I went out with any number of spec screenplays in my first ten years in the biz. I had great meetings, the development execs gave me projects they were looking for rewrites on, I came back with my "take" on where the rewrite should go... and nothing. My agents all said I needed a big spec sale to get on the list of writers studios will hire.

I did get various jobs writing screenplays for independent production companies, but that was all through people who knew me. They already wanted to hire me, and they read my screenplays to see if I was any good. And, it was all below scale. (I wasn't in the Guild in those days.)

Is the Gotham Writers' Workshop right? Anybody know someone who got a proper Guild screenwriting job based solely on their unsold spec screenplay and not on their personal connections?


Hello, Alex. I’m one of the authors of Writing Movies. I’m also a textbook case of the spec-as-sample method of breaking in. Three years ago, I went out with my first big spec in Hollywood. It was read by everyone over a few, short days – and promptly passed on. Though initially I was crushed, what I soon discovered was that while the buyers may not have been willing to pony up for the script, they all wanted to meet me to talk about other projects. Some of them wanted to hear what other ideas I was working on, but most had open assignments to pitch me. I chose a few that I liked (and that I thought I could get), chased them, and then I got one. It was my first studio gig. It got me into the Guild, validated me to the industry, and paid me better than any writing job – or any other job, for that matter – that I’d had in my life. I’ve been working steadily ever since.

My experience in this business, and in this life, is that we rarely get the exact results we’re after. Rather than thinking of screenwriting as a shot put, it’s better to think of it as a marathon. A screenwriter’s job is to constantly be writing, turning out new ideas, pitching new projects. And to then be ready for anything. The more you get out there, the more you make yourself available to whatever unexpected opportunities are awaiting you. Success is rarely found along a straight and narrow path. It comes sideways.

Thanks for your terrific site.

Daniel Noah
Los Angeles

By Blogger daniel noah, at 12:40 PM  

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