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A Screenwriters Career: Getting Representation and 'For-Hire' Jobs
A Screenwriters Career: Getting Representation and 'For-Hire' Jobs

Here are a few details about working in the screenwriting world that you'll want to know about:

Agents and Managers: every new writer dreams about what his career will be like and how many more sales opportunities he'll have, if only he could find a literary agent or talent manager to work with. The good news is that it's not impossible to find a professional who will work with a beginner to sell and market new scripts. However, once you cross this threshold, you'll soon learn that your success is still not assured, even with the most dedicated agent. Your search for an agent is similar to the submission and query process for your script. You identify and gather information about various talent agencies or individual agents, query about your work, send scripts, and wait to see if they are interested in handling you as a writer.

What does an agent do? He or she can shop your scripts or try to find work for you on assignment. Your agent will know producers, companies, filmmakers and directors and will have your scripts to peddle. An agent can also help negotiate contracts. Don't sign up with an agent who wants a lot of upfront fees for postage, phone calls, copies, mileage, reading fees, submission fees, rewrite fees, etc. The standard is a 10 percent cut of any funds from sales of your work, where the agent is involved. Often there are individuals who want to get into this business as agents themselves and they will be looking for new clients. There are also hundreds of small, boutique agencies and managers. For the really big agencies---ICM, CAA, William Morris, etc.---approach with caution the same way you would a big studio.

Contracts and deals: when you sell or option a script, always try to get some paperwork on the arrangement. An option is a deal with a buyer for exclusive production rights to your material within a specific period of time (such as one year) for a sum of money. Most options will include the actual sale price of the script, with the option amount set at ten percent. So when you give a producer an option for $2,000, the sale price might be $20,000, and after a year, when the film goes into production, you are paid $18,000, or the difference between the two figures. This is all specified in a contract, and you can often get sample contracts online, such as at the Writers Guild of America website (www.wga.org). Many producers will bring their own contracts to the deal, and for a complex deal, they will hire an entertainment attorney to prepare the contract, which can be as long as 10 to 12 pages. Be prepared on some of these to sign over every conceivable right to your work.
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You should have a 'work agreement' on your computer for use when taking minor gigs and some kind of 'deal memo' you will use for paid 'for-hire' scriptwriting jobs. For those, you set a price or reach an agreement on how much you will charge for a certain job. You also decide exactly what you will provide, such as an outline, treatment, various drafts of the work, and specific delivery dates for each step of the process. A 'deal memo' will also specify refusal rights for the producer (such as his right to reject your work at any point in the process) and other details. Never take a job or do any work without something on paper about your compensation. For assignments, you'll almost always want part of your payment upfront, because small time producers have been known to walk away from a job without paying. For anything with large sums of money, have your agent or an attorney look over the terms with you before signing.
Working as a 'for-hire' writer: these situations are more common than 'spec' sales of original material and can provide some good writing money for a working screenwriter. Often a company will have a story, actor, or location in mind. A producer may have developed a story he likes but doesn't have the time or inclination to write the actual script. He may have it all in his head, a brief treatment, or hand-written notes, etc. Also, many private individuals---housewives, doctors, lawyers, other artists, and so on---will want to hire a screenwriter to work out their life story, some experience they had, or a story they'd like to sell on their own. Other people will bring you novels they want adapted to the screen. If you have some credentials, you can often get these jobs. It's important to be businesslike and reliable. You can set your own rates for these, but you won't get a lot of them if you charge a very high rate.

A good way to approach these jobs is to work by phone and e-mail to get the specific details of the story the buyer wants scripted.
You then do an outline of the material the way it would work for a screenplay, and the client can approve this before you go ahead. Sometimes companies or producers will be in a big hurry to get one of these scripts done and ask you to complete the work in just a week or two. If you're any good or like to stay up late, these can be done, but beware of making promises you can't keep. Keep in mind that you may be asked to surrender the by-line on a 'for-hire' job to someone else and work as a 'ghost-writer.' This is your choice, but you can blow the deal by insisting on credit for yourself. For some jobs, you will provide 'pages-in-progress' as you go (or however many pages you write each day) for review. Many clients will ask for a lot of changes, almost like a collaborator. 'For-hire' jobs can earn you between $2,000 and $10,000 for a feature length script, and if you get a reputation for these, they can come often. Each finished job goes on your resume to impress the next client.

With so many writers holding onto both a cautious optimism and a pocketful of dreams, it's worthwhile to point out that the screenwriting game is not for everyone. The seduction and lure of films has ruined lives and wounded the idealistic and gullible. Because there really is sympathy for those feelings and those who have stumbled, here are some thoughts about how to avoid some of the more sinister fates that might await the uninitiated.

Let's say you hook up with a flashy producer from Hollywood, he waves some money in your face, raves about your writing, and you move toLos Angeles on a dime, hoping for the best. Check out what you definitely don't want to happen next:

You go to work on projects 12 hours a day for low pay, with promises of a big paycheck, but none of your material is ever produced. The jobs end and you're stranded.

You get a fairly large sum of money for a script, but you are sucked into the party life and end up hooked on meth or heroin.

Your fantastic script is shopped around and taken over by other writers and producers. They make so many changes to your original idea that you hardly recognize it, but you're powerless.

All of the offers that lured you to Hollywood turn out to be fakes and you end up homeless.

You struggle along for years with a few small writing jobs for low pay, but grow bitter and full of envy for the lives of more successful writers. You finally lose the joy and thrill that started you writing in the first place.

You land a great deal and it looks cool for a quick production, and you're even paid some decent money. However, it turns out the production company was a front for Mafia money and you're under investigation by the FBI.

You get a meeting with a powerful executive, but you make an unfortunate social error regarding her ethnic background. Soon, you have a reputation all over Hollywood as a hopeless ignoramus, and no one will even take your calls.

You have a hot script and get an interview on TV, but a curious reporter uncovers the skeletons in your closet and it's all over the news, with photographs


Pessimistic? Dark? Rough hardball? Risky? Maybe, but it really depends on your approach. You need to take warning before you make these life changing choices about your writing. In this way, you can remain a happy writer, safe and secure in your cozy writing nook, respected and treated well.

First, in the modern world, it's not necessary to pull up stakes and leave behind your Montana homestead just to take a few meetings in Santa Monica. With the Internet, working by phone and e-mail, you have just as good a chance as the guy at Starbucks on Sunset and Vine, schmoozing with other writers over lattes. Successful screenwriters work from all over the world, and submissions, communications, person-to-person conference calls on projects, and sending video files are now very simple matters. If you take your writing seriously, you can make great connections right from the heart of the industry, without ever taking a risk on that apartment in Burbank.

Likewise, by thinking of your screenwriting as a low cost, creative small business, rather than a lifestyle, you can steer clear of many problems and still enjoy realistic paychecks and film credits. You might even write screenplays just as a hobby or as therapy. Scale back your grandiose expectations, get the star dust out of your eyes, and your work will be more rewarding in the long run.

Sometimes writers talk about the disparity between film as a business and a 'pure art form.' Art or commerce? Both art and money have a strong role in any successful project. The smart writer learns to do both---nurture your true creative self with material you feel strongly about on the side, but be skilled enough with basic scripting techniques to do a solid job on the quick buck films that are more common. It's a compromise, but why fight it?

Violence, suicide, threats, deceptive practices, sleazy deals, drug addiction, abject poverty, or bitterness need not be a part of any new screenwriter's voyage towards fulfillment. Take a hint---it's not worth it. Give it up and find something else life has to offer. Passions, egos, and money drive a lot of what makes Hollywood and the film industry so appealing---and those same factors also can chew up and bury a newbie.

Hard work and persistence will help you. Get what you're after through the realistic application of knowledge and a good work ethic. Know the battlefield before jumping into the fire. You can play the game like a pro, but avoid getting burned. All that great lifestyle and glamour stuff may yet find you, when you least expect it.

Although most screenwriters want to create those memorable dramas and adventures we've all known and loved, the fact remains that to work writing scripts you'll need to find opportunities in other kinds of script writing just to pay your bills. But take heart---there's good pay writing video scripts on all kinds of fascinating topics, and as we know, a well done documentary can change the world or an election.

These lesser screen credits can be bankable for future sales. You can also find great satisfaction in the process of visualizing a project, writing it down in a standard format that can be interpreted by a video producer, and seeing the end product come to life. We all have to start somewhere, and local video producers are sometimes a great way for the beginner who wants to write for the screen and make a fair sum for his work.

Local video producers vary in size, interests, resources, and willingness to out source scripts. Many of these producers make most of their income from weddings and event videography, tape duplication, producing and burning DVDs, or transferring film to video and vice versa. But often a video producer will come across a client who has something specific in mind, such as an educational subject, a documentary, or a training video.

To make the video producer's job easy, he needs a script before he can shoot and edit any of these. That's where you come in. If you can grasp a wide variety of topics and explain them in simple and visual language, if you can provide a shooting script the producer can work from that doesn't neglect proper format, terminology, industry standards, and creativity, and if you can do this on a deadline, working as a team, with a willingness to make changes, you can succeed in the world of small video scriptwriting.

Your first step is to become familiar with the script formatting your video producer wants to use. Some video producers use a 'split page,' two column format, with visuals on the right and narration or sound on the left. Others will use a more common 'motion picture' or 'film format' style . Computer programs are available to do most of the formatting work for you. These formats are not as rigid as you might think, but you need to know the basics before you begin or your producer will not be happy.

How can your local video producer hire you if he doesn't know you exist? One way to start your business writing video scripts is to open your local phone book and start calling video companies nearby. Introduce yourself and let them know about any writing experience or credits you have. Ask if the company sometimes hires outside script writers. This can also be accomplished via e-mail, or snail mail, with a resume, query, and contact information. You might also want to have a few projects of your own to pitch to the producer to see if he might want to pursue them. These could include things like a video on local tourism attractions, a video on local restaurants, videos on things like local artists who may be available to share special art techniques, or anything that might somehow be profitable to put on tape. You need to develop these ideas somewhat and be ready to follow through. Remember, the producer is only interested in devoting his time and resources to projects that can turn a profit, preferably a quick one. Advertisers who might buy into a special project, subjects that are ready to be filmed, or paying clients with unique needs are all welcome.

The style and substance of each video is different. If you are doing an educational video on livestock grooming, you need to do the heavy research that makes the product valuable to the student audience. A video profile of a local artist is more fluid and informal. Any kind of instructional video must provide complete details on the technique or subject involved so the viewer can really benefit. Corporate clients are extremely sensitive about their public image, so the words and images you choose are all critical. The key is to make your script so full of useful, accurate, and enjoyable information that the producer, client, and audience are all satisfied.

are another screen option you can have success with. Some documentary filmmakers don't even use a script, but the really outstanding docs are filled with authentic, original research. Our world today is filled with situations that cry out for the truth to be exposed---political situations, human rights violations, wars, mass starvation, abuse of children, protests, new scientific methods, new products, cultural changes, and on and on. This kind of screenwriting is much closer to journalism than any other kind, and you must be ready to apply strict standards of proof, sources of information, accountability, accuracy, and ethics for your work to be taken seriously. For example, if you're documenting a horrible global situation on film, your work will be controversial and your information and sources will be checked out. Besides, it's simply the only approach that will make any real difference. So called 'mockumentaries' can be fun and even enlightening, but they do a disservice to other filmmakers who won't take the easy way out with the truth.

What does a documentary script look like? Because they often rely on first hand video of events, interviews, situations, and on location set ups, the scripts for these are best handled as a loose fitting road map for the project. Working with your filmmaker or producer, you go over the facts and details you want to include---this can require serious research at a library or online. Background information on a political situation, for example, is thoroughly explored and related as narration, filling in between the parts of your doc that you simply can't plan. The writer uses visuals that paint a picture of these facts and details, with an introduction, mid part, and end. For the rest---the interviews, first hand footage, on location shots you can't plan for---you put these into the script as scenes or segments that are described or written on the page, as if to be placed later, depending on what happens in the field. In this way your filmmaker has his road map and can plan his production, but leave room for the unexpected. Sometimes a documentary writer will not come onto a project until much of the footage is already shot and completed---he will then go over the footage, do his research, and piece together his script so an editor can assemble the film in a presentable way for a high quality finished product.

There are other areas where your abilities as a script writer can prove valuable to you or others. Commercial spots can be lucrative, and if you land a job with an advertising agency, your skill with a script will make you popular. Don't fool yourself into believing that you'll be writing every new script for a big feature film full of wonderful stars and special effects. Keep your options open and learn all you can about other types of script work that can turn a buck for you and be satisfying as well.
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