Getting All You Can from Your 1st Screenwriting Assignment

Don’t just sneak through that door that’s finally opened for you. And don’t let it slam you in the face. Here’s some advice on how to make the best possible use of one of the biggest possible times in your life – your first screenwriting gig:

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by Mark Sanderson

After I graduated from film school, I had the same misguided ideas as my fellow scribes – that we’d sell our first spec for a million dollars and build a career only writing specs. I didn’t yet realize that most working screenwriters in Hollywood make their living from assignment jobs­­­­ – it’s the bread and butter of professionals. Yes, specs are necessary to gain experience writing and to showcase your ability, but the reality is that most of your specs will not sell and you might have to write a half dozen or more before one might secure you a coveted assignment job.

This was my personal story as I trudged through Hollywood with my first four specs and hoped for a sale to start my career, but the combination to the lock on Hollywood’s gates remained elusive. It wasn’t until my fifth spec landed in the top 1% of the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship entries that my work received notice. The script was later optioned by a new production company, produced into a movie and distributed globally, but seeing my dream come true was a long seven year journey from the first draft to first day of production.

The film was a success and my collaboration with the producers made them feel confident about my abilities and they hired me for my first screenwriting assignment job. I learned their sensibilities, how to give them what they needed, and quickly became a member of a team of writers they hired again and again. These successful working relationships are vital to a screenwriter’s success and that is why it’s vital to build your reputation as a team player and collaborator – not a diva who bristles from every script change. Filmmaking is an art, but also a business with millions of dollars on the line for a project and anything that holds up the forward movement toward production will be eliminated.

Another benefit of an assignment job, besides being paid as a professional writer, it allows you to work with different producers, executives and directors while you build your network of future employers and collaborators. I recently turned in the thirteenth paid assignment of my career and these jobs have resulted in six produced films and another one from my original spec sale. The reality is that I haven’t sold another spec since because I’ve been too busy working on assignments for producers. These are called “quality problems” and the steady work has allowed me to forge a screenwriting career. I still write a spec every so often when I really have a passion for an idea, but I have to weigh the time constraints on how it might affect my paid writing when I’m on under a deadline on assignment.

Okay, maybe your journey is different and you don’t sell a spec that gets produced, but it’s amazing showcase of your talents. This can garner interest and secure meetings with producers and companies. So, you score a series of meetings with producers – what happens next? You take every meeting you can because it’s your chance to be in front of them and pitch your new ideas to show that you are not a “one script wonder.” You’re going to compete with other writers for the job and some might have prior relationships with the producers, so you need to dazzle them with your talent and personality.

If a company has an open assignment and is looking to hire a writer, they want to feel confident you can execute their notes and work at your best under a deadline. When a script moves into the development phase, time is precious and schedules are vital to getting the script ready to attract a director, actors and move the project toward the ultimate goal of production. Even if nothing immediately comes from these meetings, they are important opportunities to build your network of open doors where you can return with new specs or pitches.

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