3 Screenwriting Pitfalls That Will Wreck Your Career

Most novice screenwriters think getting screwed over in Hollywood all boils down to story theft, but in truth, story theft rarely takes place.  Instead, they overlook the very real screenwriting pitfalls that can cause unnecessary career setbacks.

Screenwriting Pitfalls

3 Screenwriting Pitfalls That Will Wreck Your Career

What follows are some of the real-world situations you need to be cautious of so you don’t let Hollywood screw you over before your writing career has even started.

Screenwriting Pitfall #1:  Signing with an Agent Too Early

Writers are consistently taught to go sign with an Agent as soon as their first Spec Script is finished…

Although agent’s offer fantastic services for professional writers, signing with one prematurely can actually hold-back opportunities from a newbie and cause way more harm than good.

Contrary to common belief, Agents make money by brokering deals (not finding and promoting new writers).  An agent will focus attention on whichever properties are of interest to third parties.

In order to gain access to more properties, or to simply keep new scripts and writers away from their competitors – Agent’s have been known to sign on more writers (and scripts) than they know they’ll ever be able to actively push.

Sure, some Agent’s will work with you and help get your work to a more professional level… But if your work isn’t selling soon after, just watch how quickly responses or phone calls grow silent on you.

This means in order to gain professional traction, you’ll have to go hustle your own work and follow-up on your own leads.  However, if a deal is brokered (even from your own leads and efforts) you’ll still have to pay your Agent for having done nothing…

Or even worse, they might wedge their way in and try to demand more and actually jeopardize the deal you worked so hard to initiate.

There is a time and place for working with an Agent during your career, but not until later on (after you’ve sold a few scripts on your own).

Screenwriting Pitfall #2:  Re-Writing for Free

Lower end producers and production companies have been known to dangle a tempting carrot before novice writers—they exclaim that their script is great, but that it just needs a little more [fill in the blank], and then they’d be willing to enter into a deal.

The tactic here is to get you to completely re-write your script for free. That way they can see if it meets their needs before signing a Purchase deal or Option Agreement with you.

On their end, they have zero commitment or liability – but on your side, they’re essentially squeezing a ‘first draft’ out of you for free.  Even though I’m a firm believer that we all must contribute a little sweat equity once in a while in pursuit of our goals, working for free on behalf of other people is something you should always avoid.

If a party is truly interested in your work and wants to discuss verbal opportunities, then nothing formal needs to be set up—however if a company wants you to alter or re-tweak your work, then some type of agreement (with a clear outline of financial terms) needs to exist.

And make sure that any requested alteration to your work (a new draft, clean-up or polish job) has some kind of financial structure affixed.  If they like your work, they should put their money (or at least their written commitment) where their mouth is.

Screenwriting Pitfalls #3:  Signing an Option Agreement (without reading the fine print)

The idea of an Option Agreement is great. In theory it’s a win-win for both the writer and the Production Company or Producer issuing it.  But remember, these deals are not guarantees that your work will be produced. You are simply loaning all rights to your property to a producing entity in the hopes that they can raise funds or sell the script to a third party.

There should be an upfront Optioning License Fee (upfront payment) to cover the first term of the deal—but sometimes it’s only a revenue share.  Although I’m not a big fan of Option Agreements (and would always push for a Purchase), sometimes an ‘Option’ is the only deal on the table.

Most writers get excited about the opportunity and stop reading carefully past page one.

Make sure you understand the full scope of what the Option is… What happens if no one acquires the film?  Will you have visibility to whom (and how) your script will be handled while it was being optioned? Does the Optioning company have a strategy?  Are they taking your script out in a wide sweep of Hollywood or only showing it to a select few parties?

And what happens if the script is taken on by a completely different entity?

Bottom line: You need to make sure you have a very clear overview of the details (and clear understanding of how exploited your script will be once it come back to you after the term has expired).

Write What Hollywood Wants

As a screenwriter, struggling to get that first break, it’s easy to point the finger at Hollywood exclaiming how tough it can be. But you must be willing to accept a bit of the responsibility for your success on your own shoulders too—it is a two-way street.

The biggest action holding most newbie writers back is simply not writing what the Hollywood system depends upon (independent genre fair—e.g., family holiday films, female driven thrillers, and action films); instead most Newbies write what they ‘think’ Hollywood wants, or push what Hollywood ‘should’ make (dead-on-arrival films like dramas or coming of age stories)… They also falsely believe they must ‘wow’ the system in order to stand-out, but generally only end up with scripts that seem forced or over-written.

In my book, Writing for the Green Light, I focus on why the Hollywood system works the way it does and focus on those key ‘gold mine’ genres that Hollywood readers are actively on the hunt for.

Success in screenwriting is purely about strategy, not luck.  Learn how Hollywood truly works, write what Hollywood needs, and present your work in the way Hollywood needs to hear it… That’s your real ticket in.

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ARTICLE BY Scott Kirkpatrick

Scott Kirkpatrick is the Senior Vice President of Sales for the London-based distribution company DRG and is the author of the book Writing for the Green Light: How to Make Your Script the One Hollywood Notices.  Previously, he served as the Executive Director of Distribution for MarVista Entertainment.  He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.
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