There’s more opportunity out there for new scribes than just the fabled spec sale. In fact, writing assignments represent a more reliable path to a genuine livelihood.
When most aspiring screenwriters imagine their successful against-all-odds assault on Hollywood, they think in terms of a big spec sale that changes their lives overnight. But there is also a less glamorous, more realistic way to break into the industry—and that’s a first writing assignment that sets them on a path to becoming a genuine working writer.
“It’s certainly quite difficult,” says veteran screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop I, II, III, The Big Easy, Turner & Hooch), a two-time former president of the Writers Guild of America, West. “But it does happen. It happened to me—I got a writing assignment in 1981, before I qualified to join WGA, because I was cheap.”
And today, with studio and production company development budgets severely challenged, that tried-and-true strategy for making a name for yourself as a newbie is as viable as ever.
But it requires a different perspective—and different skills—than creating a successful spec. “It means taking an idea or a draft of an existing script and making it better,” says Petrie. “And then being able to take it up yet another level and make it better again. And that’s a different skill set than sitting alone at home for six months or a year and writing a good spec.”
For example, Petrie notes, a new writer lusting after that proverbial first assignment must be able to research and identify producers with projects in development, then figure out a way to make contact and form a relationship with them. “Then you have to be able to deliver high-quality work on a deadline. You have to be reliable and easy to work with. And, if you can do good work and do it on deadline, it represents to a producer that not only can you work alone, but you can also work collaboratively, that you have the imagination to take ideas other people offer and incorporate them into your own work.”
Of all the new writers Petrie has ever encountered over the years, only a minority can combine all of the traits required to become a working writer in Hollywood. “But I’ve also seen it happen over and over again during my career,” he admits.
Among the more recent are the Los Angeles-based, husband-and-wife team of Brian Pittman and Rachel Long, both of whom had been cranking out specs for years before they joined forces in 2008 and began chasing assignments. Like many others, they completed several non-paid assignments as a sort of apprenticeship.
After being sought out by Pittman and Long at the writer-focused Austin Film Festival in 2008, Petrie asked to read Pittman’s finalist script, a drama spec titled Stranded, and liked it. That led to a friendly, ongoing relationship and an assignment to do a quick rewrite of a low-budget thriller, Silver Falls, already in development and now in production at Enderby Entertainment where Petrie is a partner. Petrie is also now slated to direct Stranded under the Enderby banner.
Despite the project’s relatively low pay and non-WGA status, Pittman and Long embraced it as a key opportunity to advance their careers—and nurture a relationship with Petrie and his producing partner Paul Hudson. “Maybe it wasn’t an opportunity to go buy a condo in Utah,” says Long, a 2002 Chesterfield Paramount Fellow, “but it was absolutely an opportunity to show what we had to offer as screenwriters.”
“We took that assignment on faith and looked at it as a way to help out a producer,” states Pittman. “Our basic perspective is that you have to open the door any way you can.”
After years of dedicated hard work, the Silver Falls assignment jump-started a career for Long and her husband.
“The exhilarating thing about assignments,” Pittman explains, “is that you’re dealing with a project that is going to be in play and a movie that is going to get made, because the team and the funding are already in place. Everybody’s on board and they’re just looking for a writer. That’s a far different experience than taking a script around town for months, or even years. Getting assignments means you are a working writer.”
In turn, that reveals a clear path to a real career, as opposed to a dream. “Our goal now,” Long says, “is to meet as many people in the industry as possible and try to bring their stories to life.”
And based on the exceptional quality of their work on Silver Falls and the fact that they delivered a script ahead of their deadline, when producer Hudson began his search for writers for a $100 million production of 1950, a Korean War drama, he hired them to write the script—a job that will now get them into the WGA.
Since then, they’ve also landed another assignment, a World War II story, and become self-supporting as screenwriters.
Going Where the Money is
If your goal is to become a full-time working writer rather than the hyped-up subject of a single glowing spec-sale article in Variety, assignments are the way to go, notes Jeff Morris, who also launched his career with initial assignment work. Today, he’s a full-time, self-supporting screenwriter repped by WME with a couple of spec sales under his belt to boot.
“The total amount of money paid out for assignment work versus specs is much bigger,” he states. “That’s where the work is. It dwarfs spec sales by about 1,000 to one, probably.”
Given that, if he were ever forced to choose between assignment work and specs, he would opt for the former, Morris admits. “That’s because you can keep working and make a good living every year.”
And if regular work and a consistent livelihood is your goal, there are also non-traditional ways to go about achieving it.
For example, Halle Eavelyn, another L.A.-based scribe, has exploited the booming Internet world of personal expression and quest to find people who want their life stories—or some other idea they have—turned into a movie and are willing to pay to see that happen.
Her first break came via her cousin’s girlfriend. She hired Eavelyn to develop a script that went on to sell as a spec. “I was paid to help develop the story and then ended up being co-writer of the script,” Eavelyn says. “Then it sold. Now, I’ve done a dozen of those scripts and I am making my living as a screenwriter.”
But regardless of whether your path passes through Hollywood, or a more adventurous route such as Eavelyn’s, there are certain traits that are required for success, Morris observes:
“You have to have the skill sets and be able to execute,” he says. “It has to be on the page. But there are a lot of people in this business who can execute. But after that, it’s a matter of whether your story sensibility lines up with that of the producers. For example, if it’s a comedy project, do you and the producers find the same kinds of things funny? Do you view life in a similar way?”
And, adds Petrie, you must be able to take notes and work collaboratively. “Some people have very good writing samples, but if you give notes, you find they resent them or are defensive,” he explains. “And there are others who just can’t deliver under the pressure of a deadline. Those are the two things that really separate the ‘almost there’ from the people that make it.”
As a newbie, you also have to be willing to work in “good faith,” says Morris. “I spent six months developing the story with the first producer I worked with—the legendary John Davis (Predator, The Firm, Mr. Popper’s Penguins) of Davis Entertainment. It was a warm place to work, but it wasn’t easy. A good producer challenges you and that makes you better.”
At the same time, Morris says, a new writer must pick projects carefully. “You have to pick ones that are right for you,” he states. “I had a ton of meetings after my first spec sale and I looked at a lot of projects. But, not all of them were right for me and my sensibilities. And one easy way to get quickly driven out of the business is to go after a project you don’t feel you can execute but you want to chase the dollars.”
If a project isn’t right for you, walk away, he advises. “If a studio is willing to pay you a lot of money now for an idea you don’t really like, they’ll be willing to pay you similar money in the future for something you do feel good about,” he says. “But if you take on a project and don’t do a good job, you will end your relationship with that studio on the spot.”
Consequently, it helps to have some smaller assignments under your belt before you pursue bigger ones, Long says. “My advice to new writers is that in order to get your ‘first great assignment,’ make sure it’s not your first great assignment. You need some experience before that really comes along.”
Must you live in L.A. to start getting work?
“It obviously helps,” admits Long. “But if you’re a good writer and you can go to the Austin Film Festival, or you can get to L.A. and attend some WGA functions, or you can get to Sundance—you need to put yourself into the places where you can find producers who have stories to tell and are looking for writers.”
Even short of that, however, new writers outside L.A. break in each year, too.
For example, Tucson attorney Ray White and his Long Island-based writing partner, P.J. McIlvaine, won a paid assignment earlier this year to write a mob drama, La Vedova Nera (The Black Widow), developed and produced by New Jersey actor Dennis D’Amico and funded by co-producer and cardiologist Leonard Moss.
“I had written a treatment for a Marilyn Monroe biopic they are producing and they liked my work,” White says. “And P.J. had two produced movies to her credit (A Merry Little Christmas, My Horrible Year!). The producers liked our backgrounds and story sensibilities, so we got the job writing the new film. So, not only do new writers get assignments. But new writers not based in Los Angeles get assignments, too. You just have to get out there and find the opportunities—and be ready.”
Based on her unique experience, Eavelyn agrees that there are ways to overcome the many obstacles that make it so difficult for new writers to get that first break. “There are ways around everything, and as long as you are constantly tenacious and you believe in yourself, you can get there,” she states. “It’s not that unusual.”
Morris concurs. Despite long odds, he says, new writers land bona fide paid assignments every year. “The industry needs people to break in every year. The advantage to the industry is that, relatively speaking, new talent is cheap. And that’s why they give significant assignments to new writers, because they have an idea they’re working on, but they don’t want to give it to a $1 million writer. They need a $100,000 writer. And that’s how you get your first big break, and the studio gets what they need.”
For such studio jobs, you’ll need an agent or manager. For smaller jobs, you can get them on your own. It’s all about how hard you try and how much you believe in yourself.
But that’s true in any endeavor.
Screenwriter Interviews, Screenwriting Assignments, Screenwriting How-To Articles, Showcase
WRITERS ON WRITING: The Legacy of Frida
BALLS OF STEEL: 5 Lessons on Getting Real with Your Writing Goals
WRITERS ON WRITING: The Adaptation Process of A Single Man
Screenwriter Insight: Wonderstruck’s Brian Selznick Draws the Adaptation
Susan Kouguell Speaks with the Marshall Screenwriters and Executive Producer
About John BuchananJOHN BUCHANAN is an award-winning, nationally published journalist and magazine writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 newspapers and magazines. He is currently a freelance reporter for the global news agency Reuters.
View all posts by John Buchanan →
What freelance writer doesn’t dream of snagging a magazine writing assignment for newsstand favorites such as Men’s Health, SELF, or GQ?
Heavyweight magazines may be hard to crack, but with smart, persistent strategy, it’s possible — even if you’ve never had a national magazine writing assignment before.
Here are the tips that helped me land a magazine writing assignment for Runner’s World.
Embrace the pre-interview
When I first started pitching, I tried to get by without doing any pre-interviews. Why spend my time finding an expert and interviewing them, if I’m not even sure the article idea will sell?
But I always ended up with anemic, generic query letters that didn’t get any traction. Once I started doing pre-interviews, I sold more articles — which means less of my pitching time is wasted on queries that don’t sell.
Pre-interviews make your pitches meaty. Not only can you include juicy, pithy expert quotes, but your pitch will come across as authoritative because you will be far more knowledgeable about the subject.
When you find someone you’d like to pre-interview, reach out with a simple, professional email. Through practice, I’ve come up with a successful formula:
[Email Subject Line:] Writer Inquiry: Nailing That First Pullup
Good afternoon Ms. Expert,
My name is Lauren Bedosky, and I’m a Minnesota-based health and fitness writer. I’m working on a pitch for Big Name Magazine that offers readers tips for nailing their first pullup. I read your great article on the subject on Health & Fitness website, and I’m hoping to have a short, 10-minute phone conversation with you.
Are you available sometime in the next couple of weeks?
Thanks for your time,
Hire a coach or find a writer buddy who can look over your pitches and give you feedback. A fresh pair of eyes can spot holes in your logic and tell you if your idea is compelling enough to catch an editor’s attention.
It’s way better to get that feedback early in the process, instead of further down the line when you’ve invested a great deal of time and energy.
Create a follow-up plan
Some writers don’t bother following up on pitches they send, but if I put a lot of work into a pitch, the last thing I want to do is give up on an editor after one go. In fact, most of the responses I get come from sending a quick follow-up email two weeks after the initial pitch.
It’s up to you how detailed you’d like to be. I keep a simple Google spreadsheet where I track pitches sent and responses received. Keeping a spreadsheet also helps me identify new markets to target if my pitch fails to land anywhere.
Once you hit “Send” on a pitch, it’s tempting to spend the rest of the day watching your inbox.
But trust me, your time is better spent working on the next pitch. The more solid ideas you have, the more chances of nabbing an assignment. I’ve kept busy pitching, which has lead to a second assignment from Runner’s World and one from Redbook.
In fact, I often respond to rejection emails by offering another idea. Doing so keeps the conversation going and helps build that critical editor-writer relationship.
How have you gotten assignments from editors? Tell us in the comments below.
Lauren Bedosky is a Minneapolis-based health and fitness writer who’s written for Runner’s World, Experience Life, and others.
Tagged with: guest post, magazine writing, pitch letters, query letter