Okay, my fellow writers; let’s put our pens down and our producer hats on for a moment. I’m challenging you to apply for more opportunities. Take your original specs, your short film scripts, your undeveloped features, and web series’ and send them out to relevant contests. Get better at selling yourself and apply for fellowships and mentorships. Let’s get way more systematic. You can prepare for writing contests and mentorships so that you’re not overwhelmed as deadlines approach.
Why? Simply put, when we place ourselves and our work into contests and mentorships, we increase our chances. For the cost of some time, a bit of potential rejection, and the entrance fees, we are increasing our chances at gaining the recognition and buzz that moves careers along to the next level.
Even when we apply for contests, programs or mentorships that don’t come through, we are building the habit of being a professional. As a plus, we develop a thicker skin and it gets easier to do the work.
Step 1: Be Ready
Build regular time for this work into your schedule, both for the initial research and for the individual application prep. One way to decrease anxiety and decrease efficiency is to create a template package, a process checklist, and a support team.
Carole Kirschner talks about building your personal logline. You can use this as a springboard for the all-important letter of intent. Once you have a letter that you feel good about, you can use it as the base template for your various applications, (obviously individualized as needed.) These letters of intent need to show your voice and to feel authentic. You should always have an up to date resume in your file, and a few “ready to send” scripts in your portfolio. Have a synopsis and a treatment for each spec in your portfolio. Will you need someone to proofread your applications? Who will write your reference letters if needed? Will you need graphic design elements for an attached treatment? Think about this in advance and do whatever you can ahead of time.
Step 2: Know Your Stuff
Research your best bets and top priorities. These will differ depending on your genre, your level of experience, and your geographic location. Scan the social media feeds and newsletters of your local arts councils, guilds, national broadcasters, and the major industry markets. You can also learn what contests are lighting up careers by listening to industry podcasts. (We’ve referenced several favorites on our blog over the past year.) Do this homework yourself and you’ll learn a lot more about the industry. Here in BC, you should definitely pay attention to communications from Creative BC, the CMPA-BC, and Women in Film and Television Vancouver, as well as Telus Storyhive and the Directors Guild of Canada – BC, and Crazy8s, to name a few. Spark Animation and Raindance Vancouver are also useful sources of information. I’m sure I’m missing several more so feel free to leave a comment with suggestions.
Step 3: Create Your List
Create a calendar of relevant submission deadlines. Because you are planning in advance, some dates will only be estimates, so make note a few months earlier to double-check and update the details. Make sure you are on social media and newsletter feeds for the contests and fellowships you will be applying for.
Step 4: Do The Work
Be organized, be disciplined and be brave. Do the work. Send in the applications.
Step 5: Be Prepared to Say Yes
Be both prepared to say “yes,” and unflappable if you get a “no.”
This means keeping your schedule clear…ish during the future conferences or mentorships you have applied for. Try not to schedule anything that can’t be rescheduled, moved or refunded.
In case you do get a “yes,” anticipate the obstacles. For example, if you have family, think about what needs to happen in terms of childcare to make this work. Is there any “just in case” groundwork you should be putting into place? Also, financial planning can be a roadblock for most of us. Will you need savings to cover potential travel costs and loss of income? Now is the time to look into funding opportunities and their requirements/deadlines. A little anticipatory thinking and groundwork can go a long way.
If you get a “no,” you’ll need to stay gracious and persevere. After all, most applicants get a no most of the time. That’s why you want to increase your applications in this numbers game in the first place.
If you are not accepted or shortlisted this time around, know that it is not a reflection of your value as an artist.
Here’s a trick – if you want to broaden your perspective and get more comfortable with rejection, get yourself onto a jury for a film festival or a screenwriting contest. Experiencing the submissions avalanche and ensuing selection process from the other side is both illuminating and liberating.
Happy planning and good luck!
Thank you to everyone who attended our sold out Q&A with Amy and Tassie Cameron! For those of you who weren’t able to attend, here are a few of the questions they answered.
How do you decide what shows you want to bring on?
We decided everyone had to love the project we were going to bring on… We had to know we would be an undeniable team if we took it on. -Amy Cameron
How do you compose a writers room?
I’m in the middle of staffing a room right now, and we’ve been doing weeks of interviews with writers, from the most junior to the most senior. You’re trying to put together a magical cocktail of people. -Tassie Cameron
On reading scripts:
It is evident when someone is trying meet markers in a script, and it’s evident when someone really loved their project and had a fun time writing it. -Amy Cameron
On using vision, and listening to the writers in your room:
Be open to accepting and taking feedback for your vision. Let the thing become an organic, breathing piece of art. – Tassie Cameron
A guest post by local screenwriter, Michelle Muldoon…
As a screenwriter, you need to understand the market you operate in if you want to find success. You can’t play the game and expect to succeed if you don’t know the parameters for a winning hand. The more you know, the more you do, the better your chances. Canada has its own unique set of challenges and the days of screenwriters blissfully typing away without a concern for them are over.
Writers have often been told not to worry about budget and let the creative juices flow. That advice is unrealistic. Larger Canadian budgets tend to come out of Quebec or are a part of co-productions. The greatest output of Canadian Film comes through the Telefilm Talent to Watch Program, formerly known as the Ultra-Low Budget Program. Last year’s Canadian Screen Awards Best Director Award went to the director of a film partially funded under Talent to Watch and came in with a $250,000 budget.
First-time writers have their backs against the wall regardless of the budget of the script. Why make life difficult. Get a first feature, short film, pilot or web series in the bag at a low budget because you need to develop…
If you aren’t in the game for the long haul, then you aren’t in the game. It takes time to create an identity within your film community. Work on other people’s projects in order to gain an understanding of production. When you’re ready, consider producing your own short screenplay. The knowledge gained on production processes and the accrued expenses will inform your next screenplay. At the same time, you’ll be creating an identity by starting your IMDB listing and thus proving that you can and do work with your film community. To move a feature film or television project forward, professionals need to feel confident they can spend years with you collaborating on the end goal. That belief starts somewhere.
Every screenwriter needs more than one screenplay or original TV spec script in their portfolio. It’s part of being a professional. The urban legend of the producer that responds to a pitch with, “Not crazy about that, what else you got” is not an urban legend at all. It happens and will happen to you. Writers write. A producer wants to be sure that they are working with someone who understands the process, can generate ideas and complete rewrites based on notes provided. Building a portfolio proves you have the commitment to build that career and the “stick-with-it-ness” to see something to the end.
The passion for writing fuels creativity while awareness of the business of film stokes a career. One cannot exist without the other if you want to make it in today’s market. Learn the expectations, boundaries, and requirements of a writer in today’s market, and you’ll feel more in control of the journey.
There is nothing linear about the path of a screenwriter. During the 2012 Winter Olympics, the Canadian Women’s Ice Hockey team wrote a letter to the Men’s team to be read right before the gold medal game. The most famous quote from that letter was, “The podium favours the brave.” So does a screenwriting career.
Be brave, be prepared and most of all, be ready for opportunity to come knocking by taking matters, and your career, into your own hands.
Michelle Muldoon is an award-winning writer and filmmaker living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her films and screenplays have been recognized at Film Festivals in both Canada and the United States. You can read more of what Michelle has to say on her own blog. You can also follow Michelle on Twitter or Instagram, as well as join the fans following her latest award-winning all-female western short, Last Stand to Nowhere.
“Your work has to be blazingly good, not just really good or great. How do you know if your work is blazing? Your phone should be ringing off the hook.”
“You need a compelling thirty-second logline for yourself, both so others remember you and so agents can know they can sell you. When you have a great meeting with a decision-maker you want to make sure they have the right things to say about you.”
“The way to master your personal A Story is with practice. Practice writing it out word for word. Then practice writing it in bullet points.”
How do you recharge your creativity? I’ve spent the last few days feeling unsure of my work and my reasons for doing it. Energy is low. My writing feels flat. It’s been a while since I put down the writing guilt/pressure/drive, and the to-do’s from the rest of my life that seem to pile up endlessly. The weather has shifted and it’s cold, wet and dark. I think it’s time to refill the creative tank. Spending the day in bed reading a favorite novel sounds amazing but I’m a little worried that it would bring up an inferiority complex that I’m a bit too raw to deal with. Besides, I don’t have a whole free day coming up anytime soon.
So this is hardly a newsflash but writing is hard. Sitting down to do the work is hard. Walking around with those rattling, pinching questions about your ability as a writer and the point of doing it even if you are any good is really, really hard sometimes.
All of us creative types need to have a few tried and true recharge tricks to put into action when we need to. Mine include a few quick emergency measures: A luxurious bubble bath with candlelight and music is a favorite. There’s a local ramen joint that always cheers me up. If I carve out the time, I might treat myself to a solo movie and a walk around the art gallery. (Introvert alert.) In fact, lots of walking – that always helps.
My most decadent recharge ever was a weekend away from the family at a very nice hotel, where I focussed on writing and resting on my own inner schedule. It was a real treat. Actually it was freaking amazing. I might not be able to pull off a fancy get-away right now, but the world won’t end if I push back my errands for a nice stormy walk with an outrageously froufrou coffee. Maybe a podcast interview with a favorite writer would be a good thing to have playing while I saunter and enjoy the autumn leaves.
I hope all of you have a list of little treats, (or grand gestures?) that can refill the creative tank when you need it.
Are you still wondering how to write for TV? I am all for becomming a better writer by being a disciplined writer, even though I feel like I fail at this all the time. Today is no different. But here are two amazing youtube resources that anyone wanting to write for TV, especially sitcoms, should watch, guilt free, before sitting down to work.
Gloria Calderón Kellett, Showrunner and Co-Creater of “One Day at a Time,” recorded a whole playlist of “Hollywood 101: How to Write For TV” videos for Pero Like. You can even download the pilot for her show as a reference. Gloria covers an array of topics from starting your career, to writing your pilot, getting an agent and working in a writers room. Her wit and generosity blow me away.
I also want to point every developing sitcom writer I know toward a fantastic lecture by John Vorhaus, author of the The Comic Toolbox. Don’t be thrown by the fact that the presenter gives an introduction in Norwegian. It’s probably a hilarious intro judging by the dead quite audience, but the lecture is brilliant, it dramatically reduced my fear of the blank page when it comes to funny beats…and John presents in English. I highly recommend it.
We’re still buzzing from the excitement of our VIFF Meet the Showrunners Talk. Sera Gamble (You), Alexandra Cunningham (Dirty John), Gloria Calderon Kellet (One Day at a Time), Jami O’Brien (NOS4A2) and Jennica Harper (Jann) all arrived with plenty of humor and wisdom to share. We are so grateful for their generosity and for the incredible engagement of the audience. Thanks also to Tim Goodman from the Hollywood Reporter for facilitating the discussion. What a night!
So what do you do after the screenplay is written? This is a question we received on FaceBook this week. How do you get your TV script to a producer? Firstly, let’s clarify that you’re going to want to pitch to as many producers as possible to ensure that you find the right producer for your project. So how do you find a producer for your script? Having learned a bit more about how writers tend to connect with producers through my time at the PSP this year, my answer has three parts.
1) Study and practice the art of pitching yourself and your project. For most writers, this is their weakest link. Having a strong pitch puts you ahead. Look for training and feedback.
2) Have a portfolio with at least a few other TV projects ready. If a producer takes a liking to you but can’t use your project, you want to have something else to send them if they ask for it.
3) To get your script into the hands of producers you should enter it in tv writing contests because contest winners get “buzz.” You should also go to as many industry events as possible. Some festivals and conferences offer pitch sessions that you can sign up for if you hear about it before they fill up. Get on all the newsletter lists for Canadian festivals so you can take advantage of the pitching, screenwriting contests, and mentorship opportunities that come up. Have as many applications on the go as possible.
Leave us a comment and let us know what screenwriter pitching and mentorship opportunity mailing lists you’ve found useful!
Our PSP Director, Raila Gutman, introducing Showrunner Martin Gero and Interviewer, local writer and VFS prof, Kat Montagu.
“There’s no right way to [get into a room]. There’s a wrong way: ‘here’s a cool short play I’ve written.’ Various programs want one spec and one pilot. They want to see both.” -Martin Gero
“Make stuff compulsively…I shot a scene on my phone, and that scene aired. There is no excuse for anyone in this room to not be making stuff.” -Martin Gero
A disciplined writer needs a system for making the most of ideas, passing thoughts and creative connections. The difference between a working screenwriter and the person intending to write a screenplay someday is largely a difference in work habits. We can’t afford to be lazy with the care and storage of our stock and trade…ideas. Here are five tips for making the most of your ideas.
- Use the cloud.
Journaled ideas are of little use if you aren’t able to access them. Good ideas deserve to be safely stored and easily retrievable, so keep them centralized on all your devices by making use of the cloud. There’s no need to scramble through old journals or hard drives if you’ve tagged your ideas and saved them online. Evernote, Dropbox, Microsoft OneNote, and Apple Notes are all great programs for storing ideas. A water-soaked phone or stolen laptop won’t mean lost inspiration.
- Categorize your ideas.
Create subfolders and use tags as a matter of habit. In my case, I throw my ideas, (no matter how vague and undeveloped,) into folders marked Feature Ideas, Short Film Ideas, and TV Series Ideas. If I’m targeting a specific genre and medium for a contest entry or pitch opportunity, I can scan my files for ideas I would otherwise have forgotten about.
- Take photos of your scribbles.
Do you need the feeling of pen on paper to get your ideas out? Sometimes I do. I still carry a journal with me constantly. When I’ve made notes, sketches or brainstorms for a specific idea, I snap a photo with my phone, upload, and tag them. Evernote has a great scanning app and their software is able to recognize my photographed printing in a search. The other programs might have similar features. Even an iphoto folder would work in a pinch.
- Pause the show when something moves you.
Notes aren’t just for ideas. They can also be used for increasing your awareness of story architecture to help you craft your script with more skill and emotional power. Work to become aware of your own emotional temperature while watching movies and tv. If something moves you, scares you, or gives you a shudder of delight or anticipation…stop the show. Make a note. Note the show, scene, and even time code if you can. Think about how the emotion has been manipulated by the screenwriter. Pacing, stakes, subtext…how are the tools of the trade being used here? Flag it and come back to it for study. There’s no need to leave this magic completely to instinct and chance in your own work. Figure out how master craftspeople are actually crafting and try your hand at it. Practice until the tools you’re starting to notice (and note) feel natural.
- Start a “how’d they script that?” file.
Sometimes when I’m watching a show or film, I find myself wondering, “how’d they script that?” When I catch myself with one of these thoughts, I make a note on my running “script formatting” research list, then try to find the script online.
If you have any other strategies for harnessing your observations, curiosity, and ideas as a screenwriter, please share in the comments below!