Screenwriting 101 — The Life of a Screenwriter

To those considering a career in screenwriting I offer the following statistics.

I’m sure there are screenwriters who think of an idea, write it up, sell the script and then think up another idea. I am not one of those screenwriters. In my world, there are producers who develop properties that they hope to sell to a studio. The producer calls me up, tells me about the property he has, and if it sounds good to me I’ll try to think of a way to do it as a movie. If I can, I will then go and audition for the producer. If the producer likes what I have to say, we will both go and audition for the studio folk (and by “we” I mean “me;” the producer’s job at the audition is to introduce the writer and then watch him sweat).

When an actor (Urbaniak, say) auditions for a movie, he must memorize a few pages of dialogue and go into the room with a clear idea of the character he’s portraying. When I audition for a movie, I must, essentially, write the entire thing before I go into the room. I must know who all the major characters are and have a handful of character beats that establish their personalities in a warm, human way, I must have a clear idea of not just the over-arching story but also the ins and outs of the scene-to-scene plot. I must invent every twist, reversal and revelation to give the thing thrust and excitement. I must, basically, see the entire movie in my head from beginning to end and I must be able to describe it, in the room, in a lively, entertaining, surprising way that meshes with that studios hopes for their production slate. Then, if I don’t get the job, I start the process all over with the next project the next day.

(Q: “why don’t you get the job?”  A: For a lot of the same reasons an actor doesn’t — I’m just not what the studio is looking for.  The problem is, often, that the studio doesn’t know what it’s looking for, and uses this audition process, in part, to hone its notion of what kind of movie it wants to make.)

I have been a professional screenwriter since 1994. In the ensuing years, I have written 25 or so screenplays. Of those, I’ve been paid actual money (and very good money at that, I hasten to add) for perhaps a dozen (the rest have been things I wrote for myself or for friends). For each of “actual job” or “money gig” (that is, a feature at a major studio), I create, typically, eight drafts, for which I get paid for four (courtesy dictates that one writes a draftfor the producer, incorporates the producer’s notes, then writes another for the studio).

So that’s all well and good. But then there are the treatments.

I cannot speak for other writers, but if I’m going to invent an entire movie I have to write at least a portion of it down on paper (by “paper” I mean, of course, a computer). For the plot to play out in a logical, consistent order I have to write it all out so I can go back, review,
amend, improve, edit, remove, etc. Basically, I write out the whole plot of the movie with notes regarding why this or that is important to the telling.

(The Writer’s Guild says that writers must be paid for treatments, but I have found that this is rare. What generally ends up happening is that I go in and pitch and the producer says “I like it, I’d like to think about it more, do you have something on paper I could look at to refresh my memory?” and the onus is placed on me to to be helpful for the good of the project. Personally, I don’t mind this practice because I think that my written words are a better presentation of my ideas than my fumbling, scattered pitch manner.)

I had a meeting with an old producer friend the other day and she asked me what old ideas I had kicking around. She specifically asked me to trawl through my treatments I’ve written for other projects, jobs I didn’t get, knowing that there are most likely some good ideas for movies in there. So I went through my files and found that I have, in the past dozen years, written 83 treatments. These treatments range from 10-page collections of notes and plot ideas to 50-page scene-by-scene descriptions. In some cases, I have written multiple treatments for projects, bringing the number well past 100.  Creating these treatments is, in fact, how I spend the bulk of my writing life.

Of all these treatments, I have been paid for writing two; the rest have been created for the purposes of auditions.

So, to review: 12 years, 100+ treatments to get jobs writing 25 screenplays, of which I have been paid for 12, of which three have been turned into actual feature films (although there are perhaps a half-dozen others I’ve worked without receiving credit), of which one was an actual hit in-the-theaters movie (without which I’d probably be working at your local Denny’s). hit counter html code


24 Responses to “Screenwriting 101 — The Life of a Screenwriter”
  1. eronanke says:

    On the plus side, words you wrote were memorized by James Spader. Not many ppl can say that.
    (I wish I could.)

    • Todd says:

      Better than that, for my first studio gig I got to write a lead role for one of my favorite living filmmakers. And on the Spader picture I got to be lit by no less a personage than Sven Nykvist. I’m not saying the job is not without rewards, just that a lot more work goes on behind the scenes than people may generally suspect.

      • eronanke says:

        Well, anything to do with James Spader gets my thumbs up. 🙂

        • Todd says:

          Are you sure those are your thumbs?

          • eronanke says:

            My god, Todd, you were, just this morning, talking about your little girl’s drawings, and now you’re dabbling in suggestive text!
            And, dear Lord, yes, they are my thumbs. Ever since Secretary, I could never look at him the same way.

            • Todd says:

              My god, Todd, you were, just this morning, talking about your little girl’s drawings, and now you’re dabbling in suggestive text!

              Isn’t that what the internet is all about?

              • eronanke says:

                Apparently! That and children’s drawings. 🙂

                I mean, it’s supposed to be random. It’s supposed to be bitchy. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. That’s why all the hip kids love it.
                (My blog is no different)

  2. craigjclark says:

    I realize I’m oversimplifying things, but in my book any job where you can watch movies and call it “research” is a job worth having.

  3. seijiwolf says:

    What about script doctoring? I ask only because I read that you were called in to try and fix Town & Country’s script, and was wondering how often the average screenwriter gets called in for invisible/uncredited edits.

    • Todd says:

      Script doctoring falls under these guidelines as well. No matter how badly they need their script doctored, they’re still not going to simply give me the job, I have to go through the whole audition process, which includes being able to tell them, scene for scene, how I’m going to turn the script they don’t like into a movie that will make $70 million in its opening weekend.

  4. urbaniak says:

    When an actor (, say) auditions for a movie, he must memorize a few pages of dialogue and go into the room with a clear idea of the character he’s portraying.

    What?! I’ve been auditioning for movies since “Henry Fool” came out and just now you’re telling me this?!!

  5. Isn’t there a quote to the effect that anyone who does this for a living is an idiot? Technically there’s nothing preventing you from that great job as a Safeway manager, but you’re not letting the stats stop you, clearly . . . so there must be some super extra secret reason you’re not telling a 90 year old lady why she can’t return a “funny-tasting” banana she bought three weeks ago.
    Besides, there’s always the comic books to fall back on 😉

    • Todd says:

      but you’re not letting the stats stop you, clearly . . .

      Well, one of my big problems was that my first studio gig, Antz, was also the easiest job for me to get. They asked me if I wanted to do it and I said yes. I thought that’s how it would be my whole career, turns out not.

  6. You…had some sort of a bad week or something, didn’t you? Either that or a milestone birthday. Regardless, best of luck and keep your chin up.

    • Todd says:

      Actually, I had a pretty good week. Generally I don’t look back at all, it became incumbent upon me to do so this week.

  7. kornleaf says:

    i am considering, and i have a different general question.

    you already answered the “breaking in” question.
    but, this post barely discourages me from attempting it.

    I wanted to know if i am working at this right.
    I have about 100 different little ideas for themes, or characters or scenes, and I will start working on a screenplay and at about the beginning of the third act I get frustrated and what originally seemed to be a well thought out idea ends up seeming as if it falls apart and I will put it aside and start working on the next project. In all i have about 47 unfinished screenplays ranging from 1 page to 60 pages to about 100 and in total, i have finished two in my life; both for classes.

    Is this common?
    I dunno, after reading it, it seems like a stupid question. I just don’t know why I am having such trouble getting stuff out. You know?

  8. toliverchap says:

    Practice, practice

    I saw David Mammet on Charlie Rose a few weeks ago and he was saying if you want to be a good playwright you need to write a lot of plays and I guess if you want to do that then it’s probably something you enjoy. Now I need to get with it myself and make with the writing.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Practice, practice

      Mamet’s big on the pleasure principle. He says the same thing about beavers — they chew trees because they enjoy it and they like the sound of water passing over fallen trees.

      Hunter Thompson said a similar thing about jackrabbits in Colorado — they’re not being stupid when they run in front of your car, it’s a thrill for them. They wait there until your car gets close enough and then dash out and the risk of getting splattered is partly the point of the exercise.