Film Independent Mon 12.22.2014

How to Make It as a Screenwriter—Part 3: What Are Your Real Chances of Success?

One of the best things about being invited into the Film Independent family through our artist development programs is having the chance to learn from the cream of the crop. Some of the most successful directors, producers and screenwriters in the business come in to our offices to talk with the Fellows in our Labs about what it’s really like out there. They share the stories of their own ups, downs—and way, way  downs—in the business, as well as offering advice on everything from how to win over your crew on set to how to cure writers’ block. One of our favorite guest speakers is Corey Mandell, a writing teacher and award-winning playwright and screenwriter. Mandell has been a workshop leader and advisor for Project Involve and the Screenwriting Lab. We asked Mandell to contribute to this blog by sharing his articles on screenwriting, and we started at the beginning with part 1: Breaking In, then posed a tough question with part 2: Are You a Real Writer? Here’s part 3: What Are Your Real Chances of Success?

Writers know it’s not easy to launch and sustain a career. The odds aren’t necessarily stacked in your favor. But what exactly are your chances of making it? The answer might surprise you.

The first thing we need to know is the size of the competition. If we were to ask how many people want to be professional screenwriters or TV writers, the number would be astronomical. But also irrelevant. Because most people who want to be professional writers don’t actually do anything about it. They are the dreamers.

So how many people do something about it? How many actually sit down, put fingers to keyboard, and try to write a script? Nobody knows for sure, but I’ve heard from people with access to some pretty credible information on this front that every year there are approximately one million people worldwide trying to write scripts. Obviously this is an educated guess at best, but let’s say it’s right.

If we were to ask what percentage of these one million people will end up launching and sustaining a career, the answer would be a hope-crushingly small number, many magnitudes less then one percent. But luckily, that’s not the right question.

Because while it’s one thing to sit down and try to write a script, it’s another thing to finish that script and rewrite it over and over and over until it’s the best it can be, and to then repeat the process with the next script, and the next. And what is the percentage of writers who are truly dedicated enough over the long haul to put in the countless hours of hard work required to succeed?

When I ask agents, manager and writers for their guesses, their answers range from 5 to 20 percent. And since it’s better to err on the side of overestimating the competition, I’ll go with 20 percent.

Twenty percent of one million is two hundred thousand.

And if we ask what percentage of these two hundred thousand people will launch and sustain a career, the answer would again be a hope-crushingly small number. But we still haven’t yet defined the true size of the competition.

The reason being that just because someone writes a bunch of scripts doesn’t mean those scripts are necessarily good. In fact, if you ask agents, managers, producers and studio readers, they’ll tell you that the vast majority of scripts they read aren’t even close to good.

So to get a handle on the real size of the competition, let’s divide all scripts into the following five categories:

1. Really good to great
2. Good
3. Decent
4. Bad
5. Truly terrible

What percentage of scripts submitted to the industry fall into each of these categories? This is a question I’m fairly confident I know the answer to since I’ve asked dozens of agents, managers and producers, and always get the same responses.

One percent (or less than 1 percent) of all scripts fall into the really good to great category.

About 4 percent fall into the good category.

And 95 percent or so are in the decent-to-truly terrible categories.

Given these estimates, there are approximately 2,000 writers (1 percent of 200,000) able to write really good-to-great scripts, and another 8,000 writers (4 percent of 200,000) producing good scripts.

And since agents and managers will tell you that in order to have any real shot at a career you need to be writing scripts that are at least in the good category, we can safely ignore the 190,000 writers cranking out decent-to-truly terrible scripts.

So the real competition is the approximately 10,000 writers who are able to consistently write good-to-great scripts. How many of these writers are working?

The WGA reported that 4,760 of their members earned money last year writing for TV or feature films. This obviously doesn’t include anyone paid under the table for non-union gigs, but let’s ignore them and stick to the WGA numbers.

So approximately 48 percent of these 10,000 writers are working and 52 percent are not. This lines up with reports I’ve read that about half of the WGA members are employed and half are unemployed.

Obviously, the better your material, the better your chances of a career. So, to keep things simple, if we assume that most of the 2,000 really good-to-great writers are working, that leaves around 2,760 jobs for the 8,000 good writers. (I understand these estimates are based on a collection of oversimplifying assumptions, but I showed this blog to several agents and managers before posting it, and they all felt these numbers were in the ballpark).

So we can now finally answer the question regarding your chances of success:

If you write really good-to-great scripts, you have a damn good chance.

If you write good scripts, you have somewhat of a chance.

If your write decent-to-truly terrible scripts, you have no chance.

Which leaves us with the more important question: Where do you fall in this mix?

The Road to Success
Without knowing how strong your scripts are, it’s impossible to know what course of action you should pursue in order to maximize your chances of success.

If you’re able to write really good-to-great scripts, your path is clear. You need to be consistently producing new material and getting it read by as many people as possible. Hopefully, things will eventually line up for you and you’ll sell something, or get your first paid writing job, either on a TV show or a feature assignment.

But if you can’t yet write to this level, submitting your scripts to the industry is a terrible way to proceed.

The agents and managers I bring into my UCLA classes always identify one of the biggest mistakes writers make as going out to the marketplace with scripts that aren’t strong enough. You only get one shot at that critical first impression, and most writers waste it on a weak script. Even worse, scripts submitted to the industry are graded through coverage, and these readers’ reports are put into a database accessible to all the other production companies and studios. So if you’re submitting scripts that aren’t well reviewed, these reports will follow you around like a bad credit score, making it harder and harder to get anyone in the industry to want to read your future scripts.

Most people don’t ask themselves how strong their scripts are, or if they do, they get the wrong answer. Because nobody sends a script out if they don’t think it is at least good, if not outright great. Yet, the industry gatekeepers (agents, managers, producers and readers) say 95 percent of these scripts miss the mark. Which means a hell of a lot of writers are overestimating their abilities. And so instead of realizing they need to improve their writing and doing whatever it takes to make that happen, these folks keep submitting scripts that get weak coverage, thus shooting themselves in the foot.

Many of these writers will end up blaming the dismal state of the industry for why they can’t sell anything or land a job. But for 95 percent of folks, this isn’t the reason. It might be a convenient excuse, but that’s about it. The real reason is that they can’t yet write really good-to-great scripts and aren’t taking the necessary steps required to change this.

And since we all have the ability to become much stronger writers if we are willing to put in the long hours of dedicated practice required to learn, develop and master the specific tools and skills needed to write at the highest levels, we all control our chances of success. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we all control our chances of success. Which means at the end of the day, we must accept full responsibility for our success, or lack thereof.


Corey Mandell / Screenwriter & Guest Blogger 

Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Warner Brothers, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant and Walt Disney Pictures. Corey teaches screenwriting at UCLA and offers private online classes using real time video conferencing.