A screenwriter writes scripts for motion pictures and television shows.
The screenplay is not just a collection of lines to be spoken by actors; it is the blueprint for the entire production. The screenplay (or “teleplay”) contains a thorough breakdown of every scene to be featured in a film or TV show, along with all of the characters’ acting instructions, dialogue, brief overview of moods to be achieved and notation of any voice-over required. A common industry cliché is, “A bad movie can be made from a good screenplay, but not the other way round.” This means that without an effective screenplay powering the project from the offing, there is no chance for the finished production to be (artistically) successful. It is the job of the screenwriter to pen this crucial original blueprint from which all work on the production of the TV show or movie will branch.
A screenwriter is usually a freelancer, and most successful TV and film writers work with an agent to find new jobs and successfully deliver completed projects. Some become staff writers on popular and long-running shows, but this is rare; the industry is fickle and budget often remains an issue, so the staff writer subsequently becomes an unwelcome overhead. Screenwriters’ agents receive hundreds of scripts a week from budding writers looking to break into the business, making it a highly competitive industry.
Although screenwriting is typically regarded as one of the more modestly-remunerated jobs in Hollywood, cash advances paid for delivered scripts can be substantial, regardless of whether the screenplay is for a big budget blockbuster or not.
Candidates should note that a gulf of difference exists between writers working on either side of the Atlantic; US-based writers are subject to Writer’s Guild of America minimum wage, which is $101,936 for a complete movie script (for the current 2011 “writing season”), and $31,334 for a final draft or rewrite. In the UK, the minimums are imposed by the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain, which carries less clout. As media production in the UK is much more driven by independent production companies with smaller budgets, the cash available to writers is very limited: £31,320 for a complete screenplay for productions with a budget of at least £2 million. Whilst this does not seem a bad payout, it is worth remembering that the completed script may be the work of 12-18 months of daily work, meetings, calls, and endless submission attempts.
- Create original concept and flesh out into a storyboard or scene flow
- Develop story concept into a story synopsis, which is a truncated prose of the overall story
- Begin developing full screenplay from initial synopsis
- Continually develop, build, edit and revise the screenplay until it is as good as can possibly be
- Work with agent to deliver against production company expectations
- Work with agent to actively pitch for new project work
- Work with agent to effectively administer collection of payment for delivered scripts
There are no formal qualifications required to be a writer, although an academic background in English language and/or literature (for example, A-level) can be beneficial. It is possible to enrol in heavyweight screenwriting courses in the US, although entry costs can be prohibitive, and graduation does in no way guarantee entry into this difficult industry. In essence, being an effective screenwriter depends mostly on the writer’s life experience, and how well they are able to convey these experiences into a moving, involving or funny piece of storytelling.
- A thorough understanding of plot creation, storytelling devices and story development techniques
- A complete knowledge of industry-standard screenplay format
- Ability to network effectively within the industry
- A tireless approach to pursuing agents and producers
- Ability to take knock-backs without taking them personally
- An insatiable desire to continually develop new screenplays whilst trying to sell old ones
A majority of the writer’s working time is spent at home, although the newer “Macbook and Coffee Shop” culture has broadened the appeal for freelancers who wish to get out of the house. Working at home under one’s own time requires discipline and time management in order for the working day not to degenerate into a regular TV game show and Pot Noodle disaster. Some people are suited to this life, whilst others will find it aimless and difficult to administer effectively.
While not a stressful job per se, the act of pursuing and following up on agent submissions is a heart-breaking and often fruitless escapade which cuts massively into the time and budget of a writer starting out. This is a job for thick-skinned creative people who do not mind being told where to go – daily.
It is possible to begin writing a debut screenplay with no experience whatsoever, although new entrants are advised to pick up an award-winning book entitled, “Writing Screenplays That Sell” by Michael Hague; this is widely regarded as the industry bible for new writers, and covers what to do with the script once it is finished. Actually being “picked up” by an agent is, in reality, an unlikely event which will trigger the start of a successful career in screenwriting. Most screenplay-wielding wannabees do not get past this initial (seemingly insurmountable) hurdle.
It is possible for a writer with a strong script to sell an option for a screenplay, which means that a production house will pay the writer a sum of money to retain the right to produce a script, even if it never becomes a TV show or movie. Subsequently, it is also possible for the writer to option the script several times, and if they have several scripts under option at a time, there is every chance that the candidate will be enjoying a large salary to live off each year.
The successful sale of a screenplay can open new doors in terms of having the chance to work as a staff writer on existing TV shows, or as one-off script advisors for major studio productions. Money at the top end of this scale can be dizzying; the writers behind the sequel to the Transformers motion picture reputedly received $8 million for what turned out to be the most poorly-rated movie of the year.
Screenwriters trade as independent business entities in much the same way as novelists do. They derive remuneration from a variety of sources, including TV networks, film production studios and independent media production companies. Usually, the screenwriter’s agent is responsible for administering the payment, although they take a commission, and so are not an employer as such.
Also known as…
- Staff writer
What’s it really like?
Pinaki Ghosh is a renowned Indian screenwriter who has a strong portfolio in delivering writing projects for a number of international film and television productions.
What made you want to get into screenwriting as a career?
As a kid, my favourite pastime was to sneak into my father’s study; he was a celebrated rationalist writer named Prabir Ghosh. I loved the smell of ink and paint (he is an artist as well) that hung in the room, and this is what prompted me to start my own adventure-comics series, ‘Birdman,’ at the tender age of 10. Birdman became popular among my classmates and by 13, I was writing fiction regularly that would be published in magazines here and there. The teenagers’ magazine that I was editing since I was in grade 8 had reached a circulation of 4,000 by the time I was in grade 10, with some of the best local writers contributing occasionally.
How did your career develop from that initial stage?
I was given an offer by the biggest publisher in Eastern India, Dey’s Publishing, to write a 400 page book for them. The first turning point in my life came with the publication of my first big book, ‘Nothing Supernatural – III’ (the first 2 volumes of the same book were authored by my father) at the age of 17. The book became a commercial success while I was still in school. I started my career early, I guess you could say. I became a regular contributor to almost all of the top magazines in the Indian market after this, contributing fiction as well as non-fiction writing. Between 1995 and 2000, I wrote three more books (thrillers), two of which became bestsellers. I ventured out as a movie director in 1998 when I directed my first mini series for Doordarshan, the number 1 Asian television channel by popularity at that time. I then branched out further into film, writing Captain India and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, in addition to a lot of work in Bollywood.
What sort of projects are you involved with currently?
I am now the CEO of Writer4me Media Group that operates several important websites including the world’s most popular ghostwriting service, Writer4me.com. My team of writers and ghostwriters are highly acclaimed worldwide. I co-founded the premier screenwriter service, TheScreenplayWriters.com, with my American writer friend Nick Blake, which has created ripples and has been described by Killerstartups.com as “the first platform in history to bring Hollywood and Bollywood script writers together.”
What sort of organisations does this job put you in touch with?
Besides celebrities, I have worked with some of the best media brands like BBC (Desi DNA, Calcutta Uncovered, 2007), National Geographic Channel (Is It Real? Superhuman Powers, 2005), Channel 4 (Gurubusters, 1995) and ABP Ltd (Sananda, Unish Kuri) to name just a few.
What advice would you have for someone looking to get into this as a career?
If you are planning your own startup screenwriting business but have no clue how to research, plan, launch it and make it successful, then new entrants can contact me through my website, which is www.pinakighosh.com. I have personally launched successful businesses like TheScreenplayWriters.com (leading Hollywood & Bollywood screenplay writing service), Power Publishers (Asia’s leading self publishing company), Writer4me.com (world’s no. 1 economical writing service by popularity), Comic-Book-Artists.com (hire an experienced comic book artist or script writer), and Portraitnpainting.com (supermarket of art and designing).
I have also researched, planned, launched and nurtured dozens of businesses owned by others. Right from research, planning, to execution, online presence, advertisement campaigns, marketing, to actually making it a profitable business in 6 – 8 months, I would like to help new screenwriters get their own successful business off the ground.