The one thing most professional screenwriters have in common is that they didn’t get their “big break” until they were well into their 30’s or 40’s. Dozens of working screenwriters and other entertainment professionals even posted on Twitter the age they were when they finally got their first gig. Some of the notable participants included:
It’s an inspiring reminder to anyone who worries they’ve missed their shot at any career. You haven’t. As our interview with professional screenwriter, Chris Dennis shows, if you put in the work then eventually you’ll find your audience.
Chris Dennis is the only writer with multiple projects in the 2019 Launch Pad Feature Top 100. Chris Dennis also signed with Romark Entertainment and Verve off the strength of his projects MAELSTROM and THE LAST ROSE OF SUMMER.
How to become a screenwriter
Chris fell in love with movies, as many of us did, by growing up in the era of Lucas and Spielberg. He then went to college where he minored in Film Theory, which taught him to approach filmmaking from a critical viewpoint.
“For a brief time, I thought I wanted to direct films, but as I became more aware of how movies were made, I was instinctively drawn to understand how movies looked on the page. I read screenplays on the internet and tools around with [Syd Fields’ Screenplay] for a while, but I didn’t fully commit to writing until around 2008. Ever since then I’ve tried to make it a goal to write 2-3 feature-length screenplays a year. Some years it’s easy, others it feels like a monumental task.”
That level of commitment has driven Chris to land multiple placements in several competitions, which eventually helped launch his career.
“I’m a pretty boring person who lives a thousand incredible lives in my head,” says Chris Dennis. “Though I’ve seen some success in competitions, I’ve yet to sell any of my scripts. Over the years, I’ve submitted a number of my scripts to various competitions. I’ve been a 3-time Launch Pad Finalist and placed highly in several other competitions. I have no formal training in screenwriting.”
Quality over quantity
Writing two or three feature-length screenplays a year is an incredible volume of scripts to create over the course of twelve years. Chris shared how he’s used this body of work to his advantage, even when he hasn’t sold a script.
“While I’ve written somewhere between 18-20 feature-length scripts, as well as several original pilots, I would hesitate to share the majority of them. Right now I’d say I have 5, maybe 6, scripts that I would feel comfortable sharing with people in the industry that reflect my abilities as a screenwriter. I doubt I’ll ever dust any of the old ones off. Some concepts just don’t cut it, and others are too similar to movies that have come out since. Plus, I’m a forward-looking person, so I always hold the mindset that my next script is going to be the best I’ve written.”
Chris continued, “That sounds like a lot of scripts and a ton of wasted effort, but speaking from experience writing bad scripts and having the discernment to see them as such has only helped me get better.”
Building a writing routine
Creating that many stories naturally requires a strict routine. Luckily, Chris is focused. Not only is he working to be a full-time screenwriter, he already has a full-time job, a wife, a dog, three kids under the age of nine, and a hundred other things going on in his life. The hardest thing to achieve when you want to be a full-time creative is finding the time to make it happen. No one has enough time, which is why you have to be diligent and find a way to make the time.
The only rule I have is to write every day. Whether it’s one scene or ten pages, it’s imperative to me to get something out, to continue to move forward.
“I wake up at 3 am before work to write. I stay up late on the weekends to write. And, much to the chagrin of my wife, I often skip out on non-essential family functions to write.”
Living through a pandemic adds an extra layer and added pressure for writers. “Yes, the quarantine affected my writing a bit. With everyone in the house 24/7 for 6 months straight, things got a little wonky as one could imagine. Early on there were times where my writing suffered. I wasn’t writing as much or as quickly as I’m used to, which frustrated me. But eventually, I figured out a way to make it work. I started and finished one script during the early part of the quarantine, and now I’m 3/4 of my way through another.”
“The only rule I have is to write every day. Whether it’s one scene or ten pages, it’s imperative to me to get something out, to continue to move forward. As long as I’m writing, I’m propelling the story forward. Do what works best for you as a writer, and stick with it.”
Playing the long game
With this many years honing his craft, it was only a matter of time before Chris’s career gained some traction. He hasn’t sold a script, yet, but he has landed representation. “I met my current managers, Rock Shaink and Dash Aiken of Romark Entertainment, through the Launch Pad screenwriting competition. Romark subsequently helped set me up with David Boxerbaum, the powerhouse spec wizard at Verve. Without Launch Pad and their efforts following my placement, I wouldn’t be working with my current managers, or with a top-notch agency.”
Chris has also gotten to know the various screenwriting competitions pretty well over the years. “I initially submitted to Launch Pad back in 2017 because from the testimonials it seemed to produce tangible results. Tons of writers signed. Dozens of projects optioned or sole. Not to disparage any other contests, but from my experience, Launch Pad is the only one that has followed through on its assertions that the best people in the industry are not only reading their winners, but breaking people into the industry and launching careers. What more could a writer ask for?”
Even with competition wins and representations, Chris still cautions writers that it takes time to build a screenwriting career.
“Twelve years sounds like a long time, I know. At times I’ve felt like I have to jump through a million and one hoops if I’m ever going to accomplish my goals. I’m human, and I’m not impervious to self-doubt or frustration. It’s crept in from time to time, but I fight to keep it at bay because deep down I love screenwriting. It satisfies some strange desire in me, and I figure if I love it enough to do it for free, it’ll be that much more fulfilling the moment someone wants to pay me to do it.”
Write with a purpose
If you want to be a writer, you have to motivate yourself. Initially, this push can come from that grain of an idea for a story and the confidence to know that you’re the only person who can tell it. “Writing a screenplay should be a form of expression that conveys the story you want to tell in a way that only you can tell it. Instead of striving to win that contest, work to become a better writer, a stronger storyteller, and really try to shape your voice… that piece of you that comes across on the page. Do that and all the other stuff will fall into place.”
It can also help to have something deeper driving you, and Chris has a really strong one. “Not to get too sentimental, but my children drive me as well. As a father, I want to set a standard for them. I want them to see the dedication and hard work I’ve put into this thing that I love, and I want to be able to look each of them in the eye one day and reassure them that if they want to accomplish some lofty goal they can… as long as they work hard and set their mind to it. Hopefully, when that day comes I’ll have crossed my finish line, but if I haven’t, at least I can tell them that I gave it my best shot.”
And if you’re still struggling to push yourself to stick to this “crazy” dream, just follow Chris’s advice: Just write! “Life can be hectic and difficult to manage at times. Hell, just take a look at 2020. But if screenwriting is something that calls to you, if you believe that you have a story to tell — you’re going to have to write. You have to put in the work, steal the hours, find the initiative to carve out a little time to work on your craft.”
Ready to take the next step in your screenwriting career? Enter one of the open Launch Pad screenwriting competitions and get in front of top industry judges, agents, and execs.