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How to Build Your Screenwriting Career After Your First Spec Script

By March 16, 2022No Comments

You just finished your first spec script. Now it’s time to build your screenwriting career.

Let’s begin by laying out a scenario. You’ve written a script that’s gotten you some attention. Maybe it got you repped, maybe you were already repped, but either way, your team dug this script and has papered the town with it.

Maybe it got optioned. Maybe it was sold. Maybe people liked it, but it didn’t land anywhere. Whatever the end result was for this particular script, it is now your “Calling Card.” The piece of material that introduced you to Hollywood. The script that says, “This is me on the page.”

So, now that you have a Calling Card and are something of a known quantity in the industry, what can you expect? What are your next steps? How do you build your career from here?

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What’s Next?

Once your Calling Card starts its journey around town, you are likely to receive a slew of general meeting requests with producers, creative execs, development execs, studios. Maybe even some actors and directors, depending on whose hands it found its way into. People who like your voice and are excited to get to know you.

The question you’ll be getting the most is, “What’s next?”

Writers have a tendency to think they need a lot of material in their back pocket. “Trunk scripts,” as I’ve heard them called. Scripts you can pull out of your personal archive, ready to go. And, while it can be valuable to have some completed scripts to mention, most of the time these meetings are more concerned with your future than your past.

By all means, if you have a completed script that you feel is ready to go, and that feels like it fits with the company you’re meeting with, mention it. They’ll probably be happy to read it.

But, I’ve found more success talking about “The Next Thing.” The Next Thing is hot. The Next Thing is new. They want to be the first eyes on that, not the 20th eyes on something from your catalog.

In an ideal world, you’ll know what The Next Thing is. You’ll have an elevator pitch ready to go. And you’ll deliver it confidently and they’ll say they can’t wait to read it.

But what if you don’t know what you’re writing next yet?

Pick a Lane

In my first meetings after my Calling Card script went out, my reps and I hadn’t landed on the right next project for me. We were discussing several ideas, I was starting to build a few out, but I didn’t have The Next Thing locked down.

In some meetings, where the company mandates were clear and I knew exactly what kind of movies they were looking for, I soft-floated a few of those ideas as a potential next script. Sometimes they bit and I worked up a little pitch. But, for a couple of months of meetings, I didn’t have The Next Thing.

When you’re staring down a bunch of meetings and not exactly sure what The Next Thing is, it’s important to know what kind of writer you are. What your voice is. And, recent comps for who you are and what you like to write.

handshake

Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, a writer I became friendly with was kind enough to offer some advice. “Brand yourself. Don’t be the person who can write everything, because they’ll never think of you for anything specific. Be the person they know exactly what to go to you for.”

Pick a lane.

My Calling Card script that got me in these Zoom rooms is a magical realism dark comedy with sci-fi elements. So, when asked, “What’s Next?” I pointed to recent movies in that same tone.

“When I think about recent movies that I love, that I would love to have written, I think about Palm Springs or About Time. That’s the space I really like to work in.”

Something like that.

You can also tailor the comps more to what the company does. If I was meeting at a place more comedically focused, I might mention Game Night. Or conversely, if they weren’t a comedy company at all, I might say something like “Knives Out.”

Your lane can be as narrow or as wide as it needs to be to suit you and what you write. My lane is dark comedy, but there’s wiggle room inside of that lane. The important thing is that your Calling Card contains the seeds to see any of these potential Next Things as a logical step for you.

You’re telling them who you are and giving them clear touchstones for the space you want to occupy. The kind of projects you want to write.

The I.P.

A lot of the time, these production companies have intellectual property they’re developing. So, by telling them who you are and what you do, you’re telling them what projects they have sitting on their shelves that might be right for you.

You’re likely to be sent books, articles, graphic novels. Remakes, video games, and toys could be floated as options ripe for adaptation. Hopefully, because you clearly labeled who you are as a writer, these are projects that could very well be your Next Thing.

If you’re not into the material, if it doesn’t feel like The Next Thing, it’s totally cool to say no. Truth be told, you’re probably going to say no a lot more often than you say yes. But every once in a while, something comes out of these meetings that feels exactly in line with your voice and your taste.

In those instances, take that idea to your team. Good reps will be honest with you and talk you through it. They’ll tell you if they think that piece of IP is a good project for you or if they don’t think it’s worth spending your time on. Your reps are there to help you build your career into what you want it to be, so they’ll be honest about what they feel is right or wrong for you.

And, if you agree that this particular piece of IP is the right Next Thing, congratulations! You found your next project.

But, if not…

Write the Next Thing

Hopefully, by this point in your post-Calling Card journey, you and your reps have landed on a new spec script idea. The script that builds off of the Calling Card script in ways that are recognizably you.

And, by this point, you have fans in this town. People who loved that Calling Card and are waiting for The Next Thing. And, now, you’re ready to give it to them.

The hard truth is that screenwriting is always an uphill battle, no matter how successful you may get. Just because people loved your Calling Card, doesn’t mean The Next Thing is a guaranteed sale. Heck, just because you’ve sold ten things doesn’t mean number 11 is going to go anywhere.

But, the hardest thing in this industry is getting into those doors for the first time. And, that’s done. The doors are open to you.

What you do once you’ve stepped inside them is up to you.


Brian T. Arnold is the writer of “In The End,” which was featured on the 2021 Black List and is currently in development with Sister. Previously, he won the Launch Pad Feature Competition, Best Thriller and Best Drama in the Script Pipeline First Look Competition, and Best Thriller in the Shore Scripts Competition. He’s repped by Bellevue and APA.

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