Alexander Graham Bell suggested, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
When facing a career with a rejection around every corner, writers should heed Bell’s advice. A “no” isn’t the death of your career, worthy of wallowing in a puddle of tears forever. That slamming door could simply be the beginning of a different path to success.
Don’t wait for an agent or a producer to validate you. Instead, take charge of your own destiny. Screenwriters can become independent filmmakers. Novelists can self-publish. You have many more choices to be proactive than even five years ago. Survival requires embracing change and breaking through that new door into the unknown.
No straight path from the script to the screen exists. Many years ago, a screenwriter could write an original spec script and option it for a six- or seven-figure check, even if the film never got produced. Shelves upon shelves of unproduced screenplays lined every studio’s walls. You could have a successful career as a screenwriter without ever having a movie made. However, those days are gone and will never return.
For now, let’s put the numerous reasons aside as to why and how the industry has changed and stick to finding solutions.
There has never been a more favorable time for a writer to take control of their career. In fact, grabbing the reins not only improves your chances, but it also eases your stress level by being active instead of passive.
That script or novel isn’t going to sell itself.
The magic word is here is sell. When you sell anything, you need a marketing strategy. Think of the Instagram video ads that pop up. Those businesses made a conscious decision to spend time and money creating a short video to grab your attention and your pocketbook.
Why not create your own short film of your story? Before you dismiss the idea, consider the risk versus the reward. Because artists need to stay positive, let’s start with the rewards.
INCREASE ACCESS: Short films offer opportunities for screenwriters to enter film festivals with a lower bar of financial investment. A 10-minute short can slip into a longer program, in between feature films, and showcase your work. Producers, actors, and agents attend festivals. Exposure and access are key. A short film becomes your business card.
PROOF OF CONCEPT: The idea of filming an entire feature film paralyzes most screenwriters, considering the cost, the time, and the fear of failure. But distilling your feature-length story down to 10 or 12 pages informs your choices as a writer. Do you really need all the scenes of your feature? Maybe not. Tightening a story illuminates where you can write more succinctly, elevating both the conflict and concept.
LIMITED EXPENSE: You don’t need to rent expensive equipment when almost everyone has a cellphone with video capability. iPhones shoot video in 1080p, the same high-definition quality of a DSLR camera. However, if you want to go all out on the production quality, crowdfund and rent a fabulous camera. LED studio lighting can be purchased inexpensively by way of Amazon or Best Buy. Never, ever skimp on sound quality or acting talent though. A quick online search will reveal the highest-reviewed audio equipment preferred by vloggers and podcasters. And fabulous up-and-coming actors may live in your own backyard—scout your local theater groups for your cast.
FUNDRAISING: If the short works, that proof of concept helps you raise money to film the full feature or pay film festival fees.
COLLABORATION: You could film the short alone, on your phone, or you could reach out to friends to help. The ability to collaborate makes or breaks a screenwriter’s career. Learning that skill early on saves you potential embarrassment when working with professionals later.
IMPROVE YOUR WRITING: Once you see how difficult it can be to film a certain action within a scene, such as, “Raindrops slowly hit John’s shoulders and quickly turn to pouring rain,” you might think twice about ever writing a rainy-day scene. Every take of said rainy day costs money and time. Not only do you need to produce rain, but John now needs a new dry outfit and hair every time you reshoot that scene. The ground needs to be dried off as well. Poof—there goes your set and costume budget.
PITCHING: Getting your query letter to stand out requires some creativity. Let’s face it, many producers just look at a logline to decide if they want to request the script or not. But, if you give them the URL to your short film, you now have a visual hook to garner their interest.
BROADEN YOUR SKILLS: Step out from behind your keyboard and try directing! Becoming a writer/director expands your job opportunities. So many writers who have had success at festivals, like Sundance, did so by both writing and directing their films—Ava DuVernay, for one.
LIFE LESSONS: When I made my short film in 2012, I did so to experience all of the rewards I mention above. I purposely chose not to be the director, the cinematographer, the line producer, the actor, or the editor. I wanted the invaluable experience of being a writer/producer on set, witnessing my words come to life via someone else’s interpretation. What I learned was that I do not want to be a filmmaker. I want to be a writer. You can make an occasional short film or trailer without committing to a lifetime of filmmaking.
Filmmaking isn’t just for screenwriters. Consider creating a video trailer of your book and posting it on YouTube. Free or inexpensive online resources exist to create simple slideshow trailers, such as FlexClip, Rocketium, Renderforest, or MotionDen. Slideshows tell a visual story with images and text, tying them together to demonstrate the emotion and conflict of your novel. To achieve the best conversion rate from viewer to customer, make the effort to add keywords to your YouTube descriptions, which enables people to easily find your content via web searches.
Which brings us back to that magic word sell. Selling starts with marketing and business savvy. Writers can’t squirrel away in a writing cave, isolated from the sales process. Their odds improve by casting as many nets as possible to reach a wider audience. Today’s audience consumes content in a variety of different ways, including videos. Why resist the trends when you can jump onboard and see direct results?
Ironically, the answer to that rhetorical question reveals the one risk of making a film or trailer: You need to learn a new skillset, and that takes time and energy. By nature, most people resist change. But, to keep doing what you are currently doing and expect a different result is the definition of insanity. How is that working for you?
Selling your stories never comes easily. But it wasn’t easy to write your script or to metaphorically bleed out 400 pages of your novel. Why would your efforts to sell it be easy?
The good news: You don’t have to do it alone. Go to your local high school or college and find students interested in filmmaking. They’ll be eager to help. Reach out to your social media network and solicit some volunteers. Lots of people love learning. Bring them onto your team. When you succeed, then pay it forward to someone else. Above all, embrace learning and taking risks.
I’m pretty sure Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to create the first telephone didn’t come that easily either. Which might explain his other famous quote: “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” Imagine his surprise to learn that phones can now create filmmakers.
For more information on screenwriting, browse our sister site, ScriptMag.com.