By Jonathan Hogan
If you are someone who is inspired by amazing movie scenes and imagines your creative writing not within the reams of a book, but rather on flickering lights dancing across white vinyl, it might be worth considering a career in screenwriting.
Screenwriting most basically entails writing scripts for movies or television shows. There is, of course, a lot that goes into this simple definition. For one, aspiring screenwriters need to be intimately aware of how they format a script. This very specific form of writing, which allows ideas to translate clearly from a computer screen—to a set—to a film ready for release, requires a concerted effort to learn. There are many courses, books, etc. available on the internet that can help a writer learn how to format their scripts, however, as an enrolled Lawrentian, one can also take FIST345: Screenwriting, which culminates in the writing of “one or more short screenplays” (“Film Studies Course Description | Lawrence University”).
After learning the basics of how to write screenplays, things become a little less clear. In 2020, the Writer’s Guild of America, the union that represents screenwriters, reported that 6,108 writers received earnings from screenwriting (Annual Finance Report). That’s it. Because of this, discussing career paths for getting into screenwriting is a little like discussing career paths for professional athletes—at its core, it’s about having the resources to become really really good, and then making one’s skills known to the industry. Nonetheless, there are some things that nearly all screenwriters do on their way into the industry.
The first thing that nearly all screenwriters do is write “spec scripts.” A spec script is essentially a script written at the screenwriter’s initiative. For new screenwriters, spec scripts exist not so much to be sold, but rather to demonstrate to potential employers that the writer is skilled enough to take on a preconceived creative assignment such as working with a team to write an episode for a series. It is typically said that three spec scripts constitute a good portfolio (“How to Become a Screenwriter”). If a writer becomes well established in the industry, they may return to spec writing, as they can rely on their reputation to get the attention of producers.
After writing three spec scripts, writers are often told that they need to get representation through an agent, who manages contracts and closes deals, and managers, who work to establish relationships that lead to deals and more broadly to guide the career of a screenwriter (HOORAE Media, An Issa Rae Company). Amy Anoibi,, an executive producer for Emmy-nominated Insecure and a head writer for season 1 of 2 Dope Queens, puts a different spin on agents and managers, stating that “representation isn’t something that you should be running after,” arguing instead that screenwriters should “do the work” until representatives start calling them. According to Anoibi, this approach ensures that screenwriters get the right representation—agents and managers that share the goals and ambitions of the writer (HOORAE Media, An Issa Rae Company).
Aside from multiple spec scrips and considering representation, there is not much more that can be said for typical screenwriter career paths. In general, screenwriting is not for the faint of heart. As said before, it’s about having the resources to become really good. One of these “resources” is an undying love for the process of screenwriting. This keeps writers going even without the structure and certainty of a 9-5 job. Yet despite the romanticism of a passionate writer forging their path in a difficult industry, there are underlying structural barriers that prevent even the most passionate writers from getting ahead. Money, for example, more than passion, is a critical resource for screenwriters. Money allows a screenwriter to dedicate significant time to their craft without worrying about food, rent, childcare etc. Money allows screenwriters to pay for an MFA in screenwriting which, in addition to honing skills, ideally creates connections in Hollywood. Money allows one to move to L.A., where it is easier to establish connections to the industry. As a result of the significant amount of privilege that one needs to make it in the industry, those with marginalized identities can find it to be disproportionately difficult to get into the industry (something reflected by the demographics of the industry (Robb)). The next article in the CJW newsletter focuses on a list of writing fellowships that seek to elevate various marginalized identities with the hope of mitigating some of the effects of structural oppression. Keep your eye out in the coming weeks.
Jonathan is a Third Year German and Government major. He works as a Peer Educator to assist students in the CJW and GLI career communities. In addition to professional development, Jonathan is interested in the cultural construction of the modern nation-state, normative constraints on rational behavior, and all things German. You can schedule an appointment with him here to improve your resume, learn more about the CJW and GLI career opportunities, and work on anything else professional development-related.
Annual Finance Report. Writers Guild of America, West, Inc., 29 June 2021.
“Film Studies Course Description | Lawrence University.” Lawrence University, https://www.lawrence.edu/academics/college/film-studies/course-description. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.
HOORAE Media, An Issa Rae Company. 5 Tips on How To Become A Screenwriter w/ Emmy-Nominated Screenwriter Amy Aniobi. 2020. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3Pp_l7r0c8.
“How to Become a Screenwriter: A Pro’s Ultimate Guide.” Script Reader Pro, 14 June 2018, https://www.scriptreaderpro.com/how-to-become-a-screenwriter-one-day/.
Robb, David. “WGA West Screenwriting Inclusion Report: Women & People Of Color Continue To Make Progress In Hiring But ‘Remain Significantly Underrepresented.’” Deadline, 5 Nov. 2021, https://deadline.com/2021/11/screenwriting-inclusion-report-women-people-of-color-continue-progress-underrepresented-wga-west-1234869192/.