Being an aspiring screenwriter is like jumping into a giant funnel. The top of the funnel being the widest part – where literally thousands of people say – I’m going to write a script! But the funnel narrows rather quickly as writers who thought they’d find success after writing one or two scripts learn the brutal truth. Huh uh. Doesn’t happen that way. It’s a bit of an endurance race. A marathon. So when success doesn’t occur to those at the top of the funnel almost immediately – one or three scripts in – they quit.
The writers who move lower into the funnel are the ones who keep writing – literally, for sometimes years. They write script after script, they keep networking, they take lumps, classes and sleeping aides. Those writers who reach the neck of the funnel are significantly less in numbers. It’s like a herd being thinned. These are writers who have continued the process, never giving up. They’re still standing – well, I mean, squished into the funnel. One of these days if they keep trying, they’ll SPLASH into the bottle below the funnel. Heaven, right?! It’s all azure seas, palm trees and free cocktails, right?
Not exactly. You’ve finally made a sale. Can you make another one? Can you get rewrite work? Should you quit your day job and just wait for those dollars to roll in? Hell no. The truth is once you splash into the bottle below the funnel – where actual paid writers live, you have to start paddling right away. Sink or swim. Top-of-the-funnel, beginning writers mistakenly fantasize that one sale will a) be enough money to live on FOREVER! b) offers will then flow to them REGULARLY! Sadly, neither is true. Say you make a sale and get paid scale. Six figures. Say low six because you’re new to the splashy bottle. So what’s that – maybe 200K if you’re pretty lucky? Okay, now let’s pay your attorney and manager. And taxes. So maybe you’re going to bank something like 100K after all that. Give or take. I’m not a mathematician so just go with me. Say out of that 100K you spend even 25% on yourself immediately – go on vacation, pay off a credit card, put a juicy downpayment on a car. You’ve got about 75K left. Wow, that’s enough to quit your day job and support your family on for a year! Or – is it? Okay say it is. What about the next year? Are you going to make another sale? Can you count on that? How about the year after that?
I had dinner with an A-list writer familiar with the Academy Award recently and he mentioned morosely how there’d been so little work for the past couple of years. And this man is ON the A-list. I once heard that the WGA estimates that only 35% of their membership is working each year. That leaves – wait – yes, 65% of guild members out of work on a given calendar year.
So there are many things to ponder: where are you in the funnel? That’s okay if you’re at the very top, having written one or three scripts. Or maybe you’re in the neck, you’ve written six or seven scripts and optioned something once. Do you have a realistic idea about what splashing down into the bottle is going to be like – for real? Do you have the ambition, nerves of steel and passion to not know where your next writing income is going to come from? Do you mind if there are two or three year stretches in-between? Can you live on promises and martinis?
We can all relate to over-inflating our expectations only to be disappointed when we arrive at our destination. Oh – this is Namibia? Where’s like the flocks of flamingos and herds of zebras like on tv? Can you drink the water? I have to eat that? What do you mean – rebel coup?! Does your idea of “making it Hollywood” look something like this?
Of course it does. It did to me, too. For awhile. But the closer you get to the bottom of the funnel, the more you can hear the faint cries of surprise from those just ahead of you on the water slide.
Making it all the way down through the funnel and into the bottle is more like being a trained paratrooper. When you finally splash down you have to immediately reorganize and strategize your survival in enemy territory.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m excited to splash into the bottle. But I’m realistic. Somebody might just hand me a towel a year later, thank me for playing and escort me to the poop deck with a party favor. This is a very long way of saying – keep your day job. And keep your expectations realistic. One sale will NOT necessarily change your life. I take that back – it will – but probably not in the way that you have imagined. Are you really ready for this lifestyle? Is it what you really want? I know so many writers who made it into the bottle with a sale and then have been dog paddling ever since with no other successes of note.
Screenwriting magazines are full of interviews with exceptions – but inside that bottle there’s a tiny little tropical island where the A-list writers live. Don’t be fooled into thinking that little island is shared by more than a tiny minority. And even then – even then, my friends, those A-listers are on an episode of Survivor and can – and do – get kicked off the island at any time.
Make sure that you have as realistic expectations as possible, put your goggles on and jump in that funnel!