I get a ton of emails at No Film School, and most of them are people asking me how I became a screenwriter.
Learning how to become a professional isn’t an easy task. Part of the problem is that no two people have the same breaking in story.
Still, there are a few decent steps that apply to most writers I know.
So today, we’re going to go over how to become a professional screenwriter and hopefully leave you with some ideas to kickstart your career.
Let’s get started.
How I Became A Professional Screenwriter by Christine Conradt
How to Become a Screenwriter
For the new people here, I’m Jason Hellerman, and I’m a screenwriter and consultant for No Film School. My journey into the world of storytelling began with a deep love for movies and a burning desire to craft compelling narratives.
I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Communications and English from Penn State University, where I developed a solid foundation for storytelling. then I went to Boston University and got my Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting, before moving to Los Angeles.
Over the last decade, I’ve appeared on The Black List twice, had a movie premiere at SXSW, worked with a bunch of fun directors and actors, as well as optioned and sold spec scripts.
Plus, I’ve staffed in TV!
Over the years, I’ve established myself with a portfolio spanning various genres, from drama and comedy to thrillers. I take pride in my ability to create authentic and engaging characters, and stories with unique twists and turns.
In addition to my screenwriting work, I’m passionate about helping others refine their storytelling skills.
My goal with this article is to give you an idea of the many ways you can become a professional screenwriter in Hollywood.
Internships and Entry-Level Jobs Can Lead to a Screenwriting Career
For me, learning how to become a screenwriter was a bit of an arduous process. I moved to Los Angeles after finishing graduate school, and took a few unpaid internships. I interned at Scott Free and in the Mad Men Writer’s Room.
Eventually, I got a job working at Scott Free and transitioned that into being an assistant for a major producer in Hollywood.
Is this the only way to break in? No. But what these steps can help you do is get a sense of the industry, and figure out what part of it you want to be in and why.
Those internships became a battleground where I learned a lot about the industry. But they were also a proving ground where I saw professional writers in their element.
There’s only so much you can learn in school. It’s way more important to get out in the real world. I also got to learn about how hard it was to work in the industry.
While the internships I did were unpaid, a struggle in itself, they taught me a lot about the workload I could handle, ways to budget my time, and as a result they were a graduate school unto themselves.
Spoiler alert, I did not succeed all the time.
In the beginning, I was great at tasks like getting coffee and lunches, but I had a lot to learn about Hollywood and the way writers work.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I was not a great intern at Mad Men. I was too scared to ask questions, and incredibly intimidated by the level of writers around me to make myself useful. It took me learning some hard lessons there to be good at my other internships. But that failure didn’t stop me. It actually helped me.
Luckily, I heeded those lessons and wasn’t an unpaid intern for long. I was promoted at Scott Free to a floater, and then I became the assistant to the president.
My official title went from intern to runner, to floater, to assistant, and eventually, I was a story editor. The pay always stayed pretty low.
But it was better than $0 as an intern.
So how does all that teach you how to become a screenwriter?
t helps us see that there is more to becoming a full-time writer than writing.
There’s pitching, there’s handling agents and managers, working with directors and producers, and even relating to fellow writers.
My internships put me into the ring with some of the most successful writers of film and television. I got to watch their habits. The way they outlined, broke story, gave feedback, and took criticism. And we still haven’t even gotten to the most valuable thing it gave me.
I made the necessary contacts to get my material read. Suddenly, I was able to get crucial feedback and a foot in the door.
Getting feedback from your Mom and best friend can be great for self-esteem, but if you want to make it in this business, you need to know what working professionals think.
Most of us don’t have access to a development executive on a daily basis, but interning in Hollywood can put you on or near their desk. You can hear how they think, learn what they love, and then apply that as you see fit to your own writing.
Screenwriting Lesson: You can be a great writer, but if you can’t navigate the business, you can never move forward.
Want to Be a Screenwriter? Write A Lot.
Look, I know this is a cop-out step, but here is why you should still listen to me:
I know a ton of people who tell me about their one amazing spec screenplay. They’ve spent years working on it. They think it’s perfect. And it might be. But what if it’s not?
Or what if it’s perfect but Disney has a competing project?
Or what if the life-rights are tangled up?
My point is this, if you want to learn how to become a screenwriter, you need to put the effort into writing and breaking screenplays. Not screenplay. It’s a hugely important difference. The effects of which are far reaching. What do I mean by that? Let me tell you more from my own story.
Shovel Buddies was the second script I ever wrote. After that, I spent a ton of time writing less successful scripts, but the more I wrote the faster I got. The more efficient, the more I learned how to cut, edit, and build character.
Sure, Shovel Buddies made the Black List and helped me become a pro, but the other scripts in between helped me book other assignments.
They proved that I had other stories inside me, that I knew how to work well with others, and that I was getting better on the page.
We can all get caught up in the idea of produced credits. They’re valuable, and if you want to advance your screenwriting career, produced credits matter.
But when you’re starting out, what you really want to do is produce quality work, develop your voice, and stay in the conversation. Why?
Because Hollywood is built on “What have you done for me lately.” You can’t rely on that spec from five years ago to keep you relevant. That’s why you have to be constantly creating. To stay on the tips of tongues and at the fore of executives minds. There are even more reasons to keep writing.
Another is that there are a lot of jobs out there. You might be closing yourself off from them without the appropriate samples. There’s no exact number of spec screenplays you should have, but I would recommend having AT LEAST one feature and two pilots to show people.
And you should have a few ideas of what you want to write next. The catch with those?
These can’t be barely finished. They HAVE TO be polished, ready, and proofed. And you have to be excited about them.
Lots of people break-in when someone asks to read their script and then passes it up the ladder. You’re not going to get passed up the ladder or win a contest with a script that’s not finished.
Screenwriting Lesson: If your first project doesn’t sell, maybe the next one will. Or the one after that. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Keep writing!
Do Professional Screenwriters Win Contests?
No. In fact, almost screenwriting contests are scams.
Yes, you heard me right. They’re scams. Many of these constesr are built off people paying $50-$100 (or more) to send their screenplays in to be evaluated by industry readers.
But these readers are often underpaid, skim, and phone it in.
Find a contest that has amazing readers you love and trust? Great – I am happy for you. but it still doesn’t really matter to most agents and managers and producers.
I have a list of screenwriting contests I think are fine. The rest, I really think are scams! And even these I hesitate to recommend. I have no professional screenwriting friends who broke in via contests.
Screenwriter John Gary talks about “the hope machine.” It’s a theory that Hollywood profits off giving people the hope that any day, any time, they can “make it” in the industry.
Contests profit off that hope, so be wary. Film is a subjective medium. One contest may hate your script, but the readers from another contest might love it.
It’s hard to predict this stuff, so chose organizations with a long history and that seem to break more prominent writers.
Many of these contests provide no feedback, they just tell you if you cut it or not.
If you’re going to try the contest route, I STRONGLY encourage you to do your research. What do I mean by that? Ask yourself:
Who is reading your script?
What have past winners done in the aftermath?
Does your entry fee get you any perks?
Personally, I would advise against submitting to any contests that didn’t come with feedback on your entry. Otherwise, you’re throwing your money into the abyss. On the other hand…
Placing or winning a contest can give you the necessary exposure you need to make a dent in this town, especially if you’re not located in Hollywood.
In 2013, I put my script, Shovel Buddies, on the Black List website. I paid the fee to host, and I paid for professional readers to provide me coverage on the screenplay.
This was a good idea and I’ll tell you why: While this was not a contest, the site did rank my script against others. When Shovel Buddies scored highly, I started getting agents and managers reaching out quite quickly.
At the time, I think I had invested about $250 worth of reads and hosting. In the end, that was a small investment for what turned out to break me into the professional screenwriting scene.
I also write an article about paid screenplay coverage – look out for those sites as well!
Still, the only way I stayed professional was to follow Step 2 and to keep writing.
Screenwriting Lesson 3: Not all contests are created equal. Research, spend wisely, and be careful.
Become a Screenwriter Through Networking
As I mentioned earlier, at some point the way to become a professional screenwriter is to get read, passed up the ladder, repped, and eventually sell something or get hired on an open writing assignment.
The only way any of this happens is if you put as much energy into making connections as you do into writing. Because what good is it to have a bunch of great scripts if you don’t have the people to read them and pass them up the ladder.
Networking is a crucial part of advancing a career in Hollywood for screenwriters.
Here’s a ton of ways to meet people who can read your or rep you:
- Screenwriting Workshops and Classes: Enroll in screenwriting workshops, classes, or seminars. These are not only great for learning and improving your craft but also for meeting other aspiring writers and industry professionals.
- Online Screenwriting Communities: Join online forums, social media groups, and platforms like Reddit or Stage 32, which are specifically tailored for screenwriters and film professionals. Engage in discussions, share your work, and connect with others.
- Film Industry Mixers: Attend industry mixers, meetups, and parties. These events are designed for networking, and you can often find them advertised through industry websites and social media.
- Film Schools and Alumni Networks: Connect with film school alumni networks, as many successful professionals maintain connections with their alma mater.
- Pitch Festivals and Competitions: Again, buyer beware. Participate in pitch festivals and screenwriting competitions. Even if you don’t win, you can make valuable connections with industry professionals who judge or attend these events.
- Internships and Assistant Positions: Consider internships or assistant positions at production companies, agencies, or studios. These roles provide access to industry insiders and valuable hands-on experience.
- Utilize Your Existing Network: Leverage your existing connections. Friends, family, and acquaintances might have connections in the industry. Don’t be shy about asking for introductions or advice.
- Networking Websites: Use websites like IMDbPro to research and contact industry professionals. It’s a paid service, but it can be valuable for finding industry contacts.
- Querying: While it’s less common, you can also send query letters to agents, managers, and production companies. However, this approach often requires a well-crafted pitch and a strong portfolio of work.
- Online Portfolio: Create an online portfolio or website showcasing your best work. This can serve as a digital business card when you make new contacts.
- Coffee Meetings: When you meet someone in the industry, suggest a casual coffee or lunch meeting. These informal settings can lead to more meaningful connections.
- Follow Up: After meeting someone, always follow up with a polite thank-you email or message. Networking is not just about making initial contacts; it’s about maintaining and nurturing those relationships over time.
Remember, networking is about building genuine relationships, not just collecting business cards. Be respectful, be a good listener, and offer value when you can. Over time, your network can become a valuable resource for your screenwriting career.
Screenwriting Lesson: Hollywood is all about who you know. Network. Reach out. Be a good person. If your reputation is good, the work will find you.
Summing Up How To Become A Screenwriter
Hopefully, now you have some clarity on how to become a professional screenwriter. No two people have the same entryway, but these steps can help direct you toward success. Or at the very least direct you towards a better understanding of the whole process.
No matter what, booking an agent or a manager is only the beginning. You have to spend the rest of your time pitching, writing new things, and pounding the pavement.
No article or blog can substitute for hard work.
Writing is a personal journey, and even if you do all these steps, Hollywood doesn’t owe you anything. Keep writing, keep making connections, and if you do it from a place of passion good things may follow.
You get better with every script, and you never know whose business card you’ll accept around the next turn.