Read as S. Lane Porter talks about her career as a Screenwriter. Find her at www.snapthought.com and on her Twitter feed on the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am a freelance writer with a specialization in writing films, television, and internet media (web television).
How would you describe what you do?
Based on the project, whether a story idea is my own or assigned by someone else, I break down their idea into a format that has the best combination of entertainment value and monetary return or I write films that are entertaining, aim to win awards but do not necessarily aim to turn huge profits.
What does your work entail?
Like any writing project, whether a speech or a novel, there is a substantial amount of prep work necessary before sitting down to write the film itself. Research, outlines, treatments, loglines, and taglines are almost always developed first before writing the screenplay, however in most cases, the above pre-production steps are in a liquid state and change after the screenplay is written/re-written over time.
What’s a typical work week like?
There really isn’t a typical work week unless you are a writer for television with a set shooting/production schedule. This type of writing position involves travel to an office to produce a script with a team of writers, however as a film writer, the week is flexible. A lot of writers start out with day jobs and work around those hours until they’re established.
A typical work week for me if I am in pre-production is two to three hours of research per day until it’s time to do an outline. This could be anything from researching the psychology of a character I’ve made up, to locations and settings that are out of my personal realm of experience. After this research I continue to hone my outline such that the film feels complete and ready to flesh out into the real screenplay.
There is also a lengthy amount of time devoted to networking and marketing (the business of writing) during any given week which entails answering emails, sending out read requests to producers, agents, and actors, as well as attending any function that allows you to mingle with entertainment related individuals. Some writers find networking very difficult because as a career, writing is a quiet, lonely venture and getting out of their heads can be daunting at times, but it’s important to get out there and make contacts.
If I am currently writing a screenplay, the week is usually spent doing nothing else but the writing/editing portion of the screenplay and nothing else.
How did you get started?
I have been writing in one medium or another since I was a very young child; however it wasn’t until I spent a few years working in the film industry that I felt comfortable writing in screenplay format. Screenwriting was an unlearning process, because unlike a novel, a screenplay shows only what is seen and heard. There is no inner monologue of character thought, and it’s up to the writer to communicate those invisible concepts through visual body language, dialogue and setting.
What do you like about what you do?
I have always day dreamed. Being paid to put day dreams on paper is pure gold.
What do you dislike?
Editing. After numerous drafts of a screenplay, as a writer, I have a difficult time standing back from my work to gauge an objective opinion about it. This is the point in which I share my work with others in the industry to gather insight. When you are too close to an object, it is difficult to see it as a whole or with a fresh perspective.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I make most of my money via my day job and at least once a month I am hired for small writing projects that aren’t always related to the film industry. The goal however is to shift the day job into the back and bring forward a salary that relies more on writing related projects.
How much money do Screenwriters make?
This is such a dicey question!
If you are a union guild member there are required minimums of monetary compensation for writing parts of a screenplay (1st drafts, 2nd drafts, treatments, etc.). From the minimums set by the union, there can be increases due to a writer’s demand and popularity.
If you are an independent freelancer like my self, you may earn nothing at first, and receive back end payments or residuals once a film has reached the point of making a profit, or you’re offered a small settlement up front. Payments can come in a combination of both as well. The goal is to get the most money you can for the budget they’ve laid out for their production. On the high side, a screenwriter can expect a payment equal to 5% or less of the budget. That’s the goal anyway.
Film students studying screenwriting who dream of being the hot writer that sells their first guild backed script out of college, are in for a surprise. If you take the union minimums and divide that fee by the actual hours you have put into the screenplay you worked so hard to create, you’re taking a very large sum and diluting it down to a wage that may make your eyes water. It’s not until you’re very established that the money starts to roll in and that can be a decade or more after you start your career.
Screenwriting is accomplished with perseverance. It requires dedication, passion, and the ability to carry burdens far beyond your over-stretched wallet to make your stories come alive.
So to answer the question: Compensation is all over the map and you better have a side gig to pay the rent when you’re first starting out.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
I didn’t make a dime from screenwriting for seven years, and then slowly but surely, I sold micro projects, then small projects and then suddenly my projects became feature length. I am still reliant on a day job but I have sold a feature film, a play, and a couple shorts as well as industrial projects (corporate training videos).
I have made $10,000 in total during the devoted years I’ve spent learning the craft. That is a lot by many beginning writer’s standards. The average writer spends at least five solid non-stop penniless years learning the art of screenwriting before their work elevates to a sellable status.
Hearing that makes you want to re-think your major in college, does it not? Are there more successful writers that have put as many years as myself, indeed, but there are also people who have written for decades without one bite, so I consider myself a budding writer on the block, patiently awaiting my turn at the wheel of fortune.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
While a formal education is not entirely necessary in this field, you will do yourself a disservice to not have some sort of training whether it’s in film school or any unrelated major at a college or university. What’s fascinating about screenwriting is that you can come to it from any angle. John Grisham practiced law for a decade before funneling that experience into a myriad of novels. The same is true for screenwriting. I attended a four year University and obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Costume Design and Stage Management. I still use this education every day when I’m writing.
An ability to tell interesting stories and a mastery of the language in which you speak is your only mandatory requirement. If you intend on breaking into a U.S. Market, it’s imperative to master the English language as well.
If you want a leg up on your competition, I might also add that spending time in the trenches, a.k.a. filmmaking will improve your writing to heights you can not imagine. Working in as many departments as possible will help you visualize your story from a vantage point many writers cannot obtain from their location. This means moving to a city that has a successful thriving film or television industry. (Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, Orlando, Dallas).
What is most challenging about what you do?
Taking criticism used to be the hardest thing about writing, especially in the beginning, however the longer you write and the more material you put out will help you learn to separate yourself from your work. After many years in the business, I eagerly seek out feedback that will fish out the problems a screenplay may have because there’s nothing more disgusting than a one hundred and ten page paper weight.
Currently, the hardest thing I find about screenwriting is getting face time with producers, agents, actors, to read my material. It’s nothing personal against the writer, but we get a lot of ‘no’s out of sheer time limitations. These people are sent thousands of queries asking to be read and it’s a lot like being a salmon swimming up stream to mate, flapping high in the air to get noticed and ahead of all the other fish.
Selling yourself is more difficult than writing the screenplay in my opinion.
What is most rewarding?
When my work evokes the emotional responses I was aiming for, that is when I feel rewarded. I am most pleased when people are still thinking about the story long after they’ve read or seen it on the screen.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Have one career that pays your rent (preferably in or near the film industry), yet gives you sufficient time to build up your library. You can’t enter the battle without a sufficient number of weapons. Having a solid number of scripts under your belt (that are well received by peers and industry folk) is the key to landing an assignment or selling one of your specs. Producers like to bet on sure things, not one hit wonders.
How much time off do you get/take?
Since I am a freelance writer and not working on a television show with regular hours, I am afforded the amount of free time I wish to take. That said, when I’m not working, I’m not making any money. I do not take that much time off and when I do, it’s more of a working vacation, both in writing and in my day job.
If I am on an assignment, a first draft is expected on the average within two months of the deal closing. Some producers have shorter deadlines, but that’s the average. It’s more of a goal oriented position. Getting the project done by a certain date leaves you free to structure your time as you please during that phase.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
As a writer in Los Angeles, there may be a misconception that I’m rubbing elbows with celebrities everywhere I go. This is not so. I’m at home, hovering over a keyboard most days. It’s a solitary life interrupted by the occasional opportunity to attend a party where you can network.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I think many writers see the gold statue Oscar on their fireplace mantel and while that is a glorious ambition I wouldn’t be sad to achieve, I would rather be remembered as the writer who created a story a person remembers from childhood, the one they put on the television when they’re having a bad day, the one that comforts them like their favorite sweatshirt. And if that film of mine pays the electric bill, that’d be nice too.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Screenwriting isn’t a smart choice from a financial standpoint. It’s a career akin to gambling. But there are ways to feed the writer inside yourself by taking work that gets you published while seeking out a career as a screenwriter. Writing articles, self-publish a book, write a novel, have a well read blog, or make short films using your material. These are all ways to get yourself out there and be just different enough than the writers around you to gain an edge.
Don’t take up a screenwriting career to become rich, do it for your soul.
A good day job couldn’t hurt either.