By Louis Ackerman | Feature Screenplay Contest Grand Prize Winner.
I’ve been writing scripts since I was a kid. They were written in pencil and weren’t any good, but it was a start. As I got older, the scripts got better. Yet the prospects of getting noticed by anyone in the industry seemed just as unlikely as they did when I was 10. For many years, I didn’t really know how to get my work read by the right people.
In 2012, I got serious about trying to sell something and moved to London. I started looking online for writing opportunities. Back then, you could find adverts on film job websites looking for scripts. Some were in need of a screenwriter to develop ideas for them. I encountered many so-called “producers” who wanted my work for free. This is how it goes when you’re trying to break in. Everyone wants something for nothing. Whether or not you are willing to work for free is a decision that every aspiring writer will have to decide for themselves at some point.
And I DID NOT want, to work for nothing. I wanted this to be a sustainable career.
By a stroke of luck, I found one of those rare ads that offered paid work. Some producers were on the hunt for a writer for a Mixed Martial Arts movie they were developing and hoping to finance. Now, I know nothing about MMA, but the gig was paid, so I applied and sent them a sample script, which they liked. I won the assignment and became a gun for hire. It was my first writing job. The film ultimately never went anywhere although I did receive a tidy sum for my efforts.
Through these producers, I met a larger company that also wanted to read my work. I sent a couple of scripts to them. They liked one and wanted to buy it. Boom, another sale! That script was sold way back in 2014. To date, as of 2022, it still hasn’t been made. This wasn’t wasted time, however, because I honed my craft during that process and established some contacts.
Lesson #1: Networking is a big part of this business. You can only do so much on your own. Talk to anyone and everyone who is willing to talk to you.
With no movement on either of the two projects, I realized that I was literally at a loss as to what to do next. So, I started firing off query emails to prospective agents. Yes, a lot of agencies state upfront that they don’t read unsolicited submissions and it seems like a catch-22. How can you ever get an agent to read your work if you need an agent to get your work read in the first place?
However, it doesn’t hurt to try sending off query emails anyway. Some of the agencies I contacted would engage with me a little bit and be like, ‘Okay, send us your stuff, we’ll read!’ Nothing really came of this; I didn’t have enough “heat” behind me. I wasn’t ready. The few agents that showed initial interest eventually stopped replying. It can be so demoralizing to be blown out like that.
Someone told me something years later that I think is very true advice:
Lesson #2: Don’t chase after agents until you’re ready, or they are ready for you. They’ll be there when the time is right.
It is probably unwise to begin your relationship with an agent by chasing after them and competing for their attention. You don’t want that to dictate the professional relationship you might have in the future. You want an agent to be chasing YOU.
Anyway, things were up in the air for me at this point. By 2015, I was so dejected about not getting any projects made (and working in my 9-5 job) that I decided to try something different. So, I started researching screenwriting competitions. This is something I had shied away from doing because the odds felt stacked against me. What are the chances of ever winning? Lo and behold, the odds were not stacked against me at all. In fact, the odds were just right.
The competition that caught my eye was called Shore Scripts and they offered cash prizes for the winners. The main point of interest was that they had a roster list of agents, production companies, producers, and directors, and they sent out their top five winning scripts to ALL of their contacts.
Even more appealing was the fact that the people judging the final shortlist of scripts were bonafide industry pros. At the time when I entered, people like Jeremy Irons, Phyllida Lloyd, and Tony Grisoni were going to bat for the best scripts. It was thrilling to know that they would be thumbing through my script.
And, honestly, it’s the best decision I ever made as a writer to enter this competition.
I submitted a sci-fi drama script that I had been working on for some years – it is called LIFE EXPECTANCY. It made the shortlist. Then it climbed to the top and eventually won the whole competition! I think there were 1,500 odd entries, so that was a big deal to me. It was validation that I wasn’t simply pretending to be a writer.
Lesson #3: Screenwriting competitions can be worthwhile!
The script went out to the industry roster and I waited. Eventually, an American company got back and was interested in representing me as management.
Now, managers are not quite the same as agents. Managers handle your career, help you to develop your work, and forge your contacts. Think of it like sports: the managers are coaches who train you up and help you to form a game plan, while agents are like, well, sports agents… Think Jerry Maguire. “Show me the money!!”