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!!”
Anyway, I had a very positive relationship with this management company for several years. They were based out in Los Angeles and were tailored to the American market with their contacts. So, I started writing scripts for the U.S., as opposed to the UK. When I had a script that my manager thought was worth sending out there, he got it to the right places. He was always prepared to tell me if something wasn’t ready. This was really important to have at the time: someone who critiqued my work BEFORE I tried to send it out to places.
Lesson #4: Always get feedback on your work and be willing to rewrite accordingly. Rewriting is key to making a script good. Don’t settle for a first or second draft. Keep adjusting and refining. Don’t be afraid to take and implement notes.
I had several projects that got set up with directors then fell apart, or simply stagnated. Just like those UK projects. It’s very common, especially in Hollywood, for moviemaking to be an uphill battle. It can take years for anything to get going and be an unpredictable process.
For weeks, it might be radio silence and an empty inbox. The next day, you might find yourself fielding interest from multiple parties. You need to develop a keen sense of what is right for you, and how much risk you are willing to take. See what people are offering you, weigh up the differences between the offers, or figure out your monetary threshold. Decide if the parties interested are a good match for you. Always research the companies and the people you’re about to talk to. Discuss your options with confidantes (colleagues, friends, family, etc.). Any offer that comes in – whether it’s for representation or an option – should always be seriously considered and examined. It doesn’t happen every day. Sometimes, making projects independently might be a winning idea to fill in those periods of radio silence. Shore Scripts has a wonderful strand of its competition that finances and produces winning short film scripts. It’s called The Short Film Fund. It’s a terrific way to get started. That’s not to say that anything you make outside of the industry will find a market or catapult you into the big leagues, of course. I know people who have made both short and feature films independently that get into festivals, but they don’t go anywhere after that. There is so much competition out there. You have to cut through the noise.
Sometimes it seems impossible.
But this is…
Lesson #5: Don’t give up. Be persistent. Be a pain in the ass. Keep trying. Keep creating. Keep pitching. If you want this to be a career, you have to invest time and patience into the process. Nothing happens overnight.
In the summer of 2017, Dave Beazley, the man who founded Shore Scripts, got in touch with me. He said he had always loved my winning script and was looking for a project to take on with his producing partner in Los Angeles and asked if I had anything else. I did. I had lots of scripts. I sent them a few things and they really liked a thriller script called FLESH & BLOOD. I had written it to be set in one location and to be makeable on a low-ish budget. It was a feasible prospect, unlike other things that I had written that were, in retrospect, too big and expensive. They asked if I would be willing to sign a shopping agreement with them, so they could take it around town to see if they could get any interest. A shopping agreement allows producers to have the right to shop your script around for financing on your behalf for a set period of time. It’s more flexible than an actual option agreement.
A few months went by and I actually forgot about the whole thing. Then one day — BAM! They contacted me to say that Blumhouse was interested in the script. They went on to explain the context, the money being offered, the director attached, etc. I was like, “You had me at Blumhouse!”
I decided to leave my day job after scoring the Blumhouse sale because I felt like it was time to throw myself into writing full-time, and now it was financially feasible to take such a risk. I wouldn’t advise budding writers to quit their jobs without having sold something or, at the very least, saved up some money in the bank ahead of time. You need to be in a position where you know you can survive such a leap from a day job to a dream job. The circumstances and risks involved will be different for everybody, so consider your options wisely.
Within the space of a year of me signing an option with Blumhouse on the script, a film was prepped, cast, shot, edited, and released on Hulu as part of a horror anthology series of feature-length, standalone episodes. All within a year! From script sale to finished product. That’s so rare! I flew out to Los Angeles in 2018, just before the film dropped online, and with help from my manager, I met with a dozen companies, including Bad Robot and Sony Screen Gems, and I got to pitch genuine Hollywood development execs. All of my life I had dreamed of doing that. While I didn’t get another pitch off of the ground while I was out there, the trip itself was remarkable and well worth the airfare.
And I always had more than one idea in my back pocket to reach for, just in case. Which is…
Lesson #6: Have lots of material. Write as many scripts as you can. The more variety, the better. Don’t try to write a big superhero blockbuster on your first time out, keep it modest and realistic. Always think about the potential budget and who your target audience is.
I eventually went my separate ways from my manager the following year, mainly because I wanted to find an agent in the UK and focus on getting projects produced there. Drama storytelling still thrives on television in the UK, and I wanted to explore that space properly. Once again, I turned back to Shore Scripts. I told them where I was at and asked if they could put me in touch with anyone. Within a couple of weeks, they had knocked on multiple agency doors and sent my material to them. And through Shore’s introduction, I eventually joined The Dench Arnold Agency and I have the most wonderful, proactive agent in my corner as a result.
Since then, I have had meetings with various British development executives and production companies, including the BBC. I continue to network. People will take meetings with me now. It’s still a graft to get stuff made for sure, but the doors are open a little more. I can get read.
And the writing continues.
Where I am now in my life and career is thanks, in large part, to my relationship with Shore Scripts and David Beazley. It has absolutely been a path worth taking, and a path that was not immediately obvious to me when I first started out. And that is the last lesson that I can impart…
Lesson #7: There is more than one way to get read and produced. As technology and the ways in which we communicate evolve, so too do the opportunities for creatives. If you find that doors are closed to you in one place, you might discover that they are open to you elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to knock.
I hope that my advice and experiences can be of some small use to anyone just starting their journey, and I wish all the luck to the next batch of entrants and finalists.
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