Working towards being a Paid Writer in The Desert

On Bamboo Killers, Emily posted yesterday that she's decided to alter her day job sitch in order to better facilitate her sparking writing career. Kudos and best of luck to her. She's fun, entertaining, and a hard working writer. Her post can be seen on my links at the right, or here.

But there was a really interesting set of comments by someone named Jaime. Her blogging identity is blocked to the public, but I decided to re-post her comments here. I know there are a good number of things I wish I had known before coming out to the Desert. This is among the things I've learned in the last six years. So I thought it was worth passing along.


"I’ve written and erased this a few times now. I’ve been in the exact same place as you. I know how exciting it is to have things finally starting to happen and the last thing in the world I would want to do is take that away from you. But if I could honestly go back in time to that time and tell myself one thing, it would be to not quit that job.

I was in the same place as you. Working a full time job that wasn’t satisfying, with a manager and agent and a screenwriting career that was going places. I thought I was responsible, waiting until had my first sale until I finally quit my job. I thought quitting was the smart thing to do. I’d have more time to write, I was making money from screenwriting, and hey, I could always go back to job later on. Here’s where things start to unravel.

I quit my job just after the writer’s guild strike when I made my first sale. The first thing you learn is that all of the things you thought about script paydays are wrong. I know others have covered this, but it should be repeated anyway. The numbers that are thrown around for how much you can make from a script are usually in the range format. Not only is that higher range completely out of reach for what you will ever see, the lower range is probably a lie as well. By the time my agent, manager, lawyer, writers guild, and state & federal taxes had taken their bite, my ‘huge script sale’ was approaching a number approximating what I might have made by staying in my job. Still, it was writing money and it paid the bills.

And more jobs did come. However, not enough jobs and for never enough money. The problem with the current market is that, as fresh screenwriters, we should be getting less prestigious, less high paid work. If a studio wants a script for low six figures or a quick rewrite, that used to be the bread and butter for beginning professionals and as time goes by, you would start to move up that pay ladder. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Most jobs I go up for now I not only have to compete with other fresh writers, I have to compete with experienced, produced, ‘name’ writers. The reason is the economy. With the economy going to hell right after a prolonged strike, a lot of older, experienced writers took the hit. These writers who should be above this kind of work are now slumming it for guaranteed paydays, drying things up for the rest of us.

After a year or two of steady work, I started to realize that financially this wasn’t working. I lived a relatively cheap life with my partner, but things were still a stretch especially if we wanted to start a family. On top of that, the first thought after every pay check arrived was ‘ok, but when will I get another’. The fact of the matter is that to be a working professional screenwriter you need enough money at any given time to live comfortably in Los Angeles for years a time, because you will find times in your career where years might pass between big jobs. I have a partner who makes a comfortable, stable living which is a godsend, but having to rely upon them as a safety net is unfair as well as infeasible. No job is secure these days, and shit happens. To be frank, I also worry that over time it’s going to strain our relationship in ways I can’t fully grasp. And as you get older, the stretches of time between work will get longer and longer. It’s an issue the WGA is trying to address, but it is still an issue. There is an expiration date for most writers and you will have to have enough money or job security to deal with that when it comes."


But what about all of the free time to write and take meetings? First, regarding the meetings. Meetings will dry up. There are only so many people you can take a general meeting with. After that, most people know who you are and what you can do, so the meetings become more specific but less frequent. Your representatives aren’t lying when they talk about the success you’ll have and how much money you’ll make. They just might not be right about it all. They have faith in you, but they can’t control the market or the economy or whether or not they’ll be laid off from their company. Belief that you can do something isn’t the same as belief that you will do something.

And as big a pain in the ass as it is to come home from a long day of work to write, it can be much worse. Try writing on a deadline when you know how much you need this job. Try writing when a sale means the difference between having a kid this year and putting it off another year. Try writing when you have to worry that you’ll have to ask your spouse to cover you for the rent. It sucks. It sucks in a way that I cannot begin to describe. It sucks in a way that I can’t share with most of my friends, who assume once you’re working everything is set (who also assumed once you had an agent/manager, you were set). It sucks in a way that makes me long for the days of writing tired but secure. And it sucks because it taints your writing.

So, in the last few months, I’ve tried to go back to work at a steady job while I continue to be a screenwriter. I had years of experience and thought it would be no problem. Well, it’s a problem. The fact is that I now have to compete for the job I once took for granted. I am not only competing with people younger than me who have been working steadily and older people who are willing to take a demotion just to work, but with people just like me who left to pursue other careers but are now racing back to find something secure. I applied for the same job I held at the same organization and found out that they had received almost 300 applications for the position.

I would like to say that this is just my experience and that the current situation is some sort of lack of dedication or skill. But I know I’m not alone. Out of my grad school screenwriting class, 4 are actually working in screenwriting in any way and all 4 are currently looking for 9 to 5 work to make ends meet.

Listen, it’s not all glum. I still love writing. My agent and mangers are smart, dedicated, and top of the industry, and I feel really good about the projects I’m working on. It’s just, I know the place you’re at, with all of your friends and family saying you’re making it, and your representation telling you about all the opportunities you have. But I honestly would regret it if I said nothing here. You are a talented, thoughtful person who should be deeply proud of the success you’ve had and confident about the success you will have. However, please, please, please make sure you deeply consider all possibilities before you let your job slip away. If you have a full time job, fight for it until there is NO WAY AT ALL you could keep it and a writing career."

Later in further comments she added:

"My first sale contract was ridiculous. I mean, it was a novel. So yes, with that intricate web of possibilities, there was a way that I could walk away with A MILLION DOLLARS! All it would take is that I would be the sole writer (no other people, even for rewrites) on a major studio script that was made into a major movie that became a blockbuster that led to a series of films that sell a ton of DVDs and are TNT all the time with all sorts of ancillary revenue streams like toys and video games. There is no way, no matter what, that any of that would ever happen. Most sold scripts and most working writers will never see production, let alone enough material produced to make a whole career. So for the most part, the money you are paid upfront is all the money you’ll see and that figure is always at the lowest end of that range. I don’t think that’s pessimism, I think it’s literally the odds. I used to intern at a production company and a few months back I found a sheet of the scripts that they had sold to studios back then. Of the 12 projects, none ever went into production, and only two of the writers appear to be still writing 5 years down the line. I also know of a produced screenwriter of at least one hit movie who is about to lose his modest sized house through no fault of his own, other than getting older and selling less. No matter how bad your day job and no matter how fun screenwriting seems, everyone needs to keep in mind that this is rough, unstable, poorly paid path for most."

ps. Food for thought.

No comments: