Monday, November 28, 2005

Living the Dream

Q: I was thinking about taking the plunge and going freelance doing some script reading and giving myself time to write. And I was wondering if you had any advice on the matter.

It's very exciting taking the plunge but also very daunting. Getting work as a feature scriptwriter is nigh on impossible in the British market. It takes a lot of graft and years of momentum to get that lucky break (unless you write that great genre script that lands in the right place at the right time: you do hear about people doing this but it’s a bit like getting four or five numbers in the lottery, the real jackpot is the Hollywood sale). There are more opportunities writing for TV but similarly getting into a position where you can be considered for the jobs can prove quite tricky. Getting an agent will help in this area however.

As a start, script reading offers invaluable insight into what people are writing and how they're doing it. Most of the spec scripts are mediocre but the ones being made usually have a certain edge, or quality, or professionalism that is important to recognise and implement in your own work. Basically, when I started reading, I wanted to learn everything about writing a script and see what was out there - what was selling and what wasn't etc so when it came to my own work, I'd be one step ahead (it's worked but not in any high profile way, yet).

However, while script reading is great, it is poorly paid and it takes up a lot of time. When you first take the plunge, reading will be the only outlet to actually pay the bills (that is if you’re lucky enough to get work as a reader, see Script Reader UK post, link on the right). The standard rate nowadays for ‘coverage’ (a script report) in the UK is £45 and some pay £50 (like the Film Council). It's the £50 gig you want as reading 4 scripts in a week is £200. Not much but enough to pay the basic bills (very frugal living indeed). Reading 8 or 12 scripts is not uncommon, and more money obviously, but fatigue may set in especially if you're busy writing your own scripts or cursing level 22 of Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation.

If you do have the opportunity to get script reading work, my advice would be to take advantage of all your contacts to get as many reading gigs as possible (in my heyday, I was reading for Pathé, Working Title, WT2 and Miramax) as this will help to keep churning over, and perhaps get a few other sideline jobs to maintain something that resembles a salary (script editing, teaching etc). Of course, the key focus is writing your own work so it's important to establish a routine and discipline which enables you to read scripts but write your own as well. I pretty much read in the morning and write in the afternoon. It's not set in stone but it helps if there are lots of scripts to read in any given week (I read much fewer nowadays as my writing opportunities increase but will do a glut of reading if I have the time or if money’s slow in coming through).

All this talk is all very well but life is more complicated than just saying ‘I’m giving up my job and going to be a writer’. There are numerous considerations and practicalities involved, all unique and with varying significance to each person who’s about to go freelance. Is my wife going to hit the roof? Will my girlfriend stand by me? How will I buy food and clothes for my two year-old son? Who will pay for Dad’s medical treatment? What is the least I can earn that will ensure I can pay my way? How can I guarantee some sort of income? Will I ever socialise again? What will my friends think? How am I going to afford the wedding? Will I miss a payment on the car? On the loan? Should I sell my flat/house? Maybe I should move back in with Mum. Should I move to Hollywood? Am I nuts?

There are no easy options but despite it all, the dream of writing for film and/or TV will usually win through, and will guarantee its own set of problems and frustrations as the effort inevitably takes its toll on your life and relationships. But fate will sometimes offer you a glimmer of hope or keep a leg in the door of destiny so that all your effort and sacrifice (and those of your loved ones) hasn’t gone to waste. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes talent and it takes luck. A crap shoot of determination and chance that will either make or break you but will nearly always be worth the effort, no matter what the outcome.

Making the decision to go freelance, no matter what profession, is a risky and exciting prospect. But it’s essential to have a good idea of what’s ahead of you or what you’re up against if you’re going to realise your dream. And if you do realise your dream, be happy that you’ve “made it” rather than be disillusioned and unhappy by your choices, or the reality that greets you.

“They don’t want you until you have made a name, and by the time you have made a name, you have developed some kind of talent they can’t use. All they will do is spoil it, if you let them.” Raymond Chandler (in a letter to Dale Warren, 7 November 1951).


Paul Campbell said...

I took the plunge 3 and a half years ago.

I haven't regreted it for a moment.

But I haven't made any money either. Career earnings to date come to £1500 - not that good for three and a half years.

I'll offer an alternative strategy to Danny's. My career hasn't been as succesful as his, but I'm getting there. I couldn't bear the thought of all that script-reading for so little money - particularly when I've got two young girls to support and my wife has only just gone back to work part-time. So, I've kept on good terms with my former employers and I go back to work for them every now and again. I resigned in July 2002, I went back for four months in Spring 2004, another five months that Winter, and I've just done another three month spell ending next week.

Whatever you do, you have to assume that the career and the money are going to take their time. My career is getting there, but oh so slowly.

So my advice is:

1. Don't do it until you've already written quite a lot and had some positive feedback from professionals.

2. Pace yourself - expect it to take up to five or six years before you start earning anything (at least)

3. Make sure you have some kind of strategy for supporting yourself (and your family if you have one).

4. Have an exit strategy. If, after several years of poverty, you still don't have an agent, have never had anything produced and have never made any money, then accept that perhaps you don't have what it takes. Smile, because you'll have had a great time finding that out, and then start thinking about the rest of your life.

Paul Campbell

Danny Stack said...

Thanks Paul.

English Dave said...

“They don’t want you until you have made a name, and by the time you have made a name, you have developed some kind of talent they can’t use. All they will do is spoil it, if you let them.” Raymond Chandler (in a letter to Dale Warren, 7 November 1951).

What a great quote. lol

And a great post too Danny.