What do “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight” and “Spotlight” have in common, aside from being the three most recent winners of Best Picture at the Academy Awards? All three began as a screenplay.
Screenwriters develop the backbone of every successful movie – a thorough and detailed screenplay. Screenplays act as the blueprint of a film and include acting and screen directions, dialogue and a detailed description of each character’s story. The screenplay needs to be concise enough for directors and actors to translate it into the finished product audiences see on the screen but broad enough to allow for creative direction and interpretation.
A great screenplay elicits emotions from the audience and potentially has the power to change society. In 2015, Oscar-winner and Young Global Leader Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy released the film “A Girl in the River,” a documentary on “honor killings.” An honor killing is the killing of a relative – typically a female – who is believed to have brought dishonor on her family. According to an article in the New York Times, there is an honor killing about every 90 minutes somewhere in the world. Pakistan alone has more than 1,000 a year, and the killers often go unpunished.
Told through the lens of a love story, “A Girl in the River” follows Saba Qaisera, a young Pakistani woman who survived an honor killing. Qaisera eloped at 19-years-old, and to protect the family from that disgrace, her uncle and father attempted to kill her. She became part of the one percent of victims who survive – and rarer still, Qaisera fought back. She pressed charges against her attackers, but in Pakistan, there is a loophole in the law for honor killings. The assailants can be pardoned if the victim forgives them. Facing tremendous pressure from her community, Qaisera forgave her father and uncle.
Though Qaisera may not have found justice in her case, her fight wasn’t in vain. In early 2016, the then prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif held a screening of “A Girl in the River.” It was the first time the film had been shown in the country. The film had such an impact that Sharif vowed to end the practice. Within the year, Pakistan officials closed the loophole that allowed Qaisera’s attackers, and so many others, to go free.
Becoming a Screenwriter
Screenwriters do more than sit at a desk and write. They are salespeople, project managers and advisers. Once a script is complete, that’s when the hard work begins.
When a script is ready to be sold, screenwriters turn into salespeople. They set up pitch meetings where they present the script and discuss options, first for a producer who then pitches for studios and networks. In a pitch meeting, it all comes down to the logline – the one- to two-sentence summary of the script. Writers must win over the producer in 35 words or less. It’s imperative for screenwriters to have strong sales skills, such as active-listening and objection prevention, to ensure their product is picked up.
If the producer (or network or studio) is interested in pursuing the script, screenwriters then turn into project managers. The contract they enter with producers will include deadlines, including when the official first draft of the screenplay is due, as well as table reads with cast members, which is when actors signed on to the project read the script aloud around a table, notes from producers and other due dates for rewrites. They lay the groundwork for how the script will be filmed, from prop placement to camera angle.
For most screenwriters, this point of the process is where the journey ends. Some, though, continue in development as advisors. Also known as script doctors or script consultants, they are called on projects to polish an entire script or to provide expert knowledge on an aspect of the narrative. For example, a consultant may be called to advise on types of medieval weaponry. Script doctors almost always work uncredited, and they are usually called in to work on projects that are almost “green-lit.”
Career Outlook and Salary
If you want to become a screenwriter and break into the entertainment industry, it takes a certain skill set. Screenwriters need to be strong writers with a unique voice. They must write imaginative stories with multifaceted plots that become blockbusters with wide appeal.
“The great thing about screenwriting is that it’s easy to get started,” said screenwriter and teacher Matt McNevin. “All you need is a pen and paper.”
While it may be easy to start in the industry, that doesn’t mean screenwriting itself is easy. Several people in the business compare learning this style of writing to learning a new language. Taking classes dedicated to it is highly recommended, but that may not be enough. Many screenwriters have a bachelor’s degree, and some even have a master’s degree in film or a related field.
Many screenwriters are freelancers and are usually represented by a talent agent. Most studios won’t accept unsolicited scripts, meaning those sent by an unrepresented writer.
That being said, salaries can range from $24,000 to as much as $180,000 per year, with a median salary of $65,553 per year, according to PayScale. These salary numbers are likely for screenwriters working on a team employed at a production studio as opposed to a freelance writer. Still, some of Hollywood’s most prominent script doctors, like Michael Arndt and Simon Kinberg, reportedly earn as much as $400,000 a week doing rewrites, according to Forbes.