John August publishes the best posts on screenwriting I've seen. His blog is one of my favorites.
1. Don’t quit your day job — until you have to.
Before writing this post, I asked a dozen working writers for their recommendations, and this was by far the most-often made point.
The natural instinct is to immediately quit your crappy day job once you’re hired to write something (or sell a spec). After all, isn’t that the dream? Isn’t this why you came to Hollywood? Every waiter and barrista in
Los Angelesconsiders himself a screenwriter, so quitting your day job is an important way to distinguish yourself as a True Screenwriter, the kind who gets paid actual money to push words around in 12-pt Courier.
But don’t. Don’t quit your job right away.
Even if you sell a spec for $200K, it will be months before you see a cent. The studio will sit on your contract as lawyers exchange pencil notes about things you can’t believe aren’t boilerplate. When I was hired for my first job,1 it took almost four months before I got a paycheck. I was living off of money from a novelization, but when that ran out, I had to ask my mom for help paying rent.
Nearly every screenwriter I speak with has a similar story — you’re never as broke as when you first start making money.
Beyond the initial delay in getting paid, keep in mind that there’s no guarantee you’ll have a second writing job. I haven’t seen numbers, but my hunch is that a substantial portion of new WGA members aren’t getting paid as screenwriters two years later. A career is not one sale. As one writer friend says, “I always think of myself as six months away from teaching community college.”
If all goes well, the needs of your career will eventually force you to give up your day job. You’ll have meetings at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, and no more excuses to offer your boss. Or you’ll be hired on a TV show, which is at least two full-time jobs. So don’t panic when it comes time to quit. Just try to leave on good terms, with back-of-mind awareness that at some point you may need to get a normal job again.
Here’s how the transition happened for my former assistants:
Rawson finally quit working for me because the movie he was directing (
Dodgeball) was in preproduction. He went from being an assistant to having an assistant in less than a week.
Dana had a movie greenlit and another script under a tight deadline.
Chad met with Aaron Sorkin on a Tuesday morning — and got hired in the room. He had to start working on Studio 60 that afternoon.
Each of them left, but only after the needs of their writing career made it impossible not to. In the meantime, they had regular hours and health insurance. That last part is especially worthy of attention, because it may take months to get WGA health insurance started after making a sale.
2. It’s less money than you think.
We’re used to getting paychecks that have all of the taxes and expenses taken out. Maybe you’re bringing home $850 per week. The math is relatively straightforward: you know how much you need for rent, food, utilities and whatnot. And next week, you’ll get another check.
Screenwriting is nothing like that. You get paid in chunks, from which you have to pay taxes and percentages to all the people working for you. The money shrinks at an alarming rate. Worse, you have limited ability to predict when you’ll get paid again.
To see the rest of the post, read Money 101 for screenwriters.