Wednesday, August 17, 2011

So how long are the long odds anyway?

Clint asks:

A question (sorry for the long wind up):

There is much chatter about how intense the competition is in the screenwriting world. All the books and blogs talk about how there are 764,898 screenplays written each month and just 40 movies produced each year. A screenplay contest like the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting gets 6,000+ entries.

Yet I've read how winning most screenwriting contests doesn't boost your career because sooooooo many of the screenplay are total crap and even the top 10 percent are pretty bad.

So, while the raw numbers are daunting, what is the competition really? If 80 percent of screenplays are improperly formatted, littered with poor grammar, written in Magic Marker and such, how big the field of real contenders?

If, in your career, you've read 1,000 scripts, how many are just illiterate crap from the get-go?

My thought is that much of the "competition" is just clutter and static. Am I close, or am I among the deluded thinking I got a shot?

No, I pretty much agree with your assessment. I've probably read over 3500 scrips in my career. I'd be fairly stunned if a look at the raw numbers showed my consider rate to be much above 10 percent. That would mean that if I was reading 10 scripts a week, one of those would get a consider. That sounds more or less right to my thinking. Some weeks I give more than one, but then I'll have a drought of good scripts for weeks. Figure maybe another five or ten percent for "Consider With Reservations."

On the outside, where does that leave us? With an 80% pass rate. There's probably a pretty wide spread of quality within that 80%. Some are irredeemable, some might be within a draft or two of a consider, and some might have been passed on for reasons beyond the writing quality

So while the raw numbers of aspiring screenwriters makes the competition look fierce, if you're a good writer, you're not really competing with 80% of the pack. It's that excellent, good and almost-good 20% that you have to beat.

Stuff like this is why sometimes it's best for a writer to adopt the mentality of Han Solo while navigating an asteroid field. (That is, "Never tell me the odds!") Good writing rises to the top. Sometimes it takes a little longer for some writers than others. Some good writers might have connections and relationships that get them to the top sooner, but in the end, it's going to come down to talent.

Worry about your talent and your abilities. Keep pushing yourself. If you need to keep an eye on what scripts are out there in order to motivate yourself, then do so, but focusing on the numbers and stats of how many aspiring writers you can find in the LA area isn't helpful.

Think of how many wannabe actors there are out there. With so many of those folk competing for the same parts, the odds seem astronomical, but only if you start with the assumption that each person has precisely the same ability (and thus, the same chance) as every other aspiring. Some people are simply better than others. If you were to count every aspiring actor as competition for someone like Meryl Streep, then she would seem to defy astronomical odds every time she booked a role. I think we'll all agree that Meryl isn't defying long odds even when she just beats out competition among working actors.

Joey Tribbiani does not have the same odds of landing a role as Leonardo DiCaprio. When you're Leo, it doesn't matter how many Joeys there are.


  1. Nice to see a realistic but not overly pessimistic assessment. We all know it's not an easy game, but too much time worrying about how long the odds are and not enough spent reading and writing in order to actually get better is counter-productive. Speaking of which, this outline isn't going to write itself...

  2. Agreed ^^. Thanks for not throwing us all to the wolves and reminding us of one undeniable truth: There's no way around it, you have to focus on good writing.

  3. I've submitted work to competitions, for two reasons.

    The first reason was simply to get validation from an impartial 3rd party. I just wanted to know I wasn't wasting my time. There's a lot to said for that, and it's a good way, imho, to trace your progress as a writer. As you improve you should begin to place higher, until at some point you win.

    Secondly, competitions give people like me a chance to get our work read by industry folk, which is the opportunity we're looking for. But then, the work has to stand by itself.

    However, there's another point that needs to be made: the competition circuit is definitely the minor leagues, wrt screenwriting.

    The people who enter are, by definition, those people who are not writing for a living, so while entering can help you develop, winning can give you a false sense of accomplishment, because like triple-A, you can succeed with flaws in your game.

  4. Nice post.

    Yep. Totally agree. But would also redefine talent as 90% work ethic, 10% ability.

    Or as Garant and Lennon put it, "The only thing you can control is your work ethic."

    Seriously. :)