For The Love Of The Craft: A Screenwriter’s Journey To Success
In addition to writing scripts and consulting, Mark is also a phenomenal mentor to aspiring screenwriters regularly offering advice and words of wisdom to scribes. Now he’s collected his 20+ years of experience into a new book called: A Screenwriter’s Journey: Tips, tricks and tactics to survive as a working screenwriter in Hollywood.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Mark about the development of his book. He was gracious enough to delve into what it takes to write a screenwriting book meant to inspire others and the challenges facing new screenwriters today:
What initially attracted you to screenwriting?
My creative screenwriting spark began when I was just eleven years old and my childhood best friend Matt Reeves, (director of Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes), received an 8 mm film camera from his grandpa and it’s the event that sparked our passion to become filmmakers. We started making filmsand writing screenplays and became part of a collective group of pre-teen filmmakers on the Westside of Los Angeles that included J.J. Abrams (Star Wars Episode VII) and Larry Fong (Watchmen, Kong: Skull Island). It culminated with a big screening at the historical Nuart Theater here in Los Angeles. The sold-out screenings even garnered a feature article in the L.A. Times and showed Hollywood that we were serious about our craft—even as teenagers.
What inspired ‘A Screenwriter’s Journey To Success’?
It’s funny, I didn’t originally set out to write a book. I snuck up on the idea once I had enough material from blogging. I’ve been posting articles for about six or seven years now about screenwriting in Hollywood’s trenches during my past twenty years of a professional career. In addition, I’ve offered my workshop and webinars where I teach my disciplines that I’ve formed during my journey. During the blogging process, I realized that I had enough material to create a book, so I started to process of logically putting my story together, much like a screenplay, with my beginning as a pre-teen filmmaker, through film school, and struggling in the real world of Hollywood to finally establishing a screenwriting career. I’ve been blessed to work with some top professionals in the film business and many have become my friends and mentors. In this same spirit of fellowship, I wanted to find a way to give back to the up-and-coming screenwriters and the book was a perfect way in my opinion.
How do you approach writing a book meant to provide guidance to writers?
My approach was similar to writing a screenplay or telling any story—I started from the beginning. The difference is that my story doesn’t have an ending yet! I’m still working and just completed three screenplay assignments in a row and two of them wrapped production. I wanted to provide guidance to aspiring screenwriters so they might avoid the many pitfalls this business can deliver in their pathway to success. I offer my real world examples of personal experiences and mydisciplines that helped me weather the many storms to achieving success.
How would you compare the journey of writing a book to writing a screenplay?
As I mentioned in the last question, it’s similar with regards to the storytelling structure because I start with the ACT 1 of my screenwriting journey, a wide-eyed pre-teenager with big dreams, and transition into ACT 2 of graduating film school and continuing to slog it out in Hollywood trenches with my first professional sale six years after film school. Along the way, you follow my personal journey and see how and why I’ve developed my disciplines to achieve success. Unlike in a screenplay where you only have 100 or so pages to tell your story, in my book I was free to explore my journey as long as I felt necessary to convey my story.
How has breaking into the industry evolved since your first break?
It’s changed for the better with regards to the proliferation of technology and the crossed pathways of features and TV. When I graduated from film school with a few screenplays, the Hollywood landscape for screenwriters involved making a clear-cut choice between working in features or TV and the mediums did not cross paths. I chose to focus on feature screenplays because at the time, spec scripts were garnering huge paydays for writers and I loved cinema. Looking back, I should have focused on TV, as I had a few friends who were running shows at the time, but you have to live by the choices you make and learn. Now you can produce your own film on an iPhone and distribute on the Internet without needing Hollywood’s permission. They key in this crowded marketplace where people have limited time is to make something that people want to see.
How do you see the craft of screenwriting evolving in the future?
The storytelling structure is constantly evolving and it’s moving toward virtual reality where the viewers can be immersed in the action and can choose alternative endings. I tell aspiring screenwriters to become proficient in all mediums to expand their odds of success. If you hit the wall for years with your feature screenplays, maybe try writing for TV or the web as a solid alternative. Don’t get locked into one medium.
What’s the biggest challenge facing new screenwriters today?
I think the biggest challenge is the competition to secure your first professional job and turn that into a career. When you consider that nearly half of the Writers Guild members do not report income in any given year, even the professionals who are not on the “A-list” struggle for steady work. The studios are focused on tent-pole movies that play to a global marketplace where they now make almost 80% of their profits. If you are writing a particular type of movie, you must consider your audience and who would consider producing such material.
I think aspirants must follow their dreams, but they should do it with realistic expectations. You are not going to sell the first screenplay that you write. It may take a pile of scripts over ten years to open the right doors that finally lead to success. In addition, with all of the access to screenwriting books, workshops, and the Internet, more people are screenwriting today than ever before. I’ve met people who are not writers, but they are working on a screenplay because they think it would be fun and they just might sell it. Estimates say there are about 50,000 screenplays a year that go into the marketplace, last year only about 70 specs sold at the studio level, and 740 films were released theatrically. As you can see, you have to be deadly serious about pursuing a career in Hollywood.
What’s the one key piece of advice every aspiring screenwriter should know?
Do not start your screenwriting journey without a true love for the craft and a solid work ethic because you will be tested daily to see how badly you really do want a career. Those aspirants who dabble in the craft and don’t act like a professional in all aspects of their career pursuits are in for a harsh reality. Hollywood has a dark side where it seduces aspirants with fame, fortune, and glory—and then it crushes their spirits with rejection and failure over the long haul. If you are not humble starting out—you will quickly be humbled by the craft and the film business. In my experience, you have to be the screenwriter who does the necessary work and never goes away—even in the worst of storms. The key is to stay in the game for any shot at success.
You can also listen to an interview with Mark on the DigiGods podcast here. (Interview begins around the 40 minute mark.)