HOW DOES IT WORK?: BASICS OF BEING A WRITER IN THE ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS
Let us give you the lay of the land in as basic terms as possible, so that you understand how it works and where you, the screenwriter, would fit in.
Every working writer has either an agent or a manager or both. These people all called your representation or your reps. You will not be hired to do a professional writing job unless you have representation. Your agents and managers call up people who are hiring screenwriters and lobby for you. They send your samples in. They follow up and try to set meetings for you. When you are hired, they work with an entertainment lawyer on your deal, the contract that determines how much you will be paid and at what point in the process.
TV Writing. Network television -- meaning, non-cable channels - works on a yearly cycle of hiring writers for their shows. In the summer, networks begin to hear pilot pitches, which are ideas for television shows. The networks buy dozens of these pitches. The writers spend the fall writing the pilots and in January, the networks decide which pilots will be ordered. Meaning, which pilots scripts will be produced, made. In the spring, they decide which of the pilots will be "picked up" to series. As soon as these announcements are made the frenzy that is staffing season begins.
During staffing season, studio and network executives, show runners, read piles of samples and meet with the writers whose samples they liked. You are hired or not. You have multiple offers or not. You join the staff of a show or not, and this repeats the next year as well. Cable works off-schedule, and most networks are moving toward this model. They hire writers for shows at various times of the year, since they don't have to start their television show at the beginning of the fall like networks.
Your first year, you start as a staff writer and your salary is determined by Writers Guid minimums. (You'll have to join the writers guild, as most TV shows or large films are affiliated with the big unions.) As you progress in your career and move from show to show, you are generally moving up in title and salary with each move.
Film Writing. Your agent or manager will submit you for open writing assignments. OWAs are jobs already set up at studios that are looking for writers. A book they bought that needs to someone to adapt it. A first or third or fifth draft for that still needs more work. The studios and the producers involved will read your writing samples. If they like what you have to offer, you will come in and pitch to them on the OWA. Pitching is a whole ball of wax we'll get into separately, but generally speaking this means you tell them what you would write if they hired you. You tell them the story of your unborn script or rewrite. You may be hired. Depending on your level of experience, you will be paid WGA scale or something resembling your quote.
In film, you can also write a spec script. Your agent and manager will take this script to the marketplace. They will submit the script to multiple producers and studios (people with buying power) at once and hope that everyone goes crazy for it and wants to outbid each other. This happens.
You can also "take out a pitch." This means that you craft a pitch for a film and you go around town pitching to buyers. You pitch to as many places as are right for it and want to hear it in say, a week, because like with a spec, you are trying to build simultaneous enthusiasm that could lead to a bidding war. If they buy your pitch, you are hired to write your movie.
It was very important to me, as a person who wanted to be a screenwriter but didn't know anyone who had done it and was not an insider, to learn that you can earn a wonderful living and support a family being a working film or television screenwriter with no fame in the outside world. Meaning, although there is a level at which screenwriters are known beyond industry walls, those who make it to that level are few and far between, but they aren't the only people who get to earn their living. If you work steadily (not that getting there is easy) thanks to the WGA and their minimums, pension and health care, you can support a family and go to the doctor, too! Once I understood that chasing a screenwriting career was not crazy impractical, I gave myself permission to chase my dream.