How To Break Into Writing for TV & Film

A writer hoping to break into television or feature films has a number of factors to consider in choosing which to focus on or whether to try to balance both.

Television is intensely competitive, owing to the limited number of networks and the limited amount of air time they are trying to fill. To get your foot in the door in television, you may need to take a menial non-writing job at a major production company and use your position to learn from the inside. Once there, find ways to demonstrate that you’re a writer, and don’t slack: the fact that you’re a hard worker is as important as your brilliant writing in working your way up the chain. You’ll develop your contacts and, eventually, your writing may get noticed.

Film offers a wider range of openings to the new writer. This doesn’t mean “easy,” and the path to the more lucrative jobs is a steep uphill trek, but compared with television, there are more early opportunities. In addition to the major studios, there are specialty and independent markets and the direct-to-DVD market, all of which can give newcomers a foothold.

Although there are more initial windows into film, there is less stability once you’re there. If you’re able to pick up television series work, it’s a regular paycheck. If the series continues, it means relative job security for several years, and if it doesn’t, then you’re in a good position for a lateral move into a different one. Film, in comparison, is more intermittent. Even after you have some success you’ll still be marketing yourself fairly continuously, searching for the next job after the last one finishes. Rather than a steady stream of work, expect a steady stream of footwork.

The work, as well, is not always reliable even after you have obtained it. Most completed projects will bring in five figures before deductions for taxes and commissions. In addition, jobs might end prematurely. You may put many hours and writing into a job, only to be fired after a bad draft and given a four-figure paycheck. And that, again, is prior to taxes and other fees. Further, you’re working job-to-job, and sometimes that new job doesn’t happen at all. The nice streak you enjoyed will need to stretch until the next one comes around, sometimes a year or more later.

Fortunately, it isn’t always necessary to choose between television and film as a permanent trajectory. You can start with successes in film and use those credits to move into television. Major names in television regularly branch into film.

When choosing the best direction for you, these are the factors to consider. If you have an early opportunity—a fellowship, for example—that could allow you to learn about either film or television, take into account whether that opportunity is more prominently known in one medium or the other. Consider whether you have a personal preference for television or film; don’t pursue television, for example, if you don’t want to be tied into a single narrative for years at a time.

Consider whether you work better alone or collaboratively; film will give you both kinds of work, while television is nearly always a collaborative effort. Finally, consider in which one you will be better able to build your network. Both industries are glutted with good writers, while a healthy set of connections is one of the elements that create a real professional advantage. For most new writers, features are probably a safer bet, but if you have the drive and the connections for television, don’t be afraid to follow them.

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