By: Jonathan Williams
One thing that is rarely discussed and frequently overlooked is the idea of a writer’s portfolio. I bring this up only because if only because, despite its importance, ready, few unproduced writers seem to regularly maintain a polished collection of their written work to share with others. Much like the idea of a "reel", your potfolio is important. Essential, in fact. Particularly if your writing is unproduced. With that in mind, we're sharing ten great tricks for kicking your portfolio up a notch as you begin your professional career in writing.
This seems incredibly unnecessary. In fact, I bought a stack of business cards not knowing if I’d ever use them or if they would sit and waste away in a drawer. It was never talked about in my screenwriting classes though many of my classmates in other areas of film had them, most of whom were aspiring producers and directors. At ultimately low cost, keep a handful with you whenever you’re networking or even at pitching event. You’ll find yourself feeling a little foolish the moment you get approached for that great pitch and need to hand over that contact information. On top of that, you are a writer. Your business is your voice and your unique POV and you have to sell it. You won’t be able to hand over a 90-page script at a mixer; however, that business card slips right into an executive’s pocket. Even if you find they have a fat stack of cards, yes they may throw it out, but if you quickly jot down your script’s name and logline they’ll have something to quickly remember you by and that will keep you in their mind at least until you follow up.
2. The Character Piece
I love genre pieces. That’s what made me want to be in the movies. It took me a long time to find any excitement in smaller indie films and their quiet brilliance. On top of that, I was always told “concept is key” that as long as you have a high concept pitch and story you’ll be fine. This ultimately is a lie. As blockbusters balloon into higher and higher budgets, writing that blockbuster piece is just going to cause a Producer to take one glance and say “it’s good but too expensive.” Plus, you should never write to the current fad in movies. Another superhero script in a pile of superhero scripts is not going to win you any fans unless you’ve completely reinvented the wheel. What is always timeless is the character piece. No, you don’t have to write a Francis Ha or Boyhood type of indie and for the most part, you can still keep them in genre.
A cheap but poignant film of any genre will not only appear less threatening, it challenges you to focus on the story and character and will show off your writing in a way that a big budget feature with a lot of action scenes and style will not. You want the substance to shine through. It was Scott Kosar, the known horror screenwriter, that made me realize you can still stay in your preferred genre while aspiring to write bigger films. He talked about it was his script The Machinist that got him noticed. It wasn’t a cut and dry horror film, but it showed that he could write a complex character who may or may not be losing his mind. It was only later that he got to make more big-budget horror films like the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So put down that big budget action piece and write your John Wick and leave your Mad Max: Fury Road masterpiece for when the big wigs come calling.
3. TV Pilots
This is an obvious thing, but I’m going to go one step further. Sure you need to have an original Pilot for a show, but even further I’ve noticed that having one of your features or even all of your features (if possible) broken down into TV Pilots puts you at an advantage over other writers and executives. This could be an outline for the show or a pitch, but more and more frequently I’m hearing friends and executives asking the question, “why is this a feature and not a TV show.” It is an answer you should have in your back pocket and sometimes, yes, it should be one over the other. However, everyone is looking to be in TV so having a response of “well, it could be a TV show and here’s how.” Will make you seem both professional and knowledgeable about the industry.
4.The Spec Episode
I’m not a fan of spec episodes. A lot of people aren’t, but it seems like Hollywood can’t decide whether in order to staff a show they want to see an original work or a spec episode. There are stories of writers who got picked up for their original pilots as well as having written a balls-to-the-wall spec episode. Son’s of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter once said he broke through because he wrote an S&M episode of Ally McBeal. Obviously, not the stuff they were going to put on the show but it clearly displayed his talent and distinct point of view which is the most important part of any spec. These are great to have in your back pocket.
Again, it’s not about whether or not it’s worth your time, it’s about being prepared. Even if you don’t get launched into a show for writing a great spec, there are incredible writing fellowships that have started countless careers that require an incredible spec. This also is a great challenge for yourself as a writer. It is a certain art in itself to write in another creator’s voice. It teaches you how to keep the spirit of a show while also putting your own personality into it. Who cares if it is or isn't what executives want. If you have a pilot and a spec you’ll be prepared for whatever you encounter.
5. Social Media
Like it or not social media is here to stay. The complicated part is to find a way to put your writing into it. Whether it’s a creative web series or writing a piece through Snapchat. Having a presence and being aware is a necessity these days. The goal is to find your voice and which one works for you. Using them all can take up time, but starting with one will help to gain you a following and further push your work into the world. Who knows that one account may lead you into a social media storm that then bleeds into the others. Just don’t try to take on the world at once because if you’re like me it can feel incredibly overwhelming.
6. Short Films/Web Series
Short films can be a great calling card for writers. In fact these days there is little excuse to not make your own films. All the tools are out there for to allow you to start creating your very own low-budget films, and if it's a camera you're after, you needn't look any further than the device you are currently carrying in your pocket…your phone.
It’s perfectly fine if you’re not someone who aspires to the level of director. However, keep in mind that the key thing for you to be doing to get your work out there is creating content. Even if your web series or short film makes no festivals or only receives one view on youtube, the fact that you made something says a lot and you’ll be able to use it. Collaborating with a director is fine, and may get you some recognition but in this case, the more authority you have over small projects you shoot yourself, the more likely it is you will receive the attention. The key is to find great aspiring Producer’s to help you out. What both these elements show is that you, as a writer, have a unique perspective and voice. In other words, it’s a proof of concept that you’re worth your salt.
7. The Reel
“Save it for your reel,""Don’t forget about your reel." These little annoying reminders during my years in film school irritated me to no end. Every time a professor told me to “save something for my reel” I’d say “I’m a writer how do I put together a reel?” I would get a blank stare. Once again I was left to answer the question myself. How, as a writer, can I visually show the transition from script to screen? Sure, I could throw key scenes together in my short films, but wouldn’t this show off a director’s talents more than my own?How then could I even create a reel? That’s why the former step of creating short films and web series is so important.
When you are the creator, you are able to show off your work and not the work of someone else. If you are really gun shy of being behind the camera and directing your own work there’s another creative solution for you. All you have to do is find a great editor. I noticed there’s a new fad of videos popping up on social media through various studios and production companies. One that I saw occur years ago on an OSCAR telecast during the screenwriting for best picture. Horizontal split-screen videos that compare footage from the actual film with video footage of lines from the actual script. It takes a little bit of work, but it clearly shows a vision brought to life from page to screen.
8. Other Writing Samples
The key thing as a writer or any creative person is content, content, content. Much of my struggle as a writer has been attributed to the fact that until recently I realized I needed to have all sorts of content in my back pocket, not just scripts, scripts and more scripts. It is imperative that as a writer you have other writing samples in your arsenal. It doesn’t matter if this is copywriting material, blogs posts, self-published books, or even a book of poetry. You can always focus on your screenwriting but if you want to be a working writer of any function you have to start somewhere. Sadly, many times starting means you work for free.
As you gain steam more perks inevitably come your way. But who cares? It’s about creating content and about a passion for the written word. I remember hearing American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball once talking about how he staffed his critically-acclaimed show Six Feet Under. He stated that he hired his writers off of writing samples outside the realm of screenplays. One of these samples I vividly remember being called “Courtney Love’s Vagina.” You never know where your writing career may lead you. It doesn’t mean you have to stop working on screenplays but it also doesn’t make other writing pieces any less important.
9. A Website/Blog
Whether you like it or not we are in the age of the digital footprint, and if you don’t have one do you even exist. This is something I’ve resisted for the longest time. A website? But I’m a writer. What if people steal my material? But I have a LinkedIn isn’t that enough? LinkedIn is great for your regular day job, but keep in mind that there is a whole slew of writers out there who are claiming to be writers with nothing to show for it except taking them by their word.
A website is a sort of proof of concept. In a world of multi-hyphenated creative individuals, this has become an imperative tool. A blog and writing samples provide people with a taste of who you are as a writer. As a writer, YOU are the product. Whatever you can do to sell yourself and your writing will be a step forward. Even if it doesn’t appear to be. Your portfolio will be on the world wide web for all to see and hopefully will attract the right people that can get you where you to want to be.
Write about something. Anything. This is somewhat the same as having a website, but a blog, even on your website, is imperative. You should always be writing. Regardless if it’s a script, blog, book, or just a list like this one. Show you have a point of view. Doesn’t matter what it’s about and no it doesn’t have to be a “dear diary” type of thing. Look at the recent film The Martian. The book’s writer, Andy Weir, had created a blog, his final attempt to tell his story after constant rejections by publishing companies. One by one he would post the chapters of his novel. As it gained a following he was eventually asked, by his fans, to self-publish the book for Amazon Kindle and Weir obliged for the whopping 99-cents. The novel gained steam by word of mouth and eventually became a New York Times Bestseller. So don’t poo-poo having a blog. Just find a way for yourself to use it to your best and most creative abilities. Have fun with it and just be yourself.
10. Building a Fan Base
No one is going to be a Joss Whedon or a Stephen King right off the bat. I get that. Regardless of who you are you need to build your fan base — even if for a little while it’s only your parents. The idea here is to share, share, share, share. I know it’s scary. Letting your work out in the open is like a mama bird pushing her baby out of the nest. You don’t know how people are going to react. So start with the people you trust. Close friends, family, neighbors, co-workers. You need to put yourself out in the universe. Word of mouth is a powerful thing and the more material you put out there the more people are going to start and take note.
I know you want to sell that screenplay and find an agent. We all do. But the sharks don’t come unless there’s blood in the water. The more you put yourself out there and find others who will love and champion your work people will start to take note.Your fan base doesn’t have to be huge, but they have to be passionate and excited about your work and all of that starts with you. This business is all about who you know, and who knows, you may discover that distant twice-removed cousin is actually Steven Spielber's favorite grandchild. There's no telling who may have the connection that can get you your break, but you won't find out if you won't let your work out of the nest.