Survival Tips For The Screenwriter: An Interview with Mark Sanderson

Friday 19 July 2019

I was beyond excited about interviewing today’s guest. 

I’ve been following Mark Sanderson (better known as Scriptcat) for quite some time on Instagram, and I’ve always found comfort in his daily screenwriting tips. They have helped me understand that screenwriting is all about the journey and that it doesn’t matter if you’re on your tenth script, it might take a lot of them to sell your first one. Day after day, you need to “fill your blank pages”. 

I keep this saying of his as a mantra in my head every single day, and you should too.

Mark Sanderson is a script consultant, author, screenwriter, actor, and creator of Five O’Clock Blue Entertainment.

I took my time researching about him, and I must admit, I’m blown away. Mark’s films (including Stalked by My Ex, Mommy’s Little Murderer, and Hidden Family Secrets) have been distributed globally, and his movies have premiered in several television networks and been featured in renowned film festivals. 

Well, I think it’s better if you hear it from the man himself.

Photo Credit to Mark Sanderson

Hello Mark, it’s a pleasure to have you featured at Into The Script! 

Please, tell us more about the name Scriptcat. How did you come up with it, and how would you say this trade name helps you build your brand and presence within the industry?

I want to thank you for this opportunity and it’s my pleasure. 

The “cat” portion of the moniker comes from the Beat slang of the 1950’s, usually in the jazz world meaning, “a talented artist who grooves like non other.” 

I wanted to come up with a nickname that was unique and different, and I like being known by it on social media to my followers. 

As it’s all about branding, I wanted to create a nickname that was memorable and immediately conveys what I do.

You graduated from UCLA Film School, were a semi-finalist in the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship, a top 50 finalist in Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project. That’s very impressive, and many writers aim for this kind of screenwriting success. 

However, most of them struggle to finish their drafts. From the outside, big accomplishments can be viewed as luck or a leap of faith that turned out right. Tell us, what did it take you to get to where you are today?

I would say without a doubt, it was never putting an expiration date on my dreams of being a screenwriter, and never giving up even when it looked bleak without hope. 

What got me through was my unwavering tenacity and my lifelong passion for filmmaking. 

I had been making films since I was eleven years old, so for me it was my life’s dream to be a filmmaker. Life has a funny way getting in the way of splendid plans. 

So, what helped me to stay in the game was always focusing on my goals and never allowing myself to be derailed by anyone or anything. 

This meant writing piles of scripts, constantly networking, and having a game plan for the big picture. 

I find sometimes writers say, “I have a good idea for a script,” and they write it but don’t think where it fits in the bigger picture of what they want to do. 

In addition, if you have one script, you’d better have two more to back it up. 

I learned quickly, it takes time to master the craft, and I find many new writers lack the patience this journey requires. 

They want instant success and sell their first screenplay for a million dollars. As you have heard, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. 

I’ve learned that you almost have to want this more than anything else in the world—and then you have to adjust your life accordingly. 

The sacrifices, and the emotional, creative, and financial toll this pursuit can take must be considered. 

Photo Credit to Mark Sanderson

The overnight success is usually ten years in the making. 

It took me six years after film school to land my first professional writing job. 

My first spec sale took seven years from first draft to first day of photography. I never gave up, but made sure I was doing the necessary work every day. 

Sure, everyone’s journey will be different, some will make it, others will not. 

Know going in you have to be serious about this pursuit because there are no guarantees. 

It’s going to take everything you have and more.

Your films have been featured in festivals such as Palm Springs International Film Festival, Hawaii International Film Festival, St. Louis International Film Festival, among others

Many screenwriters I know have begun their career by entering contests and festivals. For first-timers and ever more experienced writers, winning competitions or even becoming a finalist isn’t a walk in the park. 

What’s your advice to those who plan on submitting their screenplays to competitions/festivals anytime soon in the hope of winning?

Yes, I’ve been blessed to have some of my films premiere at film festivals, and that certainly helped with exposure for me as a writer, and it put a spotlight on the various projects. 

As far as screenwriting contests are concerned, we’ve seen over the last decade an explosion of contests that dangle the possibility of winning the grand prize and your big chance at exposure to some of the top players in Hollywood. 

Every year, the top contests are filled with thousands of entries all vying for the grand prize. In my humble opinion, there are only a handful of top contests worth the money because they are recognized industry-wide as legitimate and the readers and judges involved are real industry professionals of merit. 

I would tell writers to look at contests as just another tool in their arsenal to get their writing seen and possibly garner some notice. 

I would not suggest looking at the contests as the “end all be all” or as their big shot to a career even if they win. 

Yes, writers have gone on to score jobs and start their careers after winning a top contest, but others have not, and the expectation it’s a sure fire way to a career is not the best approach. 

I also have seen writers enter the same script, year after year, in the same contest, with hopes that maybe this year is the one they will win, only to place in the double-digit percentage of writers again. 

It’s not cheap to continually enter contests and at some point you have to move on. 

That being said, I would not look at placing in a contest as a failure, but a way to judge your writing level against thousands of other screenplays entered. 

If you don’t win, move on, and find other ways to directly get your projects to producers and companies through networking. But if you place higher up in the percentages of a contest, you might be able to use that as a way to get that script read. 

My own story with that happened a short time after graduating from UCLA Film School. I entered my fifth spec script in the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship with thousands of other scripts from around the world. 

That year they only picked eight writers for the fellowship, but my script made it as far as the semifinals and placed in the top 1% of all entries as a top 20 screenplay. 

I was able to use that accolade to get agents and producers to read my script. Amazingly, a year later, my script was optioned and after a period of development, it sold and was produced into a film. 

That opened the doors to screenplay assignment work and since then, I’ve had twenty-three assignments—so you never know!

On your blog you usually write all of your screenwriting business “survival tips”, and you’ve published a book called A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success, available on Amazon. 

One thing we always love to know about script consultants and authors is what makes them want to help other screenwriters succeed, especially when they’ve already got a lot on their plates. 

How do you manage your time to work on your own personal projects, while also working on books and posts dedicated to other writers?

I’m able to mange it all by scheduling my time wisely. 

I’ve be forced to develop excellent time management skills over the years with the deadlines on my assignment jobs. I’m a big fan of giving back and paying it forward. 

That’s why I wrote my book as a way to help other writers navigate Hollywood’s trenches with survival tips for the long haul journey. 

When I’m not busy on writing jobs, I make the time for screenplay consultation through my website, and also give daily screenwriting survival tips on Twitter and Instagram. I love to see new writers learn, grow, and succeed. 

I’ve met so many terrific people on social media, and it’s so gratifying when someone mentions that my Tweet of advice, or even my book, has helped in some way on their own journey to success. 

I also enjoy teaching my workshop to help writers avoid the many pitfalls this business can offer. 

If you achieve any level of success, I think it’s important to reach back and help others who are serious about the craft and working toward their dreams. 

Trust me, people remember when you help them, and none of us do this alone.

You've written films that premiered at SyFy, Fox, Lifetime Network, HereTV, HBO Canada, Christmas 24, The Movie Network, and NBC/Universal. 

What’s your advice for screenwriters who are looking to sell their TV pilots or movies?

We’re all looking to sell our projects, right? 

Firstly, I would say to beginning writers, don’t look at your specs a million dollar sales, but as calling cards that might open the doors to assignment work. 

If this is going to your job, and it is a job, you want to be paid to sit down and write. Selling anything is a numbers game and much of it is about timing—the right script, to the right producer, in the right marketplace. 

As for TV, that world has changed dramatically in the past few years with streaming and on-demand. 

I’d say write an original TV pilot with pitch bible as an example of your talents, but selling a series a such a long shot unless you’re a experienced show runner, so don’t expect your series to sell. 

Not that it’s easy, but I’d stick to writing a lower budget feature film as a better chance to get something produced or get your first break in the business. 

I consult on so many scripts written for huge budgets from unknown writers trying to knock it out of the park with their early screenplays. 

Dream, yes… and dream big, but be realistic about the chances for a spec to sell—especially one that could only be done by one of the major studios. 

If they all pass, where do you go next with it? 

Given that less than 100 specs sell per year, if you can write a lower-budgeted film, you could possibly raise the budget yourself, attach elements like a known actor, and find a producer to get it made. 

The bottom line is to keep writing and create a solid body of work to standout. 

It helps your chances of being noticed, but realize that one screenplay is not going to do it. 

You’ve worked with Academy award-winning producers and nominees. In this industry, writing talent and perseverance are key, but professionalism, the ability to work with a team, and market knowledge are just as important. 

How should a writer start building a good reputation and collaborating with insiders in the business?

I’m glad you asked this question because it’s vital to a screenwriter’s success. 

You’ll always find opportunities to build your reputation. 

If you agree to read someone’s screenplay, do it. 

That builds your reputation. If you get a meeting, show up early and after, send a handwritten thank you card. That builds your reputation. 

You have to become a person of your word and others will trust your integrity. When you start working, every new project is a chance to build new relationships and show the producers and executives they can trust you by being a person of your word. 

You're your deadlines. Always. Over time, these professionals will know they can count on you and that your word means something. 

It’s part of being a professional in all aspects of your career. 

An example of this happened during the pre-production of one of my films. The director was scouting locations in another state and we’d keep in touch every day. 

When he needed changes to the script, he’d call or E-mail me, and I would have the revisions back to him the next morning. He knew he could trust me to deliver the changes that he needed to produce the film. 

When I was on set doing rewrites, he needed them the next day, and of course, I delivered. Directors and producers remember these positive working relationships with writers, and it’s all part of the process to build your professional reputation. 

You also build it with every interaction you have with anyone.

As you build your reputation, it’s out there working for you. 

It was very gratifying for me recently to hear this director say that he ran into another director whom I worked with, and they both told each other what a pleasure it was to work with me. 

I’ve worked hard to build my reputation over the years and it continually pays off. 

A bad first impression is hard to shake, so be a person of your word, meet your deadlines, and never be late for a meeting—especially if it’s your first meeting. 

You can’t control the action or choices of others. 

What you can control is your own conduct as you follow the code of a professional. 

Your integrity is like a muscle and you need to work on it daily. 

Eventually your professionalism will come naturally (if it doesn’t already) and building your reputation with integrity will become effortless. 

Always remember, your reputation is as important as your talent and work ethic. 

It’s a vital ingredient for any level of success in your overall screenwriting career, so build a reputation that will make producers want to work with you the first time, and work with you again. 

Twitter/Periscope: @scriptcat


Laila Resende is a 20-year-old freelance copywriter and a Feature Writer and Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. Her insatiable passion for movies and blogging is perfect for her role as Feature Writer & Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. 

Laila shares all of Into The Script's news on her Instagram page (@lailarsnde) and Facebook.

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