An Interview with Randy Steinberg, a self-proclaimed "failed" screenwriter...

In 2011, after about ten years of trying to launch a screenwriting career, Randy Steinberg threw in the towel. Yes, that’s right: he gave up.  It wasn’t for lack of talent that he didn’t reach the heights he had hoped for. After all, he taught screenwriting at Boston University’s film school for many years. But I’m sure you’re asking: “Why interview a ‘failed’ screenwriter?” Well, it’s simple: during his earnest decade-long effort, Randy managed to gain solid footing within the industry, garnering numerous meetings with agents, producers and development executives—as well as optioning a couple of scripts and being commissioned to pen a couple of others. So, in spite of where his career currently stands, he’s definitely accumulated some keen insight into the machinations of the screenplay-selling game. I find that most worthwhile.  Just what were the reasons Randy’s career never quite took off?  Yes, answers could certainly be found in Randy’s profound “Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter” article on the ScriptShadow website…but no, that wasn’t quite enough.  I wanted to dig a little deeper. So I contacted Randy and asked if he’d agree to an interview. Happily, he did—and this is what he had to say...

Q & A with Randy Steinberg

Q: So, Randy, what was your writing background prior to embarking on your screenwriting career?

A: I didn’t have much of a writing background. I wrote a little sports journalism in college for the school (Bowdoin College) newspaper. Just after graduating, I was fortunate to have a small, exposé type of article published in Boston Magazine. Around that time, I had written a short story, and a friend asked if I had ever contemplated going more in the fiction direction. I hadn’t thought about that before but then began to consider it more seriously. Later that year, I applied to Boston University’s Film School to focus on screenwriting in graduate school. I was accepted and that truly began my writing career.

Q: Do you feel going to film school is an advantageous step for a budding screenwriter?

A: An age-old question and a difficult one to answer because there are many factors which can influence this. Certainly a two- or four-year film school situation will cost a lot of money. Film school may be better for a budding director because you need to learn the technical skills and how all the equipment works and how a movie comes together. Writers can take writing classes at an adult ed center and join a writing group, which are much more low cost. I think the true benefit of film school for writers is the intensity of the learning. If you are doing a grad degree you get everything in less than two years: writing, acting, directing, editing, producing, and so on. It would be hard to get that much experience that quickly while holding down a full time job. In addition, if your film school is good, you will instantly have access to an alumni network, which can be instrumental in making contacts and even getting you jobs when you leave school. Then there is the camaraderie and support network you can develop with classmates. It’s more abstract, but I think it’s a benefit to the creative artist to have these relationships. Still, all a screenwriter really needs is the software and imagination. Once the craft is learned and refined, and if you’ve got the material that producers and reps want, then they won’t give a damn if you went to film school or not.

Q: Why didn't you ever make the move to Los Angeles?

A: Part naiveté and part personal. I don’t think my film school did a very good job preparing me for what the “real-world” of screenwriting would be like. But I could have taken the bull by the horns and moved to L.A. to figure it all out. I did not and mistakenly thought I could break in from afar… that I could simply visit L.A. once or twice a year.  Later, family and work made moving impossible. I should note that writers do break in, even though they’re not living in L.A.  It can happen, but in a long odds business you have to take every chance you can get and improve the odds–even if slightly—any way you can. And one of the best ways to do this is to reside in L.A., to be part of the mix and the culture and to be accessible to reps, producers, and executives.

Q: What are the pros and cons of having an agent and/or manager?

A: The pros are immense and nearly indisputable. For a newcomer, you have to have one (most likely a manager first and then an agent). A veteran may be able to get by with one or the other (though I’m not sure if there is currently an actual example of this) or with just an agent, but a new writer simply has to have representation. They’re the ones who put you and your scripts out there. They put you up for jobs. They help you navigate the system. The only real cons are that some are good and some are bad (here, I exclude reps who are purely disreputable, which you want nothing to do with, though some new writers don’t realize they are being scammed) and some are a fit for you and some are not. Both new writers and veterans must stay on top of their reps. Also, some people think getting an agent or manager is the end game. It is not. It is an important first step, but you have to make sure your rep is getting you and your material out there. Also keep in mind that you can be signed with a rep that does nothing for you. So the only real con is having a bad rep or the wrong rep for you and spending too much time as their client when he or she may not be forwarding your career.

Q: For screenwriters just starting out, would you suggest they first seek out the services of an agent—or would a manager be a better route to take?

A: New writers should probably look for a manager first. It used to be that an agent might be more involved in helping a writer to develop material, but these days that role has fallen to managers. Agents close deals, while managers work more with the writer on developing ideas, pitches, and scripts. Managers will also help you find an agent. Occasionally, it can work the other way around and you can go to an agent first, but especially for new writers, you want to try to find a manager first.

Q: What did you look for in prospective agents and/or managers?

A: Much like a spouse or a partner, a rep should be supportive, patient, and reliable. But reps are business people. They rep you because they earn commissions if they sell your material. If they sell your material they also advance their visibility and stature. Writers have to realize this because, though one might want a rep who will hold their hand at times, the rep has to make a living. So he or she might not always be as supportive as you like. The key is to realize when the rep has gone from being a little distant (they all get busy with one thing or another) to completely unhelpful. You want a rep that gets you and your sensibilities, who won’t push you to write something out of your comfort zone or waste your time having you work on things he or she will never shop. As I’ve already mentioned, writers have to manage their reps. If they’re pushing you in a way that feels uncomfortable, or you aren’t getting any traction in the industry because they’re holding you and your work back, then you have to be prepared to move on. 

Q: Many of the producers and agents you dealt with were in Los Angeles. You, of course, were back east. What was their attitude toward you? Do you feel there is a prejudice against writers who live in locales other than L.A.?

A: I'd say a prejudice against out-of-towners became more noticeable more recently. When I first started screenwriting I didn't notice much of anything. Maybe it was something no one said, but I never felt that being from outside of L.A. mattered that much to anyone. I think it's always easier to be in L.A., but if you have a great script that someone wants to rep or buy they probably will not care where your residence is. All that said, the business is different now. Money is not as free for development of scripts (hence asking writers to work on spec more and more), and the amount of people competing for fewer writing jobs and/or spec sale opportunities is higher. This does make it harder at the beginning stages for a writer to be from out of town. I heard this directly from managers and producers in the last few years. It was hard enough for them to find work for the writers they had in L.A. They didn't have time to devote to out-of-town writers they couldn't quickly introduce to people in L.A. Perhaps this is anecdotal, and, as I say, if you have an amazing script, where you live will not be an issue, but if there are two writers a rep wants to work with and all other things are equal, except for place of residency, I'm guessing most reps will choose the L.A. writer. 

Q: Have you ever gotten out and hustled your scripts (i.e., knocking on doors, making cold calls, etc.)? If so, what were the results?

A: Every writer has to do this. Even when you have a rep you should still have the mindset that you have to hustle on your own behalf. As I mentioned, some writers think a rep is the end game; that he or she will do it all once you are signed up. But you always have to promote yourself no matter where you are on the spectrum. Especially when you’re at the beginning phases of a career, you have to pound on doors. I never quite did this. Most of the relationships that I formed with reps, producers, and execs began over email and then were followed up with in-person meetings, if I could arrange it.

Q: I’ve always told budding screenwriters that one of the best ways to sell (or at least option) a screenplay is to make “face time” with the powers that be in Hollywood (or whatever film-making hub you happen to be pursuing). I think it’s important for these people to see you, meet you, and get a feel for who you are as a writer.  Would you agree with this advice—and why?

A: Yes, I agree. There’s just something about putting a face to the name and script that will show people you are for real and serious about succeeding.

Q: Speaking of “face time”…I’ve met many budding scribes who are loner types, people who don’t like to get out and schmooze. They think all they have to do is write a great script and producers will come knocking. In my opinion, these writers are their own worst enemy in the screenplay marketing game. Do you find that the better you are in a room, the more socially adept and/or extroverted you are, the more success you’re likely to have?

A: There's no doubt there is more to writing these days than getting something on the page. Yes, there is the exception to the rule where the brilliant, wallflower type writes great scripts and can sell them solely on what's on the page and little else. But many writers are writers because they prefer to be alone, to be solitary, to be lost in their stories, so it's not always easy to tell a writer "get out there and schmooze." There are really two parts to this answer: at the beginning stages you have to be willing to meet people, knock on doors, etc. If you are too shy or proud to get in front of people you are doing yourself a disservice. In a very crowded field, you need every advantage, and you owe it to yourself to give yourself the best chance by not only writing great scripts, but also meeting and connecting with decision makers. If you can't talk to people, practice it. Take a Toastmasters class. Do something to improve because you will have to. Then, once you begin to break through you will need to be very good in a room to pitch and win jobs. Sustaining a screenwriting career is about more than good material; it's about pitching ideas to executives and producers in a way that makes them want to hire you. Good writers practice their pitches; they practice what they will do when they get in the room. They give themselves the edge over someone who just walks in and wings it or expects the producer to hire him or her based on a script and a script alone.

Q: Have you ever entered any screenplay competitions? If so, do you feel it was at all beneficial to your career as a screenwriter?

A: Yes, I have. I placed in a few competitions at the lower levels but never came close to winning any of the larger ones (e.g., Nicholl, Austin, Page, Tracking B, Disney), which are the ones that matter. Only these and maybe a few others can really launch a career. Winning a smaller contest might be a nice way to validate your skill, and contests are a natural entry point for the new writer, but a win or place in a second or third tier contest won’t necessarily put you on the map toward a career in the craft. Whatever the kind of contest, they of course cost money to enter, and since so many people are competing in them, the odds are long. But the odds are long for any aspiring screenwriter, so contests are just one way to perhaps catch a break. And if you do place or win in one of the bigger contests, you certainly gain recognition and attention from the industry.

Q: Do you feel there are any advantages for a writer who writes “big” movies over those who write smaller, more independent films?

A: Yes, there probably is an advantage to writing big movies, though it depends on what you mean by big. Diablo Cody wrote a small, indie style movie (Juno), and that certainly launched her. Chris Sparling wrote the spec Buried, which was certainly not big (it took place in a coffin), but it was certainly more market-oriented and commercial. You don’t have to write a $100 million, sci-fi type of movie to write “big.” You have to think commercially, it should be something the market wants, and that can mean a contained thriller or a teen comedy. So the question should be “indie” versus “commercial.” If you write all indie, all the time, you will probably have more trouble breaking in in the Hollywood sense. But maybe you want to make your own films, in which case indie is the path for you. But you probably won’t make a lot of money in screenwriting if you are not writing commercially oriented material—scripts with lead roles for mainly young men, with interesting plot hooks. It’s a bit unfortunate to be so reductive but that’s what sells.

Q: In your Script Shadow interview you mention that it’s important for writers to stay “relevant.” Can you explain that?

A: Staying relevant means writing 2-3 new specs a year and querying every rep on your list when you feel each new script is ready to show. You may query an agent on your first script and get a pass. But the pass comes with a “please keep in touch and send me your next script.” If you don’t follow up and keep pounding the pavement, so to speak, you will not be relevant. No one will care that you wrote five good scripts that just missed selling. No one will get you work based on that. They will always want to know what you are currently working on and what ideas you plan to script in the future. If your answer is “nothing” or “I haven’t really thought about it too much,” you are not relevant and then of less interest. Even if a rep signs you based on the strength of one particular script, that script may fizzle on the market, and to keep that rep’s interest in you, you have to show you have new material ready to go.

Q: Do you feel it’s important to be proficient in multiple genres, or can you get away with being proficient in one specific genre?

A: You should never try to write something you can’t or aren’t comfortable with. This will show and people will see through what you are doing. If you love writing thrillers, do it and do it well and you will gain traction. Some writers do get pigeon-holed as “comedy” or “action” writers. This can be good or bad: if it’s a hot genre and you’re good at it, you’ll get read, but you’ll be less desirable if that genre peters out. So it’s probably helpful to be good at multiple genres if you can stretch yourself and enjoy doing it—though the genres should be somewhat closely related. I rarely see a known sci-fi writer also practicing his or her hand at period drama. But a romcom writer who can also do romantic drama or even straight up comedy will have the flexibility to explore different avenues.

Q: How did knowing Hollywood “insiders” help your career—or did it?

A: It helped. Most of my contacts with quality reps came from people working in the business. A producer or an exec would read a script of mine and introduce me to an agent or manager friend. But Hollywood is a small town. So if you find just one or two people in the business who like your writing, they should be able to refer you around quickly. But just knowing an “insider” is guarantee of nothing if you don’t have the material and the drive to springboard off that contact.

Q: Did you ever write a script for someone (e.g., producer, director, actor, etc.) on spec? If so, what was the outcome? Would you recommend this route for the up-and-coming screenwriter?

A: Yes, I have—for producers and reps—and the outcomes varied. I never felt any of them were being exploitative (though in truth the whole practice is), but when someone has no skin in the game, it really is nothing for them to drop the project or move on when something better comes along. And so you would have worked for three, six, nine months or longer on something—receiving no compensation—and then the producer can’t or won’t do anything with it. I’m still in touch with all the people I did this for, and they are decent contacts, so in that sense it can work out that nothing may have happened with the spec but these contacts can help you in the future. Though it’s quite hard to resist when someone with access asks you to work on spec, I really wouldn’t recommend it to new writers. I feel it’s better for a writer to stay with his or her own material and constantly be getting that out there.

Q: What’s your opinion of accepting a “dollar option” for a screenplay?

A: The dollar option is pretty much like writing on spec, though at least you have full control over the material. But it’s the same as writing on spec because the ostensible purchaser has no skin in the game. I did this very early on, and the producer who gave me the one-dollar option made a few half-hearted attempts and then gave up. They also control the script for an amount of time, so if you give a one dollar option for six months and they stop trying after two weeks of querying you are in a hard spot for perhaps several more months. If a producer truly is interested, they should show serious financial interest. It lessens the sting if a sale is not made because, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, at least you were compensated fairly for the time you put into the script.

Q: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest frustrations you faced while trying to launch your career?

A: The biggest frustration is feeling like you’re not going anywhere. You may have written 10 or 15 scripts and you make a new round of queries, but nothing really happens. You feel, even though you’ve been at it a while, you aren’t getting to the next level. The rejection can be tough too, but I always found the wishy-washiness the most aggravating. Being ignored is worse than a rejection. I understand why reps, producers, etc. don’t respond to all queries, but if they do request a script they should definitely get back to you. Often times they don’t. I really don’t believe people are too busy. That’s just an excuse. If they love your script, suddenly they are not too busy. It can also be frustrating to see a horribly written movie that plays on 3,000 screens, knowing you could do as least as well (and maybe better), knowing that someone got paid highly for writing what did not turn out well (though it might not be the writer’s fault). You sit there saying, “I don’t need a high-six figure payment to do something like that. Give me WGA minimum! Give me a chance! Let me prove I can do a comparable job! Just give me a shot!” But that does not happen, which can be hard to deal with year in and year out.

Q: A lot of novice writers ask me about script/idea theft and if that's something they should be overly concerned with. What are your thoughts about it?

A: As a general rule, I don't think it's great to go around talking in detail about your ideas until the script is complete and ready for circulation.  But novice writers shouldn't dwell on script theft. Of course they should copyright or WGA register the script, but after that you've got to get the script out there. A beginning writer I once knew was holding his material back for fear of theft, but he was only holding himself back. How is anyone going to know you or your script if you won't tell them about it?  One area where new writers might want to be careful is when working on spec. In my previous answer, I advised against this practice. But I know writers will still try it, and if you write up a compelling idea with a producer or a manager and the script is well executed, you should be careful about what your arrangement is with the producer or manager. They might claim the idea is theirs, and if it does sell there could be a dispute. So it’s always best to have a written agreement before heading into one of these situations.

Q: Have you ever tried to market your work via Internet sites such as InkTip or ScriptBlaster? If so, what are your thoughts about such sites?

A: I tried InkTip some years back, but it seems like The Black List is the hot service today, and writers are getting repped because of it. My personal experience with InkTip was that it was decent but I had the feeling that only second and third tier producers and reps were using it to find material.  I don't think I established a meaningful connection through it, but I never got the sense the site was trying to be exploitative. Though it's been a while, I think it probably is best for people looking to make more indie-style connections or posting short scripts they might want to see student filmmakers use. But with any of these services they can be the thing that helps you get that one break which gets you in the door. The only downside is they cost money, and most of what they provide you can do for free. So if you have a few extra bucks you might try a script or two on The Black List or InkTip, but none of them are magic bullets to success.

Q: What’s your best remedy for disappointment and setbacks?

A: I have no remedy. There is rejection and ups and downs at every level, even for successful writers. But if you love writing it will transcend career success. It fulfills you and sustains you, so you do it whether you are making money or earning fame. If scriptwriting is not working out, there are novels and plays and short stories. Start a blog or self-publish. There are many, many options for writers today to get their work out there, but if it's truly an avocation, it matters only that you did it for you, and in the grand scheme of things that's as valid as winning an Academy Award for best screenplay.

Q: So what writing projects are you working on these days?

A: I’ve moved away from screenwriting. I have been publishing an on-line serial novel the past few months. It actually started as a screenplay, which I then novelized. I had been writing film reviews for Blast Magazine, and I pitched them on publishing the novel as a serial. So I’ve been putting up about one chapter per week at Blast Fiction. The title of the novel/serial is Senior Year, and it is a crime, suspense, coming-of-age story.  I’ve been writing film, TV, and DVD reviews for Blast for a few years, and I’ve been working on a non-fiction book about writing reviews. I’ve published a few essays for The Good Men Project, and I’m also at work on a new novel, which is a cross between 50 Shades of Grey and The World According to Garp, if that can be imagined.

Check out Randy’s serialized novel Senior Year at Blast Magazine!

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