As you win more credits and make your way as a professional screenwriter in Hollywood, you will most likely be put up for Open Writing Assignments (OWA’s).
An Open Writing Assignment is a paid assignment where you will be tasked to write a screenplay for a production company. This is a paid assignment and one for which you will receive on-screen credit.
But how exactly do you get these OWA opportunities? What do they mean for your career and how do you make the best out of the opportunity?
What’s an Open Writing Assignment (OWA)?
As stated above, an Open Writing Assignment is a contract between a writer and a production company or studio to write a screenplay that the studio or producer currently is developing.
This means that it is the producer who approaches you, the writer, with an idea or concept that they want to see developed as a script.
These can range from books they’ve optioned, articles they’ve optioned, someone’s true story they got the rights to or a screenplay that needs to be rewritten by another writer.
How Do You Find OWA’s?
The world of Open Writing Assignments is a pretty closed off world. It usually is an opportunity you will only find through your manager or agent – technically, agents more than managers since they’re the ones who can legally seek work for you. Since your reps know what’s currently going on in the industry, they also know of Open Writing Assignments and will be able to submit your profile to the production company’s call for pitches.
You might also get an invitation directly from a production company if you have a connection there already, that’s why it’s crucial to network.
If the company likes your profile, they will send your representation all the information necessary for you to prepare a pitch. Often, the production company has optioned a piece of intellectual property (IP) like a novel or a published article. So, you might get a copy of that IP, and any relevant information that goes with it.
Sometimes, these additional details are a bit more secretive and shared in a meeting between you and the production company prior to you working on the pitch. When that’s the case, you get an opportunity to meet the people prior to pitching and get a sense of who they are. It’s a great way to introduce yourself and make them look forward to your pitch.
Being invited for an Open Writing Assignment is amazing and can kickstart your career. However, be aware that you will most likely not be the only writer invited to pitch for this specific project. Don’t take it personally, that’s just how these assignments work!
No commitments are made to you or any of the other writers at any given stage unless specifically stated otherwise. You will not get paid to prepare a pitch, which can be quite time consuming. But if you do get hired for the assignment, you will get paid a decent amount of money.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t your story. This is a story that belongs to the production company or studio who most likely have signed rights to get that story (in the case of IP). Be aware that anything you pitch can be used in the story even if they end up working with another screenwriter.
While this might sound unfair, it’s a risk you need to be willing to take to get a chance to be hired on an Open Writing Assignment which will have a significant impact on your writing career and most likely open the door for more OWA’s in the future.
How Do You Prepare For An OWA?
Armed with all the precious information from the studio or producer, you are now ready to attack your pitch.
Your pitch can be verbal or written. It depends. But most likely, you will be expected to have some sort of a pitch deck to present to an audience made of the company’s execs/producers.
A pitch deck when well done can really set the tone for the movie or for the show. Keep the text at a minimum, use key words and visuals to convey your vision and be ready to walk your audience through the deck in an entertaining way.
Paint them a picture of their story told by you. Don’t forget the characters’ arcs. Every story starts with its characters.
If this is a piece of IP, make sure you’ve done enough research as to where you’re familiar with the topic.
With this pitch, you basically want them to be able to easily answer the question “Why is hiring you as the storyteller for this project the right decision?”
If I’m Hired, How Much Will I Get Paid?
It depends on your previous experience and, well… on how great your reps are at negotiating your deals, hah!
As a newcomer, you can expect something in the lower to mid five figure range for a non-WGA contract. However, if it’s a WGA (Writer Guild Of America) contract, then you will start around $68,000 for a non-original feature concept. The WGA posts a list of their schedule of minimums here.
There are many companies that offer Open Writing Assignments that are not signatories of the WGA but still develop projects for big channels such as Hallmark, Lifetime or even directly to streamers. In those cases, you will get an amount that’s below the WGA’s amount.
This amount is not a one-time payment but is divided in milestones. Say the amount you’re offered for a non-union contract is $30,000
You might get $10,000 upfront before you get started, another $10,000 when you deliver the first draft and the rest split up between the rewrites for example.
In many cases, the payments for an OWA are divided as such:
- a fee to start the work (upfront money) that is paid before you write anything
- a payment for the outline
- a payment for the first draft
- a payment for the rewrites
- and a payment for the production draft
At any given stage, the production company or studio can decide to stop the contract and work with another writer. They do not owe you the entirety of the amount agreed unless stated otherwise.
What they owe you as per contract is the payment for each completed milestone you are working on, not more, not less. However, if you do a good job, the company will most likely want to keep you on since that’s the smartest choice financially and when battling the clock of pre-production. But for that, you need to do a great job and respect the deadlines you are given.
Make sure that you have your manager, agent or a lawyer look at your contract and that you understand the deal. Because sometimes, you might also get paid a fraction while writing (five hundred for the outline, a couple of thousands for the first draft and for the rewrites) and then get most of the money when the movie goes into production as a “bonus.”
That’s common on smaller productions, but still not the norm. So make sure that you know what’s in your contract and that you agree to those terms.
You have a lot to win from an Open Writing Assignment, especially from your first one, so don’t be too demanding with what’s in the contract either. Don’t ask for things that aren’t usually given to newcomers. Don’t be difficult. Know what the deadlines are, know what kind of money is usually offered to writers of your level, and get going with what you’re hired for: writing. It’s never a good look to be too demanding on first contracts.
The contract you receive will also clarify the rights to the script and since this isn’t your original idea, you will not own the copyright to the script, meaning you won’t be able to take the script if something goes wrong and present it to another production company.
The contract will also determine the on-screen credits (yours will most likely read “written by”) and that’s one of the most important clauses in the contract!
The Contract Is Signed, Now What?
Now you get to the hardest (and greatest) part: the writing.
Most likely, before you dive into the screenplay, the production company will want to see an outline or a beat sheet of the movie.
That means you will write a document with bullet points or if it takes the form of a treatment, a description of every scene that’s in your script. It doesn’t have to be developed as a full scene but it has to be clear enough to summarize what’s happening in every scene.
When preparing for a beat sheet or an outline, many writers such as Dustin Lance like to work with cards. It’s a great way to make the process more visual and a little easier.
Once you’re done with the outline (they usually give you two to three weeks to complete that part), you will send it back to the producer for review. They will give you notes on what to change in the story structure before you get started.
It’s great to write an outline before you start writing. It will greatly help you during your writing sessions. You won’t have to guess what the next scene is or where the story is going. Most of it is in the outline.
Obviously, you don’t want the outline to shut your creativity down. If you get a great idea during a writing session, add it. But it’s good to know where the story is going, ultimately. Especially if you are working with other people who need to greenlight the script.
Once the outline is locked, you will start writing the first draft of the script.
In most cases you will get to write the script from Fade In to Fade Out without being interrupted by the production company and without having to send pages in advance. This is what they ultimately hired you for so they will most likely respect your time and process as a creative writer.
You usually get 4 to 6 weeks to complete the first draft for non-union Open Writing Assignments. When the contracts are Writer Guild Of America contracts, you might benefit from an additional 3 to 4 weeks but don’t expect it – it most likely won’t ever be more than 9 to 10 weeks anyway.
Seems like a short deadline to you? If so, make sure that you learn to set a 3 to 5 weeks deadline when writing a first draft starting today.
Being able to write screenplays under a short period of time will be a big benefit when you get your first Open Writing Assignment or if you are staffed on a television show, since television has some really intense deadlines.
When you write for an OWA, you can’t just start taking liberties while writing the script. You need to stick with the outline and add to it versus making changes to the story the producer has agreed on.
If they’re expecting a romantic comedy between a guy and a girl who meet at Coachella, parted ways and end up traveling across the country to find each other and confess their love, don’t turn in an epic sci fi with two people who met at Coachella and parted ways only to find out that one of them isn’t actually a person but an Alien sent to the festival to take down the entire world, one song at a time.
Although that’s a great concept (right?) it’s not the outline they agreed to and not the story they hired you to write. So, stick to the outline as far as every big story event. And add great moments to it that elevate the story.
At the end of that process, you will most likely have a script ranging from 95 to 105 pages, unless the contract specifically states a different number of pages.
After you turn in the first draft, expect to receive many notes. That’s just part of the process. Feedback is a crucial part of writing, and since these people pay you to write this script, you can’t get around the notes.
But honestly, you should always welcome feedback, for paid work or not. Getting notes on your script is an incredible thing as a creative since it allows you to hear someone else’s perspective on what you wrote.
While no first draft is ever perfect, make sure that it’s close to that standard since this is the hardest step in the writing assignment and generally the part where you either continue or get fired. If you stay on and manage to stay on until production ends, congratulations, you’ll be the only writer in the on-screen credits – that’s something huge to celebrate since everyone gets rewritten in this town.
Before you enter the second draft, you should be clear about the notes and expectations that the production company set. You will address all the notes in your rewrite, that’s why you want to make sure you understand what changes are expected.
There comes a time later on once production starts where instead of adding to the script, you will start taking away (locations, scenes, secondary characters) for budgeting reasons or because an actor or a location isn’t available. And while that part is painful for every storyteller, deleting some amazing scenes in order to get the movie done on time and on budget is all part of making a movie!
During the entire process of your Open Writing Assignment, don’t ever forget to celebrate this achievement. Getting hired on an OWA is an amazing opportunity. It makes you officially a paid screenwriter, something only a small percentage of us are.
Now that you’re ready, we can’t wait to see your next movie originating from your first Open Writing Assignment!