If you’re a screenwriter and you’ve ever thought — what's an open writing assignment? You are not alone. Although landing an open writing assignment (OWA) is one of the many ways screenwriters can go about making money (the holy grail in screenwriting), there’s still so much mystery surrounding them. In a sense, it’s a bit of a secret club. You have to know the right people and hang out in the right circles to even get an invite.
To help demystify this secret club and learn more about how to score a coveted invitation, we sat down with award-winning screenwriter and independent producer, Rebecca Norris.
What exactly is an open writing assignment?
In my experience, an open writing assignment is a situation where someone is hiring a screenwriter to perform screenwriting work made for hire. The person commissioning the work might be hiring on behalf of a studio, or might be an independent producer, director, or even a businessperson outside of the industry with money, who has had a burning desire to make a film for years. However you slice it, it’s a script that a screenwriter is getting paid to write, but the source material or original concept did not originate with the screenwriter. The person or entity doing the hiring owns the copyright.
Often, it’s an existing novel or story that needs to be adapted into a film, someone’s childhood memories or life story being written for the screen, or an original idea a producer or director has that they want a screenwriter to bring to fruition. Many times, the work is a rewrite or polish of an existing script.
How do you go out for an open writing assignment?
I’m sure everyone comes across OWAs in varying ways. My assignments have all come through direct referrals.
In addition to being a screenwriter, I’m a filmmaker and have been a story analyst for several years, reading for production companies, contests, and fellowship programs. I also worked at a production company, where I gave notes on projects we had in development and production. After moving on from that, I started a private consulting service for writers and filmmakers by referral. A lot of my writing work has come through consulting clients who needed to hire a writer, and happened to like my take and ideas on their projects, and brought me aboard.
One time it was a director who had a film he was getting financed, and after he read suggestions I had given for improving the dialogue, asked me to do a polish and comedy punch-up on his script. Another time it was a director/producer who had written a rough draft of a script, and had financing on board, but the script needed a full rewrite before going into production. He didn’t consider himself a writer and didn’t have the time or desire to do it himself, so he asked me to do the rewrite. The situations have varied.
For your current assignment, how did you land the OWA?
A producer was referred to me who wanted notes on a rough draft of a treatment he had written, but was also looking for writing services, since he wanted to focus on producing rather than developing the script himself. He liked my take on his project and the ideas I brought to the table, and offered me a contract to write the film. He had ideas sketched out for characters and plot, but it’s my job now to flesh those out into a feature film.
When you go into pitch for an OWA, how do you prepare? Is it different than how you would prepare to pitch for an original script?
In my case, I had already given my take on my clients’ scripts through my development notes, so I suppose that essentially took the place of what a pitch would have accomplished. I imagine that they could have consulted with a number of writers, and possibly had, but since they already had detailed 10-20 page reports on what I thought would improve their material, and we had built up a rapport, they felt I was the right choice for their projects and asked me to come aboard.
In general, however, yes, as I have seen it, the process is that execs take meetings with several different writers all giving their takes on the material. The difference between pitching for an OWA and an original spec is that for an OWA, the material originates with the producer. So, for instance, if a producer has the rights to a novel to adapt, then writers would have to read that novel and then pitch ideas; it would all depend on what the producer needs to see. For an original spec, you’re pitching your own concept, so you need to know and believe in your story inside and out, and have the goods to back it up with the script. Having relationships in place, good reps, and/or a great query letter can help to get people to read your original work.
In your experience, do you find that it’s easier to get hired on an OWA than sell a spec script or pitch?
I do think that work on existing IP or an existing idea is likely easier to come by than selling an original script, simply because there’s more of that type of work available. It can be hard to get people to read original work. Everyone wants material that’s based on something that’s known, that already has traction and a fan base. That shouldn’t discourage writers from creating their own original work, however. Writing original material is the best way to stay fresh and keep your personal voice alive and well. As tough as it can be, original specs do sell, and it’s best to always have one or two at the ready that can be sold or used as writing samples.
What has been your personal experience with working on OWAs?
My general experience has been very positive. I have only come aboard projects with stories that I cared about and thought had a lot of potential, with producers I had a rapport with. It can take many months to fully develop an idea and then write the script, so you have to love the story and get along well with the producers. It can be a fun and exciting process, but there can also be frustrations and bumps in the road, as you discover what works and what doesn’t in the story. The pre-production process can also be tumultuous, with everything from financing challenges to locations falling through. Above all, you have to have patience for the process, and be open to hearing and implementing notes on the script from any number of different people, including notes that you may not necessarily agree with.
What would be your best advice for an upcoming screenwriter or someone who wants to level up their career?
I’d say the best advice I can give is to persevere. A screenwriting career is a long and winding road. Persevere. There are many ups and downs. Persevere. There are times when work is busy and times when it’s slow. Persevere. Your script may be rejected by any number of contests, fellowships, agents, managers, producers. Retool. Rewrite. Improve your craft. Persevere.
As you mentioned, a screenwriting career is a long and winding road. If writers are feeling burnt out, what do you suggest?
I have also found that branching out into other genres can be helpful in rekindling a love of writing if you’re feeling frustrated as a screenwriter. If you have writer’s block, or you’re burned out, try something new! There is no law that says because you’re a screenwriter you can’t write in other genres as well. Writers write! Write a poem. A short story. A novel. A comic. A children’s book.
Anything that you're currently working on? We’d love to share your work with our audience.
I have been taking my own advice. (Ha!) In addition to my writing assignment, I have a new original screenplay that I recently finished, UNBURIED. It’s the story of a wisecracking, chronic hoarder who must clean up her home within 72 hours or be put out on the street. It actually originated as a stageplay I wrote a few years back when I was feeling burned out and wanted to change things up. I workshopped the play in the Seedlings playwriting program at the wonderful Theatricum Botanicum theater in Los Angeles, which was an invaluable experience. I started out my career working in theater and had truly missed it.
Over the last year, I also wrote several children’s poems, as well as a picture book, and started on a YA novel that I intend to adapt into a screenplay down the line. So between all that and chasing a toddler around, I stay busy!
Thank you sharing with us, Rebecca! To stay up to date on all her newest projects, be sure to connect with her on Twitter: @beckaroohoo