Do Screenwriters Need A Mentor Or A Sponsor?

By CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE • November 15, 2021

Most screenwriters need some guidance to help their careers flourish. Many are advised to get a mentor to coach them towards their career goals.

What does a mentor do exactly and why do they do it? Mentors are typically experienced writers with many credits under their belt. Perhaps they had a mentor when they first started out as a screenwriter and want to pay it forward? Other mentors see it as their moral and professional duty to act as a rudder for the next generation of up and coming screenwriters. It’s certainly not the financial rewards that drives them. Mentors typically do it for free – or maybe a coffee. There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes from being a mentor.

 - A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you. — Bob Proctor

Mentors come in a range of styles and sizes. Some are more hands on than others. Some may meet their mentees weekly while others may only meet them monthly or tri-monthly. They are more career counselors and sounding boards. They offer advice, support and continuing guidance. Other mentors are even more casual and are happy to check in even more infrequently so you can update them on your projects or perhaps discuss which project you should start writing next. Sometimes you want a sounding board and to simply boost your self-esteem as you wonder if it’s worth it.

It might be more appropriate to approach a mentor in the early stages of your career to help you formulate your career aspirations and potential steps to achieving it. Mentors are traditionally easier to find than sponsors, although not easy by any stretch. Everybody’s busy.

Sponsors are more invested in your screenwriting career success because they spend more time and energy on you. They tend to be senior level producers or creative executives with the clout and connections to fast track your career.

Their reputation is on the line because they are your cheerleaders. They’re relying on your success to fuel their success so the relationship is more formal.

Sponsors are more inclined to read your scripts, give you feedback, ask you to read scripts, alert you to writing opportunities, and even help you write your personal essays to submit to various writing programs as part of your application.

The degree of engagement and time commitment is where mentors differ most from sponsors. Acknowledge and respect these boundaries. Mentors tend to be more detached and set stricter limits on their time. A sponsor is far more active in helping you build your screenwriting career. They will probably spend more time with you than your agent or manager.

The roles of a mentor and sponsor are distinct and finely nuanced. It would be imprudent to regard one as better than the other because it’s the quality of the relationship and what you each get out of it that count. Mentors generally spend more time on the non-tangible aspects of your career such as your values, what you write about, and how you are perceived in the business. Are you a go-getter, do you question every note, or are you good in a room? They spend considerable time getting to know you on a personal level in addition to giving broader career advice.

 - A mentor may broadly be classed as your advisor while a sponsor is you promoter.

Mentors are often compared to life coaches. They frequently begin with a blue sky approach to help you identify where you might fit into the industry. You may want to be staffed on a television show, write and direct indie films, or write big budget studio films on assignment. They will ask you broad questions including what career success looks like to you or whether money is more important.

Once you’ve set your career objectives with the aid of your mentor, a sponsor is more likely to be more proactive to help you achieve them. They make more introductions or set up industry meetings with their connections. The mentor/sponsor divisions are never that clear cut because neither role is precisely defined.

Both mentors and sponsors act as industry knowledge bases. They advise writers on the current state of the industry, where the opportunities might lie, what has done well at the box office or in the ratings, and use that information to advise you on a strategy to get your work in front of the right people.

Mentors can range from writers actively involved in the industry to ones who are retired or semi-retired. Each offers their own specific benefit especially with regard to how they broke in, long-term industry trends, and their writing process. Clearly retired mentors can only offer limited insight into the industry given its rapidly changing nature. Sponsors are currently active in the business.

Sponsors tend to lean more toward structured traineeships, internships, or even paid employment, stopping short of being your supervisor. Their goal is to help you focus and accomplish tangible career goals.

Having a mentor with some distance to your immediate work can also have its benefits. Imagine if you are an observer in a TV writers’ room, or a sponsor allows you to listen into conversations during which business deals are made and you witness some unsavory, unethical, or otherwise dubious activities. The relationship dynamics with your sponsor may make it uncomfortable for you to speak to them. A mentor who’s widely known or respected in the industry may help you navigate how to tackle such a situation.

A sponsor-sponsee relationship is more transactional. A writer benefits from their power and prestige in the industry and a sponsor benefits from the career success of their sponsee. A sponsor is your advocate and a sponsee is expected to perform. You are their protégé.

There are certain rules that screenwriters should observe if they secure a mentor or sponsor. Both are difficult to secure, so respect their time and expertise. If they recommend a course of action or you don’t come prepared to a meeting, the relationship won’t go well.

As you progress through your screenwriting career, your relationships with your mentors and sponsors may change. These two roles are not necessarily linear so it behooves writers to think they should always start with a mentor and supplant them with a sponsor as their careers progress. Screenwriting careers are messy and unpredictable. You might have both a mentor and sponsor simultaneously to cater to the different facets. Sometimes the two roles can be so intertwined at various stages in your career that your sponsor and mentor can be the same person.

A writer’s assistant may sell a TV pilot, become the showrunner and their show becomes a hit in the space of a year or two. Contrast this with a veteran writer who’s returning to the industry or hasn’t had a hit in years. If you’ve had a mentor or sponsor for an extended period, your relationship might change to something resembling a life coach.

Few screenwriters have made it with a little help. Find those that can help you and do the same in return.

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