During the 2022 Power Women Summit panel “Inside the Writer’s Room: Telling Stories That Matter” on Tuesday, moderator Carla Renata asked the group about their advice for breaking into film and television screenwriting.
“Ozark” screenwriter Ning Zhou emphasized that “everyone has a different path,” citing herself as an example. She knows many screenwriters who studied the craft and business in college, but she had a less traditional start in the field by switching gears mid-career.
“The good news is that I think there’s many different ways to to get into it,” she said. “The bad news is you kind of have to find your own way through. I don’t know how everybody else feels on that, but it’s really just trial and error and building the car and trying to drive it while you’re building it.”
Zhou noted she was able to rise through the ranks after starting out as an assistant, giving her exposure to a writer’s room that gave her a better understanding of the process.
“Having access to those writers to understand what their process is, kind of doing notes as a roundtable so that you start to hear what is in your head but is maybe not getting through on the page was a tremendous learning experience,” she added.
Zhou’s advice for anyone starting out would be to keep writing about subject matter that is close to them.
“Abbott Elementary” screenwriter Brittani Nichols said that while many in the industry say a key component is finding your voice as a writer, no one really explains how to do that or what that means.
“I feel like a lot of that is just mixed in with picking your path and going for it,” Nichols said. “Like, if you know you want to work in comedy, finding your voice and making those connections often are overlapping endeavors. Whether it’s doing standup, taking classes, watching shows and figuring out what sort of comedy you like, as many different paths that there are, ultimately you just have to pick one and try to do that.”
Krysty Wilson-Cairns, screenwriter of “The Good Nurse,” said it is important to be “really ballsy.” It’s worked for her so far. Around the age of 15, the Scotland native saw that a TV show was shooting in Glasglow and decided to visit the set everyday.
“I kept going and then eventually they were like, ‘If you’re going to be here, you should help.’ And that’s how I started working in film,” she said. “So I had no idea I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t even know that scripts were a thing that someone did.”
She went on to be a runner and PA for productions while studying film in college and eventually stumbled upon a love for writing.
“I think the hardest part is when someone says, ‘How do I get into the industry?’ And they want to know how you did it? It’s kind of like telling someone where you bought your lottery ticket,” Cairns admitted. “I can tell you the bodega that I bought the ticket in, but I don’t know if that bodega will sell another winning ticket.”
She argued a big part of success in the industry is being “open to fate.”
Dana Stevens, screenwriter for “The Woman King”, added that you should always say yes and do whatever job you can in the industry because you “never know when it’s going to lead you back toward what you thought you wanted to do.”
“You might discover you want to do something completely different, but just any job you can get in the business gets you started,” she said.
“Encanto” screenwriter Charise Castro-Smith then concluded with advice that upstart writers need to identify what they’re passionate writing.
“It’s like, here are the things I love to write about, here’s what I feel passionate about. Who are the writers who also have these preoccupations and obsessions, right? How do they get their starts and where did they get their starts?,” she said. “Once you find the things that you love and really care about and are passionate about, sort of finding the people who have blazed those trails already and seeing if there’s a way to follow in their footsteps.”
The Power Women Summit (PWS) is the largest annual gathering of the most influential women in entertainment, media and technology. The event aims to inspire and empower women across the landscape of their professional careers and personal lives. This year’s PWS provides two days of education, mentorship, workshops and networking around the globe – to promote this year’s theme, “A Time to Unite.” Learn more here.