How to Sell a Screenplay

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Whether you’re trying to sell a spec script, an adaptation, or have written one on assignment, the path to selling the screenplay is different.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to selling your screenplay, tailored to the type of script you have: spec scripts, adaptations, and assignments.

How to Sell a Spec Script

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If you write an original screenplay for a movie where you are the sole creator of the material and you aren’t getting paid to do so, that’s called writing on spec.

Writing on spec means you are trying to sell an original work directly to a studio instead of being hired by them to write something else. 

1. Polish Your Script

Before anything else, make sure your script is as good as possible.

Ensure to get feedback from trusted peers. Aim for a high-quality, professional-standard script.

Read more on how to write a movie script that works.

2. Understand the Market

Research the current market to understand what genres and types of scripts are in demand.

Websites like The Black List can give you insights into industry preferences.

3. Create a Logline and Synopsis

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Write a compelling logline and a one-page synopsis that effectively summarizes your screenplay.

These will be essential tools when pitching your script.

4. Protect Your Work

Ensure that you copyright your screenplay to protect your work.

Register your screenplay with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) to protect your intellectual property.

Also, register the screenplay at the US Copyright Office.

Read more on protecting your script here.

5. Network

Attend industry events, screenwriting groups, and film festivals to network with producers, directors, and other writers.

Attend screenwriting events, festivals, and pitchfests to network with industry professionals—websites like FilmFreeway list festivals and competitions.

Use online pitch services like Virtual Pitch Fest to connect with producers and executives.

Websites like Meetup can help you find local events.

6. Get an Agent or Manager

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An agent can help you find opportunities to sell or option your scripts and negotiate contracts. A manager can help you with career guidance and script development.

Read more on the differences and similarities between agents and managers for screenwriters and why both are necessary.

Sometimes, these roles overlap, but it’s sound advice to get representation if you seek a professional screenwriting career.

Read more on how to get representation here.

7. Write a Query Letter

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Send personalized query letters to agents, managers, and producers who might be interested in your genre.

This article from Scriptmag provides tips on crafting a good query letter.

8. Consider Screenwriting Competitions

Enter reputable screenwriting competitions to gain exposure. Winning or placing can attract attention from industry professionals.

Examples include the Academy Nicholl Fellowships and the Austin Film Festival.

9. Use Online Platforms to get your script out there

Use online platforms like InkTip, where producers look for scripts, or Stage 32, a networking site for industry professionals.

10. Follow-Up

If someone requests to read your script, follow up politely after a reasonable time to gauge their interest.

Now let’s move on to screenplay adaptations and options.

How to sell a Screenplay Adaptation

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Let’s look at the second way to sell a screenplay: buying the rights to option an adaptation.

An option means you have the exclusive right to create written material based on someone else’s existing IP.

This helps make adaptations a viable option for many studios and creators without the need (or money required) to buy the rights to a project outright.

While technically still considered writing on spec, adapting others’ material is its own beast.

Coming to the table with a project with a built-in audience will put you on a different playing field when pitching producers and studio execs.

It’s important, when adapting someone else’s work, to have an interesting vision for the project. Studio executives are looking for your “take” on the material.

1. Secure the Rights

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You must secure the adaptation rights before you adapt a book, article, or other source material. This usually requires negotiating a deal with the rights holder.

2. Adaptation Strategy

Adapt the material with a clear strategy, thinking about how to make it cinematic and retain the original material’s essence.

3. Market Research

Understand the market for adaptations. Is the source material a bestseller, or does it have a niche audience? Tailor your pitch to highlight the potential of the adaptation.

4. Get an Agent or Manager

Agents and managers can be particularly helpful with adaptations as they often connect with publishers and rights holders.

5. Pitch to Producers

Pitch your adaptation to producers who have experience with adaptations or have shown interest in the genre of your source material.

Selling a Script Written on Assignment

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Writing on assignment means you are hired to write a screenplay based on a specific idea, concept, or intellectual property owned or controlled by the entity that hires them.

Unlike spec scripts, which are written without a guarantee of purchase, on-assignment work is typically commissioned by a production company, studio, or individual producer.

1. Build a Portfolio

You need a strong portfolio showcasing your writing ability and range to get hired for an assignment.

Writing a spec script is more like creating a calling card to help you get a meeting with an executive or studio head.

2. Get Representation

Having an agent or manager can significantly increase your chances of getting writing assignments. They can negotiate deals and find opportunities for you.

3. Get your Foot in the Door

Once you have a “hot spec,” or better yet, a couple to act as calling cards, whoever is representing you will typically set you up on a series of general meetings (referred to as “generals”) to introduce you to potential employers or collaborators.

These meetings are usually set up by someone representing you, either formally or informally, like a manager, producer, or agent – all of which we’ll get into in a minute.

4. Pitching

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Depending on how well you do in the room during the general meeting, you may be asked to pitch on an open assignment they have, which is a particular project or piece of IP that the exec is managing.

When pitching for an assignment, be prepared to present your vision for the project and how your unique voice will enhance it.

5. Writing Samples

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If the studio execs like your pitch, they may hire you to write the script for them – or at least do a pass on it. 

Usually, this type of assignment work is adapting something from another format.

Sometimes it’s a more open-ended project, like taking a stab at your take on a recent news story or revising whatever source material the studio provides to create an entirely new story, characters, and plot.

Provide writing samples relevant to the assignment to show your capability of handling the subject matter or genre.

5. Negotiate a Deal

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If selected for the assignment, negotiate your contract carefully, focusing on compensation, credits, and rights.

Something that happens when writing an assignment is that you may find yourself replacing someone or being replaced.

That’s because the studio will hire or fire writers depending on how positively they perceive that writer’s ability to deliver on their vision – in this context, “their” is the studio’s vision, not the writer’s.

This means sometimes you’ll be rewriting someone else’s work – until someone shows up to replace you.

What Makes a Screenplay Appealing to Studios?

Studios will chase buzz, money, and name talent.

What do all three of those things have in common?

A history of success.

Hollywood studio execs – and really, the studio accountants – look for positive trends.

If a genre is super popular with the crowds, like horror movies, it will probably raise a lot of money.

Read more on why horror movies make such a good choice for first-time filmmakers.

That being said, studios are still always looking for fresh material.

As with any art, there’s no actual scientific method or theoretical calculation to capturing that magic “lightning in a bottle” that comes with the right story, told by the right person, at the right time.

As much as studios try their hardest to recreate everything that has ever worked, it is often the thing nobody expects that takes the zeitgeist by storm.

This leaves every executive and studio head who didn’t help that magic project with no choice but to chase similar feeling projects for another six months until the next thing comes along.

Closing Thoughts: Write what you know and love

So what do you write as a nameless, money-less, IP-less first-time writer?

The answer is to write what you love.

There’s a saying in writing – write what you know.

That doesn’t mean you are limited to what you have physically experienced – but if you’re writing about something, you better damn well care about it enough to dedicate years of your life to it.

You could read the trades and see what’s popular now and try to write a script based on that, but by the time you finish it, revise it, polish it, and get to pitch it, the market will have totally changed.

There are no guarantees but this: write what you love, and write it well. 


Author

    by
  • Grant Harvey

    Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.

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