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Now that you’ve got a handle on how to write a screenplay that works, let’s dive a little deeper into what it takes to write a screenplay that sells.
There are a few ways to sell a screenplay, so let’s go over them below.
Writing on Spec
First, 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.
In the 80s and 90s, there used to be a booming spec market in Hollywood looking to gobble up the hottest spec screenplays from writers with original voices, oftentimes for sky-high multi-million dollar amount deals. This wasn’t always the case, but spec script sales were at their highest peak going well into the late 90s.
Nowadays, original work is not in high demand. That’s because after the market crash in 2008, big studios consolidated and are more risk averse than ever to take big swings on original content that doesn’t come from existing intellectual property (or as the execs call it, IP).
Options and Adaptations
That brings us to our second way to sell a screenplay – buy 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 kind of its own beast. Being able to weave through long or complicated plots from other projects is definitely a skill, and coming to the table with a project that has a built-in audience will put you in a different playing field when pitching producers and studio execs.
It’s also important, when adapting someone else’s work, to have an interesting vision for the project. While adapting a popular novel and being true to the source material is appealing to readers, executives are looking for your “take” on the material. What’s your vision for this project? Why adapt this particular story now?
Writing on Assignment
Being able to write adaptations is also important because of the third, and most common, way to make money with your writing – writing on assignment.
While writing on spec might be how you get your foot in the door, it’s very rare these days to actually sell anything that way. Oftentimes, writing a spec script is more like creating a calling card to help you get a meeting with an executive or studio head.
These meetings are usually set-up by someone who is representing you, either formally or informally, like a manager, producer, or agent – all of which we’ll get into in a minute.
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.
From there, depending on how well you do in the room, 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. If they like your pitch, they may very well 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, while sometimes it’s a more open-ended type of project, like taking a stab at your take on a recent news story the company bought the rights to, or completely revising whatever source material the studio provides to create an entirely new story, characters, and plot.
Something that happens when writing on 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” being 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.
If this all sounds cutthroat, it is. What did you expect? “That’s just show-business, baby!”
What Makes a Screenplay Appealing to Studios?
Despite everything stated above, 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, leaving every executive and studio-head who didn’t helm that magic project with no choice but to chase similar feeling projects for another six months until the next thing comes along.
A Tale of Three Horror Movies
Nowhere is this more apparent than the Horror genre right now. Think about the absolute storm of buzz surrounding the release of the first new IT remake when it came out back in September of 2017.
It was a financial smash, surprising everyone and breaking fall box office records left and right.
That buzz worthiness had every studio chasing similar adaptations – which might be partially responsible for why there are so many Stephen King adaptations out right now in particular (not like Hollywood has ever gone too long without adapting one of his best-sellers, but still…)
But think back to the beginning of 2017. A little movie called Get Out was released on February 17th that rocked the world of horror and established Jordan Peele as not only a legitimate horror director but one on par with some of the greatest of all time.
He’s still one of the most in-demand directors working in the genre today, even three years (and multiple successful projects) later, thanks to the film’s critical and box-office success.
Before It, everyone was clambering to buy up their own “Get Out” knock off. Then after It came a film no one was expecting – A Quiet Place.
Not only did A Quiet Place encourage the same kind of praise for actor-turned-director John Krasinski, but it also inspired a slew of Quiet Place knock-offs, including the popular Netflix film Birdbox and even a legitimate sequel in Quiet Place 2 – which looks just as good!
Chase The Trends or Forge Your Own Path?
I say all of that to say this: studios will chase buzz, they’ll chase money, and they’ll chase 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 type of genre is super popular with the crowds, it will probably raise a lot of money, like horror movies.
If a director is a critical darling, the positive press they bring with them can create a buzz that will get certain influential circles excited for whatever they are doing next – and with each successful Rotten Tomatoes score, more crowds with it – you know, because FOMO.
And last but most obvious, by attaching stars or producing a new adaptation based on popular “IP”, the buyers know there will be a built-in audience for whatever it is they are producing, and thus, profit.
But what do you, as a nameless, money-less, IP-less first-time writer write? We’ll dive into this a little deeper down below, but the answer is essentially 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.
The thing is, 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.
So How Do You Break In and Sell Your Script?
First, in all of the scenarios above, there are deals being made. Like any business venture in which you are selling anything, you need to prove that there is a market for what you are selling. That’s where the aforementioned managers, agents, and producers come in.
Behold the Gatekeepers
There are three types of gatekeepers who, if you win them over, can help you sell your script.
Agents are not just a familiar Hollywood trope, but also licensed professionals qualified to make deals and represent you as a writer. The idea is that they are the ones using things like buzz, popular genres, or name talent to help convince studio execs your script is what’s hot.
But agents are not easy to get – nor are they readily available to help you as you develop new projects to take to market. Agents have one function – sell, baby, sell.
(Fun fact – due to a current WGA policy, all working screenwriters were required to fire their agents last year as part of an ongoing battle against a shady practice called “packaging” but we’ll get into that in another article.)
Managers, on the other hand, are there to help you develop your projects, read new drafts, and steer you in the right direction on where to best spend your time. While during another time you might bring in an agent to sell a finished project, you would count on your manager to help you know when a script is ready to hand over to an agent.
While many first-time screenwriters focus on getting an agent, managers are both more available and more useful to aspiring screenwriters and are really who you want to connect with in order to get your foot in the Hollywood door.
Producers, however, can also be instrumental in helping get your script sold. In fact, sometimes you meet with a Producer before you ever get a manager or agent in the first place. Since producers have the flexibility to option projects, they can be brought onto projects at any time with a lower barrier to entry than a studio. Plus, it’s better for a Producer to find a good idea to help develop early-on in the process.
Oftentimes, though, you’ll find yourself paired up with a producer by your manager to help you shepherd your project through the various stages of development hell – starting with rewriting your script to be good enough to go out to buyers in the first place.
How Do You Get a Manager, Agent, or Producer?
There are a few different ways to get the attention of any of these important gatekeepers, some of which you already know.
Let’s run through them real quick just to make sure you know all your options from a high level, and then we’ll play out a scenario where you actually do all of the above from A to Z.
The top ways to attract a manager, agent, or producer are:
- Know one. Okay, sorry, gotta’ start with the obvious. Networking and building relationships in Hollywood are vital to selling your work.
The easiest way to get a manager, agent, or producer to be interested in you is to go out and meet them, either through getting an introduction to one through your current extended network or going to industry events and meeting them (in an appropriate setting).
But when you do get an intro…
- Place in a contest or enter a mentorship or networking program. Contests and screenwriting mentorship programs are a dime a dozen, but managers at least do pay attention to them – if you win.
Now, there are a lot of popular screenwriting contests that actually connect you directly to managers as part of the prize for winning. To anyone not connected to the industry, these programs, while often pay-to-play, are a great way to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise get to meet, so it’s worth considering – to a point.
Remember that even if you have a great script you won’t always win a contest, as competition is fierce.
But there are other services, like The Blacklist, that let you post your scripts to get reviewed, scored, and potentially discovered by industry people seeking new talent.
Plus, mentorship programs like The Sundance Lab are often fast-tracks to building up your networks and developing your writing.
- Create a buzzworthy short film – or micro-feature. Short films, and film festivals, are still a great way to get your work out there if you are a writer-director or willing to work with others to produce and direct your work.
While winning these festivals don’t always lead to much, it could lead to someone seeing your work or meeting new filmmakers who could recommend you to someone they know.
Even having the victory laurels attached to your film could be a good excuse enough to get someone you query online to watch it and request more of your work.
One demographic of gatekeeper you might definitely meet at a film festival is a producer.
Meeting and hitting it off with a producer could be a great opportunity to partner with them to help develop your newest projects and try to use that to meet potential managers or agents.
- …Make sure you have a damn good script – and two more. When the managers and agents come knocking, you’re going to want to have multiple scripts ready to go, preferably with the same narrative voice.
One of the first things anyone in the film industry is going to ask you after reading or getting pitched your script is “What else do you have?”
Just because you have one good script, doesn’t mean you can make a career as a writer. In fact, in order for you to be truly profitable to a manager or agent, they want to know you have more products they can sell one they sell your first.
- Master your genre. In order for you to appear most marketable to interested managers is to prove you have an established brand. Branding is powerful in Hollywood – arguably more powerful than anything else in the storytelling world – because it’s your story.
If you have three scripts in the same genre or feel tonally similar in theme and style, then your reps can market you as someone who is the go-to for something.
Example: you write three stellar dysfunctional family dramas, you’re the dysfunctional family drama someone! While it feels reductive, if you can master a particular genre and have more where that came from, you make your life a lot easier.
- Write with a micro-budget in mind. Micro-budget has changed definition (at least to me) a lot over the last few years, but a good rule of thumb is to write movies with potential production budgets under $1M.
Unless you’re writing on assignment, you have a very narrow market of genres in budget-ranges that managers can actually sell right now. This means the type of movies that studios and production companies are making these days are low-to-micro-budget in scope so they can maximize their profit and minimize losses.
The foolproof way to ensure your film is truly micro-budget? One location; minimal cast. That means getting really creative!
- Master the pitch – and the written pitch. Once you’re in the room with a potential buyer, your managers and agents can only do so much.
So if you aren’t good at pitching your material to them, how could they ever trust your ability to sell to a buyer? You have to be able to master selling your story to a captive audience over a condensed period of time.
This is what’s called “pitching” – telling the story through the broad strokes of the tale. What’s the one-sentence logline of the film? Who are the characters? What obstacles do they face? How does it end? What does the movie make you feel like? What other (successful) movies are like this?
A good practice is to write all of this down into a two-page document outlining all of the main points that you can send to anyone interested in the project but who might take too long to read the script.
- Create a proof of concept. Sometimes the best way to sell is to show, not tell.
While this model might be a little outdated even now in 2020, by creating a version of the movie you see in your head, like revising and filming a scene from the movie adapted into a short film format, you can show how the core idea of your movie could be visually stunning, emotionally resonate, or appealingly marketable to would-be skeptics.
Just make sure it’s damn good!
- Adapt your work to another medium so it gets a following first. Let’s be real – this town runs on IP. Having an existing property to help market yourself and your script could turn the tide to convince a gatekeeper to take a chance on you – especially if it has a following on its own.
If you have a story you are in love with, can’t stand that it’s not already out there for people to enjoy, and feel confident changing the format to fit another medium, then why not give it a shot?
Try adapting your feature screenplay to a novel. Even if you don’t get any interest from publishers via query letters, you can always go the self-publishing route.
Or try a comic book or other written medium. Maybe it’s better as a podcast, web-series, or text-based video game. You never know in 2020.
There are always new ways to sell ideas in Hollywood, and there’s no one way to break in. But by trying any and all of the above, you can get closer to meeting and landing an all-important advocate willing to take financial responsibility to help you shoot your shot. It’s just all about helping them so they can help you.
Okay, Now How the Hell Do you Sell The Damn Thing?!
Okay, let’s run this allll back real quick, put it in the proper sequence of events to do them right, and see if we can put the pieces together into a step-by-step process for selling your script.
- Step 1 – Decide if you are trying to write on spec, adapting a project with an option, or pitching on an assignment – the latter of which you would only do if you are invited to, of course.
- Step 2 – Write the best script you can as your calling card – and then a few more, with the same consistency of voice or even better, in the same genre, with a low to micro-budget in mind. Master the pitch, create a short proof of concept or adapt it to another format.
- Step 3 – Once you have your calling card script and pitch materials, identify a manager, producer, or agent you have a connection to, either through someone you know, meeting through a contest, mentorship program, film festival, or other networking programs. Politely make an intro and if given the opportunity, pitch your brand as a writer.
- Step 4 – Once signed with a manager or attached with a producer, work with them to take a series of general meetings to meet and pitch potential buyers using your knowledge of what recent successes you can compare your projects to.
- Step 5 – Either sell your spec script, leverage your adaptation or land a deal based on your pitch on an open assignment – or go back to step 2 and go back to the drawing board all over again!
This process, while somewhat reductive, is more or less the model that most working writers follow today – when it comes to features, that is. Obviously the rules are different for landing your first TV writing gig. While the feature film market is contracting, the TV market is expanding, but with the rise of streaming, who knows what this decade will bring.
And on top of that, you have no idea what the next hit will be. Some new lightning bolt could strikeout of the left-field, as it always does, and sweep Hollywood away in a torrential flood trying to chase after it, only to be struck by some other miraculous weather pattern six months later.
The only real element in all this that you can control is your hard work and dedication to the craft. Because before you can write a script that sells – you have to master how to write a script that works.
If you can do that, then no matter the weather, you’ll have as good a chance as any of us of catching that lightning when it strikes… as long as you don’t go home early, that is.
Because unlike the actual weather patterns of Hollywood, these metaphorical Hollywood weather patterns mean there’s always going to be at least some rain on your parade. Just buy an umbrella and get to work!
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.