How to Sell a Screenplay to Hollywood from the UK – Part One

trumbo

The screenwriter’s dream: now you too can get to work in the bath.

 

Okay, here is the big one. How do you sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK? I suppose this is what this blog is supposed to be all about. So let me take you through the steps involved. Sounds simple, right?

First of all, about myself: I am a British screenwriter, but I’ve made spec sales and had options with companies in the UK, Europe and Los Angeles, USA.

Secondly, as William Goldman famously said: “Nobody knows anything”. He was talking about the movie business. So as you read this, please place your tongue firmly in your cheek and take all of this with that pinch of salt.

However, this being the confessions of an English screenwriter and all, I thought I should at least attempt to share with you what I have learned when trying to sell a script to Hollywood without having to go and live in L.A..

And what better way to start than with the secret “one easy step to success”?

The secret trick to success

First of all, here is the secret trick — the magic bullet, if you will — that all professional writers know about…

Ready?

There is no magic bullet!

Yes, that’s right. There is no secret trick to selling a screenplay. No magic bullet. No one way that ensures success. There is only hard work, practice, lots of practice, a lot of luck, and a lot of failure.

“What? I’m going to fail?”

Yes. You will fail. Sometimes spectacularly. Sometimes you will want to quit. But to quote from Benjamin Franklin “Energy and persistence conquer all things”. That is especially true of screenwriting.

Let me explain…

There is no one way to sell or option a script today. Elliott Grove in his excellent book “Randance Writer’s Lab” compares the movie industry to an enormous building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people who you can make deals with or who can further your career in some way: agents, industry executives, producers, etc.

Your job is to get in the doors. It doesn’t matter which one. Just keep trying.

Now all this sounds pretty wishy-washy, so let’s get down to brass tacks.

Step One – Write the screenplay

The first step to selling to Hollywood is: you must be able to write great screenplays. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many writers produce script after script which never sells. But as long as you are learning your craft, you are progressing.

“But how come so many bad movies get made? I just saw a terrible movie. I could write better than that!”

Yes. Bad movies do get made. For a variety of reasons. Sometimes a producer just desperately needs a screenplay because they have actors or locations available. Sometimes studios butcher screenplays because they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience than the material can support. Sometimes a “star” will insist that the script goes in a terrible direction to make them look good. Sometimes a hurricane will blow the set away. The list goes on. And don’t forget that making movies is hard. Really hard. Heck, if it was easy everybody would be doing it, right? Just because you can spot a bad movie doesn’t mean you can make a good one.

You must write, write, write. Devour all the screenwriting books you can find.

You must read screenplays. Actually read them.

Watch movies. A lot of movies. Deconstruct them on paper to see how they work.

This will require you to invest time in your craft and will also involve spending money. A lot of money.  In short, you must approach screenwriting like a job. Because that’s what you’re trying to achieve.

I can’t stress Step One enough. You will be up against UCLA college graduates who have done nothing but read and write screenplays for the past 3 years. Think you can measure up to them? Knowing your craft is the only part of the business you can control. So make sure you deliver a superb script. “Competent” is not enough. “Good” is not enough. Your screenplay must be “great” to stand out from the hundreds of thousands of screenplays circulating every year.

Got that? Good.

Once you’ve done all that, you may be ready for step two:

Step Two – Learn about the Business

Let’s go back to Elliot Grove’s comparison of the movie industry to a building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people you want to do business with. And this IS a business, make no mistake. It’s called “Showbusiness” for a reason. Yes, you can enjoy giving your creativity full reign when you come up with an amazing scene. But remember that you have to sell the script when it’s done. And like any salesman, you must know what people want.

One mistake writers often make is to try to predict trends. Every now and then a movie does phenomenal business at the box office. For up to a year afterwards, everybody wants something similar, be it “Memento” or “Saw” or “The Lord of the Rings”. You may be tempted to begin work on a similar project, hoping that people will go crazy for it. But by the time you have finished your script, which can take anywhere from a month to even years, the market will have moved on, and people will be clamoring for the next big thing.

What’s a writer to do?

Instead of thinking in terms of the hot movie genre, you should think more in terms of what is sellable. You will find that certain types of movies are always in demand, while others are pretty much dead. For instance, don’t bother writing that Western or Period Drama. Even if you see a major picture in those genres. The spec market for those films are almost impossible to break into. Most new films in those genres are initiated by the studio, who then hires a writer for the project.

(Caveat: remember how we said that nobody knows anything?)

My advice is, if you have a great idea for a new Queen Boadicea film, turn it into a novel. Then Hollywood can come to you when it sells a million copies. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Genres that are always in demand?

Cheap ones.

Block Comedies, low budget horror movies, found footage movies (a recent trend which probably will not continue as the justification behind them becomes more and more bizarre), movies without lots of SFX, low budget thrillers, “contained” movies with only a few locations or characters.

Did I mention cheap?

One of the biggest independent hits of all time, “Halloween”, which launched the careers of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis, was about a man in a William Shatner mask walking around homes with a knife. It was made for $325,000 and raked in $47 million at the box office alone.

There are several other things you must know about the movie industry before embarking on your odyssey to net that lucrative spec sale.

What is a spec sale?

A spec is a screenplay initiated by a writer who has not been hired to write a screenplay. That’s about it.

Sometimes studios mainly generate their own projects and put calls out to everyone they know (agents, managers, producers) that they are looking for writers for the project. The lucky writer than gets to “pitch” their take on the material to the studio. These jobs are called assignments.

The film industry is bigger than Hollywood.

Motion pictures are made all over the world these days. China is a huge upcoming market. My first option was to a company based in Germany. I’ve also written for companies in England and Canada as well as the USA. Plus, nowadays everyone can be a filmmaker. Just invest in a decent phone camera. Recent indie breakout hit “Tangerine” was filmed entirely on an iPhone. Now you too can be Cecil B DeMille! (note: if you don’t know who Cecil B DeMille is, stop reading this immediately and go watch a ton of old movies made before 1960. I’m serious).

Sales vs Options

More fun terms! In the movie industry, you don’t have to sell your screenplay until it’s produced. You can option it instead. The producer usually pays you less money than they would for a sale. They then have the option, within a specified period (say, 12 months) to get the money to make the picture. If they do, you should be then paid more money to sell the script to them. If not, you get the rights to the script back. It’s a win-win for a newbie screenwriter.

However, an option can also be a disappointment if the producer is not willing to pay a lot. I have seen (and signed) options for as little as $1. Are you being taken advantage of? Well, that depends on where you are in your career. A dollar option to someone with no credits whatsoever is a step up the ladder.

So, to recap: there is no one way to sell a script. You can sell screenplays around the world these days, thanks to the Internet. But you must work on your craft. Read as much as you can. Read screenwriting books, read online articles (there are many free ones), read the trades (by which I mean the trade magazines such as Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – all of which are online), subscribe to newsletters. The Scoggins Report can also give you invaluable guidance as to which companies are buying which type of script. These will all give you a feel for how the industry operates. You must become familiar with this, because these are the people you will be trying to sell your work to.

Hot tip: You will find that writing equates to about half of a screenwriter’s working life. The rest involves that dreaded word: marketing. You must become your own PR expert, agent, manager and marketing guru, because that is how you are going to sell your script. Enjoy!

In the next part we’ll look at what to do after you’ve written the script, and how to (hopefully) get it into the hands of Hollywood professionals!

It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

See you next time!

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