Once the script is done, what's next?
August 25, 2008 5:12 AM   Subscribe

Let's pretend I am not too far away from completing a feature-length screenplay on spec. I live far from LA with no connections to Hollywood, and I've got very little money squared away. Once the script itself is done, how would I most effectively pimp out my product to a studio?

Let me vent my frustration: every time I read a book or an article about breaking into this-or-that part of the movie business, the author has an opinion that manages to completely contradict some other author I've read. Hire an agent immediately or you'll crash and burn! Wait, don't hire an agent, send your script directly to a bunch of indie producers' assistants! And so on. Everyone seems certain that their advice is the only correct advice, which implies that either most of these Hollywood Insiders are talking out of their asses, or that selling your average script is essentially a crapshoot, or both of the above. Is the crapshoot theory correct, or can you recommend some effective steps I can take (other than the obvious: proper formatting, copyrighting, etc) to sell this script? If I had more money I would be awfully tempted to move to LA and shop around for agents, but -- at least for now -- that doesn't look entirely feasible. Send an e-mail to scriptquery@gmail.com if you like.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I would ask Mel over at pitchQ.com.
posted by Liosliath at 5:44 AM on August 25, 2008

I haven't ventured there in years but there is a newsgroup called misc.writing.screenplays. Produced writers used to/are still posting there so I would start by googling the archive.
posted by Baud at 6:15 AM on August 25, 2008

You need to center your goal- what do you want to do? Do you want this script to be a movie? Then go indie. Do you want to start a career in screenwriting? Then go to LA.

Go to LA, get an agent, and pitch. That's the standard, accepted way to do it. H'wood bubbles and teems with crusty, starving writers/actors/waiters who have scripts, and no shortage of scripts to read. If you want to make an industry picture, you need to follow the industry rules. Go to LA. Get an agent. Pitch.

Make sure your script is in industry standard format- all that white space and that specific font is there for a structural reason- if you play with it, you look like a scrub. Also, register the copyright, but don't put it on your title page, or you will look like a scrub. Register your script with WGA-E, because they are nice and they let you do it online. Again, keep your registration information to yourself, or you will look like a scrub. Should you get to the pitch state- have several ideas ready to pitch to producers.


Because they will use it, it may be tacky, but it's not illegal. The only thing you can copyright is the execution, not the concept.

If you're more interested in indies, there are tons and tons of filmmaking communities online that you can pitch directly. Check out moviebytes.com for screenplay contests- try Austin, try Nicholls Fellowship- stick to contests that are based in or near LA and/or Austin, which have an industry prize, whose judges are listed, and can be verified. ABlueCat, Acclaim, Scriptapalooza are all pretty decent contests. Check Craigslist; check film school ad boards. Check your local Arts organizations.

But seriously. If you want to make your movie, go indie. If you want a screenwriting career, go to LA.
posted by headspace at 6:52 AM on August 25, 2008 [5 favorites]

(PS: No really. Get an agent. You can hand your script to the deal of a studio's development department, and say "Will you read my script?" And they'll say, "Sure! Thanks!" Then they will take it, they'll even take your name or your card! It seems like you're getting somewhere.


As soon as you are out of eyeshot, they will throw it away. Why do they do it this way? Because you never have to argue with somebody when you say yes.)
posted by headspace at 6:56 AM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Reservoir Dogs" and "The Piano" both got made because of the personal interest of Harvey Keitel, who put up the directors on his couch and fought hard to champion them. He had an assistant/manager who would read scripts and make recommendations for him, but he would find projects that smelled good to him.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:15 AM on August 25, 2008

I work in TV and film and I don't know anyone who has ever gotten work as a writer or sold a script anonymously. In general, or at least in my experience, people who make movies and TV shows read the scripts from the folks they know (and they know A LOT of people who want to write) or passed on from agents they know. It can be pretty hard to get your foot in the door, especially from afar.

If you're not about to move to LA or NYC, your options are what headspace said: meet some people online and apply for fellowships and screenwriter labs. Sundance and FilmIndependent have two very competitive ones, and some smaller film organizations have grant and development contests (some are local, like San Francisco's Film Arts Foundation, others are less restrictive, live Rooftop Films).

Another route is to write something that can be shot on the super cheap -- few characters, few locations, no FX, difficult costumes, or elaborate sets -- and shoot it yourself. Or, alternately, put it onstage. Believe it or not, some people still get film and TV work based on a successful run of an independent or semi-independent play.

Also, if you happen to that special internet magic that everyone is trying to divine, there are definitely people out there getting agents and development deals from viral videos and blogs.

Or you know, get to be friends with someone famous who loves your script. That can work too.

Regardless of what you do, get ready to play the long game. Sometimes people get lucky with their first project and it takes off, but I think for most folks who do it for a living, it's a pretty long, slow road. The stuff-written to stuff-produced ratio is almost always very, very high.
posted by blapst at 7:29 AM on August 25, 2008

some bad grammar there above. what i meant is NO difficult costumes and NO elaborate sets. if that wasn't clear. apologies.

and another labor-intensive idea (the process you're entering is pretty unavoidably labor-intensive): make cheap shorts, submit them to fests, go to the fests, and meet other up-and-coming writers, directors, producers, and actors. the more people you meet who are getting their feet in the door, the more likely you are to get your own feet in the door.
posted by blapst at 7:33 AM on August 25, 2008

I work in TV and film and I don't know anyone who has ever gotten work as a writer or sold a script anonymously.

Agreed. Personal connection trumps everything. Obviously there is no secret formula that's printed in a book. The query letter thing is what they tell you b/c it's the easiest way for them to get rid of you- throw letter in trash. A lot of places will not even read it, their lawyers will return it saying they never touched it. The theft thing doesn't really happen, but people are very afraid of being accused of it.

There's some very "interesting" advice above. I have no idea why you'd want to register with the WGA East when it's the WGA-WEST that you will be a member of when you become a working screenwriter. And I put my registration number on the cover of my scripts- no one has ever laughed at me and I can't imagine why they would. If you do happen to meet a studio exec, (you won't), tell him your best idea. Do you really want to blow your chance because you're worried they might "steal" your idea? Personally, I'd forget the "pitching" thing too. It doesn't have that have much to do with what a writer does. You're trying to sell yourself based on your writing ability, hopefully. Everyone in the world has 1000 ideas that would make good movies- bluntly, they're so easy to think up they're practically meaningless, and no one would have any reason to choose yours over one from the rich guy in the suit that everyone in town already knows. (things like "pitch conferences" are just total scams, think one of those online "poetry contests" where they print everyone and make you pay for the book)

I second the "just make a movie" advice. My experience was that agents want absolutely nothing to do with me- I'm a pain in the ass to them, nothing more. But when i told people i was MAKING a movie, the whole thing turned around. People were calling me, legit SAG actors, and their agents too, actually wanting to be a part of my cheap little movie, If I had played it better, I probably could have made the connection to the literary part of those agencies. Oh well.

The thing is, if you're a rich kid, it's easy. talk to your rich kid friends you went to school with or their dads. Otherwise, it's hard. Everyone who does make it has their own unique way you won't find in a book. Here's what the only Oscar-winning screenwriter I've ever met told me about how he got started:
I called up an agency and said, "can you connect me to Joe Johnson, that agent who represents new writers?" They said there was no one there by that name, because I had made that name up. I said, "oh I'm sorry, I must have written it down wrong. What was the name of that agent who represents new writers again?"
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:38 AM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

1. enter contests, the Nicholl Fellowship in particular.
2. ScriptPimp and Smart Girls keep bragging about how successful they are; I see them at the Expo every year. Give them a try?
3. If they buy your first script and change it, cry a little, laugh a little, cash the check and move on. This is reality.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 9:41 AM on August 25, 2008

I second entering contests-- just be sure to enter the right contests/fellowships that aren't just money-making scams. (There are lots of places to research this, I remember moviebytes.com has good contest reviews.) Spend a couple hundred on entry fees, and if you place in any contest (send it to at least 5, but 10 is better) then you will have a way to get an agent's attention when you send your query letter.

(If you don't know what a query letter is, then boy you are reading the wrong "how to be a screenwriter" books.) No agent is going to read a script he hasn't requested. But if your query letter establishes that you have already been recognized for your talent, and has an interesting logline for your script, then they might request a script to read. THEN you send a script.

Obviously, it's an investment to submit to contests or go to Expos. (I personally wouldn't recommend paying money at an Expo to have some low level exec read your script. I am a working screenwriter in LA and don't know anyone who's been discovered that way.)

But whatever you do, DO NOT send ANYONE in the industry your first draft. OR your second draft. MAYBE your third draft, if it's so good that your friends and family tear up and weep when they read it, it's that good. No one's first draft is worth anything, trust me. Get a good group of friends, mentors, family members whose opinions you can trust and respect, to read your script and give you notes. And if your script gets picked up anywhere, you can expect to repeat that process innumerable times with innumerable people, so get used to it, and get good at accepting criticism gracefully.

Getting an agent to read your stuff is not easy, especially if you are some Joe from the Midwest he's never heard of. Usually it helps if you know someone who can tell THEIR agent you're worth reading. It really helps to have some screenwriting labs/fellowships/contests on your resume. There are a ton of scam agencies too (a big warning signal is if they ask you to pay for their postage/copying costs they might incur while representing you. BIG no-no.)

Getting your movie MADE, unless you are a filmmaker yourself, is almost entirely up to the agent, who will find you a producer. So you just have to find yourself an agent first. There is no getting around the agent, they are the most powerful force in Hollywood.

Good luck! Don't get taken in by any scams, and remember, in LA, aspiring screenwriters are just as plentiful as aspiring actresses right off the bus-- but no one is going to ask the screenwriter to get naked during an interview, at least. However if you have real talent, and real determination to keep sending your work out over and over again, someone will eventually want to represent you.
posted by np312 at 11:13 AM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

(Agent AND managers, of course. Many successful writers I know only use their manager. I use both. But it's the same idea, you have to get one at some point.)
posted by np312 at 11:16 AM on August 25, 2008

I second entering contests-- just be sure to enter the right contests/fellowships that aren't just money-making scams.

Blake Snyder, in his book SAVE THE CAT, which is definitely a must-read for anyone serious about a career as a pro screenwriter, advises that writers NOT enter contests, simply because, as long time industry pro, he's never heard of a contest winning script ever actually being made into a movie. Ever. This probably isn't entirely true but it does speak to the odds and the fact that contests generally exist to make their organizers money, not provide career breakthroughs.

Bottom line: as a spec screenwriter, you are entering into perhaps the most competitive field in any business, particularly if your goal is to make it BIG. There is no clear road map to success, even if you do KNOW people. It's a very weird game full of ugly people chasing uglier dreams. Are you sure you want to play?
posted by philip-random at 12:07 PM on August 25, 2008

just to be clear -- some of the labs (Sundance, FilmIndependent) are not like those random contest schemes. they are fairly prestigious workshops with connections to real industry folks who can help you get your stuff made (if all the stars align). your chances of getting through, especially as an unknown, might be pretty slim, but it's worth a shot. i know several writers and directors who got in on their 2nd and 3rd submission of the same script (they got rejected, worked on it, got rejected again, worked on it, and finally got in), and they found the labs very helpful.

as for getting an agent or a manager -- that's a great idea, but there are lots of working writers out there with lots of produced work who can't get decent representation. that doesn't mean you shouldn't try though.
posted by blapst at 3:45 PM on August 25, 2008

philip-random, my point about entering contests was in regards to helping with obtaining representation, not about getting the movie made. I agree that winning a contest won't get your movie made, unless there was some crazy cinderella story involved. (Even the Diablo Cody cinderella story had a basis of a producer being interested in Cody's blog writing BEFORE she ever tried her hand at screenwriting, and told her he would read any of her future work.) The OP won't get his/her movie made unless he/she makes it herself, OR gets representation to help him/her find financing/producers/talent.
posted by np312 at 4:38 PM on August 25, 2008

"Reservoir Dogs" and "The Piano" both got made because of the personal interest of Harvey Keitel, who put up the directors on his couch and fought hard to champion them.

Ahh... sorry, where did you hear this? You're saying Harvey Keitel put up Jane Campion on his couch? Jane Campion, who'd been working in film for more than a decade before the Piano? Who'd previously made the award-winning films Sweetie and Angel at My Table... I've read a lot about indie film in my day but have never heard this before.

Blake Snyder, in his book SAVE THE CAT, which is definitely a must-read for anyone serious about a career as a pro screenwriter, advises that writers NOT enter contests, simply because, as long time industry pro, he's never heard of a contest winning script ever actually being made into a movie. Ever.

Wow. I've always thought this book sucked after perusing it (it's one of the few screenwriting books I haven't read cover to cover) but this statement is ludicrous. I am not in the industry and can name several that won contests and got produced (Arlington Road, Closetland, Akeelah and the Bee, Mean Creek, Excess Baggage, Blue Car, Finding Forrester...)

In addition, as someone who hasn't won a contest but has placed, I can say first hand that producers call. I had a script in the top 2% of one of the bigger contests but didn't go further which means my name was not published in Variety or anything like that... but producers and agents get lists of quarter- and semi-finalists from the contest runners and, indeed, they call and email.

I have a friend from film school who won Nicholl about 10 years back. She immediately got an agent and started working, mostly doing rewrites and such. Just last year she got her first solo credit but in the previous decade she made an okay living in LA. She broke in this way (and that's the way I'm trying to break in) because we live in Canada and can't move to LA and work easily in Joe Jobs and such.

Max Adams won both the Nicholl and Austin the same year with different scripts. I think she's the only person to ever do that. At the time she was living way outside of Cali (I forget where) but she now lives and works there (last time I checked). She also wrote this book, which details her experience and has her many suggestions for how to break into Hwood if you don't know any one.

If I remember correctly, one thing she did was take a vacation to LA. Prior to that she called various little-known or indie producers and pitched them her script ideas on the phone and said, "I'll be in LA between" such and such "would you like to meet?" She had pretty good success with that, I think.

The above aside, my advice for you after finishing your first screenplay: write another. Not only will your writing get better, but having one idea in Hwood is nothing special. (Neither is two, of course.) But suppose the writing is good but the genre or whatever doesn't appeal to whoever finally reads your script. If they think you've got potential but your script doesn't, you're screwed if you've only got one under your belt.

As I've said repeatedly in S/W threads on MeFi before, I'd love to have an online readers group for those trying to break in. Swap feedback and whatnot. I only had one real taker so far (and I don't think he liked my feedback as I never heard from him again). But... if anyone's game, let me know.
posted by dobbs at 8:45 AM on August 27, 2008 [5 favorites]

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