How can I optimize a film script for getting sold?
February 24, 2010 6:52 PM   Subscribe

Selling a film script: I'm starting to write scripts, is there any way I can optimize the type of film/story to maximize the likelihood of the script getting sold?

I've been interested in film for a long time, made some super-cheap experimental shorts, and have reasonable knowledge of cinema and production. Until now I've been intending to self-finance a short or no-budget feature, but that's probably not gonna happen in the near future.

In the meantime I'm going to write a bunch of scripts, mostly for the practice. But I want to make them as likely as possible to someday get sold.

I'm mostly thinking about action/thriller/sci-fi. Is there any way I can tailor the scripts to give me the best chance of them ending up getting sold/made?
posted by MetaMonkey to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Rip off every hot current movie of every genre as hard as you can without it being straight plagiarism.

Seriously, if some Avatar rip-off makes a tenth of the amount, that's still a massive haul.
posted by griphus at 6:56 PM on February 24, 2010

Absolutely, positively make the main character a man.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:01 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've read that you should be able to pitch your script:

a) Succinctly
b) As: ________ meets __________ (where ______ = some popular or highly critically acclaimed movie)

Doing those give people a frame of reference and, if you can sum it well, the idea that you know where it's going.

But YMMV, IANAS (not a screenwriter).
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:02 PM on February 24, 2010

I'm starting to write scripts

Just make sure you finish them.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:07 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

You should read "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield, who spend years as a starving artist before finally figuring out how to overcome the resistance and consistently write. IANAS but he is.

He recommends not optimizing for sale AT ALL as the best way to get something sold. If you have to dumb down and sell out your art, you won't be satisfied. If your work has no soul at all, save "I want money", you will be competing with every other soulless, knockoff hack, and no one will care.

In this age, derivative work is already a overfull market. I'm guessing there are multiple studios already churning out Avatar knockoffs.

My advice (and probably Mr. Pressfield's too) is to make the short no-budget feature now. Make it yourself with a digital camera and a laptop if you have to. Writing a bunch of (original and creative) scripts (with only typical reliance on existing tropes) is great, but it sounds like you're using it as an excuse not to do what you want to do. If you're afraid of writing a sucky movie or tend to procrastinate, "The Now Habit" by Neil Fiore is another good book to read.

If it's any good you could probably (IANA movie executive or marketer) get some micropayments or ad revenue going. Really, the optimal type of film/story for selling is the one that gets made, and it sounds like the most likely way for you to get a movie made is to make it yourself.

Good luck! Feel free to youtube-post and Memail me in a few months when your first short is done-- I'd like to see it.
posted by sninctown at 7:24 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's hard to give you advice without more information, honestly.

What are your goals, creatively and professionally? What kind of connections do you have? How fast of a writer are you? Can you bang a quality script out in a month or two? Do you have any professional writing experience, particularly with regards to taking notes and doing revisions based on feedback?

If you're a fast, serviceable writer with decent connections and are willing to write anything (regardless of whether or not you care about it) with the soul aim of getting the script bought (which is different from that script actually being filmed)? Then the advice above about writing something quick and dirty that capitalizes on current trends may very well work out for you.

If you're an inexperienced writer who's just breaking into the industry but full up of narrative that you're dying to share? There's no real trick to it -- tell a good story that people are interested in and care about. Write a script that people will get excited about, the kind of story they'll read and think, "WOW I want to see this on film." Take the time to write a snappy, concise treatment/summary to show to interested parties who don't have a lot of free time. And concentrate on smaller production companies that are more likely to take a chance on new talent, particularly with action/thriller/sci-fi films, which tend to be expensive and therefore more risky. Look for the Duncan Joneses and the Neill Blomkamps of the world, not the James Camerons and Michael Bays.

If you're starting from scratch and still learning, it'll take you a while to put a good script together, let alone a great one. What's popular now won't be popular anymore by the time it's finished, but a good story will hook people regardless of what happens to be "hot" at that moment.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:33 PM on February 24, 2010

Yeah, don't "optimize for sale". You'll hate every day in the chair.

Read lots of scripts for great films in order to see how they did what they did (I'd recommend Chinatown and No Country for Old Men just to see how their action is so well written). Then, write whatever the fuck you want and do it better than anyone else you've ever met, read, or heard of.

If you have no Hollywood connections, try entering a contest or two. The best contest, the Nicholl, has the same deadline every year: May 1. (Though no point in entering this year as I plan on winning.)
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:37 PM on February 24, 2010

If you have no Hollywood connections, try entering a contest or two. The best contest, the Nicholl, has the same deadline every year: May 1. (Though no point in entering this year as I plan on winning.)

And you can totally write a screenplay in two months. In school, we regularly wrote or completely rewrote entire 1-hour dramas in a week or two. We'd go from a pitch and a plot outline to a polished, rewritten screenplay in about two months. We'd do two feature-length screenplays in a year. It was kinda hellish, after a while. But a screenplay in two months is easily doable. [Note: I dropped out, transferred from art school, and learned to program computers.]
posted by Netzapper at 7:44 PM on February 24, 2010

In my scriptwriting course (ugh!) we spent an innordinate amount of time on the format of the screenplay and very little on the content. According to my lecturer, the typographical format of the submitted screenplay must be right for it to have a speck of a chance of being read. Take this advice as you like, my lecturer was a dud.

For example, How to format a screenplay.
posted by Kerasia at 7:51 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's true about the formatting, pay very close attention to it. It matters. At least, if you're script looks like a professional screenplay, it won't give people an excuse to disregard your script right away - which all of your readers will be trying to do.

People in the film industry don't like to read, so keep you action spare and put lots of white space on the page. Don't use passive voice. Everything in a screenplay needs to happen now, so past and future tense are always a no no.

Write characters that actors and actresses will be dying to play.

Write a script that will make the reader FEEL something.

Write what you want. The truth of the matter is, the spec market is just about dead. A far more common scenario will be: you write a great script and producers will then meet with you and pitch ideas or projects they want written, and then you have to give them a take on their idea, and if they like it then they'll hire you.

Seriously, in this market, against the current competition, the question "How can I optimize a film script for getting sold" is just a couple degrees away from "how do I buy a winning lottery ticket." Don't focus on the end goal (a sale), focus on the process (writing a great story that you connect with) and then your chances of being a working writing will skyrocket.
posted by visual mechanic at 7:59 PM on February 24, 2010

Get some screenwriting software and don't worry about the format as it'll do it all for you. Celtx is free. If you've got cash, I recommend Movie Magic Screenwriter (student versions are available cheaper if you're in school), though others will suggest Final Draft (which I loathe).
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:07 PM on February 24, 2010

Is there any way I can tailor the scripts to give me the best chance of them ending up getting sold/made?

FWIW, the No. 1 thing that trips up beginning screenwriters is the inability to write a script with a budget in mind.

Writing a movie? That massive epic war film requiring several dozen actors and hundreds of expensive effects shots? That all costs money.

Writing for TV? There's a reason your favorite comedy keeps finding reasons for the actors to sit in their favorite living room or their favorite bar and crack wise. Because people like it, but it's also relatively easy and inexpensive to shoot.

A perfect example of this is the Wachowski brothers. Initially, no one wanted to give them a bajillion dollars to make The Matrix. So they sold everyone on Bound first, which had a small cast and a small budget, but was still great on the page.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:08 PM on February 24, 2010

Apologies for double-commenting -- a few other things occurred to me once I'd posted.

For starters, I should probably have mentioned that I'm a professional screenwriter of moderate experience.

I have to say, my eyebrows shot up a bit at "you can totally write a screenplay in two months" in the comments above. Seasoned screenwriters are frequently required work on that kind of schedule, but not everyone can write that fast and frankly, as a beginner, you probably shouldn't try.

Very broadly speaking, there are two different categories of screenwriting -- scripts that you write on your own and then try to sell, and scripts that someone else hires you to write (often, but not always, based on existing intellectual property.) Most of my experience has been in the latter category, and that's because it's much easier to get that kind of work, particularly when you're starting out.

In order to be hired as a freelance screenwriter on a work-for-hire project, you need to have a resume that proves you're experienced and reliable or really, really incredible writing samples that can convince your prospective employers that you're worth taking a risk on. So if I were you, I'd concentrate on writing the kinds of screenplays that you'd want someone else to hire you to work on, so that you can provide strong samples that are relevant to the jobs you want to have. For example, if you want to be working on scifi thrillers, get really great at banging out tense, tight, exciting action scenes that you can use to convince someone that you are ABSOLUTELY PERFECT for that comic book adaptation they need you to write.

You'll also want to make sure that all your friends know that you're interested in freelance screenwriting, too, particularly if they're at all connected to the industry -- not in an obnoxious way, just enough so that they'll remember you if an opportunity presents itself. Every single job I've ever had was a result of personal connections of one kind or another.

In short, figure out what kind of work you want, get very good at doing that work, and then start looking for people who want to pay you to do it.

(Note also: Any professional writing experience at all -- ie, work that you've been paid to do -- will make it easier for you to get your foot in the door, even if it's not directly related. A large part of my own resume/portfolio is comics and prose writing, but they demonstrated that I was capable of meeting deadlines and being professional, and the samples were strong enough that they helped convince people of my ability to tell their story effectively.)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:07 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm an A/B list screenwriter who has worked solidly for the last 10 years.

Here's the thing: the spec market is completely, utterly dead. No spec has been sold without an actor or director attached in months. So as an unknown writer there is nothing you can do to get your script sold. Nada. It won't happen.

Therefore your goal should be to write a script which makes other people want to hire to you to write/rewrite scripts for them. In this case, you should not worry about how commercial or uncommercial your script is, you shoudl just WRITE THE FUCK OUT OF WHATEVER IT IS YOU WANT TO WRITE ABOUT.

D-People are smart, and they love to read scripts which are well-written and interesting, *especially* if they are unmarketable, since they don't have to worry about whether they need to recommend it or not.

What are you great at? Character? Action? Dialogue? Write the fuck out of that and you will get work.
posted by unSane at 9:11 PM on February 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

By the way, yes, the Nicholl is how you get into the industry. I did, everyone I know did.
posted by unSane at 9:20 PM on February 24, 2010

also, apparently there's a formula...
posted by sexyrobot at 12:53 AM on February 25, 2010

Honest human emotion, consistent logic, and life-or-death stakes.
posted by paperzach at 2:01 AM on February 25, 2010

What paperzach said.
posted by unSane at 4:12 AM on February 25, 2010

Response by poster: Lots of good answers and food for thought here, many thanks to all.

Good to know that the spec market is a non-starter so I can forget all about that.

Since my actual long term goal is to write and direct, I will just concentrate on writing the stories I really want to make myself.

"Honest human emotion, consistent logic, and life-or-death stakes" - awesome, that's exactly what I'm going for :)
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:08 AM on February 25, 2010

Response by poster:
"D-People are smart, and they love to read scripts which are well-written and interesting, *especially* if they are unmarketable, since they don't have to worry about whether they need to recommend it or not."
unSane, could you explain this for me? I don't quite understand.
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:11 AM on February 25, 2010

Most D-people, agents and producers take home a pile of scripts every weekend for the 'weekend read'. Most of these scripts are relentlessly commercial, and raise questions such as 'should I buy this?', 'who can I sell this to?', 'who's going to star in it?', 'who else is bidding on this?' and so on.

Most of them, to be honest, are also not really very good and are a chore to read.

Most of these readers are extremely smart people with great taste in literature. They know what they are reading is largely drivel but it is their job.

So, when they open your spec and within two pages know that they're not going to buy it, sell it, cast it or get into a bidding war on it, they can actually relax and -- if you've done your job well enough -- allow themselves the luxury of immersing themselves completely in the screenplay.

This presupposes you have written a good screenplay and in particular that you have raised enough of a dramatic question in the first few pages that the reader is unable to put the script down until they have finished it.

I promise that if you do this, people will remember your script long after the other 'commercial' ones have been forgotten.

I do the same thing with novels. When I crack open a novel, inevitably my first thought is 'is this a possible movie adaptation?'. It's only after I put that aside that I can ever really get lost in a book.
posted by unSane at 11:19 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks unSane, good to know.

If I've understood all the good advice from this thread, my best chance of eventual success is the opposite of what I'd imagined - rather than trying to write to sell, I should actually just write stuff I'm most passionate about. That is pretty funky and strangely comforting, given the need to stay hopeful in this business.
posted by MetaMonkey at 3:00 PM on February 25, 2010

You also need to have your craft down. There are certain checkboxes that agents and producers mentally tick off as they read a script:

-- does this look, visually, like a professional screenplay? IE is it formatted properly, are the proportions of action and dialog roughly right?

-- is there a clear, active, protagonist?

-- is there a clear dramatic question raised early in the script?

-- is there a 'hook' early in the script (ie a moment that makes you think, whoah, this is going to be interesting).

-- are these characters interesting?

-- does the dialog ring true?

-- is there action (by which I don't necessarily mean action sequences)?

-- is there jeopardy?

-- does the story have a clear three act structure?

-- is there romantic interest of some kind?

-- does the ending answer the dramatic question in a satisfying and surprising way?

-- is the story original?

-- is the concept unusual and compelling?

-- is the setting interesting and well-observed?

above all

-- did this script make me feel something?

This last is so important because 99% of professionally written Hollywood screenplays do not make you feel anything except manipulated. The writer who can make you feel something will stand out a country mile.

A few pro tips:

-- when they are speed reading scripts, many readers read down the center of the page ignoring action paragraphs unless it is an action only sequence.

-- readers are looking for reasons to stop reading your script. It is essential that you continually, page after page, provide them with reasons to keep reading.

-- readers read short scripts before long ones. 110 pages will make you lots of friends.

-- never, EVER, get a script down to 120 pages by futzing the formatting, using long paragraphs and so on. If you do that, it will be the worst of all things, a 'slow read'. Lots of white space, and short paragraphs. Always.

-- if there is something in your script which can be cut, and the story still makes sense, cut it no matter how fantastic it is. If it is really fantastic, make it integral to the story.

-- don't fake something you don't know. If you don't know how British upper class people talk, don't fake it. If you don't know anything about physics, don't fake it. Readers spot this stuff in a heartbeat and it is an amateur's mistake.

Well, there's lots more but I'll leave you with the books you absolutely, positively have to read in order to have a meaningful conversation with a Hollywood execudroid.




Everyone you meet will have read these three books and use them as shorthand.
posted by unSane at 3:59 PM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, very inspiring comment unSane, thanks again. I can feel the wheels turning.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:23 PM on February 25, 2010

"Looking for the Overlap" a blog post by Steven Pressfield (writer of The War of Art)
posted by sharkfu at 3:01 AM on February 27, 2010

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