Writing a script is a labor of love. And while the writing process itself is an extremely difficult job, the task of actually getting someone who matters to read a script may be the most difficult job of all. But as any new scribe will tell you, kick-starting your career in Hollywood is as much about marketing as it is about talent.
While the prevailing wisdom is that in order to get a screenplay sold a writer needs to have at least three completed and polished scripts under his or her belt, I know firsthand that this isn’t entirely true. As founder of InkTip.com, I have seen quite a few first-time writers sell their scripts through our Website. But certainly an agent or manager would prefer their prospective writers have more than one script—it gives them more to work with when pitching a client, and it shows the representative that the writer is not just a one-hit wonder. Making the effort to polish several scripts also gives a writer more experience, more credibility and a higher level of craftsmanship.
Ask producers what they look for and they’ll answer simply “great scripts.” But what is it, exactly, that makes a script great? Producers all have their own concepts, but for most it means that a script is unique, well-written and fits within their particular moviemaking niche.
|“In the direct-to-video market, the staples are still
horror films and thrillers with budgets ranging between $500K and $2million.”
Finding the Right Producer
How do you find the producer who’s looking for your script? When it comes to the studios, there’s one thing you can count on: they follow the direction the wind happens to be blowing. For instance, when My Big Fat Greek Wedding was breaking records all over the country, there was a glut of producers looking for offbeat romantic family comedies. The Blair Witch Project generated similar interest in horror-themed scripts.
This is not to say that the studios aren’t looking for great original stories—they are. But show me an original story that’s similar in theme to a movie that’s recently done very well at the box office, and I’ll show you a studio and a producer taking notice.
Scripts are where movies come from, but the industry determines its interest in a script by the pitch, logline and synopsis. Your logline and synopsis are the keys that open the gate to getting your script read. If you, the writer, can’t effectively communicate what your story is about, how can you expect a producer to come up with a pitch to get the film financed?
Once you understand the process, synopses and loglines are actually easy to write. What a writer needs to do is break down the story to its most basic elements. But instead of trying to crunch an entire script down to a synopsis or logline, writers need to do it in reverse. Every script can be described in one to two words that will give a person a basic understanding of the story. The most common terms used for one-word descriptions refer to genre.
Writing a good synopsis and logline is not hard, but it does take practice. They must be very simply written—meaning anybody should be able to easily understand your story with just one quick read. That does not mean these elements are items you should write quickly, or without importance.
Here is one way to write a synopsis and feel reasonably sure it will be up to snuff:
If those teens aren’t able to read your synopsis and instantly know what your story is about, your synopsis is in trouble.
If a teen can’t understand your story from the synopsis or logline, neither will the development executive or producer. This has nothing to do with intelligence. It has everything to do with how hectic the lives of all producers and studios execs are. These people have to explain your story to somebody else. The easier you make it for them, the better your chances.
Watching the Trends
One way to keep abreast of the current trends is to begin to think like an agent or manager. This means keeping close track of which films are doing well at the box office, as well as all the movies that are winning awards. Similarly, writers should take notice of those films that have performed poorly at the box office, as producers will be reluctant to take on a new script with a similar theme. Marketing a script as “The Big Bounce meets The Real Cancun,” for example, would be a very tough sell in today’s market. Be sure descriptions and comparables refer to movies with excellent proven results.
In television, the same dynamics come into play. “CSI” proved hugely successful, and so “CSI: Miami” and a slew of other forensics-related series were born on various networks. The idea is that producers are looking for a script they know will sell.
Studios do, of course, come out with some great movies that are completely original and don’t fit their “normal” requirements, but it’s rare that these are created by up-and-coming writers. For studio execs to take a risk on a non-traditional story, they’d rather rely on a seasoned—and proven—writer. For instance, trying to pitch Cold Mountain might be very tough for a new writer. As a general rule, drama period pieces aren’t normally considered to be viable films and need a little extra (such as star power) to push it forward.
No matter how complex or detailed a story is, the more easily the writer can explain it, the better the chances he or she has of getting it sold. Because the “pitch” doesn’t end with the writer (the buying producers will then have to pitch the story all over town), it is vital that the pitch is simple, direct and has a hook.
The title of your story can also go a long, long way toward attracting interest. For instance, Intergalactic Struggles might not generate as much interest as Star Wars. The thing to bear in mind is that you want to avoid the “been there, done that” roadblock. You want to make it possible for the people you’re pitching to easily grasp the story’s concept, see that it’s uniquely fascinating, and believe a broad audience demographic will want to see it. The story has to convey this to the people you’re pitching, without you directly selling them its potential. Know also that these people are pitched a multitude of stories on a weekly basis and after a while all pitches begin to sound alike. Make yours compelling and accessible.
Pitching isn’t easy. I have been told many a time that getting a pitch just right is almost as tough as writing a script! There is so much to learn about pitching that this subject alone could fill an entire book. (See sidebar)
As a long-term plan, a writer should be able to write in several genres and have completed scripts in various themes (horror, thriller, comedy, adventure, etc.). A writer should also be able to take a page from the producer’s playbook and adapt his or her pitch to “follow the wind.” If you aren’t at that point yet, continue to market the scripts you do have, but keep this in mind for the future. That way, when the next Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction or “CSI” comes out and does fabulously well, you have a script ready to satisfy a studio producer’s or network executive’s needs—and are able to pitch it immediately.
Having a better understanding of how the market works and adapting yourself to it is far more useful than a statement telling you what a specific producer is currently looking for. Statements like those can be outdated the next day.
The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) is a very useful tool for seeing which producers are producing what. It’ll help you keep your finger on the pulse of the entertainment industry and decide to whom you are going to pitch. Some producers always want to produce something new and unusual, but most will keep within a certain genre or even a familiar storyline that has proven successful for them in the past. So start with the producers who have found success with a story that’s similar to yours in theme, content, etc. and see where that takes you.
Don’t Get Discouraged
Writers commonly get discouraged with the process of submitting query letters to production companies, especially when they don’t hear back or when they get a form letter stating that a company does not accept “unsolicited submissions.” Hone your survival skills as a writer, and don’t let yourself get hung up on this aspect of the business. It’s simply the way business is done in Hollywood.
There are three primary reasons a writer gets this no-response response:
1) The company is worried about legal liability.
2) The company doesn’t want to be inundated by calls and letters from writers.
3) The pitch was unprofessionally done, or it is obvious that the writer has no idea what film genres the company specializes in.
Because of stated policies on unsolicited submissions, many companies supposedly will not even read your query. But many of these same companies will indeed read it if something grabs their attention. It’s a gamble and it’s time-consuming, but query letters and calls do work!
The Internet also must be exploited as a way to get exposure for your scripts. Producers are always looking for a fast and easy way to find scripts—something that isn’t time consuming and doesn’t involve being inundated with phone calls and submissions. It is the Internet that allows producers in need to search for specific scripts, day or night, from all over the world, without hassle. A lot of these major production companies who won’t give a new, unrepresented writer the time of day when presented with a query will actually search the Internet for scripts.
I know this, because quite a few of them are members of our network and use InkTip.com for this very reason.
A simple search on the Internet will help you find an abundance of sites where you can get exposure for your scripts. Some charge a fee, some don’t. Some work, some don’t. The best advice I can give you is to go to a few of these sites where they have message boards and talk to other writers to see which are the most beneficial in getting producers to take notice. Scriptsales.com is one such site.
A common saying in sales goes something like this: “Every time you get a ‘no’ it gets you that much closer to a ‘yes.’” Whether a writer is represented or not, getting his or her script into the hands of producers is a vital part of the job. Though it can be frustrating, the time-honored query letters and the new technology of the Internet have worked for a lot of writers. Understanding the market and where your script fits into it—and being able to take advantage of industry “whims”—makes it that much easier for you to get your script into the right producer’s hands. MM
Jerrol LeBaron is president and founder of InkTip.com, a Web-based company specializing in matching screenwriters with producers, now in its fourth year of business. Last year, 10 films were made from the scripts and writers found on InkTip (two by Miramax, two for ABC Family Channel and six others by indie producers).