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Spec Sale Strategies

Spec Sale Strategies

Articles - Directing

Aspiring screenwriter Dan Bruzenak’s
uncle drives a limousine in San Francisco. When Dan heard that
famous producers, directors and actors passed through the back
seat, he gave his uncle two copies of his comedy Bored at Midnight to
pitch around. Nothing came of it. When Dan worked at a ritzy hotel
in Santa Barbara, he always kept his screenplays close by Once,
he managed to give a script to Michael Douglas. “But the material
didn’t suit his needs:” Dan sent query letter after letter, he
posted screenplays on the internet, he contacted an overpriced
entertainment attorney, but Dan, like the tens of thousands of
other screenwriters deep in the mire of marketing their wares,
has “yet to hit gold.”

How does that coveted sale occur? According to The
Writers Guild of America, roughly 100 new scripts are registered
each week. Of the thousands written each year, few will get read,
let alone sold. Beyond winning the Nicholl fellowship, the Austin
Heart of Screenwriting Fest or an invitation to the Sundance Screenwriter’s
Lab, where is a guy like Dan to turn? Actually, there are quite
a few places. From clever querying and script consulting firms,
to advertising catalogues and digital databases to the solitary
internet peddler, a number of new marketing strategies have cropped
up to help a guy like Dan get his foot in the door.

Querying

Okay, so it’s not that new. Old-fashioned, even,
with a staggeringly low success rate. Most say it’s a waste of
time in a business bent on relationships, but an appropriate query
to the right person remains a staple of screenplay marketing. With
a Hollywood Creative Directory in hand, writers can sift
through production companies in search of the right match. Though
many companies won’t even talk to unrepresented writers, there
are a few that will be receptive to the right pitch.

In today’s cyberworld, e-mail querying has become
the latest offshoot. Writer Clint Lien, a Canadian transplant with
no connections in L.A., did the research and sent out a mass e-mail
to about 100 companies and got about a 50 percent response. The
end result was landing a script job for 360 Entertainment and subsequent
gigs for Nu Image, Dolph Lundgren and others. Lien may have been
luckier than most, but he’s living proof that the query can work.

Script Consultants

Ann Zald of script consulting firm The Screenwriter’s
Room, says cold queries don’t have a chance. “It’s the lowest on
the totem poll,” she says. “Writers just don’t understand that
executives and agents are reading 1025 scripts a week-and there’s
not much energy left to read unsolicited material.” For new writers,
according to Zald, the best place to turn is a professional consulting
company like hers. For two-and-a-half years, Zald and her partners,
Kathleen Hannon and Claudia Citkovitz, have drawn on their years
of experience as former development and production execs to “identify
original and marketable screenplays:” If they think a script is
technically and artistically ready, they will “develop it with
you, find you a respected agent, and help sell your screenplay
to a studio or production company.” The cost is a mere $125 for
a phone consultation fee, $250 for a written response, and $350
for the two.

But chances are slim for success. Zald says of the
approximately 20 scripts they get in each week, only about 10 of
those each year will be recommended to an agent. But if a writer
is among that one percent, Zald says the odds of getting that agent
are nearly certain. And to really operate in the business, Zald
feels a writer’s first step must be landing an agent. “To negotiate
the deals, to strategize, a writer really needs an agent. We can
help with that, but we’re not out to replace agents.” Zald sums
up, “If you have the talent but you don’t have the connections,
we can help bridge that gap:”

The Catalogue

While the doors of Zald’s Screenwriter’s Room will
only be opened to the best of scripts, the Spec Script Marketplace,
a bi-monthly publication which lists available screenplays and
goes out to nearly 1,300 players in the industry, does not discriminate.
But that doesn’t mean the material isn’t good. In fact, last year,
of the 1,049 scripts listed, 56 percent were agented, 22 listings
per issue were award winners, and 19 belonged to produced writers.
That’s not bad company.
The brain child of Eva Peel, a Translyvanian-born screenwriter and exCBS exec,
Spec Script was conceived in order to deliver to producers the lat in straightforward,
concise 50-word classified ads. Anything more, according to Peel, will get
glossed over by execs with short attention spans. “People will read 50 words,” she
says. “That’s about the top limit of what they will commit to reading sight
unseen.” And judging from Peel’s year-end report, people have been reading:
13 scripts were optioned last year. Still, if you look at the numbers, that
1 percent success rate rears its ugly head once again.

“When writers ask me, `Should I send query letters
or should I list with you?’ My stock answer is `Do everything you
can afford,”‘ says Peel. “One doesn’t exclude the other. It’s so
hard to sell. Even when you have good material, it’s so flukish…you
have to try anything you can.”

So why not try Peel and Zald’s competition? Natalie
Lemberg Rothenberg owns and operates The Insiders System, the self-dubbed “Doorway
Between Undiscovered Writers and Top Industry Decision-makers.” Insiders
System provides both script consulting and a quarterly publication
called the Writers Showcase, which is distributed to 250 agents,
producers and publishers and previews 40-60 new screenplays, novels,
and a host of other literary forms. If Peel’s 50-word soundbites
aren’t enough, the Writers Showcase gives each work its own page,
including logline, 300 word summary, 25 word bio and a “coverage
score:” But a complete package consisting of one coverage and one
showcase appearance isn’t cheap, at $395. What about results? The
Insiders Systems claims that two-thirds of its showcased projects
have been requested by producers and agents, and since the publication’s
launch in 1993, roughly 25 writers have found representation and
deals for their books and scripts.

For a look at the lucky ones who have gotten that
much-desired deal, Howard Meibach compiles and edits the Spec Screenplay
Sales Directory ($29.95, In Good Company Productions) a catalogue
of recently sold scripts and the approximate price they fetched.
It’s not going to help writers peddle their own projects, but it
can be a valuable tool, offering writers a perspective on the marketplace. “They
can see who’s buying what,” Meibach says, “who’s selling what,
who the agents are that handle material such as theirs, who the
attorneys are that they need to contact, and also trends on the
stories that have been selling:” And, Meibach adds, “It’s also
cross-referenced so they can see which agents handled first-time
writers.”

Internet

And that’s where the internet comes in. The last
ditch resort for the desperate, perhaps? Not quite. Remember Clint
Lien’s e-mail fortune? He’s not the only one heading to the internet
for success. Paul Small’s The Script Scene (www.scriptscene.com)
is out to change the way Hollywood does business. The Script Scene
stores screenplays in a digital database on the internet. Searchable
by genre, location, budget, and any number of variables, industry
subscribers can get the stories they’re looking for as easy as
surfing Yahoo. Small’s other innovation: a digital courier service
where scripts can be sent to interested parties via the internet,
saving copying and postage fees. To join the service with six-month
housing on the site, costs for screenplays range from $75 (unscreened
material without coverage) to $200 for the more exclusive roster
of pre-screened, synopsized and covered scripts.

“We want to be the portal for Hollywood, making material
available to the person who wants to look at it,” says Small, a
former agent of 14 years. “It’s also a way for anyone who’s got
a good piece of material to let that material speak for itself.” In
its first year, Small’s digital database of prescreened material
has lead to one script finding an agent and another getting optioned
by a director. In Small’s five-year plan, he hopes to open up the
database to entire agency client lists and screenwriters everywhere. “Hollywood
is based on relationships,” says Small. “It always has been, it
always will be. And this is a way to allow different voices to
get a shot:”

Though Ann Zald agrees, she’s not so sure about the
viability of the Internet. “I don’t really see it going as far
as a lot of people think it will. When you’re inside the business,
you see that it’s about relationships. And that only comes from
having worked in the business and knowing people.”

Still, Small’s vision of a digital screenwriting
universe is echoed by other webmasters who see the world wide web
as a way to level the playing field. “With the internet,” says
Margo Prescott, a former agent turned script consultant, who runs
Prescott Script Consulting (wwwtechcomm.net/-rnaggie/),”agents
are going to have to open up more to new writers if they want good
material. Because there’s a lot of good material out there.”

The Insiders System has also gone the ways of cyberspace.
Like Small’s The Script Scene, the company has created the Insiders
System Writers Database, where industry professionals can access
stories online (www.hollywoodnetwork.com/InsidersSystem). Other
sites listing screenplays include Francis Ford Coppola’s virtual
script workshop at Zoetrope (screenplay. later.com), screenwriter
Michael J. Shea’s SyberSites.com (wwwsybersites.com), the Australian-based
The Source World Wide Scriptservice (www.thesource.com.au/scripts/),
and Howard Meibach’s website has a screenplay post (www.hollywoodlitsales.com/).

And if you’re a lone gun like comedy screenwriter
Irwin Cohan, you just put up your own sites. Cohan is associated
with a number of websites with names like Quik-Pitch, Pitch-It-To-Me,
and Pitch-orama which include monthly logline synopses. Although
Cohan claims he has “a number of companies reading” his scripts,
there’s been no sale yet. “Even if you have an agent, it takes
time to sell a script. It’s like fishing in the ocean-there’s something
out there, but God knows where.” MM

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