Are you playing Hollywood’s game and losing by only writing high-budgeted screenplays?
October 20, 2012 § 4 Comments
As the Hollywood business model continues to change and adapt to this new economic world, you’d think big studios are shying away from making high-budgeted films but they’re not. The budgets they have abandoned making are medium to lower-lower budget movies as their focus now is solely on the tentpole films and their equally high advertisement budgets. The hope with this focus is to spend their way to success and reap huge profits worldwide. They are making fewer films in general, but are gambling on these big ones to keep their studios running. This is good for lower and medium-budgeted genre writers as it opens up an opportunity for indie filmmakers to fill the void. If you’re writing that elusive high-budget screenplay on spec, you need to realize that you’re up against incredible odds to sell it to Hollywood.
I know that you’re hoping somehow your incredible idea or spec will stand out like none other and a major studio will buy your script, take a chance and invest $100 million in your project—all based upon your writing and story alone. If you’re not already an “A” list screenwriter, you’re going to have a difficult time establishing your first sale with a high-budget spec screenplay. Every major studio only makes about a dozen films a year and their focus is on the blockbuster, tentpole movie that will open nationwide on 4,000 screens. You can continue and write high-budget screenplays and roll the dice, or empower yourself and write screenplays in the budget level that Hollywood has abandoned.
Chasing those elusive Hollywood studios with your spec is the same as setting a cardboard box in the middle of a football stadium, moving to the end zone, turning off the lights in the stadium, and trying to throw that football into the box. Exactly like winning the lottery. This is why screenwriters continually are disappointed when their big budget tentpole spec doesn’t sell—it’s geared toward a narrow marketplace with loads of risk. Sure if you sell it, you’ve won the lottery, but how many scripts will that take while life clicks past?
Producers are always looking for ways to cut the budget and many times the huge scope of your screenplay, your lack of established credits, and known reputation may hamper the difficult road to financing if your script can only be made for a set budget. Yes, you always read about the spec by a virtually unknown writer that sold for a ton of cash, but the days of huge spec sales are long past in Hollywood’s new business model.
An amazingly written lower to medium-budgeted film has a greater chance to find financing with the limited amount of money investors are putting into movies. I’m not suggesting that you limit your storytelling to only non tentpole or lower-budgeted films, but keep in mind what you put on the page costs money—sometimes a lot of money. If you write an epic historical naval about the Battle of Trafalgar that can only take place on the HMS Victory, surrounded by nearly seventy other ships in the middle of the action, you’re going to need a huge budget to make it believable. But consider if you wrote a smaller and more intimate story, perhaps one that takes place on shore between a British sailor and his true love who he must leave behind when he sails off to war. Ask yourself, “can my script be crafted with the budget in mind and if so, can I still tell an effective story?” That lower to mid-budgeted story plays out on the backdrop of the battle and could be produced for much less money. It wouldn’t need the huge set pieces or spectacular battle sequences to effectively tell your new story.
Remember to do your research before you set off to write your epic and expensive screenplay. Find out if Hollywood is even making the type of movie you are about to write on spec. You don’t want to waste your precious writing time only to find out your blockbuster spec will be difficult to produce due to your high budget and a lack of Hollywood’s interest in your genre because it’s currently not a financially viable investment.
A medium-budgeted drama is a gamble and needs a huge star attached to guarantee a decent level of success. An effects heavy sci-fi movie is possible but will need enough of a budget to make it look believable. These medium-level budgeted films ($25-50 million) are a hard sell unless they have big enough stars who can guarantee worldwide sales. The films are the popular genres that cater to a global audience because otherwise it will be difficult to make a return on their investment. It’s such a gamble even to make a $25 million budgeted film and strike gold when you need to make three times your budget usually to recoup your investment from marketing and distribution.
The genres that work best in the lower-budgeted indie films world are usually thrillers, comedies, and horror films. All three genres are cheaper to produce than a full-bore action film with big action sequences and explosions. Here is a list of films from Box Office Mojo with a budget dropping into the lower category—no higher than $9 million that have made a huge return worldwide based upon their cost:
- Reservoir Dogs (1992) —$1.2 million budget — $14, 000,000 gross.
- Pulp Fiction (1994) — $8.5 million budget — $213, 000,000 gross.
- The Usual Suspects (1995)– $6 million budget — $23, 000,000 gross.
- The Blair Witch Project (1999) — $750,000 budget — $140,000,000 gross.
- Saw (2004) — $1.2 million budget — $103, 000,000 gross.
- Open Water (2004) —$500,000 budget — $54,000,000 gross.
- Napoleon Dynamite (2004) —$400,000 budget —$44,000,000 gross.
- Little Miss Sunshine (2006)—$8,000,000 budget—$59,000,000 gross.
- Juno (2007) —$7,500,000 budget — $231,000,000 gross.
- Paranormal Activity (2007) – $15,000 budget — $193, 000,000 gross.
- The Purge (2013) – $3,000,000 budget – $64,000,000 gross.
Study the successful films in the lower-budgeted arena and read their scripts. You may want to craft your script so that you can tell an interesting story with less. Movies are about characters and not huge set pieces. You can tell an intimate character drama on the backdrop of a larger epic historical event, but you’ll limit the expensive set pieces and shooting schedule. The main issues with budget relate to casting, locations, night shooting, weather related shooing like rain or snow, effects, and shooting schedule. If you have a medium to lower-budgeted film, the budget dictates the length of your shooting schedule. You may have to shoot eight to ten pages a day and have twenty-five days to make the film instead of fifty—can it be done properly?
You’ll open up more opportunities and increase the odds for your screenplay to get produced if you write scripts that can realistically be produced for a lower budget. Hollywood studios only theatrically released 601 films last year and many of those produced films came from nearly 30,000 to 40,000 projects bouncing around Hollywood at any given time. If you’re only aiming for admission into Hollywood’s pantheon of “A” list screenwriters, you might have a long and disappointing road ahead of you because a limited amount of open spots fill highest levels of achievement in Hollywood. Isn’t it better to work at becoming an excellent screenwriter who doesn’t chase the brass ring, but focuses on the craft and writing intimate stories for a lower budget that can actually get produced? It’s just a thought.
Another benefit of writing a lower-budgeted script is that you could actually finance it yourself. A great example is Paranormal Activity, an indie supernatural horror film produced for $15,000 out-of-pocket by the filmmakers. If you’re determined and want to become a producer, expand the budget a bit, go out and raise a modest budget of $400,000 like Napoleon Dynamite. It’s empowering to chart the course of your career and not wait for Hollywood to pick you out of obscurity. I’ve done it on an indie feature that I co-wrote and produced and the project attracted an Academy Award Nominated actor who agreed to star for hardly any money.
If you play their game and try to write a script on spec with a $100 million budget, you’ll limit yourself and the project if it can only be made for that budget. The first step is to write a fantastic script with a modest budget. Content is still king and you’re the storyteller, so that makes you the king of your creative world. Tell us a unique story that we haven’t seen before and we won’t care how much it costs—we’ll be too busy engrossed by your storytelling talents.
Keep on writing and fill your blank pages one page at a time. Always keep the faith.
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“Unlimited budgets make for a lack of precise decision-making.”—producer Lynda Obst in her new book “Sleepless in Hollywood.”
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”—Goethe
“Fame and money are gifts given to us only after we have gifted the world with our best, our lonely, or individual truths.” —Ray Bradbury
“While Paramount was very firm about budget of ‘Star Trek,’ I’ve learned financial compromises can lead to creative inspiration.”—JJ Abrams
“Other writers, producers, and directors of low-budget films would often put down the film they were making, saying it was just something to make money with. I never felt that. If I took the assignment, I’d give it my best shot.”— Roger Corman