What type of screenplay genre do you write?

It sounds like that annoying question when someone asks your astrological sign, but the genre question is one you must consider.  Your spec will define what type genre you write—Sci Fi?  Drama?  Thriller?  Action? Horror? Animation?  Comedy? The genres even have sub-genres. Comedies have “buddy comedy,”  “action comedy” and “romantic comedy.” Maybe you’ve written a script that falls into hybrid of several genres? These days many films draw from several genres like the “Action/comedy” or the “Horror/thriller.”

You may find yourself locked into a particular genre of movie once you find success. Pigeonholing is not exclusive to actors only, it also happens to screenwriters—and that’s not such a bad thing. You want Hollywood to know you for your unique voice and style in a particular genre. I always believed that “writers write” until I would come in contact with agents who asked, “So what do you write?” When I told them the myriad of genres I have written, they would stare at me with a blank face and explain their need to get me on the “studio rewrite” lists. These lists were by genre and becoming known as top writer of a genre will build your career. If you write screenplays in different genres, you’ll appear too scattered to the narrow-minded powers that be.  How could they see you as an action writer if you wrote a successful romantic comedy?

If you write comedy, the agent will sell you as a comedy writer and you will continue down that pathway. The studios or producers will not seek you out to write their next Sci-Fi thriller—and the agent will not send you out for anything other than comedy—and that’s not bad if you can land comedy work.

If you’re working in the independent world, you’ll have more flexibility as to the genres you can write and sell, but the indie world is usually a place of lower budgets and less pay. The preferred indie genres are thrillers, romantic comedies, and horror. You can’t really do a huge action film or sci-fi fantasy epic justice with a small budget. I’ve been lucky to have written many different genres and mainly they fall into the drama category.

I’ve always cared more about getting films made than my pursuit of being a millionaire (not that it wouldn’t be a great thing to happen) and for good reason—here’s a few sobering stats:  In 2012, less than fifty screenwriters made one million dollars from screenwriting and half of the members of the Writers Guild West made $100,000 or less—the other half didn’t work at all during that year. In the WGA’s 2015 annual report—(came out June 2015) — only 4,899 writers reported incomes and of those two-thirds were in TV. Did that stop you in your tracks?  Ah, forget the odds. Figure out the genre you love to write and write the hell out of that script. Find your unique voice and others will notice.

There will also be times when agents will not read your material because they don’t sell or respond to a particular genre. An agent once told me he wouldn’t read my project because the story was about a writer in Hollywood.  He didn’t like those types of stories and for him it was a dead-end. That’s okay. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time and you move on and find someone who does respond to your particular genre.

Once you receive your first credit, your agent will send you out for jobs in that particular genre—not to write something completely different. In the old Hollywood system, screenwriters were under contract to the studios and were able to write many genres—this month a Western, next month a noir, and a comedy after that.  Hollywood changed when the talent became free agents and long-term studio contracts became antiquated.  You sometimes hear of the “three picture” deal, but it’s rare these days.

I find many writers get stuck in a particular genre and really pine to write something completely different. Write a genre that connects with you and you’re passionate about. Unfortunately, it’s difficult when you start working and become successful and known for writing a particular type of movie. Some screenwriters can break out of the mold and change-up the genres they write, but once you begin working on assignments, your next job will likely be a follow-up in the same genre.  It’s safer that way and less risk for the agent and the studio—but certainly not the screenwriter.

The good news is that most of the films Hollywood makes are genre movies and many are genre hybrid films.  This means they possess many of the story conventions of multiple genres and appeal to the widest global audience. Here are the genres from the top 20 films that provided the biggest return on investment (according to Investopedia.com):

1) Action Adventure.

2) Drama, romance, comedies.

3) Documentaries.

4) Horror and thrillers.

Some of Hollywood’s most successful films recently have been genre hybrid films:

“The Dark Knight Rises” is Crime + Myth + Fantasy + Super Hero

“The Harry Potter” movies are Fantasy + Myth + Horror + Coming-of-Age Drama.

“The Pirates of the Caribbean” movies are Fantasy + Action + Horror + Myth + Period film

The films above made huge profits, but it took a huge budget and marketing to recoup the investment. Now, look at the following low-budget films and their box office grosses.  You don’t need to make a huge budget film to make a great return on your budget.

  • The Usual Suspects – $6 million budget — $23 million gross worldwide.
  • Reservoir Dogs – $1.2 million budget — $14 million gross worldwide.
  • Pulp Fiction — $8.5 million budget — $213 million gross worldwide.
  • Saw — $1.2 million budget — $103 million gross worldwide.
  • Blair Witch Project — $750,000 budget — $140 million gross worldwide.
  • Paranormal Activity — $15,000 budget — $193 million gross worldwide.
  • Sinister (2012) — $3 million budget — $77 million gross worldwide.
  • The Purge (2013) — $3 million budget—$86 million gross worldwide.
  • The Purge Anarchy (2014) —$9 million budget —$110 million gross worldwide.
  • Insidious Chapter 3 (2015) —$10 million budget – $109 million gross worldwide.

You can empower your career by writing a lower budgeted film that could be made outside the Hollywood system.  Study these films and read the scripts. Craft the script so you can tell an interesting story with less. The studios have abandoned the lower budgeted films and that has opened up an entire marketplace for indie productions.  Low budget genres are mostly indie films that are usually thrillers, romantic comedies, and horror genres. They’re cheaper to produce than an effects heavy Sci-fi movie with less money.

Once you become successful in a particular genre you’ll be able to stretch your wings a bit and possibly slip in another genre because you’re riding a wave of success. Hollywood will have an open ear to you because you’re now a tried and tested professional. We can’t all be prolific writers in every genre.

Don’t write genres that you dislike because it will show in the material. The more screenplays you write, the more genres you will experience and after three or four screenplays you will find a particular genre that appeals to your unique sensibilities. Find the genre you enjoy writing the most and hone your skills on becoming an expert in those type of stories and screenplays. Many times you might believe an action movie is your bag, but after you write one, you may find it doesn’t give you a kick or it leaves you empty. Maybe comedy is your genre, but comedy is extremely hard to write and is difficult to translate overseas to audiences. Whatever script of yours garners you the most success will usually be the genre you will follow on your career path of a working screenwriter.  No matter what genre you find yourself working in, always strive to become a better screenwriter—period.

Scriptcat out!

“Don’t classify me, read me. I’m a writer, not a genre.” — Carlos Fuentes

“Don’t write stuff you can’t handle.  If you don’t like romantic comedies, don’t write “Annie Hall.”  You have to always write your best, or you’re dead.”— William Goldman

“Form does not mean “formula.” There is no screenplay-writing recipe that guarantees your cake will rise… You must master the principles of story composition. This craft is neither mechanics nor gimmicks… without craft the best the writer can do is snatch the first idea off the top of his head, then sit  helpless in front of his own work, unable to answer the dreaded questions: Is it good?  Or is it sewage?  If sewage, what do I do?”—Robert McKee

“When I write, I don’t have in mind an actor, but a character. I don’t conceive this character with a specific star in my mind. I guess what I am trying to do with this constant changing, is to try to put to work more than my own imagination, or at least allow my imagination the liberty of play, the liberty of coming out of its cage—which is me, my body, when I am alone and writing—and in this way it begins to live and to flower and gives me better service than when I put it to work abstractly, alone, in a room with paper and pencil, without the living presence of the material.”—John Huston

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One thought on “What type of screenplay genre do you write?

  1. LOVE the Goldman quote! That’s my thing – I only want to be up for projects I know I can knock out of the park. My gift is structure; if there’s a problem with the second act, I’m your girl. Want me to punch up the dialogue in a comedy? Let me not waste your time (but I’m happy to recommend a friend!)

    I do write in different genres, but I can get away with it because I know what I bring to the table, and so do the producers I work with. This is a great post – thanks for sharing. When it comes to building a career, you have to play to your strengths.

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