How many screenplays will it take?
May 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
Screenwriting aspirants always ask how many scripts will it take to sell one? If anyone gives you that answer they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s different for every writer and every journey is unique. Rarely does a screenwriter sell a first script… or a second or a third. Sure it can happen, but it’s like winning the lottery. If you continue to write a better and better screenplay, the early ones will serve their purpose as good training until you start writing at a professional level and move to a different plateau.
When I graduated from film school, my sole focus was the same as my fellow aspiring scribes—to write and sell our original spec screenplays—for truckloads of money. Anyone could write a spec screenplay and this was the era when Hollywood didn’t hesitate to spend a million bucks just to take a spec script off the market. These were good times and it’s nice work if you can get it. I knew a few who did with mid-six to seven-figure paydays. The rest of us slogged through spec after spec hoping to make some noise and get lucky with our first screenplay sale. Hollywood has changed dramatically as well as the global marketplace.
The longer you’re in the screenwriting game you’ll have to accept the harsh reality that many scripts that you write will not move into production. In fact, even if a producer or studio buys your script and it goes into the next stop of development, there is no guarantee it will make it to production. This is especially true if you move into screening assignment work—the bread and butter of a working screenwriter.
My seventh produced film MOTHER OF ALL LIES just premiered on LMN and I also completed my 13th paid assignment, a film that was produced called MOMMY’S LITTLE GIRL that should be out later this year. It was my 28th feature length screenplay that I’ve written since film school. After those two jobs, I landed my 14th assignment job — a TV sitcom pilot and recently turned that into the producer. I’ve had eight films produced from my assignment work and one spec produced. The rest of the assignment scripts are stuck in “development” — but at least I was paid to write them all. Finger remain crossed that someday, one might rise to the surface again.
One assignment screenplay that hasn’t been produced yet recently came to life after four years on the shelf as the production company is now actively looking for financing. That’s good news. No project is ever dead, but the reality is that so much is out of your control that you need a large volume of work to make sure even a few slip through for even a shot at production. Some scripts will make it across the finish line and be produced, others will stumble out of the gate and never be more than a writing experience, others will get stuck in development hell. That’s the hard reality. Accept it now and you’ll survive to write another day in the trenches.
My first “official” spec in film school was a comedy and looking back it wasn’t very good—but my professor picked it to be in the film school’s screenwriting library for other writers to read as a solid example of a script. I had written shorter scripts since I was eleven years old when I was making my own films and even through college the short scripts were never as long as a feature.
It wasn’t until my fourth feature-length spec that I started to make some noise. It was a big-budget action movie co-written with my friend who was the personal assistant/driver to the biggest action producer in Hollywood. While the producer was in Europe shooting a mega-budget film with an “A list” star, my friend’s job was to man the production company’s offices for when they called and needed something from the European set. We decided to properly use our writing time and meet in the offices on the Warner Brothers lot at night and write through until the morning. I would work at night as a waiter and when I got off from my shift, I’d drive over to the studio, the guard would let me through the gate, and I would meet my friend in the production company’s offices and we would write all night until the morning.
Those were long nights working on the script, but the offices had a complete kitchen stocked with food, so we ate our fill and made coffee to fuel the writing. The studio guard would stop by a few times during the night and ask us “how things were going.” It was a blast driving to Warner Brothers studios every night to write our own big budget spec. We even sat at the producer’s desk in his office and behind the desk on a shelf were the leather-bound script copies of some of the most successful action movies in Hollywood. That fueled our passion to complete our script and get it to my writing partner’s boss when he came back from Europe.
My writing partner pitched the movie one night to his boss the producer at a read light when he was driving him to a nightclub. His comment was, “Big movie, expensive movie.” Nothing ever materialized with his boss, but we soldiered on. After several drafts, we garnered the interest from a big A list movie star at the time and took a meeting with him at this production offices. He was considering three action scripts and ours was one of them. We even met with his agent at CAA about the script but unfortunately, we didn’t have representation at the time and were out winging it by ourselves. Looking back, the concept of our script was strong, but the writing could have been better. No regrets. You can only be as good of a writer as you are at this moment in time—no better or worse. You only become a better writer by writing and continuing to learn and grow. Experience takes time, hard work and unwavering determination.
It wasn’t until my fifth spec that moved me farther along on the field— it nearly won the Nicholl Fellowship at the Academy and placed in the top 1% (a top 20 script) out of thousands. That was good enough to get producers and agents to read my script. Eventually, it found a producer and a new production company that wanted to make my movie. That was six years out of film school when I received my first option on that script. The options continued, renewed with payments every six months until 18 months later the production company executed the option and they purchased my script. It took a year after that to actually go into production. A long, long process. You never know the journey of every script that you write.
Also ask yourself the honest and hard question: WHY am I writing the story of my latest spec? Is it to chase marketplace trends? Forget it. The films this summer were written over a year ago and might have been in development for years before. Next summer’s films are moving into production now, so you can never follow “trends.” That’s not to say don’t pay attention to what is being produced and if you decided to write the little story of your grandmother’s first date with your grandfather, don’t be surprised if it’s a hard sell and might take years to find a producer interested—if ever. My belief is that you should never just write a spec without first knowing how it will benefit your overall career goals.
A spec for spec’s sake is a waste of time. You should have a goal with the script you are writing. Think of how it fits into the bigger picture of the career you are trying to establish. Do you want to be a horror screenwriter? Why are you writing an action film, a Western, and a comedy? Focus on the genre that drives your passion to write and become a master of that genre.
- Specs burn time. Precious time with the hopes the script will move your career forward by selling, getting you meetings, or assignment work. It’s always a necessary gamble, but know the thankless lack of rewards a poorly executed spec could offer.
- Ideas are constantly floating around in the ether. You can spend a tremendous amount of time on your spec, only to find out a very similar idea is in development or production. Storytelling though the ages breaks down into seven basic plots using Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama. So, considering screenwriters register 50,000 ideas/scripts with the WGA every year, the odds your spec is similar to another is pretty good. It’s hard to compete if you don’t have a track record of credits and your competition has big name talent attached. Trust me it sucks to find out your precious spec will never move forward because someone else beat you to production.
- If your spec is similar to a movie that did not do well at the box office—Hollywood will avoid it completely. Who wants to sink money into an idea that filed? Nobody.
- Is your spec even a good idea for a movie? A half-baked idea will undermine any potential for a spec to succeed no matter how well you write it. Many aspirants always say, “But I have a great idea for a movie.” Uh-huh. Think hard before you write that spec.
- You may have poorly executed your spec and nothing can save a bad spec from being a doorstop or thrown into the recycling dumpster. It’s all about the execution. Don’t fool yourself—Hollywood is filled with great ideas—it’s the development process and poor execution that kills many great original screenplays. Their dismantled as the drafts continue and more producers and executives put their imprint upon it and ruin it.
You may write a half-dozen specs that don’t sell before one of them secures you an assignment job from a producer or studio. Keep writing and finding your unique voice, keep mastering your craft, and really think about why you are writing your spec. What you write about is as important as how you write it. You never know the perils that await you on your pathway to success, but the road is definitely paved with your spec screenplays—it just might take a half-dozen or more.
Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith! If you stop writing you’ll never have any chance at success.
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“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling
“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby
“Luck is a prepared screenwriter who meets an opportunity and delivers the goods.”—Scriptcat
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu
“The film (The Power and the Glory) made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession.”—Preston Sturges
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”—Stephen King
“Not only do you attack each scene as late as is possible, you attack the entire story the same way.”—William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade.