Just because you write it doesn’t mean anyone will “love” it…
October 11, 2014 § 2 Comments
Speculation screenplays (specs) are a strange breed of project. As a screenwriter you should always work on your specs, but the reality is that most will not sell. But if one lands you an assignment job it will have served its purpose well. Specs are also necessary for you to find your unique ‘voice’ as a screenwriter and to make mistakes and write badly so you can get to a better place with your ability. If you’re lucky you will sell a spec and it will jump-start your professional screenwriting career. As I’ve mentioned in my earlier posts, I’ve only sold one spec in my career—the other thirteen jobs have been screenplay assignment work with seven of the scripts being produced. Assignment work is the ‘bread and butter’ of a working screenwriter as the spec market has changed so much since I started screenwriting. Early this year, I completed my twenty-eighth feature screenplay and it was my thirteenth paid screenwriting assignment. Nearly half of the scripts, thirteen of those twenty-eight, were paid jobs (includes the one spec sale).
I burned through writing only specs early in my pursuit of a screenwriting career. I don’t write many specs anymore as the main source of my work and time spent comes from paid assignment screenwriting jobs. I have to really love an idea of mine to write it as a spec because it will take me away from my paid jobs—and it’s more of a risk of precious time for me.
Regarding assignment work, many aspirants ask if I have a problem with the fact that I didn’t come up with the idea or story treatment. My answer is “no” because I love to work and make my living from screenwriting. It also takes the pressure off from me to “sell a script” with the hopes that someone will buy it. A spec can bounce around town for years and never get produced. An assignment job usually is an idea or a story the producer wants to produce and more likely has a deal in place for distribution. It’s a pleasure going into the job knowing the script will most likely be produced and distributed. The idea also becomes mine once I start writing the script and I must embrace every element of the story because it is my job to craft the idea into a fully realized screenplay. If your idea is to work in the film industry as a screenwriter you will need to create your income from somewhere—either your “day job” which usually involves doing something other than screenwriting to pay the bills—or being a professional writer who producers pay to sit down and write. I prefer the latter.
I have to admit, I too was guilty of this when I first started writing my early specs—I always thought just because I wrote a screenplay that producers or executives should immediately take notice and care. The reality is that NO ONE CARES. Write this down and post it near your computer. You have to make them care and even if they do care, it may not lead to a produced film as a result. Hollywood has upwards to 40,000 screenplays bouncing around in any given year all trying to get noticed and produced. Sure, the majority of these screenplays are not well-written or projects that any smart producer would take a chance on, but the top percent are good and eventually find a home or get the screenwriter an assignment job. Any spec script takes time to find its home. My script for my fifth spec “I’ll Remember April” took seven years to finally find a producer who decided that it was the script and movie he wanted to make. I had a lot of false starts, some bites with small options, but never a full-blown decision to buy the script until the script found its way to a producer who “got it.” I knew that I had “something” early on that was of value because the script almost won the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship (a top 20 screenplay) and that alone validated my project. The placement allowed me to get agents, managers and producers to read the script. It can take a long time for your spec to find a home and you must look at it from the producer’s side or point of view — is the project commercial enough to put into the movie theaters (now mainly huge blockbusters that play well globally — superhero, sci-fi, huge action)?
The smaller films are not being produced as much for the “art house”— or they make the films for TV. The #1 concern for a producer? Will the movie be successful and make money—and will the investors will make their money back, lose money or break even? Sure, producing a film is always a risk, but they lessen that risk with well-known stars or big ideas that translate globally. Not every story you write will be produced just because you love your screenplay. If you have this point of view—get over yourself. Sure, you must love your spec first and hopefully your passion will show through in the screenwriting. But filmmaking is a business first and it will always be a long journey to find a producer or executive who loves your script the same way you do. That’s the trick to selling specs.
And if you repeatedly hit a wall, it could be because of the writing — not the story — maybe the actual screenwriting is not compelling enough or is a tough read as many issues can make a script fail in the marketplace: concept, structure, story, weak characters, over writing, poor screenwriting ability, etc. Or it’s the marketplace? Maybe Hollywood isn’t making your type of genre at the moment? It only takes ONE of these to make a producer decide “NO” and the hardest part is finding that perfect marriage between your script and a producer who wants to produce it. If you’re stubborn you can say that “the producers didn’t get it” — meaning they don’t understand what you were trying to do… but if three or four producers don’t get it… the problem might be the script itself and it probably needs more work. But you won’t know if it’s the concept that failed, or if it was your screenwriting style, or a weak structure and characters. It could be a combination of many issues.
Your script lives or dies by a thousand tiny details that add up to a rejection. It could make them feel the script is a long way from being in the shape to purchase and develop. When your spec script comes through the door to be considered, they look at your ability to craft a successful project in the fewest drafts possible. But if your spec needs a lot of work, maybe several more drafts, they will pass because they will have to hire another writer with more experience or ability to get the script into shape. This might not be part of their production schedule as they might need a production ready script now and not six months from now.
The longer you slug it out in Hollywood’s trenches, you’ll learn that it’s important not to expect anything from the film business. Never expect anyone to love your screenplay as much as you do—that goes for your agent, manager or producer. If you go into this business with eyes wide and your head in the clouds believing that success will be easy, you’ll soon be crushed by the reality of feedback. As Lao Tzu writes: “Act without expectation.” It’s a good philosophy to follow on the long haul journey to any level of screenwriting success. Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages. @scriptcat out!
Copyright 2016 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“For the nicest thing Hollywood can possibly think of to say to a writer is that he is too good to be only a writer.”—Raymond Chandler
“When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a ten cent notebook and start the whole thing over again.” — Preston Sturges
“Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. If you succeed, keep working. If you fail, keep working. If you’re interested, keep working. If you’re bored, keep working.”—Michael Crichton
“Breaking into this business, making your first sale is an incredible event. The most important thing about the first sale is for the very first time in your life something written has value and proven value because somebody has given you money for the words that you’ve written, and that’s terribly important, it’s a tremendous boon to the ego, to your sense of self-reliance, to your feeling about your own talent. I remember the first sale I made was a hundred and fifty dollars for a radio script, and, as poor as I was, I didn’t cash the check for three months. I kept showing it to people.”—Rod Serling
“But it is not at all unthinkable for anyone to tell a writer how to write. It comes with the territory.”—Ernest Lehman