Just because you write it doesn’t mean Hollywood has to buy it…
June 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
This reality was one of the hardest lessons to learn when I began screenwriting. I thought like many aspirants do, that just because I finished a new screenplay that someone would care and it would sell. It took about five specs into my journey to figure out that it takes many projects in the marketplace for one to succeed. I’ll admit those early scripts were not amazing and it took me years to write at a professional level to compete. Many times on your journey it’s a long dry period where no project moves forward and you can’t get anyone to read it. Other times every script you push garners interest and some brush close to a sale or option. It’s the ebb and flow as you pursue a screenwriting career.
After I began getting paid professionally to write screenplays, some ended up in development and did not get produced, while others moved forward into production. My eighth produced film goes into production next month and it was my thirteenth paid assignment job. I’ve had one spec sale (that was produced) and thirteen assignments out of twenty-eight total screenplays written on my journey. Out of my fourteen professional projects, eight have been produced. That’s slightly over a 50% production rate on everything I’ve written professionally.
It’s been along haul with many ups and downs and proof that not every project you write—even when you’re paid—will end up begin produced and distributed. You will learn that each project you write has its unique journey to failure or success. When you finish a screenplay, so much of the after process is out of your control and you have to let go and detach from any outcome. What is within your control is filling your blank pages, every day and creating a solid body of work to standout. This also helps build your writing experience and ability to sit for six hours a day and create.
Always remember that selling a screenplay is a numbers game at best. Consider the odds of selling a spec screenplay the same as winning the lottery and if you believe the numbers—nearly 40,000 projects bounce around Hollywood each year with just over 100 specs selling at the studio level most years. Hollywood released 692 movies in theaters domestically in 2014. Don’t forget about the thousands of films without distribution that end up competing at film festivals every year with only a handful landing deals. Sundance had 4,057 films entered in 2014 and only 119 got in and about 27 got distribution deals. Ah, don’t forget about the hundreds of pitches that don’t sell. They’re worse because they struggle out there in the ether with the producer or executive debating if the writer can deliver the goods as pitched.
The script you are writing now, unless it’s a paid assignment, is probably a spec and you have to look at it as one of many you’ll have to write to reach any level of success. Always look at the bigger picture of a career. Your latest spec is a tool to build your writing experience and it becomes an example of your work. It’s shows the best of your ability and talent and the writing sample can land you a screenwriting assignment gig. That’s the bread and butter of working screenwriters. Trust me, you won’t sell specs your entire career.
This is why you must have multiple projects, pitches and treatments in the marketplace at any given time for chance that one might—and I stress might—find interest and move farther down the playing field. And talk is cheap in Hollywood, so add that to the journey of your projects when producers or executives head their praise on your talents and your screenplay, but string you along with offers of free work as they dangle the carrot of production.
Interest, even when you receive a payday, doesn’t always guarantee your film goes on to being a produced film. Sure, money makes their interest real, but your project still must jump over hurdles that are out of your control.
- An option for little money doesn’t end up with the purchase of the script.
- A script is purchased, the writer is fired, and it’s rewritten so many times it languishes in development hell and never gets produced.
- A script is close to being financed when suddenly the investors pullout, the producer loses the money and the star as a result.
- A project is put on hold because of scheduling conflicts.
- A project isn’t produced due to changing global marketplace factors. It’s cheaper NOT to make the film than take a risk.
Sometimes a spec that didn’t sell two years ago can find a new home, but it’s a long haul journey for any project to find a producer or executive who likes it enough to move forward in some way. The project must also survive the dicey minefield of the development process and with luck, move into production.
Even when a film is produced, there still is no guarantee of success either. How many films considered a “guaranteed hit” end up a bomb at the box office? It happens every weekend. Look at the recent film A Wrinkle in Time with big Hollywood stars. It under-performed at the box office to date making only $126 million worldwide and cost $100 million to produce. A film usually has to make about three times its budget to go into profits. As you see there are many hurdles that are out of a screenwriter’s control, but the one thing in your control is creating a solid body of work and putting it in the pipeline with the goal of having one move forward down the field to production. This is why you can’t be a “one script wonder” and burn out after a few drafts of your first screenplay.
That’s okay. Take your lumps and move onto generating your next logline, pitch or treatment and hopefully another job. Never forget that Hollywood is a business and screenwriting is a profession with the same dilemmas of other jobs. Your goal is staying in the game and being hired again and again to write screenplays to establish a career. It may take writing a half-dozen projects for one to finally sell or get you assignment work, but every new script is a new opportunity or a missed opportunity–it depends on how you play it.
And while you are writing your specs, practice the discipline of patience during this period of your journey. I find many beginning screenwriters are too eager to sell their first script for a million dollars—like it’s just that easy. It’s not just that easy. And you need to respect your craft and practice it every day. You’ll need the time to fail and write badly before you can become an excellent screenwriter, execute notes and work on a schedule under pressure. You don’t want a yellow belt in screenwriting—you want to achieve a Grand Master 4th degree Black Belt—and to do this you’ll need to train by writing every day.
The only way you’ll be able to do this is to keep to a tight writing schedule. You’ll need to protect your precious writing time. Stephen King calls it “closing your door.” When your door is closed, it means that you are writing. You have to take your career seriously and become a master at scheduling your time. If you dabble at your career, time becomes your enemy, it passes quickly while projects burn out and life gets in the way of your most splendid screenwriting dreams. If you keep the pipeline always filled with your best work you will create opportunities and have a shot at success.
If you have a solid body of work and you’re always creating new projects, you will be more attractive to an agent or manager as they can see you are not a “one script wonder” but a workhorse. They don’t like divas and love writers who write and create the product. As you build up your projects, you’ll be working on your craft and becoming a better screenwriter in the process. And as it’s extremely difficult to sell a project, you’ll want to increase your odds by unleashing solid projects into the pipeline so you can attack a career on different fronts. Remember that just because you write it doesn’t mean Hollywood has to buy it. Eventually one great script will slip through and find the right producer and that will jump-start your screenwriting career.
Practice humility and never believe that just because you put words on paper you’re entitled to a read, a sale or a career. Your script must be amazing on every level—that’s the minimum standard. Good is not good enough. You have to be excellent. If not, the film business will humble you. Your script is one of thousands trying to compete and get produced. Standout and make Hollywood notice you by writing an amazing screenplay that showcases your unique talents.
Keep on writing and keep the faith!
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“Masters and those who display a high level of creative energy are simply people who manage to retain a sizable portion of their childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood.”—Robert Greene, “Mastery”
“As an artist, I feel that we must try many things — but above all we must dare to fail.”
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”—Joseph Campbell
“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