A crushing blow for many screenwriters—realizing it might take ten scripts to sell the first one…
September 16, 2016 § Leave a comment
When I started out on this crazy screenwriting journey, I made the same mistake many beginning screenwriters make after they complete their first specs—believing that everything they write will sell—and sell for a million dollars. When you consider that on the average about one hundred specs a year sell at the studio level and only half of the Writers Guild members report income in any given year, your specs should really be considered the necessary training ground for you to become a better screenwriter—not chances to win Hollywood’s lottery. The Scoggins Report for 2015 listed only 93 specs that have sold in Hollywood. Horrible numbers.
The screenwriting journey is a long haul and does not happen overnight. You’ll have to write a pile of specs until one opens the door for you, but remember that no spec ever wastes your time. Hopefully you gain precious knowledge and experience with every new screenplay. Screenwriting success is a numbers game with luck and timing—right project, right producer, right marketplace. It’s like the stars must align and then—BAM! And how often does that happen? Yes, it does happen and that’s why we continue to write and become better screenwriters. Even when a script sells, it has many hurdles to jump before it becomes a film and it can end up in development hell never being produced too. This is why you’ll need a stack of scripts to burn through, each finds its way along the journey, some fail, some succeed and then fail, some succeed and go all the way. So, one spec will not do it. And the spec you are writing now (no offense) will probably not be “the one” that does the job. It might, but don’t hang all of your hopes and dreams on it.
Recently, I’ve completed my 30th feature-length script since I started screenwriting and have been paid for fifteen of them (one spec sale and fourteen assignments). My early specs were not terrific and I look back at them as learning experiences and I realized that I needed time to get better and learn how to compete on a professional level. The truth is that I’m still learning because we never stop mastering our craft. This is why it’s vital to respect the process and journey otherwise the craft and the film business will humble you fast. Trust me, years of rejection and criticism just might make you decided to pick another career to pursue. I’ve had many friends who wanted to be actors and writers and very few achieved any success in the film business today.
Also remember what you write about is as important as the execution of the screenplay. It wasn’t until my fifth spec that got me some notice as a top 20 script in the Nicholl Fellowship. Sure, I received positive feedback about the story and my writing, but alas no sale. The screenplay was a difficult commercial sell because it was a historical movie about WWII and life on the home front of the United States with four ten-year old kids as the protagonists. When I shopped the script, Hollywood was not making historical films and I kept coming up short with my submissions. It took three years until it found a home with a producer and new company that wanted to make quality independent films. And it was a total of seven years from the day that I typed “FADE OUT” of the first draft to the first day of photography. A long haul journey for sure, but I never gave up and it paid off.
When writing specs, I try to persuade beginning screenwriters to write something smaller in scope with regards to story. When beginners work on their first or second screenplays, they are still learning the craft as they go and also forging their own unique style. It takes at least four or five scripts to hit your groove and really understand your strengths and weaknesses as a screenwriter. As you’re becoming a better screenwriter by writing bad specs, making mistakes and learning how to execute notes, you can’t focus on competing with the A-listers with scripts that are basically learning tools. Early on in every screenwriter’s journey we’re still discovering our identity and ability as screenwriters. We need that precious time to learn our craft. When you’re finally writing at a professional level only then can you write something more challenging and stretch your abilities.
So, it might take you ten scripts just to become an excellent screenwriter and maybe finally sell a project or land a screenwriting assignment job. Also realize even if you do sell a script there are no guarantees. I’ve been paid to write five production ready screenplays that are currently in development hell and they will probably never be made due to situations out of my control. What’s the alternative to not writing? You’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success. At least with a solid body of material you practice your craft and create opportunities—the rest is timing and the right project getting to the right producer.
This article was written by Mark Sanderson and published on his My Blank Page blog.
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“Then our writers when they have made some money increase their standard of living and they are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishments, their wives, and so on, and they write slop. It is slop not on purpose but because it is hurried. Because they write when there is nothing to say or no water in the well. Because they are ambitious. Then, once they have betrayed themselves, they justify it and you get more slop.”—Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, page 23.
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