Navigating Your Screenwriting Career In The Current Market

The comic invasion slows no sign of slowing down. Comic-Con is fast becoming a “must see” event each summer. In fact, attendances are so strong at the San Diego Convention Center, that the organizers are considering moving the event to a larger venue. Apart from feeding Hollywood’s unabated hunger for comic book properties, it is well attended by development executives.

There is a also a film festival for both completed independent films and works in progress. “Kick-Ass” got its boost by screening clips there to audience acclaim. If you can get to it, visit. Otherwise, be aware of Comic-Con and read reviews of the projects that were pitched there.

“Kick-Ass” is unusual in that the comic book and film were released simultaneously to keep the cultural references current. Part of the problem with films like “The Watchmen” was its dated references to the cold war. Given that Sony pushed back “Green Lantern” due to mixed testing, and subsequently underperformed, the current trend may not continue. Much like Madonna, Hollywood prides itself on constant reinvention and evolution. Quality writing is timeless and stable. Markets are fickle and shifting. Audiences more so.

Hollywood has still not regenerated a risk appetite for properties without pre-awareness and a built in audience. However, signs are showing that they may be crawling out of this rut. The box office dictates this. Unless you have these elements, newer screenwriters only have one tool at their disposal; a great script. Not a good one, but a great one. Preferably two or three in the same genre and sub-genre. Be prolific and write a few scripts each year to be on the radar of industry folk. After a while, it becomes a numbers game. You never know which one of your scripts will excite an executive. I’ve given up second guessing myself. I’ve had scripts requests from long shots and not heard a peep from sure things.

In 2010, around 130 spec scripts gone out, and 11% sold. This figure was mainly from represented writers. Comedy, action and thriller tend to sell best because they are easier to sell to foreign territories. Last year, comedies sold better, This year, more thrillers are being sold. Follow tracking boards to see what genres are currently selling and pitch accordingly.

A consistent feature of the spec script landscape is drama’s place as a pariah. Even with A-list talent attached, dramas don’t translate into box office. Even “The Hurt Locker” didn’t receive much of a post-Oscar sales boost.  Also, remember the importance of animated family friendly (read four quadrant) features in global box office. Certain hybrid genres like horror comedies and musical westerns still remain a difficult sell. Use this as a guide to determine which scripts to write.

Studios are increasingly looking for packages rather than just a script. So your job as a screenwriter has become more complex; part creator part business person. More specifically, studios are looking for directors (perhaps with credits in commercials) and emerging actors which don’t have the quote of A-list talent. Conventional wisdom suggests contacting talent who has produced similar work to your own, but this may not always be the case. A horror director or actor may want to expand their repertoire and work on a comedy.

With Hollywood executives’ diminishing attention span, high concept still rules. It must be a ‘heightened’ genre, with a strong hook and can be summarized in one sentence, or less. For newer writers, forget about selling a high-concept pitch. Executives need to be convinced that you can actually write to a budget and time frame.

The beauty of new writers are that you are your brand. You don’t come with baggage and you’re not pigeon-holed. If you don’t have a comic book or best selling novel, write something similar (not identical) to one. If you’re good at Apatow “man child/ bromance” films, develop your expertise in these scripts. You can do this by writing and reading scripts in this genre.

Much like the rest of the global economy, the mid-range writers are being squeezed out because they are becoming too expensive to hire and not the best to justify exhorbitant salaries. You’re either a top flight or baby writer with nothing in between. As the Chinese say, through crisis comes dangerous opportunity. Michael Goldenberg once said that he was hired to write “Harry Potter- The Order Of The Phoenix” because he was cheaper than more established writers. So it is possible. Despite being risk averse, Hollywood  realizes fresh new voices are it’s lifeblood to longevity.

The current state of the economy has also meant more writers are competing for fewer jobs in open writing assignments. Some estimates claim a three to four fold increase in competition. However, your novice status may still get you noticed.

Similarly, the film world is being bipolarized into studio over $120 million and ultra low budget movies under $2 million. Part of the problem with low budget movies is their difficulty in obtaining insurance and the simple fact that most spontaneously combust.

The independent film world still remains prickly. Before the WGA strike, there were around 35 independent production companies (mainly bankrolled by hedge funds). Today there are around 13. After our double bottom (not a fat ass) economic dip, they will bounce back. Guaranteed. Independent producers and distributors are gradually having their credit lines restored. Studios have recapitalized, but still reluctant to spend.

Agents and managers are increasingly reading spec material from new writers by referral only. Be aware that script competitions such “Script Pipeline” (formerly Script Pimp after numerous complaints by Republicans), Scriptapalooza” and “Scriptwriters Network”  forward their finalists’ scripts to agents and managers.

Similarly, reputable script coverage services like “ScriptXpert” are often approached by executives looking for new scripts.

Keep sending out those query letters. List your accolades such as options, placements in contests and produced material. Even if a high profile producer liked your work, but didn’t option it, it still carries weight as a bona fide recommendation. Your scripts are your calling cards as a screenwriting professional, so get them into shape and out there.

Many agents are reluctant to read unsolicited scripts because they are AVERAGE at best. There is nothing passionate, exciting or distinct about them. Sometimes this is worse than reading a bad script. Contrary to popular wisdom, agents and managers don’t all like cookie cutter scripts; although the dearth of recent films may refute that.

Some agents claim that screenwriters must write with one foot in the box (according to industry standards) and one foot outside (new and original voice). Every moment on the page is a function of concept rather than simply delivering plot. Ensure there is a rooting interest in character. Does your spec script evoke a visceral emotional response? Horror should be scary. Comedy should be funny. Action movies should get your heart racing. The scariest thing about the remake of “A Nightmare On Elm Street” was the ticket price.

As you move through the ranks, agents and managers will find you. Since they each earn 10% commission, the writer pockets the remaining 80% of a script sale. Logic dictates that you need to do 80% of the work in terms of finding a buyer. Agents and managers are middle men (or women), just like real estate agents. Don’t bug them on a daily basis unless it’s regarding the details of a deal. If you send your script to someone or have generated a new lead, keep them in the loop.

Your agent’s job is to cultivate a fan base for you. They represent you as a writer, not an individual script. If they don’t like one, or think it’s right for the marketplace, move on. Surprisingly, a script may generate interest years after it was initially rejected by the studios.

Soon your agent is starting to get you meetings around town. A screenwriter in demand, knows how to work a page as well as they can work a room. It’s the difference between selling a spec script and winning a writing assignment. Be collaborative and open to suggestions. I know agents who have terminated meetings because writers refuse to make changes. In spite of what some writers think, every one wants to produce the best film possible. An agent may ask you to make a lead character in their late twenties rather than a teen for business reasons. They won’t suggest it just to be difficult.

“Kick-Ass” had many problems when the studios requested the characters be aged in their late teens/ early twenties. That was after every studio rejected the project initially. However, the film makers decided that foul-mouthed eleven year olds are funnier than foul-mouthed horny teenagers and stuck to their vision. The producers decided that such drastic changes would alter the tone, vision and spirit of the movie.

If you want to be a hyphenate, try your hand at web series or online film making. You will certainly get noticed more widely. Quality writing shines through dubious production quality.

So keep at it compadres.

— A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. Chinese Proverb


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