How Screenwriters Can Flourish In A Brutal World


Many screenwriters still work in an industry bubble and don’t realize that literary agents make up to ten times the commission from A-list movie stars than A-list writers.  They are mainly in the business of poaching A-list scriptwriters from the other top agencies rather than the signing and developing undiscovered screenwriting talent. Ouch! I told you I was going to be harsh. That said, it’s always better to know!

There are fewer studios movies being made, budgets are increasingly polarized as mid-range budgets are being eliminated and there are fewer theatrical distribution channels than ever before. The pool of high-risk equity finance is patchy, making life tougher for film writers. Now that you have the brutal truth, use it to set you free to write smarter.

You need an aggressive, patient and persistent personality to leave an indelible mark in this industry. This is a referral-based business. Know your brand. Write a few sentences describing you you want other industry players to talk about you.

Learn to recognize your obstacles and maneuver around them. Accept them as a part of life rather than complaining about them.

As the Dalai Lama said “learn to flourish in a hostile universe through self-reliance, determination and persistence.” Perhaps he was a film mogul prior to living in exile in Tibet. Expect the worst to make the good taste even sweeter. Ooo yeah!

The average Hollywood movie costs around $140 million including an around 15% P&A budget. Shockingly, studio films need to earn 2 to 3 times their production budgets in box office revenue to break even.

Writers must understand our role in the film making process. We are architects, writing blueprints for the 2D (or 3D) interpretations of our ideas. Hollywood is driven by fear of creative executives being fired rather than a desire to tell a good story. Part of your job is to assuage those fears. A good story, sensibly priced and well positioned in the market place will sell tickets.

Be savvy. Be marketable and realistic about how much your film costs. There is no formula to success other than to keep writing. Be present and be prepared. Consider 10000 hours of writing to be your apprenticeship. There is no short cut. Don’t try to imitate other writers. Let them inspire you. Allow yourself to inspire others.

Read the trades, tracking boards, Rotten Tomatoes, Variety and Box Office Mojo for opening box office figures. Each Monday morning, box office trends are either radically altered or affirmed. “Per screen average” figures are more meaningful for smaller indie films with a limited release.

Know your audience and understand whether counter-programming is targeting the same or another demographic. Understand how your film can be positioned in the current marketplace. Compare it to similar films that did well at the box office.

MOST LUCRATIVE FILM GENRES

ACTION

This is the most profitable genre since it traditionally attracts the 14-24 year old male demographic which repeatedly attends the cinema. The 25-36 year age group is next and anyone older doesn’t go to the cinema. Tentpole, franchise films are almost all action films and play well in international markets.

Overseas distributors like them, because they have less dialog than dramas and comedies and consequently less subtitles are required. Be aware that studios are increasingly reliant upon foreign box office (around 70%) to make their films profitable.

Superhero and epic films are box office tonic today, possibly due to the widespread economic malaise. Superheroes offer an escape and sense of comfort and protection. The flawed hero also humanizes them and makes them more accessible to global audiences.

COMEDY

Is often counter-programmed against action films. They are substantially cheaper to make; around 50 to 90% the cost of action films. The above the line costs (key creatives: producer, director, writer and actors) are similar in both genres. The cost base becomes insignificant for below the line roles in comedies which traditionally use cheaper CGI and visual effects.

Romantic comedies are date films targeting the 14-24 male and female demographics. The key issue with comedies are that they are often culturally and socially specific and don’t always travel well. Hence their lower production budgets.

THRILLER

Once again this genre targets the 14-24 year old demographic and includes horror films. The costs can be a tiny fraction of the cost of action films (sometimes as low as $50000). The box office fate of these films tends to be critic proof. Audiences will attend regardless. However, thrillers target a more film savvy and educated audience. Their plots are more complex and more engaging. Studios love action thrillers because they straddle two profitable genres.

Horror films are hugely profitable. The classic horror films such as “The Exorcist” play side by side with splatter horror films such as “Halloween”.

DRAMA

These films have largely migrated to the TV market. They are based on hugely best-selling books and are championed by influential actors, directors and producers. Actors’ pulling power is referred to as their “category”. These films target older, urban, more sophisticated audiences.

Historical and period dramas are virtually impossible to sell because they’re expensive and have a limited audience. Newer screenwriters are ill advised to enter the marketplace with a drama. However, the Scorseses of the world can. Be more like Marty Scorsese.

WHAT DOES THE FILM MARKET WANT?

A film script which guarantees a profitable film. Since box office guarantees cannot be made, studio heads track the profitability of similar films from the previous week. In essence, they want “the same, but different” to recreate recent box office coin. Therefore, you should create a template of successful films similar to your own. If you want to write something too different, make it provocative, relevant and current.

It needs to be born from the contemporary zeitgeist. The birth of modern Hollywood cinema is mooted to be around the mid seventies when blockbusters such as “Jaws” and “Star Wars” were produced. The core rules still remain until we figure out what comes next. Today’s zeitgeist is comic book franchises. Thank you, Marvel Studios.

Play with screenplay structure. Consider the backward execution of “Memento” or the scattergun time line of “500 Days Of Summer”. Be aware that females are going to the movies in groups more than ever before. It is unclear if they repeatedly see the same film like 14-24 year old males.

Create your own destiny. Make Hollywood executive stampede towards you rather than you towards them. Don’t be afraid of the light. Don’t be afraid of the dark. Don’t be afraid of not being liked. Be afraid of inactivity and ill-considered moves. Missteps are part of the game. Just keep writing, reading scripts and watching films.

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