Writing For The Sci-fi Film Market

I have previously advised emerging screenwriters to write low budget screenplays to crack this seemingly impenetrable screenplay market. Low budget horrors work best because there are profitable DVD, cable and theatrical markets dedicated to this market. And I’m not just talking about schlocky, blood and gore or “Paranormal Activity” fare either.

Cheaply produced sci-fi movies are ranked similarly to low budget horror by the critics. Vapid entertainment, one notch above torture porn. Still I guess it’s something. There is currently a glut of horror scripts circulating around Hollywood, so sci-fi can finally get a look in, until it too saturates the marketplace.

Creature movies are low priority and disaster scripts are in vogue. However, this statement may be incorrect by the time you read it. There’s Hollywood for you. Rather than behaving like a studio executive analyzing last quarter’s trends, write what you love and wait until the spec script cycle turns in your favor. There are only a limited number of dramatic situations, so the likelihood of this happening is high.

Horror and sci-fi are inextricably linked in terms of what aspects of our psyche they reflect. They permeate deeper than superficial emotions.

Horror explores our deepest fears and the prospect of exploring the unknown. It elicits primordial emotional responses. Sci-fi explores the next evolutionary step of the visceral emotional ladder. It represents an agent of change. The timing is perfect for such material because the world is gradually awakening from the the economic destruction of the past three years. We are no longer afraid, but rather ready to embrace the unknown with logic and reason. All we know is that things will be different, but don’t know how. And we’re comfortable with that.

Horror tends to drift into more fantastical storytelling, a representation of our deeper subconscious while sci-fi ranks higher in our thought processes, straddling the conscious and pre-conscious. It explores technological advancement in the near future and always has an element of plausibility. Horror deals with possibility rather than probability. There is always an element of fidelity to real science in sci-fi with an element of “what if?” Most sci-fi aficionados have scientific training (or qualified counsel).

While we are rebuilding our lives from ground zero, screenwriters can enjoy the liberation of storytelling conventions in sci-fi, with few restrictions on plots.

Since writers are creating an unfamiliar world, they must state the parameters, rules and restrictions early in the story to familiarize audiences. Be consistent with these rules and don’t add too many new rules throughout the film. This was my primary concern with “Inception”. As if the movie wasn’t hard enough to follow.

As is the case with horror, sci-fi stories must be propelled with gripping characters rather than dazzling audiences with technological sparkle. The latter helps, but can’t carry a film. I realize the box office can cite numerous exceptions to this. Sci-fi is also deeply rooted in mythology and spirituality.

Being a sole writer today without other film making skills won’t propel your career. You need to be a hyphenate, such as writer-producer-director. The new buzz is a writer-SFX hybrid.

There is a host of new distributors entering the marketplace, looking for new products. Some are online such as YouTube, Playstation, VOD and even smart phones. This is over and above Netflix and the DVD and theatrical markets.

Since the cost of physical production of movies is nose-diving, independent distributors want ultra-low budget films that don’t look cheap. The beauty of sci-fi is that censors aren’t as savage with it as they are with horror films.

As distributors seek to spread their financial risk, they are increasingly looking at co-productions and a larger share of the equity pie. This model is workable given the universal appeal of sci-fi stories. Many distributors are either producers themselves, or are affiliated with producers.

The studios are still locked into their 2010 mentality of greenlighting franchises and projects with successful underlying works. This is where the open writing assignment work exists. Since humanity is cyclical in nature, we will continue to destroy and reincarnate ourselves. This is the essence of Hinduism. There is plenty of low hanging sci-fi fruit ready for plucking. “Avatar” would win the record for being re-released so soon after its original outing. In order to express your unique voice as a writer, add a new twist on a well-known story.

Go forth and prosper.

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