How To Succeed In The Film Business As A Screenwriter

The film and TV business is an industry both like any other, and like no other. It is mired in creative accounting, budget blowouts and rubbery box office figures. Despite these obstacles, we writers love it, because we have a story to tell. We want to share our life experiences with the world.

However, professional writers need to be aware of the parameters that control the entertainment industry. That way you can increase your chances of being produced.

Writers often don’t understand how the industry works and mistakenly believe script sales are a function having an outstanding script rather than as a function of demographics and box office. Although having an outstanding (not just great) script will get you noticed. Be bold, be daring and get your voice heard.

Understand that being a good writer and a good person are only two factors in being successful. Knowing your market and comparable films help separate the writing hobbyists from the professionals.

Be your own manager and agent and nurture every relationship you build, even the bad ones. By integrating your creativity into the marketplace your script is more than words on a page. It is a commodity.


Be aware of how much films cost to make and what you are asking of investors. Despite the cryptic nature of studio picture production budgets, $140 million is a typical ballpark figure.

Add another 30-40% for prints and advertising (P&A) and you have a colossal investment that needs to be recouped. Perhaps you’ll understand why studio heads who produce movies with mammoth price tag s exceeding $200 million, watch the weekend box office with great anxiety.

Low end studio films, referred to being produced “at a price” generally cost under $10 million. The mid range class of films is being squeezed out of the studio system. However, mid range films such as “The Immortals” cost $80 million and the remake of “Friday The Thirteenth” cost $20 million. Even comedy films which were once made for $70-80 million are now being made for half that price.

It’s also noteworthy that around 60-70% of studio box office income is derived from the foreign box office, so it’s important that the themes explored in your scripts travel universally. That is why studio films rely on opening box office revenues in the $60-70 million range to generate enough momentum to influence the global box office.

Know where your film might fit in budget wise. Studios talk about cost to box office ratios to generate a profit. It pays to understand that your small horror movie can’t generally have a production budget of $100 million in light of tracking figures which project expected box office. However, the paltry $1.5 million of “Insidious” generated over $97 million global box office gross. Studios crudely require movies to earn around three times their production budgets at the box office to become profitable.

Also be aware of additional revenue streams like VOD and the shrinking cable TV market.

This doesn’t suggest that writers must be accountants, but rather  understand how studio executives think.


When talking about commerciality of scripts, they refer to the genres that sell most tickets. Since all forms of entertainment are essentially an emotional purchase, genres are useful tools to cater to audience expectations.

Keep your themes global, evergreen and relevant. Films are a communication medium and must evoke an emotional reaction in their audiences. They seek escapism, reassurance and expression. This is even more pronounced in times of economic depression.

Executives are looking for familiar stories with a fresh, modern twist. A story about a Russian spy isn’t as relevant today as the cold war era.

ACTION – holds the top honor. They are the most profitable of all genres, because they aren’t culturally specific, they aren’t swamped with subtitles because they carry less dialogue, and most importantly, they appeal to the key 18 – 24 year old male demographic. These are often referred to as studio tent pole pictures which prop up the box office. These movies generally have the highest production budgets.

COMEDY – are the second most profitable films. Audiences love to laugh at the truth. They serve as counter programming to the action films and are generally cheaper to make. “21 Jump Street” had a reported production budget of $42 million. However, comedies don’t always travel well, because comedy often has cultural specificity.

Unlike broad comedies, romantic comedies are highly profitable because of the 16-24 year old female demographic. They are also good date movies and cater to groups of single women. Romcoms are cyclical because not so many are made. Then came “Bridesmaids” which shook up the market.

Also consider R-rated comedies like “How To Be Single” and “The Hangover”.

THRILLER is the third most profitable genre. Although second and third places are interchangeable depending on box office years.

These includes horror, mystery and supernatural. Thriller movies generally cater to a slightly older demographic, the 24-36 year age group. Horror still largely caters to the 16-24 year old male demographic.

Supernatural films defy established scientific principles. Movies such as “The Source Code” and “Limitless” had production budgets of $32 and $27 million respectively. These low figure investments generated handsome box office returns of $147 and $162 million respectively.

Detective/crime thrillers are referred to as procedurals and have generally moved to television. ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a notable exception, mainly die to the successful underlying novels they were adapted from. With a $90 million production budget, it has generated over $230 million in global revenue.

Political thrillers are generally unpopular and can only be made if spearheaded by a star. George Clooney and Ryan Gosling worked to scale to get “The Ides Of March” produced, on  budget of $12.5 million generating a global box office revenue of $71 million.

DRAMA – The fourth tier remains the least profitable of all film genres. Studios avoid producing them unless they are part of their specialty divisions and have A list talent attached. Generally these films are funded by private investors, overseas investors, film funding bodies and individuals. They are often prestige films and can significant gain box office bumps after major festival and Oscar wins. The are the cheapest movies to produce and generally cater to the 36-54 year old demographic. Apparently older audiences don’t go to the cinema.

Like all trends, film tastes are cyclical and based on social trends. Be aware and ride with them. Examine the evolution of society and use it as a basis for your storytelling. What is the zeitgeist of humanity today? What are their concerns? What are their fears? Answering these questions will help you determine what kind of stories to write.

First have something to say. Then figure out how to execute your idea for maximum emotional impact.

scriptfirm final logo colourFor in depth Film & TV script analysis visit Script Firm.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. JTV says:

    Good post Gideon..
    Yeah, good point about Dramas…!
    None of the top 20 RoI films are Dramas and 7 of the bottom 20 RoI are.

    The StoryAlity Theory High RoI Screenplay/Film Checklist



  2. Glad to see comedy is #2. My genre. Thanks for the post!

    1. Ha. But scripts with proven comedic talent such as Tine Fey and a gazillion others tend to get produced.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s