Why Can’t I Sell My Screenplay?


Staton Robin from Script Magazine discusses some common conceptions and misconceptions writers have about selling their screenplays. Yes, the industry’s tough. All you can do is be aware of the industry and improve your craft. Persistent complaining has never resulted in a sales. Executives don’t write checks after you’ve worn them down.

The good news is that if you have a great screenplay, pitch it effectively, and have emotional intelligence and persistence in marketing it, selling a script (or being hired to write one) is a very achievable goal. But first you’ve got to be willing to ditch the excuses, and replace them with a more effective way of thinking.

Here are the ten worst excuses for why your screenplay hasn’t sold (yet!) and how to talk yourself out of them:

1) PEOPLE IN HOLLYWOOD ARE ONLY INTERESTED IN MAKING ‘JUNK’

There’s a lot of junk out there, but it isn’t anybody’s goal. If you write a great screenplay, you immediately set yourself apart from the pack. Yes, it’s challenging to get A-list people– who are always looking for great material– to read your script. Anyone who works in this business will tell you there aren’t enough great scripts out there with roles that stars would be thrilled to play. That’s why A-listers are sometimes willing to take a chance on a talented new screenwriter, as Jeff Bridges did with Scott Cooper, who wrote and directed his film, Crazy Heart, which won Bridges an Oscar.

2) I DON’T HAVE ANY CONTACTS

When it comes to screenwriting, Hollywood is the most merit-based business imaginable. Do you really think that a film studio is going to invest l00 million dollars in a movie based on your script just because you know Tom Cruise’s dry cleaner? As a screenwriter trying to break in, you need passionate advocates with clout who have actually read and love your script and work in the business; not “connections” or contacts. Knowing that dry cleaner is not going to get your script produced. It’s not even going to get you a meeting, although stranger things have happened. And if your script happens to land on Mr. Cruise’s doorstep, he’s probably not going to read it unless it comes with a recommendation from someone in the business whose opinion he trusts. Persuading powerful film industry professionals to read your script, who then become powerful advocates for you and your work, is the key to success. You don’t have to know these people or have a “contact” at their office (though of course it’s helpful if you do). Just send them a superbly well-written query/pitch letter, asking for permission to submit your script.

3) I DON’T HAVE AN AGENT OR MANAGER

You don’t need one. And, truth be told, you’re not going to be able to get one worth having at this early stage of your career. As a newbie screenwriter, it’ll be harder for you to find a powerful agent who is willing to represent you, than it would be to find a producer willing to option your screenplay. If you get a legitimate offer for your script, you can always hire an entertainment attorney or agent to close the deal for you. In the meantime, learn how to write a query/pitch letter, go to “pitch fests”  and do your own marketing for a client whose work you really love and truly believe in: You.

4) THE SCRIPT READERS ARE IDIOTS

Some are and some aren’t like in any industry. It depends on their skill level. However, professional studio readers aren’t idiots. They may not like your script, get it, see how they can it made. Many are successful screenwriters or book authors who happen to “moonlight” as script analysts. Many work for major film production companies and agencies, and/or teach screenwriting at top universities. And they’re experienced at spotting “gold” among the dross.

5) I DON’T HAVE TIME TO MARKET MY SCRIPT

I want a job, but don’t have time to write a resume. A script is just a blueprint for a movie; it is not a movie. Until you sell it, your job is not done (and even then, you’re going to have to do rewrites). If you’re a screenwriter, marketing your script is part of your job description. Deal with it.

6) THEY’RE NOT BUYING ANYTHING IN MY GENRE

True, it’s harder to sell a drama, war movie, or “costume picture” than it is an equally good comedy or thriller. And when rejecting your script, producers may tell you that they won’t buy anything in “your” genre. But is it really true? Nope. What about Argo, The Hurt Locker, Crazy Heart, The King’s Speech, Titanic – or that silent movie, The Artist, for heaven’s sake? Most of the films that ultimately win Oscars are in those supposedly “hard-to-sell” categories. If you write a great script– a truly great script– and market it intelligently, you have an excellent chance of selling it or getting a writing assignment out of it eventually, no matter what genre it’s in. Period. Also consider the global nature of film. Might a European or Asian producer or director be better suited to your material? Consider trying to get a big star or A-list director “attached” to your script. That’s the single best thing you can do to improve the chances of selling your script.

7) PRODUCERS ARE ONLY INTERESTED IN HIGH-CONCEPT IDEAS.

Yes, people in Hollywood are interested in surefire, slam-dunk commercial concepts that can be easily pitched in one sentence. But most high-concept ideas are executed so poorly that the central idea becomes almost worthless. Not every screenwriter is the high-concept type. A commercial concept is great if you have one, and makes it much easier to pitch and sell your script, but isn’t mandatory as long as your script has a solid structure and the pitch promises enough dramatic conflict to be the basis of a movie. Some of the most magical movies ever made don’t have a “catchy”, easily pitchable commercial idea at their core. If you have the kind of story that only really impresses people when they actually read your screenplay– you might try pitching it to producers in person instead of via a query letter.

8) THERE IS TOO MUCH COMPETITION

There’s competition (noise) and there’s real competition. Yes, there are a lot of screenwriters and scripts out there vying for producers’ attention. But there aren’t a lot of truly great scripts or great writers. If you are a gifted screenwriter who is willing to work hard to sell your script, you have a tremendous advantage over other writers who are trying to break in. Polite persistence, emotional intelligence in how you approach people, and a high tolerance for “rejections” or non-replies, also help.

9) I DON’T WANT TO REWRITE MY SCRIPT

You don’t have to rewrite your script. But if it needs a rewrite and you refuse to do this, and you’re also unwilling to sign a deal that allows the producers to hire somebody else to rewrite it at some point if they want to, it will be impossible to sell your script and have a screenwriting career in Hollywood.

10) I DON’T WANT ANYONE TO STEAL MY IDEA

If you want to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs. If you want to sell your screenplay, you have to pitch it. Register your script’s copyright with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and then go out and pitch it. Nobody is going to “steal your idea”. Ideas are usually worthless anyway– it’s mostly the execution that counts– and you can’t copyright an idea. That said, if you have a high-concept idea, I wouldn’t post it on the internet. But in order to sell your screenplay, you can’t keep it as secret as the nuclear launch codes.

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