“I want to sell my script to Hollywood,” a statement I often hear from screenwriters. My response is usually, “Which Hollywood?”
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Hollywood is no exception. There are many levels of “Hollywood”, each legitimately the big time, but as different from one another as night and day. Each one requires different things from a writer. They start from different assumptions, have differing things to offer, and have unique benefits the other levels might not have.
And it’s not as simple as learning the levels as they stand now. Time and the marketplace keep each of these Hollywood’s changing, sometimes drastically. Understanding the indicators and differences between each and how to fit yourself into the needs and demands of your chosen “Hollywood” will set you off on the best foot as you attempt to sell your works to that particular “Hollywood.”
History of the Holly Woods
Prior to the 1920s, if you’d talk to your industry chums and say, “I’m going off to Hollywood,” it meant you were giving up show business and going to pick oranges. There were big movie studios making big budget features, just not in California. Eventually a failed real estate venture and hard winters in the East made Hollywood attractive for the industry. When it arrived in full force it was quickly able to establish year round productions using the proven models that had been growing before. The L.A. sun germinated the studio system with contract players and writers where moguls controlled it all and working in Hollywood had more of an air of a factory floor rather than an idealized paradise.
Still, workers flocked and eventually times changed and made the attraction more attractive. Over time, the star system developed and actors and writers were able to negotiate and demand better deals. Studios resisted, then changed or folded. Eventually, to afford the stars, the idea of the blockbuster windfall became a target to shoot for to pay the bills. This changed the deals and determined which stars were able to deliver, raising some to new heights and crushing the dreams of quite a few more. In the midst of these changes some studios changed and thrived, a lot failed and disappeared.
Eventually corporations took over the highest crop of studio structures looking upon them as economic vehicles that make a product, like a shoe factory. (Hadn’t they already tried the factory model? Don’t people read history?) Things changed, people and studios adjusted and moved on, or didn’t, and were left aside.
The theme here is that things keep changing, sometimes drastically and you have to pay attention to the new ways if you plan on surviving, let alone thriving. At each stage the industry splintered. Some of those splinters coalesced into the new mainstream, some withered and died and some survived either staunchly sticking to the old ways and finding a way to make it work or altering in a different way than the rest and finding a way to make that work. This pattern repeated often.
Because of the fracturing and constant change in the system, along with many different players trying to chase the movie dollar, today’s Hollywood is much less heterogeneous than ever before. Doubt me? Here’s a “simple” question:
“How many studios are there in Hollywood?”
The figure is usually given somewhere around half a dozen. Your actual count depends on how you determine what makes a studio. Does it need the actual buildings and physical plant? Many of the big name “studios” never had them or got rid of or are getting rid of them, leasing space as needed. There are companies that have lots of backlot space and never produce a single picture of their own. Does a studio need to do both production and distribution? How much counts? Does the distribution have to be global? You might be surprised as to how many caveats you’d have to include to keep your favorite “studio” still in the mix. Maybe it’s as simple as how many films a studio releases in a given year. By that statistic there are far more Hollywood studios in India than in southern California.
It’s confusing enough that it might be best to quit thinking about making a “studio” picture and figuring out what group within the vagueness that is Hollywood might want to buy and make your picture. The groups listed out below are categories I made up. They are general outlines of sections of Hollywood as I see it. The edges of each are gray and everything changes all the time.
Hollywood’s Many Faces
Old School Hollywood (OSH) – Old in this case meaning from around the 1970s or so. This Hollywood is well-established and well-funded. Typically they have at least a US$300 million in line of credit or reserved funds.
OSH are one-stop-shops. They are capable of providing production, world-wide distribution, licensing of ancillary rights even some ancillary and tie-in production. Disney is one of the last examples of this everything under one roof, dying breed of Hollywood. Just because they can do it all, doesn’t preclude them from partnering with other bigs to spread the risks on less sure projects or even out the risks of their full slates.
From a writer’s perspective, OSH can buy your pitch or spec script outright and pay you to write drafts. If you can get your good script inside their gilded doors there’s no need to package it with any additional attractive elements. However, it would likely not hurt to do any purchaser’s work for them. Remember I said all producers are lazy, myself included?
On the down side, it is unlikely you will stay attached to the project as sole writer through to the end. And you will have most likely no control and little input over story, character or anything else. You’ll quickly become a hired hand unless your reputation proceeds you, and even then… a deal with OSH will be the toughest to negotiate of all the Hollywoods. Remember, they could do what I’ll call a “bye and die,” purchase your script and shelve it so that it won’t compete with a project they’ve already got in production.
Your takeaway will be a boost in reputation at best and an entree into more meetings for future projects.
Big Hollywood (BH) – In this category there are lots of “may haves.” Though not a full, one-stop shop these entities are still quite capable and within the tracks they serve are significant forces.
BH may have a big bankroll but not necessarily their own money. Less likely to have their own reserved funds available for dolling out, they depend on the loan deals for lines of credit to finance. And these lines may be much smaller than what OSH can access.
BH may have a production arm but likely don’t make all their own films, taking on projects from others in a partnership that serves both needs.
BH may have only purchase and distribution channels so rely on complete films being delivered. This model works well for lots of strong companies so if you can get a final product to their door they can deliver it to the widest and best audience to give your work a chance.
The number of films BH companies handle per year is also usually fewer than OSH. But you can still be a big player even releasing less than a dozen films a year. They just need to be selective as to which few films to put their money into. Along with this thinking, BH might have fewer direct distribution markets under their wing. But they have the history and size to be able to negotiate good deals with other entities for the rest of the world where warranted.
From a writer’s perspective, BH is more likely to take risks with unknowns but usually not for outside-the-genre-box material. There will also be less money available at the time of the deal. Some of BH can’t always hit the ground running so there may be a delay while a team is built that can handle all the elements of a new project. There will be less resources all around. But a writer with an attractive pitch within these bounds will likely stay on the project longer, have more of an input.
Expanding from writer only interests, BH is much more receptive to writer/director deals than OSH. Deals will often not extend beyond theatrical so you might be able to retain rights for other markets for other negotiations and opportunities.
Maverick Hollywood (MH) – Break away groups, trained in the Hollywood ways but trying new approaches. This part of Hollywood’s main strength isn’t assets but connections and knowledge. With the right project and time they can be very effective – or it could all fall apart.
MH is nearly always working with less money, but with the right reputations involved the right project can pull things together. This Hollywood nearly always requires help getting there. A writer/director with packaging (signed actors, producers, etc.) has a much better shot reaching the finish line. Each project has to be pulled together to make it work. Their connections and experience make this a better possibility for MH but there are no guarantees they’ll always pull it off. Often connections lead to partnering later in the project with one of the other Hollywoods.
From a writer’s perspective, the writer is almost always on the project until completion. Unknowns aren’t a problem if the project is right. Usually there is no distribution attached. Every project is unique, which can be an asset and a liability. Projects can die at many points along the way, and there are no resources in reserve to salvage or rescue it. This makes negotiations much more flexible, especially if you can bring value added elements to the table.
Outside Hollywood, True Indies (OH,TI) – In the aggregate, these are paradoxically the least successful getting a completed film made but also the most ubiquitous of opportunities found by writer’s starting out.
OH,TI will usually have the least money and reputations less likely to open many doors. They may have a few connections in the other Hollywoods or even non-standard, indirect connections that could lead somewhere (TV channels, billionaire buddies from Brunei, etc.) There is a significant reliance on finding some way to bring all the necessary elements together (and hopefully they know what those are). The best ones use outside the box thinking and have a gumption to keep trying when things go awry. That daredevil attitude can be opportunities for those odder projects that are too out there for the other Hollywoods to risk. But don’t mistake enthusiasm for ability. You should always consider their knowledge level of the industry as suspect until they can prove themselves.
From a writer’s perspective, there’s a lot of room for negotiation, and bringing more to the table gives you more control and a seat at the table. But because this Hollywood can be filled with charlatans (who still lurk in each of the other Hollywoods, to be fair) you have to be very careful and do due diligence to make sure everything and everyone’s on the up and up. This requires you to know a lot more of the business than you’d need to know if you sold to one of the studios, but if one of those ivory towers is out of reach, at least you know what you’re getting into in order to sell your wares to your Hollywood.
As always, it depends…
- More Legally Speaking, It Depends… articles by Christopher Schiller
- Legally Speaking, It Depends: Script Options and Sales
- Indievelopment: Show Me the Money! – Getting Paid in Indie
- Story Talk: Should I Take a $1 Option on My Screenplay
Tools to Help:
- Creating Original Series Ideas and Writing Spec Pilots with Erik Bork, writer/producer of HBO’s Band of Brothers
- Shaping True Story into Screenplay
- The Writer’s Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the Write “Side of Your Brain”