BALLS OF STEEL: The ‘Magic Trick’ to Selling a Screenplay

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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Give me your secrets to selling a screenplay, pretty please.

Dear Jeanne,

Can you please tell me how to sell my scripts?

Thanks!

Yes, that’s an actual email I received recently. In fact, every day brings another variation of the same query from a screenwriter, wanting my advice on the magic secret to selling a script.

I wish I could shoot off a quick response, saying, “Hey, just do this one super-duper-special magic trick and you’re set!”

I also get Facebook messages from writers, lamenting about their frustrations and depression over yet another rejection. How do I keep at it? How do I not bury myself under the covers, crying for days?

Oh, I get it. I absolutely get it! I have been there. I have no shame in admitting I reached for the tequila bottle after being bitchslapped by Sundance. Redford may have rejected me, but Jose prides himself in being my numero uno writer anesthetic. Every writer has sought the Holy Grail and felt like screenwriter roadkill after a stampede of Hollywood executives barreled us over and our unworthy scripts.

Welcome to Hollywood.

Seriously. This is it. This is our world. The world I personally navigate every single day, without quitting. Without losing faith. Without bellyaching.

Oh wow, I just realized I do know the super-duper-special magic trick!

Ready?

Work a hundred times harder than you are right now because you have to want it more than you’ve wanted anything else in your life.

Becoming a professional screenwriter is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Not even birthing a child with no drugs after 86 hours of labor is harder (yes, that was my firstborn… and I survived by pretending I was a monkey in the wild, but that’s another story). Why? Because labor eventually ends when that baby is released, but there is no end to the labor of being a writer. None. Even after you sell a script and have a box-office hit, you still have to come up with the next great idea, the next pitch, and the next sale… and then sit your ass down and write it. You’ll always be competing with the latest new voice, the latest trend, and even the state of the economy.

Idea. Pitch. Write. Script Notes. Rewrite. Meetings. Repeat… for decades, if you’re lucky.

Sure, at some point you’ll get an agent to help you find gigs, but before that, you are on your own, competing with over 40,000 new specs every year.

How do you make your script stand out in the crowd?

There are a few sure-fire things you must do to succeed:

  1. Learn your craft inside and out.
  2. Write multiple scripts from solid, high-concept ideas.
  3. Learn to love rewriting and taking notes.
  4. Learn the business side of the industry.
  5. Have the patience of a saint.

In my experience, most writers can handle steps 1, 2, and 3. But the ones who really succeed master steps 4 and 5. They do the research on what’s selling, they learn how to meet executives, and they put in the hours on social media to network as well as trips to L.A. to network in person. They make it happen. “Can’t” is not in their vocabulary. In short, they eat, sleep and drink their passion to be a screenwriter.

Beyond passion, they patiently pursue their career. They go to pitchfests, they cold call producers, they write script after script, and hear “pass” hundreds of times. They try the indie route. They write novels. They do anything they can to open a window if a door is shut. But after rejections, they dust off and get back to writing the next day. They simply can’t imagine their lives without writing. No matter how long it takes, quitting is not an option.

Pursuing a screenwriting career is a job in and of itself.

Read that again: It. Is. A. Job.

Why do you write?

Most of us have day jobs, myself included. I dedicate my working hours to my paying job, but nights and weekends are consumed with my writing projects. For example, in just the past week, I scoured through my producers’ notes, worked on the script rewrite, outlined a new story idea, and I also wrote a chapter of a novel I outlined this summer, the first in a trilogy. I even got a care package off to my college girl and my other teen ready for high school, with a home-cooked dinner on the table every night. No take out for my boy.

To have a day job plus a job of a writer, you need to be organized.

Plan your days, hour-by-hour, if need be. But always make sure you spend an hour a day scouring the Internet for screenwriting and movie news. Learn who the players are. Learn what production companies are buying. Find the right match for your project so you can strike when the script is done.

You need to be hungry to learn. Starving, in fact. You need to need writing like you need air to breathe.

But isn’t great writing enough to get me noticed?

I thought a lot about this question this past week. I wish being a great writer was enough to succeed. I really do. It certainly would make life a lot easier if you could just whip out script after script, a few novels, some articles, and magically turn them into money.

selling a screenplay 2I’ve preached before about focusing on your writing, first and foremost, and I stand by that opinion. But the reality is, passion for the art and the ability to write great prose simply aren’t enough.

You need to be someone people want to work with, which is something I’ve discussed before (paying it forward, positive attitude, hardworking, etc.). But you also have to understand the industry, the odds of success (and failure) and be passionate to the point of insanity.

How passionate is passionate enough?

This past weekend in church, I watched our priest, who is about to retire, talking about his vocation. His calling. His liturgy was exactly how I feel about my quest to write. I’d die if I couldn’t create stories and touch people’s lives with my words, just as he would die if he couldn’t deliver his sermons.

Later that night, I watched Mountain Men. In that one episode, multiple of the real-life characters proclaimed they love living off the land so much, they’d rather die doing that than have a 9-to-5 job. Those weren’t just words. They meant they seriously would rather live with the threat of death, potentially not finding food, not being able to survive, starving, or being eaten by a bear, being completely free to live off the land than be guaranteed food by taking a corporate job in an office. To them, the life many of us live is a death sentence to their soul.

Then today, I watched the September 11th remembrance coverage on television, as I have done every year since that dreadful day 12 years ago. Reliving the moments of terror that struck our country moves me to tears each and every anniversary. But this time, something else struck me. I watched firefighters, police, and rescue workers run into the buildings, neither flinching nor hesitating.

Their passion to protect their fellow citizens, their need to be of service, their utter conviction to save lives, compels them to go against all natural survival instinct and run into danger, hoping beyond hope they would save someone’s life and make the risk worth it.

Yet in taking that risk, despite being trained and prepared, many never reemerged from the wreckage. Gone forever.

The 9/11 anniversary puts the risks of going after a dream of being a writer in a bit of perspective, now, doesn’t it?

If you want to write, just do it. If you want to sell your scripts, pitch them. If they say “no,” who cares? Pitch someone else. If you want to succeed as a writer, learn and understand the risks involved. Do the work. Don’t expect someone else, like me, to give you a magic answer. It takes guts. Sweat. Tears. Patience. Dedication. Insanity.

Trust me, putting the hours in it takes to learn about the industry and building your network isn’t going to kill you. What have you really got to lose?

If you read this and think “Ugh, I’m exhausted just thinking about how long this is going to take to succeed,” then maybe you don’t want it badly enough. You’re better off being honest with yourself. After all, there are other ways to be involved in the movie industry. You could produce, direct, critique films, or even sell popcorn at the local theater. But if you can’t give this 150% percent of your heart, do yourself a favor and stop the insanity of piling up scripts only to collect dust.

Imagine if one of those NYC firefighters stared at the crumbling Twin Towers and said, “Ugh, I’m exhausted just thinking about going in there.”

I think you get my point.

Write or die. That’s my plan.

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Watch ScriptMag Editor Share Her Advice on Facing Your Writing Fears

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares her personal story of facing her fears in order to propel her writing and her career. Click on the image below to watch Jeanne’s advice. In just eight minutes, you might have a whole new perspective.

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20 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: The ‘Magic Trick’ to Selling a Screenplay

  1. Pingback: BoF #17 Jeanne Bowerman, editor Script Magazine - Craft Truck

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  3. Leona Heraty

    Wow! This is a fan-friggin-tastic article, Jeanne! Thank you so much for your wisdom and telling it like it is! Your thoughts reinspire me to keep going and never give up!

    Here’s a great quote, from a great author, that follows the themes in your wonderful article:

    Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.
    – William Faulkner

    Thanks for being our cheerleader! 🙂

  4. John-Arthur

    “Pursuing a screenwriting career is a job in and of itself.” And I would add, “…that nobody will pay you to do. However, there are spiritual rewards along the way, which is why you must love the craft and process.”

    This is something that family and friends outside the industry and craft have a hard time understanding, but that’s their problem. So I try not to make it mine.

    Not gonna lie. From the title, I was like, “Oh, God another article about the secrets to making it in hollywood blah blah blah.” And then I went into this whole internal rant about the “hollywood secrets” subculture industry, before FINALLY just reading the damn article.

    I’m sooooo happy you avoided that route and focused on practical elements/habits of the screenwriter’s noble quest. It never ends, nor do we really want it to.

    Thanks!

  5. chip

    Some good, albeit generic advice about hard work, but “go to pitchfests”?
    Uh, no. Pitchfests are bogus. They are an industry unto themselves, geared to making money off the hopes and dreams of the vast, unwashed masses of wannabe screenwriters who will never make a dime off their scripts. Production companies can send their noobs for a free meal and get them used to listening to pitches, basically letting them “practice”, the sponsors can make a ton of money on pitch fees, the hotels and other venues get their dough, and the out of town yahoos can feel like they’ve networked. It’s good practice for aspiring writers to pitch, sure, but you can do that at home in front of a mirror or with your friends or any number of ways besides paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege. I’ve yet to hear of a single film that actually got made which was discovered at a pitchfest, and trust me, if that happened it would be trumpeted from on high. And don’t get me started on contests! Just write.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Chip, I appreciate your perspective, and I don’t deny there are many ways to look at the pitchfest experience. I speak of my own personal experience. I never expected to sell a script at a pitchfest. That’s not the why I go. The value I have found in attending them are to increase my network, get practice pitching, get instant feedback on my story idea, learn in the classes, and network with my fellow writers. For me, the value of going far exceeds the cost of the event. But your comment sparked an idea for me to ask an executive who has listened to pitchfests to write a piece on the experience from their side of the table. Thanks again for your thoughts, Chip. I appreciate you taking the time to share them.

  6. Patrick Mahon

    Thank you, Jeanne. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Just when I find myself on the verge of losing faith, another of your articles lights a new furnace under my ass and I remember why I want to do this all over again.

    Impassioned and a call to arms: as always. ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends!’

  7. Rachel

    Frickin’ love this article. I’m going to read it every day for the next week just to REALLY let it sink in. Words of wisdom, woman!

    I’m working through my first screenplay, with two others waiting in the wings for my (scant ADD) attention, so I’m focusing on focusing (Redundancy Police Alert?), and re-aligning my life around my life goals. Thanks for being our single-unit cheerleading squad – much needed.

    But… you do realize you now have to produce the monkey-in-the-wild story now, right?

        1. Rachel

          Awesome! You did it! Ask and ye shall receive. I feel so powerful… 🙂

          What a wonderful story – thanks for taking the time to scribe it. That’s a new great mantra….
          WWMMD?

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