BREAKING IN: The Top 10 Lame-O Excuses For Why You Can’t Sell Your Screenplay (And How to Stop Making Them)

Staton Rabin (www.StatonRabin.com) is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for writers at all levels of experience. Contact: Cutebunion@aol.com. Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin. Full bio here.

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BREAKING IN: The Top 10 Lame-O Excuses For Why You Can't Sell Your Screenplay (And How to Stop Making Them) by Staton Rabin

What do you call the guy from the 7th Cavalry regiment who, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, said, “General Custer, reinforcements are on the way”?

An optimist.

I admit that when it comes to assessing another type of seemingly “hopeless” situation – a new writer’s chances of selling his script – I’m an optimist too. But unlike that apocryphal guy at the Little Bighorn, I’m a realistic optimist. I know what it really takes to sell a screenplay.

Writers give me excuses all the time for why their scripts haven’t sold. The only one I haven’t heard yet is: “The velociraptor ate my screenplay.”

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’.” Director/producers like Steven Spielberg and movie star producers like Tom Hanks don’t make junk. There’s a lot of junk out there. 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. But there’s always a way, and it doesn’t involve showing up uninvited and disguised as a clown at their kids’ birthday parties. 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.

Script EXTRA: Step-by-Step Guide to Creating High-Concept Idea

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. 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 slams,” and do your own marketing for a client whose work you really love and truly believe in: You.

4) “THE SCRIPT READERS ARE IDIOTS.” Well, speaking as one of those “idiots”, I may be biased. But I’ve been doing this job for over three decades, and know other professional script readers, too. I have yet to meet one of these folks who is actually an idiot. Most of us 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 we’re experienced at spotting “gold” among the dross. There’s no way that a great script is going to escape our notice.

Script EXTRA: 11 Reasons Why a Reader Passes on Your Script

5) “I DON’T HAVE TIME TO MARKET MY SCRIPT.” Look, we’re all busy with our day jobs and our families. But, no time to sell your script? That’s like a baker saying, “I have time to make this bread from scratch, but I don’t have enough time to let it rise or bake it in the oven.” Well, the last time anybody legitimately had that excuse was the Israelites when they were fleeing Egypt (which is how they invented the matzoh. But that’s a whole other story). 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. Come on, now. Get going.

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. Try  going to “pitch slams” or “pitchfests.”

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8) “THERE IS TOO MUCH 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.

No more lame-o excuses.

Keep pitching. See you next time!

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10 thoughts on “BREAKING IN: The Top 10 Lame-O Excuses For Why You Can’t Sell Your Screenplay (And How to Stop Making Them)

  1. pgsundling

    70% of movies are based on stories from other formats, like books. So I decided to be part of the 70% and have been working on a novel. When a novel becomes a proven property it’ll be very easy to sell a screenplay.

    It takes a lot longer than writing screenplays, but the visual style and economy of language I learned as a screenwriter helps the book move faster than most novels. It’s also helped me grow a lot as a writer.

    I’ve got 3 more chapters to finish the novel, The Internet President: None of the Above. It’s too bad the novel wasn’t finished last year. The subplots of the presidential candidate with his own reality TV show is completely plausible now.

  2. museartist

    I normally don’t post, but thought I would comment on some of the things you said in the article.
    #1 Readers. I disagree with your assessment of the capabilities of the readers in the entertainment industry. A large majority have little if any training and are interns or relatives given the job to review screenplays and write coverage. Since there are thousands of production companies it is their desire to incur the expense of staffing and paying highly trained readers. Perhaps the Development Director would have the competence to review material but not the layman below them in a lot of cases. The average 25 year has a limited knowledge of history and film so it’s hard to say thy would know references to the “Maltese Falcon” or the original “Spartacus”. Getting a fair shot with a reader also depends on whom has submitted the materials. I have friends at Warner brothers and other companies that would take a WME submission more seriously than something submitted by Joe-blow agency.
    #2
    The WGA gets more the 75,000 submissions a year and it is estimated that another 75,000 screenplays have been written but not registered. The plethora of scripts makes it difficult for projects to get read because of the large amount of garbage that people submit. I teach screen writing on a Masters level and have to fight to get rewrites out of my students. The average writer does not want to be bothered doing twenty or thirty polishes and rewrites.” Writing is Rewriting!” The majority of scripts are sadly lacking in technique and commercial sales ability.

  3. MJ

    Way to go Arturo. 🙂 that’s the attitude. The jaded guy above has prolly gotten one too many rejection letters, it can and does eat away your one’s esteem and motivation. Affleck said it best at the Oscars, “you can’t hold a grudge.” 🙂
    So, like you, I keep trying. Best of luck, wish me some luck too.
    “Mj”

  4. Arturo Cuellar

    A sign above my computer reads: “If you cannot explain it in a way that can be understood you don’t understand it.” Your article is plain common sense written in a way that makes sense and that makes you a true professional. There is really no excuse to fail as a writer — except to accept failure by quitting. I have 15 scripts in five different genres and writing is what I love to do; like breathing, it keeps me alive and someday I will make it.
    Thanks for your wise advise.
    Arturo

  5. Trevor M

    A produced feature film screenwriter, I beg to offer an alternative version of this Top 10 Lame-O Excuses, because there certainly is some reality behind some of the excuses…

    1) A lot of Hollywood is indeed interested in making “junk”. If you see a producer or exec with one piece of junk after another to their credit, it’s not out of line to accept that they actually LIKE the junk they’re producing. Because most of them really DO think they’re making the best movies out there and they love their junk movies. Really.
    2) Contacts are in fact very important but I disagree with the writer that Hollywood is “merit based”. Nah — the only thing that matters is who can come up with the money to make a movie. Merit of the work means very little most of the time, nor does the merit of the people involved. Money for producing movies by hook or by crook is all the merit that counts. Unless your movie is a 100 million plus studio film, maybe.
    3) Agreed.
    4) Script readers are all over the map. Some are great, some are useless. Many have personal agendas. And most are too afraid to make any recommendations on anything too fresh or original. That’s human nature.
    5) Agreed.
    6) I think it’s important to look into the origins of a film’s genesis before using them as examples. Where all the examples here open spec scripts before they were bought? I don’t think so. Otherwise a good point.
    7) Most of corporate Hollywood is actually not all that interested in “high concept” but rather “established properties”. High concept is a distant fourth somewhere after “money available to produce” and “A list talent attached”.
    8) Yes, there is too much competition. And not healthy competition, either. No, there is a massive glut of bad formula screenplays from bad writers trying to get somewhere and, as a result, massive brick walls of legal departments and assistants block everything possible. It’s not competition on a writing front, but on a getting attention front.
    9) Agreed. But if you can satisfy #2 you won’t have to rewrite anything.
    10) Of course somebody may steal your idea if it’s any good. But how are you going to sell it if nobody ever reads it? Also see #1 — those guys making all that junk wouldn’t recognize a great idea, anyways. Keep that in mind. Your great idea is safe with them.

  6. Michelle

    Some might see this as a sobering kick in the pants, but I see it as an optimistic rally around newbie writers. We need the practical advice, and the positive vibes. Thank you for the great article!

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