Breaking In: The Top l0 Lame-O Excuses For Why You Can’t Sell Your Screenplay (And How to Stop Making Them)
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”?
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.
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” (there’s one coming up April 5-7, 2013 in New York at Screenwriters World; hope to see you there), 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.
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”.
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.
Meet Staton Rabin and other ScriptMag contributors at Screenwriters World Conference April 5-7! Staton will lecture on How to Get a Movie Star Interested in Your Script.
Come join us at Screenwriters World Conference East in NYC April 5-7, 2013.
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for Individual, Full and All Access
- Balls of Steel: Checklist for Pitchfests and Conferences
- Balls of Steel: Shifting Network to Relationships
- Breaking In: Cracking the Screenwriting Code
Meet Screenwriters World Conference Speakers:
- Jacob Krueger: 5 Steps to Pitching Success
- Richard Botto: Staying in the Game
- Statin Rabin: Top 10 Lame-O Excuses for Why You Can’t Sell Your Screenplay
- Jeanne Veillette Bowerman: Balls of Steel – Checklist for Pitchfests & Conferences
- Charles Kipps: The Five Ws
- Meet Susan Kouguell: How to Succeed in Screenwriting Without Even Trying
- Meet Loren-Paul Caplin: The Hero’s Journey Meets the Screenwriter’s Journey
- Meet John T. Trigonis: (Multi-)Genre Storytelling in the Social Media Age