Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
I recently received an email from an aspiring screenwriter begging me to please tell him how to sell a screenplay. His complaint was that there is a ton of information out there on how to write a script but precious little information available as to how to sell that script to the industry when it is finished.
The reason for this is simple – there is only one way to sell a screenplay: you get a person who purchases scripts (a producer or a studio executive) to read your script, and if they like it and think it has the potential to make a successful movie, they will buy it. That’s it – there is no other way.
So the question really isn’t how to sell a script, but how to get it read by a potential buyer?
Until recently, the answer to that question has also been very simple – if the potential buyer is in any way mainstream, then the script must be submitted by a licensed talent agent.
There are three reasons for this:
- The primary reason is to avoid litigation –if a script comes to a potential buyer through official channels accompanied by a paper trail complete with all required (and properly-signed) releases, it ensures the script has been properly vetted and is free of any obvious legal problems that could get in the way of a smooth acquisition and production. It also makes it much less likely that the writer will accuse the potential buyer of impropriety should the potential buyer be developing a similar project (a not-uncommon occurrence in the movie business).
- The second reason is to cut down on the volume. There are a lot of aspiring screenwriters out there – if studios and producers had an open submission policy, they would be inundated with so many scripts they’d be so busy reading they wouldn’t have time to actually make any movies. By requiring scripts to come through agents, potential buyers can cut down the flow to a manageable rate.
- Finally, agents exercise a degree of quality control. Agents know that potential buyers only want to see work that is professionally written and has at least a chance of getting made, so they are going to weed out material that is obviously not up to snuff. This assures the buyers that the scripts they receive are going to have the potential to be good, which would not necessarily be the case with open submissions.
Sometimes a potential buyer might be willing to look at a script passed to them by a non-agent, but that person has to be someone the potential buyer knows well and trusts. If you know someone like that, you could ask them to pass your material along to the potential buyer, but it’s probably not a great idea. To begin with, that’s an awfully big favor to ask. Contacts of this sort are really rare and really valuable and someone who has such an in will most likely want to save it for their own work. Even if they don’t, such a request puts them on the spot because you are asking them to risk their reputation – if your script stinks (or is even just okay), then the potential buyer’s opinion of the submitter as a trusted source of good material may be irrevocably damaged, which in turn could be ruinous to their professional prospects. So, unless someone with these sorts of connections offers to submit your material of their own volition, you really shouldn’t ask them to. If you are going to try to go the personal contacts route, you should develop your own connections with potential buyers so you can deal with them directly. The best way to do this is to get a job (if you don’t already have one) in the industry so you can meet potential buyers and get to know them well enough to ask them to look at your script. Just remember – that’s a favor you can probably ask only once. If the potential buyer loves your script all will be fine but if he doesn’t, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be willing to look at any more. So be sure your script is as good as it can possibly be before you pull that trigger.
Of course, there have always been a few potential buyers who have been willing to look at self-submitted, unrepresented material. However, these are usually low-budget, non-union, out-of-the-mainstream producers and companies and there are definite limitations and drawbacks to submitting your work to them. The main limitation is that these types of potential buyers tend to only produce very low-budget, genre fare, which means your script has to be of the type they usually make and has to be able to be made for a very small amount of money. If it doesn’t meet these two criteria there is no point in submitting. The main drawback is that many of these producers are willing to pay only a small amount for your script, if they are willing to pay anything at all (beware of deals that offer nothing up front but promise huge percentages of the profits to come, because they never will). And while you may determine that even a no-money deal is worth it if it can get you a credit, keep in mind that most of the movies these types of producers make aren’t very good. While it may seem that having a credit is better than not having a credit, having a credit on a lousy movie doesn’t get you very far (and may actually hold you back – many mainstream producers are reluctant to engage with writers who have done hackwork). So if you think your material really has potential, it might be better to hold out for an offer from a mainstream producer even if it takes a long time to come rather than accept an immediate one from a poverty row sausage maker.
So, as stated previously, until recently submitting through an agent was really the only way to get your scripts in front of a mainstream potential buyer (of course, this raises the question: how do you get an agent? We’ll tackle that one in a future column).
In recent years, however, more avenues have opened up:
- In the last decade and a half or so, managers have become a much more important part of advancing a screenwriter’s career. Many of them are former agents and have similar access to producers and studios. Agents are still the only folks who are legally allowed to negotiate deals on behalf of writers, but managers can submit material so if you are able to engage one you will have another person working on your behalf to get your scripts where they need to go.
- Many managers also act as producers, so if they are interested in representing your script they may also be interested in making it. Obviously, there’s an inherent conflict of interest in having someone who represents your material also be a potential buyer (since the rep may be tempted to give the buyer a better – read “cheaper” – deal on the script if he’s selling to himself rather than to a third party), which is why agents are forbidden by law from acting as producers. However, managers – who are not licensed – have no such restrictions (which is why many agents opt to become managers). If managers don’t sell to themselves, they often attach themselves as producers if they sell the script to a third party. This may motivate them to work harder to hawk your material, since they stand to gain something (beyond just money) for themselves if they succeed, although again the potential for conflicts of interest is obvious. So, engaging a manager does have a number of potential pitfalls, but if one if careful there are also some pretty clear advantages as well.
(So how do you get a manager? Once again – future column.)
- Several of the well-known streaming services that have begun to produce their own movies and shows also accept submissions from non-represented writers. However, some of the deals some of these services offer can be problematic – often requiring writers to surrender all rights to their work in perpetuity whether the scripts are produced or not for less-than-industry standard money, along with other questionable stipulations. As with manager/producers, these services can offer writers some very good opportunities, as long as the writers are very careful and clear about what they are agreeing to.
- Also, there are now a number of websites that (for a fee) allow you to post loglines and other information about your scripts. These sites are monitored by development people and if they see something they like they may request the script (along with a ton of releases). There’s also a very famous online list with a very dark hue that – while not necessarily the identifier of quality material it claims to be – does a good job of bringing your script to the attention of the industry if you purchase enough of its services.
- Most of the current high-profile screenwriting contests offer access to producers and/or representatives as part of their prize packages. Also, many reps and development folks make a point of reaching out the winners of highly respected contests in the hope of finding viable material.
- Pitchfests are not as plentiful as they used to be but they are still out there. For the uninitiated, a pitchfest is an event at which aspiring writers pay a fee that allows them to pitch their projects to representatives and development people. They are held at different locations around the country, but Los Angeles-based pitchfests are the best bets for meeting as many active industry personnel as possible.
Obviously, all of these routes require a lot of time and a lot of patience – maybe more than some people are willing to invest – but there really are no other options. There are no tricks or secrets or shortcuts or workarounds – if you want to sell a screenplay, you will need to travel one or more of these paths and you will need to persevere. These things are as much a part of the job as the writing itself.
Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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