Five Tips To Poise Your Script For Distribution

by Stacey Parks

So is your script distribution ready? Your film’s distribution starts in the script. We’ll examine five ways to make your script (and therefore your film) more attractive to distributors.

Cameo Roles
Even if you can’t get, or don’t have enough money for, A or even a B stars for your principal roles, consider writing in few smaller, cameo roles where an actor can come in for a day, knock out their scenes and infinitely raise the salability of your film by giving distributors a name and recognizable face to sell your film on. People like Alec Baldwin and Christopher Walken not only sell in the U.S. but in foreign territories as well and their mere presence for only a scene or two can raise the profile of the film exponentially. Come on, how may independently financed films have we seen which are sold on a “name” and when you watch it they’re in it for all of one scene? Is it a dirty trick? Maybe. But it can work with distributors cause they can sell it to audiences. Yes, even an actor showing up onscreen for a moment, can mean the difference between the film getting out in front of audiences or collecting dust on a shelf. Now, will you make your audience really mad and turn on you? While it may elicit a few grumbles if your film is not up to snuff, if you write a great script and make a great film, it will transcend the fact that a “name” actor only appeared for one scene and no one will hold anything against you if they’ve really enjoyed the movie they’ve seen.

Don’t let your script get too long
A script should be anywhere from 90-120 pages. This generally will produce anywhere between an 80-minute to 120 minute film. Nothing, nothing is worse than a script that’s too long… it makes your film too long… and if you’re film’s too long, you’ve really cut into your chances of getting distribution. Distributors watch movies like they read scripts — something needs to happen, it needs to happen soon, and it needs to keep happening at a brisk pace. The story must keep advancing with each scene. Distributors don’t want to buy independent films that are three hours long (two hours is even a stretch for some). Simply put, audiences don’t want to watch them (and neither do the distributors). So if you’ve got a Titanic-length script, cut it down.

Show me a film that’s really long, and I’ll show you a director who can get away with it cause they’re highly respected and have a proven track record. And even they catch a lot of heat for having long scripts, so if it’s your first time out or you’re not an established writer or director, cut it down.

The Right Genres
Historically, certain genres sell. That’s how it goes. I’m not saying don’t write the movie you want to write that’s in a genre that’s not so easy to move… I’m saying if you want to get your foot in the door maybe don’t make it right now. Opt instead for a film which can get you noticed by buyers, and hopefully agents, and find your “in” that way. As you advance your career and prove yourself you’ll be in much more of a position to take chances.

A lot of writers only want to take on passion projects. If they aren’t truly passionate about a film, they won’t write it. They understand the risks involved when they undertake a project and understand that the film may on sit on their shelf (or the script may forever sit in their drawer). They understand that only a handful of films get picked up at the festivals each year and get the kind of distribution that can launch careers. They understand that the Cinderella stories are indeed Cinderella stories and the odds are tough. Thousands of independent films are made every year and the competition to get noticed is fierce.

With competition at a fever pitch the old filmmakers mantra of “a good film will always find an audience” or “build it and they will come” really doesn’t hold true anymore (don’t know if it ever did, but it sure sounded good).

Be aware…arthouse films are hard to sell. They just are, unless you can do really well at the big festivals…and even then it can still be tough to make the sale without an A-list (or several A-list cast) in starring roles.

Reaches Out to A Specific Audience
Films which fit into a niche genre audiences really clamor for, if written and made well, will always have a better shot at getting distributed. Think about it, it’s much harder to reach the masses and takes millions in advertising dollars, but it’s much easier to reach a “niche” audience. If you have a built-in audience for your film it can be mush easier to reach your audience right where they congregate and it’s a lot easier than throwing spaghetti (and lots of money) at a wall and hoping it will stick.

Let’s say you have a romantic comedy with no A-list stars (and even no B-list stars), how is a distributor going to sell it to audiences? It takes tens of millions of dollars to do a marketing campaign for a studio film, and the studios are struggling even with that kind of outreach to get audiences into their films. No one is going to invest that kind of ad money into a small indie film with no stars (and My Big Fat Greek Wedding doesn’t count since that had Tom Hanks attached as Executive Producer and he was out doing publicity for the film). On the other hand if you have a film revolving around, say, spirituality, then you have a built-in audience and there are ways to reach that audience. That’s an audience that congregates on message boards online, at yoga studios, etc. In short, there are easily definable ways to reach that audience. And the audience is quite large. If you don’t like the spirituality example, how about skateboarding? Again, skateboarders congregate at skate shops, message boards online, and there are even companies who have a direct line to this audience who a distributor could think about partnering with to get the word out about the film.

When you’re writing the script, start thinking like a distributor…

You may not be working on your passion project, but it’s been a tactic of writers and filmmakers to work on a project that can get them recognition first and then leverage any success that comes to get the financing to write and make what they really want.

Universal Themes
It’s been said there are seven stories, and just thousands of variations. To some degree, that is true since and in order for a film to have resonance with audiences (and if you think about it, if it resonates with audiences, it will resonate with distributors and therefore will be very appealing to distributors) there needs to be universal themes. I won’t go through them, cause we all know them, but it is extremely important. Even in the most niche-specific films, there need to be underlying themes that will reel in the audiences and hold the script together. Plus, if you are in a position where you can go out to major producers or even studios with your script, they’ll want to an underlying universal theme in the project.

Stacey Parks is the author of Insiders Guide To Independent Film Distribution (Focal Press) and founder of www.FilmSpecific.com, the world’s biggest online training hub for filmmakers looking to get their films made, seen, & distributed worldwide. Get a free copy of the downloadable mini-guide “Profiting From Film Festivals” by subscribing to Stacey’s newsletter here at www.FilmSpecific.com/newsletter.

8 thoughts on “Five Tips To Poise Your Script For Distribution

  1. alan rudo

    Good suggestions but if you need to rethink these points at this stage than its not ready for distribution. I actually expected the article to discuss proper binding, cover, etc.

  2. Cheryl Colwell

    For writers in South Africa. I live in Oregon and am a member of a writing group called the Willamette Writers. At our annual conference, we are able to bring our scripts or manuscripts and pitch them to major Hollywood studios. If you have these type of conferences near you, they are invaluable as the studios know they will find serious writers. Hope that helps.

  3. William Hubbert III

    The points that are made will help me since this is my first time. My project is a small independent films and I don’t even have a budget I will be doing this directly out of my pocket I know this is what I want to do and I and set on doing it. Thanks for the pointers because I need all the help I can get.

  4. CHUMANI MAGUGWANA

    Nice article. I’m not sure if this is the right place to ask this but… I am a South African and I have a Sci-Fi script with me, the problem is that i do not know how and to whom I can send it to.

  5. Preston Whitlow

    re: Gino

    I see your point with the cameos. As spec writers, we don’t have any commitments from actors. (We don’t have any commitments from anyone, actually.) But writing cameos for Hollywood isn’t hard; you don’t need a commitment and you can tailor it in broad strokes for certain types of actors. (I don’t see why they couldn’t modify or improve it during production.) Usually the witty use of profanity and a couple pop/hip hop culture references are adequate. Don’t overthink this stuff–just look at the crap Hollywood puts out these days.

  6. Gino Balcacer

    All of these points I can agree with except the cameo one. As a writer you can’t write for a specific actor unless you already have a commitment from them. if you created a general character that a lot of actors could portray, then it might work but you will take the risk that the character is not that interesting.

    I believe cameos are usually put together by the producers after a script is optioned. Can you provide an example of a script that had a cameo written into it?

    Good article overall, thanks!

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