Some writers have all the luck. They have a gift for writing high-concept comedies, thrillers, horror, or action movies, or other kinds of scripts in “commercial” genres. Their scripts make most agents and producers swoon like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert.
And then there’s the rest of us. We love to write intimate dramas, musicals, Westerns, or other movies based on history—or maybe scripts that are very controversial or experimental. These are the kinds of spec scripts that everyone in Hollywood will tell you are incredibly difficult to sell.
If you habitually write in one of these “unpopular” genres, when you go out to pitch your script, you may feel about as welcome as Hannibal Lecter at a potluck dinner party. Producers and agents might scream and run when they see you coming.
But, I’m here to tell you that there is hope. If you’ve written a great script, you have a great chance of selling it—regardless of its genre—if you market it the right way. First, though, we need to start with a little tough love.
Yes, it’s true: It usually is more difficult to sell a good drama or “costume picture” than an equally good comedy or action movie.
And, yes, it’s also true that many producers can be resistant to scripts that don’t fit into one of the “popular” commercial genres and/or don’t have a commercial concept. They’d rather not do anything too controversial, or too experimental. They worry that dramas, especially those that aren’t based on best-selling books, don’t usually turn into “summer blockbusters” … and they are right. They fear that movies set in the distant past, or musicals, cost too much money to make, with very little chance of making a profit. And that’s correct, too.
So, does this information mean that you should switch to writing scripts in one of the more commercial genres, preferably with a high-concept idea?
If you can, yes. But let’s face it, you may not be able to do that. Most writers are not equally good at writing in a variety of genres, and it’s always best to focus on just one when you’re marketing your work. You really must write what you’re passionate about. So, if you are fascinated by history or drama but have no interest in writing “comic book” movies or wacky comedies, there’s no point in trying to force yourself to be something you’re not. If you truly aspire to write another Saving Private Ryan, there’s no point in trying to write The Hangover Part IV. In writing, as in life, if you are a phony, you will fail. You have to be yourself. You really don’t have any other choice.
I confess that I’m an optimist when it comes to the film business. I have no reason not to be. I have had a 30-year career as a writer and a script analyst, and love my job as much or more now than when I started. I’ve always followed my passions and my instincts. I continue to believe that your great script will get noticed if you market it intelligently and persistently, regardless of what genre it’s in. I also believe that there is no such thing as an “unsellable” genre. That’s been my own experience, and the experience of my clients, too.
I wrote a historical novel for teens, Betsy and the Emperor, based on my own film treatment. The book is now published in 16 languages around the world. Even back when it was still just an unpublished book manuscript by an unknown author, my novel got optioned as a movie and soon had big stars attached. My screenplay got optioned, too. It happened to me, and it can happen to you.
But first, you’ve got to accept the fact that if you’ve written a screenplay in one of the “unpopular” genres, you will have a tougher time getting it produced. You’ve got to work both harder and smarter if you want it to ever see the light of day.
So, here are my best tips for how to market your script when people are telling you that your script’s genre makes it “unmarketable”:
Get a Star Attached
If you can get Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, or Johnny Depp interested in starring in your movie, suddenly nobody is going to care that your script is in an “unpopular” genre. Trying to get a star or a major director to “attach” himself to your screenplay is a smart thing to do even if your script is very commercial. But this task becomes all the more important if your story is, say, a historical drama. With a star or famous director attached, a script that can “never sell” will become a very desirable project. It may still not be a slam dunk to get it greenlit, but you will get attention in the trades, and film companies that wouldn’t give you the time of day before will suddenly roll out the red carpet for you. The star’s production company may also help you in getting your movie financed and made, since most movie stars are also producers. It’s not as hard as it seems to get a star interested in your script. Actors are always looking for great roles, and often don’t care if the screenplay seems “commercial” or not. So bypass the actor’s agent, and find a dignified and appropriate way to get your pitch letter directly to the star or his film company’s director of development without “stalking” or annoying him, nor sending a script unless the company gives you permission to do so.
Enter Major Screenwriting Contests
The kinds of scripts that are a tough sell in the marketplace can sometimes do very well in major screenwriting contests where a script’s quality (regardless of genre) is the main consideration. A contest win (or even being a finalist) in a major screenwriting contest, such as the Nicholl Fellowships, Austin Film Festival, Disney Fellowship, Sundance, or the Final Draft, Inc. Big Break™, is a great way to get attention in the film industry. This recognition is especially important for great scripts that don’t necessarily have a catchy commercial “pitch.” If you win or do well in a major contest, the contest organizers will usually help you get lots of attention for your script. Basically, all you want is for people in a position of power in the industry to actually read it. If they are interested in reading your script because you did well in an important screenwriting contest, you’ve already won half the battle.
Consider Pitching it Differently
If you have a script that is set in the past, you don’t necessarily have to pitch it as “a historical piece,” and when submitting it to contests you don’t necessarily have to label it as that category. For example, let’s say you’ve written an exciting, true-crime thriller—a murder mystery that happens to be set in Wisconsin in the 1920s. While your pitch should certainly indicate the setting, there’s no reason why you can’t pitch it mainly as a “true-crime story” or detective thriller, instead of calling it a “historical” film, which connotes cobwebs and dust bunnies. It’s not a question of trying to deceive anyone or cover anything up. It’s just a matter of emphasis. Similarly, if your script is mainly a love story, but it’s set in 1890, you might be better off emphasizing the plot and characters than the setting (unless the setting is critically important to the plot, as in Cold Mountain, for example) and calling it a romance rather than a “historical film.”
Make it Yourself
If your script is “historical” or highly experimental, groundbreaking, controversial, or political in nature, and you believe that the average script reader or mainstream film producer is just not going to “get it” or appreciate it, you might consider producing your own movie. After that, you could seek a distributor, release it yourself, or take it on the film festival circuit. I have a screenwriter client who put together his own movie from a script he co-wrote. The script was set in the 1920s, and though the screenplay attracted serious interest from high-profile producers, he finally decided to co-produce it himself. He got some big-name actors to play the leads, hired the crew and a director to shoot it locally, took it on the festival circuit, released the film himself, and is having great success with it.
Target Your Submissions Wisely
Do your homework and know a producer’s credits or an agent’s client list before you submit your pitch to him. If the producer is known for producing only hugely successful, commercial, high-concept, gross-out comedies, it might not make sense to pitch your Oscar®-worthy historical drama about 19th-century Greece, or your highly experimental avant-garde film script to him unless you know he is looking to change gears. If you approach agents and managers, Google them first to see if you can learn something about their personal taste, goals, philosophy, and the writing style of the clients they already represent before sending your pitch to them. Some agents are just looking for the most easy-to-sell, high-concept, commercial spec scripts they can find. Others want to find great writers of substance, and are much more interested in using your script as a writing sample to get you work-for-hire, and sticking with you for the long haul, than they are in just making a quick sale. If you know who you are as a writer, and where and how to look, you will find producers or agents who think like you do. It just may take some time and effort to find them. Look for producers who made successful movies you admire that are similar in “type” to yours. Depending on your script’s topic or setting, you might also try producers based in other countries.
Add “Commercial” Elements to Your Script
Just because your script is in one of the less-easily marketable genres doesn’t mean that every aspect of it has to make your job of selling it even more difficult. So, if your main characters are in their 50s—and it wouldn’t harm the story any to make them in their 20s or 30s, instead—make them younger. If there’s no love story, and adding one wouldn’t be silly (one of the most notorious examples of this kind of silliness is actor John Barrymore’s version of Moby Dick, which had a love story, presumably not between Ahab and the Great White Whale), then add a romance for one or more of your main characters. If the story is set on three continents, can you reduce the number of locations and confine it to one American city instead? Does your film really need all those big, expensive battle scenes? Can you combine an “unpopular” genre, such as history, with a more popular one (fantasy, romantic comedy, or thriller, for example)? Is your script high concept instead of just a character study? If you’ve written a drama, make sure it has moments of comedy (Shakespeare was an expert at this). And if you’re doing a historical film, does it really have to be a somber and boring “costume picture,” where women flounce around in hoop skirts, men emote in stilted speech, and you stick slavishly to “how it really happened”? Or might you write something more high-spirited, fun, and exuberant instead, like Shakespeare in Love, Pirates of the Caribbean, or The King’s Speech? Movies that are based on history don’t have to be dull or humorless.
Most historical films bomb at the box office simply because the writing is bad, not because audiences are “allergic” to the genre.
Don’t listen to pessimists who tell you that if you write in a certain genre, you can’t sell your script no matter how good it is. Films like The King’s Speech do break through, despite all the conventional wisdom about costume pictures being box-office poison. It’s fascinating to learn how films like this one find their way to eventual success through persistence and intelligent script marketing (you might want to Google this project’s long and fascinating history and find out how this script eventually found its way to star Geoffrey Rush, which made it possible to get made). It takes extra persistence to market scripts like this, true, but quality and emotionally intelligent effort eventually win. Yes, there are agents and producers who will (figuratively speaking) slam the door in your face and treat you like Hannibal Lecter when you come knocking. But, there are others who will open that same door and say, “Welcome! I’ve been expecting you. Now, where have you been hiding?”