SUBMISSIONS INSANITY: Want to Sell? Your Spec Screenplay Needs To Be Marketable

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One thing I hear constantly is the idea there are hundreds (possibly thousands) of “great spec screenplays” that are not being made. I hear this probably hundreds (possibly thousands!) of times a year. I will be told that if it weren’t for:

– The endless cycle of reboots and sequels
– Stupid audiences who want stupid stuff
– Fatcat Producers who won’t take risks
– Directors who can’t make movies properly
– Script readers who can’t read screenplays properly
– Filmmakers and writers selling out to get ahead

**Insert yet another reason here**

… then those GREAT SPEC SCREENPLAYS would come through!

But guess what: based on my experience with the submissions pile, I’d bet real hard cash those (possibly mythical) great spec screenplays still wouldn’t. Yes, you read that right!

Look, I get it. It’s frustrating to see what you consider substandard stuff up on screen when you feel sure everybody would love YOUR spec screenplay, currently languishing in a slush pile somewhere (and probably not getting read properly). Your stuff is original, cool, never been seen before! Or perhaps it’s like something else someone else made, so why the hell can’t you get a look in as well?? WTF is up with this industry!!

But this is the reality: most of the spec pile is NOT made up of marketable screenplays. Note that “marketable” does not automatically mean:

– Badly written
– Unoriginal
– Derivative
– Weird
– Boring
– Badly crafted
– Soulless
– Artless

… or indeed anything else in the negative! SERIOUSLY! Instead, here’s what “marketable” really means:

marketable / adjective /

1. able or fit to be sold or marketed
2. potential employers or clients (or audience! LVH)
3. in demand

Movies and TV are about SELLING to an AUDIENCE. We can fight that – and lose – or we can learn something here. And that’s simply this:

If you have something WORTH selling? Then someone will BUY it.

I’ve seen a lot of screenplays with deals now and one thing I’ve noticed that separates them all from the majority of the specs (which at best end up as good samples for writer-for-hire opportunities) is that those particular spec screenplays which are selling are — guess what?? MARKETABLE. Duh.

But what is a “marketable screenplay”? Well that’s the sixty four thousand dollar question. Much can depend on “right time, right place” for sure and it’s definitely true a lot of industry pros only know what they want when someone offers it to them. This is why, to the untrained eye, “making it” (ie. selling something) can seem totally accidental.

BUT IT’S NOT.

What’s more, it IS possible to write a marketable screenplay WITHOUT selling out as well. But how can we do both of these things AND maintain our artistic integrity or passion or art or soul or whatever you want to call it? Try these:

1) Do what you love. There’s no point in this spec writing game doing what you’re not passionate about. We’re not doing this for the money, after all. So do what you love and the rest will follow. MORE: The “Great Writing” Myth

2) Do some market research. Knowing what is IN DEMAND is half the battle. This doesn’t mean you trawl through every little thing of the moment and feverishly doctor everything to magically fit – far from it. Besides, anything that is popular *now* has already been three years in the making (at least), so is not likely to be popular by the time your spec screenplay is ready for submission. Instead, take a good look at what is popular: WHY? And WHAT is missing? What are industry people talking about? What are audiences talking about? Where’s the crossover? It’s never been easier to find these things out – and very often, for free! MORE: 6 Ways To Make Hollywood Fall In Love With Your Pitch

3) Road test your concept. Many spec screenplays fail to get out of the submission pile simply because their concept is not rock solid. We don’t want stories that have already been told and we don’t want muddy concepts that don’t really ‘speak’ to anyone. There has to be SOMETHING that pulls us in at foundation level and if you don’t know what that is, then your spec will not get off the starting blocks. And remember: BE PASSIONATE about it too! MORE: 7 Steps to Road Testing Your Concept 

4) Write kickass characters. We’re in a period of transition at the moment: audiences have got bored of samey male heroes in absolutely everything. We’re seeing more and more previously marginalized characters and voices coming to the fore but equally, it’s important not to paint them automatically as exotic or representative of “issues” too. So think carefully about how you can add to this picture, without being totally out of the left field either. Remember: there’s nothing wrong with male-centric stories, either … But that’s no excuse to write the “usual” males in them! Dare to be different! MORE: 9 Ways To Write Great Characters

5) Invest in structure. It’s a sad fact that most spec screenplays do structure extremely badly. In comparison, many produced writers do structure extremely WELL – that’s why they are trusted by producers to deliver. That is your competition. Do whatever it takes to get up to THEIR standard when it comes to structure, in order to elevate your spec screenplay out of the pile and into hands that will get it made. MORE: On Making Plot Construction Work

Remember, producers and filmmakers will always prefer to make THEIR idea over your spec screenplay. After all, it’s their money they’d be raising and/or putting into the project … so if your spec is to trump their own idea? Then it HAS to be something special. But most of all, it has to marketable: those producers have to be able to SELL it to an AUDIENCE, whether that’s mass or niche or somewhere in-between. So, if you want out of the submissions pile? Then forget this at your peril.

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