ANATOMY OF SELLING A SCRIPT: Make “Noise”

Wendy Kram is a producer and the owner of LA FOR HIRE, one of the industry’s leading consultants for screenwriters, filmmakers and production companies, specializing in script development, marketing and packaging strategies to sell and produce their projects. Follow Wendy on Twitter @wendyla4hire.

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ANATOMY OF SELLING A SCRIPT: Make "Noise" by Wendy Kram | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

The following is part of a series of informational exchanges that shine light on the Anatomy of Selling a Script or TV show in Hollywood, and how to create “noise” around your project. They are excerpts of dialogue and creative strategy sessions I’ve had with screenwriter clients through my consulting company L.A. FOR HIRE or with screenwriters whose works I’ve optioned and am producing. These exchanges may help provide key insights about the current marketplace and the specific types of steps and strategies involved to procure motion picture and television sales. The dialogue makes reference to industry slang that not everyone may be aware of, so I’m including a glossary to clarify some of the terminology. (Note that titles and names have been replaced by initials to protect proprietary information.)

EH (Writer): Hi Wendy!  I was wondering about progress on my feature.  Did you hear from anyone?  Did you submit the script to any directors?  I really look forward to any information or thoughts you may have regarding the status of the spec.  Because I really don’t get this Hollywood business.

WK: The script is circulating at CAA and I’m also targeting XX’s new company as she’s looking for female-driven projects.  Most agents and pods are looking for low-hanging fruit, so it’s a longer haul with smaller, character-driven stories.  We’ll keep trying, and I’ll keep you posted.

EH: I love XX!  That’s awesome. Did RW pass? And…What does “pod” and “low-hanging fruit” mean?  I’m a country girl, remember?

Mr. Robot 2WK: No problem —Pod is industry slang for a production company with an overall deal at a studio, network or cable company.  It stands for Production Overall Deal.

Low-hanging fruit is the fruit that’s easier pickings, riper, more formed, so it’s easier to identify as market-ready, or can be a clear-cut sale such as projects based on established source material, i.e. a best-selling book, Marvel comic book, high-profile true case, newspaper article and/or has a filmmaker or talent already in place as opposed to smaller, character-driven stories. The latter would be harder to sell, and therefore not considered low-hanging fruit.

One example of a film that isn’t particularly high-concept would be a film like The Help which, if not based on a best-selling book, would most likely not have gotten made, even though it was an excellent story.  But because it was based on a best-selling book, the project had a large built-in audience and it was prestigious, so it was a magnet to attract top talent, e.g. star, director, producer.

A lot of directors who are good with smaller, more intimate character-driven films are often auteurs who do their own material as opposed to attaching themselves to someone else’s project, so it’s hard to get them to attach to someone else’s character-driven piece.

That being said, I know your script is an excellent piece of writing and I love it!  It’s just not an obvious sale, slam-dunk or low-hanging fruit…so it can be harder and take more time to gain attention.  It’s the right person reading at the right time.

What you can do to help get more notice – enter the piece into well-regarded film festivals and script contests. Big awards and recognitions at more well-known festivals and/or top-listing on the Black List help create more “noise” to attract interest from agents, executives and talent.  I know your script has topped the Black List and has won awards at some of the smaller festivals. These are all great! Earning top prizes at bigger, more well-recognized festivals such as Austin, PAGE and Nicholl screenwriting contests can help make even more “noise.”

I have not heard back from RW’s company.  I will try again.  I did send it to XX who is a friend and produces a lot of movies for Lifetime, Hallmark and Family Channel.  A TV movie may not be a first choice for this script, but I want to expose him to your writing and also see if he might be interested. In the meantime, we have it circulating at CAA.

With more projects in the marketplace than ever before, including the expansion of prestigious TV with streaming providers such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and so on, the field has become even more competitive with respect to securing talent, e.g. actors and directors. But we keep trying because I believe the cream always rises to the top.

EH: What do you mean by “noise”?  american-crime-story

WK: “Noise” is terminology buyers and executives use for projects that have unique elements that make them stand-out. They are projects that are not generic but have a strong concept or different approach and “look” or style to telling the story.

“Noise” can also refer to a high-profile true story such as FX’s American Crime Story based on the O.J. Simpson case. American Crime Story attracted two prominent industry screenwriters, Larry Karazewski and Scott Alexander (The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood), directed by three top-notch producer/directors including Ryan Murphy (Glee, Angels in America, Eat, Love, Prey).

Other examples of “noise” is House of Cards, which had one of the industry’s most successful directors, David Fincher (Seven, Social Network, Fight Club), attached to direct the pilot.  The project was based on a pre-existing and successful British TV series, so it had a proven track record and viability to begin with. Additionally, by having Fincher on board and two-time Oscar winning actor, Kevin Spacey, the project became “noisy,” guaranteed to gain attention, press, and viewers.

The more “noise” or strong elements a project has, the more “undeniable” it becomes to the buyer, which in this case was Netflix.

Another example of making “noise” would be the TV series Mr. Robot, where the executives at USA Network, in conjunction with the industry power-house Anonymous Content (the company responsible for producing True Detective, The Nick, Mr. Robot, The Revenant and Spotlight) and the show’s creator, Sam Ismail – decided they wanted to go with a relatively unknown actor who had a distinctive, unusual look. Provocative, edgy concepts and a unique visual style that immerse the viewer in a distinct world are other ways to create “noise.”

With hundreds and hundreds of projects being pitched to networks, cable companies, new streaming providers and studios on a daily basis, “noise” is what makes your project stand out and interest the buyer with a high level of confidence that the project will be well executed and attract a large viewing audience.

independence-day-film-posterWendy’s Glossary of Industry Terminology

High-Concept:  Low-concept would be character-driven stories as opposed to big concepts with immediately identifiable premises or based on source material or IP.  Examples of high-concept films include Independence Day, Men in Black, any Marvel or D.C. comic book. With high-concept films such as Independence Day, the entire concept of the film is in the poster – an alien ship hovers above the White House, threatening to abduct us and end the world as we know it.

Ironically, it’s the lower concept films that typically win Oscars for best pictures and screenplays such as:  Sideways, Juno, The Artist, and The Hurt Locker to name a few.  

It’s important to note that just because a script is high-concept does not mean it is better than a lower-concept screenplay – as evidenced by some of the Oscar-winning examples above.

IP: Intellectual property such as a Marvel comic book, best-selling book, well-known character or toy, play, even a ride at an amusement park, and so on.  Examples include:  Iron Man, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Pirates of the Caribbean, Total Recall, to name just a few.

TransformersLow-Hanging Fruit:  The projects that are easier pickings, clear cut sales such as projects based on established source material, i.e. a best-selling book, Marvel comic book, high-profile true case, newspaper article and/or has a filmmaker or talent already in place vs. smaller, character-driven stories and/or period pieces.  Just because a project does not fit into the category of easy pickings does not mean it won’t or can’t get made or that once made, it won’t be successful. It’s just that these smaller stories tend to be harder to sell and generally require more packaging.  Period pieces that are based on well-known source material would not be considered low-hanging fruit.

Slam-Dunk:  A project that appears to be a guaranteed sale.  Usually this would be because it’s high-concept, based on valuable IP, and/or has key elements attached such as a big director, producer and/or star.

Note that just because a project is not IP or a slam-dunk doesn’t mean it can’t attract A-list talent. A good concept and good story that’s well-executed can break through convention and attract meaningful stars, directors and producers.

POD: Production Overall Deal which is given to major production companies and producers, showrunners (the creators behind hit shows who have a proven track record), directors and actors – all who are a draw to attract other meaningful talent to that specific studio or media outlet.  The studio or media outlet pays a premium to that entity along with overhead for their offices and staff.  In exchange, the studio or media outlet receives exclusivity or a first-look deal on all of the companies’ projects.

Noise: Unique qualities that make a project stand out from the crowd and promise the potential to garner buzz-worthiness and attract big audiences.

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