BREAKING INTO FEATURE WRITING: WHAT’S POSSIBLE, WHAT’S PROBABLE?
I don’t know what it is about the holidays, but every year, right around this time, I get an onslaught of emails, usually from writers I’ve never met, often ones living outside of Los Angeles, and all of which, in one way or another, say this: I wrote a spec screenplay (over months, or, more often, years). I want to sell it to a Hollywood studio. Can you help me get that done? Which made me realize that there is no time like the present (or the start of 2018) for the third installment of the WHAT’S POSSIBLE/WHAT’S PROBABLE? series. And so, without further ado, here it is:
BREAKING INTO FEATURE WRITING: WHAT’S POSSIBLE, WHAT’S PROBABLE?
Selling your first industry-ready spec script in a splashy spec sale.
Right off the bat, let me remind you that just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s probable. Herein lies the concept of this entire blog series. Has it happened before, that a brand new writer sold a brand new script for a big fat number in a splashy spec sale? Yes it has. Just this past year, we’ve seen that happen with immigration research paper MARIAN by Pete Barry. But is it likely to happen to most writers who show up in this industry with a good script in their hand? No way. Now, I am not saying this to crush anyone’s dreams of spec market success; this information is directly influenced by the numbers that we see out there year over year. For example, The Tracking Board states that 133 screenplays were set up in 2016 (2017 numbers are not available just yet). The term here – and this is important – is “set up.” There is no sticker price associated with that statement. But for the most part these numbers speak to screenplays that have made waves large and small in the professional space, only to find a home for themselves. By all accounts, most writers on the list of 2016 spec sales are no strangers to the industry. For many, this is not the first sale. Which is all to say… Yes, it can happen. I have seen it happen myself. But if breaking into the industry is made by hitting a series of narrow bull’s-eyes, selling a spec screenplay in a splashy spec sale is, by far, one of the narrowest.
The general belief in the industry today is that there are a lot of screenplays out there that are good, but very, very few that are truly great. Which is why so many producers, production companies and studios have set out to develop content themselves, as they can’t afford to wait for a screenplay to arrive that is perfectly executed and brilliantly suited for them. Therefore, for a writer to surface in the spec market, to stand a real chance of a sale, their script has to get past many gatekeepers, including managers, agents and executives in order to arrive at the hand of someone who has the power to write a check.
Selling a first script for a small but respectable sum.
In a realm where probable is still really, really hard to achieve (but significantly more likely to happen than something that is only deemed Possible), it is much more likely that a writer’s first sale will come without a huge sticker price, a splashy Deadline article, or even a big-name buyer on the other end. It may not even look like a sale – i.e. one that is announced long before there are attachments or a shoot date, but rather one that just sort of… happens. And when it happens, it usually happens like this: A producer or production company reads the screenplay. They like it, but it needs more work. They send the writer some notes, the writer makes some changes (without any compensation just yet, both producer and writer working together on spec) and for a while they go back and forth, just like that. Once everyone agrees that the material is “there.” the producer may take out an option (and a Dollar option is perfectly acceptable) or a shopping agreement, granting themselves exclusive rights to the work. And then, hopefully… the stars align. Elements come together. Money, actors and schedules all fall into place. And when the movie “goes,” into principle photography or even just into prep, the writer finally gets paid. There is no huge sticker price (unless the company producing the movie is a WGA Signatory and the writer a member of the WGA, the production company is under no obligation to pay WGA rates); instead, the writer receives a pay proportionate to the production budget. If the movie is produced for 1 million Dollars, 25k may be all that the writer gets paid. But even if the price is nothing to jump up and down about, the writer will then have a produced credit to his name.
Landing a writing assignment in the form of a rewrite, polish or book adaptation following a spec going out to market.
Before we even begin to dig into this, let’s unpack a simple statement: Going out to market. What does that mean? In the context of this article, as in most industry circles, going out to market would mean a script going out to the active buying/movie making marketplace, powered by the reputation of the agent and/or manager behind it, and enjoying the reach said agent and/or manager has built based on his established taste level and track record into the community over the years.
As noted above, year over year, less that 150 specs are getting set up in the professional space. Does that mean that there are only roughly 150 working feature writers in the whole of the industry today? Not even close. The WGA’s numbers of working feature writers fluctuate, landing anywhere between 1,600 and 2,000 each year. What this means is that the majority of feature writers don’t make a living selling specs; instead, they make a living writing pages, which means rewrites, adaptations, and writing assignments. And, in most scenarios, landing a book adaptation or open writing assignment begins with specs. Let me explain:
In an industry where less than 150 spec scripts sell every year (and some would argue that even the number of 133 is inflated) there has to be another way to measure success. As a feature writer, getting a spec out to market is rarely about selling it (though I can’t stop anyone from hoping, and it does indeed happen on occasion); it’s more about – at least with a first spec – introducing the writer to the marketplace, and beginning to build the writer a fan base. So… the spec goes out there, and even if no one comes to the table to buy, if the rep getting the material into his space knows anything about writing, he will likely get back some calls saying: “Not for me, but the writing is great.” At which point, a general may be set. General meetings are the industry’s meet-and-greets, a more involved first date, where writer and producer/executive come together to uncover whether they may want to work, or develop something, together some day.
An assignment doesn’t always start with: “Hey, we have this book we’ve been wanting to develop, we’d love to get your take.” Oftentimes it can be as simple as “You know, I always wanted to develop something about the Knights Templar.” If the writer responds to the concept and find it of interest, he may be asked to throw out some ideas at a later date. Or else… A writer may meet at a company based on a strong spec and then not hear back for weeks or even months. But then out of the blue the call comes in: The production company is now adapting a book, and based on the writer’s unique, whimsical voice, they want to hear her take. For a writer doing an assignment for the first time, there is no real rule about when or how much she will get paid. The bigger the producer or production company, the more likely her reps are to encourage her to pursue a synopsis or even an outline without pay. I have seen scenarios where, after successfully pitching and adjusting her take a few times a writer received a book adaptation assignment at full WGA rates (and consequently became a WGA member), and I’ve seen those scenarios where writers opted to develop with a name producer entirely on spec. It is not until the writer has an established quote in the industry (likely from previous writing assignments) that she (or her reps) can name their price for the work.
Having your feature spec place on The Black List, The Hit List or The Blood List, or end up on the Young-and-Hungry List.
Verdict: It’s complicated.
Ending up on any one of the prestige lists that traditionally come out at the end of the year is going to take not only a really, REALLY strong script, but also reps who are eager to push the work in that direction, and believe in the impact that placing on those lists can have.
When I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, Madhouse Entertainment’s Ryan Cunningham told me: “There’s a lot of validity to getting onto one of those lists. It certainly is a great feather in your cap, and it gives your script—and you as a writer—more exposure. And as a rep, it’s a really great thing to say, Oh yeah, the client’s script was on The Black List. It creates a shorthand for people to say it’s legitimate. But I don’t think it’s the be-all-end-all. But I look forward to (the lists) every year. I like seeing what’s on there. I like that I have clients on there. It makes them look good, and it makes me look good. Look, the reality, too, if you look at the list of writers on The Black List every year, frequently it’s younger writers who are breaking in. It’s younger reps who are blasting material all over town. It’s not the more experienced agents or more senior managers a lot of times. Because their clients are all working in the system anyway, selling stuff preemptively to one studio for a lot of money or they’re doing assignments all the time. So I think the lists are great, you just have to be aware of what the context of them is. There are a lot of other aspects to a career, not just getting your name on the list.”
While some reps may direct their writers, who are trying to garner attention in the space, to write a screenplay engineered to fare well with such lists (these days, many of the top spots on these lists are taken by standout biopics, with projects such as I, TANYA and THE POST having made a splash on them long before they’ve made it to the big screen), the truth of the matter is that it’s still impossible to game the system.
Jason Scoggins, currently the GM of SLATED and author of the famed SCOGGINS REPORT told me: “As a writer or as a rep of a writer who has a script on those lists, you know it can be really helpful for their careers from a discovery standpoint. Every year there is a number of writers who previously hadn’t really been well known throughout the industry who, by dint of being on those lists, get a lot of traction and their careers get a boost. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that those lists can be gamed, but there’s definitely an element where you know people make an effort to get on those lists, and there are definitely scripts every year where those efforts are helpful. I think at the top of all of these lists, the ones with the most votes, those are fairly bulletproof. And even the bottom of those lists are worth paying attention to. They tend to be up-and-coming writers, they tend to be scripts that haven’t been well-circulated previously.”
See what I’m saying? Not cut and dry by any means.
Selling a script that’s poorly executed, but has a stellar concept.
In today’s market, where the one-and-done model has been all but obliterated and we are now very much in search of career screenwriters who will be able to deliver again and again (and again), becoming a working writer is very much all about the execution: delivering a script that ticks the boxes not just on the big idea side of things, but also very much on craft. There is no question that in order for a script to go all the way to a sale, let alone get noticed, the concept powering it has to be strong and unique. But in today’s industry space, a screenplay with sloppy writing or lacking in execution, be it overly written action lines, stiff dialogue or under-developed characters, is not one that agents, managers or even executives looking to find it a home want to send around to their industry colleagues and friends. And it’s certainly not something that they will want to send to anyone that they want to impress. After all, no one wants to get a call from a colleague or an executive that questions their basic understanding of quality writing or taste. And it is the quality of the writing itself that is first and foremost representative of craft. Today, with an ongoing stream of scripts flooding the industry on a regular basis, everyone is looking for a good excuse to put a script down, as there are many others waiting to be read. And the best reason to stop reading a script is faulty craft. Many times, even if the script is indeed powered by a stand-out concept, most agents, managers and executives will put the script down long before they’ve fully grasped what the script is about if they feel the writing is sub-par. If it is indeed the concept that has hooked them, then they might be willing to read through the draft, but the best-case scenario for the writer then (at least most of the time) would be the executive, agent or manager giving the writer a slew of notes they would expect implemented without pay before they agreed to get involved in any official capacity that could lead to money changing hands.
But make no mistake about it: It’s very VERY hard to break in (let alone make any money) on the merit of a badly written script, even if it does offer an interesting concept. The 90’s are gone. We are no longer buying scripts for concepts, then paying better writers to re-develop them. Today’s writers that go from emerging to professional do so because they are able to deliver both in concept and on the page.
Selling your screenplay in a splashy spec sale to a studio or mini major without the involvement of an agent and/or manager.
Verdict: Yeah… No.
Now I’m sure that there are a few people out there who will start searching through information to find the one time that this indeed happened, when a screenplay sold to a studio or mini-major (mind you, not an independent production company) without an agent or a manager pushing it into the professional space, so is it technically possible? I would guess yes. But as we all know, studios and mini-majors don’t accept unsolicited material. It’s agents and managers that get the script through those gates, and past all of the readers and standards guarding them. Therefore, without an agent or manager, making a big sale to a studio or a mini-major is as close to impossible in this industry as you can get.