AS TOUGH AS IT IS to write an exciting new 'spec' script, the writing phase is all about you. You get an idea, toss it around with a few friends, hammer out a structure, fill in your beats—then spend anywhere from one month to several dozen shaping and reshaping your screenplay into something that won’t embarrass you when you pass it off to your friends or loved ones. However tasking, you’re in control of the writing process and will move as fast or slow as you like. Then—ahem—comes the selling part. That awful, lingering, “will-it-ever-happen” step that we all secretly dread-slash-look forward to as we approach completion of our final draft.
The sell-phase is the part of the writing process where most writers feel the least in control, and the most incapable of determining their own happy ending. But with a good game-plan, it is possible to set-up a screenplay for a successful sell, or at the very least get it into the right hands to make sure the script you’ve labored over will start working for you—and begin to open doors to further opportunities.
In many ways, the first step in taking control of your script-selling future comes much earlier on—before you’ve even begun writing. Anyone in Hollywood will tell you (and they’re mostly correct) that the spec market is all dried up these days. Great, original content written on speculation of purchase just isn’t flying off the shelves like it used to—but that doesn’t mean the right screenplay won’t knock down walls and find a buying audience. Ultimately, most writers focus on projects that are in their hearts. If you love romantic comedies, that’s what you’re gonna write. That said, staying flexible up front can mean a lot more opportunity down the road. It may be depressing, but these days the types of specs scripts that do break through and which are selling tend to fall into one general category: thrillers and/or action movies that are “high concept,” can be shot relatively inexpensively, and which rely more on visuals and less on dialogue to communicate their storylines. Think ‘Disturbia,’ ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ and ‘Cabin Fever.’ If you can write a smart, original thriller that is easily translated into other languages and doesn’t cost too much to produce—you’re chances of selling it will rise exponentially.
Of course—whether it's a taut new action-adventure, a comedic road film or the next great indy head-turner—the most important step in selling any script is getting it in front of prospective buyers who will take the time to read your script and consider it seriously for their productions slate. For many, this first step can feel like the most daunting part of the process. Fortunately, a small web of legitimate screenplay contests have nudged open the doors of Hollywood to beginning writers in a way that didn’t exist a decade ago, and through institutions like the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, The Nichols Screenwriting Competition, and The Zoetrope Screenplay Competition numerous writers have launched careers and found a receptive audience. Still, the competitions can feel like a bit of a crap-shoot. Great scripts are often passed over, and submitting can be expensive. When people ask about screenplay competitions, I always offer the same advice: Never submit until your script has already been read by a Hollywood insider, submit well before final deadlines, and be prepared to make an investment. A Hollywood insider (or the closest you can get to it) should be able to discern how right your script is for Hollywood—which is a different standard than simply how fun or readable your script is to your nephew or brother-in-law. Submitting early means your reader won’t be exhausted by bad scripts yet, and will be more willing to engage with your material and read the entire screenplay all the way through. And the investment part comes with the fact that if you’re serious about getting your script out there, you’ll need to submit to 5-10 competitions just to give it a fighting chance.
All of that said, the best way to sell a script is the old-fashioned way, and that’s through a friend or associate who has already discovered some success in the industry. Hollywood is, in fact, a club. While great, new, original voices always have a chance of breaking in, for the most part film-folks like to work with people they already know, or who’ve been vetted by people they already know. New writers represent a wild card—in fact, even reading a script by a new writer may feel like an unnecessary risk of two hours of valuable time. However, Hollywood folks are still normal people in most ways—and that means if a friend of theirs says, “hey, you gotta read this thing,” they probably will actually sit down and read it. So that’s where you need to begin!
When your script is ready—and I mean really friggin' ready—to hit the market, your first job is to get it read by whoever you know who is closest to the industry. That could be a distant relative, an old schoolmate—hell, the film enthusiast working at Blockbuster… (I’ve been told they still exist.) If you don’t know anyone at all, track down your local college's film department, and write an e-mail introducing yourself to a film professor and asking if they’ll read your script. Your job is to build a path toward Hollywood, and that means first writing the best, most sellable script you can write, then getting it to the person in your world who is closest to the industry. If they like it, they may offer to pass it on to someone even closer to the heart of Hollywood--and if they don’t offer, you need to be forthright and ASK them. A good script will find its way to a producer or agent, even if the process moves very slowly. Even if that person you hand your script off to does not like your script, there’s value in the relationship you’re developing. Take their notes, be respectful, and if you feel the door is still open, give the script back to them after revision. The old-fashioned way of selling a script can feel daunting, and a bit like being a door-to-door salesmen. But it’s still how the vast majority of writers in Hollywood get their start. Write an amazing script, then HUSTLE. Be confident and share it with as many people as you can who might be able to pass it along.
After that, take every bite very seriously. If someone likes your script, make sure you come off as an affable person who’s very appreciative of their feedback. Passing on a great script will reflect well on them as well, and most people will want to help you if they feel you’re talented and likeable. At the very least, all of this path building will make distribution of your next script even easier, until eventually people start calling you for material and not the other way around.
There’s a lot of other logistical and legal steps to the actual “sell” part of this “how to sell a script” diatribe, but once you have a real bite—you’ll also be in a position to seek a lot more help from Hollywood insiders. Just remember, a real buyer will never ask you for money and should have imdb credits that reinforce their resume. They’ll want to meet with you in person, and will most likely have notes to share with you as they ‘develop’ your script to make it a better match for their company. A real buyer may, however, ask you to rewrite your script for free. Unfortunately, that is par for the course these days. Just make sure they are a legitimate company with serious plans for your project, so that you don’t waste a lot of time rewriting for no reason.
There’s more I could say here, but that should get you started! Feel free to ask further questions in the ‘comments’ area below, and remember—the first step in ‘selling’ is writing the most bad-ass script you can possibly create!