Selling a screenplay is no easy task. Ray Morton shares advice on how to increase your screenplay’s commercial appeal to help you choose the best stories to put on the page.
“So, what do I have to do to guarantee that my script will sell?”
This is one of the questions I am most frequently asked by aspiring writers. It is also one that is the most impossible to answer. Even if a script is 100 percent perfect in every way, there are too many variables in the marketplace that are impossible to predict, anticipate or provide for. In this respect, selling a script is pretty much a crapshoot. Even so, there are definitely things you can do to maximize your script’s marketplace appeal.
The first thing you can do is be realistic about the kinds of scripts that actually sell. Most of the spec scripts that get bought (especially those that get bought for big bucks) are for mainstream fare. The more idiosyncratic films released by the independent companies usually originate with the creative people who make those films—an auteur director who has written his own script, a producer who has developed an original idea with a writer, etc. These films do not usually originate with spec scripts bought on the open market. Therefore, the first thing you can do to increase your script’s commercial potential is to write something that has mainstream appeal. When you are talking about mainstream, you are mostly talking about genre.
The reason for this is simple. In these days of skyrocketing production and distribution costs, producers are looking for a sure thing. There’s no such animal, of course, but it explains why producers prefer material that audiences have already proven that they like. This is why so many movies today are either sequels, remakes or adaptations of material that has already been successful in other mediums—i.e., books, plays, TV shows, comic books, video games, etc. From this perspective, original screenplays are at a disadvantage because they are, of course, original and, thus, an unknown quantity. Since nobody has seen this material before, there’s no way to tell if audiences will like it or not. Therefore, a producer’s inclination will be not to take the risk.
The way a spec script can overcome this stigma is to tell a kind of story with which the audience is already familiar. Since, by definition (in cinematic terms, anyway), genre material means familiar stories told in familiar ways, it immediately fits the bill. When people go to see a genre picture, they have a reasonable idea of the kind of experience they’re in for—this is as close to pre-sold as a non-adapted screenplay can get. Of course, the genre should be a currently popular one or a dormant one that has proved to be popular in the past and is ready to be revived. It is best to avoid genres that have been recently played out (for example, Die Hard-type action films) or that have proved in the past to be box-office poison (i.e., musicals—Moulin Rouge doesn’t count because the script was written by its director and was not a spec).
Mixed genres (comedy dramas, dramatic comedies, horror musicals, etc.) are a dicey proposition. The whole appeal of a genre piece is that the audience knows what to expect. If you mix genres, you’re once again presenting material that is unfamiliar, that confounds expectations and runs the risk of either confusing or disappointing. This unfamiliarity can cause risk-averse producers to shy away. If you’re going to mix genres in your writing, make sure you are really clear about what you are doing and that you honor the conventions of all the genres that you are interpolating.
The next thing you can do is to fine-tune the various individual elements of your script to give them as much commercial appeal as possible:
To start, you should have a premise. (Don’t laugh … I can’t begin to tell you how many scripts I read that don’t.) Producers buy stories; they don’t buy character studies, mood pieces, interior meditations or tone poems. If you want to sell a script, you need to have a solid idea for a solid story. Next, your premise needs to have a very strong “hook”—a jumping-off point for a story that can grab an audience and pull them in (hence the term “hook”). For example, a man gets bitten by a radioactive arachnid and gains the powers of a spider; a kid learns he can see dead people; an alien gets stranded on Earth. If you don’t have a strong hook, then you should at least have some sort of very exploitable element—sex, violence or controversy—that will give your script an “edge” that can be used to sell the story to the public. Finally, make sure your premise is very, very clear. If you ask someone to buy your script, the first thing the person is going to want to know is what it’s about. Don’t make him work too hard to figure it out or else he’ll lose interest and move on to the next script in the pile.
First of all, your plot should fulfill genre expectations. All stories in a specific genre have certain conventions or elements that are specific to that genre. For example, in a romantic comedy, you need to have two people from different worlds “meet cute,” develop an instant mutual dislike, gradually warm to one another, and eventually fall in love. A problem—usually stemming from the differences between their two worlds—needs to arise between them, causing them to break up. Eventually, they need to realize how much they love each other and find a way to bridge the gap between them. If your story doesn’t have those elements, then it doesn’t belong to that genre. Make sure that you work these elements into your script in some way (either by employing them directly, twisting them or finding some clever way of subverting them). If you do, then the potential buyer will feel assured that the film will meet the audience’s expectations.
Next, your plot should have four or five solid set pieces that are appropriate for the genre in which you are working. (For example, an action movie needs to have some really good car chases, explosions and duels-to-the-death; a slapstick comedy should have a bunch of side-splitting pratfalls, elaborate farce sequences and at least one good pie in the face). The story should be well-paced— slow and boring gets you nowhere—and it should have a reasonably happy or hopeful ending. Writers and directors love downbeat endings, but producers don’t because they think audiences don’t (and they’re usually right). The purists out there among us may cringe; but the truth is that if you end your script on a down note, you’re going to have a lot harder time making a sale. Finally, like the premise, the plot should be clear. Complex is great; complicated isn’t. Any storytelling gimmicks (time-shifting, narration, flashbacks, etc.) should be germane to both the theme and the concept and should enhance the plot, not confuse it. If buyers have to spend too much time figuring out what’s going on, they may opt to take their checkbooks and move on.
Whether your characters are one-note caricatures or fully fleshed out, three-dimensional human beings, they have to be interesting. There has to be something about them—a peculiar quirk or character trait, a trademark piece of behavior, a colorful backstory—that grabs our attention and fascinates us. The characters don’t have to be likable, but they should be sympathetic or at least understandable. They need to be people with whom we want to spend time.
Most importantly, your lead characters need to be castable. These days, the single most important factor in getting a movie off the ground is the participation of a star actor. That means you have to write parts that can be played by actors who are currently considered hot. The trick, of course, is that you can’t make the character so specific that it can be played only by one actor because, if that actor isn’t available, then your script will be unproduceable; and no one will want to buy it. You have to write characters specific enough to match the pool but generic enough so that producers can cast the project in different ways. (This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you’re going to get a star to be in your movie. You just need to make a producer think he can.)
Finally, your characters should be clear: We should know who they are and what they’re about without too much guessing. Ambiguity is okay for red herrings but not for protagonists.
The dialogue should be sharp, clever and witty. It should sound lifelike, and it should be brief. (Do not have characters give speeches that go on for pages and pages. Nobody in real life talks like that, and all it does is bore the heck out of people.) Don’t let the dialogue get bogged down in exposition. Finally, your dialogue should be clear. We should never have to guess what your characters are talking about.
The writing should be crisp and brisk. It should tell your story with energy and pacing. Don’t get caught up in extraneous detail, or you’re going to bore your reader. (You’re a writer. Nobody needs you to describe every little detail of the sets, lighting or camera movement. That’s what directors, cinematographers and production designers are for.) The writing should have wit and style (but try to avoid the stream of consciousness smart-assing favored by so many aspiring writers these days—it’s annoying and tiresome and can turn your buyer off). The writing should be cinematic and visual. Above all, it should be clear. (Are you sensing a theme here?) We should always have a really good idea of what’s going on and why.
Of course, simply addressing these considerations isn’t enough. You still need to have all of the other components of a good script: a fresh story, well-rounded characters, great dialogue and cinematic writing. Even the most commercial script in the world won’t sell if it isn’t any good.
Originally published in Script magazine May/June 2005
About the Author: Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s Meet the Reader column on Script.