How do I sell my story to Hollywood?” My inbox consistently pings with that question. And I wish there was a quick response I could shoot off, something like: “Hey, just do this one super-duper-special magic trick and you’re in!”
Alas, the magic of Hollywood does not extend to writers.
I’ve lost count of the number of rejections bestowed upon my work. Every professional screenwriter has felt like roadkill at some point, a stampede of industry executives having barreled over our scripts. Welcome to Tinseltown.
While that might sound grim, it doesn’t mean you can’t overcome those obstacles. You just need to understand them first.
Oh, wow! I just realized: I do know that super-duper-special magic trick. Ready? Work a hundred times harder than you are right now. Because to succeed, you have to want it more than you’ve ever wanted anything.
Becoming a professional screenwriter challenges your fortitude like nothing else. Birthing a child with no anesthesia after 86 hours of labor pales in comparison. (Yes, that was my firstborn, and I survived by pretending I was a monkey in the wild. But that’s another story.) Labor eventually ends when that baby emerges, but there is no end to the labor of birthing a screenwriting career. None. Even after you sell a script or have a box-office hit, you still have to hustle. You’ll always be competing with the latest new voice, the hot trend and even the state of the economy. In 2017, only 62 spec scripts sold out of more than 40,000.
To stand out in a crowd, you must:
- Learn your craft.
- Learn to love rewriting and constructive criticism.
- Learn to produce one or two scripts a year from solid high-concept ideas.
- Learn the business side of screenwriting.
- Learn to be patient.
In my experience, most writers can handle Steps 1 and 2 just fine. However, successful writers master Steps 3, 4 and 5. They cold-call producers, write script after script and hear “pass” hundreds of times. When doors slam, they bust open windows. After each soul-sucking rejection, they refocus and resume writing. “Can’t” is not in their vocabulary. In short: They eat, sleep and drink their screenwriting passion.
But isn’t great writing enough to get me noticed?
I wish. In that unicorn world, we could just whip out script after script, a few novels, some articles, and magically turn them into money. Unfortunately, the ability to write extraordinary prose isn’t enough.
A script sale depends on convincing the studio that people will spend $15 to see it in theaters. If you can’t pitch your concept in a short, succinct sentence, making eyes pop and eyebrows raise, then you’re not writing high concept. While many writers may think they have a high-concept idea, they don’t. As my writing partner puts it, “A high concept isn’t so stupid that everyone gets it; it’s so universal that everyone gets it.” For clarity, read “Cracking the High Concept Code” on ScriptMag.com.
But let’s assume your idea appeals to the masses. Now you have to appeal to the executives. That’s right. Your personality makes or breaks your odds of success. Be someone people want to work with. Your script merely supplies a canvas for other artists to paint on. Even if you’re holding the next Die Hard, an insecure or combative personality could kill the deal.
There are other unforeseen hazards as well, especially when it comes to querying. Production companies keep an unofficial database of submissions with “coverage,” meaning studio readers grade both the script and the writer. Once your name graces their spreadsheets, you could get a Scarlet Letter of shame next to it. First impressions matter, so polish your baby until it shines!
Another hurdle is the unsolicited script. Be prepared to read the standard response, “I’m sorry, but we do not accept unsolicited material.” Translation: You need the vetting of an agent or manager.
But don’t panic. Having a logline that makes the executive drool will get that solicitation request. Remember, that means high concept.
Don’t bother querying agents. While you need an agent to vet your work, no agent will sign you unless someone already has interest in your story. Crazy, right? Backwards from traditional publishing. Approach managers instead—they’re the ones whose jobs are most parallel to literary
agents, namely honing your craft and career. Also: Query producers.
Here are a few more tips for getting your screenplay in front of decision-makers:
IMDbPRO: Subscribe to Internet Movie Database and search for movies fitting the genre and tone of your story. The site lists producers and contact information.
Don’t whip that email off just yet. Stalk them—within reason, of course. Read interviews, follow them on Twitter, research to see if you have a mutual friend. Find those Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. If there really isn’t one, then email a compelling query letter. Remember, they have to like you, not just your logline.
ACTORS: Having an actor attached can get movies greenlit. If you query an actor’s agent, however, they’ll ask how much you intend to offer their client. Yeah, I don’t have that kind of money either. Instead, find actors who own production companies. Complex, award-winning roles lure them in like candy.
PITCHING EVENTS: It’s almost impossible to sell a screenplay at a pitch fest, but you can build your network. Face-to-face meetings give you the opportunity to display your fabulous personality.
CONTESTS: Reputable contests such as Script Pipeline, PAGE Awards, Tracking Board Launch Pad and the Nicholl Fellowship help discover screenwriters and connect them with managers and agents.
Still, despite all that effort, and the fire from your undying passion, there’s still a chance Hollywood will pass in the end. The fact is, it takes millions of dollars and hundreds of people to take a story from script to screen, which explains the endless obstacles. But you still have options!
Typically, if an exec passes on your script, you won’t hear from them. (Believe me, if they love your work, your phone will ring.) If you get an email rejection, politely inquire if they would refer you to a producer, agent or manager. At the very least, ask if the door remains open to submit a new script in the future.
Newsflash: You don’t need to sell your script. Take control and connect with your local independent-filmmaking community. Crowdfund, shoot the film and submit it to film festivals. No doubt the workload feels daunting, but the satisfaction of seeing your words come to life is priceless.
If filmmaking scares you, adapt your screenplay into a novel. Hollywood obsesses over intellectual property. Submit your novel to contests like Book Pipeline that connect writers to producers. Besides, selling your script plus selling the rights to your book turns Jack from a dull boy into a happy camper with a fat bank account.
One final piece of advice … if your passion for screenwriting consumes your soul, move to L.A., get an entry-level job in the industry, join a writers group, volunteer at film festivals or work on film sets. Be at ground zero to meet influential people. But until you can afford that move, just keep writing.
Above all, stay determined. Other writers have busted through the velvet ropes. Why not you?