How to Write and Sell Screenplays

Writing a screenplay is not easy. You will need discipline and you will need to learn the structure, character development and format. Not to worry, that is why I have condensed ten years of experience, hundreds of books and movies, into this article.

I have written seven screenplays now, two television scripts, and two music video scripts. Only one of those films has made it to the big screen. Breaking into screenwriting often times requires persistence and focus and many, many years.

Story logic, character development and structure are paramount when writing a traditional script. Each film follows a six stage plot structure.

Robert McKee’s Story tells us that you must be good at the nuts and bolts of a scene. Each scene hinges upon the other scene and everything must continue to move forward. A good story is a detective story – the audience wants to know what is going to happen next? Keep them guessing. You never want to be predictable. Scenes need to turn on at least one value charged condition of a character’s life through action – reaction. Real truth is found in underlying meaning and real entertainment is when humans experience charged values and emotion.

The first thing you must do is determine your controlling idea which is the ultimate meaning expressed in one sentence. Next write your logline, which is your pitch to a producer or studio and summarizes your movie set-up, conflict, and resolution. The American Association of Screenwriters recommends you keep the logline to three sentences. For character-driven movies include identification, connection, potential crisis, and risk. There are plot-driven scripts in which you want to highlight complications in the logline.

Loglines should consist of the following:
* Reveal your star’s situation
* Reveal Important Complications
* Describe the action the star takes
* Describe the star’s crisis decision
* Hint at the climax – danger, showdown
* Hint at the star’s potential transformation
* Identify sizzle, sex, greed, humor danger, thrills, satisfaction
* Identify Genre
* Keep it to three sentences
* Use present tense

You can fill in a logline by replacing these “An interesting hero must accomplish a goal (x), despite extraordinary obstacles (y), because of emotionally compelling stakes (z).

Characters should go through raw identity, self awareness, self enlightenment, and self actualization. How your character chooses how they react to an event in your script is who they are. Reluctant heroes are always interesting if they only appear to care about themselves, but in clutch situations help others.

What is your hero’s everyday world like? What event, referred to as the inciting incident, changes everything? Is the event passive, disruptive, personal, or casually linked to your first act break? At what point in your hero’s life does your story begin? Time-wise, how far away is your story beginning from the inciting incident. Stack the odds against your hero. You can throw coincidence at your hero, but you can’t use coincidence to get them out of a situation.

Describe your hero. What is his or her profession? What is his overall goal? Who or what is stopping him from achieving it? What’s at stake if he fails?

Next you can write a treatments which is a story concept, plot, basic characters, and sometimes snippets of dialog of main characters. Typically a treatment is 30 pages or less and can be protected by law (see below below).

Character development is extremely important to a good script. One exercise you can do is talk to your characters and interview them. Where are they from? What do they do? What drives them consciously and subconsciously? Your protagonist doesn’t need to be sympathetic, but must be empathetic. Heroes should be given insurmountable obstacles as they pursue compelling objectives.

No aspect of characterization (age, race, IQ, speech, mannerisms, beliefs, personality) may undermine credibility of character. Actions must be believable. Positive and negative charges. Compare and contrast. Subplots should contradict the controlling idea. Put characters in situations which are rich with moral quandaries and elements of good drama.

You must make sure your script is in top form before you send it to someone. Beware, sending out unsolicited intellectual property (be it script, music, anything creative basically) is very difficult and risky. You can read other scripts at Drew’s Script-O-Rama.

The first step before showing anything to anyone is to protect your work. Register your Treatments, Loglines, and scripts with The United States Copyright Office, or Don’t make the mistake of thinking your idea is copyrightable – it’s not. Copyright will protect the literary or dramatic expression of an author’s idea but not the idea itself. A script is considered a literary expression of an idea.

Craig Mazin, author of The Artful Writer screenwriting blog will tell you that chain of title . The Writers Guild of America often times finds contributing writers to a project through arbitration. Participation isn’t defined by employment, rather by the contribution of intellectual property. Chain of Title can be very hard to prove, but the WGA helps determine screen credit on the basis of copyrightable contributions.

I highly recommend Michael Lent’s book Breakfast with Sharks – A Screenwriter’s Guide. He breaks down the process of paper to screen and offers many helpful hints including a resource guide which includes Hollywood Literary Sales, Screen Players, Movie Bytes, Who Represents, Writers Mind, Done Deals, The Hollywood Reporter,Script Savvy, Write Movies, Ain’t It Cool News, Hollywood Creative, Representation, and Distributors Directories.

You will need a good lawyer and an agent, because the problem with sending unsolicited material is this: most people in the position of choosing projects will not even open it. The reason is that if I as an producer or an agent (the two people you would be sending scripts to) have a movie deal about a bank heist in the works and they read someone else’s script about a bank heist they are instantly incriminating themselves as plagiarists. The question becomes which script came first is what the unsigned writer will undoubtedly ask?

It takes a lot of money to make a movie. One way to sell a script is to get it in the hands of someone with money who wants to enter into the Hollywood world. Convince this person that the movie appeals to a wide range of people and get him to sign over funding. Once the first domino falls in promising (in writing) money towards film production, each following domino tips much easier. Once you have funding to produce the film, you then have ammunition to go after distributors (a studio – who gets the film into theaters, television, or DVD).

Once you get enough money, the writer suddenly becomes the producer of the film, the people with the funding are the executive producers. The writer / producer then hires a ESTABLISHED FILM PRODUCER and a SOLID DIRECTOR and hands the project over to them. The writer protects his vision while handing over the nuts and bolts of the production to people who’ve done it before, thereby protecting the financial investment of the executive producer.

Keep in mind, when funding for a feature length film isn’t achievable, sometimes people will make trailers or short form versions of their films and submit them to festivals, which then can generate buzz to further the project to feature completion.

Keep in mind, probably thousands of scripts are sold to producers/studios/agents which never become movies. Typically on a mid-sized to major film, the writer selling a script will get a few hundred thousand for the script, & a few hundred thousand more should it actually go into “production” (meaning the movie gets made). Beyond that, tons of movies are made to sit on shelves because though produced, they never get released.

To simply sell the script first, move to LA or NYC. Then, package yourself as a successful Hollywood writer (Eurotrash clothes, eccentric neuroticism, various lies about what you’ve done professionally), then go to organization meetings (Producer’s Guild, Director’s Guild, or any of the other hundreds of independent filmmaker / writer organizations), then meet as many people as you can in positions of choosing. Go to their parties, become their friends.

In Los Angeles you will also want want to join The Office, a quiet workplace for writers and a great place to get your work done. Studying is important – The Dialogue series is a must watch, interviews by former New Line Cinema Executive Producer Mike De Luca include Sheldon Turner, Paul Hagis, and Jim Uhls. You can get these on Netflix as well. You can take Syd Field’s Screenwriting Workshop or UCLA Extension writing courses which are considered inexpensive. Personally, my homework sometimes consists of watching up to two or three movies a day and reading a lot of material – books, magazines, Web sites.

There are hundreds of script writing contests you can find online too, winning one of those will certainly add to your material’s worth. There are only two kinds of people in entertainment, beggars and choosers, guess where 99.9% of writers fall? Once you meet these people socially, THEN you can ask them to read your script. Now of course, this takes a gross amount of time and a disgusting amount of soul-selling and gut-wrenching “schmoozing” with people you really would rather not deal with. This is why entertainment is a wonderful industry.

The basic rule is, if it’s too easy to get the script in their hands, they aren’t important enough to be worth wasting your time on, meaning they aren’t in the position to make your movie a reality. Hollywood is an “old boys” club and quite honestly, unless you are geographically or financially positioned to gain access to these people, it isn’t going to happen.

Write something that a lot of people would like to see that you can make for about $10,000 to $500,000 dollars. This would mean a script set in VERY few locations and easily accessible locations, no special effects, small cast, a crew with a few seasoned professionals but mostly college interns, a concept able to be shot on digital video or 16mm film.

Think movies like Clerks, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Home Alone, Blair Witch Project, and Meet The Parents. Think about a movie that not only would someone want to see it in the theater, but would they would also want to watch it on DVD. Comedy and horror are both genres that are consistently sellable- straight drama is much more risky.

Take the money, make the movie (be it feature length or shortform), put it on YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, MetaCafe, with your cell phone number at the end. If it’s that great a concept that someone can make money off of, the phone will ring.

When pitching a project in person, wear lots of deodorant. Forget “controlling” your sweat. You want to be able to strike a match off your pits. Know where you’re going. Get there early, but don’t go in early. Show up exactly at the time of your appointment. You’re going to wait regardless, but that’s irrelevant. Thinking too much about what you are going to say will throw a wrench in your pitch. Simply Variety or stare at the wall and laugh about how superior you are to the world. You’re not, but just do it. It helps.

In a pitch meeting, when offered a drink, accept water. Never soda. Just water. Don’t drink it yet. Wait until you start pitching. Then use it as a prop. When you get to a cliffhanger (drinks water) take a slug. Make ’em wait. When you’re done pitching, stick around for a brief period of time to hear any immediate reactions, but not too long. You’ve got another pitch to get to right away…even if you don’t.

Now that you have a solid foundation, get busy writing and apply all the principles above. The next great writer is YOU.


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