The Business of Screenwriting by Peter Gamble

I used to think “write a great script, bury it in your backyard, and you’ll have four agents banging on your door by morning.”  And I thought that for good reasons – because it’s hard to write a good script, and the town is DESPERATE for good material.  But the truth is, you can write the best script in the history of the world, and bury it in your backyard, and all you’ll get in the morning is a nice mound of dirt in your backyard.  This town isn’t psychic, and no matter how good your script is, you’ve got to sell it.  And the studio has to think they can also sell it.

In fact, there are TONS of examples of really good scripts that (famously) have not been made.  And the reason for this is that because films are expensive, financiers need to make money and recoup their costs, and there’s an element of gambling to this process, so a film doesn’t just have to be a great film, it has to be a great business decision as well. (There are a couple of magnificent outliers, situations where studios have said, “This film will lose money, but we have to make it anyway” and that’s a wonderful, if increasingly rare, thing.) 

This leads us to my thesis: since film-making is a marriage of Art and Business, our success relies on being savvy in both.  So here are a few things to think about when trying to break in:

1) Pick a genre in which films get made.  Cowboy movies and musicals are great, but there aren’t a ton of them.  And there are even less cowboy-musicals.

2) Pick a budget that gets made. A film that costs 100 million to make only has about 12 places in town that can actually make it, and if they all pass… well, the script is dead. If a film can be made for $1 million, then ANYONE with money can finance it.  Bob the Ketchup King can make your movie. And if Bob goes the way of the wind, then there are new millionaires minted every day.  (A caveat to these first two: If you’re passionate about a project, and it’s a brilliant 100 million Cowboy-Musical, throw these notes to the wind.  You should write something you love, but if you have two projects, and could write either, and one’s a better business decision, pick the one that’s a better business decision.)

3) Try to create a brand. It’s great to explore, and find your voice, but eventually, it’ll be really helpful to an agent if they can know WHAT they’re selling. If you write a horror film, then a rom-com, and then a historical epic, then it’s hard for people to know what to hire to for. Look at Apple, and how clear their brand is. Think of yourself: what are YOU selling? Are you great with dialogue, are you easy to work with, are you a comedy writer, or a horror writer?  This town is very cautious. They want to find someone who’s GREAT at something, who’s done it before, and then hire them to do that same thing better. Keep in mind, they’re paying you more for a few months work than a normal person makes in a year. That money means every bit as much to them as it would to you.  So part of your job is to help them understand what to hire you for.

4) And along those lines? Be easy to work with. The cliche of the difficult and precious writer is a cliche for a reason. Writers are often introverts, which is why we can sit in front of a computer, alone for 12 hours.  But this is a collaborative business. So learn to be pleasant, and fun.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick up for something you really believe in, but pick your battles, always at least TRY to find a great way to do the notes you were given, and if, after you’ve done 95% of their notes, you come back and say “Oh, about that last 5%…”, well, they’ll probably be very open to hearing your concerns.  A friend of mine who was an exec on Lost said that one of her favorite things about Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse was no matter what problem she brought to them, they always came back with brilliant solutions.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone say the same thing about you?

5) Make your own success.  We often think of agents and managers as the gateways to success, but I’ve heard again and again from writers (and experienced myself) that they often had to do their own legwork to get their career going, and once it was already moving, THEN other people were happy to hop aboard and help push.  So get your work out there and show it to anyone who will look. Enter script competitions, use the Blacklist site, meet young producers and option your work to them so THEY can be out there getting other people to read you.  It’s good to have as many irons in the fire as possible, because periodically, some of those irons are going to turn out to be wood, and you’re going to watch them burn up before your eyes.  So play the numbers game, don’t be precious or discouraged by setbacks, and eventually one of them will pay off.

6) Network the non-sleazy way.  Too many people think of networking as “Hey! I meet you, you meet me, and let’s make MOVIES together!”  In my experience, that’s not really what it’s about.  Networking is really about friendships. It’s about meeting people you respect and like, getting to know each other, and often, years down the line, you’ll help each other out… because that’s what friends do. It’s not about what you can do for each other. It’s about genuinely liking someone, and wanting to see them succeed. And them feeling the same way about you.

Anyway, there are a few thoughts about things TOTALLY unrelated to the creative side of writing.  If you’re interested in the creative stuff, I do a lecture series every few months called Deep Structure – the Art of Screenwriting.  Look it up, and hope to see you there!

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