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How to Sell Your Screenplay

Sell your screenplay to hollywood producers, directors and movie studiosA novice screenwriter can generally expect not to get a major studio contract through these websites. It is usually the independent and smaller production companies that will take a risk on an unknown, unproven writer. Patrick Baker, an executive at Misher Films (Scorpion King, Run Down, and The Interpreter), has never scouted screenwriters' websites for materials and gives little or no importance to winning a screenwriters' contest. Mr. Baker does opine that the easiest genre to pitch and sell is a "high concept comedy" and the hardest is a drama. Producer Geoff Clark of Film Colony (Kill Bill, Kill Bill 2 and Cider House Rules) agrees and admits that he has never produced a story by a screenwriter outside the Hollywood community. Alan Riche of Riche Productions (Starsky and Hutch, Family Man) has produced or purchased screenplays from screenwriters outside the Hollywood community but like Mr. Baker, does not scout the websites for new screenplays. To Mr. Riche, the easiest sell is a "big action" story and the hardest to sell would be a "period piece."

But the film industry is changing, and with the advent of the Internet, Hollywood can be as close as your own backyard. The real quest is in getting that first foot inside the door. Without an agent or literary manager, no major studio will even look at your material. They count on these representatives to filter through the junk and present what they consider to be quality material. Shelly Mellot of Scr(i)pt Magazine says she is very excited about bringing PitchXchange to New York City. "Screenwriters who don't want to give up their East Coast lifestyle can find plenty of opportunities outside of L.A.", says Ms. Mallot. This is one of many opportunities for non-Hollywood screenwriters to meet and pitch to important people in the entertainment industry. Producer/Literary Manager Marvin Acuna (The Bernie Mac Show and Mulligan) takes his seminar, The Business of Screenwriting, around the country, teaching screenwriters how to pitch and sell their product. It seems like "the mountain is finally coming to Mohammed." Mr. Acuna says that his entire staff scans the screenwriters' websites and gives great consideration to a writer's having won a screenwriters contest, looking at it as "... a great filter for material." He admits that a very small percentage of non-Hollywood screenplays get purchased or produced by a major studio, but "...we keep searching for more." As to the easiest genre to sell: High concept comedy or Action. And the hardest: Period pieces and Drama. Knowing this, the new screenwriter can avoid wasting hundreds of hours struggling to write a screenplay that only his friends and family will ever read.

A great opportunity the for new screenwriters to get produced is through independent producers and student film producers. Many of these advertise in the screenwriting newsletters, offering little or no up-front money for the screenplays, but providing a great venue to prove that one's work can be successfully taken from page to screen, giving the screenwriter a "calling card" to present to agents and managers. Pete Giove, independent producer/director at Four Winds/Adrenaline Entertainment (Seven Second Barrier) started out as a screenwriter, who got his first break on "Hollywoodlitsales" websites and now uses the same to scout for new material for his own production company. With the new technologies available and the advent of digital technology "...anyone can make and market a film successfully, so the ‘big boys' have no choice but to open their doors to outside talent." As a former struggling screenwriter, Pete has some good advice for his fellow writers. "My biggest pet peeve is ‘to whom it may concern', especially when I put my name in every open call I post." Another important factor is using the correct format for queries. After all, why would anyone put their money on the line for someone who does not even bother to learn the correct formatting? "I've had to refuse queries for stories that sounded incredibly good... because the writer ignored my very simple but specific requests in sending me their query."

Dave is a mentor for the Writers Guild of America, helping and answering questions from less experienced writers through the WGA websites. To Dave, the first rule for success in being a screenwriter is " write a damned good story." To Dave, the biggest mistake a novice screenwriter makes is not learning the craft before sending out their material. The number one mistake made is, not knowing what your hero wants. If it's unclear, the screenplay wanders around in search of a story. There must also be conflict to be resolved by the end of the story. Boy meets girl - Boy loses girl - Boy gets girl back. If the boy met the girl and just lived happily ever after, the story would end by page five."

Project Greenlight is another route a few unknown screenwriters have taken in order to have their screenplay produced. Sponsored by HBO and MIRAMAX, together with series creators Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, screenwriters compete against thousands of other contestants to be the one screenplay chosen for production by Project Greenlight. The stakes are high, and the screenplay chosen can be the "make or break" opportunity for the new screenwriter. The country was introduced to the first Project Greenlight in the year 2000, when writer Pete Jones had the dubious distinction of being the first winner, seeing his bubble quickly burst when he found himself in the director's chair, totally inexperienced and unprepared to direct his own film, Stolen Summer (2002). Lessons learned have Project Greenlight now pairing up a contest winning screenwriter with a contest winning director. Even with all the controversy surrounding this ultimate of screenwriting competitions, there is still great opportunity to be found from contests such as these. "Matt and I, we've have been the beneficiaries of so much support and good will," says Affleck of his history of going from novice screenwriter, to Oscar winning screenwriter (Good Will Hunting), to Hollywood A-list actor, "...we sort of wanted to give something back."

So how does the unproven screenwriter get his screenplay into the hands of a big time producer, director or film studio executive? The answer is "he/she doesn't." It takes millions of dollars to produce even a low budget major studio film, and only a suicidal executive who wants to lose his job is going to "greenlight" his studio's money for the work of an unproven, unrepresented screenwriter. Websites such as Zoetrope, created by Francis Ford Coppola and daughter Sofia, are a great place to get honest feedback from fellow, struggling writers. Screenwriting courses are available at most colleges and universities, but for those with 9 to 5 jobs, internet courses can teach the basics of the craft. Reading professional screenplays can teach the novice writer not only correct formatting, but story development and industry standards acceptable to almost all the studios.

Drew's Script-O-Rama lists hundreds of free screenplays from the classics to recently released films. Getting an agent or a literary manager is key to breaking into the "Hollywood inner circle". Many representatives may take a chance on a new writer if the material is fresh and professionally presented. There's never a second chance to make a first impression, so taking the time to learn the industry standards, correct formatting and avoiding typos and misspellings, will increase one's chances of getting noticed. Face time with a Hollywood producer or executive is an opportunity not to be passed up by the aspiring screenwriter, so keeping you eye out for seminars and events such as The Business of Screenwriting or PitchXchange can serve not only as a great learning experiences, but a way to make yourself and your work known to someone who may some day let that foot of yours into the proverbial Hollywood door.

The most frustrating thing about screenwriting is that there is nobody out there looking specifically for you. A director may proclaim "I want that face!" but no producer will ever exclaim "I want that inexperienced screenwriter!" For every success story there are hundreds of screenwriters who will never get anyone important to read a single word of their work. The more screenplays you have written, the greater chance one of them will be produced, and even more importantly, the better you will learn the craft. The good news is that there is no age limit to being a successful screenwriter. Naomi and Kristen Sheridan were only 16 and 19 years old when they began writing In American (Oscar nominated screenplay, 2004) with their father, actor Jim Sheridan. And talents like Mel Brooks are pounding out hit screenplays and Broadway shows well into their 7th decade.

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Top Screenwriters
Hollywood screenwriters will typically receive 2-3% of a film's total gross as salary.

George Lucas
Movie: Star Wars III
Gross: $848,000,000+
2-3%: $22,000,000+ (aprox)

Bryan Singer
Movie: Superman Returns
Gross: $368,000,000+
2-3%: $9,500,000+ (aprox)

Peter Jackson
Movie: King Kong
Gross: $547,000,000+
2-3%: $14,000,000+ (aprox)

James Cameron
Movie: Titanic
Gross: $1,835,300,000+
2-3%: $46,000,000+ (aprox)

M. Night Shyamalan
Movie: The Sixth Sense
Gross: $661,000,000+
2-3%: $16,500,000+ (aprox)