Note from Jane: This article first appeared in Scratch magazine. It has been edited and updated for my site. It discusses the most common paths to production for a first-time screenwriter. Also: Want to learn how a book becomes a movie?
When I was a creative writing undergrad, one of the most memorable success stories we talked about was the Good Will Hunting script by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The script was started by Damon as part of a writing class assignment at Harvard. When he moved to Los Angeles to live with Affleck (they were both trying to launch acting careers), they finished the story together, making it their first completed script.
In an interview, their agent said, “I read it over the weekend and I was blown away. It’s almost an impossible thing to get a movie made that is written by two actors who want to star in it, when no one knows who they are.” Even though the script went through a major overhaul, and it took another three years before the film hit screens, it won Damon and Affleck an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
If that was an extraordinary story in the mid-1990s (and it was), then it feels even more like winning the lottery in today’s market. One film consultant interviewed by the BBC in 2014 said that more than a hundred thousand scripts go into the system each year, and about three hundred movies get made—and maybe ten of those originate from first-time writers.
It makes book publishing odds look stellar.
The sober truth is that very few original stories from untested writers end up being made into films. Ben and Matt are outliers. If you still have stars in your eyes after reflecting on your chances, there’s yet another reality to consider: the process of selling your spec script—an unsolicited, uncommissioned work—is far more likely to score you offers to write other scripts for the studios. Put another way, a spec script’s job is primarily to show off you and your writing chops so you can build a career out of paid screenwriting gigs. Pitching your spec with the limited intention of landing an option or sale for that exact story is nearly guaranteed to be an exercise in frustration.
However, if you don’t at least play, you can’t ever win, so let’s look at the most common ways that scriptwriters try to get in the game.
Remember: An unknown writer cannot sell an idea. You must have a spec script to start playing, and it needs to be between 100 and 110 correctly formatted pages for a comedy (a little more for a drama).
Should You Use Script Consultants and Coaches?
Anyone who’s seen Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation (2002) has some familiarity with the business that’s sprung up around screenwriters seeking guidance on improving their scripts. In the movie, Nicholas Cage’s character, a struggling writer, attends an industry seminar (that you can attend in real life) by the infamous Robert McKee, author of the bestselling writing guide Story.
One of the pros of working with a consultant is that you begin to learn what the studios look for, particularly in rewrites, which means beginning to understand notes. In Hollywood lingo, notes are ideas or revision suggestions about the work; it’s critical to be able to accept feedback, because screenwriting is a very collaborative medium. Scriptwriter Jeanne Bowerman, editor of Script magazine, told me the most valuable part of her writing process was finding and working with a mentor.
In perhaps the most BS-free book ever on screenwriting, Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by industry vets Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (writers of Night at the Museum), you can find the following warning: “A guy who talks about screenwriting but who’s never sold a screenplay is not a screenwriting guru, he’s a lecture circuit bullshit artist.” In a nutshell, they advise that writers stay away from gurus who are prone to blathering on about that heartfelt story that needs to be told. Instead, focus on how you’ll write a movie that studios love, which must be one thing, and one thing only: entertaining. Garant and Lennon have no patience for the writer who’s hanging all his dreams on one brilliant screenplay. Their motto is “always be writing”; every piece you write opens doors to other jobs, and the process feeds on itself.
Selling Your Script at Pitchfests
Ever attended a writing conference with a pitch component? Some say that writing conferences got the idea from Hollywood pitchfests. A pitchfest is just what it sounds like: an intense, anxiety-producing opportunity to talk to industry insiders about your script. As in book publishing, there is a fair amount of criticism of the pitchfest concept—those who say that hardly any agents or editors sign deals with people they meet at such events, and that the event organizers profit off the naive dreams of new writers.
They are profitable events, to be sure, but the key as a pitching writer is not to have any expectations going in. You shouldn’t expect to sell anything at a pitchfest. Rather, it’s a bona fide opportunity to build a network of industry contacts and get valuable feedback. You can get some idea of whether what you’re working on is of value and marketable. And, best of all, you get to practice pitching, which is an essential skill in the screenwriting world. Bowerman says, “I got all my pitching skills by going to these fests, so that when I went out to HBO to pitch, I’m sitting there without a bead of sweat on my forehead because I’d had all this practice pitching. It takes the mystery out of it.”
While pitching well takes practice (having a natural charm and persuasive manner helps a lot), there are a few rules to follow. The Garant-Lennon guide offers the following tips:
- Your film should be easy to describe in terms of other successful films. It’s always okay to invoke the name of a film that’s made a ton of money.
- Keep the pitch short. No matter how much time you have, always be able to describe your movie in one sentence.
- Rehearse your pitch before delivering it. You shouldn’t have to read anything from note cards.
Ideally, before you begin the pitching process, you should have an arsenal of materials ready to show or send if requested, such as a logline, one-sheet, synopsis, and treatment. Just about any published screenwriting how-to guide offers strong examples of these materials, along with a list of do’s and don’ts. (See the resource list at the end of this article.)
Regardless of how well the pitch goes, Bowerman says that most people waste the opportunity by failing to properly follow up after the event. Even though 99.9 percent of the time she gets a pass after sending in her material after the pitch, the first thing she asks is, “Do you have any notes for me?” If the person likes her writing, she asks if she has an open door to pitch her next project, or if she can be considered for a writing assignment. Whatever happens, she stays in touch, whether that’s through social media or some other method. “Now that they’ve met me in person, they know I’m human, they know I don’t drool on myself, they know I can present myself well, then they see me on their computers every day, and they forget I live in New York. You have to know how to work them,” Bowerman says. Of the 117 Hollywood people she’s pitched (she keeps track), 89 are still in her network.
Getting Attention Through Contests and Online Pitch/Listing Services
These potential paths to production are lumped together because their value often depends on the specific qualities of the service or contest.
First, contests: If you finish very well in a competition, it’s easier to get your work read, period. Studios, producers, and agencies frequently look at the winners of established contests. However, most winning scripts don’t get sold or produced; contests tend to be judged on artistic merit, not commercial viability. When evaluating a contest, research how well the winners have done—did any deals follow? Will the contest get your work in front of real industry contacts?
It’s possible to evaluate online pitch and listing services in the same way; these sites basically offer paid services and list your work in a marketplace where industry insiders can browse properties available for sale. Lists like The Black List and The Tracking Board are widely known and respected in the industry—plus you get feedback on your work. SpecScout is another reputable one.
Finding an Agent or Manager to Sell Your Script
If you don’t like the idea of paying for play at an online pitch site (or at a pitchfest), you can try cold-querying agencies with your project. It’s not dissimilar from querying a literary agent. If an agency agrees to represent you, it will pitch your spec script to its contacts inside the industry. However, most agencies aren’t open to hearing from unknown writers and, even if they are, the query process takes persistence and patience—and often an appetite for talking on the phone to assistants. There’s a much bigger chicken-and-egg problem in Hollywood than in book publishing. You need an agent to submit your work, but agents won’t take you unless someone is already interested.
That’s where the manager comes in—and some experts say a manager is a better way to go, although many writers have both an agent and a manager. Agents specialize in one aspect of your career, such as selling your feature films. Managers consider everything you do, look at the big picture of your career, and are more likely to nurture new talent. Either an agent or a manager can help spread the word about your script, but only agents are regulated by the Writers Guild of America. Neither should ever ask for a reading fee.
Whether you score representation depends partly on whether you’re seen as a one-hit wonder. Agents and managers want to represent writers who can continually generate saleable scripts. In their guide, Garant and Lennon say that sending out your script cold is probably the least likely way to get an agent. They write, “A method that will have a much higher success rate would be to write a short script, funny, scary, or touching, and shoot it. Get it up on YouTube or FunnyorDie (or the hundred other sites like those). … Try ANYTHING. … Even if it’s thirty seconds long and only on the internet, a finished product gives you a huge advantage over a script on paper.”
Working Your Connections and Relationships
If you’ve heard that it’s all about who you know, you heard right. Probably a smarter path than reaching out cold to agents and managers is to find someone you do know—a person in the industry who can offer you a small break—because Hollywood operates on relationships. If you don’t have any connections, you have to be adamant about making some, whether that’s through pitchfests and pitch sites, hiring consultants, entering contests, or using opportunities presented by social media (try #scriptchat on Sundays).
In the Gotham Writers’ Workshop guide, Writing Movies, the editors write, “While it’s true that a great script will sometimes speak for itself, even the masterpieces, more often than not, need help from the inside. Without it, getting your script into the right hands, while not impossible, is a tricky proposition that requires luck and pluck. It’s extremely helpful to have an ‘in.’ … Consider anyone and everyone you know and have ever met in your lifetime. And everyone means everyone.”
You’ll find this theme echoed again and again in every scriptwriting guide, as well as by industry insiders and experienced scriptwriters. So much depends on having the right story shown to the right person at the right time. While talent is part of that, access and timing are equally important, which means your success can be largely out of your control. What you can control is being a relentless advocate of your own work, and developing a network of potential representatives and buyers—as well as promoting all those new stories that you’re prolifically producing.
Guides and Resources for Selling Your Script
- If you’d like to consult with someone who knows how to advise beginners and those new to the TV/film business, I highly recommend Jeanne Bowerman.
- If you’re interested in attending a pitchfest, two of the most well-known are The Great American Pitchfest and the Hollywood Pitch Festival.
- IMDbPro offers contact information for representation—and everyone else—in the entertainment industry.
- The best comprehensive guides I found on breaking into the film industry are Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon; Writing Screenplays That Sell, by Michael Hauge; Writing Movies, by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, edited by Alexander Steele; and The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.