Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reader mail - Do you look for profit potential when reading?

"..." asks:

When you're reading, does potential for profit play a factor in your analysis?

(I know, ostensibly, the best ideas/concepts/screenplays should make the most at the box office, but that's not reality.)

Hell, yes. The people I work for aren't exactly the sort looking to throw money away without so much as a care of making that money back.

When I'm reading for a producer, two big questions I have to consider are "is this the sort of film that this producer is interested in making?" and "Can I make a case for this being a good investment both creatively and financially?"

When I'm reading for an agent or manager, my thoughts are: "Is this writing strong enough to cut it in the market place" and "Is this guy writing the sort of material that is capable of justifying its cost?"

I'm sure someone will pop up with the old chesnut about how Star Wars was passed on by everyone in town because it was so different and no one had any kind of track record they could point to and say, "This is a hit." And yeah, it happens every now and then that producers and studios miss out on a long-shot that really connects with audiences.

But if you honestly think you can build a career with a spec that no one can figure out the audience for, you're living in a dream world. I don't care how much you're dying to tell your story about the WWII platoon that pulls together against impossible odds - no one's going to see those period pieces these days. If you're Clint Eastwood or Steven Spielberg then you've got enough clout that the studio won't say no.

But look at the figures for something like Flags of Our Fathers. It cost $90 million to make, made only $33 million domestically and another $32 million abroad. Letters from Iwo Jima only made a little more than that, but at least its much smaller budget of $19 million put that film in the black. Granted, that was over three years ago, but can you think of a WWII era hit since then?

I've already discussed why you shouldn't write about the Iraq War in this post. I'd say that the Western is nearly dead too. If I gave a Consider to any period piece, Iraq War film, Western or drama, I'd better be damn prepared to make a case for why it would be able to find an audience.

I know there are writers who throw fits when guys like me taint their "art" by bringing up the commercialism of "marketability" but the fact is if someone is going to spend tens of millions of dollars on your passion project, you'd better be able to show that someone other than you and your mom are going to go see it.


  1. you are right, I very much agree with you. War films, Westerns, and period drama's rarely make money.

    and the thing is, I have no interest in writing "money-maker" films-- unless a producer approaches me personally and asks me to write one after she/he has an idea and propose to me. then I'd write the script purely out of my hunger for money.

    but I prefer art over money. and you know what? I'm not an idiot. I know the kind of scripts I write, will NEVER make money and that's alright with me. I'm producing my own short film this year and I'm not gonna make money from it, except maybe gain some recognition for it at film festivals (fingers crossed) after the film is done. I like it and it makes me feel good, even though my bank account is being quickly emptied.

    I'm reading "WOODY ALLEN ON WOODY ALLEN" and he said that Europe saved his career because Americans aren't interested in his films, because his films rarely make any money-- but he still makes these kind of films out of his love for art and filmmaking. He said he considers himself lucky, so I like that he acknowledged that.

  2. This is why I'm really lucky I like to write things that go boom.

  3. Do you go as far as to do a little calculation in your head as you read? I mean a low budget rom-com may not make 100 million but if it cost 10 and could make 20, is that something you, as a reader, try to get behind?

  4. Reg - If it costs $10 million and makes $20, that's not really a success because the film probably wouldn't be in the black once you factor in marketing costs. Plus, with rom-coms even if the below the line costs are around $10 million, you'd have to figure that the costs will shoot up as name talent gets attached.

    In other words, while in a broad sense it's clear that a rom-com won't be the budget-breaker that a sci-fi epic will be, if your best estimate suggests the film won't get much past $20 million at the box office, it probably wouldn't be something you'd put your whole weight behind.

    Having said that, if it's a rom-com full of sharp writing, a clever hook and a well-executed pass, it'll probably get a consider unless it's either way too similar to something that's out there, or has been submitted to people who have no interest in making rom-coms.

  5. Thanks for the response, I think what I was meant was that the rom-com was sharp and witty, but would not be a blockbuster. The 20 million figure was an arbitrary figure. My numbers were there to show that the film had the capability of showing a 100% profit, but not rake in "Ironman 2" dollars. A film that would be low budget, but still had the capability of reaching a wide audience.