Thursday, March 3, 2011

Writing samples

I'm sure there's a stage of Screenwriter Denial that is called, "It's still useful as a writing sample, right?"

That's pretty much the knee-jerk question I'm asked after I tell a writer that their spec isn't commercially viable. Sometimes its because they wrote a drama and nobody's buying dramas. Sometimes it's because they asked me to read an expensive period piece all about Elizabethan furniture movers, and sometimes, it's like last week, when I explained that if another writer has beaten you to the punch on the concept, the script is pretty much dead.

"Sorry man, but your comedy about two guys whose wives give them a week off from the marriage isn't going to sell because Hall Pass just came out. It's WAY too close to it in concept and execution."

-"But it's still usable as a writing sample, right?"

I wrote this response up as a comment last week, but I decided to post it here in the interests of getting more eyes on it and also so that I've got a quick-and-easy post to point similar questioners to in the future. I could have sworn I've addressed "writing samples" somewhere on this blog, before though.

In short, I think writers are a little to quick to grasp that "writing sample" thread when trying to salvage their work.

Best case scenario - You submit an idea that's been done before. The reader gives you the benefit of the doubt and says it shows promise. If your sample is really close to the already-sold or released film, that's a huge benefit of the doubt, because he's taking you at your word that you came up with this material completely independent of the other project and didn't just rip it off. I once saw a writer who ripped off Jurassic Park shamelessly and another writer try to sneak in a Star Wars rip-off as if no one would notice. For a guy like me to take you at your word that this was an original idea of yours is an incredibly lucky break.

Now, since the reader's boss can't do anything with this spec, they ask you to submit something else. They read your second script, love it, decide it can be a movie and sign you.

Worst case scenario - They read your "writing sample", decide you're a hack and the door slams shut. You don't get to move forward with the second script because if a guy like me hated one of your scripts, he's not going to be welcoming to a second one.

Thus, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by leading with this "writing sample" script because it's still your "real" spec that will made the final decision for them.

I've always been told "agents are looking for something they can sell." The one time I can think that the writing sample might help you is if it proves you're not a "one hit wonder." If you hit them with one awesome and marketable spec, and they want to see what else you've written just to size you up, THEN the writing sample might bail you out.

In the other instances, such as the period drama set in the 1600s, my feeling is that the script isn't going to be very helpful as a writing sample. What good is it to have a strong sample in a particular genre if that genre is more or less radioactive? Sure, you can write all about the Pilgrims, but how does that show you can write a modern day action-film set in contemporary New York?


  1. I'm sure that the 300million dollars that the King's Speech will make worldwide at the end of its run prove that there's still room for period drama.
    "A king with a speech problem and his therapist become friends", I'm sure a lot of Hollywood execs would have thought "This thing won't make a cent at the b.o."
    One of those Hollywood people (an agent at a very biiig company)wrote me that if they make a movie based out eh same high concept of your script, or similar, and it proves a success, in the end it will probably help you to have yours put at least in development, if not made.
    I'm sure there are studios looking for period drama scripts now.

  2. I wouldn't bet huge on that. I think when the dust settles, The King's Speech is going to be seen as a fluke. It's not going to get studios actively hunting for period drama scripts.

    I just took a look at the Top 100 Grossing films of last year at Box Office Mojo, and unless I missed one - The King's Speech is the ONLY period drama on that list, and #100 grossed only $26 million domestically.

    You have to remember the Hollywood mentality is such that Warners was convinced they were going to take a bath on Inception... and that's with Christopher Nolan and Leo! They saw it as a favor they had to do Nolan and were scared shitless that it'd be a big loss. Even when the first weekend grosses came in, they still didn't relax.

    One period drama isn't going to change that all on its own. Now, had The King's Speech opened to a $30 million first weekend, then maybe the studios would be a bit more secure that there was demand for it. As it stands now, it's a film that did this well because it's the rare beast that benefited from a well-timed, platformed release, Oscar buzz, and a marketing campaign that capitalized on all the awards season talk.

    Those are a specific set of circumstances that can only be replicated at a particular time of year. For the most part, Hollywood like stocking their release slate with hares, not tortoises.

    If you want to totally reverse the trend, show that a period drama can open in summer (or heck, even just late spring) and cross $100 million. THAT might start changing some minds. For now, I'd bet on them still being seen as passion projects.

  3. I think if an agent or manager who's considering you for representation asks to see several scripts just to make sure you have more than one script in you, you could include an un-commercial screenplay like a historical drama. But sending it out by itself would probably be the kiss of death - as would be giving the agent only historical dramas.

  4. I don't think summer is the right time for a period drama, but I can be proven wrong. Adult viewers might be looking for something different from the multi-million dollar blockbuster. And platform releases used to be the norm once, when tentpole movies didn't get released in a bazillion screens and there was space and time to build an audience for smaller flicks. In summer it's even more difficult due to the huge number of blockbusters released.
    As well, having a platform release will never allow to a 100million opening, but it will limit the P&A costs (fewer prints, fewer ads, trust on word of mouth)and in the end turn a bigger profit for the studio.

  5. But, hold up, The King's Speech is most definitely not in the same position as the first time writer trying to write a period piece.

    Yes, the writer was a first time screenwriter, but The King's Speech was a stage play first. It had a history, an audience, some success.

    Hollywood will always make period pieces. It's just that a lot of the time they are adaptations, not specs.

    Many of us that visit this site every day are not in the position to sell a period piece just because The King's Speech made $300 MM.