Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Reader questions on selling unmarketable ideas and foreign submissions

I've gotten very lazy about answering the old mailbag, so I'm going to try to make some headway this week.

Joel writes:

I've written two screenplays so far and am working on a third. I am increasingly cynical about Hollywood, as there seems to be more people making money off exploiting aspiring artists, than people who are making money off of art. It's kind of like a modern day gold rush, you're far better off selling whiskey to the prospectors than actually panning for gold. 

My screenplays are more about the telling than the actual tale, and are more or less unpitchable, in the traditional sense of the word "pitch." For example, Ripple, my first screenplay uses multiple inter-connecting storylines to track a highly contagious bad mood through a community, until all the small altercations culminate in an event that affects everyone involved. Not pitchable. 

As a film enthusiast, I prefer soft concept movies. It's seems that most production companies only want high concept screenplays, and in a few years there will be no such thing as a drama. As a reader, what is your advice? At the moment selling this screenplay, which everyone that's read it has loved, seems impossible. Should I keep plugging or should I attempt to shoot it myself with absolutely no budget? Or go to screenwriting seminars and sell cocaine to all my fellow failures? 

Okay, a lot to unpack here and also a lot that probably deserves more in-depth discussion than I can give.  So let's start with the soft concept discussion. You're right about how soft concept scripts are hard sells.  Part of that is that high concept stories are a lot more exciting to pitch and seem more marketable.

The other part of that is that this town is swimming with soft concept scripts. In my years reading professionally, I read a ton of low-key dramas.  Clearly SOME of these writers were getting repped or at least had enough connections to get their work passed around.  But there's also supply and demand.  When there's a massive surplus of those stories floating around, the bar is going to be raised for the really good ones to stand out.  So statistically, your odds of selling such a script go down and they're probably likely to sell for less.

(Your specific pitch actually sounds more high-concept than low-concept.  I could see the concept cutting both ways.  On one hand, it could lend itself to one of those "Valentine's Day" ensemble-type films with a dozen famous faces.  On the other hand, the "how do we market this?" question looms large if you don't pack it full of famous faces.)

I think it's good that you recognize how the market perceives your work.  That sort of insight helps you direct your energies to the strategies most likely to pay off for you.  Personally, I like the idea of trying to shoot it yourself.  If it can be done on a low budget, it seems like the sort of idea that could brand you as a director (if that's what you're after).  There's certainly a history of directors with original ideas finding a way to shoot their films themselves and get noticed that way.

If you're running into a situation where a lot of people love it, but can't do anything with it, you're choices are: (1) keep trying to find the right buyer or (2) shoot it yourself.  It's possible that "right buyer" exists somewhere out there and the great thing is that if the script really is good, that buyer won't be able to keep their hands off it.

But if your ideal buyer is an extremely rare breed, then I say shoot it yourself. We're in an era where it's gotten drastically cheaper to make a film.  The challenge then is to make a GOOD film and to find a way to market it so it can become your calling card.

If nothing else, see if it's at all feasible to produce it yourself.  If it's way out of your reach, then maybe change your strategy of who you're going after.  Or write something that IS producible.

Borja writes:

In a few months I'm finishing my studies, and a question started buzzing in my mind: Could an Spanish writer send scripts to Hollywood? I know maybe I'm aiming too high, but Spanish Film Industry is dead (or at least deadly wounded). That's why I'd like to know if you have ever red any script sent from Spain.

Just speaking for myself here, I didn't read too many submissions from foreign countries that didn't come through agents. So if you're looking to get your script to someone like me, you need to chase after agents first.

The foreign submissions I did read frequently had issues with language/translation.  Occasionally, you'd stumble onto some awkwardly written descriptions, but the place where this was most noticeable was in the dialogue.  Unless the writer was totally fluent in English, when they translated the dialogue from their native language to English, it would often take on a stilted, formal quality.

So before you start submitting to American companies, find Americans to read the script and be brutal with you about the quality of your English.  It will pay off in the long run, I promise.


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  2. I always love when someone who has no luck selling a project claims that Hollywood is "more people making money off exploiting aspiring artists than people who are making money off of art." The giant corporations making most movies are mainly motivated by financial success? Someone call the LA Times, we need to get this information out!

    If you're a screenwriter and consider yourself an "artist," then don't come to Hollywood. Go find a bunch of similarly-minded people and make your indie films in Utah.

    If you're trying to break into Hollywood, then I'm guessing that you also are interested in some of that money the big studios are "exploiting" people for. Though I would more call it "paying them to do their job."