Hollywood, like most industries, is risk-aversive. To improve your chances of selling a screenplay, look for ways to reduce Hollywood’s risk.
During the last week of March 2010, the top ten movies in the theaters were:
- Alice in Wonderland
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid
- The Bounty Hunter
- Repo Men
- She’s Out of My League
- Green Zone
- Shutter Island
- Our Family Wedding
- Remember Me
Alice in Wonderland, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Repo Men, Green Zone, and Shutter Island are all based on books. Kevin Costner told his friend Michael Blake to turn his screenplay “Dances With Wolves” into a novel. That would give his story legitimacy in the eyes of Hollywood and prevent Hollywood from drastically modifying the story since they try to follow the novel as much as possible. After Michael Blake sold his story as a novel, then Hollywood bought his screenplay.
So the first lesson to getting your screenplay produced is to turn your story into a novel first and get it published. A published novel has way more credibility in the eyes of Hollywood than a story idea alone. Take away all movies based on novels and this is the remaining top ten list:
3. The Bounty Hunter
5. She’s Out of My League
9. Our Family Wedding
10. Remember Me
The next batch of movies are low-cost comedies that don’t require elaborate scenery, costumes, or special effects. Such comedies can be filmed anywhere relatively cheaply. These include The Bounty Hunter, She’s Out of My League, and Our Family Wedding. Low-budget comedies are low-risk movies to make since their costs are low (depending on the actor’s salaries) and they’re relatively simple to make. Some of them can be filmed entirely on the Universal Studios lot or in areas around town.
Wipe out these low-budget comedies and the top ten list looks like this:
10. Remember Me
Avatar only got made because James Cameron has the clout to make any movie he wants, so don’t expect to write a similar science fiction epic and expect Hollywood to trust that it will succeed. That leaves only the drama “Remember Me,” which is another low-budget film that doesn’t require special effects, exotic locations, or old fashion costumes.
What does that mean for you as a screenwriter? Easy, focus on comedies or dramas that are inexpensive to make. When was the last time Hollywood risked a high-budget film on an unknown screenplay? Probably zero.
If you’re writing a science fiction film, keep it low-budget if possible, or just turn it into a novel and then pitch it as a screenplay. If you’re writing a fantasy, do the same thing. Turn it into a novel and then pitch it as a screenplay. If you’re writing a high-action story with lots of explosions and special effects like a James Bond adventure, guess what? You might be better off turning it into a novel before pitching it as a screenplay.
The fastest route to a movie might be through a novel first, especially if your story is a big action story like “Dances With Wolves”. Just keep an eye on the top ten movies and you’ll see the same pattern week after week. Hollywood wants to go with sure-fire hits that are based on novels, video games, sequels of older movies, remakes of older movies, or low-budget films that will likely turn a profit even if it bombs in the theaters (DVD rentals make up a large chunk of a film’s profits these days).
To become a successful screenwriter, consider being a successful novelist. Who knows? Your novels might be more successful and you can always dust off your original screenplay and sell it to Hollywood as the next “hot” story that everyone ignored three years before.