Do you know who you are writing for? Paul Peditto shares advice on knowing yourself and your work enough to identify what market you should be targeting—indie, studio or micro.
In another life, I was a casino craps dealer. I worked—shit you not—for Donald Trump at the Trump Castle in ’86. I was once made Employee of The Month and got handed a big gold plaque from utterly plastic Ivana herself, oh boy! So, it’s hard for me to ignore the mathematics of the biz, the confluence of trends. Item #1: Check out the mid-term report for spec scripts that sold in 2018 right here...not very hot.. Item #2: The number of scripted TV shows in 2017 was 487, likely cracking 500 this year. Today's WGA writer is doing both, TV and film. But where do you fit, Good Reader? Consider this if you're thinking screenplays...
- THREE PATHS TO GLORY
“Consider: for all the gobbledygook [film studio] executives spout about backstory, all that we, the audience, want to know is what happens next. That’s the only thing that’s going on. . . . Character is nothing other than action, and character-driven means the plot stinks, and you’d better hope the star is popular enough to open the movie in spite of it.” — David Mamet
It always surprises me, the disparity in the number of high-concept/Studio-style scripts I read vs. the character-driven/Art-house screenplays. Way more character-driven pieces find their way to me. Why do most new screenwriters write character-driven stuff? Don't they know Hollywood isn’t buying character-driven? Wait, that's a gross simplification. Character-driven stuff gets made and was in fact quite relevant this summer at the box office. But then again, there’s that 61 spec scripts sold last year thing. You like those odds? I don’t. Not to mention virtually every one of those sales were with agent/manager representation, so I hope you’ve already got your team set up. Maybe you're gonna get the script to someone who can get it to someone. Maybe you've got an ace-in-the-hole industry contact you met at Columbia in freshman Foundations class and have known for years. Cool... But before putting your script out there, ask yourself…
What movies do you write? Studio-budget? Art-House? Who is your audience/niche? Should you concern yourself with such trivialities?
Early on, I never considered my audience. I had something to say, I said it. Why the hell would I need the approval of an audience to write? Ridiculous!
Then again, I was writing poetry. Writing for movies... different ballgame.
Do you have the money to make your flick? If you personally have the $$$ to make it, then go ahead and write your script in magenta crayon. Write it in Berlin Sans FB Demi 16 font and make it 202 pages. You have the $$$$! However, if you’re not pulling the $$$ from your pocket, you might want to ask: Exactly who will pay 12+ bucks to see my movie in a theater? Or even: Who will stream this for $5 bucks?
Obviously, Being John Malkovich didn’t do the box office business of The Hangover. Charlie Kaufman never had a movie open with the box-office numbers of Shrek. And for every Sundance passion project with voice and quirky personal vision, there’s a Laura Croft, Tomb Raider, driven, like all genre films, by what happens next. So, the question is: Where do you fit?
Let's look at three paths: Studio, Indie, or Micro.
Studio flicks are A-list populated, reboot/remake, prequel/sequel, comic book/graphic novel adaptations, Board Game/toy-inspired branded entertainment. They're tentpole stories, mega-million-dollar budgeted. Greek Mythology recycled through the Marvel Universe lens. Monster concepts with cross-platform marketing. If you’re writing for Studios is likely a story with a killer concept, adapted from pre-existing material, with a built-in audience and demographic.
Here’s an cool list of 124 Hollywood remakes and reboots in some stage of development for 2018 and beyond, from Ace Ventura to The Warriors. It would be a terribly injustice to say all the Studios give a shit about is $$$$. Then again if Slinky, The Movie costs them $30 mil and they make back 400 million, then thaaaat’s entertainment, right?! If people buy tickets for dreck, is it dreck?
Are you writing Slinky, The Movie? If so, sell the house and get your ass out to L.A. ‘Course that script better be good enough to bag you the Nicholl Fellowship win which bags you the manager who bags you the agent who bags you the Studio development deal which bags you Jeremy Renner packaged with the director from Lego Movie 16 which bags you tons of other A-list actors signing on which bags you 300+ million dollar box office, all from that little idea you had when your 5-year-old kid cried the first time she saw a slinky fall down the stairs!
OK, fine, I’ll stop. Just trying to figure out: Are you writing mega-hook scripts like this? Then get thee to L.A.
If you’re not writing for the Studios, who else can you target?
Well, it might be the “mini-majors” who produce their share of genre-based crap, but also the character-driven stuff that goes over big at Oscar-time. Don’t know if there’s any one accepted range to define Indie movies, but how about saying 500K to 20 million just for the hell of it? If that’s where you script lands then yeah, you’re writing an Indie.
This means you, or a producer interested in your project, will need bankable talent. Are there cases of financing projects in the million-dollar range without any name actors? Of course. Once again we get into trouble by generalizing. I’m talking about in general. In general, you’re going to need a bankable name. Someone who in the here and now present tense will put asses in the seats at $12 per ticket. That means the protagonist and antagonist that write should be marketable. Why the hell would a producer get behind an idea that doesn't have a shot at recouping his/her investment? Yeah, great, your script moves them emotionally. It also needs to make their dough back...
Indies that don’t have names can put together Kickstarter campaigns with friends, family, fans, and the Pope himself kicking in—because raising a million dollars without a name actor or director will take something akin to a Papal miracle. The search for a star can last years. And money is elusive, there one day, vanished the next. As my good friend Scott Vehill once told me, “the money is real when I’m eating the steak from the check which has cleared." Managed expectations, a good idea.
So, beware how you write your movie. And who you write it for. Example: You write the script with Charlize Theron in mind. You do some research, find out who her agent is. Call her up and get the assistant’s assistant. “Got a phenomenal project for Charlize. Riveting period-piece drama about a lady hot dog salesman at a Brooklyn Dodgers game who uncovers a Russian conspiracy and kicks ass–” The assistant’s assistant interrupts you with three words— “Are you funded?” “Well…not yet, but once Charlize is on board–”
This is the essential Catch-22: You need the star to raise financing to make the movie. But you can’t get the staruntil the financing is already in the bank.
Sure, there are a million exceptions where will and the American Spirit overcame these difficulties! You see them every day in Deadline.com. Then ask yourself why it seems so many major directors have bailed to TV. The mid-sized movie is on life support, so be careful writing that indie, you’ve got that Catch-22 to overcome. Trying to find those millions...unraveling the mysteries of the Sphinx would be child’s play in comparison.
Micro-screenwriting is you writing a script to be made with money exclusively controlled by you. Meaning, literally, whatever can pull out of your pocket, or your mom’s pocket, or your 1000 Facebook friend’s pockets. That could be $500 bucks. It could also be $50,000. It’s an amount you can raise yourself, no content-controlling strings attached by outside money people.
Is this how you see yourself going? Write a low-budget script, make a calling card movie, get it into Sundance. Why the hell not? I like the odds a hellava lot better than writing a ten-million dollar project that takes 15 years to finance. But, he aware…
Everyone is making these movies. I mean literally. Check out this snippet from John Cooper’s interview about the 2013 Sundance Submission Process: “To me, it says that independent film is thriving. It’s certainly exciting for us to receive 12,000 submissions this year for the first time ever, but more than that, we were really pleased by the overall quality of the films submitted to us. Each year the quality of independent film seems to rise, and we’re chalking that up to this idea of a vital independent film community—directors, producers, DP’s and art directors all continuing to work in independent film throughout their careers and also well-known and really talented actors joining these projects.”
12,000! For how many slots? 150? Do the math. Making Sundance with your Micro movie—not easy. Jesus Peditto, do you have any good news for us today?
Yeah. It can happen. A friend of mine got into Sundance a few years ago with All My Friends Are Funeral Singers. $35,000 budget, no stars, first time director at the helm. He wrote the script for micro-budget and beat the odds because of a great soundtrack he provided himself with his band Califone, but also because the film had an uncompromising vision that was truly original.
In an ideal world, you being THE WRITER, you would concern yourself only with matters of artistic expression. You wouldn’t need to answer to any tanning bed-glowing Hollywood finochio. Be aware of costs before you write the script. You write a ten-million-dollar script, somebody will have to find that $$$. Or will you keep all the control, write it for 40K and make it yourself?
In the dark of night, you can still write your Keatsian ode. Nobody will rob you of your inner-poet. Meanwhile, let’s figure out how to get you over the hump and get something made.
Because, as the Great Poet once instructed: “Just make it, babe.”