Every year, about 50,000 screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America. About 50 spec scripts are sold each year. Those numbers may seem daunting. Apparently, the odds of selling a spec screenplay are not even as good as the odds of being born with eleven fingers or toes (1 in 500). But take heart: the chances of selling a script are far better than the odds of catching Ebola in the U.S. (according to NPR in late October 2014, only about 1 in 13 million) or even the odds of getting struck by lightning (1 in 134,906).
A lot of aspiring screenwriters tell me that they're worried they can't sell their scripts because there are so many other writers out there trying to do the same thing. But thinking that way is extremely destructive to one's attitude and career potential – and is not even an accurate reflection of reality. When it comes to the odds of selling your spec screenplay, the truth is that you have no competition.
Nobody else is you.
Nobody else has your particular set of talents and skills, and has written this particular script. The movie business as a whole doesn't really have a firm "quota" for how many great screenplays they'll option or buy in any given year. If you send them a fantastic screenplay, they're not going to say, "This is the best script I've ever read! But, sorry, we're going to 'pass'; we just have too many great scripts this year."
These days, the market is not limited to just a few studios and indie producers in Hollywood anymore. The market is expanding. A lot of writers can write good scripts, but very few can write great ones like yours. So, you're not competing with anyone else. There's plenty of room in the world for more talent.
I'll go into detail about my other reasons for saying "you have no competition," in the paragraphs below but first I'll concede that there are a lot of writers and scripts out there vying for film producers' and stars' attention. The fact that you have no competition isn't an excuse to be lazy, nor to submit anything less than your absolute best work. And it takes knowledge and skill to write a great script, and to know how to get attention for it. But here are 8 reasons why... If, you have a great script and market it correctly, your odds of selling it are actually far better than those numbers seem to suggest:
1) YOU WORK HARDER AND SMARTER THAN ALL THE OTHERS. Over my many years as a script analyst for writers and film producers, I've come to believe that the definition of "talent" is: a capacity for hard work and the pursuit of excellence. You work hard and smart. You have talent, but you don't count on talent alone to be enough. You've learned your craft, as well as the business of selling a screenplay. You're not lazy. You'd be amazed by how many writers are lazy and do less than their best work because they wrongly assume that others don't try very hard, either, and that Hollywood wants "junk."
2) YOU KNOW HOW TO PITCH. It's not enough to write a great script. You also have to learn how to pitch – on paper, in the form of a query letter, and in person – in order to get attention for your screenplay. Don't count on getting an agent who will do the "selling" for you. Even if you have an agent, you still have to know how to pitch. There are plenty of people in the industry who can teach you how to pitch properly. And, to my surprise, not every screenwriting course teaches writers how to do this.
3) YOU'RE POLITE AND CONSIDERATE. Yes, this matters. Having emotional intelligence in the way you approach and deal with people in the film industry is very important. If you're polite and "appropriate," this actually gives you an advantage over other screenwriters, who can often be rude or inconsiderate in their behavior. So if you're nice and polite (but appropriately assertive), use what you've got.
4) YOU HAVE UNIQUE TALENT AND WRITE WITH YOUR OWN UNIQUE AND AUTHENTIC "VOICE." Don't make the mistake – as so many writers do – of trying to copy the latest commercial trend. Don't make sly references to other movies in your own script. Be true to yourself. Write your unique story, reflecting your own deep and rich understanding of human beings (yes, even if it's a comedy) and the human experience.
5) YOU UNDERSTAND JUST HOW GREAT A SCREENPLAY HAS TO BE IN ORDER TO GET A "RECOMMEND" FROM PROFESSIONAL SCRIPT READERS. You've read lots of scripts, seen lots of movies, and hold yourself to the highest possible standard. You understand story structure, you know you have a terrific concept for a movie, and that your story works. You understand the standards in screenwriting today are very, very high.
6) YOU CAN SPELL (OR KNOW SOMEONE WHO CAN CORRECT YOUR SPELLING) AND USE CORRECT SCREENWRITING FORMAT. Yes, spelling and format count.
7) YOU KNOW HOW TO WRITE GREAT ROLES FOR MOVIE STARS AND FILMS THAT A-LIST DIRECTORS WILL WANT TO DIRECT. The easiest way to get attention for your script is to write a role that a star is dying to play. So look at your script honestly and ask yourself: "Is this part so juicy that someone like Bradley Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, or Jennifer Lawrence would want to play it (not all for the same role, presumably!)? Is this a role that could win a star a Golden Globe or an Oscar? Is this a film that Spielberg would be eager to direct?" If not, beef up the roles and story to make them more interesting or write another script. Whether or not you're able to get A-list attachments, it can only make your script better if you write unique, three-dimensional characters in the context of a spellbinding story.
8) YOU DON'T GIVE UP EASILY. Rejections don't faze you – but you learn from them. If your script or your pitch is getting rejected a lot, there may be a good reason for this. You might want to find out why but don't ask the person who rejected it to tell you! Your script may need a rewrite, or maybe it doesn't and you just need to keep on trying. A lot of writers fail to sell a script because they quit too soon. While you may occasionally quit (for good reason) on a particular script, you should never quit on yourself as a writer.
Another thing to keep in mind: Sometimes, a producer reads a spec and gets interested in the writer rather than in optioning or buying that particular script. That kind of situation can lead to a paid writing assignment, and it isn't as rare as selling one's first spec script. So, this is another reason why the gloomy statistics on spec script sales don't reflect a writer's actual chances of breaking in.
To sum up:
Be true to yourself – in writing your script, and in life – write with passion, always conduct yourself with emotional intelligence, integrity, and professionalism, learn the craft and business of film, don't give up on yourself, and work harder and smarter than anyone else. And being born with a little bit of a "gift" for screenwriting can't hurt. If you do all that, the seemingly poor odds of selling a script don't apply to you.
Keep pitching. See you next month.
- More articles by Staton Rabin
- Balls of Steel: The 'Magic Trick' to Selling a Screenplay
- Writers on the Verge: The Things Every Screenwriter Should Know
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