As a professional script reader with years of experience, Ray Morton gives advice on five types of movie ideas a screenwriter should avoid.
Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray's full bio.
For the most part, I think screenwriters should write any kind of script they want about any subject matter they want. There’s lots of common wisdom out there about what genres and what subject matter are viable (creatively and/or commercially) and which are not, but when it comes to such matters, I tend to defer to the great William Goldman’s maxim: “Nobody knows anything.” I’ve seen too many different types of scripts in too many different genres about too many different subjects get bought and get made and find success to encourage anyone to narrow their sights or their choices when it comes to writing.
With that said, however, there are several types of scripts that I think aspiring spec screenwriters should absolutely not bother attempting because I can guarantee that they will never be bought and never get made and will most likely never even be read (thus rendering them useless as writing samples).
1. Scripts Featuring Original Super Heroes
The superhero film is the hottest genre going today. Every studio wants to be in the superhero business and therefore many writers want to be as well. This is why at this very moment, there are spec writers toiling away all over the world to create their own original caped and masked crusaders in the hope that one of the superhero-obsessed studios will buy their scripts and turn them into the next blockbusters. All of these folks are wasting their time.
Modern studios are completely risk-averse. Owned by giant corporations and run by MBAs obsessed with quarterly earnings reports and maximum ROIs, today’s dream factories are only interested in sure things. The closest one can get to a sure thing in the movie business is to only make movies based on pre-existing properties that have already proven themselves to be popular with paying audiences, the theory being that audiences that have loved a property in their original form will happily pay to experience it as recreated for the big screen. This is why most studio movies today are based on best-selling books or on popular games and toy lines or on hit TV shows or are sequels to or remakes of old hit movies. Comic book characters are perfect for this environment – the best known of them have been around for decades and have dedicated fan bases who can be counted on to turn up at the box office. And it is for this same reason that no studio is interested in a script featuring an original superhero dreamed up by a screenwriter. An original super-powered character does not have a pre-existing fan base and so cannot be counted on to automatically rake in the big bucks. And so, scripts featuring these brand new super-people will be avoided like the plague.
2. Scripts for Original Franchises
Everyone wants to write the next Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. For many writers of sci-fi and fantasy scripts, one is not enough -- most fantasy or sf specs I read these days are part one of a trilogy or an ongoing saga or a shared universe or whatever. Knowing the studios are all franchise-happy these days, cinefantastique spec writers are eager to create their own original multi-part epics because they think this will make the studios eager to buy their scripts. It won’t. Studios love franchises for the same reason they love superheroes – because they’re based on successful pre-existing properties – on previous hit movies (remakes or sequels) or on material that has already been popular in other mediums (including comics, young adult novels, games and toys, and so on). They’re not looking for original material in multiple parts -- not ever. If you want to create a franchise, put your energy into writing one good, solid screenplay that a studio might want to make and that has a shot at being a hit. If it is, then you can think about further installments. But before that point, forget it.
3. Scripts for Sequels
A lot of naïve aspiring screenwriters think that if they write a great sequel to a hit film and can get the script to the hit film’s producer and/or studio, the powers-that-be will be so thrilled they’ll buy the script. This will never, ever happen. First of all, if the producer or studio thinks the movie has franchise potential, they will often get a sequel script under way before the movie is even released. But even if they wait until after the movie is out before they start planning a follow-up, the project will always be developed in-house by either the original writer or an experienced successor. Either way, no one is going to be interested in reading a spec sequel by someone they’ve never heard of and in fact will go out of their way not to read said spec to protect themselves from litigation should the spec writer accuse them of stealing if some element in the eventual sequel bears a resemblance to something in the spec.
I think many up and coming screenwriters are inspired to write sequel scripts based on the legend that all of the sequels to Die Hard were based on scripts that were not originally written as Die Hard sequels. This is true (at least for the first three. I’m not sure how Die Hard Goes to Russia came about, but let’s be honest – who cares?). However, none of those scripts were over-the-transom specs; they were all projects written by established screenwriters that were already well along in the development process each time Fox decided it was time for a new John McClane adventure. There was some aspirant who ran around a few years ago telling everyone (and even giving a few interviews to the trades stating that) he had written a DH sequel on spec and that Fox had bought it and was going to make it, but that all turned out to be a lie. Or a delusion. Probably a delusion.
4. Scripts Based on Material You Don’t Own the Rights To
Recognizing the current industry’s interest in pre-existing material, some spec writers opt to adapt existing properties. The only legal way to do this is to first acquire – to either buy or option -- the screen rights to the material from the original creator or his reps. However, screen rights can be expensive and most aspiring writers don’t have a ton of money. This discourages some spec scribes, but others go ahead and adapt the material anyway, laboring under the delusion that if a producer or studio likes their script, then they will go to the trouble (and spend the money) to acquire the underlying rights. They won’t. It’s too much of a hassle and contains too much potential legal jeopardy. Instead, they will simply refuse to read your screenplay. They won’t even look at it as writing sample so as not to expose themselves to any legal jeopardy and because you have already displayed such poor judgment and lack of awareness as to how things work in the real world that they won’t want to hire you for any other assignments either.
5. Scripts for Animated Films
Animated movies produced by the major American studios and animation companies (Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, etc.) are all generated in-house. The story ideas are conceived and developed by a creative team consisting of producers, directors, designers, storyboard and pre-viz artists. Screenplays are eventually crafted by an in-house or handpicked experienced writer, but only after a lengthy development process. Animation companies do not buy specs and they won’t read them for the same reason that sequel producers won’t, so there is simply no point in writing one.
Of course, if you’re absolutely determined to create your own superhero or your own franchise or adapt books you don’t own the rights to or craft sequels or animated adventures then via con Dios. But remember that a screenplay is not an end in itself – it’s just a stop on the way to the ultimate destination: the silver screen. For my money, it’s best to put your time and effort; blood, sweat, and tears into one that at least has a fighting chance to become a movie.
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