"If you think writing a screenplay is tough, try selling one." I'm not sure if anyone famous ever said that, but someone should have, because it's true. Selling a screenplay is tough. Few achieve the dream. But if you have that dream, why not try to make it work? While I don't think there are any hard and fast rules to selling screenplays (if there are, someone, please let me know...), there are some things to keep in mind as you begin the process. I don't know if these things will make your attempt at selling a screenplay easier, or just less difficult.
- Know the odds. Screenplays come into producers by the thousands. While I would never want to discourage someone from pursuing her dream of selling a screenplay, I would say: Keep those odds in mind. Don't give up your day job and be ready for a marathon, not a sprint. Obviously, movies get made, so obviously, someone, somewhere is selling a script. Just know that there are a lot of people out there trying to compete with you for a slot as the next "someone."
- Know the system. There are hundreds (well, tens) of books out there about how horrible the entertainment industry is: cutthroat, dishonest, kill or be killed. I have no idea if it's really that bad, but I will say, if you are about to enter the movie industry arena, you should know a few things.
- You should know that almost no one will read your script unless it is submitted to them by an agent and that most agents will not take on new "unestablished writers" unless someone recommends the writer to them. Agents who do take new writers are often from smaller firms with fewer contacts and industry "ins" (which isn't to say they can't help you).
- You should know that if you do get someone to read your script, be it a producer or agent or other industry professional, there can be quite a long road between that and getting your screenplay sold. You may, in fact, never hear from that person again. I submitted a script to an agent and it was precisely a calendar year before I ever heard from him again. (Come to think of it, nothing came of it, so I'm not really sure why he bothered calling back.) Or your script may be getting read by someone who has no power to buy a script.
- You should also know that getting a script sold is by no means a guarantee your screenplay will ever get made. Hollywood is well-known for turnaround, which is when you sell something and it's about to get made and then, bam, it isn't getting made anymore. As I said earlier, don't give up your day job.
- Know the "5 Ps": The 5 Ps are: be professional, be pro-active, persevere and be prepared to pitch. There's a lot of competition in the world of script sales, so if your script isn't professionally put together and of professional quality - in other words, polished and the best it can possibly be - than you are putting yourself in the back of the pack.
A "good" script is a subjective thing, but if you're not sure what qualifies as professional quality, check with a writer friend who does know, a consultant or a screenwriting teacher to be sure.
You also have to be proactive. Maybe sometime in the history of the film universe, someone has had a film company come to them and ask "Please, let us buy your script!" But the traditional way to sell a script is to hustle. Whether that means querying every agent and production company you can or sneaking into parties as a caterer to hand scripts out with shrimp cocktail, you will have to decide for yourself. But make sure to keep working on your craft and keep marketing yourself and your script. Call them, in other words, because they won't call you.
You also need to persevere. I know plenty of screenwriters, myself included, who have been trying to sell screenplays of some kind for over five or seven years. And we're still at it. This is, again, a marathon. If you have the product and you work to get it out there, the thing that may make the difference is that you pursue your goal that one extra day. You will probably want to give up many times and many rejection letters over, but you have to be the tortoise in this race - slow, steady and with a tough shell.
Also, be prepared to pitch your script. Pitching is a part of the selling process. You tell someone your story, concisely and enthusiastically, trying to make the sale. You should know your story and how you can best describe it so that, should Steven Spielberg walk in tomorrow, you can pitch him your idea. Believe in your idea, and make sure that belief comes through in the pitch. After all, if you don't care about your story, why should anyone else?
- Get an agent if possible. If you have tried to get an agent to help you sell your screenplay, you know that is a feat in itself: You write the query letters to the agents who take unestablished writers. You try to avoid illegitimate agents who charge for their services (a big red flag) and you hope for the best. But trying to get an agent is self-marketing, and self-marketing is definitely necessary if you want to sell your screenplay. An agent, a good one, can help open doors, so give the "agent-ascertaining" process a real college try.
- Start short. Another way to get a screenplay sold is to write a short film script. These will be cheaper for up and coming producers to purchase and make. Small cast, small budget, limited setting: True, it may not be the blockbuster you imagined, but selling a short script can help you get your name out there.
- Win a contest. I have mixed emotions about screenwriting contests. A few offer great prizes like fellowships and mentorships. Others solely exist to see how many people they can get sixty bucks from twice a year. With that "buyer beware" disclaimer offered, I will say there are some contests out there that offer networking opportunities that can help you sell a script. I emphasize the word "some." Plenty of contests offer you meetings with a third-tier agent that nothing will ever come of. Check MovieBytes for a list of contests that come with user ratings. This can help you see which contests have actually helped people to sell their scripts.
- Use an online posting service. I cannot personally vouch for online posting services where people list their scripts for producers to potentially buy, but I know people who do use them. The most popular one is InkTip. I think there is a fee involved for posting a short synopsis of your script on the company's site. Apparently, producers surf the site and pick ideas they like. You can check the site and decide for yourself if it's worth it or not. MovieBytes also offers a script information posting service for contest winners.
- Use any means necessary. The film industry might as well have a sign on every studio gate saying "closed to newcomers." But the truth is, some people get in - and not always by any of the methods I've advocated above - well, except the "be professional, be proactive, and persevere" part. People sell screenplays in all sorts of bizarre ways. And luck seems like it's always a huge piece of the equation. So if you have some odd idea that you feel might put you in touch with a person who can sell your script for you, or to whom you can sell your script, well, unless it's a crime, you probably have nothing to lose by trying it.
Selling a screenplay may seem like an impossible goal to meet. For many it has certainly proven so. But if you follow that dream with a quality script, hard work, perseverance - and then catch some luck along the way - you may be the next person who beats the odds and sells her story.