One of the services I offer in my paid forum is reviewing log lines. One thing I’ve noticed from seeing so many log lines from beginning writers is that in many cases, even without reading the screenplay, it is clear that the script will probably never sell because the concept is not marketable.
The worst part about this problem is that once you have a completed screenplay it’s virtually impossible to correct because you can’t easily rewrite the concept. So the time spent writing this screenplay is at best a learning experience.
The good news is that if you plan ahead it’s an easy problem to avoid. You’re going to spend weeks if not months and perhaps even years on a project, so take a few days or weeks or even months to make sure your concept is marketable before you start writing the actual screenplay.
Finding marketable concepts is easier said than done. The real challenge, or course, is in coming up with and then recognizing when a concept is marketable. So how do you know if your concept is marketable?
There are a couple of tell-tale signs that I see quite regularly which can clue you in that you have an unmarketable concept, so let’s start with those.
The single biggest mistake I see from new writers in terms of bad concepts is what I call the “passion project.” These are semi-autobiographical pieces based on personal experiences of the writer. “My summer at camp.” “My first high school crush.” “My first job out of college.” Every writer writes one when they start out. Your mom and friends may love it, but Hollywood won’t. Write them, learn from them, and enjoy them, but after that put them in your drawer and forget about them. I have a few of them myself sitting on my bookshelf. There is nothing wrong with writing these sorts of projects, but realize they are purely a learning experience and a labor of love. It’s highly unlikely that this sort of material will ever sell.
I think writers write these sorts of scripts, at least in part, because of the old “write what you know” advice. To me, “write what you know” doesn’t mean to literally write about your life or the lives of the people you know. It means write from an authentic point of view where you use your experiences and observations to flush out the details of your characters and story. John Grisham is a good example of this. His stories are pure fiction but they take place in a world that he knows well from being a real lawyer. The authenticity that he breathes into his characters and plots give his stories texture. But his books usually have a high concept hook to draw in a wide audience.
Occasionally these “passion projects” do succeed, and actually launch careers (i.e. Swingers or Clerks), which gives writers hope, but it’s not a high percentage game. Think about all the successful films over the last few years, very few of them, if any, are these sorts of “passion projects.” So there are millions of these scripts floating around but very few of them getting made and even fewer of them succeeding. Play the odds.
A subset of the “passion project” is the Woody Allen film. Woody Allen films are almost always “low concept.” Here’s the thing though: Woody Allen makes Woody Allen films and you’re not Woody Allen. So don’t bother writing the next Woody Allen movie. Woody Allen has a long track record of getting Academy Award nominations and other recognition for his actors. So actors will star in his films for less than their normal studio rate. So his movies have huge star power on relatively small budgets, so they make money. It’s a great model but it’s his track record that allows him to make these sorts of films, not the scripts themselves. I don’t think any new writer (or even an established writer not named Woody Allen) would be able to get these sorts of scripts made. This doesn’t even factor in the fact that most of us simply aren’t capable of writing a Woody Allen style screenplay that’s good. Like the “passion project,” it’s not that it can’t be done, but it’s a low percentage play.
If you have a period piece or historical drama you’re probably in trouble. They’re expensive to make and they usually don’t make a ton of money. While these movies can work, they’re usually films that studios make with the hope of achieving critical success. It’s rare that you’ll see a new writer break in with this type of material. I would highly advise new writers to steer clear of these types of films.
To be clear, I’m not talking about films like Cowboys and Aliens, Shanghai Nights, or the recent Sherlock Holmes films. These films are basically action adventure (or action comedy in the case of Shanghai Nights) which happen to take place in the past. These sorts of cross genre, high concept action adventure movies are almost always marketable.
So how do you learn what is marketable? Well, unfortunately you can’t ever know for sure is marketable. Every successful film maker has at least a few duds on their resume, so even the top professionals don’t get it right all the time. But there are a few things to look for.
Many writers don’t think about the log line until after they’ve completed their screenplay. This is a big mistake. Write a log line for your project before you begin writing. This will help you crystallize your concept and provide you with direction when you begin writing. It will allow you to evaluate your concept to make sure it’s marketable. If you can’t write a clear, concise, interesting, and seemingly marketable log line it means your concept maybe in trouble. There is virtually no point in having a screenplay if you can’t write a solid log line to pitch it to people. To learn about writing a professional log line see my post: Writing A Screenplay Log Line.
In Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, he goes through his writing process and it begins with coming up with a log line and title for your screenplay before you start writing. If you haven’t read Save The Cat and are looking for a solid process for writing a screenplay, I highly recommend his book. You can buy it on Amazon by clicking here.
Along with writing a log line before you begin writing the screenplay, I would highly suggest you take some time and think about who your target market is for this film. If you can’t figure out who this film is for, or if it’s for a very narrow audience it may not be a marketable concept. Remember, the people who invest in films, whether Hollywood studios or independent producers, need to recoup their investment so a film without a clearly defined audience isn’t one that’s going to be easy to sell.
In Hollywood the term “four quadrant” film is tossed around to mean men and women over and under the age of twenty-five. You don’t have to hit all four quadrants with every screenplay, but you should hit at least one of them solidly. But if you can hit all four, you might be onto something that has a lot of market potential.
Also, think about other recently successful films that are similar to your screenplay (again, this is all before you’ve actually written your script and simply have a log line and concept). If you can’t think of any recent, successful films that are similar to yours you’re probably in trouble. Now it doesn’t have to mean similar in story or with similar characters. It just needs to be similar in terms of who you’re marketing to. Each Pixar film is vastly different in terms of story but they always go after the same market. You should be able to position your screenplay in some sort of recognizable market by referencing other successful similar films.
Before you start writing your screenplay you should seriously consider how you’re going to market your screenplay and if your marketing plan actually jives with your concept. If your main marketing plan involves submitting to screenplay contests make sure you’ve read some of the winning screenplays so you understand as much as possible what sorts of screenplays win contests. If you’re main plan is to submit your screenplay to producers on one of the various online screenwriting websites, make sure you’ve spent some time looking at what sorts of projects have been sold and optioned on those sites so you know that your screenplay is inline with what’s working.
Another thing that you should be doing is reading film blogs like /Film. They break lots of film news and talk about what Hollywood is developing. Keeping an eye on the current trends can and watching what properties are being bought will hopefully translate into a better sense of what’s marketable.
Another thing that I do is scour online sites where producers are looking for screenplays. Even free sites like Craig’s List can give you valuable information about what producers are specifically looking for. I wrote a post, Submitting your screenplay to Craig’s List postings, which goes into some of the details about finding and submitting to these sorts of ads. Watch what producers are asking for and try and think about tailoring your writing to meet market demands.
Another great resource for seeing what screenplays Hollywood really likes is the Black List. Each year they publish a list of the “best unproduced screenplays.” You can usually find many of these screenplays floating around online if you’re good with Google. Read them and learn from them. Their website is here: http://blcklst.com/
One trend that I’ve seen a lot of lately is that producers are looking for one location screenplays, especially one location thriller screenplays. Phone Booth is a recent example of this sort of film.
The independent film market has been decimated over the last few years and the only way independent filmmakers can recoup their investment is by reigning in production costs. A one location screenplay helps them do this.
Also, with the recent downward cost of production technology there are tons of up-and-coming filmmakers out there looking to break out and they need easy to shoot material. While this sort of production probably isn’t going to make you rich, I think your chances of actually getting a produced credit are pretty good because of the market demand for these types of screenplays and the lack of screenwriters writing in this niche.
I also think this trend will be with us for a long time because the two factors driving it (mentioned above) are only going to increase in the foreseeable future.
I’m currently working on a one location thriller trying to put my theory into action. Check back with me in a year or so to see if I’ve sold it.
I’ve noticed this trend on virtually every online resource I use where producers are looking for screenplays. I’ve also been actively building my own database of production companies, adding in smaller ones that might be looking for this sort of material. So I have a solid marketing plan ready to go once I complete the screenplay: submit to the various online sites that I use and submit to my own large database of companies. You can submit to my database, too, by using my screenplay email and fax blast submission service.
Now, I’m not saying everyone should be writing one location thriller screenplays. I simply mention my own observations and thoughts so you can get a sense of my thought process. You should be doing all the same things I’m doing and coming to your own conclusions about what’s marketable. You might very well discover some trends on your own that fit more into what you like to write. But the bottom line is that you should understand the marketplace before you start writing your screenplay.
What trends do you see for screenwriters in the future?