Why Your Screenplay Isn’t Selling

An interesting conversation came up in the Filmmakers group on Linked In. 92 comments as of this writing, some by me. It has at this point degenerated to the usual thing that happens with any conversation that lasts longer than a day on Usenet, well, in this case, the ‘net itself, the inevitable name calling and insults have begun to fly, complete with accusations of posting a discussion simply to generate business, being the most heinous.

I’ve decided to take a left turn, and leave the discussion, at least temporarily, and deal with the root of the problem, which is stated above. Put simply, the screenplay you wrote isn’t selling. You want to know why. There are several reasons which may or may not include:

  • It’s not long enough
  • Characters aren’t interesting
  • Your story makes no sense
  • The reader was having a bad day
  • It hasn’t been read yet

Those last two you can’t control, and here’s why….

Everyone is writing a screenplay!!!

Well, that may be an exaggeration, however, it seems that way sometimes. Those of you that understand niche or vertical markets can do a simple search on the word screenplay, and figure out there’s money to be made out there, but it seems that lately, the money is to be made by those that tell you how to, or more importantly, how not to, write a screenplay.

A little history lesson, for those that have read this far…. Back in 1990, Joe Eszterhas was paid $3 Million for a spec script entitled, Basic Instinct. You may have seen the resulting film. In theatres no less, if you were born before 1975, in 1992 when it came out. For the two or three of you that aren’t in the industry, a spec script is one you write on the speculation that someone will buy it, as opposed to a writing assignment from some production company, studio, guy down the street, etc. that you’ve hopefully been paid to write.

And this was twenty years ago, when you could actually buy something with that kind of money. This would’ve been ok, had the mainstream media not picked it up, and run with it, creating an entire industry as a result. The aforementioned “How To Write A Screenplay” market.

So, here we are, twenty some odd years later, and believe me, they’ve been some pretty odd years, and you’ve written your first screenplay. Or your tenth. Doesn’t matter, none of them have sold. The biggest reason being none of what I mentioned above, but it’s simply this: Your screenplay sucks. Well, that may be a bit too harsh, but it goes to the first three reasons above. Without giving a course on how the industry works, or rather, is suppose to work, yours is not the only one that sucks. The ones your friends, neighbors, co workers etc. are writing all suck, too!!!

Sturgeon’s Law Revisited

“95% of everything is crap.” And that includes, in this case, your screenplay. And maybe mine too, for that matter, but this isn’t about me. Having just spoken to someone at the WGAW Registry, I can tell you that they register upwards of 75,000 pieces of material a year. Most are probably screenplays, some could be treatments, they don’t know, as they don’t read them.

And that’s just the registered amount. There’s probably a similar amount of material that will never see the light of day for whatever reason, up to and including, the writer didn’t know any better. But this isn’t about intellectual property, either. You’re in competition with all those other pieces of crap. And that’s not even a representation of the movies that make it to the big screen, or, the direct to DVD market, etc, simply because, 95% of all of those are crap as well.

Which is why most of you out there believe that you can do better. Well, go ahead and do it. I know I have. Again, not about me. You’ve bought a book on how to write a screenplay, at the aforementioned link I provided, now what? No, I’m not selling anything. I do that elsewhere 🙂 Given the 90/9/1 rule of participation, most of you that buy that book, aren’t going to read it thoroughly enough to write a great screenplay. Which might be the title of the book you bought, I don’t know….

I’ve gone way off on a tangent, so much so, that I’m not even near the original circle anymore, but to summarize, and conclude thusly, Of all the piles of screenplays out there, even if yours is the greatest screenplay ever (this week) no one may ever know. Yet another example of The Law!!! as it applies to moviemaking.

More later. Much later.


19 thoughts on “Why Your Screenplay Isn’t Selling

  1. Systems by their very nature are flawed, the people or organizations responsible for them live in a constant state of denial. As a result,
    the individuals or organizations who come to depend on them for acknowledgement or monetary rewards are left in a state of disappointment,confusion and frustration.

    This mechanism is by no means limited the the screen play subject matter as discussed above and could in fact be a screen play in itself.

    Since I don’t have an immediate solution nor will I attempt to sell you one. It is my recommendation that you continue on the path that pleases you, do your very best and there may be a reward for your efforts as is the nature of all hard work.



  2. It seems to me, after reading at least 40 or 50 screenplays written by others, and several of my own that, at this writing, are still incomplete, the real root of the problem is the challenge of honestly reflecting human nature, while creating drama that compels others to inside of it. My problem,on the other hand, may be run on sentences.

    Confronting our own frailties, exposing a few of them through characters we manipulate requires courage. Creating the drama between people reflecting our limitations requires talent, and dedication to the art of film, which itself is all about the camera. It’s not just about people rushing about solving problems created on page 3, it’s about creating conversation and action that can become a believable, and integral part of a landscape as seen by the Director, working with a Cinematographer.

    It’s easy for a storyteller/screenwriter to fall in love with their words, and their characters, and forget to leave room for the creativity and talent that will bring their story to life through the lens of a camera, a very harsh critic of circumstances.

    It seems to me this discussion has gone on so long, because there is no final answer, and no way to predict the outcome of writing a good story in screenplay format. Besides the talent of everyone involved, there has to be a parade of electric connections which inspire each level of participation in bringing the script to life.

    We have to write, that is what we do. Keep on trying, and enjoy the process. One day that magic moment may arrive, or not, but at least you will have had a good time at the keyboard.

    • This is a great comment, Jacquie, thanks for posting it. I agree with most of what you said, as I was discussing this recently with a fellow filmmaker. Screenplays in and of themselves are not written to be read by the masses, but to be made into a film, that people can see. If you’re only going to be a screenwriter, then of course, you’re in a collaboration, even before you start. At the same time, I think it might be necessary to write visually, and understand this. Most screenwriters do, at least, the successful ones.

  3. Thank you.

    I try to remember it’s the camera that tells the truth, especially if the screenwriter misses the point. It is a visual medium, period. From the script/pitch, the agent or producer has to get “it”, that certain something that will eventually be magnified by the actor, the director, and that extraordinary high definition capture. We have to put “it” in there.

  4. As screenwriters I would agree. As this conversation started in the filmmakers group on LI, I’d have to state that the script is only the beginning of the process, and that you make a film four times: The one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit. The fourth one you have almost no control over, which is the one the audience sees. If there is one vision that is kept sacred throughout the entire process, it can still be derailed by what the audience decides that your film is about, and whether or not it’s any good. Of course, by then it’s too late.

  5. I agree with you Matches! Somehow, I am compelled to grapple with a definition of “it”.

    Do you agree that “it” is not the initial ingredient of a screenplay, but rests with the writer being able to lay down a premise, immediately emphasized, threatened or advanced by action, that is the actual emergence of “it” which initiates caring.

    I thought Blake Snyder captured one kind of “it” quality, when he used “Aladdin” as an example. Story begins, Aladdin steals food, equals bad…. but immediately gives it away to someone more needly equals good. From then on you are hooked, and want Aladdin to win more than anything. It seems to me that might be considered one kind of “it”.

    Suddenly I realize I must pay homage to the many kinds of “it” available. I see more clearly now there is more than one kind, and therefore more opportunity to write a successful screenplay. I feel better already.


  6. Pingback: How To Write a Screenplay « The Random Rant

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  8. Agreed one hundred percent.
    David Peoples, Shane Black and Alvaro Rodriguez had an impromptu sofa panel at AFF – and the discussion eventually turned towards the death of the spec screenplay, caused by the glut of really bad material hitting the market. A few years ago, writing a screenplay suddenly became this magic get-rich-quick scheme, a Ponzi-fication of the craft. Thankfully, those people are now dropping out of the market, probably turning energies and dimes invested towards Halliburton.

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  10. I used to be a reader for an agent. The amount of scripts that come across a desk on any given day is absurd. Sometimes, it’s just simply luck of the draw. But really, you have to stand out immediately. The title is very important and so are the first 3 pages. Grab attention quickly.

  11. Read “My Lost Mexico” by E. Hemingway. It changed how I wrote (write) forever and gave me a whole new respect for Bennet Cerf.

  12. As others have pointed out, screenplays are uniquely challenging because the story is told with words that are meant to become visuals. Another route to selling a story for film is to forget about the screenplay format and just write the story as a book. Then at least you’ll have more control over the result. If the story is good enough (if you’re not sure, consult Joseph Campbell to figure out what makes a good story), and if enough books get sold, someone will want to make it into a film and may even hire the author to do the screenplay treatment.

    • If only that were the reality, Mitch. Went to a very enlightening seminar last night. Even as a multiple award winner, it’s very hard to get to the top via any path, however, there are those of us that will never surrender, and as a result, eventually make it there.

      And, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere 😉

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