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Selling Your First Screenplay

This is very common for newbies to wonder or focus on before or after they’ve written their first script. The harsh reality is that most people won’t sell their first screenplay, because…well, it probably just won’t be as awesome or unique as you think it is. Or your mom, wife, husband, sister, brother, dog and best friend says it is. Putting aside the fact that most managers and agents are more attracted to writers who have a “body of work” instead of one script, you have to understand that there are several factors that contribute to getting a screenplay sold outside of just the idea itself. The execution is just as, if not more important than the concept.

Screenwriting is a Craft

You get better with each one and with critical feedback from people who know what a good story and script is. Your friends and family don’t really count. Trust me on that part. If you’re seeking representation, a manager will want to see a body of work. Not one script. If you’re seeking an agent he won’t be interested in talking to you unless you have a script that is pending a sale or there is some aspect about you or your work they find easy to sell. The key word with agents is “sell”. Write your first script, revise it one or two times. Let it sit and start working on another one. In a month, come back and read the first script with fresh eyes. The most important thing you need on your first script is critical feedback from someone who’s in the industry, is a lot better than you or knows what a good screenplay looks like (a reader that works in the industry, etc).

Assume My First Screenplay is Gold. Now What?

Okay, let’s play out the scenario of you having lightening in a bottle. You want to get this great script in the right hands — because you need someone who can actually sell it. That’d be either a producer, manager or agent. Depending on who gets accepts your solicitation first, each one of these roles could play out differently. In this scenario let’s assume you’ve gotten in touch with a producer. You are now going to have to figure out a way to make the producer actually want to read your entire screenplay. He has to want to read it. This is the part where you’d send him or verbally tell him your log line.

But, what’s a log line?

Put simply, a log line is a brief (usually one-sentence or two-sentence) summary of your screenplay that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest. A one-sentence program summary in TV Guide is a log line.

So Now Do I Need an Agent or Manager?

Still using our prior fantasy that your screenplay is completely polished and ready to be the next big thing. Maybe.

Ideally your representatives (or reps) would prefer you have a body of work and not just one flash in the pan script. This way they can get you writing assignments which is how a majority of screenwriters in the industry earn a living. They don’t make a living by selling original spec scripts contrary to popular belief. In fact, if you search around you will find that in 2014 there were 370 spec scripts that went out to studios to be pitched. Only 90 of those scripts resulted in actual sales…and 6 of those sales were scripts that went out in the prior year.

Aside from that, let’s talk about the people who would rep your awesome screenplay and what their roles would be.

Agents & Managers…what’s the difference?

Like any other industry, roles and positions always evolve, but typically the manager and agent would work together to get their client assignments. The agent would negotiate deals and sometimes the manager would as well. All of this is dependent on how big or small the deal is and of course the level of agent or manager you have on your team.

The manager normally would nurture the writer’s career and provide constructive criticism when needed on screenplays, concepts, treatments, etc. When both the writer and manager were happy with what they had, the manager would then forward the scripts to his industry contacts and worked to either get the spec script sold or to get writing assignments.

Whenever a deal was pending, usually the agent would negotiate the details of the contract, but by law could not be a producer on the project. In contrast, the manager could be a producer on the project, but couldn’t negotiate the contracts. It’s not uncommon to see a lot of managers attach themselves as producers to the projects of the client.

Most newbie writers think once they land an agent or manager that all they need is a good script to get it sold. The assumption is that the agent or manager would just willingly send out whatever grand idea they come up with – this couldn’t be further from the truth. Your rep (manager or agent) has to be very careful about which projects they send out to their contacts because for every “cool idea” that falls flat (which is more common than a sale or bidding war) it weakens your rep’s value. In other words, your rep has to maintain his or her own rep by putting out great material – otherwise their calls eventually won’t get returned the same way the newbie screenwriter’s calls go straight to voicemail now.

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