How To's | Screenwriting

Script Marketing 101

1 Jan , 2004  

Written by Paul Lawrence | Posted by:

Before you blanket the industry with query letters, get some tips from a veteran writer on marketing your screenplay effectively.

Okay, so you have a finished script. Now what do you do? That’s the big question every screenwriter has after they’ve typed in those words, "Fade Out." The simple answer is to get the script into someone’s hands that will pay you for your script. As anyone who’s ever tried to sell a script knows: Easier said than done. The following article will give you an overview of the process.

The first step is preparation. The effort you are about to embark upon will more than likely be a difficult one. You can and should expect to have many obstacles thrown in your way. It will seem almost impossible to get any industry person to read your script. You’ll be told that without representation your script can’t be read. You’ll be told by professional representatives (agents and managers) that you can’t be represented without having sold something. Your friends and loved ones will scoff at your dreams or at best just silently doubt your prospects. So, does this mean that you should forget about it?

The answer is an emphatic no! Because despite the overwhelming odds, new writers break into the ranks of working writers on a daily basis. It can be done without connections, formal schooling or money (not to say that these things won’t help your cause). I only point this out because just like a professional boxer preparing for a championship fight, you need to be prepared to go the distance.

The harsh reality is that the movie business is a brutal, difficult business. You are entitled to keep your artistic aspirations and you should; however, keep them in your script. Once the script is done, you need to prepare to think like a business person. If you’re easily intimidated by people telling you no or quickly antagonized by people not recognizing the quality of your writing, then either prepare to fund, direct and star in your own films or consider another line of work.

But, if you are prepared to repeatedly get your nose bloodied (not literally as a general rule), climb up and keep going after getting knocked down, and are simply unwilling to give up until you can make your dream happen… even if it takes one, two, five or 10 years, then you have a fighting chance at breaking in and becoming a working writer.

Stating the Obvious

First of all, I beg of you to make sure that you’re certain that your screenplay is really ready to be presented professionally. I didn’t take this same advice when I began writing and as a result, I ended up permanently shutting several doors.

It’s not easy to break through the clutter. There are tens of thousands of other intelligent, determined and talented people like you who are pounding the same doors, responding to the same computer bulletin board postings and contacting the same entities listed in all the various different directories. Yet, if you execute an intelligent campaign you can succeed in getting a few script requests during a year. In my first few years of writing, I was averaging about three a year. Realistically, if you start as an outsider with no practical knowledge of the industry or contacts, you can probably get about three -10 script requests in a year although obviously some people may get less and some many more.

The point is that you won’t have many shots and each of these entities will have piles and piles of competing scripts. The good news is that from my conversations with producers and agents I know is that only one or two of each 100 is good enough for them to consider moving to the next step. The bad news is that if your script isn’t in top form, you may have killed any further opportunities with this company.

Forming a Marketing Strategy

Again, this is a business you’re embarking on and you need to treat it as such. While there may be the isolated stories of some guy that wrote his first screenplay got it into somebody’s hands who is important and a six figure option deal happened overnight, these stories are the exception!

Most writers who make it spent years working in the trenches, so if you have an attitude that is something like, "I’ll only take a mid-six figure option against a seven figure sales price and they’ll have to come to me" — LOSE IT!

The reality is that unless you do know someone high up on the food chain, the bigger players won’t read your work. They won’t even read your query. Filled with ignorant bliss, I originally began querying the major agencies and got back little impersonal notes that let me know not only were they unwilling to read my script, they weren’t even willing to read the loglines I’d enclosed.

In fact, even as recently as a few months ago I was at a writer’s seminar and on the Disney lot. I listened as a development executive told another writer that they wouldn’t be able to read his script without it being submitted by an agent. Emboldened with the fact that I did have an agent (one that I knew many mid-sized producers had relationships with), I asked if I could submit something through my agent. The executive asked who my agent was and when she didn’t know him, let me know that I could if I wanted to, but it would never get read as she had piles of scripts from the Super Heavyweight agencies she dealt with. So, the moral of the story is to set your sights on prospects that might be receptive to you.

I recommend a three-tiered strategy: approaching small and mid-sized literary agencies and management firms, contacting independent producers and producers with studio relationships, and cultivating industry contacts who could refer you to either of the first two categories.

Small and Mid-Sized Agencies and Management Firms:

Having bona-fide representation will open doors to you that will otherwise be closed. Many producers won’t read scripts from unrepresented writers. Secondly, the fact that you have an agent will impress some producers and motivate them to read you when they might not otherwise do so. Finally, a smart agent will more than earn the 10% by negotiating a better deal for you. I learned the hard way. I once sold a script for an amount that should’ve been just an option. My agent scathingly rebuked me for not having him negotiate the deal. The result is that the script was never produced and I can’t get back what is a very strong script, but if I’d had an agent handle the deal I probably would’ve resold the script by now.

Keep in mind even these smaller agents are swarmed with queries and scripts. Every one of them has stacks of unread scripts. So, you’ve got to get their attention. First of all, I discourage the use of form query letters. If you can’t be bothered to write them a personal letter they’re going to feel like why should they bother to give you a personal response. Yes, it’s more time consuming and you’ll be able to send out less queries, but my experience has been that personalized queries will result in a 10 times better response, so you’ll only need to write 10% as many as writer doing bulk queries.

Do your due diligence about your target. Read the trades like Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and some of the publications that report spec script deals. When you read about agents handling scripts like yours, choose them as targets. Even better, find out who the assistant is and send your query letter addressed to them. While that agent may get as many as 50 or more query letters a week addressed to them, you can be sure the assistants aren’t getting too many addressed to them. Do you think they’re going to read that letter with interest? Of course they will. And, if they think their boss might like your material, they may ask you to submit it so they can read it. Today’s assistants are tomorrow’s dealmakers. They’re on the prowl for scripts that can help them propel their career. So, if they read your script and are impressed, there’s a good chance they’ll slip it into the "read pile" for their boss.

A few other rules for querying agents:

  • List any relevant information about yourself like academic training related to film, contests you’ve placed in or won, any options and sales you’ve had or projects you wrote that have been produced and anything that would give you specialized knowledge like you used to be a homicide detective, etc.
  • Don’t tell them that this film will make a fortune because it’s just like last summer’s blockbuster or about how perfect Tom Cruise would be in the lead unless you know Mr. Cruise and he’s indicated an interest in the part.
  • Let the agent know you have at least three complete screenplays written and provide a compelling logline (a 30 word or less summary which explains what the movie is about) for at least one of them.
  • Make the query letter brief and easy on the eyes with an eye-grabbing opening that might get someone’s attention.
  • Don’t write about anything negative, especially stories about people that tried to rip you off and you’re thinking about suing.
  • Be sure to request permission to send your script and provide contact information so they can make the script request.

Small and Mid Sized Producers:

Because these producers don’t have the big agencies bombarding them with quality scripts, these guys can be more receptive to new writers. And, quite a few will let you submit without an agent as long as you sign a release.

Again, do your due diligence. If a company only has produced low budget horror scripts, don’t waste their time sending a query about your $150 million budget period piece. And, get a specific name. Don’t send your query to the president or owner. Instead, find out who the director of development is or whatever title has that function and send it to them.

The rules for your query are the same as with the agents above. Now, if one of these producers has an interest in your script, they may not have the money to option your script themselves. They may want an option with no real money changing hands. I recommend looking at the history of the producer. Do they have any credits listed in IMDB or in HDC? How long an option do they want? Do they want you to do any rewriting?

With a producer without credits, I am very reluctant to do anything without any real money changing hands. In the past I gave a producer 90 days with no rewrites because she had a relationship with a producer with a studio deal. She couldn’t make the deal happen, but there was no great loss, since it was just for 90 days and I hadn’t done any further work. Each proposed deal should be looked at individually.

By the way, once you have a producer with an interest, this is a great way to get an agent. In fact, it’s how I obtained my first agent. Once you have an agent, just pick up the phone and tell the agency that I have "so and so who wants to option my script, but I don’t have an agent. Will you help me?" You won’t have to make many calls before you find an agent with interest.

Cultivate Relationships With Industry People:

If you live in Los Angeles or at least New York this will be a little easier, but it’s not impossible from other areas. One of the best ways to learn the business and make contacts is by being an unpaid intern for a producer or agency.

If you’re not being paid, people will be much more receptive to allowing you to work for them. Even if you can’t do it full time, do it part time. You’ll have a chance to learn a lot about the business and you may make excellent contacts. Even if you’re not in a city with lots of production, there is almost some production everywhere. If nothing else, virtually every major metropolitan area has a film festival. Volunteer to help out with that. One important caveat with this strategy: Be of value first, then once you’ve established an actual relationship with someone ask for their help with your career.

A second way to seek relationships with people who might be inclined to help you is through other people who you know. You’d be surprised to realize how many people know someone that is in the business.

In one case for me, the son of a friend of my mother’s was a writer (he’s now the executive producer for a major network show). The guy was pretty nice and gave me quite a bit of advice, encouragement and even showed the script to a few people he knew. Nothing came of it, but it was a real shot I suddenly had that came from nowhere and he still returns my calls today. So who knows what might happen tomorrow?

In other examples of referrals, while working in another business I was operating I came to know the niece of one of the most widely known directors today and my cousin’s fiancee had an uncle who was a heavyweight writer. In my personal case, my breaks came from other places, but everything is just a matter of luck and timing. So, I strongly suggest that you let everyone you meet know that you’re a screenwriter. If they know someone in the business, it’s more than likely that they’ll bring up who they know and then, you can politely inquire as to the prospects of your getting some assistance from that person.

If you aggressively spend at least ten hours a week following these strategies, you’re virtually certain to get several script requests. The rest will be up to what you’ve actually got on the page.

Related Articles: Ask the Screenplay Doctor: How to (and Not to) Submit a Query Letter
Ask the Screenplay Doctor: How to Break Into Hollywood
Ask the Screenplay Doctor: How to Find Agents and What to Write to Them
Ask the Screenplay Doctor: More About Agents