I recently sold a screenplay. I’d previously done paid writing assignments, been hired to write scripts based off other people’s ideas … but this was the first time I sold one of my absolutely original, written-for-myself, feature-length scripts.
So I want to impart some words of wisdom to other screenwriters about making a deal.
- PRICE ACCORDINGLY. Most people believe if you sell a screenplay, you’re getting a huge cash pay-out all at once. Not true. (Even worse are the people who convince you that you SHOULD be getting a ton of money even if you’re a beginner, and talk you into turning down a deal that could help your career move forward.) There are a whole lot of ways to sell a screenplay – and selling to a major studio (the least likely) is the only way that pays a huge amount of upfront cash.
Don’t be discouraged! At the start of your career, focus on making sales happen and racking up credits on IMDB. There are tons of small indie production companies far more willing to read spec scripts than studios, and more likely to stick with your original vision. But – being small and indie – their budgets aren’t studio budgets, and the 2-5% that goes to the writer won’t add up to a six figure deal.
They may also need to pay you according to a broken-out schedule. Or pay you via equity in the film.
Whatever their constraints, don’t give up if you’re not met with the pay day you’d envisioned. Work out a reasonable payment plan keeping in mind that the main goal is to get them to MAKE THIS MOVIE and make it well… which won’t happen if you bleed them dry.
- THERE WILL BE CHANGES. My former screenwriting professor told me a terrible story. He wrote a script based on his father’s real-life experience in a poker tournament on a ship returning home after World War II. The pot was over $1 million (imagine that in 1945!) There was backstabbing, cheating, and violence. Every man was desperate to win and live out the American dream.
Sounds like a great movie, right?
A major studio thought so and bought the rights. But then… they wondered… would it resonate with a modern audience? Before my professor knew what happened, instead of a ship, they wanted a space ship, and instead of poker, they wanted the Ultimate X-Games.
You get the idea. Once you sell your script, the new owners have the right to ask for whatever changes they want – and there will ALWAYS be changes. Even when they say they love it as it is, just wait… after getting feedback from other sources (especially investors), they will want you to make changes.
And you will. With a smile. Because that’s your job. And if you can take whatever notes you’re given and turn over a new draft – writing will stay in your future.
And to be fair, sometimes their changes will be for the better. But other times… your World War II drama will get sent to outer space. Be ready for blast off.
- THERE WILL BE CHANGES YOU HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH. The changes you’ll be asked to make are one thing. What’s harder is when changes get made without anyone telling you, which will also happen. Again, you have to stay positive. This is a collaborative art form, after all, and in film, unlike theatre and TV, the writer’s say is much less important than that of directors, producers, etc. If you want control, become a director – not a screenwriter.
One related piece of advice: when possible, be on the set. At least that way, the first time you see these changes won’t be at the premiere.
- SHOW YOUR SUPPORT. No matter how it turns out, or what got changed, or what you pictured differently – always, always show support for the film. This was put together by people doing their best to make something great and who put their faith and money into something you brought them in the first place. Help promote it on social media, attend events when you can, give glowing interviews to the press if that’s an issue… Be proud of what was made.
Then do it all over again with the next one.
By Digital Film Academy Blog Manager Sara McDermott Jain
One thought on “4 Things Screenwriters Should Know About Selling Their Screenplays”
Great advice. It is amazing how other writers will give you rotten advice when getting started in the industry. That first sale is about getting your first professional credit and getting your career rolling, not about holding out for some lottery pay day.