Once you’ve written the next Hollywood blockbuster, you’ll want to know how to sell a screenplay. Keep in mind that this is a difficult proposition, as even the most high-quality script has a slim chance of being sold. And the odds of it making to theaters is even smaller. While this slim odds shouldn’t stop you from trying to sell a screenplay, you should temper your expectations and remain realistic about your chances.
The following article will provide practical advice on how to sell a screenplay, including agents, cold calling, and copyrighting your work. We’ll also look at some of the most common terms used when discussing scripts, including the dreaded “development hell.”
How to Copyright Your Screenplay
Once your screenplay is written, it’s a good idea to copyright it. While it’s unlikely that an agent or studio would actually risk litigation and steal your idea, there’s also no point in taking any chances with something you’ve worked so hard on. There are two ways to copyright a script, but please note that sending yourself a copy in the mail isn’t one of them. This method will not stand up in court, so forget what you’ve heard. The following are the only acceptable ways:
- The Writers Guild – A writer’s union that allows you to copyright your script. You don’t have to be a member to do so, and the fee is $20 per script. This can be done quickly, and the entire process can be accomplished online.
- Library of Congress – While a copyright exists the moment that you create your work, it will need to be registered in order to bring a lawsuit.
If you’re really serious about protecting your work, you’ll want to register with both the Writers Guild and the Library of Congress. It does take a time, effort, and money, but it’s nowhere near as taxing as actually writing a script. Before you learn how to sell a screenplay, this is the first step you should take.
If you’re looking to sell your screenplay, it’s important to start small. The best people to target are independent producers. These are men and women who specialize in finding promising scripts and combining them with actors and directors. Once this has been accomplished, the resulting package of talent is sold to a studio. The best way to get in touch with a producer is to first have an agent. First of all, this will keep you from getting suckered by one of the many con artists running around Hollywood. Secondly, it assures the producer that you’re a reputable individual who won’t sue if the studio turns down your script and releases something that bears a slight resemblance to your story a decade later. Finally, Hollywood is all about who you know. Having an agent is like having an automatic friend in Hollywood, and that kind of help can never be underestimated.
Before directing Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino sold the screenplay for True Romance, and he also did an uncredited re-write for Past Midnight. John Sayles is another example. While he’s directed films such as Lone Star and The Secret of Roan Inish, many of his projects have been funded by writing genre scripts for films such as The Howling, Piranha, and Alligator. Starting small can lead to big things.
How to Sell a Screenplay in Hollywood – Finding an Agent
Finding an agent is not an easy task. It takes perseverance, people skills, and (sometimes) talent. Before you begin, make sure you possess at least two of the three qualities just mentioned.
The first thing you’ll want to do is make a list of potential agents. Again, it’s best to start small, as major agencies won’t accept unsolicited scripts. The best option is to obtain a copy of the Hollywood Agents and Managers Directory. This periodical is published twice a year, and it details every reputable agent currently working in Hollywood. A one-year subscription will cost you $80, while a single issue runs around $50. It’s well worth the price if you’re serious about learning how to sell your screenplay. You can also purchase The Agents Directory or The Guide to Literary Agents, books that are published annually.
It’s important to target an agency that deals in the genre of film you’ve written. This will save you time in the long run and maximize your chances of finding an agency that will potentially represent you.
Agencies located in Hollywood and Los Angeles are the best to target, while those in New York should be secondary considerations. For additional tips and ideas on what individual agents are looking for, you might consider attending a writer’s conference. This is also a great way to network, and there’s no telling what you might get accomplished over a couple of drinks after the conference has concluded.
Once you’ve compiled a list of talent agencies you’re interested in, you can either send out query letters or try cold calling. Either option can be a frustrating proposition, and this is where you’ll need to use all your skills of perseverance. Query letters should be no longer than a page and succinctly tell the agent what your screenplay can offer them. Be sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope and maintain a professional attitude at all times.
If you decide to cold call, be prepared to deal with lots of receptionists, many of whom won’t be willing to give you the time of day. Don’t give up, though. Small agencies may have actual agents answering the phone, and this could lead to an invitation to send in your screenplay for review. Just remember: never send an unsolicited script to an agency. It will wind up in the trash. In fact, you may even receive a letter from their legal department kindly asking you to not send unsolicited material.
Making the Sale
When you secure an agent, then the process of selling your screenplay will begin. The agent will contact producers throughout Hollywood, pitching them on your idea. Any that are interested will then be sent your script, and then it’s simply a matter of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. Keep in mind that the agent doesn’t work for free, and they’ll usually receive a small percentage of whatever you get paid for your project.
Types of Sales
Anyone who wants to know how to sell a screenplay should be aware of the three major kinds of deals.
Development Hell – A very rare deal that virtually guarantees that the screenwriter will get paid (often double) even if the project is derailed. This kind of deal is hardly ever made, as it often allows the writer to sue the producer or studio if things go horribly awry. Don’t expect this one to ever come up.
Option – Basically, a producer rents your script for a specified period of time. You get paid for this rental, and you cannot shop the script to anyone else while it is being optioned. During this time, the producer can choose to buy the script, or he can let the option elapse. If the latter happens, ownership and control of the script reverts back to you. The usual fee for optioning a script is under $50,000. A common deal in Hollywood.
Sale – This occurs when a producer buys your script outright. This usually ranges from $60k to $100k, although screenwriters with excellent track records can often demand higher salaries. In some cases, you may be offered a deal such as “100 against 300.” This means that you would receive 100k for the sale and another 300k of the film actually got made. There’s also a chance to receive residuals, meaning the writer will receive profits from DVD sales and other forms of merchandising. Your agent will negotiate such points for you, but only writers with a great amount of clout can usually expect the premium deals.
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