Spec screenplay sales – long shots, real long

-- my friend, you will have a meeting that week. The single purpose in that meeting will be to meet Mr. Hopkins.


movie set


Twenty years ago I was working with a writing partner, Jon.  He had hooked an office over a parking lot at XXX for six months and got a wacky development deal.  The office was at least the size of my closet with the low ceiling.

We finish our spec script — we borrow a Xerox machine to bootleg ten copies. No problem but no brads.

I go on a mission to find brads. My idea is to locate some old scripts and harvest a fistful of brass brads.

I find a guard — he is  proud of XXX’s recycling efforts.  He takes me to a room.  The room is the size of our guest bedroom.  There are floor to ceiling stacks of scripts.  “Wow, you have these many scripts that are recycled every month?” I ask.

“Yep,” he says. “But that’s a two-week bunch.  And of course, each building has a similar recycling station.  Let’s see, I think we have 310 buildings. Help yourself to all the brads you want.”

Wow, I think.  There is serious competition here.

The guard leaves me alone so I do a bit of investigating.  I find a stack of scripts that some goofy development company has thrown out.  Let’s call the company Super Hungry Tiger Productions.

There are twenty scripts of so in their throwaways. All tied up in a bundle.  All the scripts in that bundle  are from top agencies.  Top writers.  Top directors — I recognized half the names of the writers.  They mostly  live in mansions or on their boats.

Now it gets interesting — each script has two letters with it.  One letter is from we’ll say Big Deal Agency.  The body of the letter is to some nameless executive at Super Hungry Tiger Production.  Dear nameless executive, here’s a great script that Joe wrote.  And enjoy the use of our houseboat on Lake Mead.

The second letter is from Nameless executive to Big Deal Agency VP — “We read your script, we didn’t like it, we loved it, can’t do it at this time.  We look forward to seeing it made.  Best of luck. And thanks for making that huge houseboat with the butler available. Kids had a fab time. Best, Nameless executive.  PS — Charlie said you could get a set of tickets for The Stones. True or false?”

What is going on I ask myself?  Each letter with each script has a little perk.  A trip to Hawaii on a private jet.  LA Laker box seats.  Bloody on and on.

In the twenty or twenty-five bundled scripts in this package are 100+ grand of perks.

None of the letters indicated Very Hungry Tiger Productions bought or optioned any of these screenplays.

So I cull my brads and go back to Jon’s tiny office.  I am thinking Very Hungry Super Tiger Productions must be some secret company that Spielberg or maybe Eastwood set up.  A guard fills me in.  It’s a nothing company.  Years ago it did a Movie of the Week.  Got a little buzz but no awards.  Based on that XXX gives the president of VHSTP an office.  They do nothing, they develop nothing. They have a lot of lunches, etc.  There comes a time when XXX wants the space for something else, and VHSTP gets the boot.


hollywood sign


But here is the lesson to be learned.  The hottest agencies in the world don’t know what they’re doing–they squander tons of perks on idiots. They have no problem giving bribes but even that does no good.  And writers will kill to be represented by those agencies.  Talk about the naked emperor.

So who is making movies?

Everyone is trying.  A tiny number succeed.

But where do they get their scripts?

This is where it gets interesting and I’m just going to make up these figures.  But I bet I’m close.

Let’s say there are 100 features made in Hollywood.

Let’s say fifty of those movies are based on best-selling novels or hot plays or lead articles in major magazines.  You might get a job adapting those properties but more than likely the original writer will be involved. However, you don’t want a job adapting, sure you would take it but you want to sell your original screenplay.

So that leaves you with fifty slots to sell your screenplay.

Alas, ten more of the movies are franchises. Batman, Spiderman, etc.

That leaves you with 40 slots.

Hello, turnaround.  Many of the films being made now have been in development for five years or more.

So that leaves you with 20 slots.

And then there are deals with attachments.  An attachment being the former president of your company to whom you promise three pictures to.  Or a famous actor who you want to star in your Blockbuster and who cares if you have to give him ten mill to make his film?

And don’t forget the endless group of former groupies who are now trophy wives–they’re married to studio hotshots.

And those chicks are using their slots to nail the last few movie slots.  And if a big time producer doesn’t like, uh, trim, well, there’s lots of guys with smiles who are hard working.  Never let it be said that Hollywood wasn’t an equal opportunity town.

Pick up the calendar section of the LA Times.  All the full page ads are for movie franchises or hot plays/novels  that have been adapted.

Okay, say I’m wrong.  There are not 100 movies made a year in Hollywood, there are three hundred.

So what?  Even if three hundred are churned out each year, almost one a day — the above percentages are the same.

Television and cable are another story —

But features like your excellent World War II story.  No chance.  IF you use agents and studio contacts.  Ditto for my scripts.

So what are we to do?  We have to assemble the project ourselves.  That means a director and a couple of actors.

Now the studios will start calling us.

Right now there is 100s of millions of production money all over the world.  They all want a package.

Since we can’t rely on the studios or agencies to assemble a package, we have to do it ourselves.

Ah but you say, production companies keep saying they want scripts.  They are fibbing.  What they really want are your contacts to actors, directors, and possible money sources.

You think I’m kidding?


Call one up any production company and say — “I have a script that Anthony Hopkins and I wrote.  It’s about a dead dog that can foretell the future,  Except it’s really a cat.  It does not know what to do with its life and it has no real goal.  We only have the first act.”

— my friend, you will have a meeting that week.  The single purpose in that meeting will be to meet Mr. Hopkins.

Every production company has at least ten projects that the president wants to do.

And no matter what you bring to the table (as long as it’s contacts or cash), you will always be told we love your project and it’s number two on our slate.  Now first we will do ours together — you will be a co-producer of course.

The lesson.  Use your wiles to package your script.  Find a director.  Find a couple of stars.  But how?

Think outside the box.  Ever notice how stars have the same hairdresser or make-up person or photographer?  I bet all those people would love to be a co-producer.  So make friends with that person.  Use that person to get to the star.

Well, there is one more ploy.  Get someone with a great voice to read your story to an executive.  For example: https://goo.gl/ktXhwI

The above is an old story.  Now, brads are almost a thing of the past. Scripts are digital.  You can store a zillion of them in a thumb drive. But the key is still the star … and a connection to him or her.

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Jaron Summers wrote dozens of primetime television and radio programs, including those for HBO, CBS, ACCESS TV and CBC. He conceived the TV and Film Institute of Canada. Funded by the University of Alberta and ITV, Jaron ran the Institute for 12 years, donating his services for a decade.

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