What do you need to attain representation, get into meetings, and sell your screenplay in Hollywood today?
A miracle? There’s some validity to that knee-jerk response, sure. Regardless, it’s a question that most screenwriters struggle to answer. There is a multitude of different answers coming from many different sources — books, interviews, videos, seminars, panels, gurus, managers, agents, and other industry insiders.
The problem is that all of these sources are pulling from different Hollywood time periods of the past.
Back in the 1990s during the screenwriting boom, if you had a high concept script in any of the major box office draw genres — action, horror, thriller, and comedy — you had a fighting chance to sell it for six to seven figures. The script market was as hot as it ever had been, and ever has been since. The industry was coming off of a tough Writers Guild strike, and money was flowing.
In the first eight years of the 2000s, that screenwriting boom simmered until a few years in when spec sales started to trend up. And then the double punch of the economic collapse and another Writers Guild strike sucker-punched the film and television industry. The money wasn’t there. The corporations that owned the studios were reluctant to take significant risks. Cost coverage for development plummetted, which meant that paid options for screenwriters and their spec scripts were few and far between.
The industry as a whole became more obsessed with intellectual property (IP) than it had ever been before, especially as Marvel began to shell out superhero hit after hit.
Now, as the 2000s are well into their second decade, spec script sales are slowly trending upwards. With original hits like Get Out and A Quiet Place turning huge profits, Hollywood is starting to look for more original concepts and screenplays. And with the advent of streaming companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu on the rise and in search of original fare, things are certainly looking up for screenwriters looking to make that first sale.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. There’s still a lot of selectiveness in Hollywood. So it’s important to know what Hollywood is looking for today — which generally applies to the next year or so within the industry. This isn’t trend-chasing, mind you. It’s simply paying attention to the current climate and atmosphere of Hollywood.
Horror Is the Perfect Genre for Spec Scripts Today
Good Fear manager Jake Wagner told The Wrap, “The three genres that seem to be working at the box office are superhero, horror and animated family movies. But the only genre a writer could really write on spec is horror and, traditionally, horror specs don’t go for a lot of money — horror budgets are typically not that high, $5 million or so.”
Horror has always been a hot commodity in the spec script market. Why? Because there’s less risk involved thanks to the low budgets that horror films can be produced under.
Get Out was produced on a budget of just $4.5 million. It went on to make $176 million domestic with a worldwide take of $255 million.
A Quiet Place had a higher budget of $17 million but went on to gross $186 million domestic and $328 million worldwide.
If you have a unique high concept horror script within your script arsenal, you may want to polish it up and start submitting it to The Blood List, or other major contests, and start keeping an eye on the trades for company names that are selling and producing horror hits.
Family Adventures Are on the Rise
APA agent Adam Perry commented to The Wrap, “Over these next two or three years, I think there’s going to be a lot of success selling these big, original family films.”
He was referring specifically to the family adventure script — Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers — he represented in the six-figure sale to Warner Brothers about a high school senior who discovers that the old roadside diner outside town is secretly a hangout for travelers from other universes, and he goes on an adventure to explore the multiverse. Screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman wrote the script.
While that script was technically an adaptation of the Hugo Award-winning short story Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers, written by Lawrence Watt-Evans, that original IP was undoubtedly not well-known enough for the studio to think that an already embedded audience was attached.
Family adventure scripts are coveted four-quadrant projects, meaning they can be sold to an audience of young, old, male, and female. That’s very appealing to studios. The concepts have to really pop though.
But What About Animated Feature Scripts?
Animation spec scripts have always been a tough sell because most studio animation companies have story departments from within. But the major studios connected to those animation companies do often buy up animation pitches. However, there’s a catch.
UTA agent Alex Rincon told The Wrap, “That’s much more challenging from an emerging screenwriter… but from established screenwriters with track records from TV or elsewhere, those transactions occur frequently, as there is such a demand for animated stories.”
Pitches are usually not sold by unknowns. If you have a hit or two under your belt, that story changes a bit. Regardless, if you’re an unknown, it’s best not to put too much stock — or stalk — into your own animation screenplays. If you’re an animation filmmaker that can make a short out of them — or a proof of concept video — that’s a different story because those are visual pitches that can entice the powers that be to take a chance on a newcomer that has shown promise as an animation filmmaker.
What Do You Do with Those Other Genre Scripts You’ve Written?
Wagner from Good Fear Management says, “The big studios won’t really touch comedy and drama right now, but Netflix might come in and take something off the table, which is great.”
Streaming companies are facing less risk because they are content driven, as opposed to relying on box-office numbers. Even high concept fantasy — normally thought to be a dead spec genre — is in the conversation. Max Landis, son of legendary genre director John Landis, sold his spec Bright to Netflix for $3.5 million. He instructed his representation to take the script, along with two others, to everyone but the major studios. Netflix produced the film for $90 million and apparently had enough views to generate an upcoming sequel.
The point is that there’s a place for every genre, but you have to do your homework to find the right people and companies.
While horror may be king for the next year or so, and family adventures are on the rise, there’s always a place for a compelling and engaging script written under another genre. But the script has to be just that — compelling and engaging.
Most random screenplays with underwhelming premises — character study dramas, quirky comedies, etc. — that usually flood the major contests and screenplay spec market from newcomers aren’t going to generate much heat.
You need to come up with concepts that are going to make that development executive, producer, or manager tilt their head in interest upon reading that logline. And most of the time the hard truth is that even having a great script like that is not enough.
Even if you have representation, they still need to take as much as they can to the studios, streaming channels, and producers. Hollywood has always been obsessed with packaging. There’s less risk and less work to do when the writers or the people representing those writers come to the table with a talent (star, director, producer) already attached.
But as of today, horror and family adventures may offer you the best odds. Beyond them, unique science fiction concepts, as well as contained thrillers, can often give you the edge over otherwise familiar fare. In short, dare to be different, while still embracing what Hollywood is ready, willing, and able to take a chance on.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies