There’s writing screenplays, and there’s being a screenwriter.
The difference is that anybody can write a screenplay. I learnt my craft by writing dozens of them. However, they never went anywhere because they were rife with errors and not in any way industry friendly.
Being a screenwriter is more about the art of knowing who you are writing for and having a clear, concise, realistic plan of how you intend to get it to them. The difference is that a true screenwriter’s script will often get made, or at very least optioned.
Reasons for writing a screenplay can vary greatly. Maybe you’re writing a script to get that first feature film credit under your belt, or you know a producer or production company that has a little excess money, so you believe you can make a sale.
Depending on your need, the requirements for your script will be different, and in this post I’d like to focus on how to write a screenplay with the specific intention of landing an agent.
Follow this advice and you won’t just be writing a screenplay, but making steps towards being a fully bona fide screenwriter.
1. Make it appeal to bankable actors
Again, there are people who act, and then there are actors.
I don’t doubt that your penniless flatmate has talent, but requesting he stars in your film takes its commerciality down to around zero. Remember, it’s hard enough to get a film made without giving yourself extra hurdles, so give yourself the best chance of success and focus on writing a great story that will appeal to established actors.
Most actors, once they have “made it,” create production companies that scour through material looking for the next suitable project. These films are generally quite ego-driven. Think of Gerard Butler’s insatiable desire to be seen as a man’s man and Machine Gun Preacher becomes a very sensible script to have touted to his company.
Actors want a vehicle to make them look good, often shamelessly, so writing something that offers that will help an agent see your commercial value.
2. Make a film that fits in one genre
Think that combining genres gives your story “edge”? I don’t doubt that, but unless your film fits neatly in one genre, it becomes a much for difficult sale to an agent.
Before you say something like “…but Tarantino does it all the time,” I’m here to remind you that you’re not Tarantino. If you were, you wouldn’t be reading this blog. Understand that I’m not showing you a lack of respect but giving you a reality check. When the day comes that you are a household name, you will be able to mix up all the genres you want, but until then, play the game wisely.
3. Create a killer pitch
“Sorry, but I didn’t have the time to write you a short letter.”
Are you familiar with this sentiment?
It brilliantly emphasises what screenwriting actually is.
You aren’t writing a novel, so you can’t write every one of your character’s thoughts and whims down on the page. Instead, with screenwriting, the skill is in making every word you write have assassin-like purpose.
The same is even truer with your pitch. Ideally, you will fine-tune your idea to about 1-3 sentences, telling the reader exactly what the idea is.
If you can do that, do you know what that says to an agent? It says you don’t waste time, you don’t babble and you know exactly what you’re doing. It’s not easy to achieve this. It takes time and craft, but when you reach that level, you’ll be able to–
4. Submit a script that’s not required
Wow! What? You’re telling us to bust our ass on writing a finely-tuned script, and now you’re saying we don’t even need it?!
Firstly, calm down.
Secondly, in the agent’s case, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
Let’s get this straight – your time on writing an excellently crafted script is never wasted, but you’ll be amazed at how little the script is read by major agents within the profession.
Think of it like this. Scripts take time to read. Good agents have an acute lack of time, so what they really, truly want is a short pitch that is so good, so concise that they know it will excite their contacts.
Of course they’ll check it to some degree before they try to sell it, even if it’s via a trusted intern, but it’s rarely the script itself that secures an agent. They want to sell your script and make some money. Creatively, many agents aren’t actually that invested in the material.
Surprised? Don’t be. The industry is full of such wonderful little delights.
5. Polish the script
Wait… what? But you just said… I’m confused!
Again, calm down. I merely told you that agents rarely read scripts in great detail, but they are only really gatekeepers for your project. If they’re interested in your script, it’s because they think they can sell it. If that sale doesn’t happen, they won’t rally and push it for months on end like you have. Their love and enthusiasm for your work can die overnight.
What’s important is that when they push it to their contacts, your screenplay does sell, so if they get Machine Gun Preacher II into Gerard Butler’s hands, you better make sure there’s enough explosive pec-action in there to make him get the chequebook out. The strength of the script is on you, not the agent.
NOTE: I am aware that some agents are highly skilled at giving notes and advice on scripts. I’ve just never met one, so please don’t take this as me complaining about their work ethics. They simply have very different skills to you. They are great and making contacts and pushing your work to the right people. I just want to make it really clear what should and shouldn’t be expected from this working relationship.
6. Keep it contained
A pretty common buzz word at the moment is “contained.”
“I’m looking for a contained thriller.”
Simply put, low-budget and mid-budget productions are far easier to get made because raising money is a real pain in the ass.
Some new filmmakers might also find it surprising that one of the most expensive things to do when filming is simply changing location. This is why sketch shows have such remarkably high budgets. Cast and crew have to be moved, equipment has to be transported, new sets have to be built or dressed, light and sound checks need to be run, and all the while nothing is getting filmed.
It’s a logistical nightmare!
Therefore, a contained film set with one or two locations is hugely sought after because once the cast and crew are set up, they can just keep going.
Have you seen the film Buried? Watch it. Even if you’ve seen it, re-watch it.
It’s an entire film set in a coffin. I’m not joking. We never leave the coffin.
In truth, there were seven different coffins built to cater for various different shots, etc, but it was filmed for very little money in some obscure studio out in Mexico. They cast Ryan Reynolds, who puts in a superb performance, and suddenly they had a low-budget film that sold well to a US audience.
Remember, the marketing starts as soon as you begin the project, and this is a fine example.
7. Have your next script in the bag
Do you know what it is to be hot?
I do. I know it every time I look in the mirror.
Seriously though, all screenwriting agents know that the best time to make the second sale is right after your first one. What this means is that really you should have not one but two scripts ready to go.
If you are the type of writer that ignores this advice and thinks along the lines of It’ll be alright. When the time comes, I’ll knock something together, then you are not taking your trade seriously. You should know how much work it takes to get a sale. It’s very difficult, and it doesn’t become any easier with your second script because at that time, you will still be an unknown. Even if your first film goes on to great things, nobody will know that at this stage and you will miss out on potentially great opportunities if you don’t have script number two ready to go.
Another great tip is to write the second script in the same genre as the first. This is because your agent knows they will be able to leverage your name using the first project to make the second sale, whereas if it is in a new genre, their work will start all over again as they’ll have to start talking to a different circle of contacts.
So… as eager as you feel, be patient, take a breath and think of what you most love to write. That should be the starting point of your first two sellable screenplays.
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