TUESDAY'S BIZ TIP:
YOU NEED A BUSLOAD OF SCRIPTS
Every day on some screenwriting message board someone posts that they have
just finished their first script, and now they want to know how to sell it (for a million bucks).
You frequently read articles about some writer who sold his first script for a bunch of money, but
that's usually hype. It may have been their first sale, but it wasn't their first script. According
to a WGA survey, the average professional writer wrote *9* screenplays before ever making a cent...
That's actually what The Beatles were singing about in their song "Revolution Nine" - the number of
screenplays you have to write before you've got a shot at selling something. If you play it
backwards, you can hear Paul pitching ideas for sequels to HELP!.
As Lou Reed told Paul, "You will need a busload of scripts to get by in Hollywood". One screenplay
is not enough. You need two *great* screenplays... and that's not just two screenplays. You may
have to write a stack of scripts before you get two *great* ones. Even if you have one great script
and a bunch of ideas for other scripts, that's probably not enough.
There are several elements involved, here:
1) What if that one good script was a fluke? You know how there are "One Hit Wonders" in
the music world? Groups or singers who manage to pull off one big hit... then nothing else they
record ever makes the charts? That can happen with writers, too. There is no such thing as a perfect
screenplay - every script has some flaws. A great script is usually one where the amazing parts of
the script far outweigh the flaws. The producer can ignore some little problems because everything
else really comes together. Sometimes lightning strikes, and everything comes together for a writer
in one script... and that script is better than anything else they have ever written... or will
ever write. It's a fluke. Most screenwriting isn't spec scripts, it's assignments - hiring a
writer to adapt something from another medium or work from a producer's idea. But even a spec
script is going to go through rewrites - so they need to know that this great script isn't a
fluke - that you can deliver great writing again and again. With only one script, they can't tell
if it's talent or a fluke. Two great scripts and they see that you have something - you can do it
again. If they give you an assignment, you can pull it off at a certain level of quality. One script
is not a pattern... two can be... and if you have more that two *great* scripts? Hey, people will
want to hire you.
2) Inventory. They read your great script and it's not exactly what they are looking
for. "What else have you got?" Even if you say "I have this script that will be finished a week
from Tuesday", you've just lost momentum. Who wants to wait? There's someone else who already has
a finished script - lots of people - and they're just going to go to them. There are something like
75,000 scripts registered every year with WGA, and on December 31st those scripts don't just vanish.
My guess is that scripts stay in circulation for about a decade - I actually have 20 year old scripts
still making the rounds. That's over *half a million finished screenplays* a producer has to choose from.
The "idea for a script" is still a dream, and they want reality - something they can have a reader
cover over the weekend. You can't sell the promise of a script (okay, eventually you can, but not
when you're starting out). That means you need an inventory. You need more than one script that's
good enough for them to buy.
When that door opens for you, you want to be able to shovel as many scripts through it as it
takes for them to find the one they want to buy. "That's not *exactly* what we're looking for...
what else you got?" If you only have the one good script, and it's a big budget action script...
but the producer wants a medium budget thriller... you don't have what the producer wants. Often a
producer doesn't really know what they want until they see it - so you need to keep giving them
scripts to read in hopes that one of them clicks. Other times a producer may have a specific slate
of films they need to make, a mix of genres. That great script you give them may not be in the
genre they're interested in... but if you have another great script in a different genre, it might
be exactly what they need to fill out their slate. Sometimes it's just the concept - they read
one script from you and either have a similar script in development or just released a film with
a similar plot, and they want something different. "That's a great script - we bought one just
like it last week, what else you got?" And if the answer is "Nothing" that's what will happen to
your career. If you can keep cycling scripts through their doors, eventually they may find
something they like... or realize you are a consistently good writer and hire you to script F
TROOP: THE MOTION PICTURE.
3) Used Scripts. Here's the problem - once a script has made the rounds it's "used"
(as in "used toilet paper") and has little value. That means you constantly need new scripts.
I know this sounds crazy, but a script that goes out wide and doesn't sell is dead - even if
everybody loved it (just not enough to buy). Once you've sent the same script to a few agencies
or producers without getting any bites, there's a good chance that script has made the *tracking
boards* - secret message boards where development people discuss the scripts being submitted
around town. That may kill your script's chances at places you haven't sent it, yet - because they
already know other people turned it down. They don't want sloppy seconds - they don't want the
scripts that other places have thrown away - they only want the scripts that everybody else wants.
Yes, that is silly. It's also the way many things in the world works. Everyone wants to date the
popular girl in high school, and everyone wants to buy the popular scripts in Hollywood. So once
your script has made the rounds, it's time to retire it and send out another script. Which means
you'll need a good supply of good scripts.
I'm currently looking for new representation, and am *stockpiling* high concept scripts so that
I have six *great* new scripts - which allows my new agent or manager to send out a new spec every
two months. These six are in addition to the rest of my inventory. I want to create *momentum* -
and that means I need a bunch of hot new high concept scripts (and I'm a pro writer with a bunch
of credits). The last thing I want is a lag time while I'm writing a script.
4) Query Letters. You have a great script and query everyone in town... and you get a
handful of responses and a couple of people read your script but nobody signs you (or buys it).
Okay, now what do you do? Well, you need to send out another batch of query letters... and for
that you need another script. You can't just keep hammering them with the same script, they'll
think you're a broken record. (There's a phrase that's on its way out.) As I've said before -
a query letter is like a billboard for *you*. You want to keep putting your name in front of
agents and producers, and to do that you need to keep sending out batches of query letters.
Sending them out often enough that they actually remember your name after a while. And in order
to do that, you need enough scripts to query about. If you only have one or two scripts, that's
one or two query letters - no way anyone will remember your name! The great thing with my
agent-quest is that I can send out a batch of queries every month about a different script...
and I'm writing *new* scripts while I'm sending out queries on my stockpile. I can send out a
batch of queries on a different script every month for *years*. That not only keeps my name in
front of people, it shows that I'm a spec machine - if they sign me, they will always have
something new and interesting to sell.
You might only need two great scripts to land an agent or manager, but you'll need more than
that to launch your career. The great thing about scripts - dang they're cheap to manufacture!
I write a bunch of scripts, and it hardly costs me a thing! But even if your plan is to find a
rep with two great scripts, they have to be *GREAT*...
5) Script quality. If you have only written two scripts, chances are very good that they
both suck. You don't realize this now, but five scripts from now you will wonder why you ever
thought those first two were good enough to show anyone. I'll tell you, I look back on my first
dozen scripts and wonder how the hell I ever got into this business. They suck big time! When I
was just starting out, I met Paul Schrader at a screening of his movie BLUE COLLAR and handed him
a script afterwards... and he had his assistant send me a very nice letter about the script. I
sent a script to Martin Scorsese, too - and got an encouraging response. I would like to apologize
to whoever actually had to read those scripts... they sucked! I had just started writing and didn't
know how bad I was!
Experience is the greatest teacher - and your first few scripts will most likely be learning
experiences rather than earning experiences. A few years back the WGA did a survey and discovered
that the average member wrote nine scripts before they made any money. There's a quote from John D.
MacDonald over on the Wordplay site where he says the first 200,000 words you write will be crap,
so get them over with quickly. That's about *four* paperback novels worth of writing! In Frederick
Levy's book Hollywood 101 he says to think of each screenplay as a semester of college - after
*eight*, you graduate. You learn from each new script you write - rewriting the same script
over-and-over again isn't the same because you learn from tackling new experiences and then
taking what you have learned and applying it to other scripts. I may learn how to solve problems
with my thriller script by writing a rom-com. No matter what - you need to *practice* a heck of a
lot before you're ready for the big leagues. That means writing a lot of scripts.
The nine scripts average means that some people wrote fewer scripts before they made any money...
and some people wrote more than nine. The whole nine scripts thing is not meant to depress you -
actually the opposite. I wouldn't want you to write 8 scripts, have nothing happen, and quit. Or plan
on only writing five scripts and then quitting if nothing happens. Better that you know it may
take a while - 9 scripts or even more - before you make any money. That way, you don't quit just when you are getting close!
Though I'm actually average (after nine scripts I made money), I look back on my first dozen
scripts and think they are crap. Now, some of those scripts I have since rewritten with what I
have since learned, and they're okay, now. So it's not like those crappy early scripts are going
to waste - some can be fixed. You learn with every new script you write, and can use what you've
learned to go back and fix the older scripts. This is something that you will continue doing
throughout your career. Just like a snake that gets a new skin every seven years, you will have
creative breakthroughs throughout your writing life where you suddenly learn something amazing
that completely changes who you are as a writer... and you will want to apply that new knowledge
to your past work. So don't think of those not-great scripts of yours that are stepping stones
to your eventual sale as a waste of time - without them you could never get to the level of
quality required to break in... and you can always go back and rewrite them, which adds to your
In fact, part of my current inventory expansion plan is to rewrite a bunch of my old scripts
with great ideas but poor execution. I'll have not only my six new scripts and all of the new ones
I'm writing, but a stack of scripts that no one has seen in over a decade (and a few that no one
has *ever* seen). Some of these need *a lot* of work, but I'm a much better writer than I was
when I first wrote them.
And you may bump into some writer who *did* sell their first script. If 9 is average, statistically there have to be some 1s and some 20s. If you sell your first script, that is great! But I don't want you to worry if you've written eight scripts and nothing has happened. If you quit after eight scripts, who knows? Maybe your ninth or tenth would have been the one. And, hey, someone didn't make any money until script #20 to account for that guy who sold his first script.
Learning curves are different for everyone... but no one starts out brilliant. And your script
has to be brilliant to get you into the biz.
6) Are We Not Writers? I don't understand people who want to write for a living, but
only want to write one or two scripts. Writers write. If you want to be a writer, it's one damned
word after another for the rest of your life!
I know a writer who wrote *one* feature script and then stopped writing and started shopping
that script. It didn't sell, but he's not writing a new script. It has been *a decade* since he
wrote that first script. There is no second feature script. Is that a writer?
Maybe I'm crazy, but I'm always writing. I always have some new script in the works. I *love*
that time between assignments - I can write specs. I write specs that I don't think will sell
sometimes, because I really wanted to write that script. I'm smart enough to know those scripts
probably won't sell - I'm not trying to use them to break in (I'm in), I just love writing. If
I have a story to tell, I want to tell it. I am a writer! I write articles, I write a blog,
I write short stories and I had some stories that weren't film type stories so I wrote them as
novels (unsold - but also unshopped). I think if you want to be a writer, you'd better love writing...
And if you love writing, are you going to stop at one script? Two scripts? Ten scripts? A
hundred scripts? If you love writing, you are going to keep writing... and write as many scripts
as it takes. You know what? After you break in, you don't stop writing scripts... that's when you
*really* have to turn out scripts. If you are lucky, you'll be writing scripts for the rest of
your life... maybe even hundreds of them! So if you's better love writing screenplays! That's what
screenwriters *do* - they write screenplays.
As Lou Reed says, "You need a busload of scripts to get by."
Keep on writing!
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E BOOKS PAGE
E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there
will soon be novels.
E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES
MY OTHER SITES
B MOVIE WORLD
Cult Films, Exploitation, Bikers & Women In Prison, Monster Movies.
FIRST STRIKE PRODUCTIONS
Producing my own scripts, investment possibilities, pipe dreams.
NAKED SCREENWRITING CDs
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Each Blue Book is 48
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THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The
nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines,
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