TUESDAY'S BIZ TIP:
Most of the tips I post here are aimed at mainstream screenwriting - writing scripts that you will eventually sell to others rather than writing scripts that you will find funding for yourself. But there are all sorts of odd corners to the film business that don't fit the typical Hollywood mold. A director friend of mine was once contracted to make original horror films exclusively for Blockbuster Video - you couldn’t rent them anywhere else. Another friend of mine is working for a company that makes films for the "urban audience" - films with African-American and Hispanic lead characters dealing with issues of interest to that audience. And a producer I know launched a company a few years ago that makes films for the Gay & Lesbian audience. Now factor in all of the “streamers” that have taken over and ended my friend’s Blockbuster deal (and ended Blockbuster, except for that one store) and you can see that there is more to movies than just typical Hollywood stuff. There are niche markets for scripts where the rules are very different... so let's take a look at writing for niche markets today.
Let's say you're writing a Nudist Western titled A FISTFUL OF RAWHIDE. What *is* the market for Nudist Westerns? How many Nudists like Westerns? You may not think that those things have anything to do with your screenplay; but the smaller the market, the lower the film's budget is going to be, and that may *directly affect your script*. A film with a limited audience will have a limited budget - and the lower the budget, the fewer locations and speaking roles. Props, effects, sets, location rentals, and everything else is dependent upon the budget... and the market for the film.
If you were to write the epic HOW THE WEST WAS WON BY NUDISTS, which may cost $100 million or more to make, you might be out of luck. There may only be enough Nudist Western audience to sustain a film with a budget of $250,000.... or even less! You might not be able to afford horses! And that scene on the locomotive that's critical to your story? It's gotta go! A film with a small audience is going to be a small film made on a small budget with a small cast and very few locations. This seems like it would be common sense, but you'd be surprised how many quirky indie film scripts with casts of thousands have been written... and then nobody bought them because they would be too expensive to make. An Indie Film or a Niche Film needs to be written so that it can be made on a budget.
IS BUDGET MY JOB?
There’s a Script Tip in rotation where I say that screenwriters shouldn’t worry about budget... unless you're writing the script for a limited budget. If you are writing for a niche audience, you are writing for a limited budget. Now, most people will tell you that you should just create, write what’s in your heart, and don’t think about the business side until you have typed “Fade out”... but those people are wrong. Because if you want to be a professional screenwriter, in the business of writing screenplays; business will be a part of your writing. Part of the writing itself. Most of this is common sense and the people who give that advice think you are going to factor in some things, but if you are a new writer trying to break in you may not know what those things are. Basically, if you want to write movies you have to write movies. That seems obvious, but often when I do a pitch clinic at some film festival many of the pitches just aren’t movies. They might be stage plays or novels or something else designed for a limited audience, but they are not *movies* - stories told visually for a mass audience. So if you naturally write exciting, visually told stories in a popular genre - write from the heart and don’t worry too much about the business stuff. Usually the people giving out this advice write popcorn stuff and just assume that you are writing popcorn stuff, too.
But if you’re not?
If you are writing a Nudist Western or a script for some other niche market? You need to factor in budget from the concept stage.
Limited audience means limited earnings means limited budget means a screenplay that can be made on a limited budget.
I am writing this during Oscar season, where we get all of the “exceptions to the rule” - a Gay Romance starring Armie Hammer, a bunch of “based on a true story” movies with stars in the cast, a ton of dramas not in any specific genre, and “soft comedies” that are more character oriented than funny. But even most of those were written and made on a small budget, because even with a big name star in the lead, these films will play to a limited audience. Even if you compare CALL ME BY YOUR NAME to THE LONE RANGER (a flop), THE LONE RANGER still made a lot more money, and the ancillary products helped cover the budget. No ancillary products for CALL ME BY YOUR NAME... that I know of. But this time of year it’s easy to think that even a niche movie can end up with a big name star in the cast and an Oscar nomination in its future, so no need to think of budget when writing the script. But these are the exceptions.
BIG BUDGET AND GAY
Let’s say you have a script that appeals to a limit audience segment, but seems (to you) too expensive to be targeted only at that audience segment. That makes it a long shot. And extreme long shot - because it has a limited audience (strike one) and is expensive (strike two). Sure, sometimes people bet on long shots and they come through, but most likely they are long shots for a reason.
So, you need to make your script less of a long shot. Best way to do that is to look at budget issues and make sure your screenplay can be made on the type of budget that can be recouped by the limited audience your story targets. A Hollywood movie is targeted at everyone in the world, but your screenplay may be targeted only at a small fraction of the world. Let’s say 10% of the world... and minus the countries where they may decide not to distribute it. So you want to write a screenplay that can be made on a budget that will allow it to be in profit once you take the limited audience into account.
Sure, maybe it will cross over and find a larger audience... but that's the long shot part. Hey, they cast a star who wants to show that’s he’s not just beefcake, he’s an *actor*! Or a big name director signs on because they want to show that they aren’t just “popcorn salesmen”, or your small film wins big at some festival like Cannes or Sundance and a studio picks it up. All of those things are possible, but you can’t *depend* on those things happening, you have to write the screenplay that the niche producer reads and knows they can make on a budget that matches the size of their niche audience.
Back when he was doing press for MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING (1997), actor Rupert Everett said he had a Gay James Bond script he was finding financing for as a starring vehicle for himself. Not the actual James Bond, but a similar suave spy character... except this spy was Gay. Instead of those hot “Bond girls” there would be hot “Bond guys”, but everything else would be the same. There have been a bunch of real Gay spies in the past, why not a fictional one? So, that was over 20 years ago, and I’m sure you remember when that spy film came out and made a ton of money? Remember all of those action figures and toys and the cool scale model spy car with all of the gadgets and the comic books and Happy Meals and... You *don’t* remember? Why do you think that is? Well, even with an actual movie star (at the time) attached to the project, they couldn’t get it off the ground. Too expensive for its limited audience... even though it was a story in a popular genre. I love spy movies, and I would have bought a ticket... though it’s hard to imagine the Happy Meal.
Since I’m writing this during Oscar season, let’s look back at another hunky mainstream male lead who starred in a Gay film... which won Best Adapted Screenplay... GODS AND MONSTERS (1998 - the year after MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING). Brendan Fraser and Ian McKellan starred in the story of James Whale making the movie FRANKENSTEIN. Screenplay was by Bill Condon who directed 2017's hit BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. GODS AND MONSTERS is surely the proof that this niche screenplays must be made on a budget thing is false, right? Well, that script had around six locations total, a very small cast, and cost only $3.5 million to make. Almost all of it takes place in a handful of rooms in Whales’ house. Sure, there were some World War 1 flashbacks - but they were shot in some field at night with a few actors as soldiers. Cheap! They could have made that script on an extreme low budget, but they added stars. By the way, that film was made by Regent Entertainment, which makes Gay themed movies and owns Here! TV - a Gay TV network that shows genre films with Gay lead characters. You’ve never heard of Here! TV or Logo TV or any of the other Gay TV networks? That’s probably because you aren’t part of their narrow-cast audience. But if you are? If you write Gay themed screenplays in a popular genre that can be made on a limited budget? That’s your market. There are markets for Niche Screenplays.
A years after GODS AND MONSTERS came out, I saw an indie comedy called HIT AND RUNWAY about an odd couple of writers - one is an overly artistic Gay guy, the other is an ultra macho straight guy with a great Hollywood connection. They team up to write an action script about male models... and hijinks ensue. The film was targeted at the Gay audience, but had crossed over to the arthouse crowd. It was funny, and appealed to an action film guy like me because of the parodies of iconic action scenes. Because the film was made for a limited audience on a limited budget, it was mostly just the two guys in a room working on their script - and having problems working with each other. Even the big end - when we see clips from the finished film - had a limited cast and took place at affordable locations. It wasn’t a big huge car chase or a James Bond shoot out scene - it was a small fight on a fashion show runway. The script was written to match the budget constraints of the film's niche market... and due to the comedy action genre elements it crossed over into another niche audience - the indie and art house audience. That’s *two* niches!
WHAT IS A NICHE?
As I said earlier - Hollywood makes films for the mass audience. The *global* mass audience. If your screenplay isn’t going to appeal to everyone in the world, it’s some form of niche. That makes most of the Oscar nominees Niche Movies. Made for a limited audience. “Wait a minute Bill, are you saying the Steven Spielberg’s all star cast THE POST is a niche film?” Yes I am! It appeals to a narrow audience, and was released just over a month ago as I write this, and has made $54.6 million globally, $44.7 of that in the USA. Compare that to Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK which made $47 million on its opening weekend in the USA back in 1993. Hey, THE POST is a Spielberg movie, where were the long lines and sold out shows like JURASSIC PARK? You are probably thinking it’s a different kind of movie than JURASSIC PARK, you can’t expect it to... yes, Niche Move!
Anything with a limited audience. Christian movies, Gay movies, movies targeted at a specific minority, movies that only appeal to an American audience, movies that only appeal to an older audience, Westerns and Musicals and other genres on life support, indie films, art house films, films about making films, anything that isn’t going to appeal to a large audience. Anything that’s “not for everyone”. Anything aimed at “older women” and “older men”. One of the most amusing things is hearing people complain that they don’t make movies for adults anymore... yet WONDER WOMAN had a strong appeal to men and women *over 50*. How old do you think the people are who read those comic books as kids and fell in love with the characters are? SPIDER-MAN was a character popular in the 1960s! That means the audience for all of those Marvel movie characters is in that *over 50* range - which makes them adults. What those people mean by “movies for adults” are serious and realistic films about real life... and that’s a niche. THE POST is a niche film.
There are “popular niches” - Christian Films have proven to do very well. One of the highest grossing Christian films GOD’S NOT DEAD (2014) (hey, I know the screenwriters) made $60 million in the USA and $3 million in the rest of the world for a total of $63 million. Not bad! The sequel, GOD’S NOT DEAD 2 (2016) (hey, same screenwriters) was made for 2.5 times the budget, but only made a quarter as much. So there may not be “Christian franchises”, and every film may be a stand alone. The previous big Christian film FIREPROOF (2008) made $33 million and pocket change overseas (less than $17k) on a budget of $500k. Those were the *shot on 35mm film* days, and that gives you an idea of the type of budgets films in this niche have. A mainstream movie might be $250 million, but niche films are likely to be half a million or less - and that includes the stars. So you want to limit the locations, limit the cast, and limit just about everything else (night scenes, extras, etc).
Gay films have a market - a couple of TV networks, and there is a strong Gay theatrical audience because they are less likely to have children (so no baby-sitter expense)... though Gay Marriage may be changing this.
Ethnic minorities are a strong market, because they tend to go to the cinema more often than white people. There are companies that specialize in movies targeted at African Americans, and enough African American stars to create cross-over appeal. I think the Hispanic market is really under-served, but we are seeing hits like INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED (2013) made over $44 million in the USA, $100 million worldwide, and turned Eugenio Derbez into a star here in the USA. As the country becomes more diverse, this opens doors for movies aimed at that audience. There is a cinema in one of the Los Angeles suburbs that always has a Bollywood film showing on one of its screens, and a friend of mine has directed a Bollywood style movie here in the USA. The great thing about the USA is that it’s a melting pots of many different cultures, and that creates many different opportunities. A GIRL WALKS HOME AT NIGHT (2014) is a great Iranian vampire movie... that was shot in a suburb of Bakersfield, California. One of the interesting things about this melting pot country is that second and third generations may speak English as their primary language... but still retain some elements of their parents or grandparents’ culture. So we get films that are a blend of cultures... that’s a niche!
There are lots of possibilities - but the smaller the market the smaller the budget will be and you need to write a screenplay that can be made on that budget.
So study your market. Find out what people are in the specific niche you are writing in are buying, what the budget constraints required are, then write a script that fits that market. You don't have to call up production companies and ask what their budgets are - just watch a stack of movies. If you want to write a Nudist Western, rent all of the films in that genre you can find and note the number of locations, the size of the cast, the number of extra scenes or action scenes or weather scenes. You are creating a product, and a certain amount of research and development are necessary before you begin manufacturing. A script can be artistic, but it is not a work of art - it is just a part of the big machine called a movie. A precision crafted gear that drives the entire film. That gear has to fit the big machine, or it's useless. If the gear is too big or too small, it's not going to work. It doesn't matter if it's artistic, what matters is if it *works* - if it drives the machinery. An epic Nudist Western script doesn't fit the machine... neither does a script with a limited audience designed as a Hollywood blockbuster. Match the script to the genre - make sure the gear fits....and watch out for saddle sores!
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E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
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will soon be novels.
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guides for finding agents and producers... all with at the
BOOKLETS & PRODUCTS
FIRST STRIKE BLUE BOOKS
Each Blue Book is 48
pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
Seventeen Blue Books now available!
THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The
nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines,
several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
CLASSES ON CD
CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!