Many young screenwriters face the troubling question of how to sell a screenplay. They spend hours wondering what could get their script through those impenetrable iron gates of Hollywood. As they face rejection upon rejection, they start doubting, not themselves, but the opinions of the script readers, screenwriting agents, managers, or producers who read their screenplays.
After all, how could their brilliant script get passed on over and over? There must be a reason, something completely out of their control, that alters the fate of their success.
Even though subjective personal views do affect the processing of submitted screenplays, that’s not the one and only reason that scripts get turned down in Hollywood. There are different reasons a screenplay is rejected and it’s not always about this producer’s taste when it comes to rom coms or that agent’s prejudice against vampire movies. What screenwriters need to come to terms with is that there are certain criteria Hollywood uses, not arbitrary opinions.
If you’ve been getting nothing but rejections and still haven’t figured out how to sell your screenplay to Hollywood, here are four questions to consider whenever you get yet another rejection.
1. Is It The Right Time For Your Script?
This is a question rarely considered by screenwriters when they submit their scripts to screenwriting managers or agents or production companies. They simply focus on handing in their masterpiece and hoping for the best. But if you as a screenwriter don’t ask yourself this question, you’re not getting the full picture.
First of all, you need to look at the current film landscape and see how your script fits there. If you’ve capitalized on a new buzzing genre like the superhero world for example and dashed back to your writing desk to produce the next Iron Man, you’re not being realistic. Although Hollywood also chases explosive genre trends, it does so on a faster, bigger, and better scale than a young screenwriter. What will take you months, will only take Hollywood a few weeks.
So it’s always twenty steps ahead of you that by the time you submit your amazing script, it would be old news. Hollywood would’ve already signed on a director and a full cast for a very similar film to yours. No matter how good your script is, you’re late without knowing there was ever a deadline. Obviously you can’t control any of this, but it is what it is.
Trends aside, you can come up with a great original idea and submit your final draft proudly, awaiting script readers to snatch you for a deal. Unfortunately, in today’s industry “great original ideas” are born by the hundreds every day so many other screenwriters have probably already submitted scripts just as good as, if not better than, yours. Again, it’s out of your hands. Timing is just a factor that influences the industry and it’s not always on your side.
2. Does Your Script Suit The Company’s Needs?
Before you dive into the cycle of blaming script readers for being subjective and unfair, think about their bosses. Production companies don’t just let those readers do their bidding freely. They instruct them very clearly that their opinions cannot just be guided by their taste in film but their loyalty to the company. That means script readers have to prioritize the good of the company over their subjective views.
But what exactly is good for the company? Regardless of avid cinephiles out there trying to convince the world that cinema is a refined art form, when it comes down to it the film industry is an industry – and an industry doesn’t run on art, it runs on money. Production companies value creative scripts, sure, but they value profit even more. If your script falls under any of the following, it’s not good for the company.
- It doesn’t stand out. The concept has been written and produced before so there’s nothing new on the table that will encourage audiences to head to the cinema and buy a ticket.
- It’s the wrong genre. Don’t send A24 your slapstick comedy. Know the company’s MO and target the ones which match your script or else your script will be shrugged off.
- Its projected budget is way bigger than the company is willing to spend. Financial considerations are among the most important key factors that determine what gets picked up and what gets dumped.
Now as you can see, none of these address the quality of your writing. You could be a terrific screenwriter but you’re submitting a recycled premise, or a genre incompatible with the company’s, or a far too costly concept, and that’s why you get rejected. Play it smart and always keep the money aspect in mind because that’s certainly what’s on the company’s mind. Next time you’re thinking how to sell a screenplay, pause, rephrase that question, and ask yourself how to sell the RIGHT screenplay.
3. Is Your Script Well-written?
The answer to this question sounds unavoidably subjective. Or so you’d think. Screenwriters often call out whoever gives them remarks like “it was not well-written” as subjective because after all, every person has their preferences and tastes so of course they can like or dislike your writing. However, that’s not the whole truth. In fact, script readers don’t judge the writing subjectively. There are various objective criteria that can determine whether a script was well-written or not – regardless of style, genre, or concept. Here are some objective standards that can send your script to the reject pile:
- Bad dialogue – endless lines of exposition, unnatural dialogue that is too on the nose
- Bad characters – flat, passive characters whose behaviors are unbalanced with no consistency, so they don’t make sense to readers or viewers
- Bad structure – your script is too stuffed or sluggish, your scenes don’t flow smoothly
Are any of the issues above concerned with style or taste? No. These are clear, identifiable problems that are used to measure the quality of your screenwriting. So next time your script gets labelled as “badly written” don’t roll your eyes and think it’s only their opinion. No, it’s your writing.
4. Does Your Script Blow Them Away?
Unfortunately, not even a well-written script guarantees your entry into the film industry. Let’s imagine a scenario in which you submit an objectively well-written script that ticks all the right boxes for the production company. Sounds like a happy ending in the making. Except it’s not. Not necessarily. Good writing and good timing don’t always cut it.
You weren’t completely wrong, sometimes it’s not you, it is them. No matter how many criteria or boxes you check, there will still be a degree of subjectivity involved in the evaluation of your script. Your script has to go above and beyond to really blow them away. Production companies and screenwriting managers that are excited about new projects put in hard work to get them made. But if your script doesn’t have that wow factor, they just won’t put in the effort.
It happened, and still does happen, to the best scripts out there. Legendary concepts like Star Wars and E.T. got passed on by several studios before getting picked up by the right people at the right time. That doesn’t mean you get your hopes up, daydreaming about the day “the right people” see your gem of a script. Instead, you get your expectations aligned with reality and work accordingly.
If you want to solve the ever mysterious question of how to sell your screenplay to Hollywood, make sure your script blows screenwriting agents, managers, or script readers away. You do that, not just by continuing to write, but also by focusing on developing multiple drafts over time while finetuning your screenwriting skills.