The most common screenwriting questions usually entail the desire to learn how to get a screenplay read by an industry insider, how to attain representation, and then of course, the secrets behind how to actually write a screenplay worthy of either of those opportunities.
But oddly enough, what screenwriters usually don’t ask is, “What happens after you sell a screenplay?”
It has almost become a question that runs parallel with that ever eternal fantasy inquiry, “What would you do if you won the lottery?” Nobody really has a concrete answer because the thought of winning the lottery is equal to the thought of never having to worry about anything again. You’re rich and all of your problems are solved, right?
In screenwriting context, many believe the same thing about selling a screenplay. You’re rich and all of your problems are solved, right?
So let’s take some time to tackle this difficult but important question. And it’s a difficult question because there are so many factors to consider.
What production company bought the script? Who are they connected with? Are they signed to a development/term deal with a major studio? Is the production company an arm of a major Hollywood talent, such as a director or actor?
Congratulations, You’ve Made It to the Show
We’ll first assume that you’ve written a great script that has turned some heads within the industry — be it through a screenwriting competition, networking, or any other blessed scenario.
We’ll also assume that you managed to garner representation. And that representation has set up what the industry calls “water bottle tours” — where they arrange multiple meetings with all of their Hollywood contacts for you to attend.
And finally, we’ll assume that you found yourself at the right place, at the right time, with the right script that the buyer has been looking for — and you’ve gone through the seemingly endless contract process and have signed on the dotted line.
Congratulations, because yes, it’s kind of like winning the lottery. Kind of.
So here is what to expect, in the most general of breakdowns.
The Post-Acquisition Meeting
The development executives and producers will meet with you, the original writer.
If the writer is already established, the meeting will be more of a collaborative venture. But if the writer isn’t as established, the meeting will be more about them wanting to gauge if the writer is someone they want to collaborate with further. The hard truth is that they bought the script because that’s what they’ve been looking for and that is what they can market for a great business acquisition. It’s not necessarily about you the writer — at least not at first glance.
Guild guidelines state that signatory companies must give the original writer an option to take on the first rewrite of the script. Yes, there will be rewrites — more on that later.
Now, anything can be negotiated. You can waive that guild protected right if they offer you more money or flat out say, “We want to give you X amount to sign over all rights so that we can take this to an established writer that our director in mind loves to work with.”
The best case scenario is that they not only love your script, but they love your writing. And better yet, they’ve gotten to know you and hopefully see that you’d be someone they’d love to collaborate with because you are confident (not arrogant), you have drive (but aren’t overbearing and single-minded), and you’re a good storyteller.
In that scenario, the meeting is less about who is going to write the second draft and more about how the second draft is going to be written.
I cringe even writing that heading, but script notes are a necessary evil — part of the job — and there is no escaping them.
Development executives and producers will give the chosen second draft writer notes.
This writer may be the original writer, depending on the above, or they may have brought in another writer that has proven to be a great collaborator with them or someone that they feel better suited for the job based on past success.
To keep things positive, we’ll assume that person is you — the original writer — for now.
You’ll get your notes. A majority of the time, they are offered in a casual meeting atmosphere. They may be accompanied by more detailed script coverage notes or they may be sent along via email. It depends on the buyers and those attached to the project.
Contracts vary, but usually a purchase contract — or assignment contract if another writer is brought in — dictates a certain number of drafts that the writer will be eligible to be paid for.
If the original writer is not rehired for the second draft, they will receive whatever agreed payment for the script. If the original writer has been kept, they will adhere to the contracted stipulations.
The contract itself breaks up the initial payment into drafts, so if you do sell something for $100,000 don’t expect to see a check for that amount.
The writer will have usually ten weeks — give or take — to receive the notes from the powers that be, discuss them further, and begin work on a second draft of the script.
If a new writer is brought in, it’s pretty much the same. They will sign a contract with a certain agreed upon payment, which will be stretched into various drafts and deadlines.
Any writer can be fired after one draft.
If that happens — whether you are the original writer or were assigned to rewrite a script — you’ll get paid a fraction of the final payment agreement. That is why the contract breaks the payment into different pay periods and drafts.
If you stay on throughout the whole contract — the best case scenario — you will usually work on a couple drafts of the script, followed by a touch up rewrite as well.
The second draft won’t be good enough. There will be another and another. You’ll have many hands in the cookie jar. You’ll have different executives offering conflicting notes, you’ll have different producers offering conflicting notes, you’ll have studio executives offering conflicting notes, you’ll have possible interested directors and actors with conflicting notes — all will have their own agendas and visions for the script.
When your contract is up, if there isn’t a consensus met between all of those people, the script will either go into turnaround — where the costs of a project a studio or company has developed are declared a loss on their tax return, thereby preventing them from exploiting the property any further — or yet another writer will be brought into the mix.
Check out ScreenCraft’s How to Understand Confusing Screenwriter Onscreen Credits to learn more about those dynamics.
This process could last for a year, a few years, or a decade and beyond. Hence the name development hell, because it truly feels like an eternity of damnation.
Beyond the desire to have projects that are attached to intellectual property, packaging is all the rage in Hollywood development — if there are no names attached there is no escape from development hell.
The company or studio has to package the film in order to get a green light. What that entails is attaching a director and lead actor.
This process is necessary for a number of reasons:
- A big name director can draw in big name actors
- Big name actors justify a bigger budget
- Those directors and actors can help to pre-sell the film in foreign territories and domestic distributors — which can help cover the budget of the film and offer less risk for the studio and production company
This process can take a long time — and obviously can lead to more drafts of the scripts as well.
Directors can come and go. Actors can come and go.
When there is a hot script abound, it’s much like shark feeding waters. If you watch Shark Week, you’ll see that sharks will at first nudge a piece of meat in the water. They’ll bump it with their snouts. Smell. Touch. Look. Listen. Then some will take a few nibbles. Then some will take a little chunk here and there. And finally, one shark will swallow it whole and off they go.
That’s packaging in a nut shell — for prospective directors and actors.
The Green Light
If the script is finally packaged with a director, actor, and producer, the studios will look at that package and decide what they want to do. If a major studio is not fitting the bill, financiers will look and see what the options are. If all seems well and it looks like a good business and creative venture, the film will be greenlit.
When you package a film, much of that will fall on the schedules of the director and lead actors. Some will be more busy than others at any given time. So this could delay pre-production and post production anywhere from a few months to upwards of two to three years or more.
Hopefully everything falls into place, production begins, and the rest is cinematic history.
Too Many Scenarios to Count
This is all just a generalization of an often complex process — there are so many elements in play.
Many times, scripts are bought and never see the light of day.
Companies, studios, and producers buy scripts to take them off of the market so others can’t make them. Usually because a similar project is already in development and they don’t want their project to be overshadowed.
Many times they want to make them themselves, but it just doesn’t work out for all of the reasons mentioned above.
Screenwriters often make a living writing and selling scripts that never get made. For some, it’s a steady living. For others, it’s a prosperous career. For the majority, it’s a grind. One writer can sell a script one year and then go a couple years or more without one sale, option, or assignment.
Assignments are where most writers make a living. Selling a spec script is even difficult for well established writers with box office hits and awards under their belt.
Selling a script is not a lottery ticket and it’s hardly a guarantee that the film will get made. It’s just one step, followed by many, many more. But oh what a wonderful step it would be indeed.
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.
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