What steps should beginning screenwriters take to sell their screenplays?
Studios aren’t buying originals from unknown writers. And while anomalies do happen, that’s no example to set your sails to.
Selling an original screenplay is the ultimate dream scenario in this day and age within Hollywood and while it does happen — more often than people outside and inside the industry will admit — it’s still a challenging task.
Most original script sales occur directly through production companies. It’s a culmination of packaging that entails the perfect timing and mixture of distributor, star, producer, and director.
Many of these script sales are for lower-tier companies that develop projects for international distributors — most of which seek out scripts for the still-breathing home entertainment global market. A market that includes Direct-to-Bluray/DVD, Direct-to-Streaming, and Video On Demand.
It’s the industry that keeps aging action stars employed.
But don’t worry, you can make a living writing and selling dramas and comedies to Lifetime, Hallmark, and other specialty channels and streaming services as well. It’s not all action.
And then there’s the indie market to fall back on as well.
It may not offer big studio six to seven-figure paychecks that come around every now and then for spec scripts, but it’s enough to keep you writing. And yes, you can still hold out hope that a big production company, producer, or studio will come calling one day.
With selling your screenplays in mind, here we offer the five simple steps that beginning screenwriters can take to get the script marketing ball rolling.
Remember, these are just the basics. Selling your screenplays entails a lot of luck, hard work, and significant networking — all of which go far and beyond what we will cover here. But you have to start somewhere, though.
Note: Each link shared is a vital part of each step. Click away to learn more.
Step #1 — Have Something Worth Buying
That first step is always the hardest. This is by far the most difficult step that screenwriters will make because we’re asking you to wait.
Patience is truly a virtue. And not only is it a virtue for a screenwriter — it’s a commodity.
Don’t try to market your first screenplay. Don’t take it to anyone with the request of them considering it for acquisition. It’s not ready. You’re not ready.
You need to develop your writing process if you want to become a working screenwriter that can deliver under strict deadlines. You need to make those basic mistakes, learn from them, grow, and write, write, and write some more.
It’s hard to hear. But this will prove to be the best advice you ever receive as a beginning screenwriter.
When you begin your screenwriting journey, allow yourself one to two years of writing. Just writing. Nothing else. And this time is not for a single screenplay. You need to conceptualize, develop, and write a few screenplays within that time period. This is how you better your writing, and this is also how you train yourself to be a professional screenwriter — able to write a script within the general contract deadline of ten weeks for each first draft.
Read Screencraft’s Are You Truly Prepared for Success as a Screenwriter?
As you progress, you’ll hopefully get past the newbie habit of writing your version of your favorite movies. You need to choose your concepts wisely. Give the industry something they haven’t seen. Give them a unique take on an otherwise familiar — but popular — concept. Give them what they didn’t know they wanted.
Give them something worth buying.
Note: You can certainly test your screenplay by submitting it to major contests and getting feedback. But don’t, in any way, shape, or form, be tempted to market your first couple of screenplays to buyers. Take your time. Learn your craft.
Learn how to train yourself to be ready for screenwriting success with this free guide.
Step #2 — Create Marketing Material
It’s tempting to jump ahead and start contacting potential buyers. You need to prepare yourself first.
Conjure a strong logline, short synopsis, and query letter.
Read ScreenCraft’s Writing the Perfect Query Letter for Your Scripts!
The short synopsis is just for your records if anyone asks for a little more. If you need a sample, look no further than your local bookstore to find paperback novels. Flip the paperback around and read the back jacket synopsis. Conjure a three-paragraph hybrid of a paperback back jacket synopsis, roughly the same length, with the first paragraph summarizing the first act, the second paragraph summarizing the second act, and the third paragraph summarizing the final act.
You generally won’t include the short synopsis within your query letter, but it’s nice to have ready.
Once you have your logline, short synopsis, and a few different versions of your short, sweet, and to the point query email content (see above link), save everything in a single document.
Now it’s time for a little research.
Step #3 — Compile a List of Potential Buyers
Research is necessary. And you should do a lot of it.
You want to aim your email queries at the right people. Blanketing the industry with your queries to anyone that you find an email address for is the wrong approach — and a waste of time.
So you start by signing up for IMDBPro. Once you have an account (they do offer a trial period if you’re not ready, willing, or able to buy) you can begin searching for movies that are similar to your screenplay in genre or subject matter.
If you have a horror script, you want to approach companies that make horror movies.
If you have a comedy script, you want to approach companies that make comedies.
If you have an action script, you want to approach companies that make action flicks.
If you have a drama script, you want to approach specialty companies that make award-winning dramas.
When you’ve found movies like your script, you look and see what production companies are making them. You can also watch similar movies and pay close attention to the few production companies and distributor logos that open the film — then look those companies up on IMDBPro.
You can also search for who is writing those movies and then see who represents those types of writers.
When you have that information, try to find contact email addresses. This will be hit or miss, but email queries are the easiest ways to connect with companies. Some may have policies against reading unsolicited material or emails (all of the major agencies, many of the major production companies, and all of the studios), but that’s part of the game.
Create a spreadsheet with any contact information you can find. Write the company name, what movies they’ve produced, the specific person you’ve found (producers, development executives, etc.), and the email address.
Before you contact a single one, create a list of at least five to start off with. Preferably more.
Then, using your marketing material — logline and query letter copy — you can start emailing queries.
Note: Rejection and silence will follow. But you have to keep trying and trying and trying. If you have a script worth buying, someone will bite.
Step #4 — Network, Network, Network
As you market your screenplay, you need to keep moving forward. Don’t wait for anyone to come calling. Sitting by your phone or email waiting for that magical call will do you no good. You have to continue plugging.
Now it’s time to network.
You start by looking at who you know, who your friends/family/peers know, and who you can get to know — and how.
Read ScreenCraft’s Maps Screenwriters Can Use to Build Their Industry Network!
If you live in the Los Angeles area or are considering a move, it’s smart to consider finding a job that gives you an edge.
Read ScreenCraft’s 7 Studio Jobs That Give Screenwriters an Edge!
And whether or not you live in Los Angeles, you should be considering visiting film festivals and writers conferences to expand your networking.
Networking is how most deals get packaged.
Cold query emails are shots in the dark — you just hope to hit a target. Networking is where the odds of you striking gold increase drastically.
Step #5 — Rinse and Repeat and Keep Writing
Never stop. Never wait by the phone or by your email inbox. Always be pushing your work to others. And you also need to always be writing as you do.
This is your life now. You write, write, and write. Then you market while you’re writing. And the rest is up to the fates.
Selling your screenplays is also part of selling yourself as a writer. Most contracts come from writing assignments, and your original screenplays can work as writing samples to prove that you’re worthy of those coveted paid writing gigs.
These five steps are the most basic ways to begin a script marketing plan. They are the core foundation of your screenwriting journey once you’ve completed a script worth buying.
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