How to Sell Your First Screenplay

by Ken Miyamoto - updated on August 5, 2021

Selling your first original feature screenplay is the dream. But it's easier said than done. Because even if you write the next big hit, you still have to get your script in front of the right people. And that's no easy task, especially if you're trying to sell your first script.

Selling a script takes a lot of hard work, loads of planning, and little luck, but the good news is that people sell scripts every day. Hollywood is hungry for fresh voices and new stories. And while it can be challenging to get traction for your screenplay, there is a market for your script. Here are five essential steps you can take to sell your first screenplay.

How do most screenwriters sell their first script?

Major studios don't usually buy original scripts from unknown writers. Sure, it can happen, but you shouldn't plan on it. The majority of original script sales actually occur directly through production companies. And that's a result of packaging that entails the perfect timing and mixture of distributor, star, producer, and director.

Instead of only focusing on studio script sales, it's important to remember that hundreds of scripts sell to lower-tier companies that develop projects for international distributors — most of which seek out scripts for the still-breathing home entertainment global market. This market 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. These markets may not offer the same big studio six and seven-figure paychecks for spec scripts, but it's more than enough to keep you writing. And you can always hold out hope that a big production company, producer, or studio will come calling one day.

Now that you understand some of the nuts and bolts of who is buying most first-time screenplays, here are 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 can take months or years of hard work and significant networking. But you have to start somewhere, though.

5 Tips to sell your first script

Write something worth buying: Invest time in your screenplay

The first step to selling your screenplay is to not try to sell your screenplay. No, really. Don't try to market your first screenplay. Don't take it to anyone or request them to consider it for acquisition. It's not ready. You're not ready.

[bctt tweet="Show them something they didn't even know they wanted and you'll give them something worth buying." username="screencrafting"]

Before you sell your first script, you need to develop your writing process. Because you'll learn very quickly that if you want to become a working screenwriter you have to be able to deliver — at a high level — under strict industry deadlines. You need to make those basic mistakes, learn from them, grow, and write, write, and write some more.

This advice is hard for a lot of new writers to hear. But patience is one of the most important parts of your early screenwriting career.

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. That's how you better your writing. It's also how you train yourself to become a professional screenwriter that's 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. They want a unique take on an otherwise familiar — but popular — concept. Show them something they didn't even know they wanted and you'll give them something worth buying.

Note: 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 first and you'll go far.

Learn how to train yourself to be ready for screenwriting success with this free guide.

Create marketing material

After you've put in the time and mastered your craft, it's tempting to jump ahead and start contacting potential buyers. But you need to prepare yourself first.

To sell a screenplay you need to write a:

Read ScreenCraft's Writing the Perfect Query Letter for Your Scripts!

How to write a script synopsis

A logline and query letter are essentials for any spec script, but the short synopsis is just for you in case anyone asks for a little more during a pitch or follow-up email. If you need a sample synopsis, check out the paperback novels at your local bookstore. Read the back jacket synopsis and write your own 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 a nice thing to have ready.

Once you have your logline, short synopsis, and a few different versions of your short, sweet, and (very) to the point query email content, save everything in a single document. Now it's time to do a little research.

Compile a list of potential buyers 

Research is a must if you want to sell your script — especially if it's your first script sale. And the first step is to aim your email queries at the right people. Don't blanket the industry with queries to anyone that you find an email address for. It's a waste of time.

A better place to start is by signing up for IMDBPro. Once you have an account (they offer a free 30-day 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:

  • To sell a horror script, you need to approach companies that make horror movies.
  • If you have a comedy script, focus on studios and agents that make and rep comedies.
  • If you have a drama script, you want to approach specialty companies that make award-winning dramas

Build a genre-specific list of execs and agents to target with outreach and networking.

Another way to build your list of query targets is to find movies like your script and see which production companies made 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 the writers of those movies and see who represents those types of writers.

Once you have this information, try to find contact email addresses for as many relevant people as possible. This will be hit or miss, but email queries are the easiest ways to connect with companies, and it scales nicely. 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 so you can track when you've sent each email and how the responses go. 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. 

Network, network, network

Once you've started marketing your screenplay, you need to keep the momentum moving forward. Don't wait for someone 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 is the time to network.

Start by looking at who you know. Do you have any contacts at studios or agencies? Does your roommate? What about any other writers you know? Rack your brain for friends of friends of friends to get your foot in the door, because personal introductions are still one of the best ways to get your script off the ground.

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.

Read ScreenCraft's How to Network & Pitch at Pitch Fests, Film Festivals, and Industry Events and Three Achievable Networking Goals Screenwriters Can Accomplish!

Networking is how most deals get packaged. Cold query emails, while important, are shots in the dark. Networking is how you tilt the odds in your favor.

Keep writing

Never stop writing. That's one of the great secrets to a long screenwriting career. Always write. Even if you spend hours a day networking and marketing your screenplay, you still have to write if you want to call yourself a writer. 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. Leave the rest up to the fates.

How to sell your first script

Selling yourself as a writer is a big part of selling your screenplays. 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.

Leverage each of these five basic steps to get your script ready to sell and in the hands of Hollywood decision-makers. Because once you've sold your first script, you'll be on to your next project in no time.

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

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