How to Sell a Movie Idea If You’re Not a Screenwriter
What can you do if you have an excellent movie idea, but you're not a screenwriter?
It's one of the most common film industry questions that you see online.
"I've got an awesome concept for a movie, but I have no interest in screenwriting — how can I sell it or get it made?"
Most professional screenwriters or industry insiders that are asked this question (yours truly included) immediately shift to the same answer — "You can't."
The hard truth is that every movie lover, at one time or another, has what they believe to be an outstanding concept for a feature film. Your mom, your dad, your uncle, your teacher, the barista at the coffee shop, the ticket taker at the movie theater, the Uber driver, the waitress — it seems that everyone believes that they have great ideas for movies.
But an idea isn't enough. It's the implementation of the idea that matters most.
Coming up with ideas for movies is the easy part. On any day, the average person could sit down and write dozens of cinematic concepts. On any good day, a screenwriter could sit down and come up with even more.
The idea is nothing until it's developed into a screenplay.
But here's the problem with some people. They don't want to be screenwriters. With no screenwriter, there's no screenplay. With no screenplay, there's no implementation of the idea to take to development executives, producers, agents, or managers. There's nothing to sell.
The easy answer that we usually give these types of people is, again, "You can't." But we're going to delve deeper into this question because there are actually some more helpful answers that can lead to inspiring film and television industry journeys.
Hollywood Doesn't Buy Pitches from Unknowns
First things first. Hollywood no longer buys pitches — unless you're a well-established screenwriter with some noteworthy clout within the industry. If you've just scored significant ratings for your latest television series, you're a hot commodity, and the sharks of Hollywood will smell that blood.
Success is like that blood in the water that sharks can smell a mile away. When you have made a name for yourself in film or television — be it with a hit show or number one box office flick — everyone wants to work with you. They want some of that magic to rub off onto their career.
So when you go to the many meetings you've been invited to, they'll ask what you're working on and what projects you'd like to develop. Then, and only then, can you sell a pitch. And here's the thing — if you're a screenwriter, they'll want you to write it. So it really turns into a writing assignment that is based on your own pitch. They'll be paying you to write that pitch into script form.
When you're an unknown with no clout, it's just not going to happen. It's hard enough selling a spec script as an unknown screenwriter. Trying to sell a pitch — which is identified in this context as an idea or concept for a movie or television show — is next to impossible. An anomaly example may be found within the history of Hollywood, but let's be real — it just doesn't happen.
But wait. We're not done with this topic yet so keep the faith and keep reading.
Are You Sure You Can't Write the Script?
This is the first return question that is the most obvious response.
Sometimes people underestimate what they are capable of. The truth is, screenwriting really isn't that hard. It's the selling of the material that is the most challenging aspect of a screenwriter's journey.
Anyone can learn the format. Anyone can learn the general guidelines and expectations of the industry. Anyone can study up on structure and story theory, and then apply what they learn to a movie idea that they've conjured.
Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.
Sure, it takes some trial and error to learn the ropes, but if you have a knack for storytelling, it will all come together.
So if you're one of these people that believe they have a great idea for a movie but think they can't write it themselves, maybe it's worth the try.
Talent is the X-Factor, yes. Not everyone has cinematic storytelling talent to go along with everything mentioned above. But how do you know if you don't try?
If You Can't or Don't Want to Write the Script...
First, you need to know that there's no easy paycheck.
Let's be honest; most of the people that ask how they can sell their movie idea to Hollywood are naively looking for an immediate winning lottery ticket. As we mentioned before, that just doesn't happen.
But, let's say that you're an idea person that has a passion for movies and television and just wants to develop those ideas without writing the screenplay yourself.
Maybe your passion for ideas outweighs your ability or want to be the one that writes them. If that's the truth and you know that you want a career in film and television, guess what?
You're a Producer
Believe it or not, that's just what producers are. They either acquire projects to develop, or they conjure projects to develop. And they don't write the scripts themselves.
Before you start celebrating this revelation, you need to understand that this isn't a free winning lottery ticket. You can't merely go to Hollywood studios and production companies with the expectations of pitching an idea and selling it. Remember, unless you have clout in Hollywood, you're an unknown with an idea for a movie, just like millions of people around the world.
A producer is someone who develops the movie concept into a movie. They hire the screenwriter. They develop the script with that screenwriter. They put together a package — screenplay, director, name actor(s) — and pitch it to the studios and distribution companies.
The other side of the producing coin is acquisitions. Producers also seek out worthy screenplays and acquire the rights to the work through buy-out or option contracts — or they acquire selling rights to take the script out as a pitch in hopes to put together a package that is bought by studios or distribution companies.
Regardless, a screenwriter needs to be paid. Yes, an indie producer can partner with a screenwriter and agree to terms that state that the screenwriter is paid when a project is sold.
Read ScreenCraft's How to Negotiate a Screenwriting Contract Without Representation!
However, it still takes a lot of work to get to that stage.
So, if you want to become a producer, you're going to either need cash flow and several contacts within the industry, or you're going to need to work your way up through the ranks of a pre-existing company to acquire both.
How to Become a Hollywood Producer
Okay, we've established that your an idea man or woman. You're creative. You love movies. But you're just not a screenwriter.
There's nothing wrong with that. Now you've identified what you really want to be — a producer.
If you have a good deal of money to invest in hiring screenwriters, that's a great first step.
Read ScreenCraft's How Much Do Screenwriters REALLY Make?
Plenty of non-Hollywood rich people have managed to work their way into the film industry by having one simple thing — money.
Others have succeeded by knowing a lot of people in Hollywood. Contacts are important. You need to be able to get into the rooms to have the discussions.
But what if you don't have any money to hire screenwriters? And what if you're just starting out and you don't know anyone within the industry?
Well, you're going to have to work your way up the Hollywood totem pole.
The Steps You Need to Take to Become a Producer
Your first step is going to be making the move to Los Angeles — if you don't live there already.
There's no way around that. Nearly all of the major production companies are based in Los Angeles — and all of the agencies, management companies, networks, and studios are there as well.
Yes, you can become an indie producer and work anywhere, but you need some indie hits to keep that lifestyle going.
But let's assume that you want to live in the city where it's all happening. Then you need to try to find entry-level positions at one of the following:
- Major Agency
- Major Management Company
- Major Production Company
- Major Studio
Notice the word major is evident in all of those options. IMDBPro is the perfect way to determine if an agency, management company, production company, or studio is a major player within the industry.
You can also seek out a position with a major screenwriter, director, or producer.
This is no easy task, but if you can get hired by any individual player within the industry or any major company, then you can start working your way up that totem pole.
You may start as an intern, mailroom clerk, assistant, or any number of positions. You could even sneak behind the walls in a corporate position — unrelated to development — and find your way into the company once you've garnered some contacts. Some have even started as a security guard for a major studio and worked their way up from there.
You need to get promotions by showing your worth. When you finally get to a stage where you have the opportunity to present your ideas to your peers or bosses, that's how a producing career often starts.
It sounds difficult because it is. But this approach has worked for over a hundred years in cinema.
How to Sell Your Movie Idea as a Producer
Once you've started to gain some momentum, now you need to do what every great producer does — produce.
If you have concepts that you feel are worthy of production, then you need to start producing. You need to build relationships with industry insiders, directors, agents, managers, and screenwriters.
You need to get the script written, develop it into the best possible draft, take it to directors and actors that you feel would create a desirable package for studios, and then see what comes together.
Producers don't get paid until the studios or distributors buy into the package and then pay up. This process can and will take years for each movie idea. And sometimes things don't pan out. That's when producers look for great scripts and compelling intellectual property — books, comics, articles — to develop.
Being a producer is a grind when you start. But if you've embedded yourself within a successful company, it's that much easier to succeed.
Indie producers work the hardest, but even producers at established companies showcase a high turnaround rate. But if you want to take those movie ideas you have and try to get them made, it's the only way to do it beyond writing the script yourself and trying to sell that implementation of your movie idea.
You can't just conjure a movie idea and expect to sell it to studios. That doesn't happen. You can either try writing the script yourself or take the necessary steps to become a producer.
If you're not willing to do the work, you're just one of the millions with "great movie ideas." It's the people willing to risk everything and do the work that gets those ideas made.
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