The film industry has been rife with uncertainty since its inception. When the studio system, with its unbreakable contracts, gave way to corporate ownership and the rise of independents, the playing field was leveled.
Make no mistake, breaking in has always been immensely difficult. But the one consistent aspect of it all is film has always been akin to the Wild West. There are no rules, and no one way to get anything done.
2020 has given rise to a new shift, where our advanced technology is allowing us to still make a living despite a global pandemic.
Yesterday is no longer, and the basics have shifted: Anyone who can raise money can still make a film and attain distribution. Anyone with a smartphone can make a film. From today’s on-demand channels to streamers, premium cable outlets and networks, the opportunity to showcase your product is greater than ever… save for within, perhaps, the old standard: Theatrical.
Our current pandemic has shifted our business. For how long remains to be determined.
Recent films, such as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, have arrived at slowly-opening movie theaters to mixed receptions. Tenet is performing modestly in the U.S., and poorly based on pre-pandemic expectations. Overseas, “Tenet” is considered a hit. The live-action Mulan remake, on the other hand, which bypassed a theatrical window in favor of premiering on Disney+, is said to be responsible for a substantial jump in that streamer’s subscriptions, more so than even the lauded filmed version of Hamilton.
For independents, movies have been shot on Zoom and released in drive-ins, an outlet that appears to be slowly returning to prominence as a safer alternative to indoor theaters.
But what about the screenwriter, who may believe their sales potential has gone from slim to something far less? We’ve all heard the gossip: No one is buying right now because so few films are shooting right now.
That is actually only half-correct. Yes, most of the new product released was produced prior to the advent of the novel coronavirus, but some films and television programs are presently filming, and many companies are stocking up on material to develop now so they are not short-handed later.
How do you get to these companies in this era, and what can you do to better your odds of a sale?
Myth #1: “No one is filming.”
The reason studios and networks have paused the filming of most of their scripted fare is in part because no insurance company will cover illness resulting from exposure to COVID-19, and in part due to lensing, in general, being deemed “unsafe.” However, sporting events and live entertainment events are filmed, most often not in front of a studio audience. Some reality shows are currently being produced, with strict behind-the-scenes safety measures in place. The same with some independent films and also foreign productions. An associate of mine is presently shooting a U.S. television series in Bolivia. The fact is, production is coming back, and responsible entities are taking every precaution, but the big players are not quite there yet.
Myth #2: “No one is buying.”
Many entities are not only presently buying, but actively looking. There is a true sense of urgency today regarding the acquisition of prime material. The point of the rush to buy and develop scripted properties now as opposed to once we are deemed safe from the pandemic is the need to be ready when that time comes. Many companies are looking for the following:
Intellectual property: IP based on a book, video game, or any existing brand is particularly popular today. As a writer, may I also suggest thinking like a producer and optioning, or partnering on, such IP when you can? The more successful the IP, the better, and to that here’s another myth-buster: It is not always true that the more successful and well-known the IP is, the more expensive it will be. With a little networking and effort, you may be surprised. Attaining salable IP for a small price or even at no cost can be a simple matter of clever negotiation.
Less-expensive properties: Scripted programming that can be produced on a lower than usual budget is optimal in these conditions.
There are several ways to evade the Hollywood quagmire during this period, especially if you are not represented by a strong agent or manager. First, if you do not subscribe to IMDb Pro, I strongly recommend it. Production companies with studio deals earn their bread and butter by providing material to their partner studio. Identify companies that produce material in your genre, cold call the numbers listed on IMDb Pro, send emails … whatever it takes. No, not all companies will return the calls of an unrepresented writer, but as many of these companies are looking for material, a 10-20% response rate is still another contact or two more than you had the day before. In the event they ask to see the material, email it, wait a week or two, then contact them with a follow-up and take the chance to request a Zoom meeting.
All that said, here’s a reality check: If you are a Writer’s Guild member, you will still receive, at the very least, your minimums. (A big benefit of joining the Guild if and when you can.) If you do not belong to the WGA, based on the purchasing company you may receive less money than you would have a year ago. You can sell, and consistently in this market, but be aware during contract time you may not be offered the precise compensation you perhaps expected. To that matter, always try to work with an attorney experienced in these matters. If you cannot afford one, note there are attorneys who will review contracts for a piece of your backend compensation. Again, everything is a negotiation. Always ask.
Myth #3: “You will never sell anything on Zoom.”
Not only are writers selling projects on Zoom, the platform has become the gold standard for many virtual studio and network meetings. For lower-budgeted projects, not only have ambitious independent filmmakers shot full features on Zoom, but production meetings and table reads have become increasingly common on the platform as video conversations are recordable.
Tips For Zoom Pitches
Lighting is key, as is centering yourself with a pleasant background. For an example of what not to do, I was pitched a project a few weeks ago and was staring at a hamper and sock draped over its top for 20 minutes. The pitch wasn’t much better. When I wear my producer hat, I want to see professionalism.
Remember too, the quality of the image you see on your monitor may be several notches less in quality than what other members of your Zoom meeting see. An attachable light, clipped onto the top of your computer, tablet, or phone, is a big plus. Test your audio capability before you start. Record and playback to be sure the sound is optimal. If showing material such as a bible or artwork on the screen, test the quality of the images and share in advance with a friend. I personally prefer to both pitch and receive decks and bibles over the email — as no one to my mind on a pitch call, where time is important, wants to read text — but if your project lends itself to pieces of artwork, that can be a plus.
Otherwise, be passionate and pitch as if you were not sitting down. Your enthusiasm must become contagious. As with any in-person pitch meeting, do not dominate the conversation. Be precise, ask questions, and keep your pitch moving. The majority of projects selling today began the process in earnest via a pitch in the Zoom Room.
Myth #4: “Companies are only looking for projects that take place in the pandemic era.”
False. This is actually an intriguing area to explore. In my experience, having had conversations with executives and writer friends about exactly this, the projects being purchased on a larger scale take place largely in a modern time period where COVID-19 is not mentioned and no pandemic appears to exist, or they take place in an identifiable post-COVID world. Not quite science fiction, but entertaining fare looked upon as a break from today’s harsh reality. I’ve noticed many independent filmmakers are doing the opposite: embracing the storytelling potential of the pandemic and crafting projects closer to today’s reality.
There is no “right” or “wrong” answer in this regard, so my advice is this: Create the finest and most compelling story you possibly can. And go out and pitch. Period. Some of your stories may be metaphorical, and that’s great. Resonance is everything. Do the best you can.
You are very fortunate as a writer today. Consider this: You could own a restaurant. You could operate a company within the travel industry or live event space.
You could own a nightclub.
But you are a writer.
While many of the above-related businesses are closing, I hope you understand and appreciate your advantages. Good writing is always in-demand. The film and TV businesses especially long for original, well-crafted product, even during the most volatile of times.
You can do this.
To your success …