Getting from the page to the screen
Writing a screenplay is a challenging and time-consuming endeavor. From the initial idea to a completed screenplay are untold hours of hard work and agony, rewrites and more rewrites, and more rewrites on top of the one you were certain was going to be your last. After all that hard work, it is frustrating to watch your screenplay become a door stopper. A screenplay is a blueprint for a movie. Unlike a novel, even an unpublished one, it is incomplete until it gets produced. But getting one made into a feature film is the Holy Grail of the movie business, so much so that there are many successful screenwriters who have never seen their screenplays up on the screen (most screenplays that sell never get made). There is an old saying that if a screenplay is good enough, you can throw it on the freeway and it will eventually find its way to the screen. Yes, it’s true that when a script is truly fresh and original, with unique and exciting characters and a flawlessly structured, riveting story, it is likely that people in Hollywood will get excited about it. However, a more likely scenario is that, with a very good script and a lot of luck and persistence, you will get a producer, and after a development process and cobbling together of financing and a creative team, your script will finally go into production. But how to begin? Here are some pointers on how to start the process.
Things you should know about getting your screenplay produced.
1) It will most likely be a long haul with many false starts and commitments that fall through at the last minute. This is the nature of the beast. There are countless stories of a production being shut down just as the director is about to yell “Action!” for the first time. If you don’t have the stamina for the ups and downs, think twice about embarking on this difficult journey.
2) There is no tried and true way to get your screenplay produced. You will be making it up as you go along. Having a good plan of attack is essential, but so is flexibility as the needs of the project shift.
3) There are many producing entities in the film business; big studios, independent producers, independent financiers, even hedge funds are getting in on the action. Having an agent is helpful, but you should not rely on one to get your film made. You will have to do most of the work yourself. Research and networking are essential.
Make sure the script is readyIf you haven't read a good book on how to write a screenplay or taken at least one screenwriting class, it is highly doubtful that you have written a screenplay that is ready for production. If you have studied the art of screenwriting, it's a good idea to read the books again, or review your class material. Good books on writing are meant to be read and re-read, well-thumbed and referenced many times during your growth as a writer. I keep my favorite books on writing within easy reach of my desk so I can remind myself of their principles as I go along. Make sure you have gotten feedback from trusted readers, people who have given you specific and honest criticism. These readers should include at least one person who works in a creative capacity in the film industry such as a writer, director, actor, editor, etc.
Excellent books on screenwriting are Write Screenplays That Sell: The Ackerman Way by Hal Ackerman, and Story by Robert McKee. You should read them both if you haven’t already. There are many other good books on screenwriting of course, but these two are particularly helpful. Ackerman’s is a step-by-step guidebook, while McKee’s book is more theoretical. You can also go to mckeestory.com for information on seminars taught by Robert McKee. Check into your local continuing studies program about screenwriting classes. The Writers Guild of America at wga.org has a list of agencies and online script registration. Make sure to register your script with the WGA for your own protection and because many producers do not read unregistered scripts.
Submit your screenplay to institutions and organizationsOne of the best ways to gain visibility and credibility as a screenwriter is by winning a contest or being accepted to a film lab hosted by one of several well-known film organizations. Getting into the Sundance Lab, for example, is a great feather in your cap as well as an invaluable way to network and improve your work. There are many conferences, labs, classes and workshops offered by these organizations, any one of which would be an excellent way into the process of getting your movie made. Be prepared to do more work on your screenplay and welcome the opportunity to better your work.
What kind of movie is it?Know your screenplay. Is it a big-budget action blockbuster, or a small "art-house" film. These are important distinctions as they inform the kind of producers and directors you will try to attract to your project. Make a list of production companies and directors that have produced movies in a similar vein. It is important to be specific about the kind of movie you want to see made because everyone who comes on board is following your vision (at least initially). Besides, you might as well start by trying for your dream team, as along as you have a list of more realistic prospects as well.
Get an actor interestedThe fastest way to get your script made is to attract a big name actor. Very often a producer will read a script and say "I'd love to do it. Bring it back when you have an actor attached and we're in business." This is obviously easier said than done. Make a list of actors you would like to see in the lead roles. This is very important as you will be asked this question a hundred times. Many actors have their own production companies and are approachable this way. Others will have to be approached through a mutual contact, or, when all else fails, through their agents and managers. Think outside the box and look at TV actors who may be looking for a feature film to star in, or a comic actor who might be seeking something more dramatic. Make sure your list includes both A-list actors and those who are more realistically approachable.
Network. The image of the fledgling screenwriter going everywhere with a script under his/her arm and thrusting it at whoever happens by is not far from the truth. And, guess what? It works. I know a screenwriter who got his movie made doing exactly that. He was an actor who wrote a pretty good script and then went all over town with it literally under his arm. He took it to his acting classes, auditions and meetings, to parties and to rehearsals and to the set of whatever commercial or TV show he was working on. Eventually he got some big actors interested and the movie got made. If you are working in some aspect of the movie industry, expand your community, go to parties and screenings. If you are outside the industry, find a way in. Take some acting or screenwriting classes; get a job as a production assistant. Go to variety.com for job listings and backstage.com for a list of classes. Get connected. The degrees of separation between you and the actor who can get your film financed may be fewer than you think. Consider putting together a reading of the screenplay and inviting friends and industry professionals. Often a big name actor will agree to do a reading, thereby guaranteeing an audience, without committing to the film project itself. If you do a reading, get a director and have rehearsals. There’s nothing worse than a sloppy reading, but if they are well done (a nice venue and refreshments help) they can help generate a buzz. You can try to get a director attached, but keep in mind that first time directors are a very difficult sell. Attaching yourself or your best friend in a major role in the film is similarly toxic to the process. Producers don’t want baggage. They want to be able to put together their own creative team.
Option vs. SaleA producer may want to option your screenplay rather than buy it outright. What this means is that they pay you a small sum against a future sale for the exclusive right to shop it around for a finite period of time. Many screenplays are optioned before they are bought. The nice thing about this arrangement is that it demonstrates a certain level of confidence on the part of both parties; the producer believes enough in the script to shell out some money for it, and you have faith that the producer can get it made.
Do it on the cheapWith the advent of so many new technologies, making movies yourself has never been easier or cheaper. You can shoot it on High Definition Digital Video and edit on a home computer. More and more young filmmakers are going this route, making movies essentially at home and putting clips together to get financing mid-way through production or finishing the film and seeking a distribution deal on the festival circuit. There are even movies that are distributed entirely on the internet. These are valid, though obviously risky, options. The value of making the movie yourself is that it actually gets produced. The risk is financial. Where is the money coming from? If you max out your credit cards or borrow money from Aunt Ida, make sure you know what you're getting into.
- Be patient and flexible. If you want Joaquin Phoenix and a well-known TV actor says he's interested, go with the TV actor (unless you think he's terrible and wrong for the part). Chances are you will have to wrap your mind around several actors, directors, locations ("It's set in the frozen tundra of Alaska, but sure, we can do it in Florida!") before your movie is in production, so get used to rethinking your concept. Be true to the vision, but stay practical.
- Accept help from anyone who offers, unless they are questionable or shady in any way. If an agent's assistant wants to take your script to someone he knows, by all means accept the help with grace. As in all things Hollywood, you never know where the help will come from, or which of today's assistants will be VP of production tomorrow.
- Be creative and visible. Write a short play for a theater company whose work you admire. Write a blog. Write your next screenplay. You can't imagine how many times a writer will hear "I loved it! What else do you have?" Be ready with pitches, short and snappy story ideas for your next three screenplays.