Deciding What to Write – 5 Factors that Make a Script Attractive to Buyers

As writers, we like to think a well-written and compelling story should be enough to sell a script. Unfortunately, this isn’t always true. In fact, it’s rarely true. Sure, selling a script requires a well-told story, but there are other, equally important factors that make a script attractive to buyers. Perhaps the five most important factors are:

1. Is your script based on intellectual property?

Are you adapting a true story? A well-known play? A best-selling game or graphic novel? Studios are much more willing to bet money on properties that have already proven their worth in the marketplace, so a writer or producer who can secure the rights to a recognizable property increases their odds of a sale.

2 Does your script fall squarely within the boundaries of a particular genre?

Is it a horror movie? A teen sex comedy? A found footage film? Genre movies are easier to sell because they’re easier to market. Look at the marketing campaigns for genre movies; whether it’s a horror movie like Mother, a sci-fi movie like Star Trek Into Darkness, or a romance like Safe Haven, it’s crystal clear what those movies are. But take something like Warm Bodies, which mixes elements of horror and romantic comedy, and it’s less clear. It may not appeal entirely to horror fans, or entirely to romantic comedy fans. Second, producers and studios believe, rightly or wrongly, that attaching a big star makes movies more attractive to audiences. But if a movie lands firmly in a specific genre, it helps mitigate some of that need. Horror fans tend to like horror regardless of who’s starring; fantasy fans love fantasy movies even without a big star. “When you have an opportunity to do a [genre] movie, you’re not cast dependent anymore,” says manager Lenny Beckerman of Hello and Company. Those movies “have a better chance of getting made because you don’t need A-list stars in it. [Plus,] the budget’s going to be smaller, so they have a better chance of selling.”

3. Does the concept have strong foreign value?

Today’s studios rely on a film’s international box office almost more than domestic box office. Fox’s $112-million Gulliver’s Travels, starring Jack Black, bombed in America when it took in less than $43 million. But overseas, it chalked up almost $200 million. Many studio executives consult their international distribution departments even before buying a script or greenlighting a project, letting international execs weigh in on creative decisions such as casting and location. Perhaps most importantly, certain types of movies—like comedies, which rely on language and culture-specific jokes and humor—simply don’t play well overseas, making them a much tougher sell to American execs. Thrillers and action flicks, meanwhile, transcend national and cultural borders much easier than other films, making them more sellable as scripts or pitches.

4. Who is the audience for your movie?

Today, tween and teens make up a massive movie-consuming audience. Many kids spend their entire weekend at the mall, where they may watch two or three movies in a weekend. This makes the PG-13 rating incredibly valuable; it means movies like Twilight and The Hunger Games are mature enough to attract older audiences, but kids aren’t exempt from seeing them.

5. What is your movie’s budget?

Today, most movies tend to be either big-budget blockbusters based on familiar IP (Star Trek, The Avengers), or smaller “contained” movies like Moon or Buried. Contained movies can usually be done for a specific price point— Phone Booth’s budget was made for $13 million, Moon’s budget was $5 million, and Buried reportedly cost less than $3 million—making them attractive to studios and indie producers alike.

Thus, you shouldn’t start thinking about how to sell your script after you’ve finished writing. You should begin those strategizing conversations with your agent before you even sit down to write “Fade In.”

“It’s annoying if someone just drops a script in your lap that you don’t know anything about,” says APA feature lit agent Will Lowery. “Ideally, you know it’s coming. If you’re a good agent or manager, you’ve already discussed the idea [with your client] and whether it’s good or not. You know your client is writing a comedy about dogs that talk. You know your client is writing an action-thriller. It’s our job to sell, but it’s also our job to tell you what can or can’t sell.”

Agents and managers spend most of their days on the phone, chatting with producers, studios, and executives, learning what buyers want and what they don’t. For example, says Mike Sablone, director of development at John Krasinski’s Sunday Night Productions (Promised Land), “John has a specific vision of what he’d like to be developing and producing. It’s not ‘I only want to produce movies about small town America,’ it’s more ‘I want to work on movies about bigger issues.’ With Promised Land we were looking to write something Capra-esque, whether it’s ‘I just read an amazing book about coal mining,’ or ‘Oh my God, I just read a book about early unions,’ or ‘I just read an amazing story about two brothers that has nothing to do with anything political or charged.’ It changes with his interests, and what stories we’ve told in the past. With Promised Land, we learned what was great about that story, and now it’s like, ‘We’ve told that story, let’s find something different we can put our spin on.’”

If a political scandal captures the country’s attention, producers and execs may suddenly want politically themed stories. If a new teen horror flick becomes a box office smash, every exec in town will want his own version of a teen horror film. And if, the next day, there’s a national tragedy like the Newtown massacre, everyone will just as quickly drop it. “Good scripts don’t sell,” says Lowery. “Marketable scripts sell.”

Excerpt from How to Manage Your Agent by Chad Gervich © 2013 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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