How Do You Know If Your Idea Can Sell?
By Jacob Krueger
The simple answer to this question: You don’t.
You don’t know if your idea can sell. Nobody does. Which means if your main concern is writing something that can sell, you are probably putting your focus in the wrong place as a writer.
I’m going to tell you a true story from my experience as a producer. I used to work for a huge deficit financing company. They produce Atom Egoyan’s movies. They produce Cronenberg’s movies. They produce a lot of movies.
It was common knowledge at this company, passed down through the ages from the forces on high, that an American audience, under no circumstances, would EVER watch a movie set in a foreign location without an American lead. How did they know this? They knew this because somebody high up at the company said this…
Of course this was before Slumdog Millionaire. It was before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Now, we were a deficit financier, which means we made our money selling the rights to our films in foreign countries. So, making movies set in foreign locales was very much up our alley and we got a lot of that stuff submitted to us.
But everyone believed that even though it was in our best interest to shoot those movies, it was impossible. They were convinced that no American audience would ever be interested in a foreign movie without an American main character.
And I can only imagine what the hundreds of screenwriters who wrote beautiful scripts, that got passed on by producers at our company must have thought:
“Wow, I really wrote a beautiful movie and I thought I got it to the right company and I guess maybe my idea wasn’t good enough. My idea didn’t sell. Maybe I’m not really a good writer. Maybe I don’t have what it takes.”
No, it wasn’t that they didn’t have what it takes. It was that producers at our company were operating under a false belief, passed down by on high at our particular company, which no writer had any way of knowing about!
They might have written a beautiful script. But they didn’t get a beautiful letter. They got a pass letter. The same letter everybody else got.
Well, one day Nicolas Cage decided that he wanted to shoot a movie in Italy. And his agent casually let slip a “very secret” rumor about what he wanted to do. And suddenly every producer in Hollywood, not just us, everybody, was digging through these old files, searching for movies set in Italy.
And suddenly nobody cared if there was an American main character any more. They’re like, “It stars a dog, can we turn the dog into Nicolas Cage?”
Producers at our company had passed on so many great screenplays over the past ten years! And I know, because I was the guy in our files looking at those screenplays. I was looking at screenplays that I’d never even read that had been passed on before I was even in the company. Screenplays that had been completely unsellable a day before, and were suddenly the hottest commodity in Hollywood.
The movie Nicholas Cage ended up making was not ours; he ended up making Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
But think about that if you want to understand the futility of trying to anticipate whether your screenplay is going to be sellable on any given day.
If you want to understand Hollywood, just remember what high school was like. Imagine the most popular kids in high school, and remember how quickly the fads came in and out.
I remember Z Cavaricci pants. I remember them very strongly. If you’re in my age group, you know what Z Cavaricci pants are. They’re ridiculous looking pants and in second grade they were hugely popular. And I found out just a little too late and I worked on my mom and I begged her for these hundred dollar pants. And even though we were not rich, she finally bought me those pants. And I showed up to school in my Z Cavaricci pants only to find they were already out of style.
That’s Hollywood. What’s in style today is out of style tomorrow. And then back in style the next day! The only way that you can ‘time the market’ in Hollywood is to be a producer. Which means that you’re spending literally every day on the phone.
That’s what Producers do. Their job is to know what the fad was thirty seconds ago. And thirty seconds ago. And thirty seconds ago. They’re literally on the phone all day, finding out what everybody wants now, and now, and now, and now, and now.
All it takes is one bomb or one unexpected success and suddenly everything changes.
A small shift in the wind for Nicolas Cage and suddenly everything changes. 12 Years a Slave and suddenly everything changes. Dallas Buyers Club and suddenly everything changes. American Hustle and suddenly everything changes. We’re living in a very exciting time because the changes are going in the way of good writers.
Hollywood is like high school. The fads go in and out. If you don’t like which way the wind is blowing, wait ten minutes. It’ll blow in a different direction. And that’s why you never know if your idea is good enough to sell. Because “good enough to sell” depends on the fates matching up: that you get your “right script” in front of the “right person” at the “right time” when the winds are blowing in your direction. The only way that you can do that is by getting lucky.
At the same time, there’s some good news. You don’t need your movie to sell because that’s not how careers are built anymore.
It used to be that careers were built off of huge spec script sales. In the ’80’s and ’90’s that’s how it worked. You sold a spec script, you made a ton of money, and suddenly you had a career. And a lot of people are still teaching this because a lot of the people who were teaching were writing in the ’80’s and ’90’s. But that’s not how this works anymore. The Indie world it still works that way (just without the big money). If you’re in Indie film it’s still all about the script.
But in Hollywood it’s no longer about that. It’s about something called Transmedia.
Transmedia refers to films like Transformers, where you’re actually making a movie based on a toy. It’s used to sell toys and video games and lunch boxes and happy meals. These are the projects that are in vogue right now in Hollywood. Even The Lego Movie, which is a great movie, is based upon a product.
Now, as I mentioned, there’s a counter-current happening with these little Indie films and with Hollywood “Indie” films designed to win Oscars.. If you’re that kind of filmmaker then you can still sell a spec script. Come up with a new idea that breaks the mold, rather than following the formula. Because that’s what Indie film producers are looking for.
But most of what’s happening in Hollywood now is not about spec script sales. It’s about writers being hired in to write projects that originated with producers.
Most of what Hollywood producers are buying are called “properties”. They’re Transmedia projects based upon toys, video games, comic books, novels, true life stories and other elements with an existing, built in audience.
To get hired to write these projects, you do have to have some pretty amazing spec scripts. But you don’t need those spec scripts to sell! Or even to be sellable in the current market.
Instead you need your spec script to be so good, so unique, and so demanding of a producers’ attention, that after reading it, the producer can say, “Man, I wish I could make this movie. Maybe I should hire this great young talent to write The Hungry Hungry Hippos movie.”
Now, I’m being a little sarcastic. Not every idea that a Producer has is a bad idea. Producers option great books and they need writers to adapt them. Producers come up with brilliant ideas and they need writers to write them.
The Wolf of Wall Street was a book. Which means someone bought that book, In this case it was Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorcese. To make that book into a movie they have to hire a writer to write it.
So even if they didn’t buy your spec script, if they loved your spec script they might call you and say, “You know what? We’d like you to adapt The Wolf of Wall Street. We’re not making the film you came to us with, we’re making The Wolf of Wall Street. but we need a writer and we liked your script.
And this is good news for you. Because it means whether you want to be an indie filmmaker or a Hollywood screenwriter, your goal is the same: not to write a screenplay that can sell, but to write the screenplay in your heart. The one that only you can write, which shows off your true voice as a writer.
Because that is the rarest thing that a producer gets to see.
With so many writers banging out the same old formulas and churning out movies based on “great loglines” rather than great characters, it is very rare that a producer gets to see a truly great script.
Which means if you can write one, you actually have a chance of generating the kind of passion that it takes to make a producer believe in you, and take the risk involved in fighting for a new writer.
Think you’re ready to sell your script? Check out our Pitch Like a Pro seminar to find out how to give a succinct and irresistible pitch for your story.