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How to Sell Your Screenplay Pt. 1
There’s a really important question that we have not explored deeply enough on this podcast.
How do you sell a screenplay?
How do you sell a TV pilot?
How do you actually break into this crazy industry?
We’re going to start exploring that today, and we’re going to continue over a multi-part series of podcasts where we try to build some of the skills that you need to succeed in the film industry.
I want to start with a warning: Anytime someone promises you a fool-proof method for selling your screenplay, that person is lying to you.
Anytime someone tells you, “Here’s how you sell your script in 30 days,” or, “here’s a simple 10 step plan to sell your screenplay,” or even worse, “if you give me money, I will introduce you to someone and sell your script, guaranteed…”
Anytime someone makes you a promise like that, run!
Run, run, run as quickly as you can.
Please know that there are no easy answers or fool-proof methods when it comes to selling screenplays in the movie business.
There are a lot of sharks in these waters. There are a lot of people preying on the desperation of screenwriters who want so desperately to break into the film industry.
No one should be charging you for an introduction. No one should be charging you for representation (agents and managers get paid when they sell your script). No one should be charging you, saying, “Hey, if you give me your money, I will get your script to this person.” That’s an unsustainable business model.
Even if such a person really has that connection– and there’s a good chance that they don’t– if they start sending scripts to that connection because they’re getting paid by desperate screenwriters to do so, well, guess what’s gonna happen. Pretty soon that connection’s going to stop reading scripts submitted by that person, whether those scripts are good or not.
The screenwriting business is a relationship business. Nobody is going to help you sell your script without knowing your work intimately. And if they do know your work intimately, and like it, they will want to help you, and they will not expect to get paid until you do.
If it seems a little too good to be true, if it seems a little too easy, if it seems like a one-size-fits-all set of rules that’s going to work for everybody, then run. You’re being lied to.
What we’re going to try to do in this series of podcasts is answer a question that, quite frankly, is really hard: how do you sell a screenplay?
One of the reasons why it’s so hard is because it’s a question that doesn’t have a definitive answer.
But we’re going to try to give you some skills that you can use to break into the film industry once your screenplay is ready.
The first thing you want to know is that nearly every story about how someone broke into the film industry and sold their screenplay, represents an exception to the norm.
Almost everyone who has actually succeeded in the film industry has some crazy story about how it happened. Often, you’re going to hear that story and realize the truth.
Wow, they had a lot of luck.
I had a lot of luck. The teachers who work for me had a lot of luck.
Now, if you don’t do the writing work, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter how much luck you have. If your script isn’t actually ready to go, it doesn’t matter how many wonderful breaks happen in your favor.
If you are not really ready in both your art and your craft to be a screenwriter, it is probably not going to happen for you. You’re going to have to build your writing skills and your library of screenplays up to a point where you’re really ready to do this.
There is a hard truth that we have to accept about the film and TV industry: selling a script or pilot requires getting a little bit lucky.
So succeeding at breaking into the film industry as a screenwriter means working both your inner and your outer game as an artist: the confidence, voice, artistry and experience you need to deliver a great script, and the life, networking, business and pitching skills you need to break in.
First, you need to get yourself to a place in your personal and financial life where your writing is sustainable. You need to get to a place where you have the time to wait for your writing talent and your great script and the luck you need to actually match up.
That might happen in a day. That might happen in a year. That may happen in many years. You really, truly cannot predict when your hard work and the luck you need are going to come together.
What you can predict is that if you don’t do the hard work necessary to grow your craft and hone your writing skills, that lucky break ain’t happening for you.
But if you do the hard work, you can predict that the lucky break will happen.
I know that might be hard to believe if you are sitting in your living room in the Midwest saying to yourself, I don’t know anybody in Hollywood. I don’t have any connections. I don’t have any financial resources. I don’t know how I’m going to get there.
It might be hard, given those circumstances, to believe that the luck will happen. But I strongly believe that the luck does happen. And I have seen it happen for so many of my writers.
I believe that the work that you do to master these inner and outer skills is what enables you to see the luck you need when it’s happening right in front of you.
I think a lot of people are so convinced that they don’t have a shot at a screenwriting career, that they can’t actually see the opportunities to break into the film industry that are right in front of them in their own lives.
We’re going to talk about how you find and open those lucky doors into the film industry. How do you find and seize those opportunities? How do you identify and control the things that you can control?
It all starts with building a sustainable lifestyle for yourself.
If you hate going to work every day, and you are looking at selling your script as your ticket out of a depressing life, well, that’s an extremely high pressure situation to put yourself in.
If your script sells, wonderful! Your life just changed.
But if it doesn’t, the stakes are going to be so high. The pressure that you’re going to be writing under will be so high, and the pressure underneath every phone call that you make is going to be so high.
Here is what I would suggest you do instead of looking at the script as a ticket out.
If you hate your normal life, then the first step you should take as a screenwriter is to build a normal life you do like.
If your normal life doesn’t give you time to write, your first step toward being a screenwriter should be to figure out how to free up some time, not make the magical sale.
It should be to figure out how to start setting some limits with your boss so that your job serves your writing goals instead of blocking them.
It should be to figure out how to start carving out some time with your family.
We need to build a sustainable life so that we are happy showing up every day.
We need to build a sustainable life so that we are happy with the process of our life even if the luck we need to break into the film industry doesn’t happen right away.
We need to build a sustainable life so that we can keep showing up at the keyboard and keep playing the writing game.
Haruki Murakami has a wonderful book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami is one of my favorite novelists, and in that book, he talks about the process of writing a book (or in your case, probably writing a screenplay).
According to Murakami, the process of writing is much more like a marathon than a sprint.
I believe the same metaphor is also true when it comes to building your career as a writer.
Building your career as a writer is not a sprint. Not for most of us. Building your career as a writer is a marathon.
It’s about endurance. It’s about training every day. It’s about showing up and doing the little things day after day.
One of the metaphors that Murakami uses I think is really interesting. He points out that there are really only a couple of people who win marathons, but there are many, many, many, many, many people who compete in marathons.
Unless you are one of the top five runners, when you run a marathon, the only person you’re really competing with is yourself.
I think this is a wonderful piece of spiritual advice.
I was extremely lucky, and I had success extremely young. I was 21 years old when that door opened for me.
Yes, I worked my butt off.
Yes, I had some skills.
But mostly, an incredible door opened, and I charged through it with everything I had. I got lucky.
I remember even for myself at 21 years old feeling, I am so behind! All these other people are so far ahead of me! I remember that pressure.
I’ve had so many students come to me saying, I just retired. Can I really start a screenwriting career?
I’ve had so many writers come to me feeling like they’re behind. I’ve had students sell their first script yet feel like, I’m so behind!
What I’d like to suggest to you is, just like with runners in a marathon, there is plenty of room in the film industry for writers like you.
That doesn’t mean that you have to become Steven Spielberg.
If you’re Steven Spielberg, you can compete with the other top five, but most of us are really just competing with ourselves.
That starts with really knowing who you are. It starts with knowing what you want from the film industry, knowing what you want to write, and thinking about your career, just like your writing, as a marathon.
It starts with thinking about your writing career as something you show up to and take a step towards every day; as a network of relationships that you are developing over time.
You are not running a sprint. You are not looking for the quick sale (even though we’d all love it).
You are looking for the relationships, the collaborators, the people who believe in you and whom you believe in.
You are looking for the skill set that is going to allow you to perform consistently and the vision that is going to allow you to do your best work.
You’re looking to build those things.
There is also a spiritual practice of trust in which you trust yourself to keep showing up and doing the work of breaking into the film industry, selling your script, pitching your TV pilot, no matter what it takes, because if you do the work, you can also trust that the luck will find you.
You can’t control when the luck will happen. But you can get a lot better at seeing the luck when it is happening.
I’ve seen so many writers where the luck is shimmering and blinking and singing a little song in front of them, and they don’t see it.
Over these next few podcasts, we’re going to talk about how you can start to recognize the luck when it’s happening, what to do when that door starts to open, and how to build the skills you need so that you are ready when it happens.
We’re going to identify some tools that you can use to start opening those doors and building those relationships and connections that will eventually sustain you throughout your writing career.
It is impossible to sell a screenplay. It is impossible to sell a TV show. It is impossible, but people do it every single day.
My students do it.
Our teachers do it.
It is so freakin’ hard to sell a screenplay or a TV pilot, but people do it every day.
So if this is really what you want to do with your life, you have to make a little deal with yourself that you are going to do this.
Even if it seems impossible, you are going to do this.
Even if there are obstacles in your way, you are still going to do this.
Even if unfair things are happening– ageism, sexism, racism, all these things that truly do exist in the world– even if those things are happening, you are still going to do this.
Even if you fear you don’t have the talent, you are going to do this.
So many of us never actually let ourselves make that commitment to our dream of breaking into the film industry, because we fear that we just don’t “have the talent.”
We tell ourselves, Oh, she’s so good. And he’s so good. And they’re so good. But me? I just don’t have the talent. Maybe someday, if I can develop the talent–
I want you to think for a moment about Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan is one of my favorite songwriters. In fact, he’s one of my favorite musicians.
Does Bob Dylan have the talent?
Well, I think if you heard Bob Dylan’s voice back when his last name was Zimmerman, that you probably wouldn’t have thought he was destined to be a musician. You probably would have thought the exact opposite… Hey, you know, Bob, maybe think about law school…
Based only on Bob Dylan’s voice, your first assumption would probably not be that you were listening to one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of all time.
But all Bob Dylan wanted was to be Woody Guthrie! So Bob Dylan learned to play like Woody Guthrie by listening to old Woody Guthrie albums.
There’s an amazing story about Bob Dylan finding out that Woody was on his deathbed, and driving and to see this guy he didn’t even know but whom he so admired.
Bob Dylan spent the first part of his career just learning to play like Woody Guthrie. He spent the rest of his career learning to play like Bob Dylan.
What I’d like to suggest to you is that if you want to break into the film industry and sell your script, it’s that drive that you want to connect with, not all the rules of who you are supposed to be and how you are supposed to build your career.
You don’t want to ask yourself over and over again if you’re good enough or not good enough.
You want to find your Woody Guthrie.
You want to decide, I’m going to do this, even if it’s impossible.
I’m going to do this, even if I don’t have the talent.
And even more importantly, I’m going to do this, even if I am not going to be successful at it.
I’m going to do this, even if I know that I’ll never sell a script.
I’m going to do this, even if I knew that I would never make a single dollar from it. That’s how badly I want it.
Why would I say that?
Obviously, I want you to sell your script. I want you to break into the industry. I want you to make millions of dollars. I want everything good for you.
Why would I say you should do this, even if you’re not good enough and even if nothing will ever come out of it?
There are two reasons that I encourage you to have this level of commitment as you think about pursuing your dream, selling your script, and breaking into the film industry.
The first reason I say that you should commit to your dream no matter what your talent as a screenwriter, or what your chances of selling your script might be, is because that is the amount of determination that you are going to need to break into the film business.
On a purely business level, if you don’t have that level of determination, then you should be doing something else. That is the level of determination it’s going to take for you to break in.
The second reason is actually even more important than the first:
Everybody deserves something that they love that much.
Everybody deserves to do something with their lives that they love so much that the dirty little secret is: they would do it for free.
That’s my little dirty secret about screenwriting and my dirty little secret about teaching.
I’m extraordinarily lucky that I’m able to make a living doing what I love. But the truth is, even if I didn’t make a single dollar, I would still need to do this podcast. I would still need to teach my classes. I love them that much. They give me that much meaning in my life.
Everybody deserves that level of meaning in their life.
If you show up every day and you do a job that you frickin’ love; if you show up every day and you dedicate your life to something that matters so much to you that you would do it for free, that you would do it even if you didn’t have the talent, that you would do it even if you knew it was never going to lead anywhere– If you spend your life doing that, the worst case scenario is that you will have spent your entire life doing something you love.
I don’t think anybody on their deathbed has ever looked back with regret at having spent every day doing something that they loved.
If, on the other hand, it’s only worth it to you if it leads to success, if it’s only worth it to you if it leads you to money, if it’s only worth it to you if it leads to being Steven Spielberg, if it’s only worth it to you if you happen to be great at it, I think it would be a darn shame to devote that much of your life to something that really only serves the ego.
I think it would be a darn shame to dedicate that much time and energy to something that didn’t bring you joy in the process.
If the destination is the only thing that makes the journey worth it, well guess what? If you don’t end up at the destination, then you’ve wasted your whole life, when really you could have spent your whole life finding that thing that made you love the journey instead.
If writing is the thing that you need to do, if it is the thing that makes you you, if it gives you meaning on its own, if it is the thing that you are willing to do even if you don’t have any talent, even if you are full of doubts, even if you know there is no chance of you ever getting anywhere, then not only have you dedicated your life to something you love, you’re actually the person who’s most likely to get lucky and break into the film industry.
And if it doesn’t do that for you, there’s no shame in that. Go find something else that matters to you like that. I don’t care if that’s being an accountant or working at McDonald’s.
Go find the thing that matters to you so much that your dirty little secret is you would do it for free.
Go find that thing because that thing is going to give you a beautiful life.
One of my students was an angel investor in his former life. He has now reinvented himself as a writer, and he’s a darn good writer. I was talking to him because I’m very interested in entrepreneurship. I asked him, In your previous life as an investor, what did you look for in a CEO?
What he said to me was so interesting. He said, Jake, I knew pretty much any idea coming into my office had a good chance of making the money because if it didn’t have a good chance of making me money, it wouldn’t have already made it all the way to me. I wasn’t actually looking at how good the idea was. I wasn’t actually looking at the numbers. What I was looking for was the person who was so crazy that they were going to do it even if I said no; that even if I said, “This is the worst idea ever. You can’t have my money,” I knew they were still gonna do it, even though they didn’t have a single dollar to do it with.
I asked, Why?
He replied, Because that’s the person who’s going to succeed. That’s the level of passion that you need to succeed in entrepreneurship. I know the other guy might have the better idea, but if the passion isn’t there, if they wouldn’t do it without me, then I know they’re not going to make it, no matter how good the idea is.
As a screenwriter, you’re really an entrepreneur. In a pure sense, you are writing on spec, bringing something into the universe that does not yet exist not because someone’s asking you for it, not because someone’s demanding it of you, not because an audience is knocking down your door, but because it’s who you are.
You are creating something that doesn’t exist because you need to do it; because you believe there is going to be an audience for it, there are going to be people who are moved by it, who want it, who need it, who will benefit from it.
You are doing it speculatively, out of your heart, out of your passion, out of your conscious and your subconscious mind, out of your instincts and your intuition and your impulses.
You are creating something that is beautiful to you.
Just like entrepreneurs, screenwriters need to learn certain skills to bring that creation into fruition.
We need a team. We need the people around us who can help us bring that idea all the way to fruition, and we need the internal drive that is going to get us there.
So many of us as screenwriters feel much more comfortable in front of our laptop than we feel pitching our script or networking with executives.
For a lot of screenwriters, these skills– networking, sales, pitching, business– are skills we didn’t learn because we were busy reading books, writing stuff, and living with our characters. Meanwhile, other people were learning how to network by passing notes back in elementary school.
If you continue listening to this podcast, I’m going to make the assumption that your writing is as important to you as we’ve been talking about.
I’m going to make the assumption that this matters to you that you would secretly do it for free.
I’m going to make the assumption that you either have, or are in the process of building, a life that is sustainable for you; that gives you enough money, enough stability, enough time, and enough space to write that you can keep showing up again and again and again until the luck matches up with the hard work.
I’m going to make the assumption that that is who you are. And in the next couple of episodes, we are going to talk about how to build those skills.
We know who you are, now it’s time to learn what to do?
I hope you enjoyed this podcast, please like and review and check us out every Thursday night. We have a free screenwriting class called Thursday Night Writes. You can find out more at www.writeyourscreenplay.com/thursday.
*edited for length and clarity