How to Sell Your Screenplay Part 3: How To Find The Right Producer
Okay, it’s time to get to the nitty gritty. How do you get to producers? And even more importantly, how do you know which producers to get to?
Well, that’s what we’re going to be talking about in Part 3 of the How to Sell Your Screenplay series.
Before I jump in today, a shout out. Much of the information that I’m giving you today was developed by a wonderful acting teacher, John Dapolito. If you’re an actor, you should check him out. He has some brilliant ideas about how to brand actors and how to use theme to find the roles that actors should play, the people most likely to cast them, and the projects they’re most likely to get cast in.
Today I’m going to build upon John’s work, and show you how you can adapt it for your work as a screenwriter.
When we think about selling a screenplay, it’s very rare that anyone tells us to consider the theme.
Selling a screenplay, that’s business, right? Shouldn’t we be talking about four quadrant finance kind of stuff? Isn’t that all about numbers and what’s hot right now?
It’s easy to overlook the touchy feely emotional part of selling a screenplay.
But having been on both sides of this picture, having been both a writer and a producer, I can tell you that the decision to buy a screenplay is rarely a rational decision.
The decision to invest years of your life into bringing something to the big or the small screen. That’s not a pure numbers decision. That’s an emotional decision.
I’m not saying the producers don’t have numbers in their heads. I’m not saying producers don’t have mandates from their bosses or their CEOs. I’m not saying that there aren’t business concerns involved in the decision. As we talked about in episode one of this How To Sell Your Screenplay series, that’s why it takes some luck to sell a script.
So sure, everyone’s got business concerns. What’s hot right now for this particular producer is always going to factor into any decision. How that lines up with your scripts: that’s the part you can’t control.
But when you’re a producer contemplating two scripts that both fulfill your business needs, which one do you buy? Which one do you fight for? Which one makes you want to dive in?
That’s an emotional decision.
There’s a really simple reason for this: There is no rational reason to spend a million dollars on a script.
Or 10 million dollars, 100 million dollars…
Most likely, if you had 100 million bucks in your bank account, you wouldn’t be thinking, “you know what, let me take all that cash and let me put it into something that very well might not make the money back.” Right?
This is the Hollywood business model: we are going to lose money on five movies, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars. But then on the sixth movie, we’re going to make so much money that it makes all that money back and more.
This is not a traditional business.This isn’t: “we’ve found a niche in auto tires that isn’t filled right now. And a brand new kind of tire everyone wants.”
The finance model for films and TV, whether it’s an indie movie or a huge Hollywood production, is a gambling model.
And since no one ever knows for sure which movie will turn into a blockbuster, Producers have business plans, but they make emotional decisions.
Producers, directors, agents, managers and stars are attracted to very specific scripts. And the same people aren’t attracted to every script.
So, what if there was some secret way that you could find the producers, managers, agents, directors and stars who were most likely to be interested in the kind of screenplays you write?
What if there was a way that you could easily find and identify your people, and just target the people most likely to respond to your material since they’re already predisposed to it?
A lot of people think about identifying the right producer in terms of genre. They think, “Okay, this person makes action movies, this person makes zombie movies, this person makes romances.”
But genre is not actually a particularly good way of finding the right producer.
Sure, there are some producers who just make a certain kind of movie, or a certain kind of TV show. There are some actors who just play that romantic comedy role. But most actors, most directors, most producers, they actually work in multiple genres.
In addition, genres go through popularity cycles. For example, right now, you talk to the average producer and they’re likely to ask you, “got a low budget, elevated horror script?” You know, a low budget version of Get Out! Everybody wants that right now.
Everyone happens to be asking for that right now, because those kinds of scripts are making money.
But by the time you rush to write your low budget elevated horror script, they’ll be looking for something else!
So those genre elements don’t help us much to narrow down who to target with our screenplay. Sure, you want to be smart. If you’ve got a historical epic, you probably want to go to somebody who produces historical epics. But it’s not only genre that defines what producers want.
Often newer writers don’t realize that part of getting your movie made or your screenplay sold is about the package that you put together.
Sometimes, that package is just the right producer, or even the right financing. There’s a big difference picking up the phone and saying, “Hey, we got a million dollar budget, and we have 500k raised, and we need another 500,” than there is making the same call and saying, “Hey, we’ve got no money, we’ve got no star, we’ve got no director.”
Sometimes it’s money that pushes your project over the top. Sometimes it’s a star attachment. Sometimes it’s a director attachment. It can be a lot of different things. But a great script is only a step in that process.
So regardless of whether it’s going to be you putting that package together yourself, a producer is optioning the script and doing that for you or in collaboration with you, an agent representing you, or any of the other many permutations by which screenplays are produced, at some point, that package is going to need to be put together. Which means you’re going to need to figure out how to focus your energy and target the right people to get your project made.
The ideas I’m about to share with you work across the gamut of putting together your package. They work whether you are trying to attract an agent, a director, and A-list actor. Whoever you’re trying to attract, there is one thing you want to remember.
People are attracted to themes. Sometimes consciously. Sometimes unconsciously. And by identifying the theme a particular agent, manager, producer, director, financier or star is attracted to, you can greatly increase your chances of success in selling your screenplay.
Why are people so attracted to themes? Because crazy stuff happens to us when we are children, that we then spend the rest of our lives (or at least significant periods of our lives) trying to make sense of..
Think of Picasso’s art, and you can easily see how theme works. He was in a blue period. He became interested in blue, he made some kind of sense of blue to a point where he had resolved it. And he thought, “Well, what if I was to look at a flat surface from every possible angle…” And suddenly, it’s cubism.
When you meet any given actor, director, producer, manager, agent or financier, there’s a good chance you’re meeting them in a specific period of their lives. Just like Picasso. They’re wrestling with something deep and psychological of which they might not even be totally aware, which I call theme.
And it’s likely they’re going to be interested in certain kinds of screenplays during this period.
When talking about selling your screenplay, I’m using theme in a slightly different way than a lot of the books and screenwriting teachers talk about theme.
A lot of people think about theme like an intellectual concept. “First you figure out your theme and then you write the script that fulfills the theme.” That’s not the way I think about theme.
The way I think about theme is as that thing that is driving you to write in the first place, that you may or may not be consciously aware of.
Somewhere deep inside of you is a beautiful and broken part of yourself that you are trying to make sense of. Somewhere inside of you is some historical event that happened to you that you don’t quite understand, but that is going to keep driving you until you make sense of it.
Somewhere deep inside of you is a part of yourself you want to show to the world or even maybe to yourself, a question that you don’t understand, a change you want to create in the world.
Somewhere deep inside you, there is a theme driving you.
Even if you’re not aware of our theme, the act of writing is a therapeutic act.
In therapy, you come in to meet your therapist saying “I’m fine, I just do this one weird thing.” And then, years later, you learn it’s about your mother.
In screenwriting, you start off thinking, “I’ve got this great sellout idea for a script…” and whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, 15 layers down and a few months later, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s about my mother!”
There is always a theme driving you whether you’re aware of it or not.
Part of the process of developing a script, at least the way that we do it here at Jacob Krueger Studio, is mining for that theme and pulling that theme to the surface, developing the script around that theme once you become conscious of it, so that the character goes on a journey in relation to that theme.
Ultimately, when it’s time to sell that script, we will translate the theme into something called a hook.
So you can think of the theme as like the subconscious version of the hook and the hook as the conscious version of the theme.
Theme is the thing that hooks you as the writer, and the hook is the way you describe that theme in terms of what’s cool about the script, the character, the journey, that hooks a producer, director, or star to decide, “maybe I’ll read this.”
When we pitch our work, we’re articulating both sides of theme. Generally, we’re letting the theme hover under the surface, and we’re leading with the hook.
Whereas when we develop a script, we’re actually focusing on the theme and then trusting that the hook will come.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have a theme, and your hook is inextricably related to your theme. You might not know it at the beginning of writing your script, but you cannot make it to the end without your theme eventually coming out.
Writing a script, selling a script, getting staffed in a writer’s room, building a career in this industry is not a sprint; It is a marathon.
If you’ve listened to the previous podcast in this Sell Your Screenplay series, you know we’re not looking for one hit wonders here.
So, you’re never focused on selling one script. You’re focused on building a library.
If you’re seriously out there trying to sell a script, then I really hope you have a library. Because usually the successful answer when you pitch your script and someone reads your script is, “ah, we loved it. But we got something similar in development. What else have you got?” Or “you’re a great writer, but we don’t want to make this. What else have you got?”
It’s very rare that the answer is actually yes.
So you want to have a library.
Let’s assume you have a library, you’ve got a couple of features, a couple of pilots, maybe a couple of different genres, but somehow they kind of tell a story together about who you are as a writer.
And what’s that story they all tell together: that story is the theme that connects what you’re writing.
And even if you don’t know what your theme is at the beginning, if you go back and read the scripts that you’ve written recently, you’ll probably realize, “Oh, my gosh, I’m in a period!” Just like Picasso with his blue period or his cubist period.
I’m in a period, and I’m wrestling with a specific theme, and all of these scripts have something similar about them.
So once you find that theme that ties your library of screenplays together, you are going to write it down. And then you’re going to start to think about synonyms for that theme.
So let’s say your screenplay is about love. You might write down “love,” and then you might write down “romance,” and then you might write down “connection.” Then you might think more deeply about the kind of love you are writing about and you might realize it’s about “troubled love,” “complicated love,” “painful love,” “broken love.”
You’re going to come up with as many different synonyms for your theme, while also trying to drill down and get more specificity about your theme.
Then, starting with the one that feels best, and you’re going to go to IMDBpro.com. And you’re going to spend the 15 bucks on a membership, because you’re trying to build a career as a screenwriter. (They’re not paying me for this. IMDB, this is a gift for you. Because your website is such an amazing resource for screenwriters).
You’re going to go to IMDBpro.com, you’re going to buy your pro subscription, and that’s going to give you access to their keyword search. Right at the top of the search bar, you’re going to change “all” to “keyword” and you’re going to enter your first keyword into the search. If there’s more than one word, you’ll separate with dashes.
Start with the one that’s most resonant, and then you can work your way later into the synonyms.
You’re going to see a bunch of titles come up, a ton of different shows and movies that have a keyword on a similar theme.
You’re going to make a little spreadsheet, working your way down throughyour keywords. Here’s what you want on your spreadsheet:
#1- the name of the show or the movie.
#2- the names of the stars.
#3- the names of the director.
#4- the names of the producers.
#5- the names of the writers.
Let’s say you were using the keyword “apocalypse” and doing this for Don’t Look Up.
|Don’t Look Up||Leonardo DiCaprio||Adam McKay||Adam McKay||Adam McKay|
|Don’t Look Up||Jennifer Lawrence||Kevin J. Messick||David Sirota|
Leo would get his own line, and then you would make a second line for the same film where you would put Jennifer Lawrence, as well as the additional producer, Kevin J. Messick and the additional writer David Sirota.
You’re going to get each star, director, producer and writer a line, so that eventually you can sort by any of these categories.
The reason you want Stars is because you are looking for the stars who could potentially be attracted to your project, because they’re working on similar themes to yours.
To sell your screenplay or get your movie or show produced, you want to target the stars who are going to move your project forward.
The brilliant actress who played Waitress #3, but she was so incredible… Guess what? She probably isn’t at a point in her career yet where she can help your script.
So you’re looking for the recognizable names, the people who are on the upswing of their career right now, who are your people.
When you start making this list you’re not going to think about it, you’re just going to make a long list of all the recognizable names, with a line for each.
At the beginning of your career, if you don’t currently have a powerful agent or manager, if you’re not hooked up with a huge production company, you’re probably not going to be able to get to Leonardo DiCaprio.
But there are a ton of stars that are looking for great roles for themselves. And most of these stars have production companies.
Most of these production companies are very small, which means the staff might be one person, whose primary job is really just to read scripts that might be right for that star.
Often you’ll find you can get to that person a lot easier than you can get to a big time executive producer. You’ll find that that person is actually more accessible because all they really do is read scripts. There’s a good chance, unless this actor happens to have a huge production company, that just a few years ago, their development executive was still an assistant. They’re in the early stages of their career. And that means you can get to them!
You can use the directors on your list in the same way.
Sometimes a director can be the thing that pushes your script over the top. Remember that these people also have connections. They know actors they’ve worked with on previous projects. If they’re interested, they can help you move your project forward. They can potentially help you get hooked up with an agent, they can help you get to the right production company. Even if they’re not acquiring the script themselves, they can potentially write you an LOI, a letter of intent, indicating that they want to be a part of this project, and that will help you raise money or attach other talent.
Make sure that each producer gets their own line as well, so that you’re capturing all the producers, especially the little ones.
The person who is currently an associate producer– that person’s at the early stages of their career, and that person actually is looking for scripts, and they probably don’t have the direct connection to CAA yet.
They’re not like the great white shark in Hollywood. They’re little baby sharks. And they’re hungry. Which means these are amazing people to reach out to, especially if they’re on your theme.
Finally, the writer.
Believe it or not, the writer probably can’t help you in the way you’d expect. The writer might be able to help you as a mentor. But the writer is unlikely to be the person who helps you sell your script. . So what’s the value of tracking writers on your theme?
Writers have agents and managers. And there’s a good chance those agents and managers are on a similar theme to the writers they represent. And if those writers are on your theme– well then those agents and managers are likely your people.
As you start to build out this spreadsheet, you’ll soon realize that any one line doesn’t really mean much. But if you sort by any particular column, certain names keep showing up, again, and again, project after project after project after project.
For an easy example, you guys all know the work of George Clooney. Well, nearly every script that George Clooney makes is about identity.
Who is Michael Clayton? Who is the Fantastic Mr. Fox? Who is the American? Who is George Clooney?
Almost all of George Clooney roles in some way are about identity; not every single project, but most of the projects that he’s involved in.
If your script happens to be about identity, you’re going to see George Clooney’s name show up again and again and again on your list. And you’ll start to realize “I think George might be one of my people.”
Just like writers, stars, producers, agents and managers have deep thematic stuff going on under the surface. They’re often not aware of it. Just like, probably, if you ask George he might not say “I make movies about identity.” He might just say, “I just loved the script, I just connected to it. I wanted to do Michael Clayton, they paid me nothing for it. I worked for the minimum. But I just needed to do it.”
Not only because it was a great script, but because it was on his theme.
You’re trying to compile hundreds of lines on this list. Then you can start sorting. You can sort by actor, you can sort by director, you can sort by star… and you’re going to start to see who your people are, who are the people who are on your theme.
You’re going to make a list of your top five– who are the people you are most excited to contact, who are on your theme, and who make movies and shows that you love.
Start wherever you want! Actor, Director, Producer… Almost all of them have production companies.
Your top five writers– don’t look for the top five writers who are famous writers. Look for the top five writers who maybe have just had their first project produced, but you love their work.
Their agent is probably at the level that they’re looking for people like you. Their manager and their agent are probably on the same theme– not consciously, but subconsciously– that’s probably why they are representing these people.
Again, this is not my technique, thank John Dapolito for coming up with this incredible approach. But I’d highly recommend you try it.
Once you identify your top five, you want to watch every film or show that these people have made; You want to make sure you really love them. You want to know their library inside out.
And then you want to pick one, and start talking to everyone about them.
There’s such a big difference in telling someone, “I want to get to any producer” and telling someone “Hey, I really want to get to this producer, because she has made this movie, and this movie, and this movie, and I do projects that are on similar theme.”
Believe it or not, somewhere in your six degrees of separation, somebody knows the person you are trying to get in touch with.
These are your people. And it’s so much easier to seek out your people than it is to seek out anyone who can help.
Keep shaking the tree of your social network, and you’re going to find out that somebody knows their dry cleaner. Eventually, you’re going to get an introduction.
The ideal way of meeting your people is to get an introduction through someone who knows them, even tangentially. But there are other ways to connect as well.
You can connect through cold calling, which we’ll talk about in the next episode.
You can connect through social media.
You can find their picture, find out where they’re speaking, festivals where they’re showing their films. Go bump into them. Don’t be a stalker. But do go talk to them. You’re going to have plenty of stuff to talk about, because you know their library of projects.
However you get to them, the concept here is really simple: Figure out your theme. Find the people who are on your theme. And find a way to connect with them. Be a good person. Be professional. Take no for an answer if they say “no.” Don’t do anything that would make you uncomfortable in their shoes.
But remember that their job is to look for great scripts that they connect to. So if you happen to have one, and you’ve targeted them properly, you are helping them as much as they are helping you.
Remember, you’re not necessarily looking for the hugely famous people. If you’re at the beginning of your career, unless Brad Pitt is your next door neighbor, and he already loves you, the most famous people are probably too big.
You’re looking for the producers, directors, managers, agents and stars who are going to be the big thing a few years from now.
You’re looking for the people who are one step or two steps above where you are right now.
Because those are the people who are desperate for writers like you.
You’re looking for the star who just needs the right vehicle to make the leap from beloved supporting actor to lead role. The agent who’s looking for new talent to round out their roster. The director who is looking for the project to help them take the next step in their career.
One last bit about this: you want to learn how to talk about yourself in terms of your theme, so that you’re not saying “Hey, I’m Jake, and I write thrillers.” You’re saying, “Hey, I’m Jake, and I write pieces about loss leading to fractured worlds.”
Yeah, that’s my real theme, at least for right now.
That could be a movie like The Fountain (the film I most wish I’d been hired to rewrite). That could be a movie like What Dreams May Come (another I feel similarly about). That could also be a movie like The Matthew Shepard Story, which I was fortunate enough to get to write.
I have wrestled with that theme in so much of my writing, not consciously, but unconsciously. So talking about myself in terms of that theme helps people understand me, to know what kinds of projects to consider me for, and not to consider me for. In fact, even my comedy scripts tend toward this theme. I’m working on a script called The Amateurs right now. And guess what? As I record this podcast, and say these words for the first time, I’m realizing it’s also about loss leading to fractured worlds.
It’s my theme. It’s not something I’m consciously putting into my writing. It’s something that just keeps showing up.
In the same way that theme pushes you to write, theme also pushes people who love your writing to fight for you, to take a gamble with their money, to take a gamble on their career: “Yes, I know, boss, this is an unproduced writer. I know that there’s no agent. There’s no track record. But you must read this script.”
Where does that passion come from? It doesn’t come from a bunch of numbers or corporate goals. It comes from passion.
Where does that passion start? That passion starts with theme.
Standby for the next episode, we’re going to be talking about how to get past the gatekeepers to reach the people who can take your script to the next level.
*edited for length and clarity