Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Fade Out Does Not Equal A Sale

From 2011...

Congratulations! You have finished your screenplay! It was a lot of hard work, and you deserve to be rewarded, so do something nice for yourself. You deserve something special!

“Swell, do you have Spielberg's address? I think he'd be he perfect director!”

Okay, now to the reality check: just because you have made the major accomplishment of finishing a screenplay does not mean that that screenplay is great. It just means it's finished.

“Okay, how about Uwe Boll's address?”

Now, I'm not saying your screenplay *isn't* great – I haven't read it. I'm just saying that because it is finished is no reason to believe that it is great. It may suck. At this point, you are just so happy that you finally got to type FADE OUT that you probably are not the best judge. Later, after you have rewarded yourself for your excellent hard work, and maybe had a few days or weeks to just bask in FADE OUT, you might take a closer look at the script to see if it needs one of those rewrites you keep hearing about.

“Wait a minute! You mean once I finish it, I still have to keep rewriting it? Even for Uwe Boll?”

Lots of new writers (and probably some old ones) figure that once they type FADE OUT they have a salable screenplay – something they can send out to agents or managers or producers or their best contact. But just finishing a screenplay is like just finishing a foot race – you can come in last place and you have still finished.

“You're not going to make me run, are you? I'm, uh, a little out of shape.”

The problem is, just like that race, you aren't the only one running. There are around 75,000 scripts (etc) registered with the WGA every year, plus the things registered with the copyright office, plus the things that are not registered at all. Here's the thing – assignments and scripts adapted from other materials are usually *not* copyrighted or registered, because they are based on previously copyrighted material. So, I guess there are at least 100k scripts (etc) written every year... and it's common for a screenplay to stay in circulation for a decade – you often read about scripts like THE UNFORGIVEN that were bouncing around Hollywood for 10 years before they were finally bought... and that gives us about a million screenplays in circulation at any one time. And how many of those million sell? Well, last year it was 53.

“What you talking about? 53 total? That's impossible!”

Thanks to the brilliant Scott Myers, here is the list.

“Wow, that's all? But... well... my script might be better than those. It has a better title than some of them. BLOOD OF THE NAKED MUTILATORS. See? That's gotta be close to winning, right?”

But what that means is that if you were running that foot race and came in #54, you would still have lost. And there would be 999,946 people behind you!


Wow, I probably just depressed the hell out of you. Sorry. The point is, just because you finish a screenplay does not mean what you have written is going to sell or get you an assignment or even get you noticed. Each of those things is a step. The first step is finishing your screenplay, then you keep climbing those steps getting better and better until you reach the point that you *are* one of those 53 winners. But that's probably not going to happen with your first screenplay. Might, but odds are kind of against it.

“Running, and now *steps*? This sounds like work to me.”

One of the things that frequently happens is people write their first script and become disappointed when it doesn't sell or get them work. They have unrealistic expectations.

“What is unrealistic about selling my first script to a studio for $1 million and having Spielberg direct it?”

Though Han Solo doesn't want anyone to tell him the odds, imagine how much confidence he would lose if he kept failing at something he thought was easy? When you golf, each hole is clearly marked with the level of difficulty *before* you tee off. A board gave gives you a guide for what age groups will be able to play it. So, telling you the odds is not to burst your bubble but to tell you that this isn't going to be easy, so if you try and fail a bunch of times – so did everyone else. All of your favorite screenwriters? Failed a lot. *A lot*. Part of the learning curve.

“Running, steps, now *golf*? That was bad enough, but now you are saying that I am going to *fail*? But I don't want to fail! I'm not a failure! I'm gonna be a huge success and win all of the Oscars!”

I wrote an article for Script Magazine in the 90s that took a bunch of famous Oscar Winning screenwriters and listed the number of unsold and unproduced scripts they'd written – my source was a big book called Film Writers Guide which no longer exists anymore. But once you saw how many great writers had screenplays that had “failed” - often after they were famous – you realized how tough this business is, and hopefully didn't feel so bad when your script did not sell.

“Well, I'm not feeling good about it. But if you have to fail to succeed, I guess I can do that.”

Once you write FADE OUT, you still have a lot of rewriting to do – and maybe page one rewrites where *everything* changes. Yes, everything - even that title of yours. And even then, they can't all be winners. It's a major accomplishment to finish a screenplay, but that doesn't mean it's going to be great... and doesn't mean it's going to sell. So, put off pricing the Ferraris for a while.

"Okay, but I just finished my first short film, how do I enter it in Sundance?"

- Bill

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