So here’s the scenario. You’ve just been told you’re going to die from cancer in six months. As you sit down and consider what’s most important (family, friends, etc.) you realize that the one thing you want to do before you leave this earth is sell a screenplay. That’s been your dream. If you can pull that off, you’ll die a happy man/woman. But where do you begin? If it was easy, you would’ve done it by now, right? Well, amazing things can happen when you have a literal ticking time bomb lighting a fire under your ass. The main reason you haven’t sold a script yet is because you haven’t maximized your chances. You haven’t skewed all the odds in your favor. Remember, all you want to do is sell a script. It’s not about “art.” It’s not about “staying true to yourself.” You just want to sell a script. With that in mind, I’m going to lay out the most likely plan for achieving this goal. In other words, this is what I would do if I were you.
6 months equals 24 weeks (roughly). Let’s break those weeks down.
WEEKS 1-4 – Come up with idea, maximize story potential, outline.
1) THE IDEA - Here is the most important choice you will make in this entire process because it’s going to MAXIMIZE YOUR READS later on. The more reads you get, the better chance you’ll have of selling your script. You need to come up with a high concept easy to understand idea that you can see 13-25 year olds racing out to the theater to see – Think big. Aliens. Time-travel. Gladiators. Car racing. Dream heists. Dinosaurs. Super-heroes. The apocalypse. Killers with masks. Big ironic comedy situations. Mythical creatures. Ghosts. Monsters. Nazis. Lower budgeted versions of these ideas will give you more potential buyers, but if you’ve got a really great high concept idea, don’t worry about the budget. -- Now there are some things I want to mention here. Make sure you’re INTERESTED in the subject matter. If you’re a vampire fan, don’t write about aliens. Write about vampires. Even if we’re just writing this to sell, your love for the subject matter must come through on the page. People can smell a cash grab, which may be what this is. But if you love your cash grab idea, it’s going to read a lot better than if you don’t. Next, the idea has to be clever or unique in some way. It can’t be “Aliens land on earth and start destroying things.” We’ve seen that before. “The Days Before,” a spec that sold a couple of years ago, had aliens jumping back in time a day at a time to destroy earth. It was different. Your idea has to be different. Finally, TEST DRIVE YOUR IDEA. This will be one of the most IMPORTANT STEPS YOU’LL MAKE IN SELLING YOUR SCRIPT! Mix up your idea with ten others (find other loglines from Scriptshadow or Tracking Boards) and have your friends rank them. If your idea doesn’t consistently finish near the top, don’t write the script. Come up with another batch and start over again. I know time is ticking but I can’t stress how important this part of the process is for later.
First time screenwriter Shane Black sold Lethal Weapon for $250,000
2) CLEAR STORY - I would make sure that this is a clear easy-to-understand story. A hero with a CLEAR GOAL he DESPERATELY WANTS TO ACHIEVE. Indiana Jones going after the Ark. Marty McFly trying to get back to the future. Colter trying to find the terrorist in Source Code. Note that this doesn’t mean “dumb your story down.” I don’t think anyone would call Raiders or Back To The Future “dumbed down.” It just means not having 7 different subplots winding around a murky narrative. Hero desperately trying to achieve something and shit gets in his way. That’s the structure you want you to go with.
3) MAIN CHARACTER - I would have an interesting male main character. Remember, a big actor has to want to play the lead role. That means the role should be juicy and in the 28-45 age range. Have some conflict going on inside of them. Neo doesn’t believe in himself. Denzel in The Book Of Eli (a big spec sale from a first timer) is afraid to get close to others. Make sure there’s something – it doesn’t have to be game-changing – but SOMETHING the main character is battling. Because one of the first questions the producers will ask is, “Who can I cast in this role?”
4) KEEP IT EXCITING - Make sure something interesting and/or unexpected happens every 15 pages or so. 110 pages is a lot of white space and watching one character try to do the same thing for 2 straight hours is boring. So unexpected things need to happen along the way to mix it up. Have your main character die (Source Code), get caught by the Germans (Indiana Jones) or get to his destination only to realize it’s no longer there (Star Wars). If something interesting or unexpected or surprising or stake-raising doesn’t happen every 15 pages or so, your script is probably getting boring.
5) OUTLINE - Outlining saves you rewrite time later. All of the things I listed above (clear goal, interesting main character, something happens every 15 pages), you’ll only be able to do because you’ve outlined. Get yourself a good 3-10 pages to work with and make sure all the major story beats are covered. It’s okay if you don’t have all the details figured out. As long as you know where you’re heading, you’ll be fine. No outline and no direction will equal a wandering storyline. We can’t afford that if we’re going to sell this puppy.
First time screenwriters Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg sold their script "The Passion Of The Ark" for 1.5 million (It was later turned into "Evan Almighty.")
Weeks 5-10 – Write The Script
6) WRITE - I would write at least 8 hours a day. But because you’re dying, you should probably write even more. Also, because you’re dying, you’re not allowed those excuses you usually use. “Oh, I’m not feeling it. I’m going to take the rest of the day off.” Or, “Maybe I should go watch a movie to get some inspiration.” You’re dying. Every second is valuable. You have to WRITE. And you know what? It shouldn’t be hard. You’ve already outlined. So you know where your script is going. If you run into a tough scene, switch over to a later scene. Doesn’t matter if this isn’t the way you usually write. YOU’RE DYING. You need to maximize your time. ABW. Always be writing!
Weeks 11-15 – Feedback and Rewrite
7) FEEDBACK - Afterwards, give it to a few friends/family. Now this is important. You need to convince your friends/family to be honest. A pat on the back does nothing for you. You need them to mean, cruel, heartless. Get them to tell you what works and what doesn’t work. They’re your friends and your family so they’re always going to be too nice, but I’ve found that if you ask them pointed questions, their true feelings start to come out. You’ll hear frustration, indifference, disbelief, impatience. So keep track of when those reactions come up and star those parts of the script as problem areas.
8) REWRITE - I would love to have more than a month for my rewrite but time is running out man! The good news is we picked a clean narrative (a main character with a goal he desperately wants to achieve) so the fixes shouldn’t be too complicated. Isolate the big problems in the script. Come up with solutions. Start the rewriting. After you’re finished, polish it up and make it as easy to read as possible. No long paragraphs. An easy succinct style.
9) PROOFREAD - You may only have 3 months to live, but you’re not stupid. You’re not going to go all this way only to get your script rejected because of too many typos in the first ten pages. I don’t care how much blood you’re coughing up. Make that script as clean as a whistle.
M. Night sold The Sixth Sense for 2.5 million
Weeks 16 – 24 – Sell it
10) RESEARCH - This is the place where most writers fail. They have their script but no place to go with it. That’s why I’ve given you 8 weeks for this section. This is going to take some effort on your part and probably require you to do things you’re not comfortable doing. Well suck it up Sally. You only have two months to live. If you can’t face your fears now, when can you? To ease you into this tumultuous section, I’ll start with something simple. RESEARCH! Subscribe to IMDBPro (don’t sweat the 20 bucks, you can’t take money to the afterlife) and write down the producers names/companies who worked on every movie that’s ever been like yours in the last 10 years. Do the same with the Black List. Do the same with any spec sale that hasn’t been made yet. Find the producers who bought/worked on those movies and write down their phone numbers (IMDBPro has most phone numbers. Savvy googling should find you the rest). Your list should have somewhere between 100-300 names.
11) CONNECTIONS - Okay, we’re almost in the arena – where you’re going to fight to the death. It’s going to be unpleasant. So here’s one last area to prepare you. You need to call every single person you know and ask them if they know anyone in Hollywood who will read your script. Depending on where you live, this might be 3 people. It might be 20. And chances are, they won’t be Spielberg or Cameron. But they’ll be working in the industry. And if they like your script, they just might know someone else to pass it on to. So call these people up. Be excited. Thankful. Chatty. Don’t bring up your chemo treatments. Say that you’d love the opinion of someone who works in the business. Would they read your script? They’ll probably all say yes which will put you in the perfect mindset for the most difficult part of this entire process. So pump yourself up. It’s time to start calling all those numbers you researched.
12) COLD CALLING – Cold calling sucks. But guess what? You’re dying. Cold calling can’t be worse than that can it? You’re going to go directly to the producers here. You don’t have time to wait for agents. Now, pay attention, because cold calling is an art. You’re going to call these people and be upbeat, nice, cordial, energetic (but not TOO energetic) and professional. You’ll get the secretary, who will probably sound impatient, but don’t let that phase you. You have 199 other people to call if she stonewalls you. But she won’t. Because you’re going to keep this simple. You’ll say something to the effect of, “Hi, this is Jane Smith. Is Mr. Adams (the producer) in?” “May I ask what this is in regards to?” she’ll probably ask. “Yes, it’s about my script Act of Vengeance.” Depending on the status of the producer, you may or may not get through to them. A quick detail to remember. There’s a ton of turnover in these secretary jobs so this person is probably just as new to this as you. DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED.
Rossio and Marsilii sold Deja Vu for 3 million bucks!
13) PRODUCER CONVERSATION – I hope you don’t mind lying, because you’re about to. This is what you’ll say: “Mr. Adams. Hi, this is Jane Smith. You read one of my scripts awhile back and I have a new one I’d love to send over.” Now you may be afraid of getting caught in this lie. Don’t. Producers receive a TON of material. An endless amount. They can barely remember what they read last week, much less something they read two years ago. And they don’t read most of the scripts anyway. So there’s no way they can prove that you’re lying. If they press you, be vague. “Where do we know each other from?” “Oh we haven’t formally met but I sent my other script to your assistant a couple of years back.” If everything works out, he’ll say, “Sure, send it over.” But, he might say, “Yeah, have your agent send it over.” Don’t freak out. An important thing to know is that there are a lot of solid writers out there without representation or “between” representation. So just say, “Oh, I’m not represented at the moment. Is it okay if I get a release form from your assistant?” He might say yes, he might say no. But you should probably hit with at LEAST 30% of these calls. So if you call 200 producers – that’s 60 PEOPLE READING YOUR SCRIPT! And not just any people – but targeted people who make your kind of movie.
14) IF YOU’RE NOT A LIAR - Now if you don’t like lying (wimp), here’s an alternative approach. You’ll say: “Mr. Adams. Hi, this is Jane Smith. I just finished a script that I know your company will love. Can I send it over?” Don’t let any awkward pauses derail you. After collecting himself, he might say something like, “Have we met before?” Just reply, “No, not personally. But I know how much you love these kinds of movies and I really think you’ll like this. It’s about [recite your logline.]” And THIS is where all that hard work you did at the beginning will pay off. Had you gone with your passion project idea (a wheat farmer who’s been a victim of domestic abuse goes on a spiritual journey through Peru), you’d get hung up on. But because you test drove and went with an intriguing high concept idea, the first thing that will go through that producer’s mind is, “Hmmm, that actually sounds like it could be a movie.” “Sure, send it over,” he’ll say. If he says he can’t accept unsolicited material, ask if you can sign a release form. If he still says no, thank him for his time and hang up. Then, either right then or later, call back and talk to the secretary. Tell her it didn’t sound like Mr. Adams had time to read your script, but is there any way she could read it? Remember, these secretaries are desperate to move up. If they bring their boss an awesome surefire 300 million dollar box office hit, they’re set for life. Tell them you’ll be happy to sign a release form. They might say no but don’t sweat it if they do. Just go on to the next person.
15) STAY ON IT - Keep working the phones. Call people back. Remind people to read your script. 2 weeks is the industry standard for you to politely check in and ask if they’ve read your script yet. I didn’t realize how important this was until I started getting submissions myself. Even when I like an idea, I sometimes get bombarded with work and simply forget about it. A number of Amateur Friday reviews came directly from people reminding me about their screenplay. Keep doing this. Stay on top of it. You can’t get a yes unless they read it so you’ll have to remind them until they do. Even if that reminder is from your death bed!
16) CELEBRATE - You wrote something fun and marketable. The plot was clear. The story had enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested. The main character was perfect for a movie star. And you got it to enough people that it finally found someone who fell in love with it. You did it. You sold a screenplay. Now go party your ass off before you kick the bucket.
If I had no Hollywood connections whatsoever, this is the path I’d take without question. Now all you have to do is convince yourself you’re going to die in six months and write your script. Just make sure to send me 10% when you sell it.