How To Write and Sell a Screenplay

Excerpted from the book Television That Matters: A guide for writers and producers By David L. Smith

Industry professionals generally agree: If you’re serious about writing fiction for television or film, live in Los Angeles. That’s where the resources are.

And because that’s also where the bulk of the business is, that’s where you want to conduct your networking. If you write nonfiction scripts you can live anywhere, but you’ll likely be doing business in the major media centers anyway: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, New York, or Atlanta. The process begins with a fresh or exciting concept. You pass it by a few friends. They think it’s great and you’re encouraged. Walk yourself through the components of the Program Communication Assessment (Chapter 13) to establish the foundation, the bones that give your concept structure. With the concept fleshed out, it can now be shared. Is it time to write a treatment or script? No. Don’t invest time in writing without first addressing two essential areas: entertainment values and money.

First consideration: Is the concept compelling or entertaining as it stands? What about it will attract and hold the audience’s attention? Rework the idea until there are at least two very good reasons why the piece will be interesting, moving, or enjoyable. Second consideration: Is the concept salable? As an extension of the Communications Assessment, specify the reasons why someone in the business—a celebrity, producer, production company, or investor would want to buy your treatment or script? Do some research to see how well similar concepts have fared financially.


What makes your concept similar or different? What will give it value in the marketplace? (An example would be if the leading role were written for a major celebrity or movie star). If you have realistic and unbiased answers to these questions, give yourself the green light to go ahead and invest your time in writing the treatment or script.

If these lines of questioning turn out to be disappointing or fruitless, you may be wasting your time on a concept that sounds good but is not likely to go anywhere. Then again, maybe not. Writing for the learning experience or the shear joy of living in one’s imagination for a time are equally good reasons, sometimes superior reasons, for writing. However, if you intend to build a career doing this and the intent is to sell, then the recommendation is to file the weak concepts away and ask the muses to inspire those with stronger sales potential. Follow the path of what works. When something is consistently not working, don’t give up on it, but be open to more workable concepts. Sometimes the timing isn’t right.

How To Get A Concept Into The Industry Pipeline

The Nonfiction Proposal

For nonfiction programs or series, the standard presentation is a 2-3 page proposal that introduces the concept. Describe the series. For instance, “The Leading Edge will be a weekly, 30-minute, prime time, on location compilation of feature stories that profile”¦” Briefly lead the reader through a pilot program. Indicate the host or talent. Ideally, share the idea with the talent and secure their interest before you make the presentation. Estimate the scale of production and its costs. When would the program or series air? Who would sponsor such a program? Why? Who would be the principals in charge of production?


Presentation

• Make an appointment to present your proposal in person. This is key! The television industry conducts business face-to-face, especially with unknowns, not over the phone, through email or the postal service. Establish a relationship and nurture it.

• Phone for an appointment. Introduce yourself to the secretary as a “writer-producer.” Quickly specify that you are not looking for a job. Say you want to pitch an idea for a program or series. After you make your pitch, offer the executive three copies of your proposal, a business card and a DVD of your demo reel. Conclude the meeting by saying you will call to follow up. Doing so demonstrates that you are responsible.

• If you want to stand out from the competition, send a handwritten thank-you note immediately after the meeting.

• Three days later phone the executive and ask if he or she has any questions regarding the proposal. Build the relationship by finding any excuse you can to meet face-to-face as often as possible. Managers do business with people they know and trust.

The Drama Outline or Treatment

The standard for the initial presentation of fiction is a treatment, a condensed version of the proposed movie or television program. Typically a treatment is 8 to 10 pages. In some instances they can go as high as one page for every script page—120 pages for a feature-length dramatic production depending on the scale of the project. Treatments are generally submitted to celebrities, movie stars, producers, investors, or development executives who make purchasing decisions on behalf of studios, production companies, television and cable networks.

Although the purpose of a drama treatment is to sell the concept, they are sometimes sold as products in themselves. For instance, a studio or production company will purchase or option a treatment in order to have the first right to produce it (thereby blocking the rights of others), so they can buy some time to work out details, attempt to secure an all-star cast, postpone the production decision, or complete projects already on the table.

Presentation

Identify the individuals and companies that purchase scripts. Companies that will review materials often have their guidelines for submission on-line. Those that say they will not consider unsolicited materials find their programming ideas through personal recommendations. Otherwise, ascertain the name of the individual (by phone or email) who makes purchasing decisions. Contact them to determine what kinds of stories interest them and if they would consider your program concept—which you convey very briefly.

The typical presentation consists of a query letter and a copy of the treatment or spec-script (a script written without any prior guarantee that it would be purchased. The writer speculates that the script will be purchased. Most scripts are speculative). Mail what you have along with a business card and a cover-letter in which you say you will call in two weeks to check the status.

IF ALL YOU HAVE IS THE DESIRE TO CREATE

TELEVISION PROGRAMMING THAT MATTERS

I learned the hard way that large scale projects are best begun by planting a seed and tending it. In this instance, that means identifying a programming concept that’s representative of your desire and doable given the money and resources at hand.

As you move through the Communications Assessment process to define and focus the concept into a piece you want to produce, keep in mind four primary considerations that need to be aligned.

Consequences. What do you want your audience to know or feel as a result of your piece?

Substance. Above all, communicate! Deliver a message or create a feeling that delivers positive value to your audience.

Simplicity. In the interest of clear communication, spend as little time and money as possible; the simpler the production and the shorter the piece, the better.

Quality. Pack as much production and entertainment values into the piece as you can.

If you don’t own a camera, borrow or rent one. Better yet, take the classes offered by your local cable access channel so you can learn production and editing techniques while using their equipment at no charge. That they will have the right to air what you produce is only a benefit.

The only thing necessary to purchase is editing software and a manual to go with it. Do whatever it takes to improve your production skills. College courses in production, lighting, and editing are highly recommended. Anyone can learn to operate a camera, but to communicate with one in ways that impact an audience requires an understanding of visual communication, its strategies, and developing “an eye.”

The strategy of starting small is basically to create pieces or segments that both stand alone and can later be packaged into a whole program. For instance, a series of 10-minute profiles of the best high-school teachers in your area could be edited into an hour-long documentary or special that could be sold to a local television station. Generate the seeds, plant, and nurture them into trees. Over time, if you stick with it, you’ll have the forest of your dreams.


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