Gerald Hanks Filmography

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Is Hollywood Out of Ideas? Why You Should “Pre-Sell” Your Script

If you look at the list of films due for release in 2016, you may think that original ideas in Hollywood are as rare as rainy days. It seems like every major film is based off a comic book, novel, or successful film from decades earlier.

“Why don't major studios do anything original any more? Why does everything have to be based off something else? Why won't the big boys give my screenplay the attention it so richly deserves?”

As with most industries operated by multinational corporations, the motivating factor for every decision is a simple one: money. Major studio blockbusters can run up $200 million or more in production costs, with an equal amount for marketing and about the same costs for theatrical distribution. With total investments in major studio productions often exceeding half a billion dollars, is it any wonder that the big players are gun-shy when it comes to bankrolling untested concepts?

Aspiring screenwriters must understand that films are the most costly and labor-intensive form of artistic expression. Even small “indie” films can cost millions and require dozens of people to pull off, with even less hope of recovering those costs from ticket sales, home video distribution, or product placement. Unlike in other art forms, no one cares about a screenwriter's artistic vision until they can see it as a film that can generate revenue.

A major reason behind the prevalence of sequels and superheroes is the presence of a “pre-sold” audience. Producers and studios can count on strong ticket sales for properties with a proven track record. This philosophy holds true in numerous cases, almost regardless of the quality of the finished product (*cough*BatmanVSuperman*cough*). Without that built-in audience, most producers will be hesitant to take on your project.

One way to attract producers to your script is to keep the potential budget in mind. You're more likely to get attention from producers for your tight, low-budget horror or comedy script than for a sprawling sci-fi or fantasy epic. Also, keeping the number of actors, locations and special effects to a minimum will help you focus on the core of your story.

A simpler story forces you to create strong characters with powerful motivations to maintain the audience's interest. When you create better characters, you also attract better actors who want to portray those characters. While your script may not attract the top of Hollywood's A-List, an actor with some “name” value may want to take on the project, either to advance their careers or to take on a different type of role. These actors can be your biggest cheerleaders when it comes to financing your project.

Another way to attract attention for your script is to shoot it yourself. A “proof of concept” video for your story can go a long way toward selling it to producers and investors. The most prominent example is “Whiplash”, a 2013 short film that garnered such a buzz that it became a feature less than a year later. The feature version won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons, and was nominated for Best Picture.

If your idea is just too big or sprawling to fit into a short screenplay or a low-budget feature, writing it out as a novel may serve you better in the long run. The novel format gives you a vast canvas on which to create your story, while still using many of the same storytelling tools from your favorite screenwriting books and advice blogs. With self-publishing tools from Amazon and other companies, you can get your story out to an audience, build your fanbase, and play on that success when approaching producers about the screenplay.

Hollywood is not “out of original ideas” any more than anywhere else. It's just that the Hollywood business model emphasizes the need for a built-in audience before moving forward with any projects. Filmmaking is the riskiest sector of the entertainment business, and the change from an artist-driven system in the 1970s to the need for “franchises” today has killed off the desire to risk it all to display a unique artistic vision. However, if your idea is unique enough, and if your characters have strong enough motivations, your concept can stand alongside the superheroes, giant robots, and teenage wizards as the next Hollywood blockbuster.

Whether you want to write a script based on a deeply personal story, or if you want to create the next blockbuster franchise from your original concept, Story Into Screenplay can help. Houston-area writers can receive one-on-one consulting sessions in person at a location of your choosing. Writers outside of Houston can work with me through telephone or Skype sessions. I also offer script coverage reports that can show you how producers and studios would evaluate your script.

If you're in the Houston area from June 17 to June 19, you can also see me at the Comicpalooza Sci-Fi convention. I will be speaking on several panels, as well as presenting my seminar, “Turn Your Story Into a Screenplay”, on June 18.

If you have any questions, or if you'd like to set up a session, contact me at storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com, or send a direct message through the SIS Facebook page.