IS THERE A BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF SCREENPLAY COMPETITIONS? Part Two


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In part one of this essay, I suggested that a new standard was being introduced in judging screenplay competitions when it comes to who should become finalists; i.e., the idea that the quality of a screenplay should also be based on whether it can be sold and whether there is a market for it.
As I also said, I don’t think that this standard has really taken over yet. It’s there, but still, the quality of a screenplay, its ambition, its uniqueness, the passion of the writer, tends to win out more often than not.
At the same time, I do think this standard is slowly wending its way in and I do think we need to be a bit concerned here.

I was talking to a fellow reader who had become a manager or agent or something. I wasn’t quite sure what exactly he was doing, except that he had started his own business and was looking for screenplays to sell with the idea of being a producer on the project.

Let me first quickly make the point that I am not implying that this reader is doing anything shoddy or is scamming anyone here. In fact, quite the contrary. He is an ambitious and honest person trying to make his way up the ladder (and his take charge attitude made me both feel a bit inadequate and jealous). So this summary of his actions is based solely on my ignorance as to how much of the business works, not on what he is specifically doing, which is probably of much benefit to many writers.

So to get back, the reader implied that he reads and judges screenplays with the idea as to whether they can be vended by someone, anyone, in some way, including himself.

When I suggested that no one can really know what can sell because all sorts of screenplays get sold and made, he replied that there were only six people (or groups, or companies) buying screenplays right now and he knew who they were and what they were looking for, that these six outlets were the same for anyone trying to sell screenplays today, so no, it was untrue that all sorts of screenplays get sold and one can know what can sell.

I was surprised at this. Actually, I was kind of depressed by it, the idea that there were only six places where one could sell a screenplay (he didn’t tell me what they were, but still, only six?). But I was also surprised.

I think the reason for this somewhat slight astonishment, and you can add confused to that as well, is that I could tell from what was opening in the movie theaters that the math didn’t add up. There were simply too many films filling the various cineplexes for there to be only six places where one could sell a screenplay. It just didn’t make any sense to me.

And then it dawned on me. I starting asking myself the question, are screenplays “sold” anymore? Is that the way that movies get made?

Well, yes, certainly, screenplays are still bought and optioned by studios or companies or directors or producers with the goal of getting them made.

But I really don’t think that it’s the same as it was before. I don’t think it’s the way of the old studio days where ungodly amounts of money were spent on acquiring product. That sort of stopped in the last ten or fifteen years as the economic foundation for making a profit on movies changed (basically, it fell apart as more and more movies no longer brought home the bacon based on the logarithms used in calculating revenue from places like overseas markets; U.S. markets; sales to cable and outlets like Netflix, Blockbuster, etc.).

Screenplays are still bought, yes, but I don’t think they are bought in the amounts and for the amounts they were bought before.

So what happened? If no one is buying screenplays, how are these movies being made?

Well, there are many ways and more and more are appearing all the time. (And here I’m talking about the U.S.—ways of financing films in other countries often have a completely different economic set up—which may be why places like France, Romania and South Korea are producing the most exciting and interesting films out there right now).

But basically someone, whether it’s the writer, a director, an actor, a producer, decides they want to make a movie and they go looking for money. They may option the screenplay, depending on how involved the screenwriter is in the process. But an option is not the same as buying a screenplay, and it can be as low as $1.00. And if there is an agreed upon purchase price in the option, the screenwriter won’t get it until the money is raised and it’s the first day of shooting (and sometimes they only get half then, and the other half when shooting wraps).

And where does the money come from? Well, from the pockets of the people involved; the pockets of family and friends of the people involved; from credit cards; from a consortium (a group of people who get together, and give a producer a certain amount, say $10 million, for a slate of maybe four to five films); from an indiegogo or kickstarter campaign; or from some other non-traditional outlet.

I can’t say that the majority of screenplays get made into movies this way, but from what I can tell, this is becoming more and more the norm.

So how does this relate to my issues regarding the idea that the ability to sell a screenplay or whether there is a market for it, should or shouldn’t be part of the consideration in judging who should win a competition, or even just reach the finals?

That will be in part three.

So tell me what you think.

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