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barton finkThis is a somewhat pretentious essay about what I think screenwriters should be doing to further their careers now based on my observations of the state of the art these days.
I decided to put pen to paper, or keyboard to word processor, because over the last ten years or so, I have noticed changes in the way screenwriters seem to be making their start and getting ahead. And because of this, I think that the old suggestions of how a screenwriter can make a living of any sort at their craft may need to change, or at least be tweaked to some degree.


And there are times when I engage in social media that makes me think that many aspiring writers believe that the way screenplays are bought, sold and get made is based on a model that was in place twenty years ago or more. I’m exaggerating, but I’ll sometimes read a post that makes me think that Joe Eszterhas is still the role model of choice in 2015.
This essay is an attempt to try to guide writers into this brave new world that hath such people in them.
Now, before I get into the devil of the details, I do want to say, as I said at the beginning of the essay, that this is a somewhat pretentious thing for me to do. I have not had a movie made from one of my screenplays (though that may change in the near future if a film I wrote, The Compass, is finished and finds a way to be released).


In addition, the movie world is changing and changing in ways I don’t fully comprehend yet, so some of my suggestions and observations will be based on a somewhat nebulous comprehension of just what the hell is going on out there.


So, I can easily understand if you would say, just who does he think he is trying to tell us anything?


And I might have to agree. I’m not sure I am the one to tell you anything.


But still I will go ahead and make my case. For some, it will resonate and perhaps be useful to them. For those it doesn’t resonate with, I will fully understand that.


This new direction has been coming about for some time, but has especially risen to the front since 2007 when some new or newish factors became a major influence on what was going on in the motion picture industry.


girl walks home aloneThese factors include:

the economy falling;

Hollywood experiencing the writer’s strike;

ticket sales continuing to fall until they are now at a ten year low;

the development that it is easier and easier to make a movie such that anyone and everyone can and does make a film now;

and perhaps the majorist of the major changes, the sudden appearance of new platforms of production and distribution.


So what does all this mean for screenwriters and what they should do:


  1. nightcrawlerRealize that times have changed and that screenplays are not bought and sold the same way they use to be. It’s not that screenplays aren’t purchased by producers and even studios, but generally speaking, they are not really bought at the same level and are not really bought with the same amount of money as they once were (especially studios, who tend to hire writers for pre-determined projects).


In fact, it feels as if it is movies that are being bought and sold these days much more than a screenplay itself.


I see this lack of understanding all the time on facebook when someone asks something like:

how much can one get for selling a screenplay;

how does one sell a screenplay;

what is the most money anyone has ever gotten for selling a screenplay;

what do I need to do to my screenplay in order to get someone to buy it.


And when I read entries like this, I just want to scream out: you’re asking the wrong question. That’s not the way things work now. It just isn’t.


So if you are writing screenplays with the main or even sole goal of selling them, yeah, you might succeed at that, but at the same time, I’m not sure that’s the wisest way to go these days.


  1. its a disasterTherefore, since screenplays aren’t being bought and sold the way they once were, but movies are, the difficult truth is that you may have to make your first couple of films yourself and even lose money on them. This is more and more becoming the way to establish yourself as a credible writer to invest in.


This may mean you’ll have to gather a group of people together yourself, like a director (or more importantly, a producer) and you may even have to direct and/or produce your project yourself.


Now before you get too depressed over this, there is an advantage in going in this direction: if you direct and/or produce the movie yourself, you have more control over the screenplay and it is less likely that any changes will be made without your permission.


And this is just as applicable to those whose dream and only goal is to write for a studio one day. If you first establish yourself and create a brand by taking the DIY approach, the swimming in sharks guys are more likely to come a knocking.


Now that you realize you may have to make your own movie, the issue then becomes what movie should you make. This answer is in several parts.


  1. bagheadWrite a screenplay that can be a low or micro-budget project, something that is relatively inexpensive, and strongly consider one that includes the three unities: a single location (or relatively small one) with a story that takes place over a short period of time (the less time the better) and with a relatively small cast.


The advantage to this is obvious:

it will automatically be less expensive to do;

it will be easier to do;

and, if you really create a strong product, it will make it and you more attractive to distributors since it will cost them less to buy it and get it out there.


  1. monstersConsider placing the story in one of the following genres: thriller/neo noir; sci-fi; and horror/fantasy. Over the last ten years, independent films that fall into one of these categories have been the most interesting and have attracted the most buzz.


And it makes sense in a way. After all, one of the U.S.’s greatest contributions to world cinema is in genre film, and independent film is no different.


Even over the last few years, the most interesting movies made in America have been in those genres: thriller/neo noir (The Drop; Cold in July; Night Falls; Nightcrawler; Baghead); sci-fi (The Signal, Upstream Color, Coherence, It’s a Disaster, Predestination); horror/fantasy (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Only Lovers Left Alive, Beasts of the Southern Wild and that Paranormal franchise—I mean, no one saw that one coming).


There is one other category that could be considered and that are comedies, even serious comedies, that focus on 20 and 30 somethings (Francis Ha, Obvious Child, Richard Linklater films, the Duplass brother films). I emphasize comedies because the dramatic side of this genre often draws much less attention and is a harder nut to crack from that perspective.


But this approach can lead to bigger, though I won’t promise better things. Gareth Edwards went from Monsters to Godzilla and Christopher Nolan went from Following to the Batman franchise.


  1. dear white peopleDon’t ignore your niche audience. In fact, really get to know it and celebrate it and don’t sell them short.


Creating a film that has special interest for smaller, more focused group of moviegoers, often minorities, can also be a way to attract attention and get your name out there. These include such films as Dear White People, Beyond the Lights, Precious, Fruitvale Station, Love is Strange, The Skeleton Twins, G.B.F., Concussion, Quinceañera, Maria, Full of Grace, A Better Life, Real Women Have Curves and many others (Tyler Perry really hit the payload on this).


And it doesn’t have to necessarily be minorities, but can be a subset of a larger group. The film movement called mumblecore had a special appeal to young people just out of college trying to figure out what to do with their lives (this gave birth to the career of Greta Gerwig and the Duplass brothers).


It can also be locational. Filmmakers in New York have created a sensibility all their own in style and aesthetics that is in some ways very insular, in other ways very catholic. This movement has given rise to such artists as Lena Dunham and earlier gave rise to Texas artists like Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey.


  1. upstream colorWrite your vision, write something that is new and original, create something unique that only you can create and that really means something to you.


This may sound counterproductive: write something that means something to me and is my vision rather than something that will appeal to the largest common denominator and get a bigger audience. But there are reasons for this.


You want to make a movie that will draw attention to you and make people stand up and take notice. If you create something that is generic, formulaic and generally like everything else, it will be harder for you to stand out. You need to be different from everyone else who are also reaching for the same goal.


In addition, once you make your movie you need to find a way to get it out there. So, for example, if you are planning to enter film festivals, which is one of the most common ways of trying to get your movie noticed, such outlets are not looking for the generic. Festivals want to be surprised and thrilled, not met with the familiar.


  1. boothRealize that more and more, the future, at least for beginning writers, is through alternative platforms of distribution, like You-Tube and other locations on the net. This may mean starting out by creating a web series. Can that screenplay of yours be turned into a story of ten minute increments?


This is the one area that I really have no comprehension of, but the more and more I explore and hear about it, the more amazing it becomes. More and more people, especially of the younger variety, aren’t turning to theaters and even TV for their entertainment. They are surfing the web and finding their film fix there.


Start googling to see just what all is out there. It’s actually kind of awesome.


  1. Realize that more and more, the future is not studios or even major independents or even movies, but television and television ancillaries (like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon). So you may want to either write a pilot for a television series, or try to see if there is a way to turn your film into a series, even if it is a limited one like Fargo, True Detective or American Horror Story. In addition, the aforementioned Netflix is going to start producing movies and it’s hard to believe that the other platforms won’t be far behind.


This alone may be the one area that begins this elusive new wave that America has been in need of since the new millennia, so the last thing you want to do is not be part of it.


After all, both Adam Sandler and the Duplass brothers have both brokered deals with Netflix.


In the end, the most important point I want to make is that the world of movie making and writing screenplays and getting them made is changing. There’s not a lot that can be done about it because that’s just what all art forms do: every once in awhile, the old ways just aren’t working anymore and a new way forces its way to the front.


You can fight against it, but few people have ever been able to stop progress or change.


So when it comes to the future, my main piece of advice is to embrace it and try to understand it so that you can use it to your advantage.


If you can do that, you’ll be farther ahead than most of your fellow scribes.


I welcome any feedback or comments on this essay.


  1. I think this is a great article. You really understand the progress that the industry is making — the direction it is going. Thanks for your keen observations and to incite all of us in our journey as film interpreters.

  2. You bring up some good points about the”new” film industry. In addition to micro budget s, it seems that the selling of content to non-conventional media hubs like Netflix and amazon prime had not only become relevant, but recommended. It is truly a different climate than the one outlined in most of the ‘ essential’ screenwriting books and this certainly needs to be addressed. Good post!

  3. Pingback: What Do Screenwriting Contests Want? A Reconsideration. | Howard Casner - Rantings and Ravings

  4. Hey, Howard. Very nice write up. My only real question (I mean, I have so many) but only relevant to this essay is on the point you made about finding your niche audience. How do you do that if you decide to make your own movie? Do you pay someone that knows how to find that audience and market to them? I imagine that would also require a good amount of investment.

  5. Thanks for reading and thanks for getting back and asking the question. Here I didn’t mean distribution. I mean write for your niche audience. Gays, black audiences, female audiences, Latinx, etc. Distribution is a totally different question. Many writers try to write for the widest audience possible and that tends to lead to bland and uninteresting stories. But writing to niche can give you a leg up at the beginning.

So tell me what you think.

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