How to Write a "Marketable" Screenplay

We hear it all the time: is it marketable?

How do you respond to a query like that? Isn't any story marketable? Surely there's an audience for even the most radically niche screenplays. Furthermore, why does it matter? If the story is good, won't people come? Are you really asking me to think about business when I just spent the last year writing this thing?!

The answer is yes. They are. And if you haven't thought about the marketability of your screenplay until it's complete, you're in a world of trouble.

You see, while you spent months, slaving away on your screenplay (your baby - how could anyone say it isn't amazing!), Producers are sitting in their offices looking for money (I mean... that's not the only thing they do, but you get the idea). It costs a lot of money to make a film. You've seen the credits, right? Hundreds of people are employed on every film you see in theatre. The salaries alone are crippling. Now add costumes, sets, makeup, SFX, equipment, permits, the list goes on...

Production companies are in the business of making money. They want to invest in projects that allow them to make a profit. They don't always get it right. Films that seemed to have all the right elements bomb at the box office. The losses are big.

Take "Cats" for example, based off the highly successful musical of the same name. In theatre "Cats" was a huge commercial success. It had a worldwide gross of $3.5 billion by 2012. That seems like a pretty safe bet for film investors. There was a proven audience. There was proof of earnings. But when "Cats" the film hit theatres it became the biggest flop of 2019. It cost $100 million to make the film and it only made $10.9 million globally.

What the heck happened?

In the case of “Cats” it was a combination of poor creative choices (human cats?!), bad publicity, and a lack of plot. Two of those things we have no control over as writers. But the third? That could have been (and should have been) fixed before they went to camera. You see, “Cats” relied too heavily on the fact that it had an audience. They thought people would love it because it was “Cats”, and failed to provided a marketable story that audiences outside of theatre would connect with.

“Cats” is something we can all learn from. It doesn’t matter how big your potential audience is. If your content isn’t marketable, the script will fail. Most of us don’t own the rights to existing IP (intellectual property) with massive audiences. We need to come up with our own stories to hook the viewer.

Luckily, there are a few things we can do to keep our screenplays marketable.

1. Determine Your Platform

Before you begin writing, figure out who you are writing for, and I don’t mean target audience. I mean the platform. Are you writing a blockbuster hit? An indy festival sensation? A straight to Netflix deal? A TV movie? Every single one of these platforms creates content that is different. By determining the platform that you intend to sell to, you can cater your content.

2. Consider the “Scope”

The “scope” of your project is the “do-ability” of it. How easy will it be to film this? How much will it cost? As an unknown writer, we want to make things as easy as possible for the production companies. Don’t give them a reason to say no! Show them that you can write something that is compelling, but won’t be a nightmare to shoot.

3. Action, action, action!

We see movies to be entertained. We want to be “shown” the story, not told it. Every scene should be entertaining. The script should reflect the genre. If it’s a horror, scare us. If it’s a comedy, make us laugh. If it’s a mystery, make us wonder. The more entertaining the film is, the more likely a producer won’t get bored reading it. And if they’re invested, you can bet an audience can get there too. Every page of your screenplay should be exciting and engaging. It should demand that the readers reads on because they have to know what happens next.

4. The Same But Different

Production companies are looking for things that can sell. They are going to compare your screenplay to others like it. How well did they fare? But, they don’t want identical copies either. They want “the same but different”. Always, always, always introduce a new element into your stories. What about your screenplay is different? What is going to draw the viewer in? Show us something we haven’t seen before, in a structure that we know works well.

5. Target Audience

You can’t talk marketability without this one. Who is this story for? Who are the people that are definitely going to love this? How can you cater your story to attract them? These are the people that are going to determine the success of your project if it’s lucky enough to hit the screen, so you’d better make sure there’s enough there for them to turn out!

6. Characters!

Write characters that are compelling and dynamic. They should be interesting enough to draw the attention of any A-list actor. That’s the goal, right? If you get the right names attached to your project, the chance of success skyrockets. But you have to give them something to work with first. Something that will get them excited!

7. Write Another Script

Finished? Get writing on the next. Hollywood doesn’t wait around. If you are lucky enough to get your foot in the door, you’d better not squander it by laying back and thinking you’ve “made it”. The work never stops, so you’d better make sure you really love this gig!

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