Every aspiring screenwriter dreams of the day they make their first sale.
It is the ultimate reward. It makes all those years of labor, rejection and rewrites worth it. Yet, sometimes even the best scripts find themselves crumpled and stained with stale coffee at the bottom of an execs trash can.
It’s disheartening. But for many, it’s a reality. Many of Hollywood’s “Gatekeepers” read hundreds of screenplays every week. Only a precious few spark enough interest to earn its writer an email. Even less a call.
Part of this is quality. Many screenplays just don’t make the cut. They are poorly written. For those precious few that are, they may be victim to something else: producer’s bias.
The fact is, most Producers have read way more screenplays that you have. It’s their job, and it allows them to see trends in screenplay. With that wealth of information, it becomes easier for them to throw away stories they’ve seen too many times.
Imagine if you could avoid these pitfalls and employ the suggestions of the Gatekeepers? Will it increase your odds at success? Maybe. In the world of screenwriting, where everyone is trying to stand out, “maybe” is better than “no”.
I’d give that a shot. Wouldn’t you?
WHAT THEY HATE:
Stories that are too long/short
“When a script is more than 120 pages: I’m already turned off looking at the page count.” (Helen Estabrook, Right of Way Films/Estabrook Productions)
The number one thing that Producers hate is a screenplay that is too. I cannot stress this enough. Most producers will throw out a screenplay over 120 pages. It’s the sign of an amateur, and therefore not worth their time. Similarly, a script that is too short is just as bad. It tells them that your story is thin.
Our Advice: Stick to the industry standard of 95 – 120 pages.
Stories that are slow to start
“Scripts are irritating when, if after 15 or 20 pages, you’re still like, ‘What is this? What’s going on?’” (Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics)
Producers value their time. A hook is crucial. You need to get their attention, just like a film should grab the attention of its audience. Scripts that are slow to start are a hard sell for both of those reasons. Get in and get dirty.
Our Advice: Don’t make the reader wait around for the conflict. Immerse them in it.
Lack of Professionalism
“Again, the basics: formatting, spelling, grammar. A writer has to respect the reader by proofing and showing that s/he cares about the work and understands the conventions of the medium. Clunky exposition. Obvious imitation of someone else’s work. Storytelling that’s boring and cowardly.” (Adam Fratto, Reel One)
Believe it or not, you’re selling yourself as much as you are selling your script. If you sell your screenplay, you will likely be working alongside the buyer for years to come (the film industry is a slow one). They need to know that you are serious about your work. Grammatical and formatting errors demonstrate laziness: that you couldn’t be bothered to proofread your work (or at least hire some one else to). If you’re lazy on the page, they are bound to think the same of you in person.
Our Advice: Follow the industry standard. Only submit polished work.
“Slavish devotion to formula or anything too derivative or anything that’s riding the coattails of another movie’s success can be a little deflating, rather than taking four stabs at making originals; jury-rigging tentpoles as opposed to investing in originality and innovation.” (Michael DeLuca, Newline Cinema/Dreamworks)
There is a difference between “structure” and “formula”. Structure is necessary for your story to succeed. It ensures that your plot progresses and your characters develop. Following a formula is copying someone else’s story and changing a few minor details. Formulaic stories are predictable, repetitive and boring. There is no heart to them. They are cookie cutter stories, written to sell. When that’s obvious, it’s likely they won’t sell.
Our Advice: Always make sure you are introducing something “new” and “fresh” in your scripts. This could be a character, a perspective, a setting…etc.
“If I read the first fifteen pages and the dialogue is lackluster, it’s probably a pass for me.” (John Zaozirny, Bellevue Productions)
Poor dialogue can ruin even the best screenplays. It immediately pulls the reader out of the story. Good dialogue is crucial to success of any screenplay. Characters must speak naturally and they must have their own unique voices.
Our Advice: Avoid exposition and “on the nose” dialogue. Write “reel” dialogue.
Old News & Trend Chasing
“I’ll stop reading a script if the story feels too familiar. Sometimes that comes by way of the concept being tried several times, or if someone is trying to chase a success in the hopes that their script will ride the coattails of the other success.” (Daniela Gonzalez, Circle of Confusion)
How many more mobster movies can we really take? It’s a tired idea when presented in the same way that past films have been. You need to be original with your work. You need to find something that is current without copying what's already been done. Audiences love things that are “the same, but different”. Focus in on what is different about your idea. Otherwise, you may fall prey to this.
Our Advice: Don’t chase trends. Don’t tell old stories. Give us something new.
WHAT THEY LOVE:
“The script just has to be, in my eyes, well-written. I don’t care what the story is, in terms of genre, to me, a good story transcends genre. It has nothing to do with genre. Genre is just sort of a set of conventions that allow people to identify what kind of movie it is… you can tell a good story in any genre.” (Mark Heidelberger, Treasure Entertainment)
Too obvious? Sometimes the truth is simple. A well-written story means a screenplay that is clean, with strong characters, compelling motives, a clear conflict…etc. If your story is messy, you don’t have a chance. Don’t submit until your story is tight.
Our Advice: Don’t submit until you are getting “Recommends” from readers.
Five Minutes Into The Future
“In today’s marketplace your script needs to spark a socially relevant conversation while flipping all of the traditional tropes on their heads. I also see a lot of success working with concepts that are “5 minutes into the future” and feel digestible.” (Adam Harris Englehard, Mailroom LA)
The screenplays that succeed are ones that are layered. They comment or present situations that are familiar. This allows the reader to become invested in the story and the characters. Reader investment is huge. They need to care. This is a great way to do that as it presents them with a hypothetical response to a current situation.
Our Advice: Always find a way to ground your story in present issues, no matter what the time period.
“Craft amazingly dynamic and dimensional characters that will showcase your ability to tap into the human drama of the genre you’re writing.” – (Andrew Kersey, Universal)
Films are about people, characters, their relationships, their views on the world…etc. They are what people come to see. The plot is secondary to that (no matter how cool it is). If your characters are weak, your screenplay will fall flat.
Our Advice: Develop your characters first. This means personality, backstories, motives, internal conflicts, relationships and voice.
IP (Intellectual Property)
“I’d say that a good two-thirds to three-quarters of the projects I’m involved with start with some kind of underlying IP, whether it’s something I originate or IP that a screenwriter brings to me.” (Adam Fratto, Reel One)
IP represents all preexisting intellectual property. This includes things like novels, comic book, franchises, music…etc. Producers love works that are come from IPs because typically that means there is already an audience for that content. This doesn’t mean you can grab any book off the shelf and adapt it into a screenplay. You need to secure the rights first.
Our Advice: If you don’t own the rights to any IP, check out the Public Domain or contact the creators.
“What Producers want is something they can sell because, from the concept and logline, they can picture it as a MOVIE. Something they can package quickly because the characters are so engaging, compelling, deep, and distinct that an actor would kill to play the parts.” (Danny Manus, Symera Productions)
This one should be a no brainer: your work needs to be marketable. As an aspiring writer, with few connections in Hollywood, you don’t get the same creative liberties that auteurs like Quentin Tarrantino and Christopher Nolan are privy to. The best you can do right now is prove that you can write something that people will pay to see.
Our Advice: Write with your heart, but know your audience.
A Strong Hook
“I think the first overwhelming reality that has become more and more pronounced is that everyone has a short attention span.” (J. Todd Harris, Branded Pictures Entertainment)
He’s right. Attention spans are shrinking… and more and more people are trying their hand at screenwriting. These are piling up on Producers desks. If you don’t have them hooked on the first few pages, your screenplay will likely join hundreds of others in the trash.
Our Advice: Lead with action and intrigue.
Specific, Yet Universal
“I try and find the universal and the specific—i.e. stories that are about something very specific—characters, locations, etc.—but have themes that will resonate with all people. I think that’s what good movies are about—the ones that stay with you and change your life.” (Debra Martin Chase, Martin Chase Productions)
Screenplays that have universal appeal have the potential to hit a much bigger market (meaning more $$$). However, if your story is too universal, it loses its “heart”. Without that, the story becomes a lot less interesting.
Our Advice: Introduce a specific plot & characters, but incorporate a theme that is universal.
“We often say, ‘Holy mackerel, there’s no way we can make this,’ because nowadays, we only invest in the screenplay about a third of the time.” (Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics)
Again, you don’t have the connections that working screenwriters have. Hollywood doesn’t just have piles of money, waiting to be siphoned into films. All that money has to come from somewhere. And chances are, they’re going to throw it at the “known” writers before you. Don’t kill your chances with a script that’s impossible to shoot. Tell the best story you can, but try to keep budget in mind.
Our Advice: Don’t write the next Avengers. Try to write with a budget of under $5 million in mind (and even that is high for a new writer!). Think setting, SFX and number of characters. Decrease those and the budget decreases too.
BONUS TIP: Don’t write Original Superhero Movies
It’s tempting, I know. Superhero movies are some of the biggest blockbuster hits. But, the reality is that no “original” superhero movies are hitting the screen. Big production companies own all the Superhero franchises. They know there is an audience for these stories and they have complete control over which ones are told. They are not going to risk producing an “original” superhero movie when they have this goldmine at their disposal.
NOTE: As with everything in the film industry, these are not “rules”. They are not finite. They are simply suggestions based on research and personal experience.