January is that time of the year when a lot of screenwriters out there try to stick to their New Year resolution of coming up with a new script so I thought a reality check was in order before you write that new high concept spec involving all kinds of fancy car chases and crazy production design.
1. There is more business than show in show-business!
Over the past few years I’ve read countless scripts and off the top of my head a mere 5% of what I read could be made for less than $1M. Most of the projects would require well over 10 million dollars to get made, when it’s not a whopping $20-100M. And whenever I read a script that can be made on a lower budget they tend to be written by directors who intend to direct them as well, have already produced a few things and are industry savvy. Meanwhile most aspiring screenwriters seem oblivious to the fact that movies come with a price tag, that financing decisions are largely driven by ruthless market forces and that it’s very, very hard to raise money for movies. Maybe because of the beguiling glitz and glamour projected by the media too many budding screenwriters believe that some dazzled Prince Charming Producer will take them for a ride in their limo as soon as they get that script out there. Invariably, when they start submitting it they realize that the limo rarely stops. That’s the harsh reality and one that is best being aware of before considering becoming a screenwriter or developing a new screenplay.
Of course, we have all heard about big script sales but let’s face it: they are few and far between. Out of thousands of scripts written in 2012 there were only 99 spec sales according to the Black List . Plus, big movies are often adapted from a book or a graphic novel. Even Kevin Grevioux who has some clout on the back of “Underworld” had to create a graphic novel to help him sell the screenplay for “I Frankenstein”. And if you write a big budget high concept spec that will cost $100M or more and require Tom Cruise, there are very few studios and a handful of directors who could take it on board. And if it’s a medium-sized movie things aren’t getting any easier since Hollywood tends to focus more and more on tentpole movies while indie producers are having a hard time adjusting to shrinking budgets on both sides of the pond (even French cinema who so far have been notoriously sheltered from market forces is now going to have to cut back on their overinflated production budgets ).
2. Take that big story out there
Now I don’t want to sound all gloom and doom and it’s not to say you shouldn’t be writing a big story you are passionate about because if it’s great it might sell or – more likely – win a competition, help you get an agent or a manager who could in turn help you land deals that lead to a prestigious assignment and big movies getting made. It happened to Evan Daugherty who wrote “Snow White and the Huntsman” (the most lucrative spec sale in many years) or to Jon Spaihts who was hired to come with up with the story for “Prometheus” on the strength of an unmade spec script he wrote called Shadow 19. So by all means if you are really passionate about a big story write it down, perfect it, send it out there, cobble up a budget for script comps, and see what happens. Just be aware of the reality of the market, that the odds of actually getting your script sold and made are akin to winning the lottery. And are you willing to gamble your WHOLE life on a lottery ticket? Probably not, SO…
3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!
Now that big script is out there in the lap of market oriented gods think hard about your next movie. Should it be a $40M whimsical period drama set in 16th century Versailles with epic naval battles in the background? Hum. maybe not. SO how about you let go of the Prince Charming complex and write smart instead? How about you write a no-to-low budget project, meaning a movie that could be made for anywhere from zero to one million? Scripts that could be shot on a budget are like gold dust in this industry. Why? Because it’s easier to find the financing and much easier to recoup the investment. And showing you are aware of the hard realities of film producing would make you stand out from the pack of aspiring writers when you contact producers. Now they will be more likely to read your script because pretty much everyone out there is looking for a GREAT script that can be made on a budget. And directors will be drawn to your projects because it’s something that can actually beef up their resume instead of being yet another “project in development”.
4. Write with budget in mind.
Economize your characters, economize your locations, economize the visual effects and stunts, become filmmaking savvy (Dov Simen’s “From Deal to Reel” is a must-read), learn what costs money and not and you’ll end up with something that can actually be done on a budget. And if it happens to be a strong story then it will get people excited. That’s what I noticed after penning a contained sci-fi story set on a farmhouse, “The Quiet Hour”. Because it was so minimalistic my contacts were eager to jump on board, and a few months later it was in the can. Again, a script that can be done on a budget is gold in today’s filmmaking environment.
And don’t think that because it’s low budget it means you need to sell out and write yet another gory horror movie (unless you love them, which is okay). Be true to your voice. A few examples cross my mind: “Buried”, “Another Earth”, “Sex, Lies & Videotapes”, “Eden Lake”, “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”. The latter was written by J Blakeson because he assumed nobody would give him any money to make his first film so he set out to write a script he could direct no matter what. The movie got the attention of CinemaNX and the rest is history. Study the masters as well. Watch “Rope” and “Lifeboat” by A. Hitchcock. Check out R. Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden” and “Carnage” as they are both based on plays and as such could have been made on a low budget.
5. Budget savvy scripts make your talent shine!
The great thing about low budget scripts is that it also shows off your writing talent as everyone knows
there is nothing more difficult to write than a strong one or two location story, so if you pull that off then doors might open for you. Who knows what can happen if like Chris Sparling you managed to write a 90 minute feature about a truck driver buried in a coffin with no cutaways (okay, that’s an extreme example, your location doesn’t have to be THAT contained!).
The other great thing about writing scripts for low budget films is that it doesn’t keep you from attaching amazing talent. Dan Mirvish, who co-founded Slamdance, recently wrote an inspirational article on this subject . Granted, his new script is based on a Broadway play but the same would work for any great script. And by the way, note how he struggled to find financing and ended up making his sophomore movie for 40K. When I tell you it’s a hard world out there…
The key thing is to find a great, marketable idea and yes there is no doubt it can be difficult and frustrating when you brainstorm with budget in mind as you can’t give free rein to all your wonderful ideas but be patient and you are bound to have a lightbulb moment. It’ll still close to two years of someone’s life to get a low-budget movie made and take it out into the world so test your idea to death, pitch it to everyone you know, set up a writer’s circle with like-minded people (who understand the constraints of low-budget filmmaking) so that you can see how people react. And then write, and rewrite, and rewrite till it’s good to go…
Can’t wait to read the great contained stories you are going to come up this year. It’s about time you tilted the cards in your favor my fellow writers!