Every screenwriter has a blockbuster story that is going to make them millions and catapult them in to the ‘A’ list in one fell swoop. Yet, how do you get your script to the right people? Steven Fernandez shares a few secrets to getting that story made.
HOW THEY THINK
Are you writing, or already have written, an epic story that requires a production budget worthy of Peter Jackson or James Cameron? And you’re absolutely bursting to ‘wow’ LA studio execs with your brilliance, right? And your brilliance is so indisputable that they will have the sense to put aside the little inconvenience of you not being a sold screenwriter yet, right? After all, a world wide gross of 400 million (plus) is too great a deal to turn down, right?
Well, hold on there a minute. The nitty-gritty of financing is more complicated than that.
That much I learned mid last year when I was pitching an epic of my own to many LA execs.
Any big budget production requires either the attachment of
big names, or the existence of “pre-existing material” – or both.
Even though the majority of the execs I pitched to were intrigued by what I was proposing, they respectfully pointed out to me that they couldn’t forward the project to their superiors just like that. Principally because any big budget production requires either the attachment of big names, or the existence of “pre-existing material” – or both. Pre-existing material can be as little as one published novel, or as much as multiple generations of cultural influence, such as in the case of comic book superheroes.
In fact, most advisors and execs in LA will tell you to finish your script and shelve it for later. Their thinking being that such a screenplay is way too ambitious for your first screenplay sale.
Instead, your first sale should involve a contemporary drama (or comedy or horror) that would cost only one or two million US dollars to produce. Importantly: This does not mean that you should think small in terms of quality of story, characterization, plot twists, and so forth. On the contrary!
Low budget does not have to mean low brow.
You should put the maximum of your writing talent into making that screenplay pop with fascinating characters, unusual plot twists, and compelling conflict. Low budget does not have to mean low brow, after all.
Then, once you have made a sale, you can present a second screenplay that involves more crash-bang spectacle such as ten car pile ups, characters with mutant powers, far out CGI dream sequences, or whatever. Such a screenplay may well fall short of your original epic, but at least it is a realistic extension of the credibility you have already established in the industry in LA.
Following this logic, it would be advisable to hold off pitching the epic until you come to making your third sale.
This is not at all to say that you are not allowed to mention your epic before then. You can! In fact, it is theoretically possible that your energetic description of this epic as a “by the way” of a more modest pitch could open real doors for you. Doors that could indirectly fast track the sale of the epic. Consider the following as an example of that:
Typical Situation: An exec or producer hears your main pitch. She is sufficiently interested to ask for your ‘one-sheet’. Then she asks “What else do you have?”. You mention two or three other story ideas you have, including the epic.
It would be advisable to hold off pitching the epic
until you come to making your third sale.
Possible Outcome: She asks “Tell me more about that fantasy one.” You go into more detail. She’s fascinated, despite the fact that it is not her company’s usual genre. Yet she knows Larry, who is looking for a fresh writer to polish the script for X Men 5, which is still in development. She tells Larry when they next have a coffee and catch-up. Larry calls you. Meetings happen. You are hired to polish the script. Larry is impressed with your work enough that hE is willing to refer your epic to a studio heavyweight. Suddenly (or so it seems) you are in a position to market a big budget screenplay a lot sooner than you otherwise could have!
And this fortuitous concatenation of events all happened because of your mere mention of the epic as just a side idea.
WRITE THE NOVEL
For the sake of completeness, I should mention a completely different strategy for marketing your epic screenplay: Write the novel first.
As a matter of fact, this is the strategy LA execs advised me to adopt for the case of my own epic. And one of them even suggested that the novel does not have to have sold fantastically well for it to be seriously considered by a studio. Though, even if that much is true, I would never suggest that you should settle to aim for mediocre sales with the novel.
Put it this way: If you pull off writing a published bestseller then you have proven that you are good at storytelling. Which means you are not some lowly no-name writer who merits only a third class remuneration package.
In other words, putting the blood and sweat into writing a great novel now will pay off in placing you in a much stronger bargaining position later. In addition, it also places you in a stronger position in terms of creative influence over the film’s production. As studios will be reluctant to make radical departures from a proven bestseller. (Note well: ‘Influence’ in this case does not mean full creative control. Like any other business venture, ultimate control always rests on the one who signs all the expense cheques!)
If you pull off writing a published bestseller
then you have proven that you are good at storytelling.
So, in summary, the best time to pitch your epic screenplay is when you have established your storytelling power as a commercially solid proposition. This can be by way of screenplay sales or novel sales. Though good networking, and perhaps some serendipity, can certainly give you some short cuts in the process.
Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.