What to Write if You Want to Sell

Okay, Stogie Joe is not gonna kid you.  A lot of tumbleweeds have blown through the old Hollywood spec market in the last year.  I would not describe the behavior of the buyers as a feeding frenzy.  More like, “I just got my stomach stapled—a couple of crackers will be fine.”

If you’ve been paying attention to the movies released in the last several years, you already know that most are based on TV shows, comic books, video games or other movies.  And oh yeah, normal book-type books.  Given that you’d rather be a professional screenwriter than sell insurance, tend bar or whatever else will pay the bills in this lovely Golden Age of the U.S. economy, you’re probably wondering what kind of regular old spec script sells anymore.  It’s not exactly the million-dollar question because Hollywood quit paying that much for specs in the late ‘90s, but let’s call it the mortgage payments-for-a-year question.  What will keep hope alive while you invest the hundreds and possibly thousands of hours it can take to turn an idea into a polished, Hollywood-ready feature screenplay that gets bought?

Let’s start with what WON’T do it.  Odds are, your moving tale of a minor Renaissance painter who inspired Rembrandt is not going to sell.  Odds are, your moving tale about REMBRANDT is not going to sell.  Basically, if it’s a period piece, don’t expect to sell it unless it’s based on a book that a number of people have already read.  If you’re going to write something that is set anytime before the 1970’s, it had better be extremely modern in its style (or perfectly timeless) with a great concept that justifies the additional expense of replicating a bygone age.  If the entire movie takes place in a house, it doesn’t really matter what the time period is, but keep in mind that extremely self-contained films are tough to pull off.  If you can, though, you might be in business.

The specs that are selling tend to be one of three things.  One is edgy comedy.  If you can be edgy and PG-13, so much the better.  All in all, this isn’t the worst time in the world to be writing comedy.  The growing perception in the industry is that audiences want to escape their rather scary lives with a few laughs.  Raunchy but vaguely romantic comedies are getting traction, particularly if they can be summed up in a punchy line or two.  As always, guys finding clever new lies to get them laid or one notch higher on the class-meter, to win a woman’s heart, are popular.  The feminine flipside is fine too.

Another kind of spec that is doing well is the 300-like action movie.  Period is okay here if the concept is great.  But you have to be ultra-stylish and modern in the execution.  Basically, if the trailer would feature lots of spectacular, slow motion ass-kicking, you’re doing well.  That doesn’t mean you should send in your Lethal Weapon retread.  Lethal Weapon was 22 years ago and boy, does it show.  (It’s odd how Dirty Harry was 16 years before that and doesn’t seem as dated as the Donner film.  It’s because the more stylish you are at the time, the more dated you look later.  The same can be said for fashion, obviously.  Looks like Stogie’s run across an idea for a future blog…)

Back to the business at hand.  Even with a 300 wannabe, the premise has to pop.  A script just sold for big bucks that could be described as The Dirty Dozen in the Middle Ages, where the 12 guys are kind of a U.N. of international badasses—a samurai, a knight, a Gypsy, a Viking, etc.  That’s a somewhat fanciful but easily marketable idea for an action movie.  I’ve met one of the co-writers and he’s a nice guy, so more power to him.

Taken has done extremely well and ignited a little bit of copycat fever in the business.  However, there are already 100,000 kidnapping scripts floating around town, so I wouldn’t recommend following its lead too literally.  Here’s the wiser route—the lesson to be learned from this leggy hit is to write stuff that plays as well in Europe and Asia as the United States.  Primal, universal, visual.  Tap into the basic fears and desires of human beings in a visceral way and it will appeal to a broad audience, no matter what language they speak.  Action films have a big advantage in overseas markets because a guy getting karate-kicked in the face requires no subtitles to understand.

The third solid bet is a sophisticated thriller that looks around the corner a little bit.  It’s a little ahead of its time, so it’s fresh and timely but we still believe that it could happen.  Eagle Eye is a good example of this type.  These are scripts that deliver the goods in terms of action and suspense, but they also strike a nerve in terms of the nation’s hopes, fears, and evolving identity.  They tend to incorporate technology and/or social changes because these are the aspects of our culture that are evolving most rapidly and thus, yield the freshest opportunities for a writer.  For example, if you can do something really clever with Twitter, you’re off to a great start.

All that said, here is the bottom line and my real advice to you as an aspiring writer.  Today, concept is king.  If you thought retelling a story that made money is going to work for you, you’re wrong.  A producer friend of mine recently got a query from a writer who had written an adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The writer had the chutzpah to suggest that due to the success of Capote and Infamous (which was not a success, actually), the stage was set for another retelling.  No, no, no, no.  NO.  Let’s give this fellow the benefit of the doubt and say he wrote it before those movies came out about three years ago—having gallons of sweat equity in the project, he’s gamely giving it the old college try.  The sad fact is, he probably couldn’t sell that script for birdcage liner.  You have to be original.  Familiar but different.

I’ll go one step farther.  You have to be original, conceptually irresistible AND passionate about what you’re writing.  Here’s my formula to get all three.  As you’re brainstorming about what to write next, apply this litmus test to each concept.

You and a friend are planning a trip to the movies.  Assuming for an instant that you are not up on everything that hits cinemas (as you probably should be), let’s pretend that your friend has the listings and you don’t.  If your friend reads a one-line synopsis (a logline) for a movie and you say, “Yes, buy my ticket now,” without knowing who’s in it, who directed it or how good the reviews are, THAT is the concept you should develop further.  If you feel that way about a premise, chances are that other people will, too.  Not everyone, perhaps, but you already know two things about it—the idea hooked your attention and sparked your imagination.  That’s a helluva start.

This test won’t work for something you’ve already written because you know much more about it than a one-line synopsis.  But as you’re vetting fresh ideas and could choose any one out of five, 10 or 25 of them to pursue, the “buy my ticket now” reaction is a really good sign.  If you’re honest with yourself, you probably don’t want to see a movie that has an overly familiar premise or is too convoluted to impress in brief.  Forget that maybe, in execution, those movies might be good and you might enjoy them.  (This is why I don’t recommend you emulate a concept as simple as Taken, even with the market being favorable to its ilk at the moment.)  Remember instead that unproven spec writers have nothing to open doors for them but a good idea.  To make a splash, you gotta do a cannonball off the high board.

So as you consider various premises for your next spec, if your honest reaction to a particular logline is, “That sounds different, I’m intrigued, and I want to see how it plays out,” guess what—industry types you query with it will probably feel the same way.  You still have to write the hell out of it and hope that buyers are looking for something like it.  But if you embark on the long road from concept to screenplay with the project, you will know that it works for you in its very DNA.  That will make it easier to write, on every level, not the least of which being that you are far less likely to reject the concept halfway through.  Passion and inspiration are almost mandatory for all but the most gifted and experienced of writers, because that energy fuels creativity.

So what happens if you’re the type of person who loves un-commercial stuff?  If the “pre-sold” concept you would see in a heartbeat, knowing nothing else about it, is a costume melodrama set in 18th century Spain?  Writing a spec like that is one tough row to hoe.  But at least you’ll know that the core of the story is compelling to you.

Apply this little exercise to the genres that are selling and you can write with some confidence that your work will not be in vain.  Who knows?  You might come up with a franchise that will be giving writers work in 30 years, when after eight sequels and a TV show, the remake gets a greenlight.