I’ve been receiving this question a lot lately so I thought I’d write an article about it. The question is, “Really? This script sold?? This is what passes for worth half a million dollars these days?? Are you f’ing kidding me??” Loose translation: “Why do bad scripts sell?” I think it’s a fair question to ask. But I don’t think it’s the right way to ask it.
Almost every single spec sale script I’ve read shows a basic understanding of how to tell a story. What I mean by that is they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And they understand that the beginning is their setup, the middle is their conflict, and the end is their resolution. 90% of amateur screenplays I read do not possess this understanding. The story usually stumbles, rambles or wanders because the basic notion of what’s supposed to happen in each of these sections hasn’t been learned yet. This accounts for a percentage of the confusion of why people don’t understand why “bad” scripts sell.
But the remaining portion may be perfectly valid. The script is simply, technical skill or no technical skill, not very good. So how does this happen? Don’t I (and everyone else) always preach that in order to sell a script you have to write something GREAT? How can that be true when all these mediocre scripts are getting snatched up for hundreds of thousands of dollars each year?
To answer this question, let’s look at a few examples for why a bad script might sell.
Example 1: A company is looking for a specific kind of script for their slate. Maybe it’s a teen sex comedy. Maybe it’s a Halloween’ish horror flick. Maybe it’s an erotic thriller. So they put out some feelers to agents they have relationships with, who in turn speak with the writers they represent, who in turn find old scripts that sound close enough to what the company is looking for, which they then clean up and send to the company. The company reads all the submissions and ends up buying the one that best fits their needs. Is the script always great? No. But it’s close enough so that, with a little development, they’re confident they can get it into good shape.
Example 2: Company D is looking around and realizing that the whole graphic novel craze, the one they thought would be over in two minutes? Well, it’s obviously here to stay. And while they were asleep at the wheel, their competition snatched up all the best properties. Feeling the pressure from inside and outside their company, they need a cool graphic novel to compete. So there’s a savvy intern who has a writer friend who just adapted a cool but obscure graphic novel. Does the boss want to read it? Of course! He needs a graphic novel property yesterday. Because the pressure’s on, he bypasses his reader and reads the script himself. Through the filter of desperation, even though he knows the script needs a lot of work, it takes care of a very important need, so he buys it.
Example 3: A writer coming off a recent sale delves back into his library of scripts, does a quick rewrite on one of them, hands it to his agent who packages it with a hot actor and producer, and sells it a week later. Is the script good? Maybe. Maybe not. So why did it sell? Because the writer had heat. Because being able to flaunt a script from the “hot new writer in town” brings attention to a company. Because in the business world, people aren’t very good at measuring the value of art. So they go by track records. If the script is from the guys who wrote The Hangover, starring Jim Carrey with Wes Anderson attached to direct…that’s a package they can trust. From a business perspective, if you include the script as one of the four elements being sold (script, writers, actor, director), which of those elements do you think carries the least weight? Obviously the script. This kind of thing happens quite often.
Example 4: A production company is developing a movie about an overweight Casanova. They hear that a new script is hitting the market about an overweight seductress. Uh-oh, if that movie’s made, their movie’s dead. So what do they do? They buy the script to bury it! Yes, this really happens. They will buy the script, whether it’s great, okay, or terrible, just to eliminate the competition.
So now you know Hollywood’s dirty little secret. Bad scripts do sell! But here’s the thing about all of the above examples: THEY DON’T APPLY TO YOU. Go back and read that capped sentence a dozen times. None of those examples apply to your situation. You don’t have agents or managers or the luxury of pitching movies over lunch to people who can actually make them. The ONLY thing you have…is your screenplay. And that’s why YOUR screenplay DOES have to be great.
And this goes back to what I was saying earlier. It takes time to even understand what “great” is. It takes writing half a dozen screenplays, studying all the major screenwriting books, reading at least 500 spec scripts, getting 100 people to give you feedback. It’s a humbling reality but learning how to write something awesome TAKES TIME.
I think the problem is that we hear these once every decade stories about Quentin Tarantino and Diablo Cody and we think that’s the only way to break in. “Nobody” to “Household Name” in less than 24 hours. Sure, if you’re singing on American Idol. But that’s not the way most screenwriters succeed in this business. Diablo Cody and Quentin Tarantino are the lotto winners. The rest of us have to earn our millions the old-fashioned way – through hard work and perseverance.
That means writing your first spec, making a million mistakes, writing another one, making half a million more, writing your third one, then entering it in contests, then sending query letters to managers who never get back to you, and even though you really don’t want to because you know it’s going to be awkward, calling that friend of a friend of a gaffer because he’s the only person you know in LA and begging him to read your script, and doing all that shit for two years until a manager finally calls you back and wants to hip-pocket you. It includes taking any meeting (in person or on the phone) and selling the shit out of yourself and finally getting a lousy $1500 re-rewrite on an awful independent horror film even after your manager disappears with the money and you’re forced to do it for free. Then taking more meetings and landing a few more small gigs and through the connections you’ve made, finding an agent. Then getting some even bigger jobs, and maybe becoming a jr. writer on a TV show that ends up becoming a cult hit, and using that buzz to rewrite some direct-to-DVD sequel for a movie you actually watched in the theater, and then, through this vast network of connections you’ve created during all this time, going to your top 5 contacts when you’re finally convinced that your action-adventure masterpiece in the vein of Indiana Jones is ready, and pitching it to them. And having them all say no to you, and then seriously considering giving up this crazy business because all it is is a bunch of heartache and then getting a call from someone you don’t remember and having them explain that you sent them a script seven years ago when they were a gaffer, and now they’re a producer at Warner Brothers and they just read your script and thought it was amazing, but it’s not quite what they’re looking for, but oh by the way, do you happen to have anything in the action adventure genre? Maybe something like Indiana Jones?…………And somehow, one week later, you did it. You sold a fucking screenplay.
And if that sounds like the most miserable experience ever to you, then I’m going to be honest here. You probably aren’t cut out for screenwriting. Because this is how people usually find success in this business. And for those who stick around, it’s wonderful, because you realize at some point that it was never about the spec sale in the first place. It was about your love of writing.
So I’ll say it again. The one thing that you have 100% control over in this crazy industry, is writing the best script you’re capable of writing. That’s it. Don’t get caught up in whether some shitty script sells and what that means for your writing. That doesn’t have any bearing on you whatsoever. You just need to write the BEST SCRIPT you’re capable of writing. That’s it. And if you keep doing that, over and over again, at a certain point, you just may write something amazing…that sells…to a gaffer.