The Magic Trick to Selling a Screenplay

By Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, Script Magazine

"Dear Jeanne, Can you please tell me how to sell my scripts? Thanks!"

Yes, that's an actual email I received recently. In fact, every day brings another variation of the same query from a screenwriter, wanting my advice on the magic secret to selling a script.

I wish I could shoot off a quick response, saying, "Hey, just do this one super-duper-special magic trick and you're set!"

I also get Facebook messages from writers, lamenting about their frustrations and depression over yet another rejection. How do I keep at it? How do I not bury myself under the covers, crying for days?

Oh, I get it. I absolutely get it! I have been there. I have no shame in admitting I reached for the tequila bottle after being bitchslapped by Sundance. Redford may have rejected me, but Jose prides himself in being my numero uno writer anesthetic. Every writer has sought the Holy Grail and felt like screenwriter roadkill after a stampede of Hollywood executives barreled us over and our unworthy scripts.

Welcome to Hollywood.

Seriously. This is it. This is our world. The world I personally navigate every single day, without quitting. Without losing faith. Without bellyaching.

Oh wow, I just realized I do know the super-duper-special magic trick!

Ready?

Work a hundred times harder than you are right now because you have to want it more than you've wanted anything else in your life.

Becoming a professional screenwriter is one of the hardest things you'll ever do. Not even birthing a child with no drugs after 86 hours of labor is harder (yes, that was my firstborn… and I survived by pretending I was a monkey in the wild, but that's another story). Why? Because labor eventually ends when that baby is released, but there is no end to the labor of being a writer. None. Even after you sell a script and have a box-office hit, you still have to come up with the next great idea, the next pitch, and the next sale… and then sit your ass down and write it. You'll always be competing with the latest new voice, the latest trend, and even the state of the economy.

Idea. Pitch. Write. Script Notes. Rewrite. Meetings. Repeat… for decades, if you're lucky.

Sure, at some point you'll get an agent to help you find gigs, but before that, you are on your own, competing with over 40,000 new specs every year.

How do you make your script stand out in the crowd?

There are a few sure-fire things you must do to succeed:
  1. Learn your craft inside and out.
  2. Write multiple scripts from solid, high-concept ideas.
  3. Learn to love rewriting and taking notes.
  4. Learn the business side of the industry.
  5. Have the patience of a saint.

In my experience, most writers can handle steps 1, 2, and 3. But the ones who really succeed master steps 4 and 5. They do the research on what's selling, they learn how to meet executives, and they put in the hours on social media to network as well as trips to L.A. to network in person. They make it happen. "Can't" is not in their vocabulary. In short, they eat, sleep and drink their passion to be a screenwriter.

Beyond passion, they patiently pursue their career. They go to pitchfests, they cold call producers, they write script after script, and hear "pass" hundreds of times. They try the indie route. They write novels. They do anything they can to open a window if a door is shut. But after rejections, they dust off and get back to writing the next day. They simply can't imagine their lives without writing. No matter how long it takes, quitting is not an option.

Pursuing a screenwriting career is a job in and of itself.

Read that again: It. Is. A. Job.

Why do you write?

Most of us have day jobs, myself included. I dedicate my working hours to my paying job, but nights and weekends are consumed with my writing projects. For example, in just the past week, I scoured through my producers' notes, worked on the script rewrite, outlined a new story idea, and I also wrote a chapter of a novel I outlined this summer, the first in a trilogy. I even got a care package off to my college girl and my other teen ready for high school, with a home-cooked dinner on the table every night. No take out for my boy.

To have a day job plus a job of a writer, you need to be organized.

Plan your days, hour-by-hour, if need be. But always make sure you spend an hour a day scouring the Internet for screenwriting and movie news. Learn who the players are. Learn what production companies are buying. Find the right match for your project so you can strike when the script is done.

You need to be hungry to learn. Starving, in fact. You need to need writing like you need air to breathe.

But isn't great writing enough to get me noticed?

I thought a lot about this question this past week. I wish being a great writer was enough to succeed. I really do. It certainly would make life a lot easier if you could just whip out script after script, a few novels, some articles, and magically turn them into money.

I've preached before about focusing on your writing, first and foremost, and I don't waiver from that opinion. But the reality is, passion for the art and the ability to write great prose simply aren't enough.

You need to be someone people want to work with, which is something I've discussed before (paying it forward, positive attitude, hardworking, etc.). But you also have to understand the industry, the odds of success (and failure) and be passionate to the point of insanity.

How passionate is passionate enough?

This past weekend in church, I watched our priest, who is about to retire, talking about his vocation. His calling. His liturgy was exactly how I feel about my quest to write. I'd die if I couldn't create stories and touch people's lives with my words, just as he would die if he couldn't deliver his sermons.

Later that night, I watched Mountain Men. In that one episode, multiple of the real-life characters proclaimed they love living off the land so much, they'd rather die doing that than have a 9-to-5 job. Those weren't just words. They meant they seriously would rather live with the threat of death, potentially not finding food, not being able to survive, starving, or being eaten by a bear, being completely free to live off the land than be guaranteed food by taking a corporate job in an office. To them, the life many of us live is a death sentence to their soul.

Then today, I watched the September 11th remembrance coverage on television, as I have done every year since that dreadful day 12 years ago. Reliving the moments of terror that struck our country moves me to tears each and every anniversary. But this time, something else struck me. I watched firefighters, police, and rescue workers run into the buildings, neither flinching nor hesitating.

Their passion to protect their fellow citizens, their need to be of service, their utter conviction to save lives, compels them to go against all natural survival instinct and run into danger, hoping beyond hope they would save someone's life and make the risk worth it.

Yet in taking that risk, despite being trained and prepared, many never reemerged from the wreckage. Gone forever.

The 9/11 anniversary puts the risks of going after a dream of being a writer in a bit of perspective, now, doesn't it?

If you want to write, just do it. If you want to sell your scripts, pitch them. If they say "no," who cares? Pitch someone else. If you want to succeed as a writer, learn and understand the risks involved. Do the work. Don't expect someone else, like me, to give you a magic answer. It takes guts. Sweat. Tears. Patience. Dedication. Insanity.

Trust me, putting the hours in it takes to learn about the industry and building your network isn't going to kill you. What have you really got to lose?

If you read this and think "Ugh, I'm exhausted just thinking about how long this is going to take to succeed," then maybe you don't want it badly enough. You're better off being honest with yourself. After all, there are other ways to be involved in the movie industry. You could produce, direct, critique films, or even sell popcorn at the local theater. But if you can't give this 150% percent of your heart, do yourself a favor and stop the insanity of piling up scripts only to collect dust.

Imagine if one of those NYC firefighters stared at the crumbling Twin Towers and said, "Ugh, I'm exhausted just thinking about going in there."

I think you get my point.

Write or die. That's my plan.