So my screenplay is finished! How do I get my movie made?
Most people will tell you, “Write a second draft!” or “Have someone read it and give you notes!”
I think this is all a waste of time. Instead, throw the screenplay in the garbage and start again. Write another one. This time though, write one that is less bad. When you have completed your second screenplay, throw that one in the garbage and start another. Repeat this process over and over until you eventually write a screenplay that is actually good. It can’t just be kind of good or “possess potential.” It must be a revelatory piece of writing that I will tell my friends about. Friends who will respond to me by saying things like, “Ian, why are you telling me about this? I’m not one of your movie friends. I don’t care whatsoever.” But I tell them about it anyway.
Even if you did write the best screenplay of all-time, past and future, you still probably won’t sell it. Because production companies don’t really buy screenplays on speculation anymore. But, at least you will have written a great screenplay. This is the screenplay you share with your friends and get notes on. Maybe even enter it in a screenwriting contest! Don’t expect to become a famous filmmaker if you win said contest, but hey, you’ve now won an award!
Most writers don’t understand that to break into screenwriting, you must not just be as good as everyone else, you must be better. You must blow people away. You must blow people away on the first page. You must blow them away in the first line. The first word you write in your screenplay must be the best word of all time.
Your screenplay doesn’t have to be anything new, but it better be original. You can tell a story that has been told a million times already, but it better be different. You don’t have to create unique f12f7f38acd514ef826b655fc6f52713characters, but they better be different than the characters I’m used to seeing. You can use a lot of familiar concepts, but it better be like nothing else out there.
I did it! I wrote the best screenplay ever!
Then go make it. Shoot the movie. Or better yet, spend the next couple of weekends shooting the movie with your friends. Develop your voice. Learn how to be a filmmaker. Because even if you did write the best screenplay in a world, you’re a first-time filmmaker by the studio’s definition of the term, meaning you are more risk than they may be interested in.
Making movies is a game of speculation for an investor. The same basic approach applies to filmmaking as does for venture capitalism. But instead of a new technology, app, invention, or business idea, the speculation is over making a movie and how much profit that film can generate. Like with all investment, a lot of risk is associated and a sure thing does not exist.
One of the problems in the film industry is the stakes keep getting raised. Mid-budget films, which in the past made up the bulk of studio-produced fare, are being replaced with big-budget “tent-pole” films that appeal to as massive an audience as possible. Studios would rather break the bank each year on three or four movies that cost between $150-250 million, and hope one or two of them gross a billion dollars, instead of investing in a larger number of movies with smaller budgets. Combine that with the fact that the studio system has continued to consolidate, and there are fewer speculators taking risks on investing in cinema. Movie studios have basically become that gambler who plays red or black on the roulette table. There are other gamblers around them (indie filmmakers) placing higher risk bets, and occasionally making a mint, but those indie filmmakers don’t have the resources to place a ton of bets like the studios.
Furthermore, when a movie studio is consolidated into a media conglomerate, it becomes much more difficult for a producer to justify getting funding for a movie when the television market is far more stable. People will always watch TV about sports, politics, and reality programming even when their favorite side loses. But Johnny Depp can only make so many bad movies before people stop going to see him in the theater. It’s not about the art with the studio. It never was.
So how does a studio minimize this risk? You get a familiar franchise name, pad it with name actors, and come up with a plot no one could possibly object to. Ideally, you get a franchise that you can sell action figures and cartoons alongside. We’ll use “Star Wars” as an example. Let’s use the upcoming “Star Wars: Rogue One,” as that is a higher risk venture than the “Force Awakens,” which was as low risk as a $300 million-dollar film can be. Disney minimized some of the risk in “Rogue One” by getting a diverse array of name actors, namely Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, whose presence all but guarantees a good showing in China (you can’t make a profitable big budget film anymore without China). And while it is technically not a sequel or prequel, the powers that be have gratuitously reminded us that “Rogue One” takes place in a familiar world, going as far as to make sure we all known Darth Vader will be in the movie, and he will be voiced by James Earl Jones.
However, despite the doom and gloom, your hopes and dreams should not be crushed. The studios may have abandoned films outside of “Star Wars,” comic book characters, and other previously existing franchises, but making a movie has never been easier than it is now. So once you’ve finished that amazing screenplay, go make it yourself. Raise a small budget, find an indie producer with some experience and connections, and get your movie made. There are a lot of local production companies and hungry young filmmakers out there. Find them. Collaborate with them. While it has probably never been more difficult to get funded through the studio system, making a quality movie has never been easier. Plus, if you make a good movie, you’ll be able to sell it to a distributor and possibly even make a little money.
What’s a distributor you ask? How do I sell my movie to one? We’ll talk about that another time.