Screenwriting consultant Danny Manus is a former development executive, so he's been on the other side of the screenwriting business dynamic. He now runs his own consulting firm, No BullScript Consulting, to teach screenwriters the things they must know if they're to have a successful career in the industry. And here's a hint: it's not just about the script. Listen to his checklist and get to work!
Here's a shortlist of what topics you should be familiar with, according to Manus. As he suggests, though, you should do a deeper dive into these topics to arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can about the business of screenwriting.
- "You should know more about financing and distribution."
There's usually more than one investor paying for film production, and funds from banks, tax credits, and donations can also be involved. Studios can be one-stop shops for financing, which makes things easier for the film's producer, but studios often seize creative control as well. It comes down to risk. What will your movie be worth at the end of the process? That, of course, is determined by what it cost to make, and what you can hope it recoups in sales. While big-budget films often see big numbers at the box office, the cost of talent, labor, special effects, and marketing can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, leaving little, if anything, in profit.
Film distribution makes movies available for audiences to watch. The film distributor may also be responsible for marketing plans, the media type, and release date. They'll make decisions around theatrical releases versus TV, DVD, streaming, etc. A theater typically rents a feature film for a lump sum, to run during a specified theatrical window. The average window is around three months or less, and that seems to shrink every year before the movie becomes available on-demand or DVD, although most theaters require a 90-day exclusive.
Today, it's not uncommon that movies are available on-demand simultaneously or very soon after their theatrical release. During the Coronovirus pandemic, many major studios broke the theatrical window entirely, first sending their films to on-demand rentals since theaters were closed.
To read more about financing and distribution, check out "The Basics of Film Finance" over at HGExperts.com.
- "Know which producers are looking for what. Know who the names are."
Producers are responsible for making sure all aspects of film production work together for the best possible result. They are also in charge of finding financing for a movie, a TV show, or stage play. The term producer can mean different things based on the production, so you should read up on the various types.
The first step to finding a producer is to create a list of producers who have worked on similar projects to your own – both in the genre and in the budget. IMDb is an easy place to find this information. Be realistic about your project's alignment with the producer's experience.
Then, you need to make connections. You can meet producers at film festivals, and put yourself and your story out there, so it spreads through word of mouth. Or, join a forum where film industry insiders are open to learning about new scripts, such as the IFP Project Forum. Note that some producers won't consider reading a script unless an agent is attached.
- "Know how to pitch and how to create a pitch."
We've interviewed several screenwriters on perfecting your pitch, including Manus. "There’s no one right way,” he told us. “There’s just a million wrong ways.” He said the key to a great pitch is to make your listeners feel something.
“But also, you need to know how to then back that up and tell the story,” Screenwriter Donald H. Hewitt told us in this interview. “I write out a treatment that tells the whole story. I basically memorize it. I tell the movie from beginning to end. It takes about 15 minutes.”
I’d recommend watching these short SoCreate interviews to help you prepare for pitching your screenplay.
- “Know how to create a query letter.”
The jury is out on whether query letters still work, with some industry professionals saying that the letters are outdated and get you nowhere. Others swear that an enticing query letter landed them an eventual script sale. In an industry where there’s no one pathway to success, my advice is to try any method that’s at your disposal, as long as you’re not harming your career in the process.
A successful query letter, which you’d typically send via email to someone who you’d like to have read your script, will communicate your story in a way that makes the reader want to open the document. It’s also representative of your writing style, so make sure the letter is well written and concise.
You’re trying to convince someone that you are a great writer, and the best way to do that, according to screenwriter Barri Evans in this article for Script Magazine, is to mention other people who agree. Mention script sales, assignments, options, contest wins, or other paid work. Include the tone of the piece, and make the reader feel something about your movie. Include your logline – a single sentence is preferred. Include a simple and clear synopsis. And test, test, test your message with people who have never read your story. Did the letter make them want to read your script?
- “Know how to prepare your finances for a job that is often very freelance, and you never really know when the next job is coming.”
Screenwriting paychecks are far from steady for most writers. You’ll need to prepare yourself financially, so you don’t go broke in the process. Figure out how much money you need to cover the four main walls of your budget – including food, shelter, utilities, and transportation. This way, every time you do get paid, you’ll know how much to save. And, you’ll know how much you need to earn, bare minimum, to live. Next, save for unexpected expenses. And don’t forget to fund a retirement account. As a screenwriter, you probably won’t have a 401k, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be setting money aside into an individual account. As a freelance writer, you’ll also need to stay on top of your taxes. Full-time workers have their taxes taken out of their paycheck, but freelancers have to estimate what they will owe at the end of the year. You don’t want to be caught flat-footed come April. Lastly, you should probably have a side gig that allows you the flexibility of time to continue writing but provides you some stable income.
The more you know,