5 More Secrets To Selling Your Screenplay… And Not Your Soul!
You read Pen Densham’s previous article on selling your screenplay. Here are some more tips get you closer to the sweet smell of screenwriting success:
1) Cold Calling
The term for finding buyers you don’t know – yet!
Information is golden. Out there could be someone who needs your creativity. To find them is a task of exploration and the best guide can be people who have already succeeded in areas that you seek. It is easier to learn from the methods of others than try and invent everything in your path. You can read success stories from books or scanning the internet. Most successful people are willing to give advice when they are approached with a well-stated understanding of their own careers and how you would value a chance to learn from their skills.
“Filling a need” is a sales term. Finding a market for your material means discovering who has a track record of involvement with projects similar to yours. In my business, I look for financiers, actors or directors who might see the creative energy of my material as an evolution of their own voyage of discovery.
Along with the agents and managers. Many potential targets for your work are actors, directors, and producers with their own production companies. There are specialized feature and TV databases that help you cross-reference studios, production companies, stars, directors, producers, etc., and provide you with their contact information. They give the history and plots of their projects, both finished and in development which lets one theorize whether your material fits in their mold. They also list all the credits of all movies and TV shows. Maybe you know somebody who knows somebody?
The super-carriers in this field are Studio System, followed by Variety Insight, both wonderful biz resources. IMDb Pro is a cheaper source for a lot of this information.
It is tempting to send out hundreds of the same query email about your project, but if they are written devoid of a personal approach to the recipient, they can feel like spam. It’s scary to reach out to strange buyers or advisors – so don’t make them strangers. Study their work. Look them up on search engines or databases. Find information about their lives that you can relate to. Maybe they come from your state, school – or maybe they flunked math, too? You might find that your family has mutual friends with degrees of separation. Humans are social creatures. We respond to others who are like us. Finding a common ground creates a rapport and makes it easier to initiate a personal approach to reach out for advice and support.
I know one college student from outside of California, who wrote personal, handwritten notes to major Hollywood figures he wanted to intern with. He acknowledged their accomplishments and gave them a brief glimpse of his own life story and goals. A surprising number organized meetings with him and made work offers! Because so few people make that level of effort, he seemed impressive and caring. After a few years of learning the game, he now runs his own production company. It helps to give a social lubricant to asking the difficult question, “Is it possible that you could guide me about my work and whether it might be useful to you or someone you know?”
Be aware all creative people get bored doing repetitive tasks so don’t send out a replica of your prospects’ last big hit because you think that’s what they like now. A true artist gets bored repeating themselves. The magnetism gets used up. Most successful actors, directors, producers redress their careers heading for the bleachers with new ideas and dazzlingly innovative films that fit the style of their strengths, but still challenge them creatively.
Approach your prospects (or their support teams) when you believe your material is similar in scope, vitality and human meaning to what they seem excited and challenged by. Be able to define why your material could mine stimulating new emotional and profitable veins for their creativity.
And, very importantly, when you call, treat their assistants with respect. Ask if there is a good time to chat with them too for their advice. Share your heart with the assistants. They are in the daily front lines, often are on every phone call their bosses make, silently making notes. They have a deep knowledge of the business as a result and are often not given the respect they deserve. Treating them as a valuable source of insight might give you an informational ally and a friend.
“If you can dream it, you can do it.” – Walt Disney
2) Rejection Is A Path To Success
I hate it when people say stuff like that, it sounds so freaking cornball. But it isn’t. I have turned rejections into successes. Not all that often, but often enough to make the efforts worth it. In my documentary days I wrote to get permission to suspend a magician, the “Amazing” Randi, upside-down over Niagara Falls to simulate a Houdini escape for our magic special. It was a wild stunt to make our show stand out on the international TV sales map. The Niagara council did not want anything “wild” anywhere near their Falls and rejected me out of hand.
After recovering from the shock of rejection, I figured out where I went wrong. I had learned from requesting film grants in Canada that I seemed to get more success when I met in person with the adjudicators than when I just sent in my application – no matter how eloquent. But just sending in something in writing was always seductively less stressful. I went back to the Niagara Council and apologized for failing to make a personal presentation and asked for a second chance. I was invited to a council meeting. John Watson and I showed one of our documentaries. I say people don’t buy from strangers. We became human beings with goals, a sense of humor and ambitions they could relate to. We got our permission. And the photo of the stunt went up on front pages of newspapers around the world.
When I get a rejection, instead of cursing my bad luck or the stupidity of the buyer (which can be deliciously tempting), I thank the buyer – they did make the effort to invest time in me – even if I struck out.
I try and find out why my material failed. Sometimes, there is no given answer. Other times, my fear that my work is crap is disproven because the rejection came when the buyers already have another project too similar to mine. Or, their bosses don’t make a certain style of film. Or, I did miss a few cogs in the gears of my screenplay and it did not connect with the reader which is valuable to know.
I am passionate about my work and I don’t give up – now I have a tool to sharpen my material so maybe it will work better for the next target. Sometimes something as simple as a title change can make a script feel more dynamic.
Science says success works on the principals of randomness. Good things don’t happen in a logical order – and may never happen at all. But if I let myself down by not overcoming self-doubt and don’t make the effort to try what I call my “errors of omission,” I know those failures will haunt me throughout my life. My omissions guaranteed that I would never be there when randomness hit and could give me success.
I went back to the head of one American network four times over three years trying to convince him to let me and my company revive a modern version of The Twilight Zone, a source of fantastic stories that I loved growing up. It became more painful to make the attempt each time. The very last approach was the most difficult as I was sure I would just anger the heck out of the man, Les Moonves. But, I had one piece of new information; he had just taken control of the UPN TV network and was looking for a companion show for Star Trek. I was grossly uncomfortable until I hit on this sales approach. I wrote Les this note: “Les, so help me I swear I will never mention the words Twilight Zone to you ever again! After this. How about considering it as a companion series for Star Trek?” I was in his office the next day and was given ten days to write a pilot. We got greenlit and ran for a year. One never knows how close success might be.
“The reason actors, artists, writers have agents is because we’ll do it for nothing.
That’s a basic fact – you gotta do it” – Morgan Freeman
3) Getting An Agent Or Manager
There are some people who chose careers helping others by sitting at the crossroads of a trade, learning its ecosystems, politics, and paths to success. They make nothing themselves – but deals! They need creative people like us, but some are reticent to admit it. We are their food supply. And they are our safari guides into the jungle of the business.
Approach agents and managers the same way as any prospect. Research them and their clients. And apply your skills of human communication if you think you might fit in. Talk to their assistants, too. It would seem like a great idea to get an agent or manager and then retire from the scene to let them take on the brutal task of exposing your work – but do the math, the agent with 50 clients – and one you? Your sales effort will be divided by the number of clients that person already represents and you will turn up in their rotation in the order of power of those biggest and easiest to sell.
Truthfully, going after a BIG agent or manager too soon can be counterproductive. They may sign you, but drop you quickly when you fail to sell after a few attempts. A very demoralizing experience.
When you do get a representative – (remember creative entrepreneurism?) – do not abdicate your role in selling your work. You are still the one person who cares 100 percent of the time and may have the best way of defining your material and figuring out who might be the best prospects to suggest. But be super diplomatic. Sell your agent or manager on how to sell you – without pissing them off.
One way to be more involved, find a young agent with few clients – a small office, but a large need to prove themselves by selling you! Find a foul-weather friend, an agent with the desire to stick with you, who will be patient, explain the business, and keep faith in you when the inevitable stumbles happen.
And make a genuine friendship with their assistants. They are on your team too, usually monitoring every call made by their boss, making notes. They know all the industry scuttlebutt and they may have time to read and advise, so you don’t use up all your face time with your main supporter. Assistants often get promoted to agents or start their own companies and can take you with them.
Having representation is a sign of industry approval. It allows you to submit your work without the suspicion of being an amateur. If you do not have an agent most professionals will receive material submitted via a lawyer. Or by asking you to sign impressively verbose legal releases that seem to give away your firstborn along with the right to read your material without the threat of a lawsuit.
“Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.” – Frank Zappa
4) Pitching Your Project
The true purpose of a sales meeting is not what you think.
When you have an opportunity to personally pitch a new project to a buyer or their development team, the real purpose of the event is to see what kind of person you are. What would you be like to work with? Are you compatible, do you have a sense of humor, do you listen well? Someone hiring you is investing a piece of their own job security. It is not a small decision to trust and ally with you through the months or years of the development process.
A pitch should be seen as a conversation with a potential buyer, and you want to engage them. Passion shows and your excitement for the project and your humanity is where it starts. It’s okay to be nervous. In fact, I like to have a cup of coffee when offered. I find the caffeine and my adrenalin sharpen my thinking.
Many green and some pro sellers start a meeting with, “What are you looking for?” That implies you have no commitment to what you have created.
Instead, consider starting with, “I hope I have something original and different that you may not yet know that you want.” Tell them you’re excited.
I never pitch by rote. Like a train stuck on its tracks, I feel any pitch that is just a start-to-finish list of my story elements, leaves no room for those in the room to engage. I will often start with a humanistic sharing of why I developed my story. “My wife had a dream that was so scary it kept her awake for three nights and when she shared it with me, I couldn’t sleep either. So I decided to explore it as a classy horror movie.
The smart way to sell your new idea before pitching it is to define it in terms of other major breakout successes. This gives a guiding image to the goal you are aiming at: “My story is like The King’s Speech meets Jaws, where a humble aging serf must train a frightened prince in the art of dragon-slaying in order to save his nation.
I say there are no bad pitches, as long as you are authentic, interested in the buyers’ goals, and selling something that you are profoundly passionate about. Your excitement alone may convince your buyers to give your project more than a cursory glance.
And the obvious rules? Arrive early so you can use the bathroom, have time to get your bearings meet the assistants, etc. This is an adventure if you think about it the right way. Have a couple of back up stories you can refer to if your primary project is negated early by the buyers. Don’t be surprised if approached to rewrite something the group may already have in the works. Frequently the buyer has read your script, likes your voice and sees you as a possible solution for an important project they are deeply invested in, and the whole meeting has been to see if they wanted to explore it with you.
“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” – Thomas Jefferson
5) Getting A “YES.” Eliminate The “NOs”
In our early short film days, my company partner, John Watson, and I used to receive regular visits from the Kodak salesmen, urging us to buy more film stock. I always felt like a village pauper, embarrassed at having to deny that I could afford any. On one visit, I told him that we could only give him an order for more film if we sold more productions – but, I confessed that I feared selling was a bit like being a con-man and asked if he could give me any tips to change my perspective.
Instead, he got Kodak to arrange a sales course for myself and other filmmakers I knew. We discovered all kinds of tools and logics that made great sense and demystified a very human process of exchange. I was given defining terms for many of our current seat of the pants selling approaches, which helped in learning to explain our material so that others were more likely to buy them.
One of the most useful points was the term, “eliminate the objections.” The idea was to maintain a friendly and interested approach in finding out why your prospect doesn’t want to buy your work. The course said, investigate deeply the doubts and rationale for a rejection with the client, and see if you can explain or change your work so they can accept it. A simple but golden process. When a buyer has had all his reasons for saying NO satisfied with reasonable answers, there is a strong possibility of a YES.
I applied for this Kodak course. When I was confronted by the Chairman of a studio in a meeting, he had read a screenplay of mine that I had written on spec and told me he wasn’t going to buy it. I fought my fear and embarrassment and decided to probe. First, the course said to acknowledge your prospects’ opinion: “What didn’t work for you? I can see how you could think that.
The Kodak sales technique course had told me that people do not volunteer their deepest resistance first. Sometimes these rejections are emotional and not logical. The NOs I heard – made sense. Some came from misreading the work. Some were accurate and logical and some were a matter of taste. I held on, dug deep and went away with a nervous game plan. I rewrote my script and represented it, half expecting this busy studio head, Frank Mancuso, to tell me to get lost. Instead, he read my changed screenplay, agreed I had solved his problems and gave me a green light if I could cast the movie with two stars.
Thank you, Kodak!! You did sell some more film stock when we shot Moll Flanders, which I directed for MGM and Spelling, starring Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman. It was one of the most challenging and greatest creative experiences of my life.
“Screw it, Let’s do it!” – Richard Branson
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