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What To Write To Sell Your Screenplay

Sorry to say, the studios are not very interested in buying your original screenplay. They are more interested in buying screenplays with “built-in audiences,” which means they are adapted from comic books, graphic novels, best-sellers, hit plays, popular tv shows, videogames, reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels.

Google The Scoggins Report’s Year-End Spec Market Scorecard. You will find a list of loglines, titles and summaries of the screenplays that have been purchased over the years. Not that many have been produced however.

Jason Scoggins is a researcher who finds out every year which screenplays were purchased by which studios. Scoggins has been researching and compiling this information, and publishing it online for free now for many, many years.

Over the past five or six years, he noticed the number of original screenplays bought by the studios has been hovering around 130. That’s right, only 130 out of how many hundreds of thousands of spec scripts written are actually purchased each year.

And last year, 2016, sadly, the number came in around 60. Of course these numbers don’t include all spec scripts bought by producers or production companies, or all the films written or bought by Independent producers. Still it’s disheartening.

As far as the studios are concerned, they seem to have dropped the word “original” from their vocabulary. For those who still want to try selling an original spec screenplay here is some valuable advice.

A few writers I talk to are getting paid for their original specs by the Hallmark Channel, where they’re interested in a specific genre — Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween films with a family focus.  Another writer I know who’s selling scripts is a former police officer who writes very genre specific crime dramas.

They both use IMDBPro to get in direct touch with producers who make these exact types of films. They don’t count on agents.  They keep lists on contacts, and once they sell to somebody, they try to keep selling to them.

Another tip — write low-budget horror, suspense, thrillers, or throughly edgy character films (Like Pi, or Clerks). More recent examples of independent films that succeeded include the comedy the Duplass brothers made “The Puffy Chair,” and Lena Dunham’s comedy “Tiny Furniture.”

Since the Duplass brothers made “The Puffy Chair,” they have been signed to write and direct their own HBO show “Togetherness.” They also produced the low budget film (shot entirely on iPhones) Tangerine.

Since Dunham made “Tiny Furniture,” she teamed up with Judd Apatow and they created a show called Girls on HBO. Dunham has been playing Hannah Horvath on Girls and has written many of the episodes. Even though the show doesn’t get great ratings, it’s created its own style, and has been winning awards.

Another reason I recommend writing low budget features is that every recent film school graduate, or director’s assistant, or line producer, or music video, or commercial director in town (along with everyone else; agents, production assistants, cameramen) is looking for a low-budget screenplay to kick off their careers.

One thing to keep in mind when you sell low-budget, you’re not going to get Writer’s Guild of American guild minimum fees for these scripts – but it’s a start. And that credit can lead to other things, including entrance into the world of big budget filmmaking.

There’s still hope if you want to sell to the studios, because they are still looking for that occasionally well-written high-concept film in certain genres. High concept films are hard to define but the general ideas is –you can pitch them quickly and get across why they’re great quickly.

Let’s look at BIG. A twelve year old kid at a carnival wishes he was taller so he can ride on the roller-coaster. He goes to the carnival mystic Zoltar and wishes to be taller, only to wake up as a 30 year old man (Tom Hanks), but with a kids brain. He ends up in New York working at a toy company (perfect-right?) where he’s naturally a genius, and ends up with a beautiful 30 year old girlfriend.

In Beverly Hills Cop, down and dirty Detroit cop Axel (Eddie Murphy) goes to Beverly Hills to solve his partner’s murder –and clues lead to zillionaire gallery-owner Victor Maitland. Axel wreaks havoc all over the posh city, angering the Beverly Hills PD, but eventually proves Maitland was smuggling coke in through the gallery and solves the murder.

In Back to the Future, teenaged Michael J Fox is sent back 30 years in a time machine only to have his mother fall in love with him. Fox must convince his mom to fall out of love with him and match her up with his nerdy father, or face the prospect of never being born.

Can you see why these films are “high-concept.”  Take another look — in those brief pitches you get the idea for the whole movie, plus it sounds interesting right away.

In BIG, there’s a wish fulfillment element — a kid gets to grow up and — because he thinks like a kid in an adult body — he becomes a millionaire toy maker.

With Beverly Hills Cop — you can easily see the comedy in a scruffy-looking but resourceful Detroit cop (played by Eddie Murphy) running circles around the prissy elite cops and wealthy, arrogant bad guys in Beverly Hills.

In the Back to the Future pitch – the concept is maybe the highest ever — you can easily see the humor in a teenaged Micael J. Fox trying to break up with his mother – and fix her up with his dad — or he’ll never be born.  Pretty edgy, too, which kept Disney from buying the film.

Another kind of film that will sell — no mater what the trends are –is what I call “the award-quality screenplay.” Many are written about life transitions, for example, American Beauty, Moonlight, or Manchester by the Sea.  Sometimes a genre film. like Chinatown wins Oscars, too.  Always strive for quality — that goes without saying.

In the next couple of chapters we’ll examine other high-concept movies, and movies in certain genres Hollywood is still buying. Original screenplays written in genres that still sell include everything from survival horror (Jurassic Park) to psychological life transitions (American Beauty).

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Image credit: Creative Commons Written & Directed, 2014  by Marco Nurnberger, is licensed under CC By 2.0
What To Write To Sell Your Screenplay

David Silverman, MA, LMFT

A lot of careers can really knock you around. The compettiion is fierce, in graphic design, architecture, you name it -- especially in creative careers in Hollywood. Writers and performers get slammed with rejection constantly. If you're going through something -- anxiety, addiction or depression -- I help people like you get through it. And thrive. Let me help you get your dream back on track.

Please check out my website: My story: my brother grew up with a severe case of OCD, and while I just a kid --- in family therapy with him, I witnessed a miracle as he was transformed, and now is enjoying the life he deserves. I went to Stanford University to study Psychology, and USC Film. I've worked in FIlm/TV and experienced high levels of anxiety, and got slammed with rejection myself. I learned how to get through it. Today, I love to help people to regain the lifestyle they deserve.

David Silverman Psychotherapy

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APA Reference
Silverman, D. (2017). What To Write To Sell Your Screenplay. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 29 Mar 2017
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