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Which is easier: selling a screenplay or a novel?

If you’re an aspiring novelist, you may be dismayed by the doomsday talk in and around the publishing industry. Fewer books being bought by publishers, lower advances being paid, self publishing touted as the miracle cure but paying off for only the tiniest handful. Some writers get frustrated and begin to wonder: Maybe instead of a novel, they should be working on a screenplay. Surely it has to be easier to break in, right?

I hate to break your fantasy bubble, but no, it’s not.

First of all, screenwriting is a completely different art form. Being a great sculptor doesn’t mean the artist is automatically a killer watercolorist. Nor does being deft with prose fiction mean a writer would be good at screenwriting. In some ways, the form and style of screenwriting is polar opposite of that of novel writing.

Second, far fewer screenplays are purchased than novels. A fair number are optioned. That means that someone in the industry pays for what in the book publishing world would be an “exclusive” while he tries to put together a package (director, actors) to sell. The price for options is usually extremely low — often less than $1000, and sometimes even free. Only a tiny percentage of optioned screenplays are actually sold, and only a truly minuscule number of screenplays sold are actually produced.

Who are the lucky stiffs who sell their screenplays? Nearly always it’s someone who has already sold a screenplay — someone who is already known in LA. (Someone who, not incidentally, also probably lives there.) Obviously that’s a catch-22. In order to sell a screenplay, you have to have sold a screenplay. The movie industry likes to work with people they know. That means they go to people they’ve worked with first, and then they go to people who’ve worked with people they’ve worked with. New writers (and new directors and new producers and new actors) have almost always gotten on the radar by living and working in some other capacity in the movie industry — as a production assistant, for example — or by working somewhere influential Hollywood people will be.

They network and meet people and pitch anyone who will listen until they get a chance to work on something. That “something” isn’t likely a brand new script. It’s a rewrite of a script already purchased. Maybe a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite. Which is then rewritten several more times. These rewrite assignments — given only to residents of LA who can attend meetings face-to-face — may be the bulk of a working screenwriter’s work. If their work is looked upon favorably, they might be chosen to be the first writer when a director or producer has an “idea” and needs something on paper to shop. More creative, more responsibility, but ultimately still work-for-hire following someone else’s outline and making their rewrites.

But wait… surely some original scripts are purchased and produced? Sure. Most of them were written by working screenwriters. Some of them weren’t even sequels or adaptations or assignments. But not many. And even fewer are purchased from people who live outside of LA or are completely unknown to the buyers.

Fewer doesn’t equal zero. It’s possible. It happens. So you decide to pursue it, even though you live in, say, Chicago. What do you do? What you don’t do is write a screenplay, pitch to screenplay agents (as you would book agents), and wait for the agent to sell the screenplay for you. Hollywood is different. There are several possible strategies you could take:

  • Enter (and win) big contests. Win a Nicholl Fellowship or a Disney Fellowship. The big ones have launched careers, but they’re extremely competitive. The smaller ones… well, do your research.
  • Produce your screenplay independently. It’s extremely expensive, and you might want to start with a (big) contest-winning short first, but independently screenplays have opened a lot of doors.
  • Pitch your screenplay to production houses yourself. This is similar to sending your manuscript directly to a publisher, except you shouldn’t send it until it has been requested. Call them — another departure from book publishing — and find out who you need to talk to ┬áin order to pitch a screenplay. You might be given an e-mail address, but more likely, you’ll pitch on the phone. Be prepared. If you get a request, then your screenplay becomes part of the slush.

If you *do* manage to sell your screenplay, you’ll likely make more money on the sale than you will for a novel, but you’ll lose control. Completely. You won’t direct. You won’t meet the actors. You likely won’t even be asked to do the rewrite. And there will be rewrites — lots of them. If your screenplay hits the screen, it probably won’t look anything like the darling you poured your heart into. And if you want to keep working in the industry, you’ll need to move to LA and do the work-for-hire that fill the coffers of other working screenwriters.

Novel writing is, in contrast, easier to break into, and you’ll have a lot more control over your story throughout the publishing process. It will still be your baby in the end, and you have the luxury of living anywhere you want to live.

Pros and cons to both. In the end, each person needs to research the possibilities, be realistic about his strengths and limitations, and then… follow his passion. There are no guarantees. Only dreams.

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