The Secret to a Successful Screenwriting Business: Think Like a Producer
An effective, top-level producer treats his title as a business. This producer will oversee all aspects of a production, from development to post-production. The better they do, the better the end result will be and the more work they will be offered.
I sent a script to one such producer, something I believed could spin off into various iterations. Indeed, we set up the project, based on my novel series with Steve Hillard, with Ovation Network. See the full story here.
The value of attaching Gilbert Adler, lead producer of several top studio films and television series including “Valkyrie” with Tom Cruise, “Constantine” with Keanu Reeves, and “Superman Returns,” along with every episode of my favorite old HBO show “Tales From the Crypt,” immensely aided our network deal.
Gil, though, prepping me for my initial network meeting on this project for which Steve and I were approached, repeatedly reiterated the same question:
“So what’s the story?”
I proceeded to tell Gil the full story, outlining the episodes and themes of proposed seasons 1–5, only for him to come back to me and yet again ask:
“So what’s the story?”
Gil was looking for a more high concept encapsulation of the books to excite Ovation as a possible take on the material. The series was complex, and highly cerebral by design. He pushed me. And he was 100% right in doing so. The plot as we saw it needed to be explained in one or two sentences, and together we made it work. The door was now wide open; as a result we made the network sale. The project substantially changed from that first meeting upon the writing of two pilot scripts and formats, but we excited them enough at the time to continue discussions.
Though the endeavor is presently in turnaround does not take away the money expended, on the part of the network, to further develop the project.
So what’s the point of this anecdote?
Gil treated his spec participation in my project as a business, and he was making sure we all benefited from his expertise.
So how do we, as writers, treat our efforts as a business? How can we think like a producer and move that needle from spec to sale?
What I would strongly advise you to do first is consider yourself a writer-producer from here forward, as opposed to the former only.
From there, the following are 10 strategies based on today’s state of the industry …
- License intellectual property (IP) and attach yourself as a writer and producer. You may be surprised at the sheer number of valuable brands that have never been licensed for film or television. A smart producer understands most every brand has a value, and the acquisition thereof is a matter of negotiation. To that end, there are several inexpensive ways to acquire IP even for the less experienced writer-producer:
- Partner with the IP holder. Whether you plan on acquiring rights to a novel, a comic book, a video game, or any other brand regardless of media, the steps are the same. Use a lawyer if you can afford one or find one on contingency through networking. Based on the perceived value of your acquisition, you will find attorneys willing to work for a piece of the pie if you are diligent in looking for them. Partnering with an IP holder means exactly that. For a specific duration — usually 1–2 years — you will shop the project and if it sells, you split the money. Simple. The philosophy is you’ve found proven IP, with a certain degree of audience awareness, that has sold in another medium. In today’s environment, this type of IP is king, and largely considered safer bets than spec scripts.
- Sign a shopping agreement with the IP holder. Similar to the above, you are in effect optioning a piece of material for free. The question may arise, “Why would anyone give this material to me as I do not yet have the track record?” Two reasons: A) The material is currently available, and B) If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.
- Option the rights. You option a property for a designated period of time, for an agreed-upon dollar amount. If you successfully set up the material, you execute the option for another fee.
Three real life examples of the above: 1) I signed a shopping agreement for a proposed television series, one intended to be a reinvention of that “old HBO series” I mentioned earlier. I cannot disclose what I paid (or didn’t pay) for the rights, but I can disclose I received a solid five-figure check for my efforts from TNT ... even though the show was never made. Note: A network, like a studio or film production company, will spend money to develop a project with no guarantee of production. 2) I earned $5000, not a lot of money but prettier than a penny, for a free option I partnered on with a video game company. 3) Earlier this year I signed a contract for $45,000 due to attaching my name as an Executive Producer as well as a writer for an independent television project. Again, it’s all about the business.
2. Create your own IP. Consider taking the time and writing your screenplay in book form. Or, create a recorded version of your work or a digital comic book. Yes, all these efforts take time, and no, none of them are necessary in the sense that this has to be done in order to sell your work. It does not. What creating your own IP based on your screenplay, and subsequently according a record of sales behind it, potentially does to your bottom line is increase your odds of selling the script version in this current environment. What also works here that is vastly overlooked: Many companies will look for books they believe may be able to sell in the future. My own first book in my series sold barely 200 copies before Ovation Network made us a deal.
3. Engage an international co-production. This is not as impossible as it may sound. A perfect example regards something in which I am currently engaged. Specifically, I entered into a partnership for rights to a documentary that I enjoyed immensely. The filmmaker lives in Australia. I found his contact information online, introduced myself via email, and had a series of Skype calls with him before signing a partnership agreement six months ago. The documentary is peripherally about India and was well-received there and domestically in the U.S. Long and short: We are speaking with one of the two largest film studios in India to finance the endeavor — who approached the filmmaker and also has a local Beverly Hills, CA office. The lesson here is you may want to proactively search out international-friendly material to partner on or option, and expand your scope beyond your native country.
4. Review documentaries for feature rights. See #3, above. Attaining documentary rights is potentially a terrific source of IP.
5. Maximize the value of podcasts. Podcasts, along with other new media ventures such as internet programming and diginet or over-the-top outlets, have not only become a terrific source of IP (“Dirty John,” “Crimetown,” “The Farwell,” “Homecoming” and other film and television properties), but a respected and potentially highly-paid outlet through the WGA. As with the acquisition of any other type of IP, the methods of acquiring rights are no different than attaining rights to other brands in other mediums. There is presently, however, a perception of podcasts of being current, and highly-valued based on their audience numbers. You may want to take advantage of this still relatively recent medium for material.
6. Create your own development opportunities. Re-read #1–5. Everything listed to this point is a way for you to create your own opportunities. Further, if you are not a WGA member, don’t laugh but if you visit sites like Craigslist (of which 10% of all opportunities under “Writing Gigs” are legitimate, as based on my own past with the platform), and a host of other screenwriting market platforms, you can build invaluable experience and work on your craft while getting paid. If you are a Guild member (and frankly if you’re not but want to be fits here as well) and you do come across a legitimate assignment, ask the company if they would become a Guild signatory. See # 7 for an explanation.
7. Become a member of the WGA or work on a WGA-signatory contract with an as-yet signatory company. If you attain a screenwriting assignment ask the hiring party to become a Guild signatory if they are not already. That’s all it takes. If they agree, they will fill out the proper paperwork from the WGA website and you, as the screenwriter of the given project, will receive at least WGA minimum rates based on your contract, in addition to health insurance and a pension payment.
8. Pursue and accept writing assignments. See #6 and #7, above. It’s all of a piece.
9. Network and possibly collaborate with like-minded filmmakers. As most networking today is done on Zoom or other virtual meeting sites, regardless of industry, take advantage. Seek out film or screenwriting networking groups online, and attend. It may not be politically correct to say, but our current pandemic has been beneficial to writers. The necessity of living in the same area as a potential buyer of your product is no longer valid. Those walls are down. Further, today’s social media is a tool I only wish I had when I was coming up. Networking with like-minded filmmakers, especially in that regard, is easier than it’s ever been. Speaking of …
10. Up your social media game. Volumes have been written about the value of social media networking. In fact, I could write a book on it. Maybe one day I will. For now, I suggest the following:
- Join as many social media group pages within your genre(s) as possible. Interact and post. Not only will your social media network grow if you turn this tip into an impulse, your potential to work on significant writing projects has also increased. Remember: Everyone is a window to someone else. Never be afraid to ask for an introduction.
- Join and interact on the following platforms, if you have not already: Quora, Reddit, Medium. Utilize these platforms as you would Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin. Proactively seek to increase the size of your collective network.
- Develop a brand, or personality, on your social media pages. For myself, I’m outspoken, believing an artist should always speak their personal truths regardless of possible blowback. My posts reflect that philosophy.
- Visit the pages of public figures, and interact with their posts. I’ve developed several close friendships by doing exactly this. The answer to the money question: Yes, I’ve used this technique and requested to be introduced to certain people. I’ve set up two projects this way, and you can too, but understand there is a difference between soliciting and interacting. You cannot just reach out and ask for anything. You need to give first. Everyone who works in it understands this business is built on relationships. Like any other relationship, getting a complete stranger — and public figure, yet — to trust you will take time. It either happens organically, or it doesn’t. If it happens, the rest is up to you.
The bottom line is if you begin to think like a top-notch producer, by extension you will find yourself treating your screenwriting like a business.
To stay atop the competition and improve your odds of advancement in one of the toughest of all industries to crack, I strongly recommend this approach.
Thank you for reading.
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