Selling Your Screenplay and Avoiding The Sharks

by Stephen Gallagher


There are vampires out there, and they're real.

They've been around for a while, of course, but they keep on managing to dupe enough victims to stay alive. As ever, they target the inexperienced and the innocent. They're seductive, they're persuasive, and they can be very, very convincing.

We used to call them Vanity Presses, but that term alone won't do anymore. Not now that they've started to evolve.

A vanity press has always had one simple function. To undertake the physical process of setting, printing and binding an otherwise unpublishable book, entirely at the expense of its author. No book is unpublishable in the eyes of its creator, of course. Misunderstood and unappreciated, maybe. A victim of the blinkered prejudices of a hidebound industry, no doubt quite often.

But never such crap that it shouldn't see the light of day.

For the wounded soul with the dog-eared manuscript and a pile of rejection slips to go with it, the flattery of a subsidy house's encouraging response must be like balm. At last, recognition. Whereas the fact is that the only response to rejection is to bounce back and write better, vanity publishing offers a shortcut through natural selection. From amoeba to Michaelangelo's David, in one easy leap. And for a fee.

The true end to the process is almost certainly a big hole in the bank balance -- we're talking thousands -- and a pile of dull-looking book copies that no distributor will touch (one American subsidy press that advertises over here routinely sticks a picture of Big Ben on the jacket of any title that he picks up from England). The hook has usually been baited with the odd success story of self-publication, probably with reference to Aeron Clement's The Cold Moons. But self-publication is quite a different and more legitimate gamble, where you take on the role of publisher and play the game for real. The vanity press simply offers you the role of published author. And it's bogus.

People have paid out quite happily for follies before, and probably always will. But imagine an even worse scenario. Decent work of some potential, stillborn at the hands of these ego-merchants because its author was inexperienced and knew no better.

And now they're widening their scope.

Some time ago the Writers' Guild warned its members against involvement with an outfit advertising itself as a script agency on the basis that their contracts require the writer to part with large sums of money for their 'endeavouring' to sell various rights. The agency had rented an office suite in one of the big studios and given itself an impressive-sounding name, but as far as anyone could establish it has no realistic track record in placing material at all.

I received a letter from a starting-out writer who'd responded to their ad. He'd written a screenplay, and they were prepared to show it around for him; he described the deal that they'd offered. Did this sound reasonable, he was wondering?

Presenting a screenplay by an unknown writer, they'd assured him, was a complicated and expensive process. He couldn't hope to be looked at in Hollywood without having his script rewritten in treatment form by a Screenwriters' Guild member at a cost of $30,000. But not to worry -- their confidence was such that they'd put up $24,000 if he could only find the remainder. On receipt of roughly four thousand quid, their 'in-house' writer would handle the actual chore and then they'd send the results around the big studios. Of course, if the big studios didn't actually bite... well, that's showbiz.


I assume they work within the letter of the law because I can't believe that they wouldn't have been hauled in by now if they didn't, but in essence they appear to operate along much the same lines as the vanity presses. The procedure's the same; they advertise, they make encouraging noises about the material received, they make a strong case that you'll be able to get no further without services that they'll provide at a price, after which you're probably guaranteed not firm sales, but a 'showcase' of some kind... the only problem being that it's a showcase which no professional market will ever take seriously, given the nature of the operation. But they don't tell you that, of course. They let you get fired up about the prospects for your material and, when eventual disappointment comes -- because the taint of the vanity press would be enough to kill the prospects of Citizen Kane -- their part of the process is over and paid for.

The stuff about a novice not being able to write his or her own treatment is total bullshit. Yes, the market prefers known names and those with track records to outsiders -- show me the market that doesn't. But no way is it a closed shop. US companies in particular are leery of unsolicited or non-agented submissions not as a matter of principle, but because they fear the kind of litigation that's likely to arise when stories coincide. Submission via agents, lawyers or independent producers provides a layer of insulation from that and also acts as a first filter for material.

I doubt that a treatment alone is going to get you anywhere. For an established writer hawking the next idea it may be okay, but the conventional wisdom seems to be that for a newcomer breaking in it has to be the 'spec script' -- a full screenplay which may not even in itself be commercial but which gives a definitive demonstration that this writer is a serious professional contender. The point of a treatment is only to make a dry run at the real thing anyway, so to produce a treatment after you've completed the first draft is a redundant step. It's like drawing the architectural plans after you finish putting up the building. With a spec screenplay, there are two ways you can go; producers and agents. If you go via submissions to producers, my recommendation is that the moment you get within reach of a deal you put everything on hold and approach an agent then, before you sign anything. Film deals are horrendously complex, both legally and technically, and I wouldn't even contemplate approaching one without full professional support. Having said which, agents are tough to get and there's not much they can do to help an absolute beginner; but take those first steps yourself, and you're on the way to convincing one that you're a worthwhile bet.

Step one is to ensure that your script is presentable. Go for a plain, uncluttered, conventional layout on white paper. No fancy bindings, no decoration. No explanatory prologues to the reader, no camera moves in the text. Back in my early days, I used to make Letraset title pages and think they looked really neat. But can you imagine William Goldman sitting there in the wee small hours rubbing away at a sheet of wax letters to enhance the potential of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Doesn't exactly inspire respect, does it? There's one kind of presentation binding which seems to be considered professionally acceptable, and that's a set of front and back card covers with a cutout window on the front through which the title and author's name can be read. But if you can't get those, a giant (4") paperclip in the top left-hand corner should be perfectly acceptable. If your script won't fit into a 4" paperclip, you have an immediately discernible length problem.

Step one in the process of marketing yourself is to get hold of a current copy of The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. The section on screenplays will be your starting point. They do an annual market review, give you a sample layout, and give lists of addresses both for production companies and agents. An old copy is no good for these -- the scene changes constantly. Production company listings also appear in specialised trade publications which I can't advise you on, but your local library may.

Your first approach should be with a short, polite letter asking if the producer/agent would be willing to read your script. Concentrate on the UK; making a spec sale in Los Angeles would require your physical presence and a degree of market familiarity that you don't yet have. Some companies, like Paramount, have London offices through which they scout the European scene. If anyone asks for a fee to read, drop that line of enquiry. Never, ever pay anyone to read your stuff. Agents work on commission and, in my experience, they earn it. Producers are entrepreneurs who pay you. You will no doubt, somewhere along the line, meet the producer who proposes that you supply the screenplay for no money, he/she puts in the time and effort to sell it, and you both share in the bounty further down the line. You'll have to deal with that however you think best. Sometimes it works, but more often it's a way for a would-be producer to acquire a cheap portfolio of properties from a number of writers in the hope that one of the many will hit lucky for him.

Sometimes it seems that there's an entire industry that's sprung up to feed upon the aspirations of the would-be screenwriter; courses, seminars, 'consultation and advisory services', how-to books, dodgy trade directories, you name it. Not all are worthless. Robert McKee's course seems to me to contain a lot of basic wisdom, although I'd contend that its main achievement has been to provide an entire generation of executives and editors with a vocabulary that they can use to harass creators.

I certainly don't believe that anything's worth a damn compared to the experience of working alone on your material and then banging on people's doors with it, even though some will swear that a seminar changed their life. But who ever learned to swim from a lecture? Just do it. If you're any good, you'll earn respect and start to build a network of contacts.

And if you aren't any good, you'll learn about what it takes to get better.

copyright Stephen Gallagher © 1992

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