These are the people in the know you need to know.
Everyone knows the feeling: after months of pounding away at the keyboard, it’s finally done. You typed FADE OUT and you meant it this time. You finished your script.
Congratulations! Now what?
No matter what stage you’re at in your screenwriting career, sooner or later you’re going to send your script around town in the hopes that someone powerful reads it and likes it enough to call you about it. But who’s actually reading your script, and what are they looking for?
The short answer is, it depends. The long answer is a little more complicated. There are a lot of different types of entertainment companies out there, and they’re all looking for something different. I’ve evaluated projects for just about everyone: talent agencies, production companies, financiers, foreign sales agencies, theatrical distributors, studios, and more. They all get tons of scripts submitted every day, and someone has to go through them. Let’s take a look at what they want below.
1. Talent Agencies:
Agents (and managers) are looking for two things: voice and longevity. They want someone whose career they can build and who is going to stick around. If they’re going to invest their time into giving you notes, packaging your script, and pitching you around town, they expect that investment to be rewarded. If you have a fresh new voice with unique ideas and execution, you’re much easier to sell. And if you’re great in the room, that’s an added bonus.
Examples include WME, CAA, ICM Partners, APA, etc.
2. Production Companies:
A lot of production companies source projects to develop for their principal (usually an A-list actor or director). That person has certain creative sensibilities that they’re trying to fulfill. Actors are typically looking for a starring role in a project that makes financial and creative sense for them, while directors are looking for a unique concept with strong cinematic opportunities.
Production companies usually look for certain genres in certain budget ranges. For example, I’ve worked for companies that want “$10m-$20m action thrillers with a global component that could be a breakout US theatrical hit. Needs starring role for Mr. X that fits his brand.”
Examples include Amblin (Spielberg) and Monkey Paw (Jordan Peele).
You always hear about how hard it is to find money for your project. Financiers love to complain about how hard it is to find a project for their money.
There are two main types of financiers: the rich guy (or girl) who wants to get into movies with his or her disposable income, and the film fund that’s melded together from a bunch of hedge funds or investment firms. Richie Rich just wants to make something splashy and he’s willing to throw his money behind an auteur’s $100m passion project.
Meanwhile, film funds have a mandate from their investors to generate a return. They prefer packages over naked scripts, theatrical releases over VOD, and numbers/comps over creative risks. They need a slate and they need it now, so their priority is to get a movie into production. You can’t make money on a film that hasn’t been shot yet.
Examples include Megan Ellison and Village Roadshow.
4. Foreign Sales Agencies:
Although the foreign sales and presales market isn’t what it was during the home video boom of 30 years ago, it’s still an important part of many independent films’ financing structures. More and more foreign sales agencies have integrated a production arm into their operations, resulting in a company that can generate its own films aimed at a global audience. Since a US theatrical release still drives a big chunk of foreign revenue, foreign sales agencies highly prize US theatrical distribution deals.
They’re also looking to appeal to foreign distributors, which means they need projects that can work in theaters, are largely immune to subtitles/dubbing, are rated PG-13 or lower so they can be sold to TV broadcasters, and will be simple to market (potentially re-using the key art from US advertising campaigns).
Examples include Sierra Affinity and Voltage Pictures.
5. Theatrical Distributors:
If a theatrical distributor is making a deal for a project at the script stage, they’re usually buying from one of the aforementioned foreign sales companies. The major studios are also theatrical distributors, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about smaller distributors. These companies know that they can’t compete with the Avengers and Mission: Impossibles of the world, and they’re not dumb enough to try. Instead, they focus on finding unique projects that can pull their target audience into theaters at a steady clip for weeks on end. That tends to mean awards and prestige movies.