If you’ve taken the time to sit down to write a screenplay, chances are you didn’t do it only for fun. You want to make money. That’s why you’re here to learn how to sell a screenplay, and how much screenplays sell for in the open market.
Today we’re going to cover all the aspects of how to sell a screenplay to a studio, and get into the nitty-gritty of all the numbers that go along with script sales.
So let’s not waste time and get to selling a screenplay!
How To Sell A Screenplay Without An Agent
Let’s start at the very beginning. If you have a screenplay you love, but don’t have an agent, it’s going to be an uphill battle to sell your screenplay. I’m assuming that if you don’t have an agent, you probably also don’t have a manager.
I don’t have any good advice here besides “shoot it yourself.”
Or read our post about how to get an agent.
The fact is, learning how to sell a screenplay without an agent is a fruitless task. If you have a manger, they can take of everything, but if you have no one, it means you’re probably not established enough to be considered by buyers anyway.
It’s never been harder to sell a screenplay in Hollywood. To sell a script to a studio you need an agent, manager, or at the very least an entertainment lawyer to get it into a buyer’s hands.
Let’s assume you have an agent/manager.
What can you expect when you try selling a screenplay?
How to Sell A Screenplay: The Spec Market
Right now, most of the paid feature writing work in Hollywood happens at the studio level. Studios develop ideas internally, and hire writers. Or they buy external scripts, and hire people to work on rewriting or polishing those scripts. Sometimes those are called script doctors.
If you have written your own screenplay and want to sell it, you need to get past some gatekeepers to the buyers. Evan Littman, a development executive in international acquisitions recently wrote an article for us talking about five script writing tips to help impress buyers.
Basically, your script needs to pass a few levels of readers, then get to execs, then get to their bosses, then they may consider buying/producing it.
As mentioned, the spec market is currently on a downshift. According to Scott Myer’s Go Into The Story Blog there were 173 spec sales in 1995 and 62 in 2017. And even less after COVID, with around 25 selling each of those years.
So the heydey of big spec sales is gone. It might come back, but we're focused on today, not tomorrow.
There are still buyers out there hungry for ideas.
Right now, according to an article about spec sales on TheWrap, action, horror, family, and romcom ideas have never been hotter.
And with the onset of digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube, buyers have never been hungrier for their own content they can prioritize.
These companies salivate at ideas they think they can bolster with A-list talent. They want clicks, subscriptions, and more commerce. A hot spec can do just that.
Also, packaging is more important than ever.
But what is packaging?
How to Sell A Screenplay: Packaging
Packaging is when producers, agents, and managers attach multiple pieces to your spec screenplay to make it more attractive to buyers.
That means adding high profile directors, and actors, so that studios are much more encouraged to buying your screenplay.
Packaging is essential for original ideas. Especially if you're a baby writer, or less well known than an Aaron Sorkin.
As you know, Hollywood is more and more driven by intellectual property. That means that unless your spec is based off something in the public domain, you probably already have the cards stacked against you with buyers.
A package with a known actor or director alleviates the stress studios have on how they’ll market the film. Also, if you’re going to a digital buyer, it ensures they have a known face to put on their thumbnail so someone will click that video to watch.
Some places prefer “naked” specs so they can package them as they come. But that’s up to your agent/manager to determine before they take your spec out on the market.
Now that you understand the business behind how to sell a screenplay, let’s follow the entire lifecycle of a spec screenplay and show you where it goes from inception to screenplay sale.
The Life Of A Spec Screenplay
If you want to know how to sell a screenplay idea, then you might want to brush up on how to write an elevator pitch. If you want to know how to sell your screenplay on the spec market, you first have to understand the lifecycle of a spec screenplay.
Your spec screenplay has a long way to go before it sells on the open market. Let’s follow the entire life cycle of the script to see how you can sell a screenplay.
First, let’s assume you’ve written a great screenplay. Your agent will begin sending it out to targeted companies to try and get some heat on it.
“Heat” is a fancy industry term that just means the script gets popular fast. Ideally, you then will have producers fighting over who gets it for what territory.
“Territories” are the studios and production companies that have the money to buy the spec screenplay. Usually, only one producer gets to take it to each place, so you may do a round of general meetings to see which producer you want to align with the project.
Once you have that producer on board, one of two things will happen.
- You’ll go out naked to buyers and let them package it.
- You’ll go out to talent and try to attach them to your spec.
If you take path two, the producer will make a list of the top directors and actors. You’ll go over it with them, and choose who you want to go out to first.
Many of the A-list directors and actors come with a two-week waiting period when you have to be out to them exclusively. That means no one else can be reading the script and considering starring/directing during those two weeks.
Packaging a script can take a year, or longer. Especially if you're waiting on high-profile people.
Ideally, with heat on your script, people will read fast. But if you’re just a writer with a great idea and no heat, you’ll have to wait as you go out to these bigger names.
And there’s no guarantee they’ll read in that two-week window. It just means you can go out to other people after you observe it. So you could have not gotten any "no's" yet, but simultaneously be out to a dozen people in three months. Yeah, I can do math.
Most specs go out to directors first, then actors. But sometimes it flips depending on the project and who’s producing it.
If your manager is producing the project, they’ll want to go out internally first. That means they want everyone at their company to read it first, then they’ll knock on doors outside too.
Most agencies operate this way as well. It behooves them to get as many pieces of talent they represent onto one movie, so all the proceeds and commissions stay internal.
Once you have your entire script packaged, you’ll go out to buyers.
Most packages have three pieces: The director, lead, and one high-level supporting role. If your movie is a “two-hander”, you’ll probably have both those roles cast.
You’ll go out to buyers, and hopefully, the strength of your package will create a bidding war. That means multiple places want to purchase your screenplay. Way to go! But what if no one wants it?
Then your project is dead. Go back, write another spec, and try again.
Ideally, your package sells somewhere no matter what.
Once the script is sold, you get paid!
There might be steps involved, rewrites, notes, polishes, but all of that is built into the sale.
So how much do screenplays sell for?
How Much Will I Make On My Screenplay Sale?
Screenplay selling prices are variable.
Let’s start at the top. If you have an agent, manager, and lawyer, you’re going to lose 25% of the gross right off the top. So with all the numbers below, think about losing 25%.
Oh, and your taxes will be around 30%. So assume you’re losing around 50% off the top. I know it's 55%, but I'm trying to make this math easy. We're writers!
Got a writing partner? Take off another 50%.
Yikes? That’s how much screenplays sell for?!
Check out the WGA minimums where it says what you’ll be paid for each scenario for writing a feature film.
These numbers are great, but starting out, you may not be working with a company that’s a WGA signatory. If the company you’re working for is not a part of the WGA, then you can expect less.
How much less?
It really depends on what your agent and manager can cook up. But you can expect offers anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000. Maybe even less. If they 're not beholden to the WGA, they can really offer you anything.
That's why you need an agent, or a manager, or a lawyer to negotiate for you.
It’s a tough business. And it’s certainly not one built on only one sale. It’s built on working consistently as you move forward.
Summing Up How To Sell A Screenplay
So that’s how you sell a screenplay. Again, there’s no single way to do it, but these are the typical ways your screenplay sells.
It’s a hard industry, and learning how to sell a script is only part of the battle. The only thing you can do is to keep developing ideas and pushing your stories out in the world.
Make sure they have excellent structure, great dialogue, and incredible characters.
Or follow Rian Johnson’s story as he took his script for Brick to the big screen.
And keep writing!
- How to Write a Movie Script ›
- 5 Essential Formatting Tips That Will Help Sell Your Script ›
- What Is Three Act Structure in Film and TV? ›
- When Is the Best Time to Sell a Screenplay Spec? ›
- How to Break a Story With an Executive ›