A friend completed a historical drama and was brainstorming with me on ways to get the material out there and read by the right people. I introduced her to Terry Rossio, who knows a hell of a lot about getting material out there and read by the right people. Terry gave my friend advice so good I asked Terry if I could share it on the blog. Terry, being the great guy he is, said of course. So now you get the benefit of Terry’s great advice too.
The Impetus to Produce
~by Terry Rossio
Your situation speaks to the heart of the heart of the screenwriter’s dilemma.
You have a project that is clearly above average and worthy. There are people who need projects to film. So, how to get them to decide to film this project?
First off, if your project is never made, don’t take it as a reflection of the quality of the material (or your own expertise or even sanity). I know of dozens, if not hundreds of screenplays (many of mine included) which are excellent and yet unproduced.
The key has to do with the ‘impetus to produce.’ Stuff gets produced that carries with it the ‘impetus to produce’. If you lack the ‘impetus to produce’ the project won’t happen.
We like to THINK that quality creates the ‘impetus to produce’. That’s generally a mistake; the fact that it does happen once in a blue moon perpetuates the belief. For the most part it doesn’t work that way.
So to answer your basic question — NO, I don’t know of producers ‘looking for something’ in terms of specifically an original spec drama. That’s kind of not how the system works. Producers are all over wanting material that has momentum already behind it, just the opposite for the opposite.
Studios and financiers find the impetus to produce based on other factors than quality: well known material (there will be a Pokemon movie!) a well known director, a well known star, a sequel, etc. Lower budgeted stuff gets made if it fits a genre or has other obvious commercial properties. This is why concept is so important. It’s the initial chance to attach one form of ‘impetus to produce.’
You don’t have that here. Ironically, you’re in the toughest spot imaginable (though it shouldn’t be): as a historical drama, all you have (no small feat!) is a good, dramatic, filmic story. But not only is there not a built-in audience, there is almost a built-in audience resistance.
Yet, somehow, you have to connect ‘impetus to produce’ with your project.
Whomever said ‘this should be Spielberg’s next project’ was on the right track. Spielberg carries the ‘impetus to produce’. It’s his interest that gets a project made, not the project itself. (And in fact many projects he makes these days wouldn’t have been made without him.) And even with Spielberg, some of those projects don’t turn a profit, or at least, not a lot.
Problem is, there are only a few Spielberg-level folk out there, and they are in high demand, and not really ‘looking’ so much as fielding multiple offers. But you can chase them. What you would do there is target development executive, or his assistant, or receptionist, write an impassioned letter (much like you have already) and send the script (or the first 10 pages) through the mail, the old-fashioned way. Do this with the top 20 directors on your list (and maybe even send out 40 letters, targeting each person twice). Low odds of success, for sure, but (as my friend producer Keith Caldor put it) every film is impossible to make, before it is made.
The next level of connecting ‘impetus to produce’ is to target actors. This seems ideal for your project. For as many projects there are out there, very talented and very famous actors still don’t get to use their skills as often as they would like. Sounds like your project could be Oscar bait. So do the same as above, target, write, call, e-mail the actors you think would be great in certain roles. Target their reps, not the actors themselves, or the assistants of the reps. Actors notoriously hate to be the drivers of projects, but if an actor has a manager, the manager might want to attach themselves as producer, and then they will help to push the project forward.
You should do the same targeting producers and production companies (with exactly the letter you’ve written to me), especially the Oscar calibre companies such as Plan B. Sometimes a production company can gather together enough impetus to produce, or hit a studio with a project right when the studio needs a project, and make use of the studio’s impetus to produce.
All of this is just basic stuff you would do with any screenplay, with little hope of success, but you do it anyway, after all, it’s far less difficult than the process of writing it.
Another path (it seems like the same path but it’s really quite different) is to partner with emerging production talent. For example, I know a producer (Joe Russell) who recently produced a low budget feature for Netflix (called XOXO). Guaranteed he doesn’t get a huge number of projects submitted to him, his film isn’t even released yet. But, if he had a screenplay today he really liked, and Netflix wanted another film from him, then the stars could align. Now, Joe’s film lives in the world of teen romance and teen comedy, so your project might not be a great match for him, but there are many guys similar to Joe out there (though not as handsome), producers who are just emerging on the scene. Dig out those people, talk to them, and *partner* with one of them, and together, go about finding the impetus to produce.
An off-beat but viable option for this project would be to re-invent it as a stage play. It is far easier to get a project workshopped or even produced somewhere as a play, and with any level of success, you could then submit the screenplay version to an agency (CAA, WME). A project that came in based on a successful play run is going to get special consideration.
Now, don’t dismiss my next suggestion out of hand. You could produce a version of this yourself. Just about any film can be made today for $200,000.00. And a whole lot of hard work. You could make a version of The Godfather for $200,000 and have it be hugely entertaining, and certainly proof of concept. I know the distance from $0 to that much money seems like from here to the moon, but there is a path to get there. Put together a team. Divide the money raising among the top creative team (director, writer, producer, star). You are each trying to raise $50,000. You can probably get $10,000 in credit, $5000 from family and friends, $20,000 from a kickstarter campaign, sell some stuff, take a second job for a few months, steal some from savings, take out a second mortgage, etc. Once you put the word out, you might be surprised how fast you get there, how much help and goodwill shows up.
Money is the ultimate ‘impetus to production.’ Once you get to the level of financing where you can actually make the film, there is a good chance you can go to a distributor and pre-sell it, and now you’re working with a budget of $400,000. Yes, I know, I agree, this sounds crazy, but the fact that hundreds of people do this every year means it’s not impossible.
Oh, and there is nothing wrong with entering contests, or even submitting the screenplay to agencies, etc. Your goal should be to send the project to someone new (via e-mail, or snail mail) at least once a week.
Those are some initial thoughts.
Academy Award nominated writer Terry Rossio co-wrote SHREK, the first ever Oscar winner for Best Animated Film. With writing partner Ted Elliott, Rossio co-wrote the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END. In 2006, Rossio also co-wrote (with screenwriter Bill Marsilii) and executive produced DÉJÀ VU, starring Denzel Washington. Other credits include: ALADDIN; THE MASK OF ZORRO; SHREK 2; NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS; G-FORCE; SMALL SOLDIERS, GODZILLA; and LITTLE MONSTERS. Terry is also the co-creator of Wordplay, an online resource for screenwriters.