May 15, 2018

Why you can’t find good screenplays

Joe Eszterhas claims he conceived of, wrote, and sold his most famous screenplay in 13 days. A script that he wrote “in essentially 10 days.” That leaves ten days to get it to his agent, get in rejected by a reader (which he also claims happened) and then get his agent to bring it to the other studios for a bidding war.

Now, this was in the days before internet, or before Joe had internet anyway.
He wrote that particular script on a typewriter, so this was a hard copy script making the rounds. Even to get a script read in 13 days sounds unrealistic, let alone read, rejected, and later put through auction in 3 days. And besides, in the same book, he said his first script, an adaptation, took him three years to write, even after working as a professional journalist and novelist. So, even if he could eventually write a script that fast, it was only after years of experience, and only because he was motivated by a potential seven figure paycheck. (He says he only wrote it to get his record back, which was broken when another script sold for over seven figures.)

In fact, I’ve been reading a lot of books where screenwriters, producers and directors talk about developing scripts. It seems that on average, a good feature script (whether it be The Queen, North By Northwest, On The Waterfront, or any other good script I can find a “writing of” account) is over one year’s full time work. That’s right, full time, no time to teach or even become a social media darling on the side. Sometimes it’s two years, sometimes the writer has to remortgage a home even after getting an advance.

Sometimes a skeleton draft will be written more quickly than that but, that’s only part of the process. There’s all the time researching, polishing, and all the rest.

Okay, now consider this. If you spent a year writing a script, invested full time for a year, putting your career and possibly social life on hold, would you part with all that work for less than a year’s wages? Probably not.

With a very short script, maybe you just wrote it for fun in your time off, but a well-written feature is a year, that’s going to eat into your career. I have a few micro-short scripts that I write quickly when I have a fun idea, but features take me longer.

For a student, a writer might sell a short script for less than it cost to write, timewise, to establish a working relationship, just as cast and crew sometimes work for less on short “learning” films. But, features are a much larger commitment, especially on the part of the writer and director.

With a book, there’s the possibility of royalties, so you might take an advance that’s lower than a year’s wage, but with a spec script, you’ll normally expect a few year’s wages before shooting. With a commissioned script, you pay less because the writer doesn’t have to sacrifice as much.  i.e. No debt, if you’ve put down a decent down payment.

If you can’t afford to pay the writer, or you pay only points, then you should only expect work from writers who haven’t spent very long writing it. The less you pay, the fewer choices you’ll have, and the more likely the work will be rushed and written by a novice or amateur who doesn’t know what they are doing.

Right now, there are over 2000 guild writers out of work. If you can afford to pay them a guild option fee, they all probably have pretty good spec scripts waiting. An option is a reservation fee that you pay to keep the script on reserve while you look for money.

But, just because they can’t get work for their usual fee, that doesn’t mean they’ll work for less. Just as you won’t sell your house for under market value, and not for less than you paid for it, don’t expect them to sell their script for less than the year’s work they invested in it.

Even if you want a competent amateur, you’re looking at adequately compensating them for their time, so they can focus on your script. The problem is that in the UK especially, it seems everyone considers themselves a writer, even if they have trouble stringing a sentence together. (I’m sorry to tell you this, but most of you have a better chance of playing for Manchester United than writing a feature film that gets in the cinema. That’s a statistical fact. I can say that because I’m not trying to sell a writing course.)

I say this not only as a writer, but looking for work as an actor, animator, and other jobs where I see a lot of terrible, terrible films made with scripts that should have been rejected. Even when offered paid work as a director and producer right out of film school, I turned it down to work in an inbound call centre because the scripts were that bad. It’s obvious that the reason the scripts were bad was because the writer was underpaid, and so did a rushed job. (At least at BT, they paid the person who wrote the phone script, so the dialogue was readable. They even paid me to write an alternative script that they later rejected.)

If you do find a great script for very cheap, it’s likely to have been plagiarised or sold without the writer’s consent. Eszterhas claims in his book that one of his screenplays was used in a creative writing course, and then someone like an electrician took off the cover page, put his own name on the script, and sold it. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I have also heard (from clients, rather than writers) that there’s a lot of plagiarism on sites like and Mandy.

If you still can’t afford a script, don’t despair. If you have talent, you might be able to get a production company to find a script for you. Just remember, it’s even harder to find a competent director than a great screenwriter. (If you’re good at football though, I suggest you put that camera away and try another kind of shooting.)

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