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Selling a Screenplay – Watching Movies to Write Movies

Knowing how to write isn’t just about writing – it’s also about selling a screenplay as well. It has never been, if you so choose, an easier time to watch a movie from the comfort of your home. TV’s are only getting larger and larger (and now they come in 3-D too!) and you can store an entire media library virtually just by subscribing to any number of streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, all of which are pretty reasonably priced (although in my opinion, Netflix wins by far, just based on the quality of their original content, which is better than most shows that are on cable right now by a long shot.)

All of this is to say, though, that if you really, really want to know what works for a movie in terms of selling a screenplay, then the only way to do that kind of market research (as a writer, you should get very familiar with that term) is to actually, wait for it, go to the movie theater and see what people are watching.

There are a number of things at the theater that you’re only going to be able to really see there in terms of selling a screenplay, which include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. Posters – remember, posters are marketing materials, and marketing materials cost money. By looking at a poster for a film, you can see what aspect of a film a studio is choosing to emphasize, and then try to determine why the studio made that choice. Are they more concerned with promoting the film via its stars, or is it the story that they are trying to sell you on?

2. Target Audiences – At the same time you’re looking over the poster itself, you’ll also be able to figure out, at least in a general sense, who the poster is supposed to appeal to – just as all films are not created for all audiences, neither are all posters, and that is a good thing to keep in mind as you work on your screenplay.

3. What Movies Are Being Made – The last thing you want to is to come up with an idea, spend the better part of a year developing it and working on a screenplay, only to find out that a trailer for a movie based on that same idea has been floating around for months, and you didn’t know about it because you haven’t been to a movie theater in ten years. The best way to know what’s being made, and to avoid any potential overlap when selling a screenplay, is to go see what’s actually playing in the theaters.

4. Studio Relationships – It is a good idea, in terms of selling a screenplay, to take note of what kinds of studios are making what kinds of movies, simply so that you know who to send your script to (or not send it to) based on the genre of the piece. Lions Gate and Blumhouse, for example, are horror distributors, which means you could have an absolutely hilarious stoner comedy on your hands, but those are not the people to send it to.

5. Trailers – yes, I’m very well aware that you can watch these on about a hundred different websites all over the internet, often with some form of accompanying snark (in the form of analysis by a staff writer for the site or in the comments section on video hosting sites, such as YouTube.) You know what you can’t get on the internet though? The audience’s reaction to the trailers, and that is the part that should be of interest to you, so go in, sit down, and start paying attention to what works and what doesn’t.

6. Audience Responses – Pay attention to the way people react to the marketing materials around the theater – who is stopping to look at what poster? Does the poster make them want to see the movie, or are they making fun of it? Are a lot of people captivated by the marketing, or are they mostly ignoring it? As boring as the “business” side of show business can be, writers have to eat too, so understanding it is a necessary evil.

7. The Audience THEMSELVES – look at the kind of people who are actually going to the theaters, who are paying to see movies, in the town that you live in. Unless you live in a major art friendly metro, such as New York or Los Angeles, chances are that your town will, more or less, be an accurate cross sample of movie going audiences across the country – use this information to your advantage.

As much as we would like to think otherwise, the ugly truth here is that this is a business, first and foremost, to the kinds of people that have the kind of necessary industry clout to get movies made. In order to understand selling a screenplay, you must know that a studio has to have a relatively strong understanding, from the outset, about how they are going to market that movie – otherwise, how are they supposed to guarantee a return on their investment?


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