How to Write Screenplays that Sell

As writers, we say we do it for the money, but we’d be lying to ourselves if money wasn’t a motivation. Movies are a big business with a lot of wealthy producers. We all want to write screenplays that sell.

Questions is… how to write a screenplay that attracts buyers.

We see headlines like this, and say to ourselves —

“If Shane Black could sell Long Kiss Goodnight for $4M, I could sell one for a few hundred thousand!”

According to a survey, only about 20% of scripts are accepted for production. For high-quality scripts, that figure increases to 50%. If a thousand people sent really good scripts, only 500 would receive a positive answer. 

That’s not very encouraging.

Plus, the 1990s was the golden age for spec scripts. This is when writers sold screenplays for thousands of dollars and launched their Hollywood career. Some of the scripts that came out of this period include:

📽️ American Beauty (sold for $250,000 in 1998)

📽️ Thelma & Louise (sold for $500,000 in 1990)

📽️ Good Will Hunting (sold for $675,000 in 1994)

📽️ Long Kiss Goodnight (sold for $4,000,000 in 1994)

In today’s world, cinema is dominated by superheroes and remakes. You seldom see movie houses take chances on an unknown writer and an unknown world.

Enter the Streaming Wars

Then Netflix and Amazon Video came along.

With streaming slowly replacing traditional cinemas, there’s an increasing appetite for original scripts, in particular episodic films. We’ve already seen this with hits like Stranger Things, Glow and the Queen’s Gambit.

So perhaps the age of the spec script has again come back to Hollywood… or at least digital Hollywood.

As a film producer myself, I get my share of weekly emails from screenwriters, hoping I take a look at their script. I usually open these emails because I know what it’s like being on the other end of the table.

However, most of these scripts and concepts don’t pass the sniff test for me. If you’re looking to sell your script to a video production company, there are certain things you can do to increase their interest.

Unless you’re pitching to Disney or a multi-billion dollar company, no one will produce your alien movie. They won’t even look at the front page, unless you’ve already got funding, the talent and the social media buzz to make it worth their time.

So you have to think low budget, as very few producers will ever take a chance on an unknown talent. 

With that said 👉

How to pique the interest of a movie producer 

Stick to horror and thriller

There’s a reason the genre is a perennial favorite. Many filmmakers have attested to their high profitability and most importantly, the ability to execute on a tight budget.

Statics monitoring the US box office in the 20 years since 1996 back up this assertion.

On average, a film was 37% likely to make a profit regardless of the genre. That wasn’t as impressive as the horror category, where horror movies were 53% likely to generate profit. 

The percentage stood at 31%, 28%, and 16% for drama, comedies, and westerns respectively.

It’s a matter of fact that a horror screenplay stands a better chance of making it, especially for a first time writer.

According to Mentalfloss, 5 out of the top 10 most profitable movies of all time (based on return on investment) are horror movies. These are the following:

📽️ Paranormal Activity (Budget: $450K, Profit: $89M, 197x Return!)

📽️ Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Budget: $140K, Profit: $14M, 100x Return)

📽️ The Gallows (Budget: $100K, Profit: $6.8M, 68x Return)

📽️ Eraserhead (Budget: $100K, Profit: $4.6M, 46x Return)

📽️ Devil Inside (Budget: $1M, Profit: $37M, 37x Return)

Paranormal Activity showed how profitable found footage horror could be:

Scary movies are universal

Moreover, keep in mind movies (especially in today’s streaming world) are meant for a global audience. Comedies and drama don’t always work worldwide.

What an American finds funny might be offensive to audiences in the Middle East or China. And this is why horror and thrillers work best for a global audience.

Additionally, thrillers or horror movies speak a universal language of fear, blood, and guts.

They are extremely popular than most niches for a variety of reasons, the primary being the fear factor. Horror films make us feel alive. 

They reel us into a world where we are constantly on the edge of our seats, heart in mouth.

A well-made horror screenplay leverages this universal language for the most vivid and captivating storytelling.

In addition to the adrenaline rush, horror movies are popular because they explore an alternate reality and real-life fears.

For people who have coulrophobia, for example, scary clown movies like IT teach them to cope and prepare for the worst. We all have a dark side locked within us that we cannot outrightly express because we don’t fancy winding up in an orange jumpsuit. 

Horror movies explore this dark side for us. In Carrie, a bullied girl confronts those who wronged her by slaughtering them all.

This relatability, among other reasons, see horror screenplays generally sell better than other genres. 

Make a budget-friendly script

As a beginner trying to get into the industry, you should probably stick to a low budget script. When you’ve already made a name for yourself then you can pull out the multi-million blockbuster screenplays.

As an amateur, you’re asking people to take a leap of faith on you. They don’t know if the movie will bring back their investment, let alone make a profit. 

You may have the best script in the world, but an enormous budget can scare off producers. No one is willing to take a huge risk on an unknown name.

Keep it as low-budget as possible to sway investors to give you a chance. That leads to an important question: how do you reduce your screenplay cost?

First, limit your locations. Many places require a permit and a fee that could reach into the thousands of dollars. If a scene seems too ambitious and single-handedly inflates your budget, it’s best to work out a cheaper alternative.

For example, shooting a scene may require closing down a street. In that case, why not choose to make that happen in a forest or desert? 

Or in the case of a Blair Witch Project, have a fun time shooting a horror flic over the weekend at a remote forest:

The best movies don’t always happen in a modern setting, many take place in the wild. That’s especially so if you’ve decided to shoot a horror movie as suggested.

Do your location research.

Opt for public locations that won’t charge you a dime if possible.

You may need to speak to local authorities to reach an understanding though.

The number of characters in a film also dictates a budget. The more characters you have, the more actors you’ll have to hire.

Many movies have gone on to be a hit with few characters. Your screenplay doesn’t need crowds to be successful. 

The 2016 thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, for instance, had less than five characters. It went on to make more than $110 million at the box office. 

While making a character scarce-film, provide context why there are such few characters. Maybe your characters are lost out in the woods or went on a vacation away from the world.

In the above movie, the characters are in a post-apocalyptic world where people have been killed by aliens.

Think high concept – make a killer logline!

First impression is everything. It could be the reason you’re invited in or the door of opportunity slams shut in your face.

A logline is a screenplay’s first impression. One look and the reader will make up his mind whether or not to take things further. 

When you write an email to a producer or a literary agent, they will often skip everything and read your logline.

Is the concept unique? Is the concept commercial? A good producer or agent can figure this out from your logline alone.

A logline is the summary of a screenplay. It sums up what your script is about in a single sentence, often in 30 words or less.

It explains the basic concept in a way that inspires interest and excitement. Distilling dozens of pages into a single sentence can be tricky. 

We offer a few tips to nail your logline.

The basic formula of a logline entails the antagonistic force, the protagonist, and his objective. Writers tend to stick to general information without specifically giving away a character name. Adjectives describing the protagonist are also key to great loglines.

Be careful not to fall into cliché though. The adjective should be important to the plot e.g. “An alcoholic ghosthunter…” It helps as well to describe the antagonist so the reader knows what the protagonist is up against. 

For example, “An alcoholic ghosthunter battles a dementing, vengeful spirit…”

Show us the stakes if possible. A ticking-time-bomb, so to speak, can add urgency to your logline. It inspires the reader to have a peek inside to find out how the hero will achieve this mountainous feat. 

For example, “An alcoholic ghosthunter battles a dementing, vengeful spirit bent on opening hell’s gates before the upcoming blood moon.”

Here are examples of loglines. Just from the description alone, I bet you can guess the movie. Don’t cheat – the answers will be below.

📽️ A boy who communicates with spirits seeks the help of a disheartened child psychologist (14 words).

📽️ A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets… only to fall in love. (26 words).

📽️ A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend. (17 words)

📽️ A young Greek woman falls in love with a non-Greek and struggles to get her family to accept him while she comes to terms with her heritage and cultural identity. (30 words).

So in order, the movies are Sixth Sense, Pretty Woman, American Beauty and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Now you see the power of a succinct and informative logline. It basically tells the movie in just 30 words.

This is what insiders mean when they ask for high concept. It’s your 30-word, elevator pitch to get a producer or agent to open your script and read the first 10 pages.

And when producers and agents get hundreds of emails a day, getting just 1 to read your first 10 pages is a victory.

It’s a Tough Biz 

Take it from one of our resident screenwriters in our article “how to become a screenwriter.”

It’s tough to write a high concept movie and sell it to a producer or agent. They literally get hundreds of emails a day from hopeful writers. It’s hard to stand out.

So it’s important to approach screenwriting with a producer hat –

✅ Think high concept.

✅ Think low budget.

✅ Learn to love found footage (or horror/thriller).

These 3 things will help you write screenplays that sell.

Finally, if you really want to make a movie, there’s one guaranteed way to do it.

Produce the movie yourself! Movies are being shot from smartphones. There’s no reason why you can’t as well.

Finally, finally — when you’re ready to bring your movie to life, CONTACT US for your film production needs. Protection Status