Making it as a Screenwriter: When a Screenplay Fails

Posted by Lee Jessup
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto
Today marks the return of my friend, Lee Jessup.  For those unfamiliar with Lee, she's one of the most revered, respected, and sought after screenwriting coaches in the business.  Her client list includes WGA members, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated screenwriters, repped and emerging screenwriters, best selling and published authors, and contest winners and finalists.
Lee first graced the Stage 32 Blog with her popular entry, What Every Screenwriter Should Know (but no one tells them) back in September of 2013.  Lee also will forever have the honor (or, probably more apt, the honor was ours) of being our very first Next Level Webinar host.  Her webinar The Do's and Don'ts of Landing a Manager or Agent was not only a huge success on its first run, but remains one of our most popular On Demand titles.
Oh, and if that wasn't enough, Lee is also an author.  Her book, Getting it Write: An Insider's Guide to a Screenwriting Career is receiving well earned rave reviews.
As an active member of the community, I thank Lee for all her contributions to Stage 32.  I also thank her for contributing another excellent guest post.
You've worked hard on your script. You've put it out there. You've done the legwork. You've gotten it into contests, but despite your expectations, it did not place. Anywhere. You listed the material on The Black List, got a few downloads, but there was no real interest expressed. You utilized all the other avenues: pitch events, pitch services, online pitching. You reached out to your old contacts and even got a few cold queries out there. But as hard as you worked… You just couldn't stimulate interest for the material. If enough time has passed (6-9 months) with you putting in consistent effort to get the script out there, it might just be time to take a step back and consider where and how the screenplay might have failed.
It's without question that there are many great screenplays out there that never make it. For proof of this, look no further than the recently announced scripts that made it onto 2013's The Black List (I do have these scripts housed in a dropbox, so if you'd like to read them please email me and I'll be happy to share them with you). This is a sad reality of an industry where only a number of movies get made every year, with many producers having to take market viability into account when selecting which project they will invest time and energy in.
When a screenplay fails to resonate it is usually due to one of three reasons, which break down like this:
Execution - Many writers have been guilty of getting work out there too soon, before it's been vetted. This means that a script draft went out before it received notes from established readers or the writer's knowledgeable industry friends, failing to properly communicate the writer's vision and make a compelling case for the work. Therefore, before you get your script out into the industry space, be sure that you get ample notes on the work from people who are in no way invested in whether or not you will have a friendship after you've received your feedback. I find that often it's my pro writers who are best at this practice: they never get material out to the executive level (agents, managers, development and production executives) without getting ample notes from other writers, members of their writers groups, working industry friends and, yes, even professional, paid readers. Even if the material fails to resonate based on genre or subject matter, you want to make sure the execution is beyond reproach and that the quality of the script itself is outstanding. This is what will get you on writers' lists with development executives and production companies, and create great fans for your work.
Genre - You've gotten notes, implemented feedback, and ensured that the work resonates. But it's still not getting you the sort of traction you had hoped for out there. One possibility? Your genre is not working in your favor. Genre favorability in the industry is a dynamic thing, and can often change year after year. The performance of comedy specs in the 2013 spec market is a prime example. While traditionally comedy specs sold in the top 2-3 genres year after year, in 2013 comedy spec sales completely tanked. While no one is imagining that comedies are now going away, this could be blamed on a number of factors, including Sony, traditionally a comedy-centric studio, sitting out spec sales in 2013. As a result of this, I've seen many more writers struggle to gain interest for their comedy scripts this past year. At least for the moment, there is trepidation about the genre and its next evolution in the feature space. Equally, screenplays that are clearly animation are tough to get placed (and have been for years), as those are traditionally developed in-house by animation driven companies such as Pixar and Blue Sky Studios. Elsewhere, we find that straight dramas are difficult to place, as those are so often dependent on elements such as actors and director one can bring to the work in order to create success for the work.
Subject Matter - While genres traditionally break into 6 or 7 categories, subject matters are many and varied among screenwriters. And while some subject matters are incredibly appealing for the writer, providing drama, intrigue and ample conflict, they can also be challenging to draw attention in the marketplace. One of my clients has written a compelling, beautifully executed, based-on-true-events wartime legal drama. The material is powerful and moving. But for the life of her, my writer can not get traction for the project, and after a number of years peddling the work understands that in order to get others involved, this will have to become their passion project as well. This is for a simple reason: Audiences traditionally go to the movies for escape, especially in a time of conflict, perceived injustice, or war. Therefore, the subject matter of this particular script is not only its greatest asset, but also a big hurdle. Another writer I work with wrote a comedy that I absolutely adored. However, the world it is set in was one that simply was not appealing or "sexy" enough for the marketplace, causing the writer to move on to a new, more high-concept project. While viability of subject matters often shifts and changes (for an example, look no further than Vampire or Zombie scripts, that can be an absolute non-starter one year, and hot the next), it is important that the writer keep their eyes on the trajectory of the subject matter in the marketplace.
This breakdown is not meant to steer you away from writing about the subject matter you're interested in or, or in the genre you are most capable. Instead, I simply urge you to consider the content of the work, from execution to subject matter, to ensure that you're giving yourself and your screenwriting career the best chance you can. If you find that a script you slaved over, loved, gotten notes on and ultimately got out there failed to register, it may be beneficial for you to assess why the lack of success, so that future choices for content and genre are better informed, and that you go into each new work with full awareness of the challenges that a particular genre or subject matter can present.
For further illumination on this matter, check out Script Shadow's fantastic article about the six types of scripts that are least likely to get you noticed here

Lee's book Getting it Write: An Insider's Guide to a Screenwriting Career is available in both paperback and on Kindle through Amazon.
Our CEO had this to say about Lee's book:
Finally - A Book About the Business of Screenwriting
"So many screenwriting books focus on the craft. Very few touch on what to do once you've typed FADE OUT on your final rewrite and you're faced with that storm cloud of a question: Now what? Getting It Write is the answer.

Lee Jessup, one of the most sought after script consultants in the business, pulls no punches. The true work begins after the script is completed. How do you get noticed? How do you get read? What are the best strategies toward attracting a manager, agent, or producer to your work? What conferences are worth your time? What websites, tracking boards, and other materials should you be perusing daily? In a world of social media, email, and texting noise, how do you rise above the din and increase your odds of success?

Lee covers all this ground and more, and does so with class, style, and sophistication.

As someone who has been writing screenplays for nearly half a decade, I can honestly say I wish this book was around years ago. It would have made a profound difference in my networking, research, and communication choices. I simply cannot recommend Getting It Write enough."

-Richard "RB" Botto - Founder/CEO Stage 32, screenwriter, actor, producer
Lee is available for remarks and questions in the Comments section below.
RB's Stage 32 News, Notes, Discussions, and Other Fun Stuff (March 28th, 2014)
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