Two paths: Write what they’re buying or sell them your dream

March 13th, 2012 by

Let’s consider this a response to a reader question because I get this type of inquiry pretty regularly from aspiring screenwriters via email. It takes different forms:

What type of stories should I focus on?

I have a lot of story ideas: How do I know which one to write?

What’s the best approach to take to maximize my chance of selling a script to Hollywood?

There is no one right answer to these questions. Even if there was and I gave it to you, you can be certain you would open the trades tomorrow to read a story about some writer who came along and did precisely the opposite, and just sold a spec for six figures.

That said broadly speaking, there are two basic paths an aspiring screenwriter can take when writing a spec script.

The most obvious approach is this: Write what they’re buying.

It’s the first rule of sales: Qualify your customer. If Hollywood is your ‘customer,’ then you find out what they are buying. That can mean right now, that can mean established patterns in terms of genres and movie story types over a decade or more, that can mean reading the tea leaves for what you think may be the next big thing. You do due diligence in terms of gathering information about the Hollywood acquisition market so when you assess your story concepts, your own interests, and your potential as a writer to develop your voice, you can make an intelligent choice in what you pursue.

I know there is a pretty persistent piece of advice given by established writers that goes something like this: “Don’t pay attention to the market. Things change. What you write today won’t reflect what they’re buying tomorrow. Besides it’s important to be authentic. The old adage is true: Write what you know.”

The problem with this take is while it may be sound advice for some types of writers, it can be absolutely the wrong thing for others . For example, if your passion is action-thrillers, those are the movies you watch, those are the scripts you’ve analyzed, that’s the type of story that oozes from your creative spirit, then you’d probably be dumb not to track the acquisition market. First off, what if there is a script that sells or a project in development that is the precise concept you were planning on writing? What a waste of time that would be to write a script that has zero chance of selling. Second determining what’s going on in development and production may provide you with just the spark for a variation on a preexisting idea to use for a new spec. Third you can be damn sure professional screenwriters track what sells to know what’s going on. Shouldn’t you? So in the case of this type of writer, why would they consciously not pay attention to the acquisition marketplace when in fact there are multiple good reasons to do precisely that?

Now I will grant you the above words of wisdom — ‘Don’t pay attention to the market’ — is solid advice for other kinds of writers, those for example who are more interested in exploring their own creative instincts and pushing the boundaries of what they perceive the Hollywood norms to be. In that case, there is another path, an approach we may sum up in this way: Sell them your dreams.

At its core, this is about believing passionately in yourself as a writer and specifically your own unique vision of the world in combination with your ability to translate that perspective into a story. You watch movies, you analyze scripts, you read books, the same basic practices any aspiring screenwriter should follow, but it’s all about providing fodder for your creative instincts.

It’s Tarantino writing Reservoir Dogs. It’s Sodebergh writing Sex, Lies and Videotape. It’s Kaufman writing Being John Malkovich.

Think of these two approaches in terms of Hollywood’s mantra re acquisitions, how the studios want something ‘similar but different.’

The Write What They’re Buying path is more about being similar.

The Sell Them Your Dream path is more about being different.

My advice? Go off by yourself for a day. Take a good honest look at your skills, what you bring to the table as a writer. Consider your creativity, how it works. Pay special attention to what types of movies inspire you, what kind of stories for which you have passion.

Then look at your story concepts, the entire list. If you don’t have a list, put one together. Sit with each of your ideas. Which ones bubble up to the top as being the most interesting ones? Which ones feel the most like a movie?

Finally imagine you are standing at a fork-in-the-road: One path has a sign that reads Write What They’re Buying, the other path has a sign that says Sell Them Your Dream.

Which path feels right to you? Which path pulls you in its direction?

You’re not looking for the right choice or a wrong choice, rather you are looking for an honest choice: Which best reflects your instincts as a writer?

Hopefully one or the other path will speak to you. If not, don’t worry. Follow Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork-in-the-road, take it.”

Go down one or the other, and write something. That way, you will end up with something that has the potential to sell. Perhaps more importantly, you will learn about yourself as a writer.

How about you? Which type of writer are you? Which path will you take?

12 thoughts on “Two paths: Write what they’re buying or sell them your dream

  1. This post spoke loud and clear to my personal experiences.

    I’m a sell them your dreams writer that is haunted by the success of the write what they’re buying crowd. It’s so tempting!

    Sell them your dream can be like walking the plank. You may fall into the ocean and get eaten by sharks – or you may jump, grab the board on the way down, pull yourself up and triple somersault onto the main stage.

    Good thing there’s a coffee shop at the fork in the road.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Scott says:

      Push come to shove, I’ll always default to write the thing about which you’re most passionate and sell them your dream. Bottom line, I want to see better, more interesting movies, and it’s this path that leads to those kind of movies.

      But I know way too many screenwriters who have studied the market, know the business, and written specs per that understanding, breaking in that way to deny the validity of that path… for some writers. For those writers, their dream is a straight-ahead genre-piece, their dream is precisely what the studios are buying. Or their dream is to use a commercially viable spec script to launch a career so they write some other type of material, become a director, etc.

      Having said that, I love your image about walking the plank: There’s always a risk involved in any creative effort, but when you go the ‘sell your dream’ path, logically speaking you are increasing the odds against you. On the other hand, it can be precisely that direction that ends up allowing you to do that “triple somersault onto the main stage.”

      Here’s to you nailing your creative gymnastics!

    2. John-Arthur says:

      “I’m a sell them your dreams writer that is haunted by the success of the write what they’re buying crowd. It’s so tempting!”

      Thanks EXACTLY how I feel.

      I have found that whenever I approach a story from the marketability first, then my creative instincts second, I feel like I’m dragging my Muse through the Mud. Creative instincts must come first, for me.

      However, the success of the “write what they’re buying crowd” can often conjure those doubt demons into my room.

      Great article!

  2. You bring up a couple of good points. The advice I give to aspiring writers (which I still largely consider myself, truth be told) sort of modifies both of these parameters, however.

    Knowing market trends, what’s in development, what genres are doing well at the box office…all of these are useful tools, and all writers should pay attention to them for general knowledge and in the odd case for which they help to spark an idea. But WRITING for market trends or what’s in development is an absolute fool’s game.

    First of all, how many waves of popular material do we see come and go in the blink of an eye? When I was a studio reader, PASSION OF THE CHRIST was released. Within 15 minutes, Jesusy scripts started pouring in. I read a couple a week. A few scripts ended up getting developed, but most ended up in a pile of “Great, More of This Crap”. Why? Because writers wanted to write what was hot, not what they wanted to write. This almost NEVER works.

    Which is why I always tell writers: write what you WANT to write, what you’d want to SEE in a movie theater yourself. That’s the key. “Write What You Know” is great in a lot of situations, but “Write What You Can Learn” can also be just as good. Passion is the key. When you want to write something because you believe in it and because you’re compelled to tell that particular story, your talents are going to come alive to their fullest potential.

    Apologies for the solipsism, but quick personal anecdote: a few years ago my agent approached me with a zombie book, BREATHERS. Initially, I had no interest in writing a zombie movie. I put off reading it for a while, and then started into the book almost out of obligation, so I could get my “Pass” out of the way. Within 10 pages I was hooked, and at the halfway point I knew I had to adapt the thing. I wrote it knowing the zombie genre was dying but also that this, at the end of the day, was only a zombie movie by qualification. It was different. It was the kind of zombie movie I’d be excited to see. A couple years on and it’s my favorite thing that I’ve written.

    When you’re starting out, the main thing you have to put into a script is yourself. The old adage is that, no matter the subject, tone or any other qualifier, a great script is a great script is a great script. I still believe this to be true. And I still believe that, to write a great script, you’ve got to have your heart in the STORY – not the dollar signs. So get off your ass and write something you love. If you’re good enough, someone will notice. Trust me.

    1. Scott says:

      Geoff, my heart wants to agree with you and certainly from an aesthetic perspective, I do. As I said in a previous comment, I want to see more, better movies, and I know that it’s most likely the dreamers among writers who push the envelope that are more likely to generate those type of stories.

      But I can’t agree with a blanket statement like “writing for market trends is an absolute fool’s game.” What about all the writers who have sold found footage scripts in the last year? Or contained thrillers in the couple of years before that? Yes, I’m sure for every spec in those sub-genres that sold there are hundreds, if not thousands that didn’t, but the fact is this, this, this, this, and this sold in the last 15 months, each a found footage project. Did these projects spring up in a vacuum? No, I can guarantee the writers were at least aware of the popularity of the sub-genre, and more than likely that impacted their decision to write the spec.

      Again aesthetically I agree with you. Write from your passion, write from your heart. But for some writers trying to break into the business, that is not the advice they need to hear. As I said in the OP, for genre-writers who know precisely the type of stories they want to write and that is all they want to write — to spin the term — they would be fools not to write with the marketplace in mind.

      BTW once again, congrats on this. Sounds like a very fun project!

      1. First of all, thanks!

        Second, I think FF in particular is a bit of an anomaly. You’d have to really be living in a cave to not know about the trend, but I think the key here is just what you said before – perhaps more than a few writers have had an idea that would have been just as good WITHOUT being FF, but just changing slightly the way it was written “made” it a FF feature.

        Perhaps it’s splitting hairs, but I see FF as more of a directorial/production choice than one that impacts writers. If you wanted to write a Romantic Comedy or a Horror or a Sci-Fi feature, I bet you could find a clever way to port it to FF. Or you could have a script that’s already written that you could pitch as a candidate for FF; this I know has happened on several occasions.

        So perhaps that’s what we’re seeing. I think that’s different than a writer whose strength is comedy seeing that contained thrillers are selling, and then trying to write one of those because they’re “hot”. And far, far too many writers attempt to do that.

        I would argue that the scripts selling have come almost entirely from writers who already had an idea that relates to a trend or, as you stated, come up with a great idea BASED on a trend because it plays to their strengths. But then they’re still not so much writing for the trend as they are inspired by the ideas that trend creates. I think there’s a huge difference there.

        Sadly, the glut of the market will always be dominated by those who are trying to write what others have sold as opposed to what THEY are capable of selling. It’s one of the main reasons there are so many terrible scripts out there.

        1. Scott says:

          Oh, I agree wholeheartedly re your last point with the many imitators out there following this trend or that. I know that’s where the primary focus of the critique re writing to the market comes from and do not deny at all the veracity of it. Then again there are plenty of writers who strive to do something entertaining, compelling, distinctive with a sub-genre or movie trend. In the minority, yes, but out there.

          Love your idea about ‘genre-bending’ something like FF films. Rom-Com could be great. It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s do an R-rated comedy, only let’s make it with women and for women.” Boom! Bridesmaids! Of course that’s another argument for tracking the market: Spot the trends, then tweak them. Genre-bend, gender-bend, etc.

          I’m reminded of the great Woody Guthrie. Having written over 4,000 songs, he was asked how do you come up with your melodies. He replied [paraphrase]: “Oh, I just take a song I like, then I give it a little twist here and a little twist there, then I make it my own.”

  3. MikaelMonk says:

    In my opinion a writer has to use the gut in two ways. Listen to your gut with guts. I think writers need both of these qualities. Intuition and the courage to follow it. Personally, I need more of the latter.

  4. Great article, Scott. Personally, I keep track of the business daily. I don’t have a Variety subscription, but I check Deadline 3-4 times a day and THR and The Wrap about once a day each. I track box office figures, I analyze genre, franchise and even MPAA rating-based performance (speaking of which, isn’t it ironic that the highest domestic grossing R-rated film of all time is about Jesus?).

    So when I’m deciding WHAT to write, I do so with a heavy knowledge of what’s going on in the business. But once I’ve decided what to write, I generally throw all of that out and write it my own way. I think that’s what you need to do to find the balance between giving them what they want and “selling them your dreams.”

    -JMT

  5. Def Earz says:

    “The Write What They’re Buying path is more about being similar.

    The Sell Them Your Dream path is more about being different.

    I’ve read/heard more than once, I think even on this blog, that what Hollywood wants is “similar but different,” so I propose to take both paths at the same time. I’ve got a lot of ideas – some of them are “dream” scripts, some of them are “buying” scripts, and some are both. So it seems to me the solution is to simply focus on the ideas I have that are commercial. I may be lucky in that my tastes are fairly commercial. My plan (hear God chuckling?) is to complete two screenplays and a play this year – I have a first draft of one screenplay, a horror film, and I haven’t decided on the other screenplay, but I came up with an idea for a rom-com the other day that could be quite appealing to the studios if I execute it well. The play is going to be a prison drama involving two real-life people so that one’s more iffy, but I think it’ll at least make a good sample.

    I do think a beginning writer, and I’m most definitely one, should work off his dreams rather than chase trends for at least the first three scripts. Once you’ve got some chops, then look at where your tastes and the studio’s tastes intersect.

  6. Loving the site, Scott.

    I’m also of the Write What You Want To See school of thinking, with the following caveat: If what you want to see is a three-hour biopic covering your uneventful youth in the Inland Empire, then you should consider getting over yourself as an artiste, or resign yourself to the idea of a life of writerly obscurity. The point is, keep your ego in check.

    Personally, I just love to write, period. I love to write tweets, Facebook status updates and comments, my own private daily journal, and so on. I suspect a lot of people here feel the same way. So on the one hand, I agree with Geoff: Write something you love. But also: respect your audience. If you’ve been writing long enough (and you’re good), your “voice” will come through, and that’s more likely to be what’s unique about your Rom Com or Psych-Thriller than the genius twist you impose on the genre.

  7. I don’t want to be an artist… I want to be a craftsman.

    When I get to be a professional screenwriter, I want to put together intelligent, tautly plotted and tightly crafted films, that don’t telegraph in the first 5 minutes what’s going to happen in the rest of the movie, don’t speak down to the audience and don’t take the lazy way out.
    And if I’m lucky, those films will have the opportunity to make the audience think a little.

    But above all, regardless of whether I’m writing thrillers, sci-fi, drama or any other genre, I want to entertain.

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