From Script to Screen, Maybe

Two film scripts sit on my desk. One is from a writer and director in Colorado, a script that Regent University just optioned and will begin to shoot this May on a two-million-dollar budget. The other shows promise but needs a major revision before any producer will consider it seriously. That makes this second effort, my own, the more common type.

Everyone in LA has a script, from the scores of modest talents who have flocked there to your average Uber driver. It is just that very few scripts are any good, and most of those with promise need help from a business professional with an ear for the rhythms of contemporary film, and they need funding. That’s the reality played against the dreams of gold in the city of dreams.

And those writers with golden dreams are everywhere else beyond LA, too. My introduction to the world of screenwriting came from an employee of a local dry-cleaning shop who thought up a science-fiction thriller about a government plot to control behavior through a microchip embedded under the skin. He needed a writer to help work the concept and somehow found my office at Wisconsin Lutheran College. Great concept, although Divergent has now taken the root idea from novel to script to screen, so we missed our moment. We did, however, manage to get entangled with a con artist being tracked by the FBI who claimed he could get us a sit-down with Martin Scorsese.

Welcome to the world of screenwriting where axiom number one is that among the 100,000 scripts floating through studios, agent offices, festivals, and college writing programs, only a handful will come near a big screen, and fewer still will be supported with a significant budget. Most studio producers will not touch an unsolicited manuscript for fear they will be accused of stealing some concept, like microchip implants, from a script that they happened to read.

So indeed, you typically have to know someone who likes your idea and has some investors on a speed dial. Otherwise you might take your script and make a small budget film on your own, show the thing, and hope an agent is in the audience and agrees to take you on. Selling a script is always a long shot.

Let me explain how the process often works using the script that Regent University did purchase and plans to shoot in May, which we will call The Mill for now. The script had bounced around for several years. The writer had made a good micro-film, a little over 50k, largely financed through his own means and relations. On its merits, through a mutual friend, and by the grace of God, he acquired an agent with Hollywood connections. They pitched the script to several production companies and nearly had a couple deals, but the financing didn’t come together—most movies lose money, well over 90 per cent, so bankers and producers and other folks with a couple million dollars on the top shelf in the closet tend to be wary, and deals are extremely delicate.

Here is a sample snip from a script:

Case in point, one producer did fall in love with The Mill a couple years back and made a tentative agreement with the writer, but then the producer’s assistant, family, began to suggest a series of rewrites that eventually frustrated the writer, who could no longer find his original material. That cooled the deal, so the producer put the script in his back pocket and got behind a different one, call it Hoosiers 10. A guaranteed sell in a guaranteed, albeit small, market, he thought. He brought that film to the investor supporting Regent Films, an initiative to connect our film program to real projects.

That’s where I came in to the picture. The investor called a meeting to consider purchasing the option on a script to launch the new initiative. Prior to the meeting, I was sent the scripts for both Hoosiers 10 and The Mill. It turns out that the investor had read The Mill some months before along with a dozen other scripts the producer and others pitched his way for early consideration. And the investor liked The Mill as a more redemptive story, that being the keynote of the program he wanted to support.

So, I sat at a small table alongside the university lawyer waiting for our patron, an elderly entrepreneur who by all accounts took about ten seconds to size people up. He came into the room talking to his secretary, greeted us cordially, sat in the leather chair across for me and asked directly “What did you think about The Mill?” Fortunately, I liked it very much and told him just that. “Well see,” he addressed the lawyer, “it isn’t just me. The story is redemptive, and it has everything that can sell.” “You are right, sir,” I ventured. “Positive story, good characters, a romance, and horses. Girls love horses.” I threw that in knowing the investor had a couple thoroughbreds in a corral on his property.

Hoosiers 10 barely came up in the remainder of the conversation, nor did the producer who wanted to partner with us. Within a few days, we had purchased the option on The Mill from its writer, the option being a flat payment up front with an equal amount on the back end should the project make it to the screen. Back when I helped work the microchip thriller, typical options were around fifteen thousand up front and the same on realization. The Writers Guild of America now recommends about twice that, still not much, however, when you consider all that goes into writing a finished script.

The story of The Mill script did not end with the approval of our investor and purchase of the option, of course, as we are still in negotiation with the hired help that will see the project from production through distribution. Along the way the writer will be brought back for revisions. In our case the same writer, but often another writer that the producer thinks can better pace the material or a director who wants a tone not scored well in the original and who likes to rewrite on the set. Since the writer sold the option, he often has little say on the final version of the story once the contract is signed. In the old Hollywood studio days, scripts frequently went through the hands of several writers on staff. Nowadays that happens more on the big budget projects, but all scripts do get modified prior to or during shooting as a rule.

As for the script on my desk that I wrote, called Academic Affairs, it has a long journey before someone loves and makes it real. Years ago, a consultant for Act One, a company that advises writers on bettering their work, told me to turn the thing into a novel. It reads more like novel material, he argued, word and not image-driven. That would be the easy route. Write a novel, pitch it to a publisher, and tell all my friends.

But everyone writes novels these days. My brother the banker wrote a novel! But a movie, to see my name in the credits, to walk the red carpet, wear the red shoes, meet those people. Well now, that’s worth another swing of the bat.