Commercial Taboos



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  • Commercial Taboos

    What makes for a "sellable" screenplay? I've heard that there are certain taboos that make it that much more impossible to sell a spec script (especially if you are an unknown writer). I'm talking here about the story--the topic/concept/theme--not sloppy or stupid formatting. Some of the things that I've heard will make your script less sellable in the eyes of readers/agents/producers:

    1. Too Costly to produce
    2. Musicals
    3. Westerns
    4. Period settings
    5. Horror genre
    6. Low concept, (i.e., character driven, not controversy driven.)
    7. Gay/Lesbian themes
    8. Documentaries/docudramas
    9. Foreign settings (i.e, non-U.S.-based)

    I've also heard that, in terms of commerciality, Hollywood typically rejects scripts that depict any level of graphic sexuality and certain other no-no's such as killing animals (i.e. family pets) and children. For many of these taboos, I can think of recent exceptions (e.g., Bound, The English Patient, Scream).

    Perhaps some of you out there know better: Are there certain genres/topics/scenes that first-time writers should absolutely avoid if they expect to sell their precious screenplays?

  • #2
    First, there are no rules about salability! But there is conventional wisdom. The major studios are interested primarily in making films that 13-24 year olds will pay to watch multiple times. They also make vanity films for heavy weights.

    1. Too Costly to produce - I brought this up as a concern to my agent once, and was told not to worry about, "The studios live and die by big summer films." Production cost is not much of a concern so long as there is huge potential with the core movie-going audience.

    2. Musicals - Yes, it appears that those days are gone. However, when someone makes a musical that is more akin to MTv than Busby Berkeley and it plants a load of gum-chewers in theater seats for multiple viewings, then we'll probably see a resurgence of the form.

    3. Westerns - Most of the recent westerns were brought to the studios by heavy weight stars or producers.

    4. Period settings - Indiana Jones and Saving Private Ryan were period pieces. It's about the story and marketability. Gum-chewers are generally uninterested in watching bustled women looking wistfully out of lace-curtained windows.

    5. Horror genre - Not at all; it's one of the gum-chewers favorite genres.

    6. Low concept, (i.e., character driven, not controversy driven.) - American Beauty.

    7. Gay/Lesbian themes - American Beauty (although it was not a particularly positive portrayal).

    8. Documentaries/docudramas - This is Tv's domain.

    9. Foreign settings (i.e, non-U.S.-based) - Saving Private Ryan, James Bond, etc.

    It's all about having a good story with intriguing characters. If the story is marketable, and the characters are ones that a movie star, or two, would want to portray then you're on solid ground.

    You should also follow your heart. If you feel strongly about something, you will probably write a better film than if you are trying to turn out something you think will have a better chance of selling but don't care about.

    My two cents.


    • #3
      for a spec, all bets are off...

      if nothing else, you may have the best writing sample in the world and build from there...
      for the details of your list, tho, i will add to what steve said a bit. some examples may not be the most current but are applicable

      1 too costly: titanic
      2 musicals: south park
      3 westerns unforgiven, dances with wolves
      4period settings: talented mr ripley, LA confidential, dangerous liaisons, amadeus
      5 horror: scream
      6 low concept: hard eight
      7 gay/lesbian themes: bird cage
      8 documentaries/docudramas: american movie, man on the movie
      9 foreign settings: teleneted mr ripley

      if you write it they will come :-)


      • #4
        Who Done It

        One thing to consider when you look at movies that "break the rules" is - where those spec scripts? and Who made them? Talented Mr Ripley is based on a novel by Mystery Grand Master Patricia Highsmith, which has been filmed once before ("Purple Noon") and was successful. It was adapted by the director... no job there for a screenwriter!

        "Dances With Wolves" was based on a novel written by an old friend of Kevin Costner's. If you are an old friend of a hot actor, you can write a novel wit a role that's perfect for him... then sell him the novel and get the job of scripting it, too.

        WHY did they buy/make this project?

        Give them good reasons to buy your script, but don't give them any reasons to NOT buy it. You can kind of use common sense for that.

        - Bill


        • #5
          box office rules

          not arguing your (valid but not totally related) points, bill.

          i hadn't realised the ripley was a remake - i thought it was an adaptation, like dances was. and of course adaptation have great need for a screenwriter where remakes can go either way.. not having seen the original from which ripley was remade i cannot really comment tho i do know that
          minghella is a writer as well as a director (adaptation of english patient and writing of trulymadlydeeply)

          i know the question was asked vis-a-vis specs, but i interpreted the core questions as "what will hollywood make?"

          will it make westerns? yes, some, if there is a compelling story. sure, a costner or an eastwood might sell an 1850's midget nude western. but young guns also sold.

          will it make period pieces? yes, same 'if' as above

          will the spec scripts for the original post 9 above sell? who the hell knows? the overly quoted but still germane goldman comment stands: "nobody knows anything".

          my understanding of foreign locales: if there is an american in said foreign locale you have a shot (eg. local hero) notting hill, while UK-made, hit big with the US star playing a US star

          my understanding of period pieces: expensive. but they do sell, sometimes. LA Confidential was a kickbutt story, it sold while others may not.

          again, a writing sample is not a bad thing to have.