Every screenwriter’s dream is to finalize their masterpiece of a script and sell it to a big studio. The success stories of many screenwriters who sold their screenplays without any contacts or agents have inspired many to embark on their writing journey.
In reality, it is easier said than done. Writing a script by itself is already an incredibly complicated task, let alone selling it. Countless hours of rewrites, silence, and rejections scare a lot of people off.
But do not give up. Persistence and hard work pay off. The need for digital content is now greater than ever. Production companies and studios acquire original material daily, and so you still have a good shot in giving your feature film a greenlight.
If you think of screenwriting as your full-time career and can’t wait to sell your first feature-length screenplay, then this guide is for you. In this article, we will shed light on how to sell your screenplay without contacts or an agent.
Master Your Craft
Practice makes perfect, and this is a predicament that also applies to screenwriting.
According to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory proposed in his book The Outliers, it takes around 10,000 hours for a person to master something. While not everybody agrees with that exact number of hours, the message is clear: if you want to become good at something, you need to invest a lot of your time into it.
Before making your big move of approaching production companies or agencies with your material, take some time to learn the craft. Screenwriting is a complicated mental process that requires loads of different skills and qualities to work properly. Ranging from dialogue writing and story outlining to formatting and world-building, screenwriting is indeed a multi-layered activity. All of these tasks require time and practice to be learned.
A big mistake that many beginning screenwriters make is that they attempt to sell their screenplay too early. Typing FADE OUT: at the bottom of the script’s last page does not mean that the script is complete; in most cases, a screenplay needs at least three or sometimes even more rewrites to be fulfilled.
Professional screenwriters suggest that you take at least two years, where you don’t do anything but write & learn. Experiment with different genres, understand your screenwriting structures, try your dialogue, and understand what sort of stories you are better at telling. Industry professionals refer to this stage of the screenwriter’s life as a development period, in which the screenwriter learns, absorbs new knowledge, and masters the craft.
Even after you are done with the development period of your screenwriting career, it does not necessarily mean that your craft is now mastered; it takes years and years to master it fully. The best way to achieve it is to write on a day-to-day basis.
This brings us to the next important factor on how to sell your first feature screenplay without an agent: patience and persistence.
The process from coming up with a unique idea to the moment when you actually sell your first feature screenplay may take years. This is why cultivating consistency and patience is the key to success in your career as a screenwriter.
One of the most consistent writing advice I keep hearing screenwriters give is, well… consistency. To ensure that your craft is mastered and constantly kept up to the highest standard, you need to practice writing daily, making it your habit.
Making your writing process a habit has many benefits. First and foremost, this habit helps you make sure that you will actually reach your writing goals and complete your script sooner or later. Making it a habit almost turns your writing into an automated process, which as a result, increases your motivation.
Secondly, this habit can be utilized as one of the ways to battle procrastination. If writing becomes habitual, and you feel a constant urge to write, the chance that you will procrastinate is much lower.
Persistence works once you stop giving yourself excuses. Stop trying to justify yourself for being too lazy to work on your screenplay on your weekend. Do whatever it takes to find time and to make your screenwriting a daily ritual. That way, no matter how unmotivated you feel, something will feel off if you do not write on a certain day. That is when you will feel almost an instinctive urge to write.
It takes 21 days to form a new habit. Therefore, we suggest you try challenging yourself for a 21-day screenwriting marathon. Set yourself a goal to work on your script for a specified amount daily, and do that consistently 21 days in a row. Once you try it, we guarantee that it will diminish your desire to procrastinate and make your writing more consistent.
It does take a lot of time to get all of the aspects of selling your script right. This is why you need to be patient. For a large proportion of time, a successful screenwriting career is nothing more than a waiting game.
When you send out query letters, emails, or your material to agencies and production companies, it might be weeks before they get back to you (in most cases with a negative response). Sometimes they do not get back to you at all.
But, whether you like it or not, being constantly ghosted in the beginning is part of launching your career as a screenwriter. This is where your patience comes in.
Be prepared for many rejections and failures.
And remember, it is hard to break into the industry and sell your screenplay, especially without an agent, but once you do that, it does get easier.
Networking is both a mindset and a skill that a screenwriter needs to acquire to succeed in screenwriting. The truth is that the entertainment industry is constructed on the principle of who-knows-who. This is why your ability to network is one of the most critical factors that will help you sell your script.
There are essentially two ways to network: digital networking and in-person networking.
Living in the 21st century means that almost all the information one may want ever to acquire can be found in the digital space. Especially with an ongoing pandemic, loads of pitches, networking events, and industry hangouts are now taking place online. Therefore, you should not disregard social media platforms and other digital outlets. Platforms like LinkedIn, IMDB Pro, or even Instagram can be incredibly beneficial to expand your network.
Another powerful tool that has helped kickstart so many screenwriters’ career digitally is called The Black List.
The Black List has been one of the most influential and accessible platforms for beginning screenwriters to get discovered by the industry. Established in 2005, the platform can be accessed both by screenwriters who can upload their scripts to get exposition and industry professionals searching for brand-new content.
The Black List releases an annual survey list of most-liked unproduced screenplays. The yearly lists are aggregated using votes from film executives working in the industry. The annual lists have included such Oscar-winning films as JUNO, THE KING’S SPEECH, and ARGO.
Black List is an excellent opportunity for many screenwriters to get discovered and step into the industry. The monthly hosting fee is $25 per script. After hosting your script, you can also pay one of the readers to evaluate it; the price per evaluation varies with the script’s length, and it can cost either $70 or $100 per evaluation. Top-rated evaluations help writers get discovered, as they are highlighted by the platform, and provide helpful criticism to improve your script.
In our opinion, the most effective way to build a solid professional connection still remains through the art of in-person networking. Going to industry-related events, parties, premiers, and other activities are necessary to expand the sphere of people you know.
However, we would like to highlight one type of event in particular, as it has helped loads of screenwriters launch their careers.
Screenwriting festivals are another great way to put your name out there and can help you sell your screenplay without an agent. First and foremost, festivals (especially those that take place in person) are perfect for networking. People who attend those festivals usually get professional connections, search for new content, make deals, and discover new talent.
The most exciting thing about festivals is that you never know who you are going to meet there. You might run into a producer that specializes in making films similar to the one you are writing. Therefore, it is worth preparing your pitch before attending one.
It is also highly, to prepare a business card with your name, website, contact details, and portfolio link once you attend a festival. Try to give it out to as many people as possible; you never know which door an opportunity might knock.
Another sound aspect of festivals is the awards and prizes. Awards usually give more credibility to the script and therefore enable its discovery by an industry professional. The prizes, in most cases, are monetary, which can range from $100 to $100,000. These financial and nominative motivators inspire writers to write high-quality content and abide by deadlines.
Believe in Your Work & Stick to it.
Last but not least, it is the mindset that screenwriters need to adapt to ensure their success. Believing in the uniqueness and potential of your work and making sure you stick to it is one of the most effective ways to succeed as a screenwriter.
In one of the interviews, Christopher Nolan stated that the best way to launch your career as a screenwriter is to stick to one idea and work your way through with it. And we do agree with this strategy.
A vital factor to consider is the transparency that you must have with yourself. Before proceeding with writing and pitching your idea to others, make sure it is worth it. Ask yourself: is this something that can make both a commercial success and satisfy my artistic needs? Is this film something that a lot of people will be interested in watching? Is this story appropriate to be told in this particular time frame?
These questions are important as they help you learn more about yourself and make you think ethically about the process of writing.
One of the techniques that you can use to test your idea is proposed in Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book Save the Cat. Snyder suggests that you can test the quality of your script idea on random people you meet in public. If you approach a passerby and politely ask them to listen to your film idea and give you feedback, by their reaction to your pitch and their feedback, one can understand how successful the idea is. Apart from receiving an unbiased opinion from a stranger, this is also a great way to practice your pitch at an early stage of the process and learn how to formulate ideas.
If you genuinely believe in your script, direct all your attention to improving it. If this is a story that you want to tell with all your heart, and you do believe that it will sell, now all you have to do is direct all of your attention into this process.
As we said, selling your first feature screenplay is much easier said than done. It is a process that requires loads of time, attention, and patience.
There is not a single formula or blueprint to sell your screenplay without an agent. For most writers, selling their first feature is a process of trial and error. The reason for it is that everyone’s story is uniquely different, and what has worked for somebody else’s writing career in the past might not necessarily work for you.
However, if you follow and excel in all the parameters mentioned above, sooner or later, you will figure out how to sell your screenplay, with or without an agent.