As we begin 2019, we find that the state of the union — or at least our little corner of it — is sound. Global box office revenues for 2018 were a record $44 billion, up from $41.2 billion the year before, according to Statistica. Worldwide revenues are expected to hit $46.7 billion in the year just begun. Together, Hollywood released 137 films last year, but the real action was in television, where more than 500 original scripted series, mini-series, and movies were produced for network, cable, and streaming consumption. And that number is expected to exceed 550 in 2019.
So how do you get your piece of the action?
Here are the steps you need to take to make 2019 a breakthrough year for your screen and/or television writing career:
Study the Lay of the Land
To appeal the buyers, you have to know what the buyers are buying. There’s only one effective way to do this. See movies. Watch television shows. A lot of them across all genres and platforms. Subscribe to HBO, Showtime, Starz, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix. Pay particular attention to their original programming. Regularly visit industry websites like Daily Variety or Deadline.com. Look at critical reactions on Rotten Tomatoes and stats on Box Office Mojo. Try to identify what kinds of films are succeeding — and why — while others are failing — and why. Get a “feel” for where the market is and, perhaps most important of all, where it’s likely headed.
In the world of film, branding is still king. Last year, 16 of the top 20 grossing films were either sequels, remakes or part of an existing franchise. The #16 top-grossing film, CRAZY RICH ASIANS, was based on a best-selling book. The #13 top-grossing film, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, was based on the history of one of rock-and-roll’s most popular bands of all time. Which leaves only two films, A QUIET PLACE (#14) and THE MEG (#20) as being truly “original.”
For first-time writers, this can, at first, appear disheartening. Unknown writers don’t get hired to write for billion-dollar franchises. And they usually can’t afford to buy the rights to best-selling novels or to celebrity life stories.
But what they can do is write small, cheap and clever. And there is still a market for such projects in Hollywood. After the Top 20, we find NIGHT SCHOOL at #38, GAME NIGHT at #39, BOOK CLUB at #41, INSTANT FAMILY at #45, BLOCKERS at #46, TAG at #51, and A SIMPLE FAVOR at #52. These films were not exactly blockbusters, but they likely made money, if not in their initial theatrical release, then certainly in video rentals and streaming. But most important of all, they got made.
Also, there are plenty of novels out there that aren’t necessarily best sellers that still have plenty of cinematic potential. (Not to mention older books now in the public domain.) A few trips to your local library may uncover some hidden gems. When you find a promising property, track down the publisher/rights holder and ask for a free option. The worst they can do is say no.
As for television, it’s now the wild, wild West, with projects of practically every type, size, subject, style and target demographic now in production. Netflix alone is reported to be spending up to $13 billion on original content for 2019. Hulu, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Disney, Apple, Verizon, YouTube and even Facebook are dumping similarly impressive sums into original series, mini-series and movies. These range in size from low-budget documentaries to Netflix’s massive Lord of the Rings mini-series. Whatever kind of project you want to sell, whether it be a violent thriller, a silly sit-com, a grim documentary, an animated satire, or a goofy cooking show, chances are there’s a buyer for it. As long as your concept is sound and your execution is solid.
Create a “show bible.” Write a spec pilot script. Ideas in this town are a dime a dozen. Actually putting a concept in writing puts you ahead of 90 percent of all the wanna-be’s.
Diversity Is In
There’s been a lot of focus on diversity lately, and many productions companies are actively looking for unique voices and stories.
In 2017, non-traditional films like GET OUT, THE BIG SICK, LADY BIRD, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, and HIDDEN FIGURES proved to be both critical and box office successes, paving the way for last year’s BLINDSPOTTING, EIGHTH GRADE, WIDOWS, BLACKKKLANSMAN, and LOVE SIMON. Contemporary TV is awash in ethnic, age, and genre diversity, with shows ranging from BLACK-ISH and FRESH OFF THE BOAT (both ABC) to ATLANTA and POSE (both FX), MASTER OF NONE, GLOW, THE KOMINSKY METHOD, and ONE DAY AT A TIME (all Netflix), JANE THE VIRGIN (CW) and INSECURE (HBO) giving us stars who don’t exactly fit into the traditional straight white urban 18-45 demographic.
Consider your own background, and that of your family. What unique stories do you have to tell? How can you make this story specific to your experience, yet universal?
Relevance Is In
As we discussed last month, many producers are actively looking for properties that are “relevant,” that speak to current concerns and issues. This doesn’t mean that your project has to be “topical” – as in “ripped from today’s headlines” – but it should deal with issues of power, race, gender, and identity in a way that connects with the current zeitgeist. Movies like THE GREEN BOOK and BLACK PANTHER, or shows like THE HANDMAID’S TALE, WESTWORLD and THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL are examples of stories set in the past or in a fantastical present/future but still manage to comment on the social issues that are at the forefront of the modern American consciousness.
When choosing a film or TV project, consider how it might be used to reflect on contemporary concerns and issues. These can range from race and gender equality to environmental degradation to the impact of rapidly changing technology.
Truth is Stranger Than Fiction
True stories – or our interpretation of true stories – continue to be extremely marketable. The aforementioned GREEN BOOK and BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY were based on real characters and events, as were last year’s THE FAVOURITE, WHITE BOY RICK, FIRST MAN, BEAUTIFUL BOY, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? and, believe it or not, TAG. Netflix has been particularly keen on series based on – or at least inspired by – true events, backing such series as THE CROWN, GLOW and MANHUNTER.
Where can you find true stories worth adapting to the screen? Try history books. Newspapers. Magazines. Many great stories are in the public domain. Others may require you to secure the dramatic rights. If you’re delving into stories about contemporary figures, even if dead, check with an entertainment attorney to make sure you don’t expose yourself to any legal jeopardy.
Read Current Scripts
If you want to know what kind of scripts are selling…read them. Use the Internet to download scripts from your current favorite screen and TV writers. (We particularly recommend Aaron Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Joel & Ethan Cohen, Shonda Rhimes, Scott Frank, Tina Fey, Steve Zaillian, Anthony McCarten, Sam Esmail, Peter Morgan and Bruce Miller.) Study their techniques. Their sense of pacing. Their use of language. And just how their words look on the page.
Pay particular attention to how these writers describe action, environments, and visual elements. Note how they write cinematically, using specific, descriptive language to paint pictures in the reader’s mind. And as you read, pay attention to how you feel. What about the writing is triggering your emotional response? These are the kinds of techniques you’ll want to emulate to elevating your writing style and compete with the pros.
(Note: Try to get the original screen or teleplays, not the production scripts, which usually include distracting elements like scene numbers and overwritten camera and stage directions.
The Year Ahead
2019 promises to offer more creative opportunities for screenwriters and filmmakers than any other year in history. Between traditional studio films and network TV series, original cable, streaming services and web-series, thousands upon thousands of new content needs to be generated now. At the same time, creative voices from heretofore overlooked parts of society are being actively encouraged to join the party. 2019 could be a great year…if you make it one. The choice is up to you. – Allen. B. Ury