I know two people who set out, purposefully, to write “marketable.” Andrew Marlowe, who wrote Air Force One and is another Nicholl Fellowship winner, and myself. As I understand it, and I am playing fast and loose with details here because I don’t know all of them, Andrew decided it was time to break out of the pack. Doing that meant writing something someone would have to buy. Wouldn’t be able to say no to. Would have to buy. So he looked around, and what was hot was Die Hard. Everyone was crazy for Die Hard. Die Hard on a boat, Die Hard on a train. Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard on the moon. There was even a story around at the time that someone, obviously unfamiliar with Die Hard but catching on to the concept fast, had pitched, Die Hard in a building. Bottom line, everyone was mad for Die Hard. That’s what was selling. So Andrew thought, what hasn’t anybody done yet? And came up with Die Hard on Air Force One. I don’t know how many scripts Andrew had written at the time. I know he’s a damn good writer. I’ve read him. And he was an award-winning writer. He won that fellowship from the Academy. But now he is an extremely well known and well paid writer. Because he got methodical about it, looked around, saw what was selling, and came up with a concept for an idea that was hot at the time. And better than anyone else’s because it went just one step further than anyone else’s. And it sold.
I wrote eight scripts to get “discovered.” Script number seven was done and people were reading it. It would go on to win the Nicholl. I was thinking, Hell, seven scripts, that is a lot. Maybe it is time to sell something here. And that is about the time a person at a production company said to me, “You’re a good writer, but everything you write has some sort of mystical or supernatural element. If you write something that doesn’t, I think you will sell.”
Most times, when I sit down to write, I write what comes into my head and stays with me. I wrote a play about dogs that perform exorcisms one time. To give you an example. That came into my head and I wrote it. After this talk with this person, I had to think about it. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before. What is a concrete story line I could work on that does not include mystical or supernatural elements? Then I wrote a script about a girl who stages her own kidnapping and it sold. That was Excess Baggage.
A lot of people try to sell last week’s hit at the box office. I hate that. I don’t think anyone should do that. But if you have been working at this for a while and people like your writing, but you are just not making that sale? Maybe it is time to sit down and get methodical about it and look at your writing and see what it is in there that is always there and might be holding you back. For me it was things mystical. For Andrew, I don’t know what it was, but it was probably something. For you, what is it? What is it that you keep doing that is stopping that crucial sale from happening?
If you can find that, that one thing, and try something different, it might make a difference.
Me, I figure, if you’re going to write on spec, you might as well write about what you want to write about. We’re all crazy optimists to be in this business in the first place, so run with it. But there are a lot of things you can care about. Excess Baggage was not about anything I hadn’t written about before. It was a story about someone alienated and alone dealing with family issues. That is a thematic in a lot of my work. And the characters were not people I hadn’t written about before. I write a lot of outsiders. The only thing that was really different was, plot. It was plotted both feet on the ground. No supernatural elements. Well, except for a priest, but they cut him. Bastids.
But think about it. Think about your writing, about the content, the themes (um, don’t tell the executives I said theme out loud here or I will never work again), and the plots. Give it some thought. And then think about how you can bring what is special about you into an arena that is possibly easier to sell. You make that one sale, and it all gets easier. But you have to make that one sale, first.
This article was excerpted from Max Adams's book The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide.