4 Secrets To Selling Your Screenplay… And Not Your Soul!

By Pen Densham • January 18, 2022

As a four-year-old, I was impressed by seeing my parents making short 35mm films for the movie theaters, even riding a live 7 ft alligator in one of them. Those experiences caused me to have a life-long desire to conjure visual and emotional magic with a story and a camera. I suspect, those who are reading this have similar urges to create passionately and feel validated.

At 15, I sunk into a fit of gloom as the education system tried to tell me that my fledgling artistic desires were not going to bring me an income and that I should get over myself and submit to torture by math!

I fled school and have spent most of my life trying to invent my future. Sometimes I call it, “the illusion of freedom,” because I still had to learn to define my writing, photography, and filmmaking to appear to conform to society’s expectations and developed my own form of salesmanship to get paid by those who did not necessarily know how to value my imagination. I call this “creative entrepreneurism”.

I empathize with all who have artistic instincts for whatever kind of talent. I believe we have to be responsible to our creative efforts by doing our best to expose them. This can sometimes be very daunting for those with a gentle nature. The word “selling” can negatively remind us of used car sales manipulation. But, how about we reframe the process as, “effectively communicating about what you have created, “so others are more able to understand its value and buy it?”

I am going to try and lay out a short, selling overview for us creative types whether you work solo, with a partner, or in a team. In a world where the future and technology seem to be changing with blinding rapidity, one thing is certain: No matter what the technology, zeitgeist or culture, human beings remain pretty much unchanged. We respond to emotions, innovations, myths, and morals. And if you create fiercely from your inner universe, you are probably right about your instincts. So please nurture your courage and extend all the imagination and passion you use in the acts of creation to discovering how to share your work with the world.

Out there, somewhere, should be other humans who understand and treasure what you are dreaming up.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” – Maya Angelou

1) Create passionately

Be daring, no matter the genre, fight to find your voice.

Your work will be more unique, personal and powerful because it has the full weight of your life force behind it – the essence of your subconscious, your life experience, pain, DNA, culture, and family. It will be distinctive and stand out from the clutter. Smart buyers seek solid, original ideas – not clones of old ideas that were successful years back. Familiarize yourself with what has been created and successful in the past in the field that impassions you. We all build on the shoulders of others.

Then write something distinctive, different and perhaps dangerous (whatever that term conjures to you!). How else do you get noticed in the daily clutter?

Even if it is an assignment, create from your voice. Better to fly close to the flame and be seen, than to be hidden in the shadows trying to guess what others want. Tell yourself you have the right to explore your true nature, so you can sell your finest material to others. Working on what you love is fulfilling even if it doesn’t seem to have an immediate market. It develops your natural skills. And, I guarantee, you will fight longer and harder to sell what you authentically believe in.

Screenplays I wrote that were more artistic, personal and, for me, dangerous, because I was not able to justify a market, but just had a gut instinct that I HAD to write them, have gotten made on a much higher ratio than the scripts I wrote for the studios at their direction. Early in my career, after experiencing my wife giving birth to our first child I changed my perspective about altruistic heroes and wanted to tell a story where people fought for humanistic reasons – where killing was not celebrated as an end goal, but risking your life for the future of others was celebrated.

I dreamed up a new vision of Robin Hood. Three major studios strongly passed on my revisionist story pitch. Ugh! I was encouraged to write my story anyway by our then assistant Mark Stern (who now is President of Television at IM Global) and was supported by John Watson who became co-writer on the screenplay. Our script was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, one of Warner Brothers all-time hits.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. You’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs
2) Find A Story Midwife To Guide You

Check your work with others you trust.

Chose your companions on your journey with an eye to your artistic goals. Avoid traveling with the embittered, jealous, or demeaning. They are lost souls and cannot give you strength. Make sure your work is ready for the market by checking it with non-destructive people who share a love and knowledge of the field you are working in – caring people who can give you honest, inspiring feedback that is aimed at your goals, not theirs. I call these people “story midwives.” They urge me to push through the pain of creative birth. Ask them to query you with the hard questions. Flattery is not feedback. If only one person critiques an element of my work, I consider it an opinion. When several people have the same response – that is a fact and needs addressing!

Also, there are a few good services and consultants who will, for a fee, read and guide writers. In very rare cases they help submit scripts they find exceptional to possible buyers or representation. Be wise and search for reviews by writers who have used the services or comparisons of the services in scriptwriting magazines.

Feedback helps tune in your effort so others may clearly understand what inspired you. It is a normal but frustrating truth. Great work sometimes needs many layers of effort to get it to be so clear and understandable it seems as if written overnight!!! I’ve received really insightful comments that made me joyous and growl with frustration at the same time because I knew in my heart I needed to go back and make the improvement with this great new addition. Clarify and proof your material before you expose it to buyers. They seldom read anything twice!
Once you are convinced by honest supporters that your stuff really hits your target – you can be confident and go out and sell it.
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” – Elbert Hubbard

3) Overcome doubt

Do not abandon what you create. It’s time has not arrived yet.

Creative people often have more anxiety and difficulty selling what they birthed because they have such strong imaginations. No matter how potent and extraordinary something can be that has come from our minds, we frequently find it difficult to judge its value. Worse, we may dream up vague excuses to bury it. Someone coined the term, “Impostor Syndrome,” for this self-haunting. We can see many reasons why our work should be better or that “we don’t deserve success”. Does that feel familiar to you?

Despite winning many awards including Oscar nominations for short films, when John Watson, my producing partner, and I first came to Hollywood we were sure we had to hire “real” movie writers and couldn’t possibly be good enough ourselves. We were cured of that concept by seeing projects we loved interpreted by the professionals, in ways that totally missed our goals. We started to write because we realized we couldn’t serve our passion projects any less well than they already had been!

Exploring your artistry as an original voice can be astoundingly fulfilling, but, be prepared for a personal marathon. Van Gogh paid for his wondrous uniqueness by not selling anything in his lifetime. But, err… look at his prices now! Choosing to venture forth to find a market will often be stressful, but ask yourself one simple question: “Would you rather look back on your life and see you occasionally made a fool of yourself, blundering into a few unknown obstacles in a quest to expose what impassioned you? Or, would you like to be guaranteed 100% failure – by never trying?” Embrace creative entrepreneurism.

“If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to meet it!” – Jonathan Winters

4) I’m Afraid I’ll Make The Wrong Choices

What is the best personal path to success?

The wrong choice is, “not doing anything”. I know this sounds like fortune cookie talk – but with the privilege of having a couple of years or so under my belt, patterns start to appear in the way things work. Life offers an array of paths – there really are no wrong choices. If you fully invest your truth, time and energy in wherever you are going it could lead to many different, but equally valuable, outcomes.

I also recommend being your authentic self in any situation. Admit your knowledge where limited and mention your positives when appropriate. And please remember there is no way to be PERFECT, so stop trying – humans tolerate all kinds of imperfect people that share impassioned goals. We are interesting characters. So being yourself is good enough.

I taught an occasional course on creating TV and Film stories and selling them at USC Film School. I got my MFA students to develop their selling skills by reading books that emphasize long term work ethics and values, like How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Power of Positive Thinking, and Think and Grow Rich. Crazy old books in an electronic era? These books still are in print because their information, although a little old fashioned, is timeless human advice.

And they were recommended to me by fellow filmmakers!!! You are going to spend a lifetime in this body trying to get to your goals – why not invest a few hours in developing tools to make your process more effective? When successful Hollywood-based guests came to my class, I always explored the number of times they failed before succeeding – usually many times and with terrific emotional cost.

“It’s not that I am so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein

And, what career advice from the luminaries to the students. The most frequent answer is,“Treat others with care and respect.” There are a lot of good people out there, counter-intuitive to the negative energy that some think runs our industry. Deception is a short term ticket to oblivion. Being a bully or a cheat, sadly, can work in any business for a while – but the saying is: “Treat people badly on the way up and there is no one there to help when you fall.” Morality is part of selling yourself. People buy from people they like and can trust.

“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.” – Norman Vincent Peale

Pen Densham