"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser


The Indie Screenplay Today

In the vastly downsized major motion picture market for a screenplay written on spec by an outsider, what is the best strategy for today’s screenwriter? Last time we looked at the “majors” market. Now let’s look at the “indie” situation. Here are some observations to keep in mind:

· The divide between the majors (Disney, Dreamworks, Fox, Paramount, Warner, Sony) and the independents (“indies”) has never been more clearly drawn.

· Independent filmmakers are much more open to spec screenplays from outsiders, whether based on underlying properties (like nonfiction books, novels, graphic novels, comic books, or true stories) or original stories.

· If you’re writing a screenplay based on a published book, make sure you have the dramatic rights to the book, in writing, before you invest your time in this arduous process.

· Indie budgets range from $15,000 for “El Mariachi” to $50 million or higher, as opposed to major studio films that typically BEGIN at $60 million. The most business-friendly indie budget range is $4-$13 million or so, as in AEI’s joint venture with Informant Media (“Crazy Heart”) that will be producing “Boobytrap,” “A Totally Tabloid Christmas,” “Echo,” for starters.

· Keep in mind that the finished screenplay is the key to the spec market: (a) a movie needs a screenplay to move toward production; and (b) the indies typically have no development money, and offer very little for options. BUT, more and more these past few years, they get more movies made by far—and win more Oscars—than do the majors. That’s good news for you, the screenwriter who’s willing to spec a script.

· That said, spec indies fall into two primary categories:

o Art films, or “labors of love.” These are films that are difficult to finance, difficult to distribute, and difficult to cast primarily because their subject matter is too idiosyncratic to be considered “mainstream.” The good news about this type of screenplay if that it’s the very category that might attract top cast, who alternate between pay-day movies (big studio films for which they’re paid obscene amounts of money) and career-building movies (films that might win them Oscars, like Halle Berry’s for “Monster’s Ball” or Jeff Bridges’ for “Crazy Heart”). Films of this type fall into all categories imaginable: drama (comic like “Juno” and tragic like “The Reader”), quirky family comedy (“Little Miss Sunshine”), theme-based movies, issue-based movies (“The Hurt Locker”), erotic (“The Other Side of the Bed”), inspirational (“The Whale Rider”), and so on to any you can imagine. This category is truly the playing ground for great screenwriting, although it is, consequently, the most difficult of all to move toward production. One thing that helps here is such a story based on a well-reviewed novel. Underlying properties always give cast and investors and distributors confidence. Otherwise brilliant little films like “Adam Resurrected” or “Requiem for a Dream” would never have been made.

o Distributor-friendly films. These are the genre films that typically do well at the box office: thrillers, character-based action, horror (psychological and supernatural), sci-fi, and romantic comedies. These films are the stock ‘n trade of the film festivals and probably account for more than 70% of all sales at the American Film Market and Cannes. They depend to be cast-driven as well as concept-driven.

· High concept is always welcome in the independent market, and the indie distributor’s dream is to find a high-concept film that didn’t quite make it to the majors but has enormous box office upside.

· The process of setting up an indie film is no less difficult than that for a major movie, though it is under somewhat more control by the financer/distributor.

o It starts with a great shootable script. That’s where you come in!

o A director who can attract cast must be brought in.

o Then the search for cast begins, in tandem with distributors giving their views on names that “mean something” in both foreign and domestic territories.

o Once a distributor-approved cast is at least “interested,” the circle of financing can be completed.

o When financing is locked, the film can go forward—and the screenwriter will be paid.

· Obviously becoming involved in the business side of show business is highly advantageous, and we’ve recently been turning screenwriters who are intent on becoming filmmakers into producers if they are willing and able to bring business resources to the process.

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