|| THE BOX
|Writing Treatments That Sell: Excerpt Who Are the Buyers?|
THE MARKETS FOR TREATMENTS & WHAT & HOW TO SELL TO THEM
|It's a fifty-fifty deal. Just make sure we get the best of it.
--Samuel Goldwyn, instructions to his business affairs office
Some writers don't care whether their writing sells, or whether it
sells soon. They have the luxury of writing nothing but what they
like, and the freedom to continue doing it without needing to depend
upon it as a source of income. If time, for you, is not of the essence,
you'll simply write what you want to write and let the results find
their way onto the screen in their own time. But if you're interested
in moving your career along the fastest possible track toward receiving
financial rewards in proportion to the effort your making, it's more
than just a good idea to keep in mind who your buyers are going to
be while you're in the process of identifying good dramatic stories
and bringing your treatments of them into focus. Keeping market considerations
in mind you'll be able to expedite your career success. For those
who are interested in speeding along, this chapter provides information
on who your prospective buyers are, and what they're looking for.
Of course both buyers and what they're buying change as rapidly as
anything else in our accelerating world. The general observations
that follow should be supplemented by current research (through phone
calls and through checking the most recent directories).
THE TELEVISION MARKET
Broadcast Television (sometimes referred to as "free TV")
includes advertiser supported broadcast networks and cable-delivered
advertiser supported channels that arrive in your home at no extra
cost to you beyond the cost of your antenna or basic cable service.
The networks (a subdivision of broadcast television or free TV) are
groups of TV stations throughout the U.S. interconnected by satellite
that are primarily programmed from a single corporate headquarters,
even though individual network affiliates may provide local news and
public relations programming. The Network provides prime time programming,
national news programming, and sports. In general, the free networks
and Lifetime gravitate toward:
- stories based on "true events"
- a woman, or a family, "in jeopardy"
- unique family dramas (whether true or fictional), including
"occasional" pieces like Christmas or Thanksgiving stories
- stories addressing topical female issues, as long as they don't
offend broadcast sponsors (a story about breast cancer that indicts
the chemical companies recently could not be sold for fear of
offending Dow Chemical). In this respect, the Fox Network is an
exception (their market is driven by young men).
- Sci-fi/fantasy: as long as it's reality-driven and earth-based,
but stories in which today's audience has an identifiable stake
(and no more than 10-30 years into the future!)
- Heroic stories of any kind, as long as they're contemporary.
What's generally not marketable to the primary television broadcasters:
- Comedy of any kind, romantic or otherwise (unless a major motion
picture star is attached). Network audiences want serious drama.
- Straight romance, unless it's based on a novel by Danielle Steel
or Judith Krantz (both of whom already have ongoing network deals).
- Movies about minorities. The percentage of non-Caucasian network
audiences is small; though there's a developing trend toward expanding
minority programming, you'd be better off selling a minority story
to a minority broadcaster like the Black Entertainment Network
(though the Fox Network has done wonders in this area of programming).
Advertiser supported Broadcast television networks include ABC, CBS,
NBC, Fox. Advertiser supported cable-delivered networks are A&E,
CNN, Discovery, Lifetime, PBS, TNT, and USA.
Subscriber Cable Television (sometimes called "pay TV")
refers to all networks and cable-delivered stations that cost the
consumer an extra fee. Pay-per-view is a subcategory of pay TV. Subscriber
cable television includes HBO, Disney, Cinemax, and Showtime. The
most powerful cable networks, HBO and Showtime (as well as Turner),
generally buy stories with a strong male lead, who can be identified
with by a predominantly male audience. They also want a strong female
second lead, who adds sex appeal to the story.
Who's the audience?
As we've said, each programmer tends to serve a particular demographic.
Although subject matter goes in cycles, the audience profile of a
given channel is fairly constant. The most important homework you
can do if you're writing for TV is to watch TV yourself! If you watch
television regularly, you'll begin to discern what kind of projects
are being bought by what buyers. For instance a network's evening
program line-up is used as a promotional platform leading the same
audience into watching that network's movie. So what appeals to the
viewers of "Friends" or "Murder, She Wrote" is
the type of television movie that will ordinarily air following that
program. Keeping in mind that competition is forcing constant change
among the buyers,
- CBS programming traditionally appeals to an older audience--the
fully mature female--and to family viewers.
- NBC appeals to female boomer-aged viewers.
- ABC is younger, hipper, family programming.
- Fox is also younger, hip, trendy, and leaning toward Generation
X; it's focal audience is male, and it will take chances with
- USA once made genre movies and was male-oriented, but has now
turned to broadcast network type programming.
- Lifetime programs projects for and about women.
- TNT favors period pieces, movies on subjects of "global
importance," biographies focusing on a compelling aspect
rather than cradle to grave, and classics. But this network is
also star-driven and will do almost any project which an a or
b list feature star may want to do.
- HBO programs male-oriented projects, best-selling books, sexy
thrillers, "global importance" projects, and action
films with feature-level casting.
- Although The Disney Channel used to program for children and
family viewers, by 1996 they had turned to seeking network-type
The TV Movie Market
Because there are so many broadcasters requiring enough programming
to fill their channels, and good enough programming to beat the competition's
ratings, TV is a major, insatiable, market for writers. Sometimes
identical ideas create a television film simultaneously with a theatrical
film, as with TNT's "Kissinger and Nixon" which appeared
months before Oliver Stone's Nixon. Because a sufficient amount of
time had passed since the deaths of President and Mrs. Nixon, the
examination of his life and presidency at this time made sense. Both
the feature film and the television movie had a distinct point of
view from which to scrutinize Nixon's unique persona.
Good drama tackles a bigger than life story by focusing on a galvanizing
experience or event in the life of the main character. Ideas that
aren't strong enough for the theatrical market, or ideas that are
similar to theatrical stories, are often perfect for television. Topical
or even political ideas, too "timely" for the long theatrical
development process, are often just the thing a harried network programmer
needs to "capture the night" against an ordinary film on
another channel that happens to have extraordinary casting.
The TV market wants what it wants.
Keep in mind, as you write your TV treatment, that television is much
more marketplace-driven than motion picture films. TV insiders have
long considered television an "advertising" or "merchandising"
medium, and it's safe to guess that if you can't imagine a mainstream
major American sponsor (such as General Mills, Coca Cola, or Bristol
Meyers) backing your idea for television the idea most likely has
no substantial market in the United States of America. When we were
giving regular "Writers' Lifeline" lectures at the Beverly
Hills Library, one of our faithful lecture-goers kept showing up to
tell us, "American TV should take chances. Why don't you mount
a production of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel (the classic French
comic novel)." We replied: "Simon, we're not in Canada (where
the government subsidizes programming simply because of its cultural
content). There's no market in America for Rabelais." You are
indeed welcome to become a crusader, and go out jousting with network
executives to change the face of television. But if your goal is to
make money by writing for TV, you'll be more successful thinking like
a market analyst instead. Saying your "new idea" is very
similar to "Northern Exposure" or "NYPD Blue"
makes every ear perk up. Saying, "There's never been anything
like this before," is not only an automatic turnoff; it's probably
not even true.
Television is numbers-driven, controlled by the Nielsen Ratings that
report to the media and the world on a daily basis who's watching
what shows when. With forty or more channels for competition, and
the consequent slicing up of audiences, the networks have begun to
focus on audience demographics rather than on sheer numbers. Rather
than shooting for the "highest share" of the evening, programmers
are content with a solid 4% share of a particular demographic group
such as "generation Xers" or the "thirtysomethings."
Their sponsors, though still interested in high numbers, are intent
on the type of consumer they want to reach. Mainstream TV programmers--the
folks who set up the TV schedule by placing programs in time slots--are
determined to garner and cultivate a particular audience, making sure
they give them what they want to watch from this broadcaster. Outlets
do exist for those who enjoy cultural programming like ballets, operas,
and documentaries (including the Discovery Channel, the History Channel,
A&E [Arts & Entertainment], and PBS); but if you choose to
write for these "high-brow" broadcasters look forward to
having fun in a wonderful creative forum--but on a shoestring.
What Can You Sell to TV?
Although it's relatively rare that a new writer sells an idea to television,
it certainly happens regularly. Several people coming up with the
same idea at the same time is such a common phenomenon that the sale
of ideas and their purchase can be risky. For this reason, when they
buy ideas at all, TV companies tend to buy them from people they already
know and trust.
New writers and producers can sell ideas by creating treatments for
them that show the purchaser "where the story is." It's
not enough to say, "I have an idea." You need to execute
the idea in a treatment (and don't forget to register it with the
Writers Guild! see chapter 8). Everyone has ideas. The air is filled
with them. In a typical week AEI will have nearly the identical idea
pitched to us two or three times. What determines whether a story
can be sold is your execution of the idea or concept. This explains
another problem outsiders face. We hear the following question all
"I have a great idea for TV. Can you find me a writer to collaborate
with so I can sell it and break in?"
Writers who've already broken in have done so because they know how
to execute their ideas in an effective manner. When they work on other
people's ideas, including those given by experienced producers to
executives, they're paid to do so. For an inexperienced writer or
producer to approach an experienced writer and ask him to write "on
spec" (the industry term for "speculative work," not
paid for in advance) makes no career sense. If one of our experienced
writers has time, we'll arrange for him to be paid by the inexperienced
"idea person" so that the idea can be brought to salable
level. But if, on your own, you can find a writer to collaborate with
you, chances are that writer will be of no use to you in making the
sale--on the premise that, if he were successful, he wouldn't have
time to take a chance on your idea. And if he has a chance of being
successful, he usually has so many good ideas of his own he doesn't
want to distract himself with someone else's, over which he has no
control, unless he's paid as he goes.
What we've just said applies primarily to original, fictional ideas.
Things are easier for the inexperienced writer or producer when it
comes to nonfiction. If what you're trying to sell is a true story
the rights to which you control (and if you don't control them, find
out how to control them before you take the next step as we discuss
in chapter 5), you may indeed attract a co-writer to work with you
on spec. In this case, some of the same cautions apply. If the co-writer
has no credits, he or she may be a detriment to your potential deal.
If he has credits, he'll probably want money; or, if he thinks the
idea is eminently salable, he may agree to act as a writer-producer
in exchange for the right from you to pursue the sale.
If you have the rights to a powerful true story, another approach
is to go directly to a producer (like AEI; our phone number and email
address are printed at the end of the book) after registering your
story with the Writers Guild (as described in chapter 8). If we think
your story is salable, we help you secure the rights, make a deal
with us; and, often, assist you in preparing a treatment in order
to justify a "story by" credit for you (which may end up,
as the story evolves toward production, being shared with an experienced
writer; but which is still a major step forward in the business).
A buyer's checklist
Subject matter aside, all television buyers determine a particular
story's attractiveness by considering the following elements:
- Concept. Does this story provide a fresh new angle on a subject
important to our audience?
- Castability. Is the hero or heroine a character one of today's
TV stars--or, even better, motion picture stars--will want to
- Setting. Does it fit TV? Setting should be scaled down, for
limited locations. If your true story actually took place in three
cities, try to make it one or two.
- Budget. Can the story be done for a price. Movies for television
have budgets ranging from $1 million (Lifetime) to $4-5 million
(HBO, Hallmark), with the networks averaging around $2.6 million.
This contrasts with $10-$100 million for feature film budgets.
The more expensive to film this story, and the longer time needed
to shoot it (TV movies are generally shot in 18-21 days), the
more likely it is that it'll be considered as a feature film rather
than a television film.
So you see how important it is to determine what your career goals
are before you set out to sell to TV. If what you want to accomplish
is a one-time sale of a family story, you should probably go directly
to someone in the business after registering the story. Tell them
what you've got. If your goal is to establish a career in writing
for TV, you should attempt a treatment before going to that same source;
or work with a collaborator; but only if you're absolutely certain
that your collaborator is, in every sense, an asset to the deal--and
that you have a clear written agreement with him before you begin
your work. Obviously, the first skill in selling to television is
recognizing what a good story idea is. To train this instinct, we
repeat: Nothing can take the place of actually watching TV.
THE FEATURE FILM MARKET
It's virtually impossible, primarily for legal reasons (based on the
studio's fear of litigation), for an inexperienced writer to sell
a first treatment directly to a major studio. Your best bet is to
hunt down a production company and try to entice them first. Production
companies come in two primary flavors:
In-house production companies. Successful writers, producers, and
directors are given "housekeeping deals" at the major studios
in exchange for the studio's "right of first refusal" to
the product they develop. Because the in-house production company
has a close relationship to the studio that finances and distributes
films, generally speaking its interest in your treatment puts you
in good position for a sale. The problem is that once an in-house
company has one, two, or three (depending on the principal's clout
in the marketplace and at the studio) projects in development, the
studio is loath to put yet another story into the works until it sees
the outcome of the others.
The key question to ask an in-house producer who's interested in your
treatment is, What do you have in development? If the answer is, "We
just set up house with MGM and we have yet to place something in development,"
you're in good shape. If the answer is, "We have five projects
in development," proceed with caution. Too often the in-house
producer is forced to sit on projects until the outcome of other development
deals is known. Technically, most housekeeping deals allow the producer
to go to another studio if the host studio has passed on a project
it's offered by him. But, in practice, shopping that project outside
the host is dangerous for the producer; primarily because he wants
to do nothing that will jeopardize the status of his projects already
in development. Both in-house producers and independent producers
are listed in The Hollywood Creative Directory (order your own copy
by calling 800-815-0503; firstname.lastname@example.org). In any directory you
can tell which producers are which flavors because the in-house producers'
address is most often, though not always, identical with a studio's
address (Richard Donner's company, for example, lists its address
at the Warner Bros. lot). The Hollywood Creative Directory actually
tells you whether the production company has an in-house deal. Under
"Zide Entertainment," for example, it lists:
"DEAL: Walt Disney Pictures/Touchstone Pictures"
Independent production companies. An independent producer, like AEI,
pays its own overhead and does its best to deal with the everyday
vagaries of cash flow in a notoriously volatile industry--in exchange
for its freedom to sell to everyone without restriction. AEI, in partnership
with Zide Entertainment and represented by Paradigm, sold Rick Lynch's
180 Seconds at Willow Park to New Line Cinema for Renny Harlin ("Cliffhanger")
to direct. Also in partnership with Zide, but represented by International
Creative Management, we sold Brett Bartlett's Sign of the Watcher
to Propaganda Films; and Meg and Phobos to Walt Disney Pictures.
Observe caution in working through an independent producer, making
sure you check the company's credits and reputation in the industry.
In the rough and tumble world of entertainment, these companies are
too frequent victims and come and go like restaurants in Los Angeles
or New York. Asking an independent producer, "What do you have
in development?" will help you judge his future stability. The
producer who answers with several projects is a better bet for you
than one who tells you only about what he's already done. If he has
no credits, and little or nothing in development, keep shopping! Getting
an "option payment" for your treatment isn't as important
as "getting the film made"! Don't judge a company's effectiveness
by how much it's willing to pay you up-front or promise you. Some
of the most successful independent producers in town pay almost nothing
for options; they figure you're lucky to have them as partners because
their chances of getting the film done are better than anyone else's.
The in-house producer has the studio's "deep pockets," as
does the inexperienced independent producer who enters the industry
with a bank roll. But keep your eyes focused on the production money
and you'll do a better job of sorting out who's the best ally in getting
your treatment sold.
Using a "spec script" to sell future treatments
In order to sell yourself as a screenwriter, you must have a completed
screenplay. You may, however, be able to find an independent producer
to take your treatment to the buyers. If you've written a spec script
that has impressed people in the industry, you may be asked what other
ideas you have. These you can write in treatment form and working
with the independent producer to perfect the treatment you may in
this way be able to make a development deal with the studio that will
pay you to write a script based on the treatment's idea.
How to sell the feature treatment
Both in-house producers and independent producers are constantly on
the look out for good stories to make into films. When you're ready
to approach a producer, call the producer's company and ask for the
name of the head of development who's responsible for acquiring and
developing new screenplays and projects. In most cases he or she's
the person to approach first, not the principal of the company--unless
a contact gets you directly to the principal with an introduction,
chance encounter, or recommendation. Once you've determined the appropriate
individual at the production company, your approach is the same as
for an agent or manager. The in-house producer may tell that you need
an agent to submit to them. Their relationship with the studio makes
them particularly vulnerable targets to nuisance suits. The independent
producer is more likely to listen to your story, and to read your
treatment without representation.
Selling book-film treatments
Developing your idea into a book is, in fact, an excellent strategy
for piquing the interest of the feature film community. Treatments
based on novels, whether published or unpublished, are sold every
month in Hollywood. And, of course, if your story sells as a book
first, your chances of selling it as a film are greatly enhanced.
But you may also sell your story as a film and not as a book at all,
nonetheless launching your career in show business. The ideal scenario,
which we focus on at AEI, is, of course, to sell a story in both the
publishing and film worlds.
The feature film buyer, though he has much wider latitude for selection
than does the television buyer, still considers the following elements
in a story offered for production:
- Concept. Does this story provide a subject matter and/or theme
"large enough" to attract a filmgoing audience? Will
the concept appeal to a top director? Is it a "high concept,"
that translates in a very few words to word of mouth and "one-line"
advertising campaigns (Doubleday-Bantam is selling Steve Alten's
Meg as "A Novel of Deep Terror").
- Castability. Is the hero or heroine a character one or more
of today's stars will want to play?
- Production Values. Does the setting or the concept itself lend
itself to highly-visual, compelling film images--as in the opening
scenes of Arachnophobia or the in-flight covert boarding of a
747 in Executive Decision? Because feature films seek the remarkable
production values today's audiences demand they are less concerned
with budget than TV films are.
Now that you understand the relationship between your product and
its markets, it's time for some practical advice on how to register
and protect your ideas--the subject matter of chapter 8.