One of the challenges new screenwriters face is that they tend to have a poor understanding of what their script is worth on the market. As a result, they either ending up selling their script for much less than they should, or else put such a high price on it, no one would ever buy it. Let me give you two recent examples of conversations I’ve had with clients to illustrate the point.
The first client, let’s call him Al, adapted a 20 year old mystery novel (not a best seller). He had optioned the rights to the novel and was now looking to sell the package to a producer. When I asked him how much he was expecting to get in the sale, he said that the script was so good, he thought it would be worth a $1,000,000. Now I understand that writers are proud of their scripts and think they are gold, but no one is going to give a first time screenwriter, without an agent, anything close to a $1,000,000 for their screenplay. The only reason that a first time screenwriter can get a number in the million dollar range is because there are other producers offering $900,000. But if there is only one producer bidding on your script, he’s not going to offer you anything close to $1,000,000 because he doesn’t need to. When there is only one person bidding on your screenplay, they set the terms, not you. You either take what they have to offer or your screenplay stays locked in your desk drawer. That doesn’t mean you should roll over and sell it for $1,000 but you should adjust your expectations accordingly. Otherwise, you will be waiting forever for the deal to get made.
The second client, call her Betty, called because a company had agreed to make a movie out of her horror script. But the entire budget for the movie was going to be $100,000. That meant that she would maybe get $5000 for her screenplay. When I was talking to her about this, she told me that she thought that this was her best script yet. I said to her, “If you think that this is your best screenplay, why would you agree to sell it for such a low price?” She thought about it for a second and realized that agreeing to such a low number was nuts. After spending months and months of work on a screenplay, it just seems crazy to let it go for such a low price, especially when she hadn’t even attempted to try to sell it elsewhere yet.
The moral for both of these clients is that you need to have a realistic value of your script before you try to sell it. Yes, there are writers who sell their screenplays for $1,000,000, just as there are people who buy winning lottery tickets at 7/11. Just because it happens doesn’t mean that you should expect that it will happen to you. Especially if you haven’t got a high-powered agent to drum up business in your script.
The price of the script depends on a number of factors (e.g,. genre, budget, source material, etc.) but the number one factor is whether there is more than one producer who wants to buy it. Joss Whedon doesn’t get paid millions of dollars just because he’s a really good writer. He gets that because there are a lot of producers who want to hire him.
On the flip side, if your plan is to make a living as a screenwriter, don’t price your script so low that a sale won’t even pay a month’s rent. There is a happy middle ground between too high and too low, you just need to find it.