January 16, 2005
The Sundance Odds Get Even Longer
FEW days ago I was sitting by myself at the movies, soaking up Hollywood dreams turned into light, when a college-age man came over and sat down next to me.
"You're a producer, aren't you?" he asked. "How can I get my movie made?"
I hear this question all the time at dinners, meetings or restaurants from waiters, friends and the children of friends; and most often, from people I have never met before.
These days, I tell them, the challenge isn't getting your movie made. Practically anyone can make a motion picture today. All it takes is a personal time commitment to the process and access to a credit card, a digital video camera and a computer loaded with $1,000 of editing software. The result might not be as good as "The Blair Witch Project" or "Open Water," but it will still be a completed movie.
The challenge, as it turns out, is actually getting your movie seen. As an example, let's take the 2,613 feature films - up 29 percent from 2,023 last year - that were submitted to what has become the primary portal for new filmmakers seeking an audience, the Sundance Film Festival, which begins on Thursday. These completed movies make up the collective hopes and creative output of tens of thousands of talented people. But only 120 of these films -fewer than 5 percent of all submissions - were selected for screening at the festival.
If it's a good year, maybe, just maybe, 10 of these movies, or 0.3 percent of the submissions, will be picked up for distribution within the United States. What will happen to the remaining 2,603 movie submissions? For the most part, nothing. You'll never see them, not even at your local video rental store. Without the marketing push, awareness and word-of-mouth that's generated by a theatrical release, it's not feasible for video chains to stock your picture.
Of course, Sundance isn't the only festival. In fact, there are at least 2,500 film festivals around the world, so theoretically you could enter your movie in each of those festivals, and hope that it is accepted at one. But getting your film considered at all 2,500 festivals will require a fair amount of dedication: you would have to send out about seven letters of inquiry or DVD screening copies of your movie to different festivals each day for a year, with no days off.
Still, let's say you beat the odds to this point. Miracle of miracles, your movie gets accepted by a festival and then is picked up for distribution. The question now becomes: Will it ever have more than a minuscule audience? Approximately 450 movies are released in the United States every year by about 30 recognizable distributors. Of those, major film studios release about half, and independent distributors release the others. But the numbers are even tougher than they look, because roughly 90 percent of the box-office receipts will be sucked up by the studio releases, leaving about 225 independent releases - most likely including your picture - to compete for the remaining sales. When you realize that there will be only a few independent movies that genuinely captivate the popular imagination every year (in 2004 those included "The Passion of the Christ," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and, perhaps, "Supersize Me") you'll see what a thin sliver of pie is left for everyone else.
Alternatively, maybe you'll look at these statistics and realize there's very little chance of financial success or even recognition if you produce an independent film, even if it gets released, so you decide to consider another tack: writing your way into the business. It worked for Francis Ford Coppola; it worked for Frank Darabont; it worked for Nora Ephron. Could it work for you?
To protect your story and screenplay, you'll realize that you want to register it with the Writers Guild of America, West. If somebody tries to rip you off, registration helps you prove you had the idea first. So, feeling positive, you go online and register your script. Then you discover that the guild registered 55,000 pieces last year, up nearly 60 percent from 35,000 in 2001. (With fees pegged at $10 for members, $20 for everyone else, registrations appear to pump close to a million dollars from hopefuls around the world through the guild every year.)
Next, you will need an agent. The guild maintains a directory of 93 agencies (the number fluctuates) that are guild signatories in California: that is, the agencies have agreed to abide by the standards imposed by the professional writers' organization. But of the 93 agencies listed, nearly two dozen state flat out that they won't accept unsolicited material, and only one says it will consider material from new writers. (It's called Qualitư Dell'Arte and it's in Woodland Hills, Calif.) About 70 agencies indicate they might read your work if you are referred to them by an existing client or if you send them a letter of inquiry, but the agencies receive an average of 100 queries each week and can respond positively to only about one each month.
If an agency does agree to read your script, it goes next to the story department, where readers will synopsize it and offer their critiques. This is called coverage. A large agency might typically send between 15,000 and 30,000 projects to coverage each year, including material from new writers as well as existing clients' work.
Now, let's say your script comes back from the story department with glowingly wonderful coverage (almost none do) - will an agent take you on? Unfortunately, it's not likely. An agent may have responsibility for 50 clients, and a new writer is the most difficult of the breed: you will consume a great deal of your agent's time as he or she educates people about you and your talents, sends around your script and schedules meetings for you. And as you are a new writer, if the agent does make the sale, the price of your script will almost certainly be set at the minimum "scale fee," currently about $36,000 for a low-budget script, as prescribed by the Writers Guild, for your services. That's a lot of work for 10 percent of very little.
But I urge you, stay positive. Let's assume an agent agrees to sign you, thinks your script is the best material since "The Day After Tomorrow" and decides to take it out to the marketplace in a full-blown auction. An agency can put a big push behind only one so-called "spec" script each week, and as many as 20 of these may be vying for the spot, so your agent will have to battle other agents internally (not a pretty picture) to get your work into prime position.
Your script will go out to approximately 20 key buyers: the eight major studios (formerly nine, but MGM is selling out to Sony) and a handful of the bigger specialty film houses and independent financiers that can get a movie made. Each of these, in turn, will send your script to coverage by its story department, and if your spec is hot, it will be covered overnight; a major studio's story department may cover 75 to 250 script submissions each week. You can imagine the process from this point: if your script receives high praise and feels fresh, exciting and imaginative, not to mention commercial, someone might actually buy it.
Every month, in fact, between 20 and 50 spec scripts and pitches are sold. (In 2004, according to The Hollywood Reporter, 298 new projects were sold: 98 were spec scripts, 87 came from literary material, 70 were pitches, 16 were remakes, 10 were comic books, 6 were true-life stories, 4 came from video games, 2 each derived from television shows and magazine articles, and 1 was from an action figure.)
Then your project will go into development. You'll be assigned a development executive, who is probably working on at least 30 other projects and who will work to shape your script through rewrites (some of which may even be done by you), package it with talent and - as generally happens with fewer than 20 percent of projects in even the leanest studio development pool - shepherd it into production.
So who actually gets a picture made? Already, you're remembering that the major studios release about 225 movies a year, which means that each studio releases perhaps 30 movies. Take Sony Pictures as an example. In 2004 Sony released 39 movies in the United States, but it didn't actually make all of them. Six were financed through Sony's partnership with Revolution Studios. A whopping 22 were already completed movies acquired by the company's specialty distribution arm, Sony Pictures Classics, and many of these received only a very limited release in New York and Los Angeles. Of the theatrical feature films Sony actually made, 3 were sequels ("Spider-Man 2," "Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2"and "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid"), 2 were remakes, 1 came from a play and 1 from a novella, and 1 was written and directed by a famous writer-director (James L. Brooks's "Spanglish"). Of the 39 movies that Sony released only 3 could have possibly come from original, new scripts by promising artists like you.
Or to put it another way: there are about a dozen development executives at Sony, each of whom is assigned to about 20 to 30 projects. Yet there were only three produced projects that weren't remakes, sequels, purchased from or paid for by another producer, or derived from novels, comic books or video games. So, these dozen executives are competing with each other to get three original movies made, which means each executive has only a 1-in-4 chance of getting the green light for an original script, most of which will have come from veteran writers with impressive credits.
By the way, if you successfully navigate Hollywood's gauntlet and your movie is made and released, it's unlikely you'll ever see real money from it. A studio movie costs on average $64 million to produce and $62 million to market, for a total average investment of $128 million per film. (And this is just an average. Many motion pictures have famously cost far more to produce and market.) Last year, only 20 movies grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office, and, after the theaters take their share, only about 50 percent of the box-office gross revenue comes back to the studio. Even though the domestic box office accounts for about 25 percent of total potential film revenues (booming DVD sales account for a big share of the rest), there is rarely much left over from the three-year income cycle of a feature film: profit participations must be deducted and paid to the stars and other luminaries, studio overhead of 20 percent is assessed, distribution fees of 15 to 20 percent are charged, home video marketing costs are recaptured, and the interest accrued on the initial money allocated to produce and market the film is paid off.
But don't let these daunting statistics cause you to lose heart. Hollywood has always been a haven for creative, quixotic types who know it's impossible to get a movie made, yet seek to do the impossible every day. And once you've tasted the delirious rush of seeing one of your movies open at multiplexes across America, there's no stopping the addiction.
The numbers may be against you, but hang in there. Because in Hollywood, the dream of being No. 1 keeps the whole town going - even if it happens only 0.3 percent of the time.
Adam Leipzig is president of National Geographic Feature Films.