Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Your Screenplay’s Future Is More Important Than Its Past

It’s sometimes difficult to accept that no one besides you (and your accountant) cares whether you spent two years writing a screenplay or two weeks. The only relevant considerations are whether the writing is any good and whether the script is right for the current market.

It would be nice if your history with the screenplay mattered, but it doesn’t.

Seth Godin posts on his blog today about ignoring what he calls sunk costs. His take is useful in the context of screenwriting:

When making a choice between two options, only consider what's going to happen in the future, not which investments you've made in the past. The past investments are over, lost, gone forever. They are irrelevant to the future.

So let’s say you have two screenplays, one you’ve spent two years perfecting and one you’ve hammered together in two weeks. Which one should you run with? Emotionally, you probably have vastly more invested in the one you’ve worked on for longer. Not to mention the fact that you’ve invested so much time (i.e., your own money) in it.

However, if your aim is to earn a living writing movies, then the more relevant consideration is: Which of the two scripts stands a better chance of being optioned or produced? To decide this, you need to determine which producers you can realistically pitch to, what the potential budgets might be, what the target audiences are, and so on.

Several years ago I wrote a very detailed scriptment based on a biblical story. I did a huge amount of research, and toiled diligently until one day I saw an announcement that the very same story was being produced by a big production company, with some a-list actors attached. I very reluctantly put that scriptment away and turned my attention to other work. The fact that I had worked on it for ages, didn’t stop it’s market value from dropping to zero. Of course the scriptment is still there in my drawer. Who knows, maybe one day the market will be right for it again.

It’s just an unfortunate but understandable fact of the screenwriter’s life, that the value of a screenplay is not determined by the screenwriter’s “sunk costs” (i.e., it’s past), but rather by it’s quality and potential (i.e., it’s future).

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