This week Living RomCom departs from its usual format to present five "million dollar screenplay tips" - aspects of craft and creativity found in spec scripts that sell: one tip a day, Monday through Friday. These tips are based on my experience working within the studio system as a story analyst who reads specs and does notes on projects in development.
Tip # 2: Selling screenplays are aimed at a specific audience.
This one may seem like a "duh!" no-brainer, but you'd be surprised by the number of pre-pro screenwriters I encounter who've never seriously thought about who they're writing their screenplay for.
Here's the necessary paradox about writing a spec script: Your story should be personal (that is, be about something that's of passionate importance to you), and it shouldn't be formulaic (that is, not slavishly adhering to only the most traditional story conventions). Nonetheless, it needs to be mindful of the expectations and preferences of that mysterious beast, the paying public.
Artful though your story may be, it's an entertainment that is tacitly designed to earn its producers money. For this reason it behooves you - at some point in your development process - to think about your movie from the buyers' point of view. And satisfying an audience is practically all these guys ever think about.
Because studios must fill slates (roster of features they plan to
release every year), and specific genres balance them out, buyers
look at scripts in pragmatic terms. First and foremost, they want to
know what the script is and who it's for: Is it an action
thriller? That's one kind of audience. A family
comedy? That's another.
Thus a family comedy that's littered with explicit sexual humor is a fish with feathers. An action thriller that's light on scares, fights and explosive violence is a dog that won't hunt. It's for this reason that I deplore the romantic comedy specs I've read that are neither romantic nor funny: they make no sense. We go to a comedy to have LOL laughs; we go to a romantic comedy to have our warm-and-fuzzy romantic feelings titillated (they don't call them date movies for nothing). So anyone writing a rom-com spec that delivers neither side of the equation is writing for an audience of one.
Does your adult drama have a female protagonist? Then you're probably writing for a female-driven audience (i.e. the women will lead the charge, and the men may come later). If it's truly "adult," you're probably addressing women in their 30s, 40s, even (gasp) 50s and older. Think about one of those women, and what she may want to see on the screen.
I'll wager she'll actually show up at a theater this Christmas to see Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated - a movie starring Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, about a remarried woman who's tempted to take up with her ex-husband. Haven't seen it yet, but I'm guessing it delves deeply into the emotional concerns of a woman of a certain age and that it doesn't feature a hair-raising car chase that ends in explosive bloodshed.
Here's a good quick post about a spec script sale from this past year that illustrates this idea: the writer "had a clear understanding of the exact type of movie he was crafting."
Think about your audience. At some point in your process, ask of your project - Who would want to see this? Who'll pay for the sitter and the parking and the refreshments? Or who'll see it with four friends and splurge their allowance on seeing it again?
Maybe you're writing a "four quadrant" movie (one that appeals to young, old, male and female), but my point is: there are such things as quadrants. And the spec scripts that sell generally target at least one of them. I'm not talking about purposely perverting your story for commercial ends - I'm suggesting that you think about who, specifically, might best enjoy the story you want to write. If you know that, you'll be able to do the often necessary tailoring that will make your spec script a good enough fit to make a sale.