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5 Ways Screenwriters Can Adapt to the Marketplace

March 5, 2023
6 min read time

The entertainment industry is in a constant state of flux and always has been thanks to emerging technology and evolving tastes. Whether you’re an aspiring or veteran screenwriter, it benefits you to be able to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace. Not only will it increase your chances of success in the film and television industry, it can also lead to you growing as a writer and discovering more modes of expression than you’ve previously imagined.

Below are 5 ways screenwriters can adapt to the marketplace:

Look at What’s Selling and Streaming

These days the major studios primarily churn out tentpole films (e.g., super hero films, action/adventure franchises, etc.). This is due to an expanding global marketplace and these kinds of films have multinational appeal.

Most screenwriters won’t be landing these kinds of writing jobs out of the gate. However, even independent producers are looking for more content that can translate overseas, which is why there’s more survival thrillers to stream than quirky dramedies.

That being said, streaming has led to a lot of different kinds of films getting made because streaming platforms need to constantly update their content. In recent years Rom-Coms have been making a comeback on platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, as well as biopics and gritty, low-budget thrillers. You might not be able to write the next big Marvel movie, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write the next indie darling. So when thinking of what genre to write in, be aware of the type of content that’s being bought and streamed most frequently. This is one of the many ways a screenwriter can successfully “roll with the changes.”

Scale Back and Scale Down

In my article “Big Story, Small Budget”, I wrote about how screenwriters can increase their chances of selling a script if they’re mindful of budgetary restrictions. Another popular subgenre on streaming platforms is the contained thriller because they only require one primary location and a limited cast. Even prior to the Covid pandemic, this was becoming the model for many independent productions; afterwards, even more so.

When I interviewed writer-director Graham Moore about his acclaimed film The Outfit, he confirmed that he was mindful of the financial realities of the film business and, as such, knowingly constructed a story that would work with a single location and limited cast.

Moore didn’t find this limiting as an artist at all; rather, it inspired him to expand as a writer and tell a story similar to many of the classic Golden Era Hollywood films — many of which were based on plays — that he loved. Sometimes creating a tighter framework will lead a writer to explore certain themes and ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise. It also enables you to focus more on your characters and dialogue, which can be a great showcase for an emerging screenwriter, and possibly lead to assignment work even if your script doesn’t sell.

Be Open to Different Formats

As mentioned above, streaming has radically changed the entertainment industry and screenwriting marketplace. Along with every new streaming platform is a new wave of original programming (following a pattern established by cable networks).

Screenwriters like Mike White pivoted from features to cable series years ago; and Mike’s latest and most successful series, HBO’s The White Lotus, has a narrative scope that wouldn’t have been possible if it was a 90 minute feature (each episode of the series representing a day and night at a wealthy and exotic resort). They’ll only be more content like this in the future and more storytellers creating projects for cable and streaming platforms rather than for cinemas. The notion of what is “cinema” and what is “television” has blurred beyond recognition.

And unlike the feature marketplace, many TV series still cater to domestic audiences. So if you have a feature script that’s out of step with the current marketplace, perhaps you should reimagine it as a TV series. That’s exactly what British screenwriter Jesse Armstrong did after his feature script about the Murdoch family entitled simply Murdoch failed to get produced (it made the 2010 Blacklist). In a brilliant move, Armstrong not only changed the names of the characters and a few plot points to distinguish the fictional Roy family from the Murdochs, he reimagined it as a cable series and eventually the project got greenlit by HBO with Adam McKay attached as a producer (McKay also directed the pilot episode). 

The resulting series, Succession, is one of HBO’s most successful and critically-acclaimed shows — having received several awards and nominations — and it’s still going strong. As the series creator and showrunner, Jesse Armstrong is in a far more powerful position than he would’ve been in just as a screenwriter, and Succession has carved itself more into pop culture than it might’ve as a Murdoch biopic. Armstrong adapted to a new landscape and he took things to another level. Oftentimes success comes from switching gears at the right moment and seizing an opportunity.

Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Style

If you’re writing in a manner that’s a little out of fashion, maybe it’s time for a change. From my own experience, I’ve sustained a career over the years — even with few produced credits — via changing my writing style at certain points in time. I first broke in with a screenplay that was an absurd character comedy in the vein of Austin Powers and Borat, but almost as soon as that script sold, there was a continental shift in the world of comedy features thanks almost single-handedly to Judd Apatow. His hit film Knocked Up had issued in a more grounded approach to comedic storytelling. As a result, “grounded” was the word on every development person’s tongue.

The only chance my former writing partner and I had of continuing to work and sell scripts was to adapt to the needs of the marketplace. We successfully pitched a more grounded Rom-Com to Universal with Jay Roach attached to produce and possibly direct. The resulting script, Divorce Ceremony, fell into “Development Limbo”, but we were well paid and, more importantly, the script provided us with a new writing sample: showing that we weren’t just writers of absurd comedy and could handle more grounded material. This resulted in another wave of high-profile writing jobs for Universal, Paramount, and Warner Brothers (as well as working with production companies like Ben Stiller’s Red Hour and Todd Phillips’ Green Hat Films).

Be Open to Different Genres

Many of us enjoy watching different genres of film and television, yet many screenwriters get stuck writing in one genre. Obviously if you’re finding success in a certain genre, congratulations and keep it up! But if you’ve been slogging away for years — writing spec after spec in a certain genre without much or any success — perhaps it’s time to start writing in a different genre.

Interestingly enough, when writing the script for Todd Phillips, we were told by his producing partners that The Hangover director was looking to move away from broad comedies and explore more dramatic material and genre-bending a’la the Coen Brothers. So it did’t surprise me a few years later when Phillips directed the black comedy crime film War Dogs (2016), and then when he really took things to the next level by giving a certain Batman arch-nemesis a Scorsese-esque makeover with his 2019 global blockbuster Joker.

In similar fashion, writer-directors like Adam McKay and  David Gordon Green have moved away from broad comedy to other genres (political satire and horror) to great success. Not only has this help sustain their careers, it has given them more opportunities to express themselves.

Of course we’re not all A-list writer-directors, but regardless it’s important for screenwriters to have an open mind about genres. In an ever-changing marketplace some film and television genres become less popular while others become highly popular. In a past article I wrote about how I started selling scripts and getting assignment jobs after a long dry spell; I didn’t mention that one of the ways I accomplished this was by switching from writing comedies to biopics. Taking a cue from the above filmmakers, I once again adapted to the needs of the marketplace, and I think I grew as a writer as a result. 

Whenever you get out of your comfort zone and attempt to stretch your talent, you’ll discover new modes of expression and possibly new career opportunities.

In general, the ability to change and adapt is a key component of success. 

But in screenwriting it’s vital.

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