5 Screenplays Worth Writing, Even If They'll Never Sell

Hollywood type writerAspiring screenwriters share a big dream: Selling a screenplay.  That’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it?  It’s with that in mind that most put pen to paper – or more likely put fingers to keyboard.  As such, writing a screenplay that’s un-filmable seems like a fool’s errand.  Why would you write a screenplay that no studio would want to purchase?  Well because it’s sometimes these screenplays that get attention and become your calling card to the industry. The following are five types of un-filmable, not-likely-to-get-purchased screenplays that are still worth writing!

1) The Inevitable Development Hell Script

In 2004, mostly unknown DJ Danger Mouse mixed The Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s Black Album to create The Grey Album ­­-- a fantastic mash-up of Jay-Z rapping over beats pieced together from White Album samples.  It got an underground release and a small pressing, but it was short lived as record company EMI – in charge of The Beatles at the time – commenced a lawsuit, forcing the commercial release of the album to be halted. Sad ending, right?  No, because even though this work could never be legally released, the novelty of it was so fun and the end result so good that Danger Mouse made a name for himself, eventually hooking up with rising singer/rapper Cee-Lo Green to become one half of international sensation Gnarls Barkley just two years later.  He made something that was impossible to make money off of, but it got him the notoriety needed to start his career.

This is also a fine strategy in the world of screenwriting.  Just because it would be impossible to get the rights to sell your screenplay or make a movie from it, if the idea is novel enough it will get read – and likely remembered.

  A few years back a writer named Christopher Weekes won a survey of the best unproduced scripts with The Muppet Man – a biopic of the late, great Jim Henson.  But this wasn’t a straightforward biopic, it utilized a fantasy world where Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and all our favorite Muppets were living lives that mirrored the mental state of Jim Henson.  The film opens with Kermit the Frog in a bombed-out apartment in a fit of depression and a drinking problem.

This is a problem, because The Henson Company owns the life rights to Jim Henson but Disney owns The Muppets.  So for this movie to ever get made the two companies would have to get together and strike a deal, something probably not worth the negotiation time.  And even if you could get them in a room, what are the odds Disney would be cool with their huge children’s franchise being shown on screen as a bunch of alcoholics?  For these reasons the movie can never be made.  But that didn’t stop Christopher Weekes from getting city-wide recognition and being hired to write for various projects.

2) The Hollywood Insider Script

Some of the most talked-about screenplays in Hollywood recently have been behind-the-scenes scripts that show a side to a famous Hollywood story we haven’t seen.  In 2011 a spec about the filming of Star Wars through the eyes of Chewbacca-actor Peter Mayhew (called Chewie) was second in the list of best unproduced screenplays.  In 2013 the same list involved two separate screenplays about the making of the Spielberg classic Jaws (This would be The Mayor of Shark City and the wonderfully-titled The Shark is Not Working).

Hollywood insiders – the very same people who read hundreds of screenplays a year – are drawn to these works as they’re about a world that they’re familiar with.  A producer at a big studio will naturally be attracted to a script about a fun story in filmmaking.  But they’re not stupid, they know that John Doe in Tuscon, Arizona won’t find this nearly as interesting as people in Hollywood will.  Plus, they like reading such scripts because, they don’t mind laughing at themselves. They hardly ever make such self-reflexive movies because they hate they idea of other people laughing at them. As such, these films rarely get funded unless there’s some bigger hook (like Argo had with the international thriller elements).  But that won’t stop one of these screenplays from potentially getting you noticed.

3) The Crude & Rude Script

There was a trend for a bit where spec screenplays had titles that couldn’t be put on a marquee.  This is a classic way to draw attention to a screenplay that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.  It even permeated the TV world, with shows with titles like “Shit My Dad Says” and “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23” getting greenlit.

But it’s not just a crude title that can make your script stand out.  Reading a screenplay full of all sorts of nudity or violence that would be impossible to get by the MPAA without an NC-17 can make it memorable.  This is not to say you should throw an orgy just for the sake of an orgy, that would be better in…

4) The Insanity Script

Two working writers came together and wrote a screenplay called Balls Out and credited it as written by “The Robotard 8000”, a sort of sentient robot.  Under the name Robotard 8000, they created a cheesy web site with reviews of the script by big industry people.  The script became pretty popular and you can actually find it on their web site.  To give an idea what it’s like, it starts with “FADE THE FUCK IN:”

Obviously that film isn’t getting made, but dammit was it insane enough to attract attention.  Now of course this doesn’t mean you can just write something stupid and expect fame and fortune.  Balls Out is a legitimately well-written screenplay that just happens to be absolutely insane.  You want your script to be easy to remember?  Well this is a good way to do that!

5) The Idealist Script

H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most infamous horror writers of all time.  Stephen King called him his biggest inspiration.  Filmmaker Guillermo Del Torocredits Lovecraft’s works for inspiring his entire film career.  How come we haven’t really seen any big Lovecraft stories (such as his most famous work, Call of Cthulhu) be turned intofeature films?  It’s because his stuff would require huge budgets but would need to be rated R, a combination studios tend to avoid.  An idealist would make a big-budget, R-rated Lovecraft film because the world deserves to see it, but Hollywood isn’t an ideal place.

Balancing budget and audience/ demographic is a big part of writing a script you want to sell.  If you know what you’re writing would only appeal to a small demographic, then you want it to be low budget.  This can restrict your storytelling.  But if you’re writing a script where you don’t care about its commercial viability then you can literally do anything.  You’re writing a screenplay as an idealist: Putting story before profits. 

This can be fun for the person reading it as well.  An introspective think piece… that happens to take place on a huge spaceship!  Why not!?  Sure the film would require a budget of a huge blockbuster for what’s basically an indie drama, but hey you’re writing this for you!  That refreshing idealism can become contagious, getting into the producer who’s so accustomed to screenplays written with the cynical knowledge of demographic/budget balance.

And this boils down to why we write screenplays: To tell the story we want to tell.  The beauty of a writing sample over a spec screenplay is that since you’re not writing it with the intention to sell it, you have more creative freedom and an opportunity to really display your own unique “voice”. So that idea you have in your head that you were afraid wasn’t commercially viable?  You know, your 200 million dollar biopic of Galileo?  Or your Iron-Man/Batman mash-up?  Or your script about penis enlargement that would have to show actual erect penises?  There might be an upside to writing ‘em if you can execute them extremely well.

Up for the challenge?