When To Let A Script Die
Letting a script die is probably the single hardest thing for a screenwriter to do. You’ve spent months, maybe years working on this material. The dream of what this script could be has fueled that process.
But some scripts are in trouble from the point of conception, because their inherent nature makes them an uphill battle. This has become especially true in the feature realm, in a post-Marvel age.
The overwhelming majority of big-budget films are based on pre-existing intellectual property. For writers with a big-budget spec script, this presents a significant problem. What it means, practically-speaking, is that a big-budget spec script, even with a true high-concept, is unlikely to gain traction in the current market.
Without a true high-concept, the challenge is even greater. This is the situation where it’s okay to let a script die. It may seem like doing so is a loss for a screenwriter. But that’s not considering opportunity cost.
The economics term “opportunity cost” refers to the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. If a screenwriter devotes their time to a project that is simply untenable in the current market, they are losing time they could be spending on a more viable project.
A big-budget spec script with a low concept is a combination that will A) not appeal to studios, and thus B) not appeal to producers or C) representatives. A true high-concept has an ironic hook that connects the protagonist and the plot.
So, for example, “A CIA agent tries to stop terrorists from getting a nuke” is low-concept. There is no ironic connection between the protagonist and the plot. The protagonist is literally performing their job.
But, “A cop goes undercover with the mob while a gangster infiltrates the police force, until their lives intersect and they must stop their counterpart” is ironic, since both characters are living lives contrary to their natures. This is the concept of the film THE DEPARTED.
Working to perfect a screenplay is challenging, time-consuming and laborious. Burning that energy on a project that is unlikely to move forward even in the best of circumstances is not a good use of a screenwriter’s time.
If your script has a high budget but a low concept, it may be time to let it die. The loss is really a gain, because a writer can move on to a project with a true high-concept, and a much stronger chance of achieving traction in the business.
Have you had experiences with letting a script die? Was it ultimately a positive choice? Let us know in the comments below.