My friend and fellow screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers) has a Venn diagram he uses to determine whether a spec script idea is worth his time. There are three circles on the diagram – the ideas he loves, the ideas he thinks he can do well, and the ideas he thinks he can sell. He only wants to put in time and energy on the ideas that fall in the intersection of these three circles. (I might add a fourth circle – whether the idea will advance my brand/reputation.)
It takes a lot of time and energy to write a spec script. Why would you want to invest that time on an idea you don’t love? And why would you want to invest that time on an idea that you can’t sell?
It’s pretty easy to figure out whether you love an idea, and only a little harder to figure out if it’s something you can do well. However it can be quite tricky to figure out if an idea is something you can sell.
Here’s an exercise that can help: Think of five movies that are similar to yours in terms of genre, tone and scope that have been released in the last three years. Go ahead, do it now.
If you have difficulty coming up with five movies, it may be an indication that there isn’t really a market for that type of movie. (It could also be an indication that you haven’t really developed your idea enough.) Perhaps you should move on to a new idea.
If you were able to come up with five movies, you’re not done yet.
Do you love all the movies on your list? If not, it could be an indication that you aren’t working in the right genre. You should really love the type of movie you're trying to write. Try coming up with replacements for any movies on your list that you didn’t like.
Now, dig a little deeper into your analysis by asking these questions:
Were the movies successful? Don’t rely on your impression or memory, check boxofficemojo.com. And don’t just look at gross, compare gross to budget (also available on boxofficemojo). Generally, a movie has to gross at least 2.5 times its budget worldwide to be profitable. Not all five of your movies have to be hits, but if none of them were, it might be a bad sign for your idea.
Now it gets a little trickier. You will have to do some subjective analysis, and you will be tempted to reach conclusions that support the idea you want to write. Try to be as clear eyed as possible as you ask:
What do the five movies have in common? Are they all star vehicles? Are they all within a certain budget range? Do they all have the same rating? Are they all set in a contemporary time period? If your concept does not share the things the five movies have in common, it could be a warning sign. You might want to adjust your idea (for example, if you were envisioning an R rated movie but all five comparison movies were PG-13, consider toning yours down). Or, maybe the movies weren't as similar to your idea as you first thought. You might need to find five different movies to justify sticking with your approach.
(Edited to add: Additionally, if all of the movies you picked are based on underlying material, it might be a warning that your idea will be a tough sell if it's an original story.)
The Same but Different
Now, ask yourself how your idea is different from the five. There is good different and bad different. Bad is when you are ignoring a factor that was relevant to the other movies’ success (e.g. they all had movie star leads while you envision an ensemble). Good is when your idea has something fresh and original about it that is compelling.
Hollywood is not famous for originality and risk taking, but it isn’t looking for carbon copy movies either. If your idea is marketable, there will likely be hundreds of similar scripts floating around at the same time. How is yours fresh? What are you adding to the genre? Again, it can’t be so different than you lose what is marketable about the type of movie, but it has to be different enough that it will interest fans of that type of movie.
This type of analysis is helpful to prevent you from wasting time on an idea that has no potential for selling, or to allow you to adjust your idea in a more marketable direction before you start writing. However, remember that marketability is only one circle on Paul’s Venn diagram. You also need to love the idea and feel you can write it well. If the idea doesn’t fit the sweet spot, it is probably worth spending time looking for a new idea.
And before you get too enamored with the fact that you found the perfect idea, read this post on the value of ideas.