What are the odds of selling a good screenplay?

Ask A Screenwriter #4

Short answer: Very, Very Low.

Estimating odds is never easy because a number of assumptions must be made, and many of these assumptions may not apply to a particular script. “Good” is an extremely subjective term. A brilliant and original screenplay may actually be no easier to sell than an average script if what makes the story “good” is seen as risky, or if the “originality” is misunderstood. Conversely, if the writer just had a hit movie, the odds of selling the next script skyrocket. Maybe, it’s a mediocre screenplay based on a wildly popular book. Sometimes scripts are bought just because producers or executives like the underlying premise and they plan to hire a more seasoned writer to rewrite it. However, a script that is well-written is always more likely to sell that than a script telling the same general story that is mediocre.

So, here are some general statistics to make the argument that, all other things being equal, the odds of selling a good screenplay are LOW. And for you, probably about 1/1000.

Roughly 50,000 screenplays are registered at the WGA each year.[1] However, not all screenplays get registered, so it is safe to assume that about double that number of feature scripts get written every year. (For example, I finished two screenplays last year, but I didn’t register either at the WGA. There are many other ways to establish a legal claim of authorship, including registering the script with the Library of Congress.)

Some estimate that as many as one million scripts are written per year worldwide in hopes of “selling” that script to Hollywood.[2] So my pool of 100,000 scripts is really just the 10% of scripts worldwide that are “professionally” written – meaning any script reader would recognize it as having the minimum level of narrative form, format, coherence, and quality to submit to a buyer.

So, out of 100,000 “professional” screenplays how many of them are “good.” Let’s just say the top 5% of screenplays are good.

So out of 5,000 good screenplays how many actually sell?

In 2018 there were only 40 spec screenplay sales reported in the Hollywood Reporter or Variety, a statistic gathered by the folks who run The Blacklist.[3] This doesn’t count writers who are hired to write scripts based on existing material ( a book, a sequel, an existing script that needs a rewrite, a producer’s idea, etc,) which makes up the bulk of the paid screenwriting done in Hollywood. It also doesn’t count the many screenplays that are optioned, with writers hired to rewrite their own material. However, when people say “sell a screenplay” they are usually imagining selling an original script to a major studio or production company. The average number of these sales in recent years is about 50 screenplays per year.

So to summarize, assuming your script is one of the 5000 “good” scripts out of the one million that get written worldwide. Your chances of selling it are…

1% or one-in-one-hundred.

Are you discouraged yet? It gets worse.

How many of those 50 sales are screenplays by unknown, unestablished writers? Maybe 4. Sometimes fewer. Yet how many of the 5000 scripts were written by unknown, unestablished, non-WGA writers? Only about 5000 WGA writers out of 20,000 WGA members, earn any money in a given year, and most of them are TV writers. But let’s be wildly optimistic and say that of the 5000 good scripts written, 1000 of them were written by WGA members.

This means that out of the 4000 good scripts written by as-yet-unknown writers, only 4 will actually sell. So, for you, the chances are one-in-a-thousand.

What does this mean for you and your dreams of being a screenwriter? If you have “what it takes” to write movies, you are probably delusional, obsessed, and sadly unfit to do anything else. So stop reading Quora and get back to writing.

As Han Solo said in The Empire Strikes Back…

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

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