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The Bane of Hollywood: The Bulls and Bears of Writing A Spec Screenplay ala The Wolf of Wall Street

Updated on March 27, 2016

A Speculator's Guide to the Screenwriter's Market

Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is bound to be another in a legendary and long cinematic line of cult classics by the iconic director. The great performance of Leonardo DiCaprio certainly helped the film achieve its lofty critical and commercial success. The great acting and directing do somewhat unfortunately overshadow the outstanding screenplay.

The Wolf of Wall Street is one of those films that inspires people to become screenwriters. Ironically, the film is also one of the worst types of spec scripts to write. Does that mean there is no value in writing a screenplay in the vein of this brilliant film?

As the great William Goldman famously said, "No one knows anything." In other words, any and all endeavors in Hollywood are pure speculation. He's right. You could craft a totally against the grain screenplay and achieve overnight stardom.

More likely, sticking with the tried and true path of what usually works reveals the more likely path to success.

What an Awful Screenplay This Great Screenplay Is

Truthfully, there are a lot of problems with crafting a spec that follows the structure of The Wolf of Wall Street. Success in Hollywood is often based on strategery. Producing an unsellable screenplay, even if it is a great screenplay, is not the wisest strategic action to take.

I can hear the criticism levied at the screenplay now. The bulk of the reader, reviewers, and analysts are surely going to harp on the following points:

  • No through-line or definitive plot exists. The narrative just seems to play out.
  • There are far too many characters in the script and they should be consolidated.
  • The language is vulgar and many scenes are sexist.

In all honesty, there is validity found in all three of those points of criticism. The film is a reflection of a "life lived" and does not follow the "plot point 1 and plot point 2" methodology of the vast majority of screenplays. You do have a lot of characters to keep track of and this is not always easy. And yes, the film is a very, very R-Rated one and the screenplay is not exactly trying to avoid offending. Do you really want to offend an agent or producer reading your screenplay?

Origins, Options, and Development Mean Things

Writing a screenplay with these three elements and hoping to shop it around as a spec would be near insanity. Yes, it is a great screenplay on many levels but the work was not born of spec writing. The film is an adaptation of an autobiography. It was the original book that was optioned to be turned into a film. $1 million went to author and subject Jordan Belfort

The film was also developed by Leonardo DiCaprio and the legendary director Martin Scorsese. Those are two people who can pretty much do whatever they want with a film. No one is going to step in and tell them what not to do. When all the theatrical release tallies were added up, The Wolf of Wall Street pulled in $300 million worldwide. That figure only adds up the theatrical earnings. DVD and television revenues are probably in the $100+ million range, too.

What can DiCaprio and Scorsese do with their next project? Anything and everything they want. Money talks.

You Have Yet To Be Established

As a newbie screenwriter looking for an agent or getting a script optioned, an over-the-top film of this nature is not likely to be an easy sale. That said, you might not be able to sell the screenplay but you could sell yourself.

Even if a sample screenplay was totally unsellable and unfilmable, the talent of the writer is present on the page. The screenplay could still open doors and help establish your talent. Just be sure to have a two or three "more standard" screenplays in your portfolio, too. Sadly, a lot of agents, managers, and producers are solely going to listen to the pitch of the screenplay. Any screenplay - specific screenplay - they cannot buy or sell is going to be dismissed. If the pitch reflects something they do not want, the are not going to read it.

No one ever sees the brilliance of your writing as a result.

Now, if you work as a receptionist or an assistant or in any other capacity in a production house, development office, or any other area of the film industry, you are going to know people. They are going to know you. This means they will be more inclined to read your screenplay regardless of what it is about.

This is why you must make contacts in the industry and try to get your foot in the door whenever and wherever possible.

Don't Let Them Discourage You, Though

Anyone who is a budding screenwriter does need to develop a tough skin. You may write the greatest screenplay ever written and you could easily find 100+ people in Hollywood who hate it. They will also have a dozen reasons each while the great screenplay is really an awful one.

There are two steps you should always take when you are trying to shop your abilities as a screenwriter. The first step is to always hone your craft and try to improve your talent. Never developing the mindset of an "artiste" or becoming a know-it-all will work wonders towards ensuring you continue to progress.

The second thing to remember is to never, ever let anyone discourage you with overly harsh or unfair criticism. Do not let those who are jealous of your abilities try to convince you that your skills are lacking. People do have hidden agendas and petty natures. If you let them define you, they will do so....and you will be the loser as a result.

Believe in your talent, always try to improve your skills, stay positive, and don't get discouraged.

If you write a great script, it can always help you. Just be realistic about the limitations certain types of screenplays yield.

Just like The Wolf of Wall Street, you have to be confident and sell yourself. And just like the scene where he was selling those terrible penny stocks, you may very well be able to sell really bad screenplays for huge fees. You never know.


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