Is it difficult to get anyone to buy a screenplay you write? I am thinking about writing a screenplay but am concerned that maybe I shouldn't waste my time; I have no formal training in writing screenplays. Is it harder or easier than getting a novel published?
It's extremely, extremely difficult.
Not too many people making movies. Lots of people writing screenplays. Gargantuan investment to get a movie made. Not an easy sell.
Now, it depends to a large extent on what kind of screenplay you're writing, and what kind of scope you're looking for. If you're aiming for a full-length Hollywood feature, then the odds of reaching that with your first or second screenplay are pretty much infinitesimal. I'm not really at all familiar with smaller movie producers, but it's safe to assume various fringe producers and more independent studios will not be quite as inaccessible - but nonetheless, it's an awfully tough sell.
"Harder or easier than getting a novel published" is an interesting point for comparison; that can also be a pretty Herculean task, so I'm not sure the comparison will be very helpful. My guess is "harder," if you're talking about a full-length movie - there are far fewer of those made every year than books published.
I'm afraid the state of the industry is not such that one can embark on a career with any expectation of a smooth success. Success in this field takes a long, long time; often a lot of very unrewarding work; and dedication, dedication, dedication. I'm not saying it can't be done or isn't worth pursuing; I'm saying if your consideration is that if it's too difficult than you shouldn't devote time for it, then I wouldn't start unless:
- You're interested in writing for the love, art, and craft of it, and will be proud of your work even if it's never sold, or
- You're willing to devote a huge amount of time and effort to selling your work, and suffer plenty of rejections and false starts until then.
Good luck to you, in whatever venture you choose :)
Edited to add: Here's a couple of places where Mette Ivie Harrison discusses the 20 novels she wrote before getting published. Now, that's not necessarily how it goes for everybody, and I don't mean to be discouraging - I'm just saying, having a lot of dead-ends and unsuccessful pieces is to be expected. It comes with the territory. Accumulating talent, craft and reputation takes a lot of writing before you've got those things. As long as that's clear, go for it if you want to, and if not - it's because you know how much it'll cost you.
You have to dedicate your entire life to it. If you just have one idea and think you can make money, it simply won't happen. You have to put hours every day into the craft for years. I know someone who is from a top university who moved to L.A. right after school and now works 12 hours per day studying and writing. He's sold his screenplays, but he's still struggling. I met an Oscar winner in screenwriting and she can't get a screenwriting gig. I know of a producer who has an A-list actress attached before money has been raised. Actors didn't do that before, but it's the economy that has changed the playing field of making movies.
I've been at it for 18 years and got minor jobs; nothing has been produced. The best way to write is to become a producer. To be a producer, you need huge connections to big money or big talent. These connections have to be solid. Or you can break in by being a big director who directs his own writing. Make a small movie, but it has to be GREAT. You can do low budget work, but just trying to raise money is a huge undertaking. If you produce and finance your own small movie with B-list actors, you're still a HUGE LONG SHOT to get distribution. If you don't get distribution, your budget turns into money spent on nothing. I know people who this happened to. There are people who dedicate a big part of their lives to filmmaking who are struggling. Some-to-many are famous, believe it or not.
Breaking into "the business" by getting a spec script sold is a long shot. Write your spec scripts because you like writing and you want to improve, not because you're looking to get something sold.
An easier way to break in is to move to Los Angeles. Scratch and hustle for any writing job you can find: commercials, TV, film, whatever. Find anyone who is willing to read your stuff and get them to do it. Those people, if you're good, will find writing assignments for you.
Don't forget to practice your Oscar acceptance speech.
While it is extremely difficult to break into anything like screenwriting, remember that it's a sellers market.
Great material is the key to get in.
Contacts help. Nepotism really helps, but if you write an awesome script, you will have no problem getting in. Seriously, 99% of scripts are awful. Of course I pulled that number out of my butt but it's true. The vast majority of screenplays are garbage. Most are doomed from the start with boring ideas and even worse execution.
Write a great script, enter it into some contests and you'll be on your way.