Q&A: Why Are Unsolicited Submissions Policies So Brutal?

A:  We can answer your question, but frankly, you may not like what we’re going to say.  Unfortunately, that 10 foot thick wall is probably as old as the Great Wall of China and is equally as impenetrable.  For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of submitting a script to an individual, production company, studio or, god forbid, law firm only to have it returned to you with a letter classifying it as an “unsolicited submission,” we can give you a little background.

Most people or entities that are involved in entertainment production have a blanket policy of not accepting unsolicited submissions, which are scripts or other materials sent to them by people with whom they haven’t dealt in the past.  When an unsolicited submission is received, it is generally returned to the sender with a letter advising that the script has not been read.  Most responses also advise that the only scripts that will be considered are those that are sent through an agent.

While the average Hollywood exec enjoys curbstomping the dreams of strangers as much as producing a hit, the unsolicited submission policy is actually based in reason.  In the interests of full disclosure, we should note that our firm often receives unsolicited submissions.  We, like others, have a strict unsolicited submission policy, for the following reasons:

First, without such a policy, studios, producers, law firms and other entertainment entities would be inundated with scripts.  Even with such a policy in place, our firm probably receives at least one unsolicited submission every few days, and we’re not even in the business of producing.  While the policy may seem unreasonable to you and others reading this blog because you are actually writing decent scripts, the sad truth is that a large number of unsolicited submissions are written by people who have as much business writing scripts as we have entering body building competitions.  When the majority of unsolicited submissions are lacking in formatting, spelling, dialogue, and plot, it’s ruining it for the rest of you.  Requiring that the scripts be submitted by an agent is an imperfect way to whittle down submissions to cut out those that clearly don’t belong.  This unfortunately also cuts out writers with talent but no talent agent.

The second, and most important, reason for unsolicited submissions policies has to do with the avoidance of liability (sorry to get all lawyerly on you).  One of the key questions in a copyright infringement lawsuit is whether the supposed infringer had access to the work that was purportedly infringed upon (which makes sense considering you can’t copy something if you’ve never seen it).  As we all know, Americans love to sue.  The last thing a studio wants is to pour millions of dollars into a project only to be sued later by someone who claims that the movie is similar to a script they submitted to the studio three years ago.  If someone at the studio read it at some point, even if the script went straight into the trash (or, hopefully, recycling bin) and the studio didn’t use anything from it when making their movie, the screenwriter may at least have enough of a claim to give the studio problems and affect the release of their film.  All this pain due to some mysterious, three year old script filled with gibberish that is currently residing in a dump (or, hopefully, is currently being utilized as a recycled-material coffee cup holder at Starbucks).  The studio obviously wants to avoid this at all costs.  Therefore, studios and other entertainment entities have decided to lower the likelihood of anything like this being an issue by strictly adhering to a policy of not reading the hundreds of unsolicited submissions they receive every year.

Unfortunately, when it comes to unsolicited submission policies, you can fight the law but the law’s gonna win.  Our recommendation is to concentrate your focus on engaging an agent.  There are a lot of them out there; you can spot them because they’re always younger, cleaner, thinner, better dressed, and more annoying than you are.  Once you get an agent, you can scrub your script free of that dirty “unsolicited submission” label and get it in front of the people who need to see it.

This blog was originally published as part of Legal Ease, Film Independent’s weekly column on legal matters pertaining to the entertainment industry. To see other LEGAL EASE columns please click here.