Horror Scriptwriter and UK Script Consultant – notes on writing and selling a horror script

As a UK Script Consultant my script coverage service and script report service are hugely popular – now more than ever before. I’m also a director of three low budget UK horror feature films ‘Markham’, ‘At The Mountains of Madness and ‘When the Earth Gives Up The Dead is currently in production as we speak. I’m a big fan of horror filmmaking…

As a fan of horror and as a popular scriptwriter for hire I often get contacted by people with ideas for horror films or with a horror script or two already written that they want me to take a look at.

Horror scriptwriter for hire

A lot of time I supply the following notes in reports, as standard to give writers some basic framework to think of when writing a horror script or pitching a horror movie idea.  

Horror as a genre is doing really well at the moment. But it’s worth looking at a few recent Hollywood scripts – from a business POV to see a little about the industry works.

Paranormal Activity (and its multiple sequels) has become a tent pole franchise and so has The Purge series (multiple sequels, TV series – recognisable brand).  How did these scripts end up like this?

Looking at both films and the original scripts – Paranormal Activity was written to be made as a ZERO budget film (and it was in the end).  

The Purge series has become a huge industry – BUT THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT was written for a ZERO budget too – it ended up being made with Ethan Hawke and Lena Headley – but the script for the very first Purge movie is SET ALMOST ENTIRELY IN ONE LOCATION, with a very small cast – so it could have been shot with a zero budget had it not picked up any interest.

Now, horror is a genre that has always suited low budgets well – the original Evil Dead film by Sam Raimi was one location and was essentially made by a group of young kids / students – the film was backed by investors (who were local dentists putting up money for the film stock and processing – which back in the early 80s was a BIG EXPENSE).   The Evil Dead, if made today, could be shot on digital video to a professional standard and the only real cost would be the actors and crew.

Horror Scriptwriters

So, the writers of both The Purge and Paranormal Activity knew to write their scripts for a very low budget (with essentially ONE LOCATION and a very small cast).  

Two different things happened to each script.

In the case of The Purge – some producers picked it up and threw a small amount of money at it – enabling them to cast Lena Headley and Ethan Hawke – this helped give the first film some NAME ACTOR billing.  Which helps sell the film once it has been made.

In the case of Paranormal Activity – they didn’t get any money, and just shot the script with whatever actors they could get.

BOTH FILMS BECAME HITS, and spawned multiple sequels.

To be honest, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY probably had bigger profits at the start (as it cost nothing to make). The Purge initially probably had more press and reviews.   BUT, both films ended in the same place – successful and spawning a ‘tent pole’ franchise.

It’s interesting to think that it would probably have worked the other way around too to an extent.  Lena and Ethan could have been cast in Paranormal Activity and the film could have had a bigger budget.   And The Purge could have been shot for no money, with whatever actors they could get. So, it could have been vice versa with potentially the exact same result.

The Key Takeaway is – BOTH SCRIPTS could have been shot on a VERY LOW (read zero) budget.  Both scripts had a small cast and BOTH SCRIPTS are ONE LOCATION.  

Designed for a low budget

Like the Evil Dead back in the early 80s both scripts were designed to be shot for a very low budget…

So, if you want to get a horror film made or sell the script– follow that recipe.  ONE LOCATION / SMALL CAST.  If your script gets picked up by producers with access to funding – you might end up with some ‘name actors’ attached and a slightly bigger budget to add some production value – but, if it doesn’t attract interest – your script can still be made with a tiny budget, and potentially generate interestif it delivers the scares – and that’s another KEY takeaway – you don’t need a huge budget, cast of thousands or multiple locations to DELIVER, TENSION, SHOCK AND SCARE YOUR AUDIENCE.

Paranormal Activity / The Purge and countless other low budget horrors have delivered scares without the need to spend a fortune.  You could argue that back in the day the very original Texas Chainsaw Massacre delivered scares with the title ALONE – and that film has spawned multiple sequels and merchandising.

Takeaways are:

  • Small cast
  • Single Location (or as close as possible)
  • Scares

Even Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining is essentially in one location.  If its good enough for Stan – everybody else should go that way too.  

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.

His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham was released in 2020, his second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ hit the screen in 2021. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.