I recently wrote up a series of notes for a client script. I got this in response:
“My only question for you is whether you think there is something salvageable here(1). Obviously as a writer there’s always value in finishing a project in order to improve. But I really don’t wanna put my time into it unless there’s a good possibility for financial gain (2). Let’s say, hypothetically, you took the script and doctored it so that some of the things you mentioned were refined and fixed etc (3). Do you think it would have a fair shot at selling (4)?”
This is a textbook teachable moment. Let me unpack why.
(1) When people use words like “salvageable” they’re usually talking about the core concept, not the execution. Modern screenplays aren’t really about the big idea, they’re about the execution. Look at THE NICE GUYS, which is a brilliant execution of a pretty lame idea (a conspiracy about big auto and emissions standards? Really?) or anything by Pixar. Beginning writers often fall in love with their idea and think the execution is secondary. Really, the execution is most of what you’re selling, otherwise people would buy ideas off of popular tweets.
(2) This reflects a popular misconception that pervades the writing help business. Everyone behaves like winning a contest finds you a buyer, following their formula guarantees you a big payday, scoring high on the blacklist gets you a sale, etc. Sales are only part of the industry, most writers get in by writing a cool spec, getting representation, then using that spec as a sample to secure more work. Yes, you can sell a spec, but that ignores the larger part of the industry – securing work from someone else. This is an uncharismatic nuance, but I believe that it’s better to have a three dimensional understanding of the task at hand.
(3) As noted in points (1) and (2), this is a flawed plan. It over values the high concept and undervalues the execution. It ignores the boring reality that an agent or manager is probably going to ask what else you’ve got going on. Assume that someone were able to write a brilliant take on the basic concept. That would lead to awkward conversations if someone wanted to sign you off “your” spec or wanted rewrites.
(4) Owing to points (1, 2, 3) this is the wrong question to ask. It reflects a fundamental lack of faith in the writer’s ability to execute. It’s also a question that communicates an insecurity that’s easy to prey on. It’s really easy for an unscrupulous operator to say, “Yes, give me $XXXX and your dreams will come true.” There are no easy answers, and even if a part of you really longs for one, it’s advisable to hold that truth close to the vest.
Finally, the question reflects a lack of joy in the process. If a writer loves their idea, they should also love the process that renders it into being. Otherwise, they’re essentially a producer, looking for a hired gun to render someone else’s property.
I’m being harsh on the question because of how it communicates. That said, I hear it a lot from a lot of types of people. Most of them really do love writing, really do want to get better in their chosen field. This question usually comes from a fear of not being good enough, a desperation for validation or quick cash that blots out reason. Rather than concentrating on selling that one “lottery ticket” spec script, a screenwriter should concentrate on selling themselves as someone who can execute on any number of scripts at a professional level.*