Don’t let a desperation to sell distract you from writing.

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.*

 

 

*credit /u/screenwriter101

Analyzing the WGA award nominees for the last five years.

Every year, the WGA selects five nominees for “Best Original Screenplay.” These are the nominees from the last five years.

Title Authors Writer/
Director?
Written by
Outsider?
Notes
American Hustle Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell Yes No* Singer was a BU dropout who worked as a night janitor, then sold the International in 2009.
Blue Jasmine Woody Allen Yes No Allen was writing in TV shortly after it was invented.
Her Spike Jonze Yes No Spike Jonze started as an acclaimed video/commercial director. Before that, he was still cooler than us.
Dallas Buyers Club Craig Borten No Yes  
Nebraska Bob Nelson No Yes* A writer on Seattle sketch TV show Almost Live, Nelson moved to LA in desperation in 2002, and spent 10 years trying to get Nebraska made.
Flight John Gatins No No A veteran actor with many established writing credits, Gatins was a consumate insider. Flight was a passion project, but it came from within the system.
Looper Rian Johnson Yes No Rian broke in with his directorial debut Brick.
The Master Paul Thomas Anderson Yes No
Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola Yes No Roman Coppola overcame the hardship of being the son of Francis Ford Coppola.
Zero Dark Thirty Mark Boal No No Developed by director Katherine Bigelow
50/50 Will Reiser No No Reiser, a producer, wrote the script on the advice of his friend Seth Rogen.
Bridesmaids Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig No No Mumolo, a Groundling, developed the script with Wiig, a star.
Midnight in Paris Woody Allen No No
Win Win Tom McCarthy Yes No Longtime actor, directorial debut was The Station Agent (2003)
Young Adult Diablo Cody No No A successful blogger, Cody was recruited to be a writer by manager Mason Novick
Black Swan Andres Heinz No Yes Written by Heinz in 2002, spent ten years in hell before Portman/Aronofsky found it.
Inception Christopher Nolan Yes No Nolan broke in with directorial debut Following. Even after directing Batman, it was an uphill struggle to get this made.
The Fighter Paul Tamasi, Eric Johnson No No Tamasi and Johnson created Air Bud first. The script later got polished by Scott Silver of Mod Squad fame.
The Kids are Alright Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg Yes No
Please Give Nicole Holofcener Yes No
(500) Days of Summer Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber No No Neustadter and Weber met in 1999 working for Tribeca Prods. (Weber was Neustadter’s development intern),
Avatar James Cameron Yes No Even after making Titanic, Cameron had a hard time getting this off the ground.
The Hangover Jon Lucas, Scott Moore No No
The Hurt Locker Mark Boal No No Boal was a very successful journalist. The Hurt Locker began as an article he wrote for Playboy magazine.
A Serious Man Joel Coen, Ethan Cohen Yes No

Some observations:

2014 really showcases three inspirational stories for writers: Singer, Border and Nelson all broke in on underdog, Cinderella story scripts that had been in development hell for years. Some might take that as a good sign for other writers trying to break in, a cynic might say that it’s a good sign for other writers who’ve had scripts in development hell for years. Time will tell.

Over 50% of these scripts came from writer-directors. Writer-directors (or hyphenates) can get away with stories regular writers can’t. If you really want to tell personal stories through screenwriting, your best bet is to direct them yourselves, or find a director you’re completely sympatico with.

Almost all of these scripts spent years in development hell. What that means for the beginning writer is that you’re not just competing with scripts written this year, you’re competing with scripts that were written 15 years ago as well. Craig Borten spent 20 years pushing Dallas Buyers Club.

A lot of these guys broke in during the 90’s indie scene. While that’s to be expected (it takes years to get good), the indie market has shrunk and these guys are still in that space. Hence, there are fewer opportunities for the future Woody Allens, Nicole Holofcners and Kevin Smiths to develop in that space. I’m really tired of amateur writers writing based on case studies from the 90’s, it’s a completely different business universe now. Also note, we’re going to be competing with the 90’s guys forever. While they won’t have the longevity of Woody Allen, thank god, their existence and the shrinking market makes it that much harder for a 2010’s writer to break in.

I’ll leave you with some screenwriting advice from Andres Heinz (Black Swan): Follow your heart, do something you believe in, but also be aware of the market. It’s a very difficult climate right now to make a living as a writer. Nobody is taking any chances. You need to know who your audience is because that’s the first thing producers are going to look at.

Basic guidelines for a good sample script.

A common misconception in writing is that you are writing a spec so you can sell it. This is not the case. A sale, while nice, is unlikely in the current climate. My advice is to write a sample that communicates your ability to work in a given genre.
My advice for beginning writers can be summed up thusly:

  1. Your story should be between 95-115 pages.
  2. Your story should have a likable star part with a clear and recognizable arc.
  3. Your story should hit the familiar beats while paradoxically feeling fresh and original.
  4. Your story should be a strong example of a single, commercial genre.
  5. Nothing in your script should be longer than 4 lines. You can break this rule 5 times.
  6. It should explore cynicism, but reaffirm optimism (unless it’s a horror movie, in which case kill everybody).
  7. Don’t world build too much – if your universe begins to resemble Warcraft or Star Wars, you might want to write a novel.
  8. You must give a shit about what you write. If you can’t give a shit within these rules, then mainstream screenwriting might not be for you.

It’s not that this is the best way, or the only way, or even the right way. There is no right way, but there’s nothing egregious in this advice (again, so long as you give a shit).

IS THIS A BY THE NUMBERS FORMULA?
No. A common misconception with Save the Cat and other Mad Lib-type approaches to movies is that they’ve done all the thinking for you, and you just need to fill in the blanks. If it were that easy, they would have software to write screenplays. The great challenge of screenwriting is to take a familiar form like this and find a way to make it personal. Find what you’re trying to say, then use this story to say it (this topic merits 10,000 words on it’s own, but for now just remember that there are no easy answers). You have to give a shit (for more on this, see below).

IF EVERYONE DOES THIS WON’T THIS APPROACH LOSE VALUE?
Absolutely. No approach works forever, but for now, given that most people can’t internalize simple advice like this, if you do try it this way, it’ll help you stand out. Screenwriting advice is like rock, paper, scissors. There’s no best approach, the battlefield is always changing.

IS THIS GUARANTEED TO WORK?
Nothing is guaranteed to work. Being a professional screenwriter is like making it to the NBA. There’s a hoop on every playground, but only 350 NBA players in the world. This is just some simple advice that represents what I think gives you the best shot of showcasing your ability to write to the average reader.

HOW DO I DO THIS?
There’s no best way. You will find your method. I have my ways, which are listed on my website.

REALLY, WHY ARE WE DOING IT THIS WAY?
There’s a kind of sameness to most movies. This isn’t due to a great conspiracy, it’s because humans are particular in terms of the kind of culture they will accept. A good story tends to have some sense of unity, causality, and obedience to some kind of theme. The most successful writers are the ones who find joy in what they do. There’s a misconception that Michael Bay or Brett Ratner are some kind of sellouts. Not so, they love the kinds of movies they make as much as Tarantino or Scorcese do theirs. If this advice makes you gag, don’t follow it. If you see the sense of it, try writing within these parameters. It’s an approach that’s as good as any, better than most.

Didn’t Matter, Had Franchise (the Hobbit 2 from a screenwriting perspective)

Image
Thorin Oakenshield is a sawed off little runt who can’t fight but seems to think he can. He’s desperate to avenge his father’s defeat by launching a preemptive strike for the mineral rights of an enemy he doesn’t understand. He has no exit strategy. He makes George W. Bush look like freaking Aragorn.

The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug does not have a great screenplay.

  • It takes ten minutes for anything to happen in the story.
  • Most of what’s cool about it is visual spectacle that wouldn’t show on the page.
  • It’s 3 hours long
  • There are many sequences that you could cut out and the movie would still make sense.  Arbitrary plot points are not good things.
  • It loses the titular Hobbit for wide patches of the action.
  • No one has an arc.
  • The one interesting love interest pops in for four scenes, has chemistry with a dwarf for no reason, and then shows up again near the end almost randomly.
  • There are way too many dwarves.  Other than Thorin, I’m hard pressed to remember their names.  They get captured like all the time.  The only way the movie makes sense is if you imagine it as if they’re on a bondage tour where they pay fantasy creatures to contain them and menace them.

The list goes on.  None of this matters.

  • 66% Metacritic score, 74% Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Will win a grip of awards.
  • Audience response hovers around the 80% approval.  This movie has made more people happy than all of us put together are likely to do in the next ten years.
  • Most importantly, box office: .3 Billion Domestic, .7 Billion international.  Movies like these keep the lights on in Hollywood, and thank god they do.

That being said, it’s important that we take the right lessons here.  A lot of aspiring writers might be tempted to say, “Desolation of Smaug was a success, so it’s a good model for screenwriting.”  I’d hold that it is not, at least not for the kind of screenwriting journeymen are likely to focus on.

  • It’s based off of a classic book.  Regular folks won’t get the rights to material like this ever.  Yes, even if you’ve got the option on that one Michael Moorcock story that everyone in your WoW guild knows about.
  • It’s a sequel in a franchise.  No LOTR success, no Hobbit.  Side note:  Don’t write trilogies.
  • Much of what works about it is visual.  Peter Jackson can go into a meeting with artwork and pre-vis material.  The beginner screenwriter cannot.
  • Even with all these factors considered, it took years to get a greenlight from the studios.
  • Peter Jackson can make a movie like this because he built a reputation.  Look at his early works.  He cut his teeth on smaller, less ambitious movies.  His early projects used familiar genres to hint at his great imagination.  That’s why he was able to make Lord of the Rings when the time came.

The lesson to take is this: once you’re big, once you’re established, once it’s a studio project, once it’s a franchise (or preexisting material) some rules go out the window.  But that’s tomorrow’s problem.  If you’re serious about breaking into screenwriting, Desolation of Smaug could work as an aspiration target, but it isn’t a model of what to write next.

We aren’t writing to sell giant Lord of the Rings-type ideas, at least not initially.  We write samples that showcase our ability to write, so we can make more interesting or grandiose movies down the line.  Forget that at your peril.

Getting an agent is the first step, not the last step.

A frightening percentage of writers seem to think of an agent as the magic conduit that will sell their screenplay, make them a fortune, and negate the need to ever work again. Nothing could be further from the truth.   Getting an agent is the first step in a long journey, not the last one.

No one sells specs. Repeat, nobody sells specs. Only 20-60 get bought in a given year, and most of those are to industry insiders. Selling a spec as an unknown is like winning the lottery while being hit by lightning.

So why do we do it?  Open writing assignments (OWA’s). Producers always have some projects in development, and they need writers for these projects. Sometimes they even pay.

An agent is a professional friend. It’s his job to know producers and know what they need. When if Producer 1 needs a comedy writer to adapt a Vanity Fair article, the agent will send him a comedy sample.  If producer 2 needs a horror writer to adapt the obscure Italian comic he optioned, the agent sends a horror sample.  If Producer 3 needs a thriller writer for a 1940’s noir remake, Producer 3 gets a thriller sample.

If you want to be a writer, expect to be pigeonholed.
If you want to be a writer, expect to be pigeonholed.

This is why agents are always trying to put people into boxes. A comedy writer can be sold to a comedy producer. There are far fewer markets for a writer who’s written a “thinkpiece hybrid between ALPHAVILLE and CITY OF GOD.”  It’s really common for agents to read a really original script, sign the client based on an appreciation for their talent, and then demand that they write something more commercial, something that will allow them to package them as a “genre writer.”  There are more jobs for a competent genre writer than for a “brilliant” writer who can’t make his ideas work in familiar genres.

For every overnight success like Troy Duffy, there are hundreds more writers who started in the development trenches on workmanlike assignments. Charlie Kaufman started on GET A LIFE. M. Night Shyamalan ghostwrote SHE’S ALL THAT. Woody Allen wrote on the SID CEASAR SHOW. Ingmar Bergman wrote commercial romantic comedies.

Charlie Kaufman loves to hate on mainstream stuff, but he neglects to mention that mainstream work set him up for indie success.
Charlie Kaufman loves to hate on mainstream stuff, but he neglects to mention that mainstream work set him up for indie success.

Writing isn’t about selling specs, it’s about getting work, so you can build the resume that allows you to take more risks and do pictures that are more daring. So when you’re planning your next script, don’t just ask yourself what you want to write about, ask yourself if the project would be something an agent could easily pitch.

A clarification on the relationship between executives and the box office.

My last headline was “When Executives Want to see how good a movie was, they check boxofficemojo.” This got me some interesting feedback, both in terms of factual information and angry response.

Redditor david-saint-hubbins said.  It’s not about checking to see “how good a movie was,” it’s checking to see “if a movie was commercially successful.” If your job is picking scripts to be made into movies, you need to make commercially successful movies or you’re not going to have a job for very long.

Obviously good doesn’t = successful.   This headline is a joke that tells a reductive truth in service of making a point.  If a character were to say, “You’re beautiful and by extension good,” the humor comes from a) the gruesomely awkward way he makes that point, and b) the fact that he’s stating a truth that’s ugly, but shows itself in almost every aspect of our culture.  Obviously, execs don’t think that more money = better than, but in a world where all opinions are subjective, they do tend to grasp onto the comforting, empirical metric of financial performance.

* Look, it’s Saul Goodman and Tobias Funke.  They were joking too.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have framed my headline in a more obviously “jokey” way to underline the humorous hyperbole I was going for, i.e..

BOSS: What did you think of (MOVIE TITLE)?
EXEC: Hold on, let me pull up the domestic gross.

or

Q: What’s an executives favorite critic?
A: BoxOfficeMojo.

Hindsight is 20/20.  Also, don’t mention these jokes to execs.  For every one that has a sense of humor there are nine that don’t.

Redditor tequila_wolf, self-described writer who does marketing/producing work. Using his finely honed skills of communication, he helpfully describes my headline as “sensationalist garbage.” He goes on to say.

“Your attempt to try and frame people (i.e. studio execs) as some sort of monsters and enemies of creative freedom in the interest of money is a childish attempt to grab some votes. It betrays a terrible ignorance of how Hollywood works (it’s a business with a diverse group of people, even at the executive level).
It also contributes to the general spread of misinformation of how the industry works, which irritates me to no end since that prevents actual problems from being solved.”

I think he’s projecting. I’m not some “charge-the-gates” anarchist. My intent isn’t to mock the way execs make decisions, it’s to point out HOW they make decisions in service of helping beginner writers. People in the industry often read my blog and say, “well, no offense, Matt, but duh…” These people are so seeped in the culture that they take it for granted. I read a lot of beginner scripts, my experience tells me that considering the mercenary nature of Hollywood might not be as instinctive to outsiders as some might think.

When I write an article like this, I’m trying to give beginning writers a useful, bite-sized chunk of information about the buyers. I’m not writing a sociological paper on the industry. If anyone has or would like to, link me, I’d love to read it.

Oh, and personal to Tequila_Wolf… Hollywood may be diverse, but if you don’t think that the people at the top share a certain bottom line mentality, you might be the ignorant one.

Redditor bdof says:

CE here. Your headline is bs. A lot more goes into a company’s decision whether to purchase a script or not. My company does have Mon morning meeting and we look at numbers from boxofficemojo. But she a movie is Shit, we say it’s Shit. Regardless of how much it made.

When considering a script, writer or director, companies look at the project itself. They consider the personality of the person they are considering working with. they look at budget and style to see if the project is a good fit for the company.
your title gives a bitter and completely false and bitter interpretation of what goes on at production companies and studio meetings.

My reply:
Slow your roll, G, I’ve been a CE too (well, technically Story Editor, but I deserved that title, damn it). I worked at the company that made Cowboys and Aliens. You’re welcome, America.
[some more blather, which I’ve redacted because it doesn’t make me seem as awesome as I’d like.  You can see it all here]
I’m attempting to communicate a point to beginners in a useful manner. Right now I’m not sure if you’re arguing the metaphor or arguing the point. You sound a little defensive. I’m sure you’re a wonderful CE, different than the rest. But I also think that if I pitched you ISHTAR by way of WATERWORLD, you might have a few notes.

Which brings us back to to the x meets y pitch, the subject of the blog that started all this drama in the first place. Let me defend that post by saying… I screwed up, and all these arguments are really my fault.

My headline should have been “when you think of an X meets Y pitch, you should reference hits, not flops.” But I got too big for my britches and grafted a sociological point onto a how-to article, doing a disservice to both points, and incurring the wrath of a collection of smart, well-meaning redditors.  Mea culpa.

So what have I learned:
* With blog posts, it’s best not to conflate two points, as it exponentially magnifies the chance of being wrong on one or both points.

* I should write a more helpful x-meets-y how-two with more useful information and less me.

* Next time I use a joke in a headline, I’ll follow it up with a footnote immediately after.  If it saves me even an eight of the time I spent defending the last title, it’s well worth it.

When executives want to see how good a movie was, they check boxofficemojo.

* Note – this is both an oversimplification and a joke.  Still, I’ll probably rewrite this to be more focused on the x meets y pitch.

Most writers know how to write an  X meets Y pitch (it’s AVATAR by way of FROM DUST TILL DAWN!), but they rarely do it right.  Someone pitched me a realistic gritty action/drama based on the story of a real woman.  “Think MACHINE GUN PREACHER by way of A MIGHTY HEART.”  This is not a good version of that pitch for a lot of reasons, but here’s a big one.

xmeets
You can reference THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER when you’re as rich as John Lasseter.

MACHINE GUN PREACHER
BUDGET: 30,000,000*
Domestic Gross: 550,000
Foreign Gross 550,000
Total (LOSS): 28,900,000

A MIGHTY HEART
BUDGET: 16,000,000
Domestic Gross: 9,200,000
Foreign Gross 9,000,000
Total (GAIN): 2,200,000

* Figures from Box Office Mojo, rounded up. Www.boxofficemojo.com is an invaluable reference.

When you pitch this combo to an executive, you’re implicitly saying my movie is a 29 million dollar loss mitigated slightly by a 2 million dollar gain from a movie.

box office2-thumb
As far as things to serve go, but I miss Mammon, the Golden Calf, and the neon god from the Sounds of Silence. Time sure have changed.

While writing this, I learned that A MIGHTY HEART actually did way, way better than I remember it doing. Some out there might say “Two million dollars is a lot of money. That’s better than nothing.” True, but movies need to make about twice (or thrice, depending on what metrics your using) what they cost to break even, thanks to the cost of promoting the damn thing (film prints used to be a cost, less so as digital projection becomes a thing). Rule of thumb – a movie isn’t safe as a reference unless it made twice what it cost (the best examples made twice what they cost in the US market, foreign money is seen as less important, which is why THE GOLDEN COMPASS never got a sequel). This is changing (PACIFIC RIM might).

Obviously, exceptions apply. For instance, OFFICE SPACE is a beloved classic that most people can reference and is sometimes perceived as a hit. But it wasn’t. It barely broke even domestically and its star, the wonderful Ron Livingston, ended up working in TV. You could still probably reference OFFICE SPACE to a hip, young executive, but at some point a grownup will point out that if a company made three consecutive movies that performed like OFFICE SPACE, they’d be out of business.

MACHINE GUN PREACHER by way of A MIGHTY HEART is not a great pitch.  If you ever come up with a pitch like this, look for more palatable examples:

For A MIGHTY HEART, try ERIN BROCKOVICH (hit movie about a crusading woman). MACHINE GUN PREACHER is based on a true story, but if we use ERIN BROCKOVICH, the non-fictional element is less important.   The posters for PREACHER sure tried to market it to us as another Rambo. 

ERIN BROCKOVICH saves hookers by going FIRST BLOOD,” is a stronger pitch, and actually creates a visual picture (you’d be curious about that movie, admit it).

But wait, you might say, if I accept your point, I can only create movies in a narrow range of topics, using examples that people both know and that made money.  Isn’t that restrictive?

Yes.  It is restrictive.  But it’s safe.  There are exceptions, but they are not the rule.  RATATOUILLE proved that a rat can cook, but I doubt the restaurateurs of Paris began raiding the sewers for the next Remy.  There are original movies, striking ones, quantum leaps forward, but these tend to be written by writers with hits under their belt.   Insiders can get away with a lot more than outsiders.  You’ll get there someday.