Let’s call this a cautionary tale. I had an interesting discussion with a producer this week. She is producing a web series that I wrote and lamented to me about a screenwriter she is working with on a feature screenplay that is a total mess. The script received professional coverage and it didn’t have much good to report about the characters, story, execution or chances in the marketplace. The producer had also given this screenwriter notes as part of the development process, but the writer has been unable or unwilling to execute the notes to make the script worthy of moving forward. Hearing familiar tales like these make me angry. It’s also the reason Hollywood has created such a high wall and gates as one method to filter and weed out the crap from the good stuff. Do aspiring screenwriters really believe that everyone gives a shit about their precious screenplay? Trust me—they don’t. Plenty of aspirants fill warehouses full of screenplays in the film business.
If you’re blessed to find a producer who does care like in this situation, you’ll do everything you can to push the project forward as a team player and collaborator. It’s shortsighted to do anything less and it will sink your chance at a successful career every time. When the producer presented the aspirant her own detailed notes, the screenwriter told her to go and see a recently successful horror movie at the theater as an example of what she is trying to do with her script. Obviously, it was not on the page but the aspirant wasn’t open to hearing constructive criticism from professionals. Only an amateur would have this attitude. The odds are not in your favor as tens of thousands of screenplays bounce around Hollywood every year looking to get produced. The odds of getting anyone truly interested in spending their precious development time on your project is rare at best.
So, when you do find a producer or company who wants to work with you—work with them! Otherwise they will move on with another project and another screenwriter—NEXT! Remember this always—you are not that special. Sorry. You’ll have to fight, claw and create just like everyone else does and even more once you do start working professionally. As my producer continued with her story, I could sense that she was ready to drop this aspirant and move on. This aspirant’s unprofessional attitude and denial will sink her chances no matter where she goes with her screenplay. I asked my producer if her writer had written a solid treatment before she went into pages and her reply was exactly as I suspected: “No, she just wrote script as she went along.” It obviously showed. A screenplay can live or die from a thousand important details and you’ll need to spend about seventy-five percent of your time on the story of the movie.
This is a perfect example of how important a solid story treatment is before you start into pages. Unfortunately, this aspirant doesn’t know she is blowing her chances with moving her career forward. She already has achieved one of the most difficult aspects of a screenwriter’s journey—finding a producer who is interested—but she’s not willing or able to see the value of her situation. She also is unable to execute the producer’s notes and that doesn’t bode well for staying on any project. This is how original screenwriters of projects get fired and why producers hire someone who can execute notes. I have been a script doctor on several projects because the original writer was not experienced enough to bring the script to a place that moved it closer to production.
There is zero time in the development process for a screenwriter who can’t execute notes. No producer is going to show a half-assed script to investors, directors or actors and that means the project stalls and will not move forward. You’ll hamper your career if you can’t properly execute screenplay notes. It was obvious to me from listening to my producer’s story that this aspirant wasn’t really passionate about her screenplay or respects the craft of screenwriting. I asked if horror was this aspirant’s particular genre. She told me the aspirant’s reasoning for writing horror was because the aspirant told her, “Horror sells.” I laughed out loud. Yes, every year there are successful horror films, but this will definitely not be one of them. These successful movies went into development and then production up to two years ago, so the moment you follow the “trend” of the current box office, by the time they produce your film the audience and the industry is on to something else. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pay attention to what fails and what is successful.
I would not consider this defensive and hard-headed aspirant a “screenwriter” just because she slapped scenes together and created a screenplay that according to the coverage: “Had unnecessary long pages of exposition and characters that no one cared about even if they lived or died.” The writer continued to defend her poorly written script. It’s like the aspirant believed somehow the producer didn’t quite see the genius of her work. This delusional thinking will lead to a rejected screenplay and a “screenwriter” wasting precious time blaming others for not seeing the value of their screenplay. Yes, ideas are where stories and scripts begin, but it’s the execution of the idea that will get it sold and produced.Here is the formula: Great idea + horribly executed script = failure of screenwriter and the script. It’s rare that someone these days will buy a script just for the idea.
The truth is that Hollywood has no shortage of good ideas—it’s the lack of execution that’s the problem. Hollywood is also filled with thousands of excellent screenwriters—in 2018, only 5,819 of those professionals in the WGAw reported any income last year out of their 15,000 members. These are the tremendous odds that aspirants face every time up to the plate with a project. I’m not saying that every producer is an expert at giving effective notes or being able to communicate their needs to screenwriters. I also don’t believe that screenwriters should just roll over and change the script with every suggestion given. It’s a delicate balance and the script’s best interests must be put forward always. How best can we make changes to the script to attract investors, talent, and ultimately attract a paying audience? The best situation is when it’s an equal partnership of collaboration and each artist allows the other to do what they do best.
Again, if you are lucky, you will end up with a visionary producer who has the experience and talent who pushes screenwriters to do their best work—all for the benefit of the movie. This aspirant didn’t have any respect for the genre she attempted to write. Her reasoning for writing a horror film was because she thought that she could sell her idea for big money. She also showed a woeful lack of respect for the professional work ethic needed to survive in Hollywood. Trust me, producers will go out of their way to work with a screenwriter who is a team player and goes above and beyond every time. But what about the temperamental divas with undeveloped talent who believe their scripts are masterworks? Their lack of professionalism and ego will sink their chances of any success and the business will quickly humble them. Keep the faith—but also keep filling your blank pages!
Copyright 2019 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“Success does not happen with one script or one meeting—it’s a long process of many steps and many meetings—and a solid body of work will show professionals that you have something unique to offer.”—Scriptcat
“A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. I had a great, great editor, Hiram Haydn, who had many children and was a novelist. Toward the last years of his career, the only time he could write was Sunday morning. He would write four hours every Sunday morning. And he would get books done. It would take him years, but I think it’s crucial that we have some kind of rhythm. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.”—William Goldman
“If a writer stops observing, he is finished.”—Ernest Hemingway
“Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of a writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have. It is learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and utter lack of sentimentality.”—Alexander MacKendrick, “Sweet Smell of Success”
“Everything must serve the idea—I must say this again and again. The means used to convey the idea should be the simplest and the most direct and clear. I don’t believe in overdressing anything. Just what is required. No extra words, no extra images, no extra music. But it seems to me that this is a universal principle of art. To say as much as possible with a minimum of means. And to be always clear about what you are trying to say. That means, of course, that you must know what you are trying to say. So I guess my first principle is to understand myself, and then to find the simplest way to make others understand it, too.”—John Huston, Film Quarterly, Vol.19, No. 1, Autumn, 1965.