How many times have you gone to see a movie, or landed on a new TV show only to be SHOCKED and DISHEARTENED by the utter crap unfolding before your eyes?
If you answered EVERY DAY, then I’m with you…
The deeper I’ve gotten into professional screenwriting, the less I blame the writers. Most writers – even writers of total schlock – start out as smart, capable people with the same good taste as you and I. Then, after years of rejection, they make a gradual (and self-saving) move towards increasingly commercial product, then finally sell a TV pitch or screenplay only to find themselves in development hell for the next two to five years.
And that’s when the merely commercial becomes the aggressively awful. The development process can we a wonderful experience, and I’ve developed scripts with capable producers who’s careful, pointed notes have improved my scripts, and ultimately made them something I am more proud of. But that is often the exception. Quite frequently, the development process becomes a sort of “writing by committee” in which all involved parties are working to do two things at once: a) prove to everyone else involved that they deserve their lofty title, and b) try to claim, passively or impassively, a greater level of ownership over the final product. In this atmosphere, c) improving the project, can take a backseat and quickly become lost in the process.
Proven writers fare much better. They have the clout (and money) to throw up their hands and make their voices heard: “The character is a loveable brain surgeon who uses her Harlem street smarts to connect with patients! No, she should NOT have a split personality!” These writers are in a position to stick to their guns, and are not only taken more seriously, but in extreme cases, can risk derailing a project rather than let it drift into an area that they’re uncomfortable with.
But not so for us newbies. When you’re just breaking into screenwriting, EVERYONE you’re working with is more experienced and better paid than you are. When they make a suggestion – even a TERRIBLE suggestion – you better listen, and you better take their ideas seriously.
Complicating things further is the fact that less-important writers (read: “new writers”) tend to generate less-important projects in the eyes of producers and development execs. Which means these projects drop to the bottom of their list of priorities, and development meetings are fewer and further between than their big-dog counterparts. In this scenario, it’s not unusual for creative execs to COMPLETELY FORGET their own previous notes, and to offer TOTALLY CONFLICTING ideas in subsequent development meetings.
This is where it really gets sticky. In an environment where a new writer can’t always speak up on their own behalf, and must constantly balance sometimes wacky and frequently flip-flopping rewrite notes with their own ideas for improving their project, it is easy to end up with a project that answers everyone's separate concerns, but at the end of the day is simply CRAP. So often, this is the process that degrades the potential of a show or movie that started out with a unique hook, but left off with audiences rolling their eyes and demanding their money back…
So how do you avoid this fate?
Stick to your guts. Patiently argue for the merits of your own ideas. Try to interpret where other people’s notes are coming from, and suggest BETTER FIXES to these problems. But don’t blow your project! No one likes to work with an argumentative writer, or someone who seems unwilling to do aggressive rewrites. I know talented screenwriters living here is Los Angeles who had green-lit scripts that were eventually dropped because the writers were too stubborn, or too defensive about making changes. That attitude will get you nowhere.
The people who eventually rise to the top, and get to make the kinds of projects that the rest of us look up to seem to have traveled two distinct roads:
a) They had their own money and/or celebrity connections. This rarified group has it the easiest, as they generally don’t need to report to anyone, and bring their project to life free from interference, and in many cases, free from concern about the bottom-line and box office returns. These “indy” writers and directors often shoot a simple but poignant film that doesn’t immediately turn to gold, but makes them more bankable and proven in the eyes of producers, who will then get behind their “vision” on future projects.
b) They rode an elevator of crap until they reached the top. If you can’t bank your own project, there’s still a way to make films or TV shows that you’re proud of, but you may need to take several “crap baby steps” to get there. The trick here is to find a way to rise above the less-successful projects you’ve been involved with, and to get people to focus on the better ones. And when you finally land in a position to make the project YOU want to make, it better be damn good.
So many screenwriters reach a point in their careers where they can fnally get something made of their own choosing, then blow it with mediocre film or TV show. And they may not get that chance again…
To avoid this, writers need to stay sharp throughout the early stages of their careers, and ALWAYS RECOGNIZE the difference between MEDIOCRE WRITING and GOOD WRITING. You will probably need to write some less-inspired, pandering scripts on your path towards screenwriting success, and some of them might make you money or receive big ratings. But in your HEART you need to know that these ARE NOT REALLY the projects you want to make. And you must know that you can do better. Much better.
Once you’ve worked your way up to the middle, and finally have a shot to make a project that is TRULY YOURS, now is the time to re-watch those Woody Allen movies that made you want to pursue screenwriting in the first place, or to dig deep into your childhood memories and refocus on what makes YOUR writing unique and different. Hit COMMAND-F on your MacBook, and rediscover the first screenplay you ever wrote -- the one that was 190 pages long and went pages at a time without any dialogue, but which had the HEART and the UNIQUE VOICE that your later commercial work could not sustain. Get back to your base, and remind yourself of the career you’d LIKE to have—and not just the one you’ve settled for.
Bad writing is a nearly unavoidable consequence of the way we all do business in Hollywood, but the trick for screenwriters, I think, is to avoid self-delusion, and to always distinguish between those stepping-stone projects that you were grateful to write, and those big-picture ME projects that you really WANT to write. If you can do that, writing the schlocky stuff will be easier in the short-term, and won’t screw up your big-picture goals down the road.
Good writing is possible. But like so much else in Hollywood, it takes extraordinary determination, a long-term focus, and a PLAN for success.