Politics are on the brain. With eight days to go before the presidential election, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of politics in screenwriting. And I don’t mean the “politics of Hollywood,” or the politics of getting ahead... I mean real donkey-and-elephant-type, flag-pin and Roe-v-Wade politics. With the whole world assuming that Hollywood is a bastion of radical left wing thought, and more-and-more Iraq war and generally political films on the horizon, I thought I’d take a minute to ask:
To what degree should politics play a part in your next script?
If you ask an agent that question, their answer will probably be NONE. As a general rule of thumb, the more political a film is, the more narrow the project’s audience will be, and this equation does not bode well for maximum box office success--or the likelihood that your script will sell in the first place.
And yet, more and more production companies are popping up with expressly political goals, including Participant Media, Groundswell Production, and George Clooney’s Smoke House shingle. Many of these companies have first-look deals with major studios, and have been very successful in bringing politically-conscious fare to mainstream media outlets and venues. So does that mean screenwriters should eschew the mass-market model, and start in on their next great political drama or thriller?
Maybe. When you dig a little deeper, it turns out that MOST of the political films made in the last ten years have been adapted from books—and that’s something you might want to take into account. Because political films will generally have a more narrow audience, producers are more comfortable banking on a “franchise” film—one that is based on a pre-existing book, video-game, or older film—that already has built-in name recognition and/or an adoring audience. This takes some of the risk out of producing an inherently risky picture, since producers can count on a higher likelihood of financial return.
But that doesn’t mean you need to write a novel and wait for it to hit the NY Times bestseller list before turning your project into a screenplay. In same cases, films that go REALLY far in either political direction are so made-to-fit for a particular audience, that they do surprisingly well at the box office. Think of Michael Moore’s films, or The Passion of the Christ, for instance (although one could argue The Passion was the biggest franchise film ever made).
On top of that, I also think we’re living in a time period in which politics has once again become, well… Sexy. We are living in “serious times,” as the pundits like to say, and this seriousness lends itself toward a new interest in screenplays which effectively take-on the political issues of our day, whether in heart-pounding thrillers (Traitor) or comedies (W).
As far as whether politics SHOULD affect one’s screenwriting, that’s a question on which their will always be disagreement. Historically, American films have tended to be rather non-political, especially when compared with their European or Eastern-European counterparts.
Personally, though, I say go for it. The bottom line for all screenwriters in picking a project is to choose a subject and storyline that FASCINATES and EXCITES you. If you pick a project based on its relative chances at commercial success, you’ll probably end up hating your script, and may very well fall short before ever reaping the benefits of that commerciality. Choose a project you LOVE—and if it happens to be political, embrace it. As a general rule, screenwriters tend to be more successful when they are writing from their heart, and focusing on projects that continually ignite their own passions.
So—the bottom line here, I’d say, is that if you haven’t any interest in writing political scripts, there is really no advantage in heading down that path—they’re probably still a bit harder to sell and to get made. But if you DO want to write political movies, there’s a silver lining here as well—the time is ripe for them, and more and more production companies are looking for those politically conscious stories.
The last thing I’d add is that if you do choose to write a political script, pick a topic that will still be relevant 2-4 years from now. In the best-case scenario, your script will be bought six months from now, hit a final draft a year from now, wrap production in a year and a half, and hit theatres six months after that. THAT’S TWO YEARS AWAY--MINIMUM. So don’t write a script on the inherent injustice in California’s Prop 8, or the travails of a bungling president from Texas… Political scripts must be timely—so choose a theme that will still be in the headlines two or more years from now.