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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, June 13, 2005

How Important is Originality?

Over the last few days I read two scripts (for different companies) that both suffered from the same problem. They were written in popular subgenres, and while they each offered a mildly original aspect within their premises, nearly everything else about these scripts was entirely standard fare.

The first was a road comedy, where a few friends take a dying friend on a cross-country quest for a specific adventure, as a "last hurrah." (Please understand that for confidentiality reasons, I can only speak about these scripts in broad terms.) It featured nearly every standard plot point for such a film. There was the scene in which the van breaks down due to a flat tire, leading to other mishaps. There was, of course, the requisite run-in with the law. A group of villains battled our gang at a few points throughout the film. Towards the end, the dying friend takes a turn for the worse, and the doctor tells the gang that he can't continue, but of course the character insists on finishing what they started. Any of this sound familiar? Think of such films as Detroit Rock City, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, or if you've seen it, an excellent indie film called Ocean Tribe, as just a few examples.

The second script was a "switched body" film, in the tradition of Freaky Friday, Vice Versa, or Soul Man. Again, this film offered one tiny element that was very slightly unique, and again nearly every other element of the film was completely standard and predictable. In this case, it was a switch between a jock bully and a nerd who was his former best friend when they were kids. The nerd (who facilitated the switch for revenge) of course turns into an a$$h*le when he inhabits the jock's body. Similarly predictably, the jock-in-nerd's-body learns that the nerds aren't that bad, and he was wrong to judge them. We also have the predictable elements when the jock (as nerd) tries (and fails) to convince others of his identity by revealing secrets only he could know, and the nerd's best friend who figures out the truth because the jock-as-nerd doesn't know things that he should know, if he were really the nerd. Again, completely typical stuff for this genre, right?

But here's the thing. While I did rate both a PASS (meaning thumbs down) for obvious reasons, the truth is that either one of these scripts, with some tweaking probably could be turned into a commercially viable film. The road film, while generally unoriginal, did have the one original element of setting it in a world that has a large target market (much larger than the KISS fans who might have been interested in Detroit Rock City). Thus, with just a bit more tweaking, the film could be strong enough to get a large portion of those fans into the theaters, and even more importantly could get them to buy a copy on DVD, a true primary market nowadays. Similarly, though less so, the switched body film might be able to prove successful, because so many such films turn a profit, even without a lot of originality in them. 13 Going on 30 was really nothing more than Big from a girl's perspective. This bit of originality, and the strength of Jennifer Garner in the lead role, was enough to make this film a success.

In fact, I've often noted how, within certain genres, a little originality goes a long way. In particular, I think of children's films and sports films (and especially children's sports films). With films aimed at children, your target audience doesn't have the collective memory of all those films that have come before. So an old idea with a contemporary feel to it makes for a completely fresh-feeling movie. Why do you think Disney keeps remaking movies, like Freaky Friday or the Herbie movies? Because it knows it can! Similarly with sports films, there just simply isn't a lot of room for originality in the genre. There are probably about 5 main sports stories ever shown on film (and maybe I'll enumerate them at a later date), with a few notable exceptions. Was Major League much different from Slap Shot? Weren't both The Mighty Ducks and Little Giants just The Bad News Bears in different sports? And yet, most of those films have been commercial successes.

For an upcoming article I was writing in scr(i)pt magazine about writing for the Family market, I posed this exact question to David N. Weiss, who along with his writing partner J. David Stem, worked on Shrek 2 and Are We There Yet? as well as many other wildly popular family and children's films. His response (which I'm paraphrasing here) was that any writer should be striving to put out the best script he can possibly write, and therefore of course originality is important, even in films of these genres. He did, however, point out a key aspect of the business. The industry does need to put out a certain number of films every year, and yes, many of those films are aimed to reach specific niches and markets. So of course there will be some degree of repeated concepts that remain commercially successful.

So where does that leave us? Well, you may have noticed that despite the potential that the two scripts I read had to be successes, they still ended up as PASSes. I did mention in my comments that these two scripts might have the potential to be made into commercially viable films, but I also said they were probably not worth the effort. If you are a developing writer, trying to sell your first spec, you've simply got to make it the best darned script you can possibly come up with. Sure there's a slim chance that you might be able to sell a script that only has a few original elements, if those elements and the writing quality is really promising. But its an even bigger long shot than selling any spec script is. Save it until you have a more established career, and then maybe you can make a quick buck off one of these niche-fillers. But until then, find something new to say, and preferably a new way to say it a well.


Blogger William said...

This might be the oldest argument that any artist faces in any industry. We are all trying to make a name for ourselves in our chosen field and we know that what we put out there is a reflection of what we are capable of. I really believe if you are writing Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle then that's what you want to be remembered for. I think it takes a rare individual with a lot of luck and connections that can make the jump from something like that to something more critically recognized. Check the trades, everything green lit now is either a remake or a film based on a tv show. Those are money in the bank films. Get Vince Vaughn and the boys and it's a lock. And I like Vince Vaughn. Now why is that? Because there is not an original idea in Hollywood? I don't think so. It's because it's not cost effective to make a critically successful film. Without the danger of becoming too heavy handed here (ooops, too late) it's a world of recycled ideas. That originality thing went out a long time ago. Don't believe me? Take this test. When was the last time you saw a truly original American film? Something that blew your mind and you couldn't believe it actually got made. Being John Malkovich? Okay, got another one?...I rest my case...far and few between.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

William --

You make a good point, but I think you may have slightly misunderstood what I was saying. I am not implying that every single genre film, or mainstream movie lacks originality. I believe that you can write a film that is firmly set within a genre that still offers a quality, inventive film. This is not saying it will be a "truly original" film that "blew my mind," but I think they can still be of a high quality. A few examples: The Rock, Shawhsank Redmption, The Terminator, and even The Matrix (which I consider very good but highly overrated). Then there are more thoughtful American movies that are artful, even if not quite "groundbreaking." I'd point to Gattaca, LA Confidential, and Mystic River, all of which I truly loved. They weren't wuite genre pictures (though maybe LA Conf is), but they certainly displayed an abundance of intelligence and originality.

All I'm trying to say here is that even if you are writing a mainstream film, try to be as original as possible, within the confines of the genre you're writing in's conventions.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Oh, and for the record, I really liked Harold and Kumar.

5:46 AM  
Blogger William said...

Yeah, because you and I know both know the remake of Back to School is going to be brilliant. Kaching!

I am playing devil's advocate here, as I usually do. What I am trying to say is why write original work if the industry, more often than not, doesn't reward it? It is a given that great screenplays (e.g. American Beauty) get passed up. It's like telling a kid "don't sell drugs, stay in school and get good grades" as one of his boys drives up in a brand new car, surrounded by women and a fat roll of bills. That kid better have a strong support system and enough vision to see beyond making that choice.

And for the record I heard HAKGTWC was pretty funny...:)

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Neil said...

I used to be a story analyst for several companies (for at least seven years), and hardly recommended anything after my first week of reading. After recommending two scripts rather quickly, I was told that once I recommend something, everyone at the company is going to read it -- so I better be sure it's good.

This creates a fear mentality in the industry starting at the bottom of the totem pole. If I received a "Meeting John Malkovich" would I really want to pass this up the ladder to my bosses? But if I received a script that was, say "The Longest Yard" meets "Animal House" and it was well-written, I might consider it, just because I can easily pitch it. Also, if no one liked it, I could at least say that it had "commercial" written all over it.

The point being, the more people that have to approve of a concept and recommend it to others, the more the project is going to end up just like the last movie, because no one really wants to take a chance with failure.

"Hey, let's make The Fantastic Four!"

"Good idea!"

That's why so many of the more interesting movies have strong producers who pushed it through the system.

On the other hand, if we are talking about spec scripts, writing something original is a big plus. I probably wouldn't recommend "Meeting John Malkovich" as a script because it would probably be too weird, but I would definitely recommend the writer as an interesting storyteller. Then, chances are, my boss might bring him in to work on something dumb like "The Fantastic Four."

So, I think we need to distinguish between writing great spec scripts to let your writing shine (and getting you more work on other scripts) -- which may not go hand in hand with a spec script that will sell. Unless you're lucky.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Abby said...

There have been a few original films that got through after "Being John Malkovitch". How about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" . . . "Butterfly Effect" (though it was less original, it wasn't standard Hollywood fare) . . . even "Minority Report" wasn't typical Hollywood. But on the whole, I agree that we see an awful lot of remakes and franchise films. I'm sure it's a product of the Hollwood culture that Neil (above) described. Formula films are easier to pitch, synopsize, and sell to non-creative producers.

But hell, I don't think I could ever force myself to write crap just for the chance at making $$. It's hard enough to sell a script. If I just churned out unoriginal formula scripts with bland characters, I wouldn't be having any fun, and my chances of selling the thing would be only slightly better (if at all better). I might as well play the lottery; it's less effort.

From what I understand, a fresh idea and well-written script go a long way toward impressing people. You may not sell it, but at least the readers will remember your name and look for your next effort. And maybe they'll mention you to their boss.

1:04 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

1st off, I want to say I appreciate the discussion this post sparked.

I'd like to discuss two different things. First off, the wildly original spec script that leads to other jobs is definitely well worth it. And in terms of recommending those films when I read them, I actually have, though I'll note the reservations some may have. I actually read Eternal Sunshine (which, btw Abby was also written by Charlie Jaufman, and thus a writer established and known for wacky scripts) as a writing sample (don't ask me why they needed coverage on it, but they gave it to me anyway, with Kaufman's name blacked out). I connected with it, and gave it great coverage, as I recall (I'll have to check one of these days). So I think the fear of recommending something will really depend on the culture of the specific company. I've had some execs who want me to be very strict, and only recommend the most amazing scripts, and others who want me to be more liberal. My coverage will reflect that.

More importantly, however, is the idea of working in established formats. I'm not sure, but I think somewhere along the way, my point may have been misinterpreted. As I see things, in the broadest strokes, there are three main ways a developing screenwriter can go:

1. Write a blazingly original script that MAY in the rarest of cases get picked up, but should at least bring in enough attention to get the writer another job.
2. Write a complete knockoff script, such as those that are pumped out frequently by H'wood. This is almost certain to neither bring the developing writer another writing assignment, nor is it likely to sell. Such drivel is usually written by established writers hired for the jobs.
3. Take a somewhat well-trodden path, but bring elements of originality and quality to it. This has a greater chance of being bought, and also of potentially bringing other assignments (most working screenwriters' bread and butter) in, because the writer is seen as commercially appealing.

My bottom line? While an established writer both has marginally more freedom to write more original scripts and potentially get them produced, the developing writer MUST be original to either sell that longshot script or bring in some assignment work.

I guess there's also one other option -- come up with a majorly High Concept script that might be bought on the strength of the concept alone. But if that's the case, you're still being original, just in conception.

Thanks for the discussion!

7:39 AM  

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