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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog

(OR EL DUDERINO IF YOU'RE NOT INTO THE WHOLE BREVITY THING)

-- 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.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Chiming In on The Debate

My last post, in response to Joshua's question, led to a debate between Joshua and Devin. You can follow the comments and understand the issues involved. I was going to just respond in the comments, but I realized that my response had a bit more to add that I felt was worth bringing it up to the forefront.

Firstly I'll say that, though not 100% the case, my opinions lie closer to Devin's here. I, of course, respect you and your opinions, Joshua. I just primarily disagree. Let me explain.

When we say "this is a business" in relation to the movie industry that is not being used as an excuse for not making movies out of some well-written scripts. It is the actual reason for not making them. It is not that movies are an art second and a business first. It is that they are a business period. Art doesn't much enter the equation. Sure, good art will sometimes equal good box office, but it often will not as well. (I am of course referring to large budget studio type pics, not indie arthouse fare, which is vastly different.) There are plenty of well-written screenplays that could not possibly make money and thus would be bad business.

True, there is no sure thing, but D-people (and I should add that I am a D-person, in a sense, albeit a lower level, and freelance one) are not concerned with making art. It is not what they are being paid to do, so to claim that they aren't doing their job when they overlook such art is an invalid claim. They are looking for their best chance at profitability. Now of course, many D-people will be wrong at their choices in this regard as well. But that remains their primary goal in evaluating a screenplay. And more importantly, remember that many of those failures actually started as good scripts and were ruined along the way. I've said it before and I'll say it again:

There are many ways to make a bad movie out of a good script, but it is very diffcult to make a good movie out of a bad screenplay.

I will also disagree, Joshua, with your statement that "any film that makes a hundred million is a commercial movie, regardless of the subject matter." I believe I understand the context in which you said it (Brokeback Mountain), but I still must disagree. You can have a $100 million commercial bomb, and you can have a $1 million tremendous success.

A commercial movie, simply put, is one that turns a profit.

And this is what I referred to when I said that "there are plenty of well-written screenplays that could not possibly make money and thus would be bad business." I've read well-written screenplays that, due to subject matter or style would be unlikely to pull in over $10 million, for example. Now $10 million is not peanuts. Hell, I'd like to have 1/10 of 1% of that in my pocket right now! But films are an expensive medium. So if that $10 million grossing film was made for $1-5 million, after the marketing and print costs it would still likely turn a profit. But what about the ones that will gross that amount, but would cost $10 million to make, or those that would cost $30 million? Those are films that no matter how artful they are, should not be made in the mainstream Hollywood system.

All of this being said, it is mostly irrelevant. What I had originally responded holds true. I don't believe there is that much good-to-great writing that is not being overlooked. I believe that the discrepancy between the percentage of quality plays (10% by Joshua's reckoning) and quality screenplays (1% by my reckoning) may be attributable to other factors. Check my first response in the comments to the previous post for some of those possible explanations. I honestly don't believe there is much high-quality material being overlooked (and by high-quality, I mean commercially viable as well as well-written).

Most importantly, it doesn't really matter to us if there is. We can do nothing about it. All we can do is our level best to write something that doesn't get overlooked, and actually sells. And though you mentioned, Joshua, the meeting between writers and D-people in which the D-people couldn't give you any idea of what would make a script more likely to sell, I can tell you what most of the "good-to-great" scripts that I have read have in common.

  • An at least moderately unique concept, though not necessarily a ground-breaking one
  • A cohesive, unified, and strongly stated voice
  • A budget that was in line with what would make the film profitable in terms of its likely box-office draw

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18 Comments:

Anonymous Devin B. said...

Thanks Joel.

I'm glad to see I wasn't too far off on the mark here (being that you are a "D-folk" yourself).

I'm new to this, and trying to gage my approach as wisely as I can. I understand that multi-million dollar movies ARE a business. If they elevate themselves to the level of art, that’s a double-bonus for the viewer, and a potential profit-making bonus for those bankrolling it.

As an artist myself (I paint, draw, sculpt, write...), I tend to appreciate art and enjoy fine examples of it whenever they cross my path. I also understand the concept of the “starving artist”... that poor soul who goes largely underappreciated much of their life, only to become popular AFTER they die (sometimes, this is the case). So to become a successful screenwriter, creative-types such as myself need to assume a more business-minded approach – WE NEED TO WRITE TO SELL.

I’m making the effort, and hopefully will be rewarded with a glimmer of interest from the film world (IF my script holds water and is seen as commercially viable, or interesting enough to those who would potentially develop and bankroll it).

I am continually learning – I absolutely do not know it all! I appreciate your blog (and your input). It’s people like you that help answer questions from guys like me, hoping and dreaming on the outside.

Best Regards!
~Devin

8:06 PM  
Anonymous JTJames said...

Hmm,

my bigger disagreement comes not so much from the business aspect - obviously, a movie should make more than it costs to produce - and some flicks just are not cost effective, period.

But my point is that, of all the writers I know (I know more than a few) at least ten percent of them are really good to great. At least. So it's suprising to me that only one percent of screenplays are really good to great.

Couple that with many conversations I've had with the people who buy the scripts, like the ones who hand you scripts to read and evaluate (understand I am in no way critisizing you or your judgement) it leads me to wonder if there are not many scripts that have been passed on which are great and profitable movies (Brokeback was the example I used before, but there are many examples just like it). Even W. Goldman surmised as much, though he felt most were lying fallow in turnaround.

Commericially viable means hits the largest audience possible, and certainly that's what I want as a screenwriter, as I am sure you do as well.

So I guess we do disagree, though I know not how to resolve it. You certainly read a lot more screenplays than I, so perhaps I will bow to your experience there.

But still I will wonder . . . how many CRASH'S, BROKEBACKS, SYRIANNA'S and more are out there floating with no home . . .

8:42 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

You need to take more of a business-minded viewpoint here, and a less artist-centric one.

When you say "good-to-great", do you mean 1) by virtue of their prowess as a writer (crafting something outstanding)... or 2) that screenwriter really wrote something of great commercial potential, and that script will most assuredly be green-lit/produced rapidly to do big box-office figures and make its backers a mint?

The point I was making earlier was that in order to be a successful screenwriter, I feel as though one must have enough business savvy... enough industry sense... enough skill to produce something which appeals to ALL parties involved in the bankrolling of a movie. A successful screenplay gets producers, directors, actors, production crews, and bankrollers/studios on-board to produce it. The end result is ultimately to have a film MADE, right?

I have no doubt that some truly amazing scripts of great artistic import and value get hurled into the ‘circular file’ by the heap... simply by virtue of the fact that they were not crafted as something commercially viable or realistic when it comes to getting made. The winning script is a combination of budgetary sensibility, entertainment value, structure, page-count, potential marketability, and potential to create a franchise (should it strike GOLD).

There are many examples of movie bombs out there... films that were produced with lofty expectations, only to be humbled in the lackluster box office yields their opening weekend. Usually speaking, films such as this don’t last in theaters long, and they don’t end up on toy shelves or DVD film libraries. They simply fizzle out. It’s just as important to study the bad ones as it is the good ones and figure out why they either did or didn’t work out in the end.

A writer should not be bogged-down by sour grapes if he/she doesn’t succeed. Simply put, their idea didn’t generate enough of a buzz. Sometimes, an idea is bounced around in ‘development hell’ for years before it’s either realized, or relegated to a dusty warehouse (in the same manner the Ark of the Covenant was filed away at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). If something of yours didn’t work, learn why it didn’t and try again.

M. Night Shyamalan is a great example of a true screenwriter. When one of his pictures doesn’t work out or isn’t as successful as he had originally hoped, he doesn’t get angry or bitter about it. Instead, he learns from it – it’s about improving his ‘art’, which for him appears to be creating quality movies that sell millions of tickets. Sure, he has autonomy over his work as an auteur (actor, director, producer)... but ultimately he answers to the distributor and the studio that bankrolls him. Even he realizes his work is a business.

Best Regards,
~Devin

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Again, how do you know I don't have a business view point? The movies I've mentioned have made money, so how can championing them be a lost cause?

Even Fight Club is, by now, profitible - and it was hardly the dog that K19 the Widowmaker was.

Nor do I believe I've extended an angry bitter diatribe - I'm pretty pleased with what's been happening with me, don't hold any ill will toward the development folk that I know - they'll all great people in a tough, in not sometimes impossible job.

I haven't said anything other than I think some good work is overlooked, for whatever reason, and that hurts the business more than anything.

I maintain it's a risk to do anything, so why not risk on excellence in craft?

I'm not talking art, I'm talking about good work.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

" or 2) that screenwriter really wrote something of great commercial potential, and that script will most assuredly be green-lit/produced rapidly to do big box-office figures and make its backers a mint?"

BRICK, a script Joel recommended which was a good film, doesn't seem to necessarily fit into your description above. Does that mean that it shouldn't have been made?

I think movies are stories, told in a way specific to film, and what I think are really good to great scripts are stories well told, crafted and entertaining in that format.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Okay, okay. I think that what we are all disagreeing about is a much finer point than it seems to be. Let me try to state it clearly:

In my opinion/experience, I do not believe there is very much well-written and commercially viable material that is not being picked up eventually. Joshua, you apparently believe there is more. I will again attempt to explain why this difference of opinion might exist:

You mention the percentage of people you know who are good writers. I believe that perhaps you hang out with a crowd that is not a statistically valid sampling of all screenwriters. I believe that the scripts I have read over the years do present a much more statistically valid sample.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

Okay Joel - but can I add, it's good to have debates such as this, at least for me.

I don't pretend to know everything, but I do try to do my best to think everything through . . . it's all a process.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Absolutely, Joshua! I'm just trying to explore what lays at the root of our debate. :-)

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Joel. I share many of your thoughts regarding the Business vs. Art aspect, but let me ask you, as a reader do you view material the same way, meaning do you ever think to yourself "maybe this isn't the best story, writing, etc. but you are in some way able to see a film that you think would make money -- do you recommend on this basis or do the other factors cause you to pass?

12:49 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Anon --

The opposite is MUCH more often the case. It is more likely I'll read somethign that is well-written, but won't likely succeed commercially, than that I would read something that doesn't have a good story or good writing, but would likely succeed. Though not exclusively, I'd say that story and writing quality are precursors to success.

Another post I had in the works relates to this topic, so I'll try to get that one out next. :-)

12:54 AM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

Great googily-moogily! Sorry for stirring up all this debate. :-)

I think we actually agree on much more than we disagree on, actually. I LOVE ART. I love a well-written script and a great story... and in my personal writing I strive to achieve that.

But I also understand that unless you are Mel Gibson-like in your ability to write exactly what you want, direct exactly what you want, and personally bankroll exactly what you want and how you want it, you're going to have to play the game in order to get your idea produced into film.

Perhaps I'm wrong about this. I've seen a lot of derivative, repetitive crap in theaters as of late. My guess is that whoever is behind these films is trying to make a quick buck and run with it. If that’s the end-goal, there’s nothing wrong with that (nor do I believe it harms the film industry, per se). The film industry, like any other business, is based on the principles of supply and demand. If there is a demand for crap out there (a certain age bracket or demographic who, let’s say, craves dumb slasher-film clones), then people wishing to profit from this demand supply the goods and hope for the best.

Does seeing 150 slasher-clones a year (well, not quite that many) make me wretch? Yep. But I understand the reason behind it. I’m extremely happy to see quality films do well at the box office, and saddened by the great ones that don’t. I have no doubt that some truly great scripts that deserve to be produced just never find the perfect combination of people needed to bring it to life. This is not a reflection of the writer or the “D-people”, that’s just the way things happen in Hollywood sometimes (or so I’ve read).

Each and every movie made is a miracle. When you consider all of the people and resources that must be lined up and signed onto a project in order to complete it, it’s humbling and staggering. Screenplays are only the bare bones... a beginning. They are not a means to an end.

I’m very glad to be here among you all to speak about writing and discuss various aspects of it. Thank you for hearing me out and offering up your thoughts. I have nothing but respect for everyone here.

Best Regards,
~Devin

2:13 AM  
Anonymous Frank Z. White said...

Aside from the debate:

"There are many ways to make a bad movie out of a good script, but it is very diffcult to make a good movie out of a bad screenplay."

Are you sure it was you who's said that before, or was it Linda Seger or some other screenwriting 'mentor'?

2:55 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Frank --

Am I sure? No. Have I ever heard it from any of them? Absolutely not. So if someone else said it before me, then I agree with him or her 100% wholeheartedly. I've been saying this for years whenever someone outside of the biz complains to me about how bad the movies that come out are. I explain it may not be due to a bad screenplay, and then follow up with that statement.

2:59 AM  
Blogger CharlieDontSurf said...

10% of the writers who you are friends with are "great"?
How many people are we talking about...10?20?30?

4:34 AM  
Blogger The Moviequill said...

I read somewhere once that all good writing will eventually be revered, so I guess it's all about getting it into the right hands.. networking. Personally if none of my scripts ever get optioned or filmed, but I get a regular script doctor paycheck or a remake assignment or adaptation job, I'll be a happy camper. I think the 1% level Joel mentions is probably even high because so many people want a grab at the brass rail, so they'll just toss any old thing against the wall and hope it sticks. Isn't the old adage 'everyone in LA is writing a screenplay?' So imagine how hard it is for really truly fine writing to find it's voice crawling out of all that muck

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

That's why there are agents and other 'nets' in place, so that not just anyone who thinks they know how to write a screenplay gets into that slurry. :-)

The best ones come to the surface. It's what the directors, studios, actors, and production crews transform those 120 pages into that will ultimately sell or doom it.

Best Regards,
~Devin

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

bry -

It's a collective number, I'd say in the years since grad school (and granted, U of I has a great writing program) up to today in new york in the indie theatre scene that I call home, I've known well over a hundred writers and known them pretty well. Some (like my ex girlfriend) have gone on to some considerable fame and fortune - some have not. I've stayed in touch with some (like my mentor) and some I have not (like my ex).

But rounding it out to hundred, I'd say that at least ten of them are really good to great writers. Maybe more than ten, at least (more than ten of them are successful, interesting to note)but I will say ten are exceptional talents.

By knowing them well I mean, I've done more than a handshake and introduction . . . People I've actually spent time with.

I don't disagree with Joel's assessment that perhaps, due to living in nyc and the circles I mingle in, the level of game is higher than it is in Kentucky. I couldn't say for certain, but he's probably right.

My point is that I think the vetting process misses good, profitable work (and I in no mean this as a criticism of Joel, but rather the mechanisms in place which, in turn, hand Joel work to assess) and just about every successful writer I know has said the same thing.

Certainly, as is well known, very very profitable scripts have been turned down, only to be picked up later. Just a look at most of the recent Oscar winning original scripts is a lesson in this. Isn't it also logical to assume that there are also great scripts which were turned down and never made?

I know a few really good writers who think so. Successful writers, too. Shoot, if I recall, Scott Rosenberg even went on about this in one of his interviews.

Which, BTW, is why I get a might testy whenever I bring this up and immediately get assigned to the "he's singing sour grapes because he hasn't gotten anywhere" that's an easy label to throw but it's not the issue, it's not the point I brought up, as I mentioned, I've been pretty fortunate and I like a lot of the development folks I've met and known.

There's a similiar problem in mainstream theatre right now, so it's an issue I have an interest in.

Sorry Joel, if I'm rambling too much.

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

Hey Joshua,

Just for the record, I never accused you of harboring “sour grapes”. It sounded to me as if you might be. If I was wrong in that, my apologies; I’m man enough and honest enough to admit when I’m wrong and to mend fences (should they need mending).

The approach I’m trying out for myself and my own writing is a more business-minded model. Granted, I’m very much an artist (both in mind and in practice), so assuming an air of businessman is a difficult transition for me. But I believe that in order to get a movie produced from my script, I need to enter into the mix as a businessman, looking to make both myself and those willing to bankroll me lots of money.

Depending on which venue you are trying to enter into (I happen to be trying for big-budget fare), I believe you have to assume a certain mindset – this is a business. Otherwise, what is the point, beyond a purely self-indulgent, academic activity? We write screenplays to be produced into movies (or at least I do).

I agree with you 100%, by the way, with the view that a lot of scripts probably end up in either ‘development hell’, or lose their backing altogether. Some are even overlooked or passed on. But I have to agree with Joel in that this is probably not the norm, but the exception. I would imagine most great scripts are picked up, IF they are entered into the proper channels and viewed by the right people. It’s a combination of elements that all need to be in alignment before a script ever becomes a film – a minor miracle, really.

There are a lot of hack-job flicks out there today, to be sure; movies so mind-numbingly contrived as to make even the most laid-back filmgoer dry heave into their own popcorn. The success or failure on such pieces of crap will either ensure that more of the same types of films are made or not. If it continues to be a money-making proposition, then it will continue.

Great movies, created from great scripts by great directors, as performed by great actors and amazing production crews are what I look forward to – ALWAYS. I wish there were more examples of this out there. Hopefully in the future, more amazing screenwriters will enter into the fray and submit their work to the right people.

Best Regards,
~Devin

6:34 PM  

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