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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.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Good Bad Ugly

In the comments to my last post, Joshua asked:

How many great scripts have you read, over the years? Just curious.

This is a variation on one of the questions I am most frequently asked about my work. "Does everything you read suck?" Or, "How bad is most of what you read?"

So let me begin with this. I would say that about 10% of what I read is total shite. Maybe 1% is really good to great. And everything else is somewhere in the middle.

Now mind you, first of all, that the bulk of the scripts that get to me have at least theoretically already passed through one filter: the agents. (I say "the bulk" because there are always scripts that come into a company "Submitted by Author" via a personal contact.) Were I reading scripts for an agent, I suspect that the percentage of garbage would be significantly higher. Still, I'm amazed how much crap gets through even after this vetting process.

Let me also discuss the other end -- the really good to great. This does not necessarily mean that the script is great art that will win an Academy Award. It just means it is great for this company. Typically it will be exactly the type of film that matches the company's brand, and is in a budget range they aim for.

I should also add that a number of the really good or great scripts that I've read came in to me as writing samples, rather than straight submissions, and may have already been picked up for production elsewhere. An example of this would be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I was very impressed with this script when I read it, and Kaufman's name was actually blacked out on the cover page, so I had no idea who it was written by. That was an Oscar caliber script (and it rightly won that year), but another excellent screenplay I read that was far from Oscar worthy was How High? Now, I will say that that script was one of the funniest scripts I've ever read. The movie itself was kind of funny, but I definitely feel it paled in comparison to the screenplay. Largely I blame Method and Red for hamming it up too much. Regardless, the script was great, for what it was.

So, yeah, maybe 1% is in that top category. Of the 89% in the middle, some of those projects might get optioned or made, if the execs feel they are worth the requisite development. But it is rare that I will get on the phone with my boss and say, "Don't wait for the coverage -- read this now."

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14 Comments:

Blogger wcdixon said...

...and that all seems to jive with the numbers we all hear out there (1-2%)...and you're right to distinquish between 'great' and 'right'(for the company) - hopefully they are the one and the same thing, but not necessarily...

2:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait until you read my 94 page version of the script you read...

:)

- Allen

6:37 AM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

Ah... the bitch-slap of reality doth smite me. It’s a harsh, brutal place we all send our “babies”. I guess a partial answer comes on my birthday, August 10 (SCRIPTAPALOOZA), with October/November to follow (Final Draft’s “Big Break” Contest). After that, who knows? If my script ends up in the “shite” pile, perhaps I’ll just go back to watching movies... give up on the dream. I’ll have a new baby to care for by then (my wife’s due in late January/early February with our first). It won’t be the first dream I’ve abandoned, should that be the case.

Thanks for the dose of reality Joel. Your blog (and sage advice) is much appreciated!

Best Regards,
~Devin

6:11 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

Hey Joel,

Actually, it doesn't jive with what I was thinking - I know a lot of undiscovered playwrights and while there is a lot of shite there, too - the percentage of good to great written plays is at least 10% - which jibes well with what I remember from grad school as well - (to be more specific, I'd say of all the writers I know, 5 to 10% are good to great) -

What I find interesting is that of the readers I've talked to (excluding Fun Joel) uniformly can only mention one or two really good to great scripts - and it makes me wonder, because I really think that there are more good scripts than that because I think that there better writers out there (I know that there are more folks writing screenplays than anything else, but readers are supposed to be reading the top of the crop) - Granted, I'm not a reader, but the numbers make me wonder.

I'm not claiming anything other than my unfounded suspicions that too many good scripts aren't making it to where they should - perhaps it's the producers or the agents (my agent just sent me STAY as a sample of a really great spec script and I thought it blew chunks) or perhaps it's just that writing screenplays is much harder than writing anything else (I don't want to believe that, but maybe it's true) and that's why there are less really good to great scripts.

No real solution, just offering my paltry observations.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Devin -- my plan was to target no one in particular. I was simply talking odds. And best of luck with the baby! Congrats!

Joshua -- I will offer a few potential explanations for this.

a. Due to the misplaced belief that screenwriting can be a way to get rich quick, and also due to the fact that EVERYONE sees movies and many fewer people see plays, there are not only more people trying to write screenplays, but also more talentless people who deceive themselves into thinking they can. What I mean is, a higher percentage of playwrights may be people with an understanding and love of the form, and a dedication to doing it right. Thus a higher percentage of quality examples there.

b. Since screenplays are worth more monetarily, the great ones are often picked up very quickly, and thus may be out of circulation before more people read it. Thus, of all the "great" scripts floating around out there, any given reader is less likely to read it. Thus, contrary to your conclusion, I'm speculating that the reason they aren't seen by as many people is because, in fact, they are making it to where they should!

Re: the different responses from other readers to me, I think what you may be talking about is the difference between very good for this company and truly great in terms of art. They may have been referring to the latter.

And Re: STAY, I haven't read it, so I can't give you my opinion. But I can give you plenty of examples of great screenplays. You may just not have connected with that script in particular, and it still may be great. Or alternatively, it may be over-rated, or you might not have "gotten" it.

Just my thoughts. Hope they help.

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

Thanks Joel (I knew what you meant... I guess I was getting carried away).

I think my idea is sound and entertaining, but perhaps I'm delusional. I'll see what happens once it has been read and judged.

With a baby on the way, I'm kind of distracted (YIKES!). ;-)

Best Regards,
~Devin

7:03 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

Thanks Joel,

I've read great scripts, they're in any bookstore or library, but if there's one in particular that you admire, then I'd like to hear your thoughts on it and why and I'll check it out.

I think that there are a lot of bad plays (don't think this, know this) just as there are a lot of bad novels in want of publishers because many folks think it's easy to write. It's not. So there's always a lot of badly written work.

One interesting thing I note, from the famous screenplays floating out there in Barnes & Noble, is how many of them have been TURNED DOWN by powers that be.

It leads me to suspect that there are much better screenplays out there than one would suspect - I know that I have a couple good ones, and I bet I could find ones out there from other writers (in fact, I know of at least two really good undiscovered writers) - whose scripts are probably getting passed on.

STAY wasn't bad - it just wasn't good - it was filled with trailer moments but the story lacked cohesion and interior logic. I wasn't surprised that the movie failed. The story just didn't work.

After researching, I found out it's by the writer of THE 25TH HOUR (originally a novel) and this was his first spec - written after his other movie came out - so it could have meant that whomever was buying it had stars in their eyes when reading. Even if you like the script, it's hard to imagine it's worth 1.5 million (allegedly what it sold for).

The market, knowing what folks want are buying or what they are not, that's quite maddening (for everyone, I think) - I've written six or seven screenplays, had a couple of options and have written stuff that I feel and believe is in the top percentage but I often feel that the development folks I've met, while being smart people, often cannot tell the difference between good, great and not great. Not all, obviously, but many.

I went to a meeting a year or so ago in nyc set up by director of development at a midsize well known production company. The fellow who set it up arranged a meeting between screenwriters he knew and liked and D-people, in the hopes of establishing summit and exchange of info -

The writers, believe it or not, wanted all to write something that sells, which is allegedly what the D people want as well. But the D folks for some reason could not actively articulate what that was in terms of genre, in terms of story, anything. They could talk in terms of what was popular now (which gets old real quick) but they could not tell us what, (all of us good craft folks with the written word) we could write now that would be something they would buy. We weren't pitching, mind you, it was a sharing of experiences. And frustrating for both sides.

Interesting that there seems to be less of this in television, where many of the folk doing the hiring and producing are also writers.

Anyway, I'm rambling and I apologize. It's a subject I have an interest in. I would think that mathematically the cream of the crop would still be higher than 1%. But I could be wrong, I am far from perfect.

9:03 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

Bottom line -- movies are a business... (unless it's an "art film" or a "student film"). Many of us write screenplays in the hopes of capturing a bit of that magic for ourselves (the process... the notoriety... the credit... and yes, the MONEY). A lot of us do it simply out of the belief that we KNOW movies, and we know what we would like to see on the big screen, if given the chance to create one. I fall somewhere in the middle.

I can’t really speak from experience (as I have only just written my first spec script), but I have a feeling that “D-people” know a lot more than they get credit for. After all, their jobs and reputations are on the chopping block! It’s their decisions and choices that mean the difference between multi-million dollar profits or going down with the ship. So as much as I may dread the possibility of having to one day confront them (that’s assuming my idea piques their interest... which is a huge stretch at this early stage in the game), I have respect for their plight and their duty to the process.

Multi-million dollar contracts are drawn up every day in Hollywood. Dreams are realized or dashed in moments. I hope one day to have the experience of finding this out for myself, but realistically speaking, the odds are against me. Are my ideas marketable... good enough... interesting enough... worthy of optioning and producing into a big-budget motion picture? I’d like to think they are. We’ll see, I guess.

I’ve read interviews and blogs of many screenwriters, many of which hurl contempt at the ‘system’ whenever their idea isn’t picked up or produced. To me, it sounds like a lot of sour grapes. It’s an HONOR to be in that boardroom, no matter what the outcome. I hope to someday know what that’s like.

Best Regards,
~Devin

10:27 PM  
Anonymous JTJames said...

Again, I know D-folks and I wouldn't call any of them dumb - far from it - most are very smart - but my point was that, despite being smart, they didn't really know the difference between good writing and great, bad to awfull (and to be fair, a lot of alleged writers cannot tell the difference either) -

Here's an example. I'm a smart guy, couple college degrees, this and that - and I like to listen to music on the radio. Does that mean that I can tell a songwriter how to write a good song, or even tell the difference between a good song or great song (though I'm certain that THE THONG SONG will be playing in hell, if hell exists)- I could read books on songwriting, I could take seminars on it, but other than my own likes and dislikes with regard to taste (see above, THONG) how can I really say if I am qualified or not to say yes or no to a songwriter? How can I tell what will be a hit or what won't be?

I can't. I'm not a songwriter, no matter how smart I may be. Now, some folks can tell those things without being songwriters, just as some are born editors and have an eye for talent. Some folks do. But most don't, not in development, they just have an Ivy League diploma and an expense account (which happily pays for many a lunch for screenwriters)- smart as they are, it doesn't mean that they know great writing from good or bad. I think that's a talent much like writing is.

Same holds true with novels. And plays and, I feel, screenplays. And it's not everyone, but it is a lot of smart people running what is an inexact science, if it's a science at all.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

And I'd like to add that it always irritates me whenever someone wants to lecture screenwriters on dealing with studio types or d-folks, they always say, "Hey, it's a business" like it's something that we don't know.

I know it's a business, and I know it works when everyone makes money. The business doesn't make money when people who don't know scripts pass on good works. Business loses money then. That's not good business. End of story.

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

I have to believe it all boils down to what a D-folk can sell versus what they are doubtful about selling. Fine art and lofty claims have little to do with it (unless it is of a caliber that can assure its status as a "sure thing").

Many great works of art only were recognized as such well after the artist him/herself was long-dead and nearly forgotten (look at Van Gogh!).

Film is a business. Crap does well simply because, at least for the time being, crap IS selling and making a profit for those purveying it. The moment it is no longer profitable will be the instant they begin looking for the next “sure thing”.

If you or I were able to remove ourselves from the artistic/creative end of the equation and look at it strictly as a business... which would you gravitate towards: 1) The “sure thing”; or 2) A risky project with plenty of potential for either success or failure... and your career rides on the outcome...? My guess is that we would go for the “sure thing”.

Just my $0.02.

Best Regards,
~Devin

3:39 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

devin,

it really didn't make sense, what you posted. You're using the idea that it's a "business" as an excuse for d-folks (and studio heads and directors AND writers) not to take responsibility for good work and I simply just disagree.

There are no SURE THINGS, otherwise K19 The Widowmaker would have been a huge hit. So let's repeat what I just said. No sure things. Nothing. Even MI3 opened less than predicted. Remember THE WILD WILD WEST with Will Smith? How did that open?

a couple years ago, the most uncommerical genre out there was the cowboy movie, and the only thing deader than that would have been a gay cowboy movie. And look how that particular project fared. How many folks passed on that project? Loads. Loads passed and loads lost money because they passed. That's bad business.

I say any film that makes a hundred million is a commercial movie, regardless of the subject matter.

Me, I am under no illusion in terms of art house versus commercial - I like commercial movies, I want more of them that are fun and interesting and entertaining. I think they're out there, too.

I simply thing too many people are reading from the same playbook and calling it business when things don't work out.

So don't explain that it's a business when a good script goes unnoticed or untouched. That's not good business, that's bad business.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

I should add, I would risk my career on good work any day of the week, and do. - FIGHT CLUB may not have done well when originally released, but I would have made it and those who did left their mark of excellence on the business.

I would make FIGHT CLUB-type movie today if given the chance, and I hope someday I will be.

If there is no risk involved, then nothing is won.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

I never asserted there was such an animal as a "sure thing", only the perception of one. Obviously, D-folks make mistakes and I would wager to bet that jobs are lost over the stinkers produced, based on their recommendations.

And by the way, I feel the way you do! I'm passionate about a good story! I love it when a movie gets it right... is smart... is entertaining... is a ride that takes me away from my worries and cares and leaves me smiling in the end, after having forked-over $10 plus two hours of my life and time, WHICH I HOLD DEAR.

I would like nothing else than to see quality out there... consistently and across-the-board. Why isn’t this the case then? What is it about our viewpoint and approach that doesn’t seem to jibe with what is occurring out there? Is it really the fault of the D-folk? Or are they simply trying to make a judgment call, based on their experience in the “business”? Not all D-folk make bad calls, by the way. But I believe many are afraid to put their careers on the line in order to take that leap-of-faith... the chance we all wish them to take.

I’m of a decidedly creative-mind. I am only attempting to understand the non-creative-mind as I begin my approach.

If my viewpoints offended you, I apologize – that was not my intent. Nor was it my intention to demean your points (as they are valid and well-spoken).

Best Regards,
~Devin

7:45 PM  

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