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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.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

DVD Movie Review: Dreams on Spec

A few people around the Scribosphere have mentioned the new doc Dreams on Spec (by Daniel Snyder), and I've watched it and want to give a brief review. For those who don't know, the film is a look at three of the thousands of people who each year write screenplays on spec, hoping to make the move from developing amateur to working professional. In other words, it is about people like most of us.

Spoilers ahead (but hey, it is a documentary, so what do you expect?!)

The film is good -- generally well-made and interesting with moments that are entertaining, moving and/or interesting. And while it never truly answers the question it poses (i.e. What drives so many people to write spec screenplays when the sheer numbers make the odds of success seem ridiculous?), it still offers some minor insights. The film follows three writers who (fortuitously or by design) basically end up in each of the three ways that they logically could. One gains some measure of success, one quits, and one perseveres and continues writing, despite rejection.

The decisions each makes, and the tribulations they each face (both professionally and personally) should be familiar to most of us, and the film is thus relatable. At the same time, while it might shed some light on the psyche of the writer to those who are unfamiliar, there will be little new in this film for most of us. For the bulk of the film, most of the people reading this blog will be nodding their heads knowingly, rather than thinking deeper thoughts or learning new things about the spec screenwriting life.

Still, there are some things in Dreams on Spec that should be good for even our crowd, despite the lack of unfamiliar material. Firstly, it is nice to be able to watch these people, and see bits of ourselves in there. It makes us feel that we're not alone in our struggles (much the same way that reading the various blogs of our Scribosphere community do). It can sometimes be heartening when you know that other people are sharing the same struggles that you are.

But perhaps the best part for us developing writers is that Snyder has intercut the three screenwriters' stories with interviews of well-known and successful screenwriters. Among others, the filmmakers interviewed Gary Ross, Nora Ephron, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, James L. Brooks and Steven de Souza. Amongst the most interesting was Dennis Palumbo, a former screenwriter and current therapist who specializes in writers and other industry types. He adds an interesting insight into the writer's mind.

Probably most poignant, and unfortunately least surprising, is that the writer who calls it quits after struggling too long and facing too much rejection is the one who has the most external cards stacked against her. She is a Black woman, and she also seems to focus on the slightly more indie side of things. But sadly, she also seems like she might be the most talented (hard to tell since we never read or hear much of their scripts), or at least the one with the best balance of the commercial and artistic. Furthermore, she came from a job working for a production company, where she presumably had learned the business and craft better (as I know I have from my work). Thus, her despair is that much more moving when it hits.

Also interesting is the continued struggles and compromises faced by the "successful" one of the three. Even with his film moving towards production, he still faces numerous hurdles both annoying and (at times) insulting, all for the cause of getting a film made.

Ultimately, Dreams on Spec is not a great or groundbreaking film, but a good one worth watching. This is true both for the myriad other spec screenwriters of the world, and for anyone who is curious about what drives us. And while it might never fully answer this question, it still might add to an understanding of where our minds are, collectively speaking.

Update: Alex Epstein posted his review of the film yesterday, but I hadn't read it yet. You should go read it HERE. He raises some points that I felt uncomfortable saying, but he's right. One of the reasons that so many spec writers struggle for so long without finding success is that many of them simply are bad writers. Not all. But many.

So the idea is that if a writer writes screenplays for a certain amount of time (and I'm not saying I know how long that is, though as one of Alex' commenters suggests, 10 years is a good starting point for the discussion) and still finds no success, (s)he should likely call it quits, because (s)he is likely lacking the necessary skills/talent. Certainly there are some writers who call it quits too early, and that shows they lacked the perseverance to succeed. And others do persevere, and finally do find success after much longer. But most of that latter category probably found some minor measures of success along the way rather than just pure rejections.

Most likely, it all comes down to how you define your own progress and success. But if you work for long enough and you fail to meet those definitions, you certainly need to ply yourself with a good dose of reality.

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Blogger Alex Epstein said...

See now I didn't think that Deborah Goodwin had strikes against her because she's a Black woman. I don't believe showbiz works like that. I think she fails because she has utterly unrealistic expectations. She gave herself basically 2 months to get her movie made. She's never had a movie produced and she wants to direct it, too. And she thinks she's going to get Adrian Brody? Get real. For someone who's worked as a Creative Exec, she doesn't seem to have a clue!

If anything, I think being a Black woman would be a plus -- it's something to put in the press packet. What's a minus is that she's kind of an annoying person. That and self-delusion = failure.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

I hear what you're saying, Alex. And I do think she gave up too quickly, which goes along with the unrealistic expectations part. I also agree that she was a bit annoying, though not terribly so.

But I do think that for a lot of jobs, those things are seen as strikes against her. Those things become assets once she's already perceived as great. But until then, they are just two more things that prevent her from getting the job over another equally acceptable candidate.

Of course, without actually getting to see her work, it is hard to tell the truth.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Daniel.Snyder said...

Hi Joel --

I'm the director of DREAMS ON SPEC and I appreciate the thoughtful and even-handed review of the documentary. It's good to get word about the film out to the screenwriting community!

The only quibble I'd have is the generalizations that "there's little in the film for most of us."

I know that's how it struck you (and is certainly a valid point of view), but most people I’ve heard from in the professional writing community have found it to be a valuable and thought-provoking film.

Literally this morning, just before I read your review, I received an email from Paul Guay (LIAR LIAR, LITTLE RASCALS, HEARTBREAKERS).

He was an expert interview in the film, but doesn't have anything to gain from praising it. He said DREAMS ON SPEC was "one of the best films of the year" and that his "wife and son learned as much about what I do by watching the film as they have by living with me."

Not to mention all the other praise we've gotten from the screenwriting community over the last few months (which is on the DREAMS ON SPEC website which you provided a link to at the top of your post).

So I just hope that everyone will check out the website (where there are excerpts of the film) and make their own decision. Most people really like it.

Thanks again for posting a review of the film -- and telling people about it. I very much appreciate it.

9:54 PM  
Blogger E.C. Henry said...

"Dreams on Spec" sounds like a GREAT DVD to rent. Hopefully, it'll make it up here to the video stores in Washington. If it does I'll rent it for sure.

I don't think ANYONE should be advised not to write. I think there are unique stories that God gives people to tell, then it's their challege to put in the time at the keyboard, and educate themselves on screenplay form, so their work is given the best chance to succeed.

Quelching "the dream" only deprives society of good entertainment.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

4:42 AM  
Blogger Daniel.Snyder said...

Unfortunately, it's next to impossible for indie films not affiliated with the big studios to get into video stores these days -- especially as the number of video stores shrinks everyday.

So I think it'll only be available on DVD for the foreseeable future -- although we are working on a TV broadcast deal though nothing's been hammered out yet.

5:10 AM  
Blogger Laura Reyna said...

"See now I didn't think that Deborah Goodwin had strikes against her because she's a Black woman. I don't believe showbiz works like that."

I think you better ask some Black women trying to find work in Hollywood about this. See what they have to say.

Thanks for the review, Joel. I haven't seen it but i get what you're saying about there being little new for us screenwriters who've been at it for a while. We know it's hard.

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would think being a black woman would be a major plus when trying to break into an industry that wants more diversity.

10:57 PM  

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