DVD Movie Review: Dreams on Spec
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.
Tags: screenwriting, Dreams+on+Spec