How To Succeed At Screenwriting… By Really Trying, Part 2: Watch Movies

November 8th, 2011 by

You may remember a 1967 movie How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Here is the IMDB plot summary:

Twenty-seven year old New York window washer J. Pierpont Finch believes he can be a success in the corporate world after he impulsively picks up the book “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”. The book promises its reader that he can climb the corporate ladder simply and quickly. The Worldwide Wicket Corporation, the business in the office building whose windows he washes, is, according to the book, the perfect type of business. There, he meets secretary Rosemary Pilkington, who sees in Ponty, as she calls him, an unassuming man whom she believes the corporate world will eat alive. But Ponty, memorizing what the book tells him, does quickly climb the corporate ladder, but not by doing any real work.

Ah, if only learning the craft of screenwriting was so easy. It’s not. Despite all the products in the marketplace promoting “proven systems” and “secret formulas,” there is only one way to become proficient at the craft: You have to really try. That is the only legitimate path to success as a screenwriter.

This week I’d like to present to you five things you can do to help you learn the craft of screenwriting and put you in a position to succeed. They are completely free. They don’t require anything at all except this — your time, commitment, focus and effort.

In other words, by really trying.

Can it help to read books, attend seminars and take screenwriting classes? Absolutely, I wouldn’t have co-founded Screenwriting Master Class if I didn’t think Tom Benedek and I could help mentor writers in what it takes to write and approach the craft like professional screenwriters. But no matter what you learn in any formal setting or through your own ad hoc approach to educating yourself about the craft, these five practices I’m presenting to you this week are important and should be an essential part of your learning process.

Part 2: Watch Movies

Like Read Scripts, the admonition to Watch Movies should not come as a surprise even to casual readers of this blog. It is the second part of the triumvirate [“Read scripts. Watch movies. Write pages.”] I promote on a semi-regular basis because I think they are each a critical component of how to learn the craft of screenwriting.

Today I want to dig down into reasons why I think watching movies provides an enormous benefit to a screenwriting aspirant.

* While reading scripts is important, watching movies provides a way of experiencing a story that highlights one key fact: Film is primarily a visual medium. You may or may not get that from a script, depending upon how visually the script is written and how attuned you may be to visual nature as you read it. When you watch a movie, however, you simply can not ignore its visuality.

In my experience, most fledgling screenwriters rely too much on dialogue. While important, what a character says in most movies is nowhere near as critical as what they do, what happens around them.

Somewhere along the line, you absolutely need to learn to think visually first in your screenwriting. Again: Film is primarily a visual medium. The best way to grasp that fact is to watch movies. Every second of every frame is a reminder of that most basic fact.

* Watching movies not only reminds you film is a visual medium, it also schools you in visual grammar. Every movie, even bad ones, features scene composition, framing shots, movement, cross cuts, perspective, point of view, scene transitions, all of that and much more. We may think that is the job of the director — and during production it is — but that does not translate into the writer simply setting up an imaginary camera in a locked-off position, then describing the action. Rather the fact is we get the first chance to direct the movie by how we orchestrate scene description, scene construction and so forth.

Do we use camera shots and directing jargon to convey that in our writing? Not nowadays, that goes against current screenwriting style. However there are numerous ways — from breaking up paragraphs of scene description into single lines, each representing a camera shot, to the use of secondary sluglines (or shots) to emphasize points of focus — to ‘direct’ the story on the page without resorting to directing lingo.

Ultimately this is about the combination of watching movies and reading scripts. You watch movies to inform and train your visual sensibilities. You read scripts to see how good, contemporary screenwriters traffic in imagematic grammar to convey their story visually.

* As noted yesterday, there is a difference between learning how to write a screenplay and how to be a screenwriter. The former is a very narrow, focused aspect of the craft. The latter is much more expansive, requiring an immersion — there’s that word again — into the world of cinema. This is especially true in Hollywood. You simply can not expect to transact any pitch, open writing assignment, or script notes meeting without a broad exposure to movies. Why? Because movies are reference points.

I would hazard to guess that in any Hollywood meeting about a script project, there will be on average 25 movie references. A studio exec wants to make a point about an action scene and may bring up the shoot-out in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the final sequence in The Expendables. A producer may remind you to come up with a funny bit of business for a specific character like C.C. Baxter in The Apartment or Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean or. A director may have specific camera shot in mind from Rear Window or Drive. Conversely you may want to make a point about the use of a talisman object like the snow globe in Citizen Kane or the spinning top in Inception. Indeed there may very well be references to obscure movies, early films by Peckinpah or Wyler, foreign films by Bunuel or Itami.

Now multiply those meetings each day — your manager, other writers, a producer, after screening chit chat — it’s likely your conversation will involve hundreds of movie references.

How are you going to be able to build your movie vocabulary in order to keep up with all those film references? Simple. Watch movies.

* It’s more than just about being able to cover your bases in terms of movie vocabulary, it’s about becoming an active part of the culture of cinema. Tarantino may never have done much in the way of formal film studies, but when he worked at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, he dug into cinema by watching thousands of movies. In face he is quoted as saying, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.'”

This is not just about immersing oneself in the culture of cinema, it’s about exposing yourself to a variety of styles, genres, and forms so that you may find your own voice. Does this sound similar to what I noted yesterday about reading scripts — “Every script by every writer has its own style, its own take on format, its own approach to pacing and handling scenes, its own unique feel and tone. What better way to expose yourself to a variety of approaches than by reading a wide selection of scripts?” Absolutely, it is the watching movies equivalent.

* In fact there are different ways to watch a movie. There are times when all you want to do is kick back, relax, and let yourself go with a film, enjoy it as pure entertainment. Great. Nothing wrong with that, indeed you are more than likely picking up something in that process either consciously or subconsciously. On the other hand, there is enormous value in analyzing a movie as you watch it. Whether that involves checking your watch every time a plot point happens, tracking them by their minute count, creating a scene-by-scene breakdown, or turning on a DVD, flipping your chair around and listening to the movie, you will learn something new and add to your understanding of how movies work.

The opportunities for learning involved in watching movies are limitless, but the single most important key here is to make sure you slot in time each week to screen a film… or two… or three.

How well versed in movies are you? Check out the IMDB Top 250 movies. How many of them have you seen? It it’s less than 100, you have some catching up to do. More on that Thursday.

A few questions for you:

* How many movies would you guess you have seen in your lifetime?

* How many movies do you see each week?

* How do you think watching movies can benefit you in learning the craft of screenwriting?

For Part 1 of this series [Read Scripts], go here.

Tomorrow in Part 3: Write pages.

Comment Archive

8 thoughts on “How To Succeed At Screenwriting… By Really Trying, Part 2: Watch Movies

  1. One unsolicited word of advice, that works for me: when you watch a movie or a tv show, try to do it with script in hand, as if you were trying to follow a score.

    1. tracinell says:

      I’m better at this triumvirate than script reading, but I like your advice Pliny, combining my strength with my weakness.

    2. Scott says:

      Pliny, thanks for noting that as that is something I strongly recommend. Not all the time, of course, but every so often. It’s a terrific learning experience to see how what gets written is translated onto the screen (very much like our Script To Screen series), but also what gets cut out. Then to think why did they make those changes? That can really help you to get into the mindset of a filmmaker. And a nice merging of reading scripts and watching movies.

      1. Saint says:

        There are also some DVDs with scripts on them that allow you to watch and read. Like the Monty Python & The Holy Grail Collector’s Edition Boxed Set and Memento the Widescreen Two-Disc Limited Edition.

  2. Damn, I’ve seen about 225 of the top 250 movies… but a majority of them in my Netflix Instant queue (I’m still with them) so I’m constantly increasing my numbers.

    And Scott, another great series. Yesterday’s post was amazing and can’t wait to read the rest.

    1. Scott says:

      Thanks, David. I know the ‘tough love’ approach is not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to screenwriting. So much easier to think we can learn some ‘secret system’ or work some ‘proven paradigm,’ then that’s it, we’ll knock out a million dollar spec script, and off we go, all nice and easy.

      You go that route, you may get damn lucky and sell a spec. But you are putting yourself behind the eight ball when it comes to creating a sustainable screenwriting career.

      To set yourself up for that, you need to be willing and able to work at it, hence —

      Read scripts, watch movies, write pages…

  3. […] How To Succeed At Screenwriting… By Really Trying, Part 2: Watch Movies ( […]

  4. Ok, conversation is bit old, but still I want to post it here.
    I read “Lego Movie”, and found there beautiful thought that had lost itself in the waves of creation.


Leave a Reply