Being a military brat, I like schedules. That extends to Twitter. So for the last few months at 9:15AM Eastern, I have taken to tweeting short musings about the craft of screenwriting. Here are a few of them:
There are no screenwriting rules. There are conventions, patterns, paradigms. Know them, but don’t let them constrain your creativity.
Sometimes the BEST dialogue is NO dialogue. The silence in the moment or between characters can speak volumes.
There is one incontrovertible, unassailable rule about a first draft and it is this: Get the damn thing done!
They generate a fair share of retweets and favorites, so I figure there’s a place for them, and continue to add to the roster.
On Saturday, I tweeted this:
To test a story concept, ask: Is it big enough to be a movie? Can I ‘see’ the trailer? Will people pay $10 for this movie?
That created a little disturbance in the Force.
I have never, not once, asked myself any of those questions. I often agree w you, but I think this is really wrong. https://t.co/1NSucGokZn
— Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman) May 23, 2015
That led to a series of other tweets critical of my advice:
— Kyle. (@TheSneakerGuru) May 23, 2015
— Aaron Dobbs (@AaronOOF) May 23, 2015
Anybody who knows me and has read this blog for any length of time understands my passion for and support of writers from all backgrounds, from anywhere in the world, and with different, unique voices. That’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be partnered with the Black List as Franklin Leonard and I share that commitment.
So per my tweet, I dashed off an email to Brian Koppelman in which I wrote this:
I was directing it [the tweet] toward those writers who consciously traffic in what they hope are mainstream, commercial projects. So the tweet would have been better to read: “One way to test the commercial viability of a story concept is to ask, Is it big enough to be a movie etc”.
Then I tweeted something to the effect, this conversation deserved more time, not appropriate for Twitter, so here we are.
First a clarification: I did not take the content of the tweet from “Save the Cat”. I have never read any of those books, so it would have been impossible for me to have cribbed the lines from that source. Where I did hear it was from one of my first agents Marty Bauer. Marty knew something about the business. That should be evident by the fact he sold the movie rights to Gay Talese’s book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” for $2.5M after he turned down an initial offer of $1.5M. What Marty said to me, specifically about assessing the marketable strength of a story concept, was to ask these questions: Who is the audience? Will they be willing to pay $5 to go see this movie in a theater? In my tweet, I adjusted it to $10 in an attempt to take into account inflation. Someone later tweeted this:
@GoIntoTheStory $10 for a movie ticket??? Where do you go to the movies? I’ll go there.
— Carol Hovsepian (@CarolHovsepian) May 24, 2015
I never forgot that piece of advice from Marty and for decades now as I’ve generated literally thousands of story ideas, those have been some of the questions I’ve asked to assess their commercial viability. And sometimes, I should note, I have chosen to write a spec script when I knew it would be a hard sell. Why? Because I was completely passionate about the idea.
[Note: Whenever someone asks me if they should write this or that idea, I always hit on this: What is your emotional connection to the story? If they are absolutely in love with it, I will advise them to go ahead and write it, even if it seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. So the $10 ticket question is not a game-ender, just one of a set of questions to ask when assessing a story concept.]
The other questions from my tweet — Is it big enough to be a movie? Can I ‘see’ the trailer — come from another source: screenwriter-director-producer John Swetnam. From my March 2011 interview with John:
If you want to write “Hollywood” movies then the biggest question you have to ask yourself when you come up with an idea is, can you really see this opening at your local theater next weekend? I mean, really? What does the trailer look like when it comes on TV? You have to be brutally honest with yourself and most people just aren’t.
Then John followed up with what I thought was an interesting process for developing and writing scripts:
My process works like this. I come up with an idea and then I put on my “producer” hat. What’s the budget, genre, tone? Where does it fit in the market place? Who would I cast in it? Who would direct? What’s the trailer, poster? Who’s my audience, etc, etc, etc? If I can answer all these questions clearly and I’m still pumped then I know I have something that I can dig into. That’s when I put on my “writer” hat and forget the rest and start exploring the story and the characters. I have put myself inside a box and now I can really get creative. I constantly ask myself if I think what I’m doing is cool. Do I love this? Am I excited to see it on screen? The ball usually just starts rolling and I put together a pretty fast beat sheet. Then I do a treatment and get feedback on it asap. I love feedback. If I’m still feeling good, then I rewrite the treatment a few times before I go into a really detailed outline. Then I set it aside for a while and work on other stuff. If I come back to it after a week, read it, and still love it, I do some more rewrites and then kill the first draft. I do tend to write and rewrite as I go along, but I can pump out a first draft in under a week. Then I put on my “director” hat and really dig into the tiny details and make sure I know the answer to every possible question that might come up. What if an actor asked me this? What if the production design wanted to know about this, etc, etc? Only after I’ve worn all three hats, which means at least three drafts on my own, I get more feedback, take more time away and rewrite and rewrite and get more feedback until I honestly think it’s as good as I can get it.
So in order to make this conversation something which can shed more light than heat, let’s pose this question: Should a writer ever ‘wear’ a producer’s hat? And specifically in the earliest stages of story development – when considering whether to pursue a story idea?
By the way in my email to Brian, I forwarded him this quote:
“Most aspiring screenwriters simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept. It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months — sometimes years — are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.”
— Terry Rossio (Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
This is really the place I’m coming from with this subject, at least insofar as writers who dream of trafficking in mainstream, commercial Hollywood movies. Through my writing, teaching, and blogging, I’ve intersected with literally thousands of writers and their story ideas. A number of them have been great. Many of them have been good. But a lot of them have not felt like a movie to me.
Now I’ll be the first person to admit I can be wrong, one big honking example of which I wrote about here. However even if I can be wrong in my assessment of individual ideas, I believe this to be true: A writer’s chances of succeeding with a spec script depend not only on their writing, but also the strength of the underlying story concept.
So the real point of my tweet was to push people to come up with the strongest idea possible. Not go with the first or second concept that pops into their mind, but go for something better. Their original idea may be the one to pursue, but I would think that it is generally worth the due diligence to check out other possibilities.
For some writers, putting on a producer’s hat might be the ‘wrong’ thing. So in that sense, Brian is right to call me out. However if that’s true, the inverse also can be true: For some writers, putting on a producer’s hat to ask who the audience is for a potential movie, can they really see the trailer, can they honestly imagine people spending $10 to see the movie in a theater, those questions may be precisely what they need to elevate and focus their creativity. Apparently it works for John Swetnam who has been quite successful over the last several years. Then again, John makes no bones about it: He wants to write and direct commercial Hollywood movies.
Bottom line, I don’t think it’s an either or situation. As I’ve said constantly on the blog over the years, every writer is different. There is no one right way to write. Some people’s creativity may be squashed by thinking about things like commercial viability, target audiences, budgets and the like. Others may actually thrive by considering those.
So in actuality, the question of whether a writer should put on a producer’s hat when considering what project to write boils down to a bigger consideration: What type of writer are you? Do you want to try to write mainstream movies for Hollywood? Maybe thinking like a producer and studying market trends will help you. Then again, maybe not. Or do you prefer to say, “Screw that, I’m going to write what I’m passionate about, regardless of any of those so-called commercial considerations.” That may end up helping you achieve your creative ambitions. Or maybe not.
I wrote a post some time ago which may have some relevance: Write what you’re buying or sell them your dream. Again, I’m not advocating for any one way. This is something each writer has to figure out for him/herself.
Where does that leave us? An opportunity for each of us to reflect on who we are as creatives. Certainly in a business of which William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything,” it’s probably wise to consider alternatives. If, however, you know what works for you, great. Do that!
As always my hope is for each of you to find meaning in your writing, write the best you can, and hopefully those efforts will bring you success… however you choose to define that.
UPDATE: Talk about synchronicity. Here is some John Swetnam news that just hit:
News of splashy deals for finished films, sizzle reels and scripts with talent attachments made on the Croisette will continue to be unveiled for the next few weeks. Here’s one that got done just before the fest market closed. Maple Leaf Films’ Tove Christensen and Michael Wexler agreed to finance and produce Spectrum, a science fiction thriller that John Swetnam will direct. It’s based on his idea and was scripted by Lex Edness. 13 Films’ Tannaz Anisi is handling international rights and Swetnam’s Paradigm reps will broker the domestic deal. Casting on Spectrum is underway for a fall shoot.
What’s the idea John came up with?
After inventing a technology that not only proves the existence of ghosts but can actually see them, a renowned scientist does a final experiment on a human test subject that goes horribly wrong. Decades later, when his son and a group of colleagues discover the secret high-tech laboratory where the experiment took place, they find themselves battling a vengeful force.
Evidently when John hit on this story concept, he decided it felt like a movie to him, he could actually imagine it opening in theaters, and that people would want to go see it.
UPDATE #2: From Jim Douglas in comments:
“Unless you’re financing and filming your own movie, you better damn well consider who is going go watch it because you can be sure that the people you’re trying to sell it to will be thinking that. If you want to write a 300 page opus on the depressing downward spiral of an alcoholic janitor that never leaves his apartment and only talks to his plants, you go right ahead and get down with your bad self… But don’t be deluded enough to assume that the script will have a prayer of finding a financier, either.
Writing is communication. Always know your audience; whether that audience is only yourself or the entire population of this planet, if you don’t consider that audience then you’re just shouting in the dark. As a writer your job is to give people what they never knew they wanted, but if you don’t know the difference between what they have and what they don’t, then that is an impossible task.”