Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Is Your Idea For A Screenplay Worth The Effort?

Here’s a quote I love from Bob Kosberg of moviepitch.com, alias The Pitch King:

The biggest mistake screenwriters make is - they come up with an idea on a Monday and decide that's going to be the script they're going to spend the next three to six months working on, rather than spending an equal amount of time going through lots of ideas and making sure the one they're going to write is tested, critically received by lots of people and then, when they know they really have something strong, they sit down and spend the time writing it. They work and sweat and bleed on screenplays that are wrong-headed to begin with. It may have good writing, but the idea, story, and concept aren't that commercial or strong and thus, will never sell.

Of course there are those who would say that you have to “follow your passion” whether that leads to a commercially viable screenplay or not. I certainly thought that way for a long time, and I’ve ended up with far too many projects either unfinished or unproduced. And not because I can’t write or because I’m unfamiliar with screenwriting conventions.

The point of the matter is, that writing a good screenplay takes a huge amount of effort and perseverance, and it really only makes sense to put in that work if the idea at the heart of the screenplay is genuinely well thought through. That is, at least, if you’re serious about earning a living writing screenplays.

Does that mean that the only screenplays worth writing are clones or imitations of successful Hollywood movies? I don’t think so. I think the main criterion should be: Is there potentially (and realistically) a market for your movie idea? Does the screenplay have at its core a unique enough idea, or an intriguing enough twist on a familiar genre, to pique an audience’s interest?

Which kind of translates to: Is this idea going to be interesting to anyone besides you? I mean, would your neighbour pay to go and see this movie?

I hate dealing with this issue, because it brings up the whole question of whether film is primarily an art form or a business enterprise. And like most screenwriters, I like to think that what I write has some relevance, that it’s more than “mere entertainment.” The misconception being that an entertaining movie is by definition superficial and vacuous.

Increasingly, I’m convinced that time spent testing and selecting ideas for screenplays before committing to writing a screenplay, is time very well spent. And although writing anything is good practice, it’s a pity to spend months or years writing a screenplay that has no real potential of being produced.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Does Writing Chick Flicks Make Good Business Sense?

I recently read Emily Blake’s fuming blog post about a screenplay she had to read, in which there was only one female character, who was a passive victim, waiting for a man to save her. It’s well worth a read, just to see the sparks of fury flying off your screen.

Besides that, though, Emily raises an interesting point, which was also discussed recently on BBC’s The Review Show, when one of the topics was Sex and the City 2: How come women’s experience is not more often the focus of mainstream movies? As Abby McDonald, one of the writers participating in the show said, there are plenty of movies with great roles for actresses, but very few films really portray a woman’s point of view.

Which goes some way to explaining the huge response from female audiences to movies like Mama Mia and Sex and the City.

To some extent I guess the dearth of authentic female points of view in mainstream cinema is just a another manifestation of prevalent gender status differences: Most people who write, direct, produce, fund and distribute movies are men. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. And I don’t believe there’s a deliberate, male chauvinist conspiracy to prevent movies that appeal to women from being made. After all, the same industry that churns out testosterone-driven action movies, also produced those female audience hits I just mentioned.

There are so many factors involved in getting a film made (and seen), that there’s probably no point trying to pinpoint any one issue that prevents more “female” films being made. Although… wait… actually, there is one thing: MONEY. And it’s ubiquitous flipside: RISK.

If only more of the conservative-minded men working in the movie business would sit up and take notice of the fact that hundreds of millions of women around the world, with enough disposable income to go to the movies with their girlfriends now and again, are dying to see their lives and problems portrayed more authentically on the silver screen... They’d see that there’s a lot less risk involved than they fear.

And as for simplistic representations of passive female characters with nothing better to do than wait for some muscle-bound numbskull to come along and sweep them off their feet… To me that just sounds like lazy and derivative writing. Isn’t it much more interesting to do something innovative with stereotypes rather than simply repeat them? And what else is Hollywood looking for, if it’s not new and surprising versions of familiar stories?

So I guess it’s really up to us screenwriters to recognize that it does make good business sense to write “female stories” which have the same dramatic, comedic impact as the overcooked macho stuff we’re used to seeing. At the very least it sets your screenplay above the masses of generic and lazily written scripts.

And if you’re a male screenwriter, clueless as to how to go about writing good female characters, take some advice from Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in As Good As It Gets: “…think of a man and take away reason and accountability.” He was speaking ironically, right?