Thursday, January 21, 2010

Still with me?

I know my screenwriting posts are perceived by some as discouraging. I have no doubt that this blog would be MUCH more popular if it were the super-positive kind, telling people that we're all special snowflakes, that anybody can be a writer, that talent and hard work are irrelevant and all you need are some "ideas," a positive attitude, a little networking, and a fervent belief in "The Secret."

But this blog isn't for those people who think writing is an easy ticket to a quick buck, or that Walter Mitty-esque daydreaming will magically result in impressive accomplishments. This blog is for the people who are serious about writing and want an unvarnished picture of what they're up against, so they can be fully prepared (and, hopefully, triumph against the odds).

When I started out, pretty much the only information you could find about the business of screenwriting came from so-called "gurus" who would tell aspiring writers whatever nonsense they wanted to hear, in the hopes that the aspirants would buy some simplistic "how to write and sell your screenplay" book/course/etc. Nobody who wants your money is going to tell you that the only way to write and sell a screenplay is by putting in many years of grueling work...any more than a diet-book guru is going to tell you that the only way to get in shape is by eating healthy food and exercising consistently, or a "get rich" guru is going to tell you that very hard work and careful saving is the only way for a regular Joe to become a millionaire.

The one exception to all the screenwriting hype was the excellent site, run by A-list screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. My favorite column was a slightly tongue-in-cheek piece by Terry Rossio called "Throw in the Towel." Read it; he's certainly a much better (and funnier) writer than I am.

I think I'd be doing the serious aspiring screenwriter a disservice if I didn't paint an accurate picture of the overwhelming difficulty of this endeavor. But please understand that I'm not saying these things to be discouraging! I'm saying them because I want you -- the person who is really serious about doing this -- to succeed. In any difficult pursuit, you need to know how high the bar is set and what obstacles you'll likely face, so you can plan your strategy. Because screenwriting looks so deceptively easy from the outside, a lot of aspirants become frustrated when they try to break in without a clear strategy and solid preparation, and they run smack into a brick wall they didn't even know was there.

There's a difference between telling someone their dream will be difficult to achieve, and telling them it's impossible. If you've read all my posts about how long and hard you'll have to work, how much you'll have to sacrifice, how much stupidity and ignorance you'll have to endure, and how (even when you finally succeed) you'll still be underpaid and under-appreciated, and you're still here, saying "fine, bring it on, I'm tough, I can totally handle that," then I have great hopes for you. Because talent can only take you so far; you need to be a fighter, too.

And here you are: Unflinching. Determined.

Knock 'em dead, fighter.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Revolting Development (Part Two)

(Continuation of this post about how "crappy scripts" get made....)

In case you don't know what "development" means -- it's when a team of people, who are typically not writers, make lists of changes that they think will "improve" a script. It behooves the development personnel to suggest alterations, because not to do so suggests that their job is unnecessary. (No...really.) The development personnel will actually compete with one another, each trying to come up with bigger and "better" changes. It's the way to get noticed and move up the ladder at these companies.

Have I mentioned that these people are not, in fact, writers?

Based on the development notes -- some of which are clever, some of which are contradictory, and many of which are stunningly illogical -- the writer must go back and "improve" the script. (For an example of these "improvements," one rather prominent and powerful idiot wanted me to re-write an actual, somewhat famous Civil War slave as "a white guy" to make the part more "castable." And when you're forced to make stupid changes like that, guess who the audience and critics believe is the incompetent moron? Yeah: the writer.)

"But," the Ivory-Tower-types demand to know, "why would the writer agree to make changes he knows are stupid and will be detrimental to the script?" Well, the short answer is, he has to, because he's under contract and the producer is his boss. Sadly, the audience doesn't know how passionately we writers fight for our vision. It's a shame that filmgoers have no idea how hard writers struggle to keep the smart and original stuff in there -- the stuff we know will thrill today's audiences the same way those rare, great, classic movies thrilled us and made us want to be screenwriters in the first place. Writers have more faith in the audience than the studios do. Writers kick and scream and get labeled "difficult" for believing that people are smart and want to be awed and challenged.

Fighting for the integrity of the project is a battle the writers always lose. Because it's the producer's job to make the studio happy, and it's the studio's job to make the corporate shareholders happy, and the corporate shareholders don't care what sort of widget their company makes as long as the profits are good. The "money people" know the most reliable profits result from appealing to the lowest common denominator. And without the "money people," the film doesn't happen. So the writer's choice is: dumb down the script, or get replaced by someone who will.

Needless to say, the new "dumbed-down" draft generally comes off as, well, dumb, and the development folks are baffled as to how all this dumb stuff (which they requested!) got into the script. So, the writer is fired. Or, alternatively, the writer refused to make the nonsensical changes -- so the writer is fired. Either way, at this stage, the writer is usually fired. (So, he can forget about seeing the rest of his step payments. All he can do is toil at another spec and hustle lots more pitch meetings and hope he can make something happen again before his rent money runs out.)

In his place, a new writer is brought onto the project, and the development-notes-rewrite cycle repeats like Nietzche's Eternal Return. A single project can go through dozens of writers. (These successive writers may be just as talented, or even more talented, than the original writer, but each writer has a unique style, voice, and vision. Alas, these differing styles generally give the patchwork script a disjointed quality.)

Most scripts never make it out of the development loop, because there's constant turnover among executives and producers, and the new teams don't want the old teams' sloppy seconds. But if the script does makes it past the initial development process, it's sent to directors and/or actors.

Guess what? The actors have notes, too. They want their characters rewritten to be more "X" (sexy, funny, ass-kicking, damaged) if they're going to consider taking the part. This rewrite may disrupt the character's interaction with the plot as a whole. (Some actors admit they don’t even read the entire script -- just their own part!) But if the studio wants that star...the requested changes are made.

This step (the notes, the rewriting) repeats every time a new above-the-line person (star, director, producer) joins the project.

By the time the project is greenlit, the umpteenth-generation script is generally a disaster. It’s a miracle, honestly, that a coherent script EVER gets shot. Who can blame the audience when they wonder why someone got paid to write this "crap"? The original writer designed a Ferrari, and a committee turned it piece by piece into a locomotive and then a spaceship. In the end, the mere fact that the engine turns over is astonishing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How "crappy scripts" get made; or, Revolting Development (Part One)

Screenwriters don't get much respect. This isn't news; in fact it's a cliché. Not that most people think screenwriters deserve respect. Any Joe off the street will tell you that screenwriting isn't difficult -- it surely isn't "real" work -- and he could write something so much better if he could just find the time. During the writers' strike, blogs all over America were filled with rants like: "Those hacks are lucky to get paid at all for writing their crappy movies! I could write better stuff than that in my sleep!"

Sigh. This is by far one of the most frustrating things that screenwriters hear, because unfortunately, most filmgoers (alas, even many Hollywood workers!) are completely ignorant of the process by which a script evolves during pre-production. Most are under the impression that a writer spends a month or so cranking out a hackneyed script, foists it into the right hands via "connections," sells the script for a million dollars, and kicks back to sip martinis while the crew, actors and director make the best darn movie they can from the inept writer's overpriced drivel. Hey, how could anyone believe otherwise, judging from the finished product (yet another mediocre film), or from the awful shooting script circulating on the internet? Right?

Well, the crew DOES make the best movie it can from a sometimes awful shooting script, but it's important to understand just how that shooting script got so awful.

Let's begin at the beginning. (Okay, not the very beginning, where the writer comes up with a promising idea, scribbles it down, puts it in a shoebox with all his other promising ideas, and then continues to mull it over for ages until the idea refuses to be ignored. We'll skip all the time the writer spends working the story and characters out in his head before a single word is even committed to paper; to explain this abstract creative process would be like trying to explain the mechanics of falling in love.)

Once the basic story is conceptualized, a writer spends months (frequently years), crafting a script. Researching. Writing and discarding dozens of outlines and treatments. Obsessing over the story, living with it 24/7. Weighing every sentence. Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until every line of dialogue crackles, every plot point is unexpected yet believable, every character lives and breathes. The writer knows the script inside and out; he has woven theme and subtext and nuance into every scene and given each character compelling motivation and a transformative arc. At that point, when the writer decides the script is as good as it's going to get, he gives it to his agent.

The agent typically gives the script to an assistant (a bright, young, underpaid and overworked aspiring writer or aspiring agent). The assistant will have to read the script hurriedly while dealing with his other somewhat overwhelming responsibilities around the office. The assistant will write "coverage" on the script, summarizing the plot, characters, theme, and story strengths and weaknesses on approximately two sheets of paper. This coverage will also include a list of possible ways to improve the script. (The assistant understands that he must come up with some suggestions to improve the script no matter how much he likes it; it's simply an expectation when one is writing professional coverage. Sometimes these suggestions are insightful and helpful; sometimes they're petty and nonsensical.)

Now the assistant passes the coverage to the agent, who generally doesn't have time to read the actual script. Based on the coverage, the agent will give the writer notes on how to "improve" the script before it can go out.

If the writer is lucky, these notes are actually useful. Otherwise, the writer must try to humor the agent by incorporating whichever notes will do the least amount of damage to the writer's original vision.

The writer resubmits the script. The process is repeated, sometimes with a different assistant or intern reading the script. (For simplification purposes we will assume this writer does not have a manager to add an extra layer of opinions and notes.)

Eventually, after much haranguing from the writer, the agent will finally agree to send the script out to producers. Yay! (Or he won't, and the writer has to fire him and repeat the process with a new agent.)

Next, producers -- or rather, the producers' readers/assistants/interns -- read and "cover" the script.

If the coverage is positive, the script may be recommended (rare) or "considered" for purchase. More likely, the writer is brought in and considered for hire. This means the writer's spec script is declared a "writing sample," (in other words, he doesn't get any money for it) and the writer is asked if he can think up a workable (read: commercial) plot for a toy line, magazine article, old TV show, or other property to which the producer owns the rights. The producer will continually inject his own "cool ideas" which the writer must somehow incorporate into the plot.

If the writer's take impresses the producer, and if he's also very lucky (because there are other variables the producer must consider which I won't get into here), he'll get a contract at this point. Yay! The "sale" is splashed in the trades: "Writer X has been hired to write Big Script for mid-six figures" or some-such. That sounds very impressive, doesn't it? Mid-six figures is, to any reasonable person, a whole lot of money.

But wait. The writer will only see a fraction (if any) of that figure to begin with, because he's paid in "steps." A fraction of the total is an initiation fee (which the writer often fails to receive despite contractual promises), another part is for the completion of the first draft, other parts are for successive drafts, and there's another payment if the script actually gets made (most don't). But let's say the first step is $120,000. Hey, that's still a lot, right? Of course, ten percent goes to the writer's agent, another ten percent to his manager (if he has one), another five percent to the writer's attorney, and a few thousand for WGA fees. Oh, and there's that half that goes to taxes.... Still, there's probably a solid year's salary left over. Forty-five thousand dollars or so is a plenty respectable salary in America. Okay, so the writer didn't get paid anything for the year he spent writing the spec that got him the job, nor did he get paid for the weeks or months he spent going to pitch meetings and development meetings. And okay, forty-five thousand doesn’t go as far in Los Angeles as in Dubuque. But writers live off pizza and ramen noodles anyway, because writers live to write. So, he's happy enough. Now what...?

Now... he writes his "first draft." Again, weighing, obsessing, agonizing.

At last, feeling triumphant, he hands it in.

And then -- god help us all -- the script goes through.... "development."