Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Should I Write a Screenplay?

by John McFetridge


Okay, maybe you should, but I shouldn’t.

I spent a long time writing and trying to sell screenplays. I sold a few options and even had a couple of low budget movies made from my scripts. I even have an imdb listing.

But I will never again write an original screenplay and try to sell it. There are a lot of reasons, but the main one is this: my favourite movies are either based on other material or auteur-driven.

Of course, you may still want to write a screenplay.

So, here’s a test. Write down the names of your ten favourite movies form the last five years. Go to imdb.com and see how many are based on original screenplays and how many are adaptions from another source. If eight out of ten are original screenplays then write a screenplay. If it’s fewer than that, then write the original source material. Novel, comic book, play, short story, song – whatever it is, for some reason Hollywood has more respect for it than they do for an original screenplay.

Eight out of ten is completely arbitrary, of course. You can try whatever formula you like, but you’ll find that most of your favourites are based on material from another source. Or, they’re director-driven movies like Judd Apatow’s or Quentin Tarantino’s, guys who aren’t reading screenplays to find their next project.

Academy Award winners aren’t a very good cross-section but it’s easy to research. So, from 2000 to 2008 let’s see where the winners came from: Gladiator (original screenplay, though it’s based on some historical facts and it was written by the guy who wrote Amistad, also historically fact-based); A Beautiful Mind, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire all based on books, Million Dollar Baby was based on short stories, Chicago was based on a musical which was based on a play which was based on some true stories and Crash was an original screenplay – Paul Haggis won for best screenplay adaptation for Million Dollar Baby the year before and he wrote and directed Crash.

If I researched box office champs I’d find the Lord of the Rings movies and a bunch of movies based on comic books.

Screenplay writing is like the gold rush these days – the people making the most money are the ones selling picks and axes and jeans. They sell books on screenwriting and offer seminars and charge reading and editing fees.

Sometimes writers even sell a screenplay – usually they sell an option. I’m told that for every ten scripts turned into movies a hundred are optioned. That sounds good, you can get paid even of your script is never produced. You don’t get paid as much, of course. In Canada a screenplay option is usually somewhere between $2500.00 and $5000.00. Around the same amount as an advance on a first book. Of course, if the movie actually gets made, you get another fifty grand (or so).

But what if the movie doesn’t get made? What happens to all those scripts?

Nothing. There's nothing you can do with unsold screenplays. You can't self-publish them, you can't publish them on your own blog (well, you could, I guess) and when you do get a book published you can't go back to them.

I spent a lot of time writing what I thought were some good stories. I guess it was valuable experience, a lot of words on the page getting me closer to those million words Elmore Leonard says you need to write to develop your own style. But after a while having really nothing to show for all that work started to really get to me. I made about $10,000 in options over about ten years. And probably wrote about a million words.

But looking back (which I don’t actually do very often) I wish I’d spent that time writing books.

TV is entirely different, though. I just spent the better part of a year working as a writer on a new TV cop show, The Bridge (CBS in the USA and CTV in Canada) and while there is some spec script writing required to get into TV but it’s not like screenplay writing. That’s for another post.

One more thing. This is my first post for Do Some Damage and I want to thank the other guys for inviting me along for the ride. It looks like fun already.

And, I want to say that one of the things I like the most about blogs is that the post is just the starting point - the comments are really what makes it interesting. So please, if you have the time, leave a comment. Thanks.


Jay Stringer said...

Great post.

Lots of questions spring to mind from that, but none are really fully formed yet. I'll return to this later on.

Steve Weddle said...

Fantastic points, John. Let me first say that I didn't know we were required to do actual research for this blog. Dang. I gotta get to work.

Second, I think the screenplay form is fascinating. Most of us have written in various forms. I've written screenplays and have worked with others on screenplays. The format itself is great. You almost have to keep moving the action along or die. The dialog has to be tight. And the timing has to be on. The 120-page screenplay has a pretty solid template for rising action and twists and turns. This is what I like about the format itself, one that doesn't necessarily translate to other forms of writing.

I have a screenplay I worked on many years ago about politics and killings and the redemption of a good man who made a terrible mistake that he's had to live with. The same movie I've seen a thousand times. And writing that was so much different than a story or a novel because it was dialog and action and full of CAPITAL LETTERS. Can't rely on exposition. You have to show everything. (Not in that way. Different movie.)

I agree with everything you've mentioned except that writing a screenplay really lets you play around in another format, which can be fun and helpful, I think. So, while there's nothing you can do in terms of selling a crap screenplay, I'd think the experience is immeasurable, much like writing 20 stories helps you with that novel. Speaking of which, your stories at johnmcfetridge.ca are well worth reading. Nice work, sir.

Anonymous said...

I look at it this way. If you're going to write screenplays, make pals with a director or a producer. Otherwise, as you said, John, write the source materials.

John McFetridge said...

You guys are too nice, what are you, Canadian?

I think Steve is right, the accepted structure of screenplays is a good learning device. Even Syd Fields and his page-by-page structure is kind of like learning scales in music. Then you move on.

And EvilJ is right, too, make friends with a director and a producer. Maybe that's something a screenwriter needs to be, a liaison between the art and the commerce.

Dana King said...

Does anyone have a thought about why movies get made from other source materials so often? Is it the security of knowing this story has been successful in another medium? That would be my first thought, except for how notorious movies are for changing the original.

Steve Weddle said...

Built-in audience? Gives them a running start?

Dana King said...

Does anyone but me have trouble posting comments here? I can post, but when I close the comment window, Internet Explorer launches windows with Do Some Damage at a rate of about one per second until I terminate the process. If no one else comments I'll assume it's just this computer; this wouldn't be the only strange thing about it.

Dave said...

Write scripts if you enjoy writing them. Same rule as fiction. The odds of remuneration are so ludicrous in either form that there's no other reason to engage in this activity. Knitting probably offers greater financial incentive.

It's true that most big budget films are based on other material. That's basic marketing...there's a built-in audience for that material, so they'll recover a baseline of their costs at the theater: all watchmen fans will go, everyone who grew up on the Brady Bunch will go, baseball movie fans will go, Brad Pitt fans will go. It's an extension of the star system.

Absolutely true that spec scripts (original scripts) are the most difficult to get produced in Hollywood. But most Indy films (9,000+ every year with budgets ranging from $1,000 to $1 million) are based on original scripts. They of course pay very little to the writer, and even less to the actors and other volunteers who need to participate to make such a project happen. It's like community theater. But then nobody involved in community theater complains about not making money. They do it because they love to perform and for the community aspect.

So writers need to take that community theater approach. If you love film and how it's written, then write scripts. Your spec will likely never get produced. But if it's good, it could become your calling card. The guy who wrote The Wrestler had a spec floating around LA for years. It didn't get made, but he was hired to write the Aronofsky film. You could never do that with a novel. So in that sense, a spec is more valuable. Of course, The Wrestler was a low-budget film ($6 mil) that went huge, and the writer was actually financed to direct his original spec, but that's rare.

Novels and original screenplays are speculative. They're like a contractor building an expensive custom house and hoping someone buys it. They're risky endeavors, financially. But if you're wired to write such things, odds are that you'll do it anyway. So work your day job, write at night, and hope you're good enough to get lucky.

John McFetridge said...

Good points, Dave, but it isn't just about remuneration. Like you said, go the community theatre route, which I think means do-it-yourself. You can do that with books but not many of us can put together a whole indie film. So there's little feeling of accompishment as there is with a book. Especially as the stigma around "self-published" becomes less with more and more books going directly from writer to audience via POD or e-book.

There's a good book called "The Inquisition in Hollywood," about HUAC and the blacklists, but it also has a good history of the writer in Hollywood. Writers were the last to arrive, only really needed when talkies arrived (before that there were "scenarists" and although Anita Loos was a terrific writer, it's rare to hear about her contribution to the films she wrote, the directors get all the credit) so the rest of Hollywood - producers, directors, stars - was already well-established. And then the writers who arrived were sarcastic know-it-alls, people who wrote plays or for newspapers or - gasp - novelists. It wasn't a great fit from the beginning and writers in Hollywood have always been looked at suspiciously and mostly only tolerated as a necessary evil.

Remember that joke about the actress who was so dumb she slept with the writer?

And Dana, I had trouble posting a comment, it just didn't post, so I previewed it first and then posted.

Next time I may say an incantation.

Scott D. Parker said...

At this stage of my career, I know my limits. Thus, I've never even attempted a screenplay. I'll stick to what I can half-way do okay: writing prose. I picked up Story by Robert McKee because many people consider it an essential how-to book on writing screenplays as well as books. We'll see how that goes. As time goes on, I may have to try an d write a screenplay just for the exercise.

Jay Stringer said...

I think Dave makes a great point. If you want to write something, go for it. You're not going to earn a living, but you'll get a great sense of acomplishment.

Tho as John said, 'self publishing' via a film is not really viable. Kevin Smith had to run up 20k of debt to make CLERKS, and as much as I love it, it looks like it was made for the price of a can of coke.

What I would wonder, and asked John this recentley, is wether these days it's worth taking the tv spec script approach to films; write a couple that you know won't get made, but will make people recognise your name?

As a writer, I found my limited screenwriting experience very useful. My first novel was a turgid mess, until I approached a redraft as a script editor rather than a book editor. Taking the same principles as a film - cut out whatever doesn't work, make sure only what matters stays-the story began to work.

Jay Stringer said...

I apologise for the accidental text speak in that last post!

RDJ said...

I spent seven years focusing on screenplays (after writing four unpublishable novels), managed to make a little money, but realized that, despite that, it would never be as rewarding as writing books.

Part of that was the audience, or lack thereof. You can write your ass off, but if no one reads what you've done, even if you make a little money, it's a pretty hollow thing. No one wants their entire audience to be twenty producers their agent emailed a script to.

And even if a movie gets made, it'll be a movie by the director ... you just wrote the script.

Plus there's the whole transfer of copyright thing when you sell a spec and being fired from the project you originated so that someone can be brought in to ruin it.

Man, when I decided I'd write no more spec scripts and once again focus on novels, I felt like the world opened up.

That said, I came out of my years focused on screenwriting a much better storyteller, I think. As Steve said, the format and length require a kind of bare-bones storytelling that it pays to be capable of.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Of course, even if the ones I like are based on original material, it doesn't mean I could do it. I don't think that way, I'm afraid. I think in words not images. And dialog in movies is becoming scarce. Not that I'm saying my words would be worth anything anyway. You get the drift of this rambling.

Caine said...

Nice Job!

Whats funny is that if your source material is "comic book" you're writing a screenplay of sorts anyway as comics start out in "script" form...