“Consider: for all the gobbledygook [film studio] executives spout about backstory, all that we, the audience, want to know is what happens next. That’s the only thing that’s going on. . . . Character is nothing other than action, and character-driven means the plot stinks, and you’d better hope the star is popular enough to open the movie in spite of it.” – David Mamet
It always surprises me, the disparity in the number of high-concept/Studio scripts I read vs. the character-driven/Art-House screenplays. Waaaay more character-driven pieces find their way to me. Why do most new screenwriters write character-driven stuff? It’s not a stretch to say that, often times, they have a personal story taken from their own lives, or from someone they know.
That’s fine. But ask yourself this: What movie are you writing? Studio budget? Art-House? Who is your audience? Should you even concern yourself with such trivialities?
As usual, there are no easy answers. For myself, early on, I never considered my audience. I had something to say, I would say it. Through a certain lens, it’s downright crazy to think that you need the approval of a certain segment of people in order to write what you want to write. Ridiculous!
Of course, I was writing poetry and plays then.
Writing for film? Whole different ballgame.
Unless you have the money. Like I’ve said, if you have the money, then you can write your script in magenta crayon. Write it in 16 fonts and make it 202 pages. You have the $$$$! However, if you’re writing for film, and your movie will cost more than an ATM withdrawal, you might want to consider asking: Exactly who will pay 10+ bucks to see my movie?
Obviously, Napoleon Dynamite didn’t do the business of The Hangover. Charlie Kaufman never had a movie open with the box-office numbers of Shrek, or Shrek 2, or Shrek 3. And for every Sundance passion project with voice and quirky personal vision, there’s a Laura Croft, Tomb Raider, driven, like almost all genre films, by what happens next. So the question, Good Reader, is: What are you writing?
I prefer character-driven, smaller budget scripts. I also feel strongest working the genres of drama or black comedy. These are strengths–for me. Have you identified your own strengths as a writer in terms of genre, in what you feel most comfortable writing? I don’t avoid writing bigger budget projects out of fear of “selling-out.” Somebody, please, tell me where the sell-out door is!
It’s probably more the recognition that what the studios buy (remakes, Marvel comics, graphic novels, sequels, and branded entertainment) simply isn’t what I write. My own writing is tailored toward the Indy market, or low-budget self-producing. Try to identify your strengths as a writer and tailor your marketing to attack where you’ll have the most success.
What’s your hook? Does your movie have a killer hook that can be pitched? How about this one: Snakes On A Plane! You get the whole movie in a single sentence! Maybe the hook is a never-before seen character: James Bond, Austin Powers, Harry Potter. A device: A remote control that can stop time… Or a concept: An unscrupulous lawyer can’t tell a lie for 24 hours.
A couple of my students wrote spec episodes for Madmen and Entourage. I encourage this. These specs won’t get made. But writing a killer Entourage episode is a calling card. It can also be used as a writing sample to open doors for you at an agency, and later, possibly lead to assignment work.
Write for yourself first, but know your audience. What’s new and universal about the story? The instinct in Hollywood is to just say no. Why jeopardize a nice gig to greenlight your quirky, touchy-feely Michael Cera/Jon Heder vehicle unless they believe you will make them wheelbarrows-full of money.
In an ideal world, you being THE WRITER, you would concern yourself only with matters of artistic expression. You wouldn’t answer to a single John Boehner-tanned, Davoucci-pleated, Hollywood finochio. And in a non-ideal world? You don’t have the money to make your vision happen. If the studio system isn’t for you, write your script with an appropriate budget, go Art House and market it to Indy circles, and/or the Festival route.
Write every page toward your audience. Infuse the script with what they—and the powers-that-be who greenlight movies—want.
In the darkened dead of night you can still write your Keatsian odes. Nobody will rob you of your inner-poet. We’re talking about getting you over the hump.
Like the Great Poet once said: “Just make it, babe.”
Is this the image in your mind:
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