A few years ago, Final Draft, Inc. launched a campaign titled Why I Write. Established screenwriters – Simon Kinberg, Susannah Grant, Aaron Sorkin, and others, were invited to write a brief statement about what drove them to do the thing that they do – write for the screen. The responses, which appeared as rotating banners on the company website, ran the gamut from the humorous (“Because I wanted a job where I could wear pajamas”), to the poignant (“To keep my father’s voice alive”). One of my favorite campaigns was one that I worked on; a member of Joey Travolta’s Inclusion Films Workshop was selected. He was a teenaged screenwriter who was developmentally disabled., and he wrote a beautiful testimonial to his craft. When Lynn brought the final proof out, I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the office, Why I Write was one of the most successful marketing campaigns that I had seen. It was honest. It was real. Note – Final Draft ran the campaign for many years on their website; unfortunately, they no longer seem to, and I am unable to find any of the quotes archived. A great tragedy – hey, Marc, why don’t you dust it off, and bring it out to share with the new generation of screenwriters? The campaign was a much-needed response to the emergence of The Great Spec Sale. Sometime during the early 90s, someone decided that story and character were of little importance to a screenplay’s merit – what was really important was the concept. Was the script “high-concept”? If you answered “yes”, then it went out on Monday, and the bidding wars began, By Thursday, an unknown writer was inking a deal for low to mid sixes, and Friday’s Variety was singing the story of another “overnight success” in Hollywood. And, oh, how the scripts poured in, a veritable tsunami of potty jokes and lo-brow humor. And the circus-like event formally known as the screenplay development and sale went one step further. One day, executives decided that one didn’t even need a script to sell for a king’s ransom – the concept alone could “be” the sale. If the concept was high enough, one didn’t even need to write the script; the writer would develop the story and present it through a pitch. Writers would show up at CAA in a gorilla suit on Monday, and sling some bananas around. By Thursday would appear a six-figure deal…. and the script had not even been written. That’s not to say that all high-concept is bad or evil; scripts like DIE HARD, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, TRUE LIES, and HOME ALONE, among others, sprang forth from the high-concept glut, films that enjoyed both commercial and artistic success. High-concept was here to stay. But for every gem out there, there were hundreds of nuggets of fool’s gold hitting the market. Suddenly, everyone in Hollywood was a screenwriter. The problem was, the majority of these scribes had never written a script; they simply saw a screenplay as a shortcut to success and wealth, Character? That was for those little “indie” films. Story? Oh, don’t get so analytical, wasn’t it funny when he farted in the court? Countless wretched scripts were written, and some of them even made it to the screen. The screenplay had become the poor man’s genie’s bottle. Substance mattered little – how much can you get for it? That was what was important. Eventually, audiences wised up, and stopped shelling out hard-earned dollars for crap. The spec market collapsed, and things like story and character became the focus of discussions again. Today, to achieve a sale, you really do need to write a good, solid script. And yet, the impact of those times still lingers, like the bad taste in your mouth after a night of binging on cheap cigars and even cheaper booze.
In truth, concept has been and always will be king. Movie-making is a business, and a very expensive one at that. Investors want to see a return, and a handsome one at that. And yet, at its heart, a film is a piece of art, which brings us back full circle to question what is it that drives you to engage in such a speculative craft? Why do you write?
There’s a great deal of polarization amongst screenwriters in regard to that question. On the left, you have writers who want to entertain – make ’em laugh, They’re not as obsessed with character, or hero’s journey – they simply want to be funny. Or try to be. They usually fail. On the right, you have the socially conscious snobs. These are the writers who are self-described rebels who insist that every script should address a socially important issue – global-warming, Roe v Wade, gun-control… if there is a topic out there, they’ll take it on. And, they believe the script should not only address a cause, it should actively instruct the audience about the cause, the script must “change the world” with its greatness. (Note – the scripts and writers I’m discussing are narrative form, not documentarians.) I believe that their intentions are sincere, that they truly want to accomplish some good, but their belief system is so myopic and rigid that the scripts produced are as bland as a fiber bar. It’s “good for you” writing, but the result is generally a huge-turnoff, for the road to hell is, as we have been told, paved with good intentions.
And then you have the middle-ground, a horrible description, for I believe these writers are anything but/ They’re top-notch, for they want to have a script that can become a commercially successful film that entertains audiences – and is meaningful as well. The audience might learn something – but not by force feeding, They may laugh until their sides hurt, but only because the comedy is relatable and well-executed. These writers are my heroes, for they are the true master-craftsmen. They write from the heart, and they write for you. Their scripts are gems, large and small, and they come in all genres, shapes and sizes.
Storytelling did not involve as a form of artistic masturbation; crack open the heart of any committed screenwriter, and you will find within the ancestor of us all – the tribal shaman, gathering his or her clan around the fire, weaving stories to ward off the dangers of the night.
So, before you begin work on that new project, before you hit your outline, or type Fade In, do yourself and the script a favor. Ask your self why you write it.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe