Yesterday, in a forum on Done Deal Pro, I posted in a thread where the discussion had turned into theories as to why some movies that come out of Hollywood are so bad. A few aspiring writers postulated that (and I’m not only paraphrasing here, but including musings I’ve heard many times in the past) it’s at least in part due to all the hack writers floating around out there writing shit material.
I can’t stress this enough: most of the writers working professionally in Hollywood are on a scale from very solid to fucking amazing. Sure, there are some hacks, and sure, we all wonder how they got there; you’ll have that in any profession, creative or not. Hell, I’m probably one of them.
But for the most part, when you go to see a movie that just absolutely blows, you can bet good money on the fact that it didn’t start out as a piece of shit. Is this always true? Of course not. Generally? I certainly believe so.
In that, I’m already repeating myself; The Bitter Script Reader asked me to post what I’d said about the process from script to screen, and so I shall. I’ve gotten a couple nice emails/messages about it already, so hopefully that means it was helpful.
Here it is:
“Most terrible movies start off as really, really, really good scripts.
Obviously, some do not. But most do. And it’s ESSENTIAL to remember that. As a crash course, here’s what generally happens at studios with a given project:
–Writer(s) writes a great script/takes an assignment/adapts a book.
–Studio/production company buys it or has already paid writer(s) to write it.
–After everyone reads the first draft, the Studio, producers and writer(s) go into rewrites, because even great scripts can be improved. Studio execs, studio heads, studio lawyers, producers and producers’ juniors all have notes.
–Writer(s) writes a new draft. Studio Gang (all of the mentioned above) has more notes.
–Writer(s) either writes a new draft and/or a new writer(s) come on to write another draft. Those writers have notes on top of the Studio Gang’s notes, as do their agents and managers.
–If the process doesn’t stall out here, talent is attached. Talent has notes. Talent’s management, agents and lawyers have notes. These are on top of the notes of all of the above mentioned. “Talent”, in this case, concerns both directors and actors.
–The same writers write another draft, or a new writer(s) comes in, or the original writer (infrequently, but sometimes) is brought back. If talent doesn’t stick, these or new writers write another draft based on talent’s departure/the need to draw in new talent. If new talent comes in, another draft is written based on the notes of said talent, their managers, agents and lawyers. This can happen any number of times.
(NOTE: Pursuant to the above, keep in mind that, at any time, studio execs/heads and producers/PJ’s may leave the project as well. If they do, they will be replaced…triggering more notes.)
–If the process doesn’t stall here, a greenlight is issued. Another draft is written by the current writer(s) and/or a new writer(s) to get the film into production.
–If the process doesn’t stall here, the film is rewritten up to and through production by the new writer(s) and/or an even NEWER writer(s) based on the continuing notes of studio execs, studio heads, studio lawyers, producers, producers’ juniors, talent, talent’s agents, managers and lawyers (remember, this is for both the director and actors), any sponsors and/or “corporate partners” (read: the people providing the products for placement in the film), and probably a few others I’ve even forgotten.
–This is on top of all the things the writer(s) would like to accomplish with something he/she/they had originally written/rewritten.
–This does not cover ad-libbing or last-second disasters or reshoots. Or anything else I haven’t mentioned.
I want to stress this point: with a studio film, THIS IS TYPICAL. The longer you work in the industry, the more and more amazed you find yourself whenever a studio film WORKS. When you’re going through it, it seems impossible that it will all be OK. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not.
But the main MAIN point is this: rarely do bad movies start off as bad scripts. Sure, there are bad professional writers out there, but honestly, they’re the exception, at least in my estimation. Generally, the best draft of a script is the second or third one before too many people try to have their input and “put their stamp” on the project. The more people you involve who are determined to have a voice so that there’s something they can point to that they did so they can keep their jobs, the more the property careens towards total disaster. Multiply this exponentially for sequels and franchises.
Why go into this diatribe? If you aspire to be a screenwriter, you need to get this idea out of your head that Hollywood is buying terrible scripts, and you’re this great writer with your nose pressed up against the glass, and you just can’t get a shot. It’s not the case. Most writers are churning out really good-to-terrific scripts that end up getting developed into the ground. And you’re not in competition with them, per se, but you have to do something really special to get the attention of the People With the Money and convince them that they’d should pay you to write instead of an established professional. Why? Because an established professional is a safer bet, and people like safe bets, because usually they help them keep their jobs. Complicating things? Even pros aren’t sure bets, and people lose their jobs all the time.
So yeah, there’s a wall, and you have to leap over it.
You know what’s never going to help? A s*** attitude. So get off your balls/ovaries, write something incredible, and get it out there in the best way you see fit. Not in LA? You’re at a disadvantage, and you’re going to have to work harder. Rules of the game; I didn’t set them, I just know they exist. If you have a problem with ANY of the above, give up. This is not for you and your talents will be more valuable elsewhere.
End rant. Again, I hope this has been helpful, even if protracted and brusque. I simply don’t think it serves anyone well to candy-coat what we’re all up against. That said, there are many of us trolling about who want to help you break in if you’ve got the talent. Hell, if you take a job from us, we might even buy you a congratulatory beer.
Now stop whining and go write something awesome. If you want to use the Black List, do so. If you don’t, don’t. Write something awesome and, eventually, you won’t have to worry about it.”
Geoff – I find this rant of yours very informative. I always imagined it was somewhat like this but this sounds ridiculous. Is this what is meant by development hell?
Thanks for this, Geoff. This “too many cooks” approach is simultaneously bizarre and counter-productive whilst also being entirely logical under the current scheme of things. Maybe part of the problem is that the writer isn’t considered “talent”.
Paul – was perhaps a bit confusing there, but the writer is indeed considered “talent” (unless it’s me in the roomRIMSHOT!!!!!!!!!!!). Just made sense to separate “Writer” from the other “Talent” in this diatribe, as it would have been even more complicated.
Also, yes, you make a great point.
Thank you, awesome rant!
Although some of us outside that wall do know about development hell (and as a PA, I’ve certainly seen some of it,) it’s still great to hear these stories! A tad selfishly, it helps to hear that screenwriting is not straight-forward even when you’re on the inner – but it’s also encouraging: if everyone’s struggling, you might as well be struggling to improve your craft and write something really great, rather than focusing on the obstacles.
Looking forward to hearing more 🙂
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That was magical, thank you.
What a load!
If one believed this article, one would think that writers are perfect, and it’s those useless incompetent actors and producers who screw everything up.
There are many reasons movies suck.
One reason is the ‘marketing concept’. Writers are not writing what they like, they’re writing what they think the studios will want. That means serial killers, vampires, zombies, etc.
Another reason is that studios are risk averse. They like to be able to predict the success of a movie? New ideas are unpredictable. How do you measure something that hasn’t been done before? But, a movie-version of Scooby-Doo? Money in the bank.
Thirdly, writers are constantly told to kick things into gear by page ten. Action, action, action. Ever since Indiana Jones, studios want action as soon as possible – even if it is mindless action with no stakes attached for the viewer because we don’t know the character yet.
Fourthly, new writers are trapped into the beats. Inciting incident by page 10, mid-point by page 55. Don’t forget the predictable all-is-lost moment, or the reversal. When the structure of action movies is that predictable, no wonder movies suck!
But mostly, it’s the movie-goers. Do they care who the writer is? Do they read the plot description thoroughly before making their choice? No. They look at a few special effects on the trailer, maybe a memorable line, and take notice of who is in it. Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler? That sounds like a good movie. Who cares what it’s about?
This is not bitterness. These are facts. I intend to write a shitty screenplay, maybe several to market to risk averse producers. Then when I am established, and get auto-reads, I will float my good stuff around.
I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not, but either way, you’re hilarious. Your last paragraph really made me giggle. Bless your little heart!
Yeah… this sounds right in line with what I expect. I came to the decision after my first short film was produced that as a writer *I* really needed to divorce myself from the work. I’ll write my best, and in the process, mentally prepare to hand over my baby to the wolves of Hollywood. Once I submit a draft that I’m happy with, I’ve done what I set out to do and as other voices step into to inject their opinions, the script ceases to become *mine* and immediately becomes *ours*. With each new rewrite that happens, I get even less emotionally attached to the work.
That isn’t to say that I’m disinterested in creating the best script possible, rather it’s the only way that I can imagine keeping my head from imploding under the deluge of comments from those who haven’t spent a year laboring over that story and those characters. I can’t begrudge them for their opinions, whether I believe that they are correct or not. What I can do is plead my case and if they still disagree, I simply have to find a way to make their notes work.
I’d rather be a produced screenwriter with enough money to eat rather than a hermit living on rice and beans in a shack on federal land with ‘all the integrity in the world’.
You don’t lose integrity by earning a living. You lose it by never achieving what you set out to accomplish. My goal is to become a working screenwriter and one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, I’ll reach that goal.
Thanks for the rant Geoff. I actually find it oddly encouraging.
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