Bit of a bonkers week this week with work. Plenty of scripts to read and do the reports as well as preparing separate pitches for four new TV projects. These pitches will come in the shape of one or two page outlines, and one comes with the proviso of a few sample scenes to highlight what the outlines are proposing. And my Mum is coming to visit, bless her.
One or two page outlines might not sound very much but they’ve got to be right, so a lot of work goes into trying to make the pitch as strong as possible. It would be great to bypass this pitching process and just be offered the work straight up but no matter how frustrated or disenchanted you may become with the routine, always remember the golden rule of the development process: “never burn your bridges”.
From the batch of scripts I read today, some came with development notes on how the writer would like to improve the story in the next draft. These notes make for interesting reading. By and large, they spot the script’s recognisable faults and it’s heartening that they realise where the story needs to be improved, and are willing to put in the necessary work. However, some development notes make a superficial namecheck on the two mainstays of screenplay craft - “characters need work”, “structure needs to be tighter” - and instead waffle on about how they want to make a commercial mainstream film that will appeal to the Friday night audience.
There’s nothing wrong with this at all. In fact, it should be positively encouraged. But what’s missing is the right kind of original style and content for the proposed genre films, and that’s why they’re failing to make the development grade. I touched on it in previous posts about how producers/directors/development execs are looking for a script with an ‘original voice’, a story that has ‘something to say’. We may think of these types of films as highbrow or intellectual but the audience is craving something distinctive and interesting too. And they deserve it in their genre films. What an audience will actually end up paying to see is another debate entirely.
When you’re a new writer and you’re fuelled by your passion for the genre or blockbuster film, it’s not enough to simply whack out a cop movie that you think is just as good as the rest that are out there. And it’s not enough to read a screenplay book, attend a seminar, and write a professionally formatted script that ticks all the structural and development boxes. You’ve probably got a better script but the likelihood is that you’re allowing yourself to slip into derivative storytelling or offering up familiar characters, situations and story lines. It may well be better than the latest film you’ve seen at the flicks but as yet, you haven’t earned the right to get your script picked from the pile and passed on to the Hollywood conveyor belt.
This is what differentiates your work from the others: your ability as a writer. Are you a writer, a real storyteller with a passion to engage, excite and drag an emotion from your audience or are you someone who loves films and wants the thrill of getting your script made? The scripts I read today had all the hallmarks of people who have a passion for movies but had little spark or ingenuity about storytelling. They were poor attempts at genre scripts.
We need genre scripts but just because they’re ‘genre’ doesn’t mean they have to be familiar, or by-the-numbers, or crushingly predictable. Justin Trefgarne from Working Title said: “People want to write movies but they don’t want to do the living to get there. It’s not a God-given right – it’s a calling, something that takes over your life so you have to find the voice – the essence – that demands for this thing to be seen.” I can tell what you’re thinking now: “A-ha. My genre script kicks ass. It’s got a terrific idea and the story rocks. Shut up Stack, you haven’t a clue”. But hold on a minute. Pour yourself a drink. Sit down with your script. Read it. And ask yourself: is it really good? Is it really original? Is it bringing something new, fresh and distinctive to the table, does it really fire my belly when I think about it?
I wrote two genre scripts a couple of years ago which I thought were going to be my fast track ticket to success. At the time, I thought they were fresh, original and exciting but I realise now that what I had was two well written scripts, not two great stories. I consciously used some familiar elements of the respective genres so as not to alienate my target audience from my tales but this was my biggest mistake. And now, I read scripts every day that remind me of my own attempts at genre. They’re trying hard to come up with quirky comedy crime flicks or spooky ghost stories but they’re reverting to the same old tired routines and situations that we’ve seen a million times before.
Why is this? Is it because it’s what we’ve seen before so we want to emulate it for ourselves, ‘only better’ (because we’ve written it)? Or is it because TV and cinema drags the wannabes from their sofas and lures them into thinking they can dazzle and entertain with their particular take on the genre? We need more. We need life. Insight. Emotion. Understanding. Humour. Fun. Excitement. Empathy. And when we prove we have all that in our writing, the studios will feel confident to allow us to write mindless genre guff that perpetuates all of the above. Go figure.