Kevin: What's your take on screenwriting competitions? Do you feel there is a bias against genre writers? If Die Hard and Brokeback Mountain were competing in the same writing competition it seems to me Brokeback would win every time. As a genre writer, are the odds even more against me?
This is a really good and difficult question. This will be a long post. The quick answer is that there is probably a tendency to choose personal or intimate screenplays over more popcorn fare. This is not to say that there’s a deliberate bias against genre writers but the problem with spec genre scripts (and even some commissioned ones) is that they can feel samey, familiar, derivative or just a lame knock-off of the latest hit. If you’re submitting a genre script to a screenwriting competition, two main factors will help you stand out: a really strong concept and a highly polished style of writing (crisp, lean and stylish).
Let’s go back to 2004. I had been a script reader for four years at this stage, dishing out the dirt on all the scripts that came my way. So, I decided it was time to ‘put up or shut up’. I had to write a script that would demonstrate that I knew what I was talking about, and would represent a good sample of my writing abilities. I dismissed my two or three genre scripts I had written to-date, and started afresh with a low-concept, low-key coming-of-age drama set in Ireland. I wanted to show that I could create an original story with interesting characters and put them through an emotionally charged story. The result was Run For Home, which won me a BBC Bursary in 2004 and went on to be developed by Parallel Films (producers of Intermission and Breakfast on Pluto). The BBC judging panel told me that it was Run For Home’s emotion that made it the winner (although, naturally, it was a very close call between Ruth and Martin, the other two finalists). To this day, the script gets me meetings and assignments (I think it’s my agent’s favourite) so as a basic strategy, writing the script has been extremely worthwhile indeed.
As a reader, you do respond to scripts that have ‘heart’ or move you in some way. The ability to conjure emotion from the screenplay format is a skill that should not be underestimated. Genre scripts don’t often get that luxury as they’re more focused on plot and action rather than character or emotion. If Die Hard and Brokeback Mountain were competing in the same writing competition, it would be natural to assume that Brokeback would win every time but Die Hard stood out because of its characters (great hero, even better villain) and its exciting plot. Brokeback’s emotion was certainly evident in the screenplay but it wasn’t exactly a riveting read (and anyway Die Hard & Brokeback mightn’t be the best examples as they’re based on a book/short story, so they have some leverage before they hit an exec’s desk).
For Red Planet 2007, we were open to any genre and any script. It’s fair to say that only a few genre scripts made it through to the 2nd round, and even fewer made it to the final shortlist. Those that did make an impression stood out because of their original premise (or a neat twist on a familiar idea) and backed it up with a polished style of writing, making the script easy to read and maintaining an interest in the story. Sam J by Joanna Leigh was easy to spot as the winner, even as we were still finalising the shortlist. It had an interesting and original idea, and was written with style and assurance. True, it wasn’t ‘high concept’ but it was a genre script (biopic). It was interesting to note that a few ‘true stories’ and biopics made it through to the 2nd round as generally they do stand out with more appeal and interest. Original concepts and stories are more of a hard-sell, especially from an unknown writer. The premise and writing really needs to be strong to grab your attention and make that all-important impression.
If you really want to know about how genre scripts fare in writing contests, all you have to do is check out the past winners of the major screenplay competitions. The Nicholl, Blue Cat, Red Planet etc. The most illuminating competition regarding “personal scripts Vs genre scripts” was Project Greenlight, the script contest spearheaded by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Project Greenlight stood out from the other competitions in that it was going to produce the winning script. In its first year, they chose a touching coming-of-age drama, Stolen Summer, a really sweet script. The result? It bombed, big time.
The next year, they tried to shake it up a bit but still chose a more personal and intimate story. The result? Another bomb. For its third (and final) year, they went for a genre script, a horror called Feast, having learnt their lessons with their previous winning scripts. Feast didn’t get a cinema release (to my knowledge) but Project Greenlight has proved that there is a marked difference between a general screenwriting competition looking for new writers and a screenwriting competition that is looking for a script to make into a commercial feature film.
In the UK, you have MySpace Movie Mashup, in which the public choose the winning pitch (this year’s winning script/pitch being David Lemon’s Faintheart). And Kaos have also launched a competition to find a feature length script that they will produce & release (budget £2 million). It’s not genre specific but seeing as they’re going to make the film, it’s probably fair to say that the winning script will (or should) have some commercial qualities.
So, if you’re a genre writer (and that’s all you want to write), think big and bold but always remember that craft is not a substitute for character. All the best genre scripts are remembered for their protagonists rather than their plot. Sure, their plot was what made the film exciting and memorable but only because the hero was worth rooting for all the way. And keep reading scripts, especially the good American genre scripts, as their style and structure is usually a cut-above any kind of genre script that gets shopped around in the UK.
** UPDATE ** Also remember that the UK Film Council are always looking for strong genre scripts. Check out their development fund criteria and submit your hot spec. It's kind of like a competition, and you can enter as many times as you like. It will go through the usual 'Pass/Consider' process of a script reader but hey, it's a wide open scheme for anyone and everyone so we have little excuse not to explore every free and available opportunity.