Jump_Cut: On Screenwriting
by Neil Flowers
Editor's Note: Authorlink welcomes Los Angeles screenwriter and teacher Neil Flowers in his first monthly column on the subject of writing for film and television. Neil's columns will appear on the first of every month.
I write screenplays, teach screenwriting, and read scripts for individuals and production companies here in Los Angeles. Often aspiring screenwriters will ask me, "How can I get the industry to read my baby and make it into the great movie that I know it will be."
The answer is simple. Unless you have contacts in the film biz, it ain't easy.
"Guesstimates say some 50,000 feature screenplays are written annually in the U.S." —Flowers
Guesstimates say some 50,000 feature screenplays are written annually in the U.S. Unless your script is sold and produced, it sits on a shelf as testimony to your perseverance. Fine, but almost everyone who writes screenplays wants their work on the silver screen. The payoff for some might be six months in Martinique or a Canadian lakeside cottage. For most of us word/movie junkies, we want that money to buy time to write the next script we must write or we'll die.
The goal is sound. The competition? Fierce. A few hundred films are made annually in the U.S. The blockbusters receive wide release in 2,000+ theatres. Other scripts—smaller films-character-centered rather than plot or FX driven—usually receive limited release. If good, they garner positive reviews, buzz builds, they receive an early award or two, and the film moves on to a platform and then wider release (think Brokeback Mountain).
So this leaves about 49,000 scripts to sink into oblivion.
". . . if you keep at your screenplay after knowing the odds are stacked against you, then just maybe you'll be brave enough to stick it out . . ." —Flowers
Because if you keep at your screenplay after knowing the odds are stacked against you, then just maybe you'll be brave enough to stick it out long enough and work hard enough to see your baby bought and made.
Now the good news.
"Of those 49,000 other scripts, you can bet that 90% of them are—let us be gentle here—amateurish." —Flowers
Of those 49,000 other scripts, you can bet that 90% of them are—let us be gentle here—amateurish. Does this percentage seem high? Trying to fathom why anyone would expend the time and energy to write a feature if they can't write? I hear you. Beats me, too.
Recently I read and wrote "coverage" of six scripts for a Hollywood prodco. I reviewed the rough cut of a film the same company had produced—a teenage drugs-and-sex movie with one upcoming star and a middle-aged actress you would know. Of the six scripts, one was a slasher, one a zombie, one an attempt at a Hitchcock thriller; one was a teens-in-trouble, another was a 20s-something comedy, and the last was a Hollywood-biz-insider dramedy. The ideas in two of them were so impoverished that it wasn't worth spending any more time on them. Three others were borderline and needed major rewrites. One had promise, but was too short—a rare occurrence. The drug-and-sex film will never find a theatrical release (the prime reason for this I'll explain in a later column).
So it's not hopeless out there in Screenplayland. The odds are smaller than they might at first appear because so much of the competition is so, uh, amateurish.
But first you must write an excellent script. To do this you must know the rules.
Next Column: The Rules, Part I.
Recommended viewing: The Stratford Ontario, Canada, Shakespeare Festival production of Oedipus Rex (1957), directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie. Available at Amazon. Also: Collateral, Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise (2004).
About Neil Flowers Neil Flowers is an award-winning playwright who has worked as a writer, actor, and director in theatre, radio, and film/video. He co-authored a produced TV pilot, and a teleplay produced as a feature by Jim Henson Films. He has written three feature screenplays, teaches screenwriting, and reads screenplays for Los Angeles production companies. He has an MFA in Playwriting and MA in Theatre and Dance. E-mail Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org.