Alien vs Hunter gets made but my friend's script doesn't?
June 5, 2009 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the writing industry, specifically as it relates to Hollywood, etc.

I really hope this is not dismissed as chat filter as I have a specific question, but admittedly this question is based in assumptions and opinions.

I have several friends who are living in L.A. and trying to be hired as screenwriters. One has entered several screenwriting competitions and even won a couple 2nd and 3rd place awards in minor competitions. Yet these friends, for the most part, cannot get anyone to review their scripts or even really give them the time of day. By the nature of what Hollywood is they all "know a guy who know's a guy" but nothing seems to come of it.

These are people working their butts off, working day jobs and working nights writing more scripts, but they get nowhere.

Now I had always written this off to "Hollywood has more people wanting to work than they need (be it actors, writers, directors, etc) and so a large amount of people go unemployed."

However recently I read a book called Crystal Lake Memories about the making of all the Friday the 13th movies, and in it Sean Cunningham talked about how his film company has people pitching him scripts, but because he is a small company they're only pitching it to him after it's been pitched to, and passed on by, all the major studios. And thus, per Cunningham, many of the scripts are sub-par.

So part 1 of the question is: why can't an aspiring writer who is actually GOOD pitch to Cunningham and his ilk, so that small film studios like Cunningham get good scripts by unknown writers rather than crap scripts by people who are already processed through the system?

Then part 2 is: Given the utter CRAP that is made, movies like Mansquito and Atomic Twister, Mother May I Sleep With Danger, etc. how is it that talented individuals can't even get their scripts looked at, but yet such utter tripe is not only seen, but produced and released?

I'm not saying any of my friends are the next Charlie Kaufman, but their stuff is certainly better than Manticore.
posted by arniec to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
This is a roundabout way of answering your questions, but I highly highly highly recommend the podcast series Sam and Jim Go To Hollywood if you interested in learning how the entire screenwriting "thing" happens in Hollywood, for both TV and movies. I suggest starting with the first podcast and working your way through them all; they're really terrific. I can't think of a specific episode that gets at your question, but taken in toto they can help to clarify the process.
posted by arco at 10:21 AM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Check out this podcast from the Adam Carolla show, where he interviews Bob Kosberg, which covers this exact topic. There's no magic bullet (the old saw: "in Hollywood, nobody knows anything"), but there are things to be done that can increase your odds.

The other approach is to go make your own movie. People do it all the time.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:23 AM on June 5, 2009

I recommend checking out William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade.
posted by Zed at 10:42 AM on June 5, 2009

Pitches have to go through agents for various good reasons which any book on the subject will explain to you. Regardless of what many aspiring screenwriters think, the system works exactly as intended. There is a lot of crap out there because people like to watch crap. And you can tell your friends that they should be grateful they're not getting anywhere in the system, because it will kill them and eat their souls if they manage to get on board. I'm quite serious; I have seen the system from inside, though (fortunately) not firsthand.
posted by languagehat at 10:44 AM on June 5, 2009

The short answers?

1. All writers want their story to be told the best way possible. That means big bucks, and that means big studios get first crack. Why wouldn't an aspiring writer swing for the stands on his first at-bat?

2. Good doesn't necessarily make money. Transmorphers and Sunday School Musical will make money because they cost next to nothing to make and have appeal to an unsophisticated audience. Something like Fur: a Diane Arbus Tale, while arguably very good, appeals to a very small audience and was a very big gamble (Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Pope don't come cheap).

By the way, I have a couple of friends with SyFy deals in the making, and they hate Mansquito and Werewolves in Space-type flicks just as much as you.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:46 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Given the utter CRAP that is made, movies like Mansquito and Atomic Twister, Mother May I Sleep With Danger, etc. how is it that talented individuals can't even get their scripts looked at, but yet such utter tripe is not only seen, but produced and released?

I worked in television for three years. One of the things I did was help develop show proposals - someone in the company had an idea, and I was one of the people who helped write and assemble all of the information involved in the pamphlet we prepared to pitch the idea to a network. Then the VP went to a big convention-type thing every year and sat in a booth making presentations about our show ideas to all the network executives who also went. He usually went armed with our proposals, and maybe a sample promo reel of a couple of the really sexy ideas.

In the three years I was there, we researched and promoted about 60 ideas. Some of them were really, really good ones. Precisely one was sold (a one-hour special for the Discovery Channel about the family that ran the shark dives at a specific Bahamas resort). I've told people about some of the ones that failed, and they look at me incredulously and ask, "why didn't that get sold? That sounds awesome!"

Even though I dealt with nonfiction and documentaries in what I was working on, and you're talking about entertainment/sitcom/drama ideas, I think the answer is the same in both cases: for the people who helm the networks, making quality entertainment is actually a secondary concern. The primary concern is selling advertising dollars. And you sell advertising dollars by having a show that does well in ratings.

Another thing I did for this company was compile ratings information for the one show we did produce -- we absolutely lived and died by this information. Every week I had to get the report from the Nielson organization and fax it to our advertisers, and every quarter it all went into a big table that charted whether our ratings had risen or fallen over time, and that strongly influenced what our advertiser did with us next quarter. We wanted to do well, but of greater concern was making sure the most possible eyeballs were looking at our show each week, so we could keep Chevy* happy.

* NB: I do not actually think it was Chevy. I'm just sticking something in there.

What infinitewindow says above is very true: "good" doesn't necessarily make money. Mansquito is crap, but it is crap that many people watch. So the network executives give the people "what they want."

In short: I have met the enemy of television taste, and he is us.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:14 AM on June 5, 2009 [5 favorites]

Good screenplays are hard to write.

Hopefully I don't sound like a dick when I say that 2nd and 3rd place in smaller contests doesn't mean anything at all. Many of those contests are just businesses--ways for the organizing company to make money (they have entry fees and get lots of entries). There are really only two or three contests in the screenwriting world that anyone with any power (to buy/produce) pay any attention to. In order of most important to least they are: The Nicholl Fellowship, The Austin Film Festival, and, to some extent Zoetrope. Disney also has a contest but it's sort of a horse of a different color. If your friends are entering any other contests, they are wasting their time and money.

Worse, if your friends are touting their accomplishments in other contests, they are making themselves look unprofessional. If a producer hasn't heard of the contest, it's laughable to say, "the script won yadda yadda yadda...". Not only does it not help your friends, it hurts them. Advise them to stop. Or, if they need the pat on the back of winning those competitions, then enter but don't tell anyone.

Have your friends entered the Nicholl? If not, why? Any wannabe screenwriter without connections should be entering. If they have entered, how have they placed? Did they make the Quarter Finals? The Semis? The winners of those other contests probably wouldn't make top 10% at Nicholl. It's a whole other ballgame.

As to why no one is pitching good scripts to Cunningham first. That's easy: because he's Cunningham. Because he makes B pictures (in the "old sense" of the term B pictures). Most wannabe working screenwriters want their films distributed widely, seen by lots of people, nominated for Oscars, etc. Cunningham's films don't fit the bill and never will, even if the odd one makes a heap of cash.

To your part 2... this'll sound ridiculous, but Hollywood has a different metric for what is and isn't crap then you do. Then, I would suppose, most wannabe screenwriters. (I'm one myself.)

For instance, I would be embarrassed to say that I wrote what turned out to be the highest grossing film of 2008, The Dark Knight. To me, it's crap. It's a terrible script filled with HUGE plot holes. Yet, it made a billion dollars. If I were to literally hand in 90 minutes of footage of a turd and it made a billion dollars, it would not be considered crap by Hollywood standards. It'd be a hit.

No one sets out to make a bad film. Every film made is the best film those people were capable of making at that particular time. If it's shit, it's not intentional. Your friends thinking, "I can do better than shit!" is not good enough.

Also, you should keep in mind that you (I would guess) haven't read the screenplays that were greenlit and made into shit movies. You've only seen the shit movies. You're comparing your friends' screenplays to released films. This is never a good or fair action. I am not saying that those screenplays are great and were ruined by the filmmakers, but it IS a possibility.

Screenplays are very odd beasts. The writer must try to write only in the present tense and only what can be seen and heard--thoughts of a character must be expressed with action or they come across as bad exposition. There are some people who are great at this and some that are terrible. It's possible the people who are great at it don't have as good a sense of character or plot as those that are terrible. Or, someone with a brilliant sense of character and an ear for dialogue sucks at structure--in which case this person is, more than likely, doomed to not work in Hollywood.

Comparing a screenplay to a different completed film doesn't get you or the writers anywhere. Compare the scripts, if you must compare something. As an example of what I'm talking about: the film, 8MM. It's an absolute piece of shit. Utter crap. I throw out better stories every month. However, read the screenplay. It is fantastic. It is affecting. It is extremely well-written. I aspire to write something that compelling. They're different beasts.

Lastly, not all movies are made in the same way. I'd wager that the shitass movies you're citing (I'm unfamiliar with all of them) were not made with pitches or even spec scripts, which is the way your friends are trying to break into Hollywood. More than likely those films were made in the opposite way: they didn't start with a script landing in the hands of a producer, they started with a "producer" (yes, in quotes) who wanted to make a film who then went in search of a script based on an idea or props or a location or whatever it was that s/he had that was an asset to getting a film made--and they commissioned a script around that asset.

Your friends need to keep writing and keep meeting as many people as they can in the industry. If they're really good writers, something will happen. If it doesn't they need to win the good legit contests, which usually ends up in attention that, if they're really good writers, will lead to something.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 11:18 AM on June 5, 2009 [12 favorites]

Entertainment exists to sell ads, primarily. Prestige counts for little, despite the artistic pretensions of the auteur theory of film. Thus, craps gets made because crap sells.

Put in a more harsh manner: entertainment advertising dollars flow to the lowest common denominator (this is why the Superbowl half-time show is always an aggressively mediocre performer like Tom Petty or Janet Jackson). The largest audiences are the least sophisticated.
posted by dfriedman at 11:38 AM on June 5, 2009

Another podcast recommendation: On the Page, by popular and respected script consultant Pilar Alessandra.

I've listened to every episode, even though I have no intention of writing a screenplay.

posted by The Deej at 11:47 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, listening to On The Page regularly has given me a lot of insight into how the whole process works, and may answer some of the questions about why certain things get made. Although some things remain a mystery, of course.
posted by The Deej at 11:50 AM on June 5, 2009

From reading You Should See the Other Guy's comments, I see that things haven't changed much :)

For what it's worth, in my experience (on the development end reading and tracking Nicholl writers) even the Nicholl, as the most prestigious screenwriting competition in the world, only helps somewhat. Sure, your finalists will get some meetings, but it's very rare (unless things have changed) that they will get good paid work out of it. If anything, it was a mark of a writer who had a really good sense of story, but not a good enough sense of the market to write something that could be pitched and sold.
posted by mrmojoflying at 11:53 AM on June 5, 2009

You Should See the Other Guy speaks the truth.

Also: the process of movie-making is not as simple as "find the best script, and make a movie out of it". Based on years in the business, on every side of it, I'd sum it up as: "making a movie is the art of the possible".

A movie director - or actor - has a deal at a studio, and he owes them one more film. Doesn't matter what the film is - and so, all kinds of considerations enter, and the quality of the script may not even be one. A producer under pressure from the studio, must make a film for too little money, otherwise he'll lose his deal - so he goes and does it, and it's crap. He can survive a crap, because his other movies made money. But he can not survive if he alienates the exec who pressures him to make the film for too little money. Meanwhile the exec who pressured him must also answer to the money guys who don't want to give more money than X right now - so they get a crap product, but it's the film business, and we all understand that a certain percentage of crap is inherent in any run of films. So nobody pays the penalty for that particular crap, and you can't really avoid making it.

And so on in endless variations. Often, the script is an afterthought. The key, the most important thing is: how can it get made?

Your friends got nothing that helps a producer make the movie? Too bad. Somebody got a really bad script, but he has access to an actor/director/exec/money/whatever, and his script gets made.

Finally, and I've seen this literally - and I do mean literally - tens of thousands of times: the script you think is so great? It's really not. It's not filmable. It doesn't have an audience. It won't work. I cannot tell you, how many scripts I've read (thousands), scripts touted as "great" - they were not. Not knowing the first thing about your friends - purely based on odds and probabilities, I pronounce their scripts - CRAP. "How unfair! You haven't even read them!" That's right, it's unfair - welcome to Hollywood. But here's the other part of the story: odds are, I am right. And that's what counts. What if lightening strikes, what if that lottery ticket my drunken friend just bought hits the jackpot in defiance of 1:14,000,000 odds? What if your friend's script really is brilliant? First, nobody ever gets into trouble for saying "no" - that's the safe way; saying "yes" is fraught with danger, because if it falls flat, resources were spent and you look like an ass. Second, given that you can easily go a lifetime without such lightening striking, only a moron would spend their time spending resources and worrying about such unlikely odds.

Which is why: it is murder to try to get your script read in the first place. Imagine that you have a steady stream of visitors to your office, all telling you: grab a shovel, come dig for gold in my backyard! At first you go out and dig, but after the 1000th time of finding nothing but dirt, you stop leaving your office. You wait for others to read/dig. If many, many others come back and say "there really is gold in this one", you'll mosey on over and take a look. Cream will rise to the top - all by itself, you say to yourself, no need for me to stir.

This is why, the script that gets made is the one that has something going for it, very often nothing to do with the quality - someone comes into the office and says: I got this script and X is attached, or I got part of the money, or.... Cool.

And of course, that leads many to just make their own little film, and hope to get noticed. If they're good, and lucky, and can market, they can have a career.
posted by VikingSword at 12:02 PM on June 5, 2009 [6 favorites]

The way I like to put it is, Hollywood is a very small town with very large fences. As You Should See The Other Guy suggests, the doorway through the fences won't be found by second place finishes in small contests.

Now I had always written this off to "Hollywood has more people wanting to work than they need (be it actors, writers, directors, etc) and so a large amount of people go unemployed."

Right. Do the math. There's probably one or two hundred "minor" script-writing contests in America. That means there's something like two hundred to six hundred people each year who can make the same claims as your friends. There isn't a need in Hollywood for that many new writers to be let through the fences each year along with all of the other ways that people get through. Again, if they place in the Nicholls or Austin for features, or get accepted into the Warner Bros. Television Writer's Workshop or the Disney/ABC fellowship for teevee, they'll get taken seriously.
posted by Bookhouse at 5:14 PM on June 5, 2009

A piece of advice that once I read is: write a best-selling book. Then when someone says that they want to buy an option on it for making a movie say "Hey, I already wrote a script, and I'll sell you that instead."

Writing a best-selling book is left as an exercise for the student.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:18 PM on June 6, 2009

infinitewindow wrote: Transmorphers and Sunday School Musical will make money because they cost next to nothing to make...

"Transformers", according to Wikipedia, cost $151 million. That is very far away from nothing.

Special-effects-heavy action films -- which are coming out once a week now that it's summer -- cost A LOT of money, so I take issue with that point. I do agree that a film like that appeals to many more people than "Fur." And your other points make a lot of sense.
posted by Flying Saucer at 4:01 PM on June 7, 2009

Flying Saucer, the quote doesn't say Transformers. It says Transmorphers.
posted by Bookhouse at 5:20 PM on June 7, 2009

Which Wikipedia says had a budget of $300,000, I might add.
posted by JauntyFedora at 3:21 AM on June 8, 2009

Thank you all for the insight and feedback. I will certainly check out all listed podcasts, and may check into some of the books as well but the long-ish answers above do provide a bit of a logical answer to the overall gist of the question.

Thank you to those who took the time to enlighten me. Glad it's them facing this and not me (though I would like to see some better scripts made than, say, Terminator 4 sometime...)
posted by arniec at 7:36 AM on June 8, 2009

Ah, Flying Saucer, you've never heard of The Asylum... producers and distributors of such fine films as Transmorphers, Sunday School Musical, The Da Vinci Treasure, Pirates of the Mediterranean, and the Alien vs. Hunter mentioned in the page title. Enough half-drunken feebs in the US misread the titles and stagger to the cash register to keep The Asylum profitable and active.

My favorite title of theirs is a take-off on The Day The Earth Stood Still... it's called The Day The Earth Stopped.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:02 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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