When I got signed, my new manager asked me for a list of projects I was interested in working on. I excitedly made a list of my brilliant “takes” on all of the biggest stalled adaptations in Hollywood. How I would “fix” Superman, Conan, Flash Gordon, etc... Immediately, my new manager started to cool his interest in me. There was a palpable sense that “Uh oh, this guy just doesn’t know how the business works.” And he was right.
I had chosen this profession based on an entirely erroneous assumption. I thought Hollywood was out of good new ideas. Why else would they make so many bad movies? They just needed someone brilliant to waltz in the door and tell them, “Hey guys, this isn’t so hard! Let Dr. Matt diagnose all your problems!”
What I didn’t realize was that the problem wasn’t too few good ideas, but too many. Look at an unmitigated disaster like Superman Returns, in which the once-beloved hero was turned into a deadbeat dad stalking his sullen baby mama. Was that the best they could come up with? Of course not. The problem wasn’t that nobody knew how to fix Superman, but that everybody did. Every screenwriter has a Superman pitch (or even a script) in their drawer and at least a dozen per year actually got to pitch theirs to besieged Warner Brothers executives.
This can result in a horrible situation I call “The New Yorker Caption Contest Paradox”. Every week for the last five years, the New Yorker has run a caption-less cartoon and asked their very clever readers to supply the proper punch line. The next week, they run their picks for the three best lines, and usually all three are terrible.
Just look at this egregious example. All three of these choices are blatantly incompetent. Any caption to this cartoon must address three things: he is being held by a giant hand, he is on the phone, and he is talking to his wife. Each of these captions addresses only two.
Is this because they got no good submissions? I think there’s another explanation… I think the problem is that there really is one ideal line for each drawing (In this case, probably something along the lines of “They say they can’t do anything about it until Monday”), but they get so many slightly different variations of that one good line, that they all become a blur. The only ones that stand out are the oddball entries, so they just pick three of those.
I think the same thing happened with Superman Returns. They had bought dozens of very good Superman scripts over the years, but none had gotten made and now they’d gotten bored with the details that formed the heart of the story. At some point the scripts that started getting traction were oddities that seemed “fresh” and “new” by comparison.
Too many screenwriters, with too many good ideas, are canceling each other out. The producers and studio chiefs, confused by all the cacophony, are making bad decisions. In the end, who gets which job is essentially random. The amazing thing is not that they made such a wrong pick for Superman. It’s that somehow, even amidst all the confusion, they made a right pick for Batman.
Now I get it: If you’re an unproven screenwriter, you can’t immediately seek out the projects that you’re passionate about, because that means you’re competing against everybody else in town and you’re only adding to the problem. Instead, find a way to write passionately about whatever small assignment randomly comes your way, even if it’s something you’ve never heard of. Don’t stand there like Casey at the bat demanding a slow pitch up the middle. Be the guy who can hit any curveball out of the park. If you keep doing that, you’ll stay in the rotation for years, and someday the perfect opportunity will finally come your way.
All right, now that we’ve explored the nature of ideas, next week we’ll try to figure out the difference between a good one and a bad one…