Whenever the topic of screenwriting gurus comes up, you always get some heckler who asks, “If this guy is so good at writing screenplays, why isn’t he a big-time screenwriter?” (as seen in the fifth comment here).
This seems like a reasonable question, but it doesn’t take into account that you can’t have a screenwriting career unless you have lots of skills over and above the ability to write. The craft is actually only about a third of the job:
You must be a talented artist...
- Invent interesting stories
- Create compelling characters
- Find meaningful themes
- Have an ear for dialogue
- Spend hour after hour, year after year practicing without payment
…and be an ambitious entrepreneur…
- Generate new projects all the time
- Constantly network and maintain business associations.
- Be able to make a sale in a pitch meeting
- Keep track of market trends
- Pay close attention to contracts and handle you own financial planning
…and be an enthusiastic employee.
- Be eager to please whoever is paying you
- Happily work to the exact specifications of a demanding boss
- Pay strict attention to details and deadlines
- Work swiftly and steadily every day until the job is done
- Surrender copyright and allow others to totally redo all of your work
It’s the last category that is the crucial difference between screenwriters and most other fiction writers: we are employees:
- We work or get fired at the pleasure of our bosses, who own and control our work.
- But these days, they get to control our work even if they don’t own it: it has become standard for studios and production companies to demand that you completely re-write your work for free, over and over again, according to their whims, before they even decide whether or not they are going to buy it.
- No, wait, it gets even worse: Even agents and managers now routinely insist that you totally rewrite it over and over to their whims before they even decide whether or not they’ll represent it!
Obviously, this requires that you be an utterly egoless individual. That’s a rare trait, but it’s extremely rare for an egoless employee to also be an ambitious entrepreneur…And it’s astronomically rare for someone to have both of those qualities and also know how to write a screenplay. Artists, entrepreneurs and dutiful employees are usually mutually exclusive groups.
Recently, we’ve had two sources of wisdom from big-money screenwriters, Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s excellent-but-sobering book “Writing Movies for
Profit” and John August and Craig Mazin’s previously-discussed podcast
ScriptNotes. If you look at both
of these together, one thing that becomes clear is that none of these four have what you might call artistic personalities, and they don’t pretend otherwise. They present themselves as entrepreneurs first, dutiful employees second, and artists a very
In this episode of ScriptNotes, John and Craig fantasize about what they would do if they got to take charge of a studio. Would they make fewer sequels? Develop better stories? Treat writers more fairly? Nope, they spend the whole time dreaming up way to cut costs, eliminate divisions and squeeze more profits out of everybody that’s left.
It’s pretty chilling…and it’s no coincidence that these guys have found so much success. Moviemaking is a mercenary business, and the screenwriting division is, alas, no exception.