How Screenwriters Can Survive the Changing Movie Landscape
With the recent numbers on the state of the industry released by the WGA for writers looking pretty dismal, and the recent New York Times article about the power of the numbers-crunchers (they often have influence over edits and Final Cut), the picture is clear: The movie business has changed. Forever.
But it's not just the preponderance of superhero movies, sequels and remakes, or the fact that many people feel movies, in general, have lost their originality. There's the feeling that something is fundamentally different.
If so, what is it?
Two things: technology, and the cost of making a movie.
With the explosion of technology, 3D and FX (as well as gaming and the internet), it's getting harder and harder to entertain people; when they go to the theater, the movie better be entertaining. Especially with the price of tickets so high, people want an event.
One day, movies will be holograms (read "Risky is the New Safe: The Rules Have Changed" by futurist Randy Gage), and you'll see this isn't that far-fetched. In fact, I'm sure James Cameron is working on the technology now! I'll be the first in line to buy a ticket, too!
The problem is that: for those of us who love movies, movies are not just spectacle. They are also about story, characters we care about. For years, the studio system has adhered to a strict "formula" that doesn't necessarily make it easy for us to fall in love with characters. It seems the filmmakers and producers left who are actually making "quality" films are a handful: Harvey Weinstein & David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook"), the Coen Brothers, Tarantino ("Django Unchained") to name just a few.
The landscape has changed, and I think forever. I also do not think MFA programs have, necessarily, caught up to this change. They seem resolved to preach the "character/story" mantra first. There are die-hards who believe (and I'm one of them) that character and story are what matter.
Can film schools really preach that mantra in good conscience anymore? When students often take on boatloads of debt in a tough, competitive, global marketplace? In an industry whose rules have changed? It's a good principle to have as a foundation … but the changing landscape needs to be acknowledged and analyzed as well.
Nowhere is all of this felt more than by screenwriters. This includes professional screenwriters, emerging screenwriters and new, aspiring screenwriters. The latest WGA numbers are appalling. I think studios could do a lot more to encourage new, innovating writing -- but why would they? It's a risky business.
I still believe in the spec-script mantra -- the idea that that one great magical script will open doors. However, as an "emerging screenwriter" who has representation, who took meetings, who had two really great scripts that went nowhere, it's kind of hard to still believe that.
One was deemed "beautifully written" but "impossible to sell." Called "The California Toad," it is about a man who makes the journey from the frozen Midwest to release his toad in its natural habitat in the wild in California. It's a dramedy, rom-com in the vein of a more mystical "About Schmidt."
The other was a high-concept family script, "The Baby Whisperer," that got traction and development at Fox. The executive at the time got free rewrites out of myself and my writing partner for about three months until the script was "perfect." Then he went to his boss, there was some sort of "shake-up" and his boss "left" and he "left" and moved his family back to San Francisco.
I left working on the marketing side as a film analyst, because I consider myself a screenwriter's screenwriter. I had a hard time with the idea that someone who might know how to manipulate statistics could suddenly "predict" if a movie would do well. There are only a couple of answers, here, especially for women screenwriters: Keep pounding down doors but don't do it blindly -- be aware of the changing landscape of the industry.
The take-away is this: If you're a young (or old) new screenwriter you'd better try everything. FilmCourage recently did a piece on its belief that what I call the "have script will travel" philosophy is completely outdated. It advocated that young filmmakers are better off creating a blog and video content on YouTube or FunnyorDie, or what have you. That writers need to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.