Sometimes it seems like there are as many people trying to teach screenwriting as there are screenwriters. There are gurus who have written books, and there are working writers who give back by doing podcasts or answering questions on their blog. But there are also plenty of people who write articles about screenwriting who seem to have learned everything they know from reading articles about screenwriting. There’s that same list making the rounds, usually titled something like Top 10 Mistakes That Will Get Your Screenplay Shredded By The Hollywood Readers. The things on the list are pretty basic i.e. spellcheck, proofread your grammar, get your format right, etc. Still with the ease that it takes to find these basics on-line, it still stuns me how often I see new writers making the same mistakes over and over again.
The same thing occurred to my good friend Ben Rock, a working director I’ve known since we were both aspiring filmmakers back in Orlando. Ben was the production designer on The Blair Watch Project and has directed tons of stuff in multiple mediums, including the very cool (though unfortunately titled) feature film ALIEN RAIDERS. Ben and I collaborate in the theater world, read each other’s projects, and often discuss the “business” of Hollywood.
Also, as a director looking for projects, Ben reads a ton of screenplays. He recently published a blog that was his version of the “mistakes that writers make” list but his list stands head and shoulders above the others. One reason (and not just because he says nice things about me in the blog) is that Ben doesn’t just regurgitate the same list we’ve all seen. Ben writes it from the point of view of a working director who wants to fall in love with something he’s reading. And if you’ve ever read a stack of unproduced scripts, then you know it’s a very, very rare thing to fall in love with what you’re reading. Why? Because most scripts aren’t very good. If you want to know why, then read Ben’s blog (and you absolutely should).
And here’s one thing I can add to the conversation. I know that finishing a screenplay is a big deal. Coming up with an idea, having the discipline to write it, fight past the doubt and fear and get all the way to the end and type FADE OUT…it’s an amazing accomplishment and everyone who pulls it off should be incredibly proud. But just because you wrote a script, doesn’t mean that anyone is obligated to like it, buy it, make it, or even read it. People write me and say: I wrote my first script, how do I sell it? A script doesn’t have value just because it’s been written. The only meaningful value that a script contains is the PASSION it inspires in those who read it.
In other words: A script must be a passionate plea to make a movie.
All of the people who read scripts in order to find one to make are looking for passion. Maybe they’re passionate about making money. Or art. Or something in between. But it doesn’t matter if they’re a director, producer, actor, financier, or studio head…you want them to read the script and think, wow, I HAVE to make this.
One of the most amazing compliments I’ve ever gotten on a script I wrote was from an executive who was a friend of mine. A lot of people were trying to figure out how to get this script made and she told me that she would fantasize about the movie playing in a theater and seeing her name come up in the credits. I was blown away that someone would feel that way about something I’d written. Her company didn’t make the movie, but I’ll never forget what she said.
It’s a hard lesson to learn. That initial draft, the one you hope to sell, the one you hope to make…it’s not special. It’s literally one in a million. What makes it special is the passion it inspires in others. If you’ve written a script and people are ignoring it…then it’s missing something important. It’s not just because there may be misspellings or the format’s a little off. It’s missing that magical quality that makes somebody go from a reader to a doer, from a person who says no to a person who says yes.
My friend Ben is just one of many filmmakers who want to be wowed. Our job as writers is to wow ’em. And it takes more than typing Fade Out to do it. It takes everything we’ve got, every time. And if what we’ve written doesn’t wow ’em? Then we write the next one.
And spellcheck. For the love of God, spellcheck.