The biggest mistake a writer can make at the outset of writing a screenplay is imagining his or her screenplay turned into a movie and playing at hundreds or thousands of cinemas around the world. To write with this goal in mind is demonstrating a fundamental lack of knowledge and confusion about the roles of a filmmaker and a screenwriter. The screenwriters audience is the primary focus.
A filmmaker makes a film to play to an audience in a cinema or in front of a TV. That is their goal: to elicit emotion from an audience in a cinema.
The goal of a screenwriter is entirely different. A screenwriter’s audience is just one person – a reader. Usually in the film industry, the reader is late fifties/early sixties and over-weight with a tight silk shirt tucked into a pair of expensive slacks, secured by an enormous crocodile skin belt. The reader’s body is adorned with gold rings and bracelets. Very often, this reader has absolutely no training in film, but they are reading your script, and they have the one thing you want – a chequebook. If you succeed in eliciting emotion in this uncouth being, chances are very much better that you will get a check. If you fail to do so, you won’t.
Because the role of the audience is so important, let’s take a closer look at the status of the observer.
The genius of Marshall Macluhan
After I finished high school, I went to art school in Toronto. In order to keep my mother happy, I enrolled at the local university for a series of classes including an English literature class. I dropped out after three classes, because the lecturers were so dry. But the first two nights, I had the most brilliant lectures by the Canadian philosopher, Marshall Macluhan.
Here is Macluhan’s version of the importance of an audience, and the role of the writer:
Suppose that I am a DJ and my job is to attend the radio station and choose music for my show, which airs every morning from 3am – 4am. Hardly a favourable time, but in addition to my paycheck, the other benefit is that I can choose any music I want without any outside interference. Many would consider this an ideal job, albeit with unsociable hours.
The model looks like this:
Suppose one evening as I am about to leave for work, the radio producer calls and says that there is conclusive proof that this evening during my show, absolutely no one will be listening. Is there any point in my attending to play my favourite records? Surely I can do this in the comfort of my own home.
Let’s look at the model again, only now from the perspective of a writer: and the screenwriters audience
Screenwriter’s Leap of Faith
The writer writes for the reader. I call this the Screenwriter’s Leap of Faith.
How do you know that each time you start to write a scipt that you will be able to write a good script? Screenwriting is an art form, and you may not be able to hit it every time.
If you do write a good script, how will you know if you get it to the right producer – that reader with a checkbook? And if you get it to the right producer, how do you know if he or she will hire the right director? If you wrote a one page script and gave it to ten different directors, would you not get ten very different films? And how about actors? If you asked a director to direct the same one-page script with ten different actors you would also get ten different films. And what of the editors, and production designers and composers?
You don’t know if the right people will get to work on your script, and you have absolutely no control over this. You might get lucky, write a fabulous script, get it to the top producer who hires the hottest director with a cast of talented newcomers and still find that you cannot get your film onto a single screen at home or around the world. It does happen.
How do you know what the future of your idea for a screenplay holds? From the moment you decide to commit endless hours of time and energy to writing it, you have to admit that you have no idea what the end result is going to be.
The screenwriter’s leap of faith is that amazing belief in yourself and your idea that will carry you through all of the barriers to success – the Biblical quote has never been more applicable.
Let’s go into bummer. There is nothing I can do to teach you about the word misfortune except to try and educate you as much as possible about the savvy needed for the industry, and hope to minimalize the odds against you.
Consider these two questions: Is every hit movie good? Is every good movie a hit?
Every year at the Raindance Film Festival, I find a sweetheart, darling, cute film that I really believe is right for the British audience. The film plays to a packed house, including several distributors. After the screenings of these films, the audience bursts into rapturous applause, and the audience files out talking excitedly about the movie.
Usually in cases like this, I stride up to the Acquisitions Executives that I recognize at the screening and ask them what they think of the film. They know that what I am really asking is whether or not they think it is suitable for a UK release. I am usually told ‘It’s too American for a British audience’ or; I don’t think the British public is ready for something as controversial as that’. Misfortune can and will befall you Learn to recognize it for what it is, and move on. There is nothing you can do about it.
From this can be learned one of the most fundamental rules of screenwriting – learn when to let go. Not everything you do is going to work. Your job as a writer is to inspire the teams of other creatives that are involved in the filmmaking process. Not every idea is going to work. There is nothing you can do about this. Learn when (and how) to let go.
And remember – writers and filmmakers earn the attention of an audience through the skillfull use of violence and sex.
What writers can control
- The actor’s actions: through description in the screenplay.
- Dialogue: through the script.
- Setting: by choosing where the story is told.
- The story, the story the story.
- But once the screenplay has left your hands, everything can be changed.
What writers can’t control
- The vision of the director.
- Cinematography and the ability of the camerman/woman.
- Production Design, Set, Wardrobe, Special FX, artistry of the craft people.
- Score and suitability of the music.
- Marketing, poster and trailer: the skill of the market makers and publicists.
- The success of the film: Hey! Who does? It is a crapshoot!
Successful writers write to inspire everybody else, and know when to let go.
- Nobody knows anything. Remember that this book is designed to give you a practical plan; a method for getting your ideas onto paper.
- The quickest way into the film industry is with a script – a hot script
- Never forget the writer’s role – to inspire everyone else, then let go.
- You are an intuitive storyteller. Let nothing inhibit you.
Now, get that idea out of your head and onto paper. If you need some help and advice for your writing, check out the screenwriting classes in Raindance Toronto, London and Los Angeles