Screenwriting is a tricky art. When I started my career, one of my first jobs was reading screenplays for a development company.
At first, I thought reading screenplays was an AWESOME job.
I have to admit. I felt pretty cool leaving the NYC office each night with three to five screenplays in my bag. On the subway, I would pull out a screenplay and start reading.
My goal was to find material that would eventually become the next Sundance award winner. I lived to find something awesome. Something that would garner me a promotion and clout with the producer. Something great!
But what I read was terribly disheartening.
I read hundreds of screenplays. Some were from new screenwriters. Some were from veteran screenwriters. Some were from screenwriters who (I could only imagine) didn’t know English.
And without fail, what I found was a bunch of discombobulated stories with weak plots and unrefined characters.
I felt sick.
Most of submitted screenwriting was garbage.
(I really wish I was kidding here.)
I’m not trying to sound all high and mighty either.
I tried. I really did!
At first, I read EVERY screenplay, cover to cover. I wanted to give the writer the benefit. They worked hard. So I kept reading. I was convinced that the bad story I presently read would improve. I just needed to keep going. . . I just needed to keep reading.
But I was wrong…
The stories never improved.
After some weeks of reading CRAP screenplays, I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I started slacking. And worse, I really didn’t care.
If the screenplay didn’t grab me in the first 10 to 15 pages, I quickly thumbed through the rest of the script.
After that, my next task was to complete coverage reports for the producer. The goal of a coverage report is to either recommend or pass on the screenplay. Most of the screenplay coverage reports I wrote ended up being some variation on the following:
This writer shows some promise. But this screenplay lacks the necessary plot and character arc to grab interest. The characters all sound similar. Additionally, this story requires expensive sets, locations, seasonal conditions, animals and children. As a consequence, this screenplay necessitates a complete rewrite in order to proceed. My recommendation is to PASS at this time.
I don’t know if this sounds harsh or not. But it is a screenwriting reality.
Most producers will never read any unknown screenplay. Instead, most producers will have an assistant to do the horrible job of reading awful screenplays from terrible screenwriters.
The assistant protects the producer from reading crap screenplays.
And speaking as a former assistant, I can honestly say that many screenwriters should avoid submitting unrefined work in the first place. But this rarely happens.
Screenwriting Is The Heavy Lifting
All of this being said, you know that great screenwriting is essential for a great movie. There is no way around this. It is the law of narrative filmmaking. Your screenplay is the blueprint for your movie. And if you are a talented up-and-coming filmmaker, you probably noticed this. The truth is, many produced movies are far from great.
Have you ever asked this question?
…How did THAT movie ever get made?
Good screenwriting question. Somehow bad screenplays STILL get made. And I think there is a reason crappy screenplays get made into crappy movies. There really is no ONE answer. And not to digress too far, but here is my theory on how mediocre writing becomes successful screenwriting:
Fact: Most screenplays are complete crap.
Opportunity: If your screenplay is even marginally better, It will SEEM like it’s TONS better than it actually is.
(Reread that again if you need to.)
So based on this premise, the unknown assistant RUNS to the producer to share his great fortune.
“I found screenwriting GOLD. Let’s make a movie!!!”
But the reality is, the screenplay is not gold. The screenplay is good, but it is not great. But compared to crap, it seems AWESOME. This is because years of reading crappy screenplays have knocked the standards pretty low.
And regardless, the bottom line is this…
You probably think you can do better.
The good news is, you’re probably right!
During my time reading screenplays, I was able to see first-hand how much garbage is floating around. If you have ANY talent as a writer, your material may get noticed. This should be good news for the screenwriting profession!
Here is a quick video on screenwriting. It may help you:
Big obvious lesson here?
Write or acquire a GREAT screenplay!
5 Screenwriting Secrets Every Writer Should Know
I am assuming you want to actually write or acquire a screenplay so you can make your movie. So I am NOT going to provide too much advice on how to “sell” your screenplay.
That being said, whether you plan on producing your own material or selling it, there are still a few factors applicable to your end-goal. The first thing you have to do is get your hands on a great script. If you’re the writer-director type of filmmaker, then starting with a blank screen may feel intimating.
If this is difficult for you, you might consider finding a writing partner and then sharing a story credit. Or you will just have to sit there until the ideas fill the screen. To help you out, here is the down and dirty screenwriting lesson for today:
1. Get some screenplay software. Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter are the industry standard. Or you could do a Google search for “free screenwriting software.”
2. Once you have the software, consider writing a feature script on the cheap. Think in terms of limited locations, with limited actors, with a short schedule that you can eventually shoot with limited equipment.
3. Consider making your story edgy. Drama is hard to market. Horror and thriller and action is universal.
4. The story should be fun with a STRONG, marketable CONCEPT. People should remember your idea.
5. The name of the game is FUN. If you can’t have fun, you’re doing something wrong.
Putting the final polish on a screenplay is an amazing accomplishment. But just make sure you’ve created your best work. As they say, you only get one chance to make a good first impression – That same thinking applies to screenwriting.
You only get one chance to grab the attention of a potential actor or department head who may or may not decide to help you with your project. You might get some benefit from writing treatments that sell.