Horror Stories for Aspiring Screenwriters: Tales from the Script

Content-wise: probably a half-dozen ‘Hollywood’s favorite cussword’ in both (I noticed them more in the documentary than the book).

Have you ever dreamed of writing a Hollywood script? Have you ever thought people are clamoring for your genius ideas?

If you’d like a pretty solid slap in the face, read this book. Or watch the documentary (or both, I read the book first then watched the movie, it’s on Netflix streaming). It’s fascinating and tremendously depressing at once. It’s an act of charity, in a way: your heart gets broken softly, now, in your safety zone, before you move to L.A. and start competing for those really hard-to-get telemarketing jobs that will keep you going while you write all night on the script no one will read.

The reason this works is because it’s bits of interviews with currently successful screenwriters, apparently by someone they trust, because they’re quite open. The ones I knew before going in: John Carpenter, William Goldman, Larry Cohen. There are about a dozen others. Again, CURRENTLY SUCCESSFUL screenwriters. They’re there, now, being successful. And they talk about this stuff like they’ve just been through battle and are coming to terms with it.

The way it’s organized breaks down the levels of difficulty of getting a script made into a movie. If I understood it right:

1) Even if you like writing, you still need to crank and crank to get your script(s) written. And fight and slay inner demons, and come to terms with Beauty, and all that.
2) Even if you write a script, it will need a lot of work with a lot of drafts before it’s in any kind of shape to be sent out.
3) Even if it’s sent out, agents won’t read it. Agents don’t take unsolicited scripts, but they’re the only ones that sell scripts to studios. So basically you have to break into an agent’s office in disguise and trick them into representing you. Or write a best-selling novel. In fact, some of the writers interviewed GO BACK AND TAKE A BREAK BY WRITING NOVELS. Because that’s so relaxing.
— if you pass this point (you have an agent) you’ve ‘broken in’
4) Even if you get an agent, they may not like your script enough to want to sell it. Even though that’s how they get paid. But they get a bad name if they sell it and it’s a turkey, even though that’s out of their hands.
5) Even if your agent likes your script enough to try to sell it, they may not be able to.
— if you pass this point you’ve been paid
6) Even if your agent sells your script, it has about a 3-5% chance of going into development. Lots of scripts get bought and put on a shelf. One guy cited that about 360 films are in development. About 10  get made. A year.
7) Even if your script makes it into development, there’s about a 0% chance that it will come out looking exactly like the thing you originally wrote, because of input from executives, changes from the director, etc. Sometimes these changes improve things and sometimes they don’t.
— if you pass this point you have a movie credit. You’re on IMDB (maybe some developments are on IMDB too).
8) Currently, even if you make it through development, you will almost never be the only writer on the script. Even if it’s your idea, even if you wrote it. You may get the screen credit, but you lose control over what goes up on the screen. So it could be a terrible movie (someone cited BloodRayne as an interesting script they wrote that had about 20-30% of what they wrote in the final product). So then you get a bad rep for how terrible it was, even though it was made terrible by other people.

So, you know, there’s that to think about. A couple of other notes:

  • There is tremendous mental anguish and rationalizing and terror around working with agents and Hollywood executives. Some people deal with it better than others. No one avoids it.
  • There is very little anguish over working with actors: in a nutshell, actors get whatever they want. This was a tidbit I didn’t know before – apparently actors are the biggest power players in Hollywood, besides a handful of directors. While the salary numbers would dictate that, I didn’t really understand that unless an actor is attached to a major studio project, it doesn’t get made.
  • I read the book first and then at the end saw an ad for the documentary, saw it was on Netflix Streaming, and watched it. The book is great – there are a lot of good quotes. The documentary is nice because you get the inflection and don’t have to keep flicking to the biography index in the back to see who people were. The documentary is very straightforward – almost clunkily edited – although there’s the bonus of a few brief clips from movies about screenwriting, from Get Shorty, The Muse, etc.
  • Stepping back from this and looking at the bigger picture, it reinforces my idea about films being committee projects. Anything resembling something cohesive, tight, and well-thought out either had a taskmaster on the other end (David Fincher comes to mind) or was miracle.
  • It is recent – there’s a segment on the trend towards existing properties (brand names, toys, books, TV shows, old (as recently as 10 years old) movies) and away from new stories.
  • Obviously, thinking through it, this isn’t how it is for everyone. Someone has to write those terrible B-movies for Syfy – someone has to write for TV. This mainly deals with the big guns – movies that aim to make $50 million or more get this kind of scrutiny.

More on implications of all this stuff in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Horror Stories for Aspiring Screenwriters: Tales from the Script

Leave a Reply