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I was talking to a fellow reader one day (the conversation has been fictionalized heavily…quite heavily, to serve my purposes, of course, but I do think I retained the truth of the gist of the heart of the discussion). We both read for a few of the same competitions, and as readers are wont to do who find themselves at the same table at a coffee shop, we began talking about how good and bad the screenplays had been so far this year.
After a while, I was getting the feeling that we were looking for different things when it came to evaluating screenplays.
So I asked my fellow reader what he looked for as he read.
His response was that he looked for a character journey or arc; whether the journey or arc was well dramatized; whether the screenplay was well structured; whether the structure the author used followed the rules, more or less.
He also basically said that he looked for something the same, but different. Or is it different, but the same? Though I guess those are both different ways of saying the same thing.
Same, but different is a phrase that has been making the rounds for some time now that means, as far as I can tell, sticks to the rules, to the familiar, to the same that’s usually done, but have just enough of a twist or something unique to it to make it stand out and rise above the crowd.
When he asked what I looked for in a screenplay, I said that I looked for passion in the writing; for a unique and original voice; for a screenplay that has a strong emotional effect on me; a screenplay that takes me someplace I’ve never been before or introduces me to people I’ve never met; something that blows my mind.
In the end, after further discussion, I think we parted not really understanding each other.
This discussion really started me thinking about the various competitions I’ve been reading for lately and what happens when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of determining the finalists and who wins.
It made me think of these competition meetings because I feel there has been a change in the discussion since I started reading almost ten years ago now.
When I first began, the main emphasis was on the quality of the writing, how good it was, how unique the screenplay was, whether it brought something new to the art.
We loved screenplays that broke the rules, that did something non-commercial, that took chances.
Of course, at that time, everyone was still awash in the glow of the new American independent movement headed by Tarantino and the Coen brothers, as well as Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith, not to mention the European new new waves, including the Dogma 95 movement. And who can forget the early days of Sundance.
We were filled with such hope for cinema and these new voices that were rising up at the same time that the old voices were falling by the wayside; or had been dropped by the studios who were redefining film using the blockbuster as the standard bearer; or as the finer filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorcese, Towne, the Schraders, were trying to fit their way of making iconoclastic movies into the new studio style.
And, man, some of the scripts we came across: brutally dark comedies; experimental structures that used expressionism and magic realism; people passionate about telling true stories and biographies; authors who not only didn’t play by the rules, they didn’t care if rules existed, they just wanted to tell great stories in effective ways. You know, WTF screenplays.
But as time went on, a new way of evaluating starting finding its way into the discussions. Someone would say that a script was brilliant, but the response would be, but who would buy it or make it or what audience would see it?
Now these were questions that nobody would have broached much before, and for many reasons. As the old saying goes, in Hollywood nobody knows nothing, and we realized at that time that we were no different, we couldn’t be any surer of a screenplay’s success that anyone else in Hollywood. We also knew, based on such films as had been made by the rebel movie makers already mentioned, that there were audiences for movies that didn’t play by the rules.
And finally, we would rarely mention the commerciality of a script simply because we had always understood that our prime concern as readers for contests was the quality of the screenplay, how good it was, not whether it would make a profit for somebody.
But more and more, the idea of choosing a screenplay that would sell has become increasingly germane to our finals discussions.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this change in tone. The first is that the economy fell back in 2008 (remember when that happened?) and that, coupled with the writer’s strike, put a whole new economic spin on evaluating screenplays. The market was putting more and more of an emphasis on a profit, the bigger the profit the better, and so tended to be looking for screenplays that would have a strong enough bang for their buck.
The second thing that happened is, I believe, an evolutionary one.
Contests had been around for a long time now. And there were a lot more of them. And there were a lot more coming on the horizon. And it was becoming harder and harder to stand out, to be in that group when someone asked what are the top five or ten competitions to enter.
So, contests were looking for ways to be sure that they were the ones that writers would think of first when entering their screenplays.
You know, Darwin and all that.
There are several ways one can become one of the top dogs. Of course, there’s the prize money, and the bigger the booty the better. But in the end, that only affects a few people (and mainly only one), so after awhile, screenwriters catch on to that and, realizing how unlikely they are going to come in first, no matter how good they are, they tended to become less likely to use that as a reason to enter a competition.
Sort of like the lottery.
Another way to attract authors was an auxiliary one. What competitions did agents, managers, producers, directors, actors, filmmakers of all sorts, look to if they wanted to find writers to pursue? If a writer entered such and such a competition, even if they didn’t make the top few, would placing in finals, even semi-finals, get them any attention?
But how do competitions attract the notice of agents, managers, producers, directors, actors, filmmakers of all sorts?
One way is to have a group of writers who do well in their competitions get a movie made that does well at the box office; or have a group of writers whose screenplays do sell, even if they don’t get made, so that an agent and manager and others involved can make their rent for the month; or have a group of writers who have the sort of talent that agents and writers can sell to studios to work on other projects.
And so the idea of a screenplay that can be sold has become more and more a part of the conversation.
I’m not saying it’s taken over. One of the ironies is that even though marketability is becoming more and more of a consideration, it still seems more often than not that it’s the writer with a unique voice, who writes with passion, who doesn’t consciously pay that much attention to the rules who tends to still make it to the top.
No matter how much the readers may think in terms of marketability, it’s very hard to give a pass to a screenplay that has a strong emotional pull on you whether it plays by the rules or not. One can try to ignore this, and it does happen, but it’s rather difficult.
But at the same time, I’m not sure that this last is the way things are going to keep on going. I’m beginning to suspect that there may be a battle going on right now for the soul of the future of screenwriting contests.
To be continued…