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In my two previous entries here, I have been talking about the idea that a new criteria has been entering the judging stage at screenplay competitions, a criteria based on the sellability and marketability of a script. I continued by saying that I’m not convinced that this is a positive development since I’m not sure that screenplays are always getting made into movies the way they once were, and that the idea as to whether a screenplay can be sold or has a market may be anachronistic to some degree, and becoming more so the more time passes.
I finished my last essay with the following:
“So how does this relate to my issues regarding the idea that the ability to sell a screenplay or whether there is a market for it, should or shouldn’t be part of the consideration in judging who should win a competition, or even just reach the finals?”
And so to proceed:
Well, first I suggest that emphasizing the idea that the worthiness of a screenplay should be based in some way on its “sellability” may be keeping competitions in the past more than is wise and that contests judging the worthiness of a screenplay this way may be using criteria that are becoming more and more outmoded—by going in that direction, they are adhering to what may be an outdated studio style standard of acquiring scripts with the idea that screenplays today are bought and sold like they were fifteen years ago.
And I think that is a mistake.
Second, and here I believe another reader said it best one year at a finals deliberation when someone kept reiterating that commerciality, the ability to sell the screenplay, to make money off of it, needs to be of prime consideration. This reader said, and I paraphrase, of course…
But what if the screenwriter is producing the movie themselves? A win here could not only give him the energy to get it done, but it could make it easier for him to raise money from various non-traditional sources. It could give the production a boost on indiegogo and kickstarter and help the producers get more money. It could help attract a director or producer or actor who may want to make the movie. It could help the screenwriter and director and producer get relatives and friends to open up their stingy pockets a bit more. It could help the production get various kinds of help from the state and businesses, etc., they are making the movie in. It could help the writer get an agent or manager which could then lead to another of his screenplays getting made.
In addition, most screenplay competitions accept entries from overseas, from countries that don’t always finance films as we do here. If we employ the sellability criteria on those movies when it doesn’t even apply to how they do things in the author’s home country, might we end up preventing a screenplay from getting made that could very well get made?
To summarize, since more and more movies are being made, not by screenplays being sold in the traditional sense, but by more and more people finding alternative ways to fund their movie, is it really fair to judge a screenplay with criteria that may not be as relevant as it once was when it comes to how movies get produced anymore?
And if we’re going to be totally honest and at the risk of being non-pc here, if sellability and marketability are major factors in deciding who should win and who shouldn’t, wouldn’t that automatically mean things like: only screenplays with white male leads can make the grade? That no screenplays about minorities should be considered? That only the types of genre scripts that are listed in publications as being bought should rise like cream to the top, even though the type and genre tends to change from year to year, if not month to month? That the niche marketplace has no place in screenplay competitions?
This is an argument ad absurdum to some degree, I grant you, but still, if we are going to be perfectly honest.
And have you noticed that when the idea of marketability and sellability enters the conversation it’s always about things like whether the author is breaking the rules, doing something different, being edgy, being challenging or structurally experimental, but never about these other less pc factors (like the ethnicity or gender of the lead) that, let’s face it, do affect the sellability of a screenplay whether we want to admit it publically or not?
I also think there is another important issue here. I have found in these final deliberations and various discussion with other readers, that if someone has a screenplay he or she believes is sellable and marketable in the traditional sense of those words, or is the sort of screenplay that appeals mainly to studios or major independents, then that screenplay tends to be a bit formulaic, or bland, run of the mill, middle brow. It’s usually very well written, the author often shows talent, it can be entertaining to read. But at the same time, it’s often a screenplay I feel I’ve read many, many times before.
And I’m not convinced that screenplay competitions should be in the business of encouraging such screenplays; screenplays that play by the rules; screenplays that do everything that the most popular book on screenwriting says they should do.
For me, judging screenplays on that criteria is in danger of making the world of film smaller and I think competitions should be focused on making the world of films as big as they can. I believe that competitions need to be the place where one can find the original, the writers with passion, the screenplays with edge, the WTF screenplays that no studio or major independent would touch with a dirty handkerchief.
I do realize that there is a problem with this and I mentioned it in my previous essay. Like everybody else, competitions have to survive and if they keep awarding screenplays and writers who can’t get their movies done because the screenplays are too original, passionate, edgy, WTFable, then the competition may stop getting as many entries as a competition that does.
And I don’t have a solution to that. I could suggest that maybe competitions may need to get more involved in helping to produce these films. How, I don’t know. Once it gets down to the nitty gritty of getting a movie made, I have a lot more to learn, I confess it. I know it’s difficult and that it may be something that competitions just may not be able to do, they just don’t have the capability, and it’s no one’s fault, it’s just the way it is.
At the same time, if competitions started refocusing their efforts away from the idea of scripts that are sellable, or from the idea that their purpose is to provide product to studios and major independents, and instead focus on screenplays that deserve to be made, that are crying out for production, screenplays that defy convention and are told with a unique voice and are passionate, then maybe ways will appear that will enable the competitions to help get these movies made.
I don’t know. I really, truly don’t, so the last thing I’m trying to do here is cast stones.
But I do know that if competitions start going down the path of only promoting screenplays that are sellable and marketable, then I think they will be missing out on such interesting and exciting films that have made their way to the theater recently, movies like Beasts of the Summer Wild, Seven Psychopaths, Coherence, It’s a Disaster, Lucky Bastard, The Signal, The Bling Ring, Upstream Color, Monsters, A Cold July, or films that still fit this definition though I may not have liked them as others did like Cheap Thrills, Blue Ruin, Blue Caprice, Short Term 12 (though in its favor, Short Term 12, I understand, did do well at Nicholls, though this might actually be the proverbial exception that proves the rule).
And worse still, we may never see the likes of such films that are being made overseas like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Mama’s Pose, Under the Skin, Holy Motors, Amour, The Attack, Borgman, Mother and many others.
I do believe that filmmaking in the U.S. is at a crossroads where people are trying to decide what is more important, art or commerce.
In the end, you can’t have one without the other, of course. Commerce keeps things going in the present. But it should also be remembered that art insures there’s a future. Without innovation, new styles, writers breaking the rules, edginess, stories that confront and offend, then any art form, no matter how commercial, tends to stagnate and become less and less significant.
So I believe it’s imperative to promote both.
But I’m afraid that screenplays as an art form may be getting lost and are in danger of being replaced by values that solely measure them on the basis of their monetary worth.
And I think that would be a shame.
I love your article. I agree that sellability should not be a prime consideration in screenplay contests. The overall quality of the script should be.
Thanks for the support. Spread the word. I’ve been having dialogs with some others about this and I will be writing yet another essay about this topic.
I think about this every damn day. I’ve been teaching and promoting the very concepts you are against, believing in them less and less. How do you teach screenwriting without adherence to the rules, accepted structure, and industry dogma? Not looking for an answer exactly, just ruminating. Of course, would like to hear your thoughts on this.
That’s a really good question. I wish I had an answer. I have some ideas, but I’m still thinking about it. There are things one can do: I wouldn’t have anybody read a book on how to write screenplays until they’ve written two or more (the exception being a book on formatting). I think they just need to write without any restrictions at first. I would show all kinds of movies and have them read screenplays that are not just the more traditional ones, but movies that break the rules or do their own thing. I would really be big on foreign films. I would emphasize that rules can be useful, they can help you when you can’t figure out why your screenplay isn’t working, but they shouldn’t dictate how you write a screenplay before you write it. I would certainly tell them that this might make it harder to get their screenplays made. And you might have to start talking about how movies are being made and distributed, etc., outside of the studio system. At the same time, there are writers who want to write the sorts of screenplays that will be bought by studios, etc., and they should not be shushed. It’s their decision and they need to learn how to do that and how to sell screenplays under those circumstances. But it’s a subject I keep thinking about and I will continue to write about it.