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I really didn’t envision writing a fourth part to this series. I really thought I was done with it after my last entry. But my essay provoked a very intelligent and lengthy discussion on social media and I decided that perhaps there was indeed more to say.
FIRST, SOME HISTORY (OR AS WE SAY IN THE STATE OF THE ART: THE BACK STORY)
My original thesis is that the idea of saleability, commerciality and marketability (heretofore s/c/m) of a screenplay was creeping more and more into determining who would win or at least make their way to the forefront of screenplay competitions.
But since I wasn’t sure anymore that screenplays are always bought and sold and made into movies the way they once were, and that, in fact, new ways of financing and making films are appearing every day, it was my contention that screenplay competitions should reflect that change and not necessarily get caught up in choosing winners based on whether someone or some company or some something will buy them or not.
A discussion then came about because some people who read my blog entries (and I am so glad that there are people out there actually reading my blog entries, believe you me) felt that the s/c/m of a screenplay was, for them (as far as I could tell), just about the most important aspect of a screenplay. If it’s not sellable, if it’s not commercial, if it’s not marketable, then it shouldn’t win the competition, no matter how well written it was, how innovative, how original, how unique, how vibrant (and I ultimately got the idea that they thought such a screenplay probably shouldn’t even come in the top ten or twenty).
(If someone wants to real the complete exchange, you can find it at http://ow.ly/zuMGD; this way you can decide the issues for yourself).
ALL SYSTEMS GO?
They certainly have every right to believe this. But it did make me think further and ask questions. The first one was how would one do this on a practical basis? How would one set up a system for contests where the s/c/m factor is the ultimate arbiter of what should win?
The response I got was that for the first few rounds, the s/c/m factor should play no part whatsoever. But once the contest got to the final round, only industry pros should read and determine the winner based upon the s/c/m aspects of the screenplays.
This actually seemed like a logical way to approach setting up such a system; that is, if a contest’s goal is indeed only to award screenplays with an s/c/m factor (and if one could actually get industry pros to read ten to twenty screenplays—I had one head of a contest say that it was often like pulling teeth to get them to read the top five, though this might depend on one’s definition of pro—i.e., how high up the totem pole one has to be for my respondents to consider a person a pro).
But I still had some issues.
I then asked whether the entrants should be informed whether the s/c/m factor would ultimately determine the winner. They agreed that they should (and I also think it would be a requirement, you can’t lead people to believe you’ll be judging on one basis, and then switch horses at the end without informing the entrant), but they also claimed that most screenplay competitions already tell entrants that.
Now this I heartily disagree with—I’ve entered several contests over the years and when I do enter one, I first check to make sure whether they use the s/c/m factor as an element in rating a screenplay, because if they do, I often don’t enter because I don’t write those sorts of screenplays.
And I have to say, I’ve rarely seen a contest state that they use the s/c/m factor, or if they did, they were sort of vague about it, considering a screenplay that is marketable to a niche audience or indie film crowd to fall under those categories (i.e., they defined it as the ability to make a profit of any kind under any circumstance). And also if a contest did, it was downplayed or they were clear to point out that it was only one small part of judging.
But to get back to the subject, I did have some worries with this idea of making the s/c/m factor central to judging. First, if a contest needs more and more entrants to stay solvent, then making such a restriction on who can win might start cutting into how many people choose to enter (as I said, I generally don’t enter contests like that).
But as they responded, almost every author thinks their screenplay is commercial (which might very well be true; I don’t think so about mine, but still), so the writers would probably enter anyway (at the same time, I’m a little queasy in setting up a guideline that depends on the gullibility of the people entering; but, still, I truly can’t say that such a restriction would cut into the number of entries).
WHAT THE F…, UH, H…, UH HECK IS COMMERCIAL ANYWAY
I then asked them to define commercial, what they would tell an entrant who asked for clarification on exactly what this meant.
And with that things got a little stickier, because a definition of commerciality isn’t that easy to come up with. And in fact, one agreed that it changes over time (and remember, it can take six months or longer for a screenplay contest to determine a winner so what might be commercial in January might no longer be commercial come August, say). And another definition used was that it is like art or porn: you know it when you see it (which wouldn’t be particularly comforting to me as an entrant).
But I also received a definition like this: Commercial: “Popular genre (something similar to recent box office hit), hits all of the genre beats, unique idea, has a role that a movie star would want to play, great pacing, lots of trailer moments and spectacle.”
Now, I can’t argue with the definition. That actually seems like a first rate description.
But what does that actually mean when it comes to what screenplays should be chosen for a top spot (or even finalists) in contests? Well, based on the commercial movies I’ve been seeing in the theater lately, it means:
- Only screenplays with white, male leads.
- All rom coms need to be driven by the male lead(s) or be bromances.
- R-rated comedies.
- Low budget horror films.
- Teenagers in a great deal of angst, especially if they are vampires and werewolves and wizards (oh, my).
- Movies based on comic books (but since those don’t originate with spec scripts, these really can’t win, because they wouldn’t be selleable).
- Movies based on popular multi-part novels (but since those don’t originate with spec scripts, those really can’t win since they wouldn’t be selleable)
- Only screenplays that could be cast with actors like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Zac Efron, Robert Pattison, Kristen Stewart, Denzel Washington and Jennifer Lawrence (maybe Angelina Jolie?).
And this isn’t even a complete list.
But the point is, is this really what we want when it comes to competitions? Is this what we want our contests to become, providing only these sorts of screenplays?
NICHE, NICHE, WHO GETS THE NICHE
And notice what this leaves out: screenplays for niche audiences (gays, blacks, Latinos, Asians, women, any minority or marginalized area of society); small to medium budgeted indies; movies that take chances and are trying to do something different; screenplays with unique visions that will only appeal to a smaller audiences; often screenplays from other countries who may not make movies that use s/c/m as an aspect of what films get made; and, more and more, writers who are in some way producing their screenplay themselves without ever trying to sell them.
And the basic consensus was that, yes, these people shouldn’t bother entering because screenplays that fall into these categories simply don’t have that s/c/m factor.
Now, I have to be honest. This really bothers me on several levels. But mainly I was disturbed at the idea that people who write screenplays that appeal to niche audiences shouldn’t bother entering competitions.
My respondents’ justification for this was several: they are not s/c/m worthy; they never win; they actually don’t enter; and besides, they have their own contests.
I wasn’t really sure how to react to this. First, I’m not sure they never win; that feels like a broad statement that I’m not convinced could be backed up with documentation. But I also had to assure them that in reading for several contests over ten years, that indeed, competitions do get a rather nice number of niche and indie type scripts.
And when it comes to the idea that they have their own contests…
I’m sorry, I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. But what came to my mind is the idea of, say, Harvard University telling minorities and women that they shouldn’t even apply; that they don’t do that well after graduating as it is, even if they do manage to graduate, which they don’t that often; that they never really apply as it is; and besides all that, they have their own colleges to go to.
Now I know they didn’t mean this. And maybe this may be an unfair comparison, that I am straining things. Perhaps that’s true, that my argument is an absurdum one. But I’m sorry, at the same time, it does seem a somewhat accurate metaphor for their argument and this really bothered me.
BUT WILL IT PLAY IN POUGHKEEPSIE
But what I also think is significant here is their idea that screenplays for niche audiences aren’t commercial.
Well, yes, all right, point given, I will concede that. They do not fit that definition.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t make money, that they don’t make a profit. These sorts of films don’t automatically lose money and I listed such films as Beasts of the Southern Wild, Upstream Color, Obvious Child, Bernie, Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, The Bling Ring, all of which did make a profit.
The response is that these are done by director/writer/producers; that they don’t enter their screenplays into contests; that, in fact, only writers who want to sell their screenplay enter competitions.
As for the first statement, I don’t think one can say this is always true. Yes, some niche and independent films like this are both written and directed by the same person, but not all are. And I’m not convinced that in all cases, they were directed, written AND produced by the same person.
As for the last two statements, I have to be honest and say I simply find this mindboggling. I just don’t think either of those are accurate statements. I think that, especially as more and more it becomes easier and easier for someone to make movies cheaply and without the support of the studios or a major independent, that more and more people, in fact, are entering contests with the intention of making the film themselves, or at least they are entering without being that concerned whether their screenplay gets sold or not.
When it comes to one competition I read for, screenplays for Maria, Full of Grace; The Woodsman; Drool; 100 Bloody Acres, and Jugface alone entered without the main, if any, intent of trying to sell their screenplays, but with the idea that they were quite possibly going to make the movie themselves. I also believe that Short Term 12, a low budget hit in the indie theater world, and that did well at Nicholls, was also more or less self-produced.
WHAT ARE THEY, CHOPPED LIVER? or LET THEM EAT CAKE
I think what I find hard to understand here is the idea that if you are in some way planning to make the film yourself (whether by directing, or by someone else directing); that if your screenplay is meant for a niche audience; that if you are not as interested in the amount of money you can make off the screenplay, but are more interested in trying to realize your vision, then you just don’t count.
But these writers are out there. Their movies make it into the theaters. And the movies make a profit.
But for some reason they don’t count and these sorts of screenwriters shouldn’t enter their screenplays into competitions because competitions shouldn’t be recognizing these screenplays as worthy of winning an award or even making the finalists.
But I think this is a mistake. I do believe that the way movies are being made is changing. More and more people are finding alternative ways to finance and make movies and will continue to do so, especially the easier and cheaper it is to make movies. And there are people who are just as interested in trying to create a film they are proud of and fulfills their vision, as they are in making money, and are even willing to sacrifice personal gain in order to get their film made the way they want.
And I don’t think these screenwriters should be ignored.
In fact, I think they should be encouraged.
And I think that screenplay competitions need to get on board with that and help promote the future and not be so worried about the status quo.
I mean, as screenwriters, do we really want screenplay contests to basically be suppliers for the 1% while telling the 99% to do what Marie Antoinette legendarily told the rabble to do?
I’ll close with something I said in my last essay. I think that right now there is a battle between commerce and art when it comes to movies. But I believe they are both important. Commerce protects the now. But art protects the future. You can’t make movies without money, so you need the commerce. At the same time, without innovation, without new ways of doing things, without screenplays written with passion and unique visions, then the movies will stagnate.
And I think that would be a shame.