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Be Smart About When You Write What |

Be Smart About When You Write What

This is intended as a follow up post to Write What You Love.

I went to AFI for film school where, I imagine distinct from USC and UCLA, we didn’t really learn much, if anything, about the entertainment business. I learned a ton about writing and the writing process – but as far as the business of entertainment, not so much.

My professional background is in corporate entertainment, so I have a good grasp on the understanding that even though we’re in a creative business, we all need to be making money at the end of the day in order to pay for what we’re doing.

There was a sort of odd culture at AFI of what I call “The Squirrel and the Nut,” wherein aspiring auteur filmmakers would write scripts that had no story whatsoever and then make silly little films about a squirrel eating a nut and then cut to something melodramatic, then cut to something like an airplane and then back to more precious emotional hysteria. Unplotted melodrama was king. I found it all rather asinine. Especially when I tried writing gross-out female comedy and got more or less ostracized for it because it wasn’t in keeping with “The Squirrel and the Nut” theory of filmmaking. God forbid – I was trying to actually craft story.

What I am learning is that you can write your small, obscure drama, but it’s not likely to get you work. Sure, anyone can fancy himself an auteur filmmaker, but, really, unless you write something that could really make someone else money, it’s unlikely they will do anything to help you launch your career. I’m a believer that in Hollywood, people do things because they themselves get helped in the process. If someone thinks they can sell your script and it’ll make them money or help forward their agenda, then they’ll pick up the phone. I don’t think this is cynical. I just think it’s good business. At the end of the day, everyone is trying to make rent. The Studios just need to earn more in order to do it.

It actually matters which projects we choose to write to break in. Writing stories as a new writer with a very broad universal appeal that could actually get made and make money at the box office, while a near pipe dream, is still a good thing to aspire to.

Horror, edgy thrillers and broad comedy are more frequently optioned and made, so these genres are a good place to start. There is more rewrite work on these types of projects, because more of them get made. Oftentimes, they can be made for less money, so if they do well at the box office, there’s the potential for them to make more.

A lot of horrors are made for the DVD market, so horror really is a good bet. However, lower budget horror (i.e., not with millions of dollars for special effects). I met up with an actress friend recently who’s looking for a very low budget (under $500K) horror script that she can fund herself and then take to the festival circuit. I pitched her the horror I’m working on now, which has a much higher production value, so it wasn’t a fit. But, it got me thinking about ideas for her – and about the many opportunities to make low budget movies and get them distributed.

Despite the fact that I am advocating basic business savvy, I personally am a big believer in the learning curve. In the beginning, write what you feel like writing in order to learn. The best way to learn how to write a horror, comedy, romantic comedy, thriller, mystery, character drama, etc., is to write one. Figure out which genres most appeal to you and then write a project in that genre in order to learn exactly how it’s done. The next time it will be a lot easier. Then, once you’ve mastered the basics of how to write that type of project, think about a new concept within that genre that might have a more broad commercial potential.

When I was in film school, my second script was a political thriller. It was an awesome learning curve because thrillers are hard to plot and write well. However, political thrillers just aren’t that commercial. They make awesome films, but not everyone is going to hear “political thriller” and get excited. Writing a political thriller – despite the fact that this is one of my absolute favorite genres and it gave me a window to write a thriller set in Russia, where I lived for years – was probably not the most business-savvy investment of my time at a younger age. But it was good for learning. I am glad I took the time to write that project because it’s intelligent, showcases me as a writer with an interesting background and is a great writing sample. But, I’m pretty confident this project alone isn’t going to get me paid work in the beginning. Although maybe down the road, once I have a name for myself, it might help me get a rewrite on something set in Russia or Eastern Europe.

So, where does that leave us? For a younger (newer) writer, broad comedies and horrors or darker thrillers are probably a safer and better investment of our time, because it’s easier to get noticed within these genres.

I am a firm believer there’s a way to take what you love and find a way to make it fundamentally commercial. Just keep thinking about the material until you find that way in, but it can be done.

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2 Responses to Be Smart About When You Write What

  1. Matt Martin August 28, 2009 at 12:00 am #

    I worked on an AFI film recently (script notes/editing notes) which was written and directed by a female filmmaker with a penchant for comedy and AFI hated it, threatened to kill it, and may ultimately not even let her show it anywhere precisely because it wasn’t unmotivated melodramatic “art”(lol). Good thing I didn’t pull up stakes and go to film school there… But this isn’t a post about bashing AFI…

    What gets made, really? A producer friend of mine once said: every good property gets made. And then to prove him wrong, I recently covered a script that was the internet’s version of “Crash”. I thought it was amazing, and when I shared the log line with another friend who was in international sales they said they passed on it! (International pre-sales are a standard source of financing). I was shocked. SHOCKED. It had Oscar contender written all over it. And yet, he said that thing that makes me want to jump out of window: it’s just not commercial. I can’t sell that. Nobody in Romania is going to get it.


    But, I keep slogging away… oh, why? I write comedies. The Blogger is right.

  2. Monica August 28, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    Thanks, Matt! I just think it’s like any other creative art – some people will get it, some won’t. But we have to keep writing. I disagree with the notion that “every good property gets made” because everyone has a different notion of what makes a “good property.” Does that mean good story or commercial or will make money in distribution? To my mind, it’s more about someone who’s able to get something made loving it enough to get it made and hanging in there over the years that will take. And all the people who push it to that point. But, I am a firm believer that good writing speaks for itself.