Alt Script: Why Alt Screenwriting?

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Love, Pray,” gave a fascinating TED conference speech in 2009, about the origins of the “creative genius,” in which she talks about the creative act as, turning up at the typewriter to serve whatever ideas want to flow through her onto the page. I’m paraphrasing here, but that is the jist of it. I’d strongly recommend any writer to watch the video, because I think it goes to the heart of what it means to be a writer.

I love her description of the writing process. The idea of the story flowing through the writer onto the page. The idea of the writer serving the story. I love it because in many respects it is this experience that has kept me writing, when anyone sensible would have quit. I’ve written all my life, often badly, often without any kind of recognition, simply because I enjoy the physical experience of writing.

In many forms of writing there is an explicit understanding that this is what the writer’s job is, that there are stories the writer wants or needs to tell, ideas that fascinate them, stories they feel inspired to write, and that their job is to serve those stories.

For instance, a novelist may have an idea they feel inspired to explore, so they sit in front of their keyboard and write. Even if that novel has little or no commercial value, there have always been ways to publish and get those ideas to the public, simply because the end product is the writing itself. In the 1980’s, when a friend and I had some ideas we wanted to play with, we became pamphleteers. We wrote exactly what we wanted to, we published cheaply, and then we gave the end results away. Even before the modern incarnation of Internet and e-publishing, there have always been ways to do this. Writing is a great art-form, simply because in its purest form, it is a “direct to the audience” art form. It is possible to easily side-step commercial pressures and just get stuff out there. There have always been ways to serve the story, if that’s what motivates you.

And then there is screenwriting.

Screenwriting, whilst still a form of writing, is radically different from ‘direct to the audience’ art forms, because the screenwriter’s work has to be transformed into the end product before it can be distributed. The words get written, but the actual product is the film or the TV series. The writing isn’t the product itself, it is merely the template for the product. This means there are a huge number of barriers (people) between the screenwriter and the audience. Not only that, because of the way the industry is set up, and the cost involved in production, there are also a lot of very powerful modifying opinions between what the writer writes and what the audience sees.

At the far end of this process, the part closest to the audience and furthest away from the writer, there are the broadcast and cinema buyers, whose job it is to put shows and films into the distribution slots they have available. Their job is to look at the produced shows and movies, to guess whether their audiences will want to see those products and buy accordingly. These are the people that industry events like the Cannes film festival are really for. Cannes exists mainly for distributors to sell to international broadcasters and theatres.

Next closest to the audience are the distribution companies, who buy films from producers to sell into the theatres, to broadcast in TV slots all over the world, to show in cinemas and to print to DVD or download. So, already, you have the broadcasters who are guessing what their audiences want, and distributors who are guessing what the broadcasters/cinema chains want.

If this was the extent of it, it wouldn’t be so bad, but we are nowhere near done with this, because below these guys are the investors. The investors are the guys who pay for production and who gamble on a producer’s abilities to guess what the distributors will buy. You have to see them as a separate level of guess work, because investors don’t always back projects which producers think will be good. It’s possible to have a movie in production that the producer doesn’t totally believe is the best project in his slate, simply because he knows his investors have their own reasons for investing. It’s possible the investment motivation will be tied more to tax incentives than to the actual content of the production. For instance, a European producer may need to do an English language project, but shot in Luxembourg, for tax/funding reasons. Those funding/tax options may have project-related conditions.

This is an important step to understand, because a lot of writers believe the only thing their project is being judged by is its appeal to audiences, when in fact, production investment issues may have a larger impact on its route between page and screen.

Which brings us very neatly to the producers. Producers have to make their judgements based not only on what they believe distributors will buy, but also what their investors will put money in to. Actually, it’s more complicated than that, because the producer may also be making their decisions based on what they believe a particular director or actor may like to do, which in turn relates to the producer’s belief that the attachment of that actor or director will bring both production investment and distribution to the project. This is what term “bankable” means. A producer who can attach a “bankable” actor or director is likely to be driven by the capricious interests of that director or that actor. Not only that, but “bankable” producers (producers whose films make money or reputations) tend to get swamped by screenwriters looking to get their projects forwards. What this means, is there are still two more levels to go before we get to the screenwriter.

The level closest to the producer is the producer’s assistant, whose job it is to filter all of the stuff that lands on the producer’s desk. The assistant’s job is to guess what the producer will find interesting and to trash anything that looks like it’s going to be a time waster. It’s easy to overlook this link, but actually I think it’s an interesting one, because you’d think that all the links in the chain between a writer and the audience are going to be high-powered decision makers when, in fact, a lot of the hardcore filtering out is delegated to people barely out of college; basically, producer and agent’s assistants. (This is also why you should never be rude to interns at industry events).

Which brings us to the final level between the writer and the audience, which is the agent. The agent’s job is to second guess what the producer is looking for, to bypass the producer’s assistant and then to pimp his writers to that producer. Agents get so much power in this system simply because producers use them to weed out the time-wasters, so they only have to see writers who have been endorsed by the agent.

Let’s recap:

The writer writes, the agent guesses whether this writer or their project is pimpable to the producers they know. The agents then have to get past the producer’s assistant, whose job is to guess whether this agent is worth letting though the door, to get to the producer. The producer is trying to guess what combination of bankable story/actors/director, will be pleasing to the distributors and investors they have access to, who in turn are trying to guess what the buyers will want, who ultimately test out all of this guess work, by guessing what their audiences will want to watch.

That’s an awful lot of people’s guess work about what audiences will want, between the audience and the written word. A process that is further hampered by the sheer lack of consistency about what people see as bankable. So what a producer believes is hot on Monday morning, may be history by Tuesday lunchtime. The same thing being true right the way up and down the chain.

This huge buffer of people between the audience and the written word of the writer doesn’t serve the “sitting at the typewriter waiting to channel the story” approach to writing. There is another problem, because the vast majority of screenwriters tend to judge their personal success or failure by their ability to get into production. Therefore, instead of sitting and telling the stories they are most interested in, they join the queue of people trying to guess what will sell. So now, on top of all of the agents guessing what a particular producer will buy, based on what they can get into production and sold, you also have writers who are constantly trying to guess what that particular agent or producer will want.

When you have that number of people guessing about what will work commercially, a couple of things happen: first, the creative process tends to get hammered down into a thin approximation of what has worked in the past; second, any element perceived as risky (i.e. anything new) is taken out of the equation.

When you run an industry that way, working with those kinds of forces, this kind of conversation becomes possible/plausible:

“Hey, that sci-fi picture, Prometheus, that just did good numbers. Let’s do some sci-fi. Who’s hot at the moment? Justin Bieber, he’s hot. Let’s do a sci-fi movie with Justin Bieber. Who’d be good to direct? Well, Kevin Smith likes comic books, that’s like the same as sci-fi, isn’t it? Yeah, Kevin Smith would be awesome for this… but, doesn’t he use a lot of curse words in his movies, we’ll never get a PG-13 release. If we do Bieber and Smith, we’ll lose Bieber’s demographics. Well, what about Ron Howard? He’s pretty clean cut, he was in Happy Days, and he did that space movie, didn’t he? Yeah, he’d be good. Who should write it? Let’s put a call into John August’s agent, see if he’d like to come in. Yeah, but what about the story? Look, get your assistant and have her watch all the big sci-fi shows and any big cartoon series, tell her to draw up a list of three worth looking at. We’ll reboot one of those.”

Which is why it is entirely plausible that Justin Bieber’s agent will, at some point, get a call asking whether he wants to star as Red, in the live action Pokemon movie, penned by John August, directed by Ron Howard.

(All of this is made up by the way. All out of my imagination. There is no Bieber/Howard/August Pokemon movie, as far as I know).

As you can see, this packaging of the salable is very different from the writer’s process of sitting at the keyboard waiting to serve the story they want to tell. I want to be clear: this really isn’t me knocking anyone involved in that process. Hollywood has made a lot of money and employed a lot of otherwise nice people, doing exactly that. All I want to do is to draw people’s attention to the difference between being a writer in the traditional sense and the way the industry functions.

Because of the way the industry works, lots of writers devote a massive amount of time either second guessing their own work or paying their dues to the industry, in order to get to the point where they are bankable enough to make a personal project. This is true at every level of the industry. In the UK, where I currently live, the normal arc for a professional writer is to “pay their dues” by writing for TV soap operas, before they are allowed to progress to projects that may be of more personal interest to them. A process I’ve always been dubious about.

At the same time, a great many more writers start to lose connection with their passion to write. They lose touch with that very simple need to sit at a typewriter and tell a story that fascinates them, simply because that part of them gets lost in all the guess work and advice about what you need to do to become a success.

These are the questions I like to ask myself when that disconnection happens:

  • Is it wise to lose your personal connection to the writing, merely to chase the specter of success?
  • Are there other things you can do, as a writer, without losing yourself in second guessing the industry?
  • What were the reasons you started writing in the first place? Was it solely about making money and getting recognition?
  • Are there things you can do, that feed you as an writer/artist, that allow you to short-out the distance between you as a creative and the eventual audience?

I happen to believe there are alternative choices a writer can make to cut down the number of people between the writer and the audience. Some people call this independent or indie production. Personally, I call it alt-cinema. (Actually this covers more than just film, it also covers alt-TV).

These alternative choices to writing and pitching to the mainstream industry are what the ALT SCRIPT articles are about. They are going to be about feeding the artist you want to be by looking at alternative approaches to writing and production.

This is not about turning your back on the industry, unless that’s a choice you want to make. It’s merely about putting the industry into its proper context of being just one of many ways to go. These days I think some of the alternatives are way more interesting than trying to second guess a lot of people who you don’t have access to and whose idea about what works changes every time the wind blows.

On top of discussing the practical options presented by alt-cinema, I’ll also look at the ways alt-cinema/alt-TV change the demands on screenwriting. The ways in which alt-cinema can bring you back to the simple concept of serving the story.

Personally, I also happen to believe the writing of requirements of alt-cinema, if done properly, can make writers stronger in ways the mainstream industry can appreciate, but which aren’t encouraged in the industry. But, that’s a discussion for next time.

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