WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Remake Rehash

Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 6,500 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.

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For a variety of reasons this month I feel the need to share some of the challenges that scream across my eyeballs. I am, at present, knee deep (electronically speaking) in final and semifinal works for three of the top ten more respected screenwriting and novel writing English language competitions worldwide. This by and large is a pleasant experience. However, this time around it is a “slugfest.”

Usually when a script or manuscript reaches my screen it has been vetted, scrutinized and adjudicated by several others. Usually what I see reflects the best of what has been presented. Don’t get me wrong, they are all excellent examples of the writer’s craft. Where they fail is in the marketability of the work. With today’s short attention span it doesn’t take long for the reading / viewing public to go in search of fresher fare.

Script EXTRA: Tips for Screenwriting Contest & Fellowship Season

Writing from passion is essential. However, the reason a scribe enters a contest is to both gain recognition and a subsequent sale. That becomes harder to do when a large majority of this year’s submissions is a tangential copy, close cousin or a downright knockoff of what has recently been successful.

What today’s 18 to 36-year-old demographers are ignoring are the empty nesters with $$$ who appreciate films and stories in the vein of His Girl Friday (1940) Charles Lederer, et al), 39 Steps (original 1935) (John Buchan et al), Shall We Dance (original uncut Japanese (1996), NOT the 2004 abomination), The Lady Vanishes (Original 1938) (Ethel Lina White, et al), Charade (1963) (Peter Stone), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) etc. All stories with less “whiz bang thank you ma’am” and more in-depth character relationships / struggles even if in a light-hearted vein. Granted, there are always exciting exceptions along the lines of The Handmaidens Tale (Margaret Atwood). Even that story could by some be considered a rehash of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) (George Orwell) or any other subjugating dystopian story. Hidden Figures (2016) (Margot Lee Shetterly) is a true original.

Captain America, Transformers, Fast and Furious X, their income notwithstanding are mental cotton candy. Their popularity only goes to underscore the temporary, nay flash in the pan short attention span triviality, that the entertainment pendulum has gradually swung over to. Thus the ‘Business’ in show business dutifully and understandably trundles after short-term gratification ($$$). It is a never-ending downward spiral to the least common denominator.

Script EXTRA: Mind Map New Ideas for Higher Concept Scripts

In the end, visual and aural diversions across the years are all vicarious escapism on vastly different levels. It is just regrettable that today’s escapism is more a sugar high (read 22 sugar packs per 16oz soda) than a meaningful balanced entertainment experience. As in all cases there are the valued exceptions. Unfortunately, today they are few and far between.

True, we no longer pack the vaudeville halls or gather around the radio or early television for an ‘evening with the family.’ And yes, both of these replaced the sing along with the family musician and instrument in the living room or around the campfire. Now our shared experience is more likely around the water cooler than the meal table. This gives rise to our collective urge to get away and return to basics, however they are individually perceived. Or sometimes it is stuffing the Take Away food while listening to our addictive “smartphone.”

Values, morals and time commitments evolve so it‘s understandable that societal focus evolves as well. Burns and Allen, The Dean Martin Show and The Ted Mack Amateur Hour have morphed into the plethora of late night talk shows, dance competitions and the somewhere / someone has talent offerings. Is this a good thing? Is destroying the rainforest in favor of raising cattle to fuel the fast food industry good? Both represent a shift in societal values. Time will be the judge.

Modern emerging screenwriters and filmmakers and novelists would do well to study in depth the values of earlier denizens of their art. Not to copy but to gather and infuse themselves with value and depth of a dwindling “story telling” skill and art.

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