Rudy wrote in a while ago with an interesting question:
i came across your blog and found it interesting. i was wondering if you could help answer a question i've had for awhile.
every piece of advice i've seen directed towards aspiring hollywood screenwriters is to focus on writing quality; create compelling characters, weave solid storylines, write great dialogue. the quality of the script is paramount. writers should toil to create nothing less than amazing stories.
yet i go to the movies and i see avatar has made a trillion dollars and most of the highest grossing films of 2009 had pretty bad writing. joe eszterhas never seemed to let good writing stand in his way. he's written more flops than i've had hot dinners and even after writing "the worst movie of all time", still managed to get millions thrown at him. most of the nicholl fellows could write circles around eszterhas yet most will likely never sell a script to a major studio.
so if the goal is to sell scripts in hollywood, does writing quality really matter? current theater fare suggests that bad writing seems to sell pretty well.
First, as backwards as it seems, it's not always fair to judge the quality of a script by the quality of the film that resulted. I've seen this first-hand with many scripts over the years, though I'm pretty sure the only one I've blogged about was Domino. For one reason or another, such as miscasting, bad directing, too much studio tinkering in post-production, good writing can be rendered less than stellar.
Also, if you're a nobody, you absolutely need to be able to prove you can write. Writing takes discipline and dedication. Studios aren't going to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a writer who takes six months to write a first draft. They spend that money on writers who can turn out efficient, shootable pages on their timetable. Often, even on a studio script that has wretched plotting and horrible characters, it's still possible for a reader to feel the professionalism in the writing style, the description and the structure.
I really dislike the attitude of, "I don't need to write well because look at all the shit that's getting made." Any writer who starts a script with that attitude, or argues against working hard on writes because of that attitude, sucks. There is no excuse for not working hard to make your script the best it can possibly be. If you, the writer, don't care about the quality of your product, then why should I waste my time giving you notes designed to make it better? If you want a pat on the head and empty encouragement, call your mother.
Even when I was working out a schlocky horror film, I took great care to make sure that it held together and that the motivations were consistent. Part of the selling point was going to be the cheesiness of the concept, but I never went in with the attitude of "I can just write any crap here because schlocky horror movies are always dreadful.
If that doesn't convince you, let me put it this way. There are hundreds of wannabe screenwriters who don't give a shit about the quality of their writing. If you want to be plucked from that mass and elevated to the status of working writer, how the hell do you plan on standing out?
You mention that some of the highest grossing films of the year had terrible writing. Fair point, but let's take a look at some of those. You were too polite to name names, but I'm not.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - 2nd highest grossing film of the year at $402 million domestic/$835 million worldwide. Budget: $200 million. Utterly terrible script.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon - 4th highest grossing. Nearly $300 million domestic/over $700 million worldwide. Budget: $50 million.
Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel - 9th highest gross. $212 million domestic/$428 million worldwide. Budget: $75 million.
Wolverine - 13th highest gross. $180 million domestic/$373 million worldwide. Budget: $150 million.
2012 - 15th highest gross. $166 million domestic/$769 million worldwide. Budget: $200 million.
Fast & Furious - 17th highest gross. $155 million domestic/$343 million worldwide. Budget: $85 million.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra - 18th highest gross. $150 million domestic/$302 million worldwide. Budget: $175 million.
I've seen about half of those films, and none of them were very good at all. Three of them (TF, G.I. Joe and Wolverine) were in a three-way tie for Worst Film of the Year as far as I was concerned. The others in there are also ones that are pretty universally considered to be terrible scripts. So yeah, with so many films that seem to be utterly irredeemable in quality racking up the box office, I can understand how it might appear that a writer doesn't need to worry about good writing.
Except for the fact that it wasn't the writing that got those movies made. Of those that I picked, only two aren't sequels, and one of those two is an adaptation of a pre-existing property. Ten of last years top 20 grossing films were sequels. Of the remaining ten, there are really only five movies that could be considered "surprise" hits: The Hangover, The Blind Side, The Proposal, Taken, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Everything else was either an adaptation of a major property - like Sherlock Holmes - or came from a major talent - like Avatar and Up.
In other words, only five out of twenty - one-fourth of the top grossing films - are the kinds of films that could have been plucked out of the spec pile, and even that's fuzzy math on my part considering that The Blind Side is an adaptation of a book based on a real life story. Out of those five, the only script that has been slammed with any regularity as far as I know, is Paul Blart. (It also happens to be the only one of the five I haven't seen.)
Your competition isn't the franchise films I cited above, and they are irrelevant to a debate about if good writing sells. Those movies were going to get made even if the scripts had been even worse. Their predecessors had made enough money to justify a sequel, a lot of those films were made under extraordinary pressures to meet a release date, and in the case of my Unholy Three, the Writers' Strike played all kinds of hell with getting scripts done in time for the film to go before the cameras. Rushed films rarely turn out well.
Let's not forget that even if your writing is good, there still has to be an audience for it. It has to be marketable to the people putting up money for the production. You can look at The Proposal, The Blind Side, Paul Blart, Taken and The Hangover and understand exactly why those scripts got greenlit. Most of them were low-budget, most of them appeal to a specific target audience, and most of them have lead roles that fit a bankable star. (Or absent that, a star recognizable enough to carry the film, but cheap enough that their salary won't send the budget into the stratosphere. And yes, I am talking about Kevin James.)
So until you can write...
a romantic comedy as fun as The Proposal...
an action-thriller as tense as Taken...
an R-rated comedy that's as clever as The Hangover...
a high-concept comedy that's just dumb enough to work like Paul Blart...
or come up with an Oscar role for an A-list actress that also happens to be a movie you can take the kids to without boring them....
you've probably still got a long way to go.