Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Around the blogosphere & Nichols musings

I'll be honest, folks, I got a surge of work this week and at the moment, I'm lacking in the free time necessary to compose an interesting and insightful post. But, I've seen a lot of really great posts this week, so why not put in a few plugs?

First, Scott over at Go Into The Story is running an interesting series, posting excepts from a Wrap article on Up director Pete Doctor, entitled "Pixar Movies Are Lousy... A First." Check it out if you haven't already. It's a fascinating look inside the Pixar creative process.

Nichols fans should check out Scriptshadow this week, as he appears to be reviewing a few of this year's finalists. I confess, I spent the time I usually spend writing my blog on composing a post for Carson's review of Victoria Falls, which he calls "a competition script. Plain and simple. You could send this logline to a thousand agencies and you'd probably get 999 rejections."

This provoked me to write the following comment:

Carson, you hit the nail on the head when you called this sort of script a "competition script." I haven't read this one, or any of the other Nichols Finalists this year, but I have read Finalists and Semi-Finalists from previous years and - as is pointed out in other comments - they tend to be dramas. HEAVY dramas. Yet the amazing thing is that within the industry, the perception is "drama is dead."

It seems like there's a serious disconnect between the scripts that get purchased and the scripts that win contests. Any theories on why that is, especially since so many contests boast judges that work within the industry? Do you think these contests feel obligated to reward scripts that might otherwise be tossed into the PASS pile practically on principle? Are they out to give an edge to overlooked scripts rather than single out one that is likely to be "discovered" anyway?

I just find it interesting that the conventional wisdom is that the Nichols is one of the ONLY competitions that anyone in the biz takes seriously... and yet it's winners are consistently of the unmarketable "competition script" variety. Makes one wonder if winning these is little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

Anyone here have any thoughts on this?


  1. I spent about two years attempting to win competitions with several pieces that I knew from numerous industry sources were very strong. I found that while they almost always reached the highest levels, they were eliminated in the final judging. The scripts that won were nearly always "serious" issue pieces, politically-correct message stories, the occasional light comedy with the best joke in the script for the logline's hook, or, in the case of horror, ultra-outrageous schlock fests with at least two chain saws. There was just no room for quality genre work with commercial potential. The contests are nearly all about "what WE want movies to be," rather than what movies are or even what is known to work: exciting or thought-provoking ENTERTAINMENT (the kinds of things to which audiences are known to flock).

    I learned my lesson, and it only cost me upwards of $1k, a bargain, in my estimation; tuition in the school of hard knocks.

    So... those of you out there whose scripts don't fit the contest template, those scripts that are actually trying to entertain with non-derivative, fresh takes on selling genres, or that successfully stand out from genres, ala Charlie Kaufman, take my experience to heart. Don't waste your money. The odds are that your script can do well, but it always comes down to the idiosyncratic preferences of one judge who more often than not has a subjective agenda - to promote movies the way that person wants them to be. If yours doesn't match HIS/HER idea about what should win, no amount of consensus matters. And this is borne out by the fact that so few, if any, of these scripts or writers ever emerge as successes.

  2. On the one hand I hear what you're saying. On the other hand I think you're exaggerating a bit.

    ARMORED was a Nicholl finalist. Top 10 out of like 5000. Based on the trailers, I don't think that's a serious film. People who read it said it was just damn fine writing.

    The big one last year was BUTTER. And sure it's not going to make 100 million dollars, but it wasn't particularly shocking or controversial when Jennifer Garner got attached to it.

    If you look at the breakdown on the Nicholl FAQ, maybe one-third are dramas. And I don't know how many of those are TRAINING DAY dramas rather than STRUGGLING SINGLE MOTHER LEARNS HER FATHER HAS ALZHEIMERS dramas.

    But I think you do have the same bias as any awards. Start digging through the Oscar nominations. Big, serious, and important somehow seems more award-worthy. Carries over into the screenwriting comps as well.

    Similar arguments always break out on the screenwriting boards. Someone will say that some 'insider' is telling them that their costume drama about a sixteenth century castratti isn't particularly marketable, and they want to know if it's true. I'm always just asking myself if this person actually goes to movies. If they actually go to the video store. Not saying they shouldn't write it if they beleive in it, but why on earth would they believe companies are going to be fighting over it?

    Then I'm called the jerk who's a sell out and trying to write TAKEN 2 or HANGOVER 2 or TRANSFORMERS 3. I'm told I need to develop my voice, not chase short term trends. If the writing is good enough, you can sell anything.

    And I do watch plenty of 'art' and 'indie' films. I'm not some guy who only likes summer movies. I don't in fact like rom-coms, but if someone asked if a rom-com is marketable, I wouldn't think they were crazy.

    Me. I'm not sure if I'm that good. It's not like I can just snap my fingers and be the next Billy Wilder or I.A.L. Diamond. So I try to hedge my bets a little. Write in a genre that's actually been popular for a while. Not (for example) vampires, which might be oversaturated, but (for example) horror. I'll take the easy sell over the hard sell any day of the week.

    Yeah, on the one hand, great writing will win out, but they have to read your dang script first. If you can choose between writing about a single mother with an alcohol problem, and a hitman with an alcohol problem, and do it without selling out, guess which one more people are going to want to read?

    All that being said, I wrote a script that was calculatedly just a little weird so it would do better in the Nicholl. The previous script was about an inner city art gallery dealer beating the shit out of gang-bangers and ninjas. I had an arty idea for a sci-fi thriller about a diseased space hooker that is probably just a little too wierd to sell outright. Wanted to write it. Used the contest angle as an excuse. After that I wrote another normal thriller about brainwashed sleeper agents.

    Submitted all three of them. Guess which one snuck into the quarter-finals?

  3. It is hard to think a zombie action film could compete with a sociopoliticallly aware drama. Just reading the description makes me feel so unimportant.

  4. Howdy, new poster here. I definitely noticed that. You would think that scripts that are "that good" would make great fodder for the agent mill, but alas, no.

    Someone should have a "marketability contest." THe script has to appeal to a demographic and have trailer content or something.

    I owuld love to say that these are "writer contests" but writers have to make money for people. How can you determine that if the script wouldn't even get to anyone's desk to try and find the "writer's voice."

    Maybe I'm just mad that what I thought was a relevant topic to Americans that got excellent feedback...

    But too many writers I come across actually don't like contests.
    And they have sold scripts.

  5. I dont see a problem.
    People should write scripts for contests but then have scripts for Hollywood ready to go when they get their 15 minutes. The Nichols Fellowship is no joke and the best thing I could imagine a winner doing is using it as a springboard, not as a crutch for a single script.

  6. I just got back from the Austin Film Fest where my script was a semi-finalist. The feedback my writing partner and I got from the finalist judges was basically that the script was hurt by coming after Dexter (ours is a comedy about a serial killer). Should the script just be judged on its merits?

    A friend of mine also said she heard the head of Nichols speak about how comedy has a harder time because it's rare when multiple judges have the same sense of humor. Depressing drama is more universal.

  7. @ attat-- I'm with you, for the low entry fee I can enter this screenplay lotto and hope to use it for the publicity.

    @ Em-- They post the genre history on wins, all have a shot one time or another. One man's joy in drama or cowboys is another reader's thrill of zombies, doesn't mean we should all write dramas. Maybe a tear-jerking zombie film, that is different.

    And all the while, worst thing that can happen is I'm shopping my script and have to call Nicholl and tell them to pull it because I'm just about to make over 5k in the trade, but that's the least of my worries at this point.

    More of a prob is another 100 queries at over $1 per and the time it takes to lick 'em, lol.