Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Does my writing need to be good?

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.


  1. Personally, I find that whenever I see a shitty Hollywood machine movie it only serves to make me more determined to come up with something better. It's painfully obvious these days that we're stuck in an era where audiences who Know What They Like are being spoonfed their own brain food in terms of releases.

    As you say, we're getting existing properties, reboots, reworkings, reimaginings or flat-out remakes, sequels and prequels, adaptations of increasingly bizarre properties (Battleships? MONOPOLY?), and fewer original or even just plain different things to choose from.

    Heck, while 'Avatar' has opened the door in terms of technological advancements in much the same way the SFX on 'Star Wars' did over thirty years previously, its script was pretty ropey for all its imagination and detail.

    Then we're getting trailers that are revealing huge plot points so audiences aren't surprised by anything (there's a moment in the 'Time Traveller's Wife' trailer involving a little girl, people should get what I mean), arguably making watching a trailer a more efficient way of keeping up with new releases!

    So how do we fight this tide? How do we batten down the hatches of creativity against this onslaught of familiarity and apathy? WE GET BETTER. We show them no, we will not go and see a fricken 'Stretch Armstrong' movie with Taylor effin' Lautner in it. We will write our own movies if we have to!

    Hopefully things will change soon. Although I must admit, I am quite psyched about 'Tron Legacy.'

  2. Cameron gets a hard time for his writing, but I maintain he's a much better writer than he gets credit for, Titanic works, I say, as a script (I think William Goldman wrote the same thing about it when the 97 Oscars were happening) ... I enjoyed Avatar, and while the story at its dna was of course a familiar one (basically hit all the expected hero's journey points) it was a familiar one executed extremely well ... he created a whole world and it worked, for me.

    And Joe Esterhous is also a good writer with some very good films to his name, he gets known for the bad stripper movie (which seemed to me like a very early first draft that no one felt needed a rewrite) that was very badly cast (originally it was to have starred Drew Barrymore and Madonna, can you imagine) and badly directed ... but Esterhous has some good movies to his credit, and in particular I'd recommend TELLING LIES IN AMERICA as a film I enjoyed, but there's also JAGGED EDGE, F.I.S.T. and some thriller with Sharon Stone that made a lot of money ...

    Bad movies made from his scripts? Sure. Just like good actors will do a bad movie when too much money and coke gets pushed at them, writers and directors are no different.

    But if you look at Joe's early work, he's got game. If you read his book HOLLYWOOD ANIMAL, it's hard to put down because the man can tell a story and write ...

    I picked up a copy of TAKEN and read it, it's a great read ... very unusual, because in the script his daughter doesn't get taken until page 39 (in the film it was 25 minutes into it) and still it really works. Of course, it was financed in Europe, but I maintain Kamen knows how to write and write very well, so it's not a surprise the movie did well when cast and executed that well.

    Just my opinion, of course.

  3. It's the crap plus one mentality. Well, this movie is crap so all I have to do is write slightly better crap and I'll be in the money!

  4. Does anyone else besides me think that Taken and The Proposal were just utterly terrible?

  5. Taken was awesome ... haven't seen The Proposal.

  6. In my opinion, being skilled makes no practical difference with a newbie writer who isn't well connected in the industry. For example, I would estimate the odds of a writer with a couple of good scripts and maybe one great script to be about 0.25%. Meanwhile, the odds of a writer breaking in with two or three bad, poorly written pieces of trash are about 0.05% (when I say "bad, poorly written pieces of trash," I mean that they're bad screenplays, but they still at least LOOK like screenplays). The good writer has five times the odds of breaking in, sure, but the odds for both are so close to zero that they're almost non-real.

  7. @joeverkill - so how does anyone break in?

  8. @Beth: In my experience, nepotism, random luck, or shameless self-promotion. Usually all three.

  9. Mark, I agree about The Proposal. Great concept for a romantic comedy and a great cast, but most of the things that happened in it were beyond stupid.

  10. I think it's also important to keep in mind that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Each movie might have different priorities (the dialogue in TRANSFORMERS probably isn't as important as the visual effects) and budget constraints, but there aren't any executives twirling their mustaches and saying, "let's make the WORST piece of shit EVER!"

    watch some of the pilots that get shot but don't get picked up, and I think you'll realize how very hard it is to make something absolutely great.

    Also, I think the reason we see "bad" movies getting made is that each one has something inherently attractive about it. A great idea, an interesting world, cool technology, etc. As writers it should be our goal to come up with some super cool idea, and then write it brilliantly.

  11. I didn't think Taken was all that good. The action scenes were good. Everything else was terrible.

  12. The Oscars highlighted screenwriting like never before, in the "sketch" with Tina Fey and then superimposing script lines over each nominated clip. Suddenly, writing is important when actors and directors like Fey, Cameron, and Reitman are taking the writing credit. Hollywood generally pays the same for a script with a big name tagged as the writer, so why should they waste the time on an unknown spec script writer?

    Seems it's a better idea to become an actor or director, or somehow involved in a prodco, if the above trend keeps up and you want to sell a spec. Beyond that, killer concepts, lots of them, but watch out for a line of actors and directors ready to write you out so they can get the screenwriting credit (as Cameron and Reitman did this year).

  13. You could go on for volumes discussing this phenomena.

    There's the trite Hollywood tale of "who you know," the screenwriter who wrote that one amazing script, once, and got noticed/produced/etc., who now gets gigs because of it. Some of the aforementioned films were made by Directors who have a shit ton of power that the studios don't argue with. Even if we all hate Michael Bay, he has incredible control over what he makes. Let's face it, Spielberg claimed he thought TF2 was amazing.

    In the case of Domino, cast aside, Tony Scott has a decent track record of making decent films. I'd venture to say he's hit and miss, but regardless, if it's a "Tony Scott Film," people will pay.

    In the end, I'd say my best advice to starting from scracth, on talent alone, is to make your initial attempts on your own. Directing your own writing ensures your vision comes to fruition. Make those short films. Get noticed. Make those low budgets. As the overwhelmingly big advice to most in the industry, you have to pay your dues. Why not do it on your terms? If you have the talent, it will get noticed. If you don't have anything to show off said talent, well, you do the math.

    As rare as it may seem to some, I'd point to Tarrantino and Rodriguez as examples of some who do it on their own terms. Yes, they are rare, but so is talent. Tracking their history in the industry, they started on their own, small, without credibility and now they do what they want. And they don't always make good films... at least, not in my opinion.

    Case in point, Robert Rodriguez does for the aspiring filmmaker what few do, shares his knowledge. From the simplest notion that he includes mini film school extras with his DVD releases. Let's remember, the man knows how to get it done with less money, less time and less excuses than many of his peers.

    In the end, if you don't have it, you don't have it. The ugly truth about film, is that it's success rate is minimal. If you don't have billions, don't know anyone and have no talent... it's time to move on.

    If film is where you want to live, there's always college, a degree and getting that exec position at a studio.

  14. Awesome post and great encouragement! Nice to see a nice passionate response on a blog.

    Would you like to trade links? We are at

  15. I need to watch Taken again just to count the number of bad guys who get karate ninja chopped or otherwise beaten into unconsciousness, some other slumber or death. The one man wrecking machine (and an indestructable Jeep) really took me out of that one.

    Oh and none of the bad guys could hit anything they were aiming at. Did I miss the scene where their guns got stealthily loaded with blanks?

  16. T2: Revenge of the Fallen was written by Kruger who got his break by winning the Nicholl's Award. Paul Blart was written by the star of the film who was already a famous comedian.

    None of the movies mentioned are crap. I don't think you guys know what you're supposed to be doing. Cameron is a genius. Yes his plot was cliche, but every plot is cliche after you've seen enough movies.

  17. Well, we may as well all just give up now, eh? Sell our PCs, move to the Midwest and start up a farm instead, maybe?

  18. I hate people who ask questions like "does my writing need to be good?"
    So you are not interested in being good, just at getting by? Thanks, nice philosphy on life.
    Thanks to the person who fucks up every order at McDonalds. Thanks to the person who scratched my car openning their door. Thanks to the person who spits gum on the ground when there is a garbage can 15 feet away.
    Your general lack of caring for your life or surroundings makes everyone's lives that much worse for absolutely no reason.
    That type of reasoning is why we have more prisoners than students in this country.
    Please kill yourself.

  19. I hate the arrogance of the assumption. You have to be better than damn good. The writing some are calling “crap” is ten times better than anything they’ve written. Stupid dialog is likely written by the director or something the actor thinks is funny/cool. Take “Twilight” for example. Some of the corny dialog made my jaw drop. It wasn’t the writer – there was a strike. She (Rosenberg) had to write that thing super fast and the director supplied the rewrites.

    A key quote I’d like to share. Fat Bastard: “Let’s have a smell, all right. Oh, everyone likes their own brand, don't they?”

    I’m not trying to piss on anyone. Bend a little closer to the pile you just made and make sure it smells like roses.

  20. Pray for the day this happens to you. After you've done it enough times, you'll have enough money to pay for artistic integrity.

    Producer: The director and I think it would be cool if there were two illiterate urban robots. Appealing to a younger audience will mean $$. We’re so over budget - got to insure our profit.

    You: That's dumb - I think borderline racists.

    Producer: Well, I sure did like working with you. I've got twenty successful writers who’ll tell me it's brilliant.

    You: Hip robots for the kids? I like it.

  21. As much as I hate the thought, you're probably right, Sean. I'm re-reading Eszterhas' "Devil's Guide to Hollywood", and as much as I admire him for taking a stand against the crap writers put up with, he can do it because by that point he had clout. Chayefsky could do it because he had clout. Some relative newbie who gets plucked from obscurity and told this is his one shot cannot.
    And I hated Taken. It left me feeling dirty. I admire its brevity but there was a deep undercurrent of nastiness about it.

  22. While I agree that a writer should put his best into his work, I will admit to having previously pondered along the lines of Rudy's reasoning.

    Isn't it rather contradictory in some ways?

    If you strip it down to the fact that movies have to sell and proceed to examine what sells best.. I doubt you'd find all that many examples of good writing. Could you then possibly conclude that bad writing sells? The same way crappy boy-band music sells?

    Or at the least, safely conclude that decent writing is purely optional in making the blockbuster? Does it even matter to most of the audiences out there? An utterly terrible script did not seem to stop Transformers audiences from attending multiple screenings. It was crappy, flimsy rubbish; and they cite watching it numerous times as immensely enjoyable. That's bleak.

    Yes, there are still films with artistic integrity intact... Subjective as it may be, and even by your own definitions.... how often do you see one breaking box office records?

    And while misguided producing and production can render a great script into the inane, how exactly does great producing and production render pages of toilet paper into box office smashers? Even if it's existing property etc, the movie-making process still begins from the script, doesn't it?

    Like everyone else I gawked at the visual effects when the first Transformers movie was released. But in no way did I think it was a decent movie. I hated the painstaking establishing of human characters that were revealed to have no real significance beyond proving that hot researchers can have hot legs.

    I remember thinking to myself , "All those millions of dollars. The sheer size of the talent pool there...and they couldn't find a writer less pathetic than this?" While it is an adaptation of existing property, bla bla bla.. it's still a script; an integral part of a film. Why allow it to be so badly written? And how did that crap get past gatekeepers and decision makers?

    Yet while I think it was utter rubbish, I am severely outnumbered by the people who saw it thrice in the cinemas. Applied other big hits, this only suggests that my tastes cannot be considered good market value. Good thing I'm not a screen writer then. :) May your tastes be more commercially viable than mine.

    p.s : Am ready to stand corrected on all points except the one about boy-bands being crappy.