Monday, November 5, 2012

"Who cares if my script is cliche? So is everything Hollywood makes!"

I spent last week reading through another batch of Black List 3.0 submissions and my experience of the previous week was a pretty good forecast of what I got in this stretch of scripts.  In brief, there were a lot of loglines that got me excited, but based on what I read, most of these scripts need a little more time to bake.  I can't really recall any scripts that sent me fleeing from my computer in horror, but I did come away disappointed.

My agenda was to find a strong, commercial, compelling original script in the bunch.  I know there have to be a few of them out there.  Looking through the loglines I can see that a lot of you are good at coming up with ideas that could yield interesting stories and characters.  A fair number of them sound like they could be marketable too.

I ran into a dilemma with one of the scripts that made it past the 30-page mark with me.  As far as the screenwriting mechanics, the writer had it pretty solid.  Scenes were well-paced, characters had distinct voices, good visual description... It was all there.  The problem was... the script had a lot of elements that felt familiar to me.  In fact, if you started describing the script's plot to me, I very likely would have dismissed as too much of an indie cliche.

(Out of fairness to the writer, I'm not going to identify the logline or discuss the specific premise.  The Black List 3.0 embraces the premise of "do no harm" and I take that seriously too.  Plus, I don't have the heart to publicly attack something submitted by a presumably loyal reader.)

But you know what? I found myself easily tearing through 30 pages and then 45 pages.  Even as my concerns about the premise and some of the plot lingered I really felt like I should give this script a shot.  Eventually I had to admit that I was dealing with something that was at best, "Consider with Reservations."  I don't think it's really fair to the writers to give a lukewarm recommendation on the blog.  For all I know, there could be a writer out there who'd really take to the material, so why dissuade potential reads by saying "eh, it's good, but it's not earth-shatteringly great."

I mentioned my dilemma on Twitter, noting that I liked the voice but that the script was making a lot of common and expected choices.  This provoked a couple reactions.  Some asked if I could PASS on the script, but CONSIDER the writer.  I can't.  On Black List 3.0, you can only rate the script.  So if I give something a high mark, I can't just be saying, "Hey, I like this writer."  It's gotta be "I love the whole package."

A second sentiment was essentially an observation that the industry only seems to turn out derivative product, so why should that concern me at all?

I. Hate. This. Argument.

You might as well go to an audition for Idol and when they tell you that your singing is off-key, complain that they set such a high standard because they could easily fix the voice with autotune.  Hell, take a few shots at Nicki Minaj's voice while you're at it, or go to X-Factor and complain that if Britney can get by with autotune, it's unfair that you actually have to sing well.

It's relatively easy to write the poor man's version of any familiar premise.  If all you can do is Xerox, then what are you bringing to the table at all?  There are plenty of people already in the industry capable of doing that.  I'm not looking for a voice I can autotune - I'm looking for a voice that can make the notes new.

To be fair, until you've been on this side of the looking glass in some capacity, you really have no way to appreciate just how many aspiring scripts go for the predictable beats.  Once you've read a hundred or so romantic comedies, you've gotten attuned to the obvious rhythms, even in the cases where the writer might think they're being clever.

A good script reader has probably seen hundreds of scripts in any given genre.  We've seen the character dramas with the same sorts of family strife.  We've read the horror films that all try the same clever tricks to hide the killer's identity. We sat through a lot of the same sorts of tricks in a romantic comedy designed to bond and break up their lead couples.

"Good enough" isn't really in our vocabulary.  We're not paid to find "competent writing."  We're paid to find GREAT writing.  It's the difference between being a great college athlete and being a professional level athlete.  And just as every pro scout wants to find that phenom - every script reader dreams of being the one to spot that future gem.

So know that as I make it through the rest of these submissions (probably at the rate of about 10 scripts a week), I am really pulling for you guys.  I know there's a very real chance that by the time I get to some of the later scripts, the writers might have removed them from the Black List due to their initial month running out.  I'm really sorry about that, but with the demands on my time, I can't move much faster.

Good luck, folks!


  1. Do you also observe a lot of aspiring screenwriters trying to cater to what's popular now, or assuming that the market will be unchanged between the time they complete their scripts and when the film is released into theaters?

    1. I know someone who wrote a biopic spec recently (definitely not written for market) and it landed them a manager. You have to write what you love, it's the only way you're going to have a chance to elevate a good script to a great one.

      That said, assuming the same quality of writing- I think a spec written with an ultra low budget in mind is always going to have an advantage over a big budget period piece for example.

      I'm writing my current spec for market because if I'm fortunate enough to gain representation from it, it has to be something that can sell. Two months seems to be the standard time frame that reps expect a first draft within. The only way I can get a draft done in that time frame is if I can afford to take a leave of absence from my job, hopefully a permanent one.

    2. Thanks Robert. I hear you regarding what you said about finishing a draft since I'm in the same boat. While I'm thankful to have a full-time job, it doesn't leave me much time or energy to write. But I have to figure out how to balance the two because making excuses won't get me anywhere at all.

  2. Bitter,

    When I write a so-called "unique" script readers and producers "don't get it". Without the familiar story beats and structure of a specific genre the screenplay seems unfamiliar and is difficult to navigate. It becomes a non-conforming document like a spec that's 270 pages.

    So a reader might say they want a unique voice but unique scripts go right into the crapper. The screenplay gets filtered through the reader's expectations and experiences and what actually works. In short - previous successful films. So a script needs to be something a reader can recognize as previously successful (now a cliche) or I get a pass.

    But when I do follow the path of other successful scripts then my writing is too derivative and I get "we've seen this before". Pass.

    So I try to write something that's universal in theme and unique in the execution of it. This seems like a pretty good plan but those scripts get ripped as genre bending. Pass again.

    So for right now my tale has a sad ending...

    Formula = Story

    Because, it's a damn good place to start.

    So don't be surprised when the plucky sidekick gets killed at the end of act two and now my hero is really pissed. Successful scripts follow a familiar format because prodcos want something that mirrors successful films. And if you actually want to sell a script it's all I'm left with.

    That, and violence and boobies, but you've seen plenty of that, too.

    Thanks for the great article and all your good work.


    1. This is what we call a straw man. Being original doesn't mean you must NOT work in three acts and must NOT keep your script within producible bounds.

      By your arguement, there's no distinction between writing BATTLESHIP and writing JUNO.

    2. I think what Bitter is talking about is original choices within a given genre.

      I saw 'cabin in the woods' on dvd recently and that movie did something with the ending that I've never seen in the horror genre. and it was very refreshing.

  3. "A second sentiment was essentially an observation that the industry only seems to turn out derivative product, so why should that concern me at all?"

    Some writers have a hard time making the distinction between "unique within the constructs" and "derivative". All stories that exist have already been told, but what makes a story unique is our own personal spin on it, hopefully in a way that hasn't been already done. That should be our goal.

    Thanks, Bitter, for all your time and effort in finding that needle in a haystack.

    1. Bitter, if you haven't already looked at Monique's THE TURNING SEASON I'd consider giving it a read- good stuff!

  4. Bitter, good point. Thank you. Dave

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  6. I think that's a good suggestion for the BL improvements -- "consider writer". I'll head over there and do exactly that.

  7. "We're not paid to find "competent writing." We're paid to find GREAT writing."


    This is what I keep reminding myself of when I write. Good doesn't cut it. It needs to be great.

    I might not ever get there, but that'll always be the goal.

  8. Hey folks. A question about Black List 3.0:

    What form of rating are members able to give a script? A single number only? Or separate numbers for premise, characters, etc.? Or a written evaluation like the paid readers give?

    I got great coverage from ScriptShark, and wish there was some way for Black List members to see it. :)

  9. The rating I received from a Black List member was a single number. It would have been nice to have it broken down ala Paid Reader style, but I'll take it anyway they want to give it.

    1. Thanks T.A. I'm hoping that Bitter or another BL member will tell us if a single number is the only option they are given for rating a script.

    2. Yep, it's a straight-up single number rating.

  10. Hey TA, this is Joel Thomas, the writer ranked next to you. I've only been on the board for a day, so I'm wondering if you've yet gotten anyone writing or calling you yet, particularly the reader who rated you. I've gotten a ton of new impressions, but no additional downloads yet. My two reviews were paid for. Wah.

  11. Bitter --

    Just wanted to thank you for what you're doing.
    (Even though I didn't enter scripts in the BL 3.0)