Monday, September 9, 2013

Vanity projects and meh scripts

Last week I Netflixed a film that starred and was co-written by an actor I rather enjoy.  I knew from the start that it was a vanity project, but having seen the trailer featured at the start of another DVD I'd recently rented, I figured there was a chance of it being amusing.  I also knew there was an equal chance that it sucked.

As this was a very low-budget and little-seen affair, I don't really feel like beating up on it.  If something made it into wide release or even became semi-notorious on DVD, I don't have a problem unloading on it.  Here, the film's biggest sin is that it was rather unremarkable, and as it came from an earnest place, I'd feel really bad crapping on it this publicly.  (Cynical low-budget horror films will always get their turn at the woodshed, though, so don't think I've gone soft.)

This particular actor works a lot, but tends to be typecast in particular sorts of roles.  It's no accident that this film was designed to let them stretch and pick up a few dramatic scenes for their reel.  In that regard, I feel safe in calling it a success.  I don't think they were miscast and they did a solid job in their role.  This showed some savvy at least - the actor knew their strengths and played to them.  It also sidestepped a couple other failings in most vanity scripts by making sure the other characters were rather well-rounded too.  It wasn't one "ACTING!" scene after another, and there were a number of moments of sharp dialogue.

However... (you knew this was coming, right?) the project itself is very middle-of-the-road and forgettable.  It's very character-based rather than concept driven.  There's nothing wrong with that - you might recall I raved about The Spectacular Now for that very reason recently.  This film is not a movie that leaves you going, "Well THAT was awful" but it doesn't exactly make you go, "I have to tell people to watch this."

It's what I call a "meh" script.  There aren't any huge glaring sins that one could point to, but there aren't enough peaks either.  That's a large percentage of what a script reader sees in the course of their job.  I'd suspect that a good number of people reading this blog are at that level as well. You know enough to turn out a coherent script, but for whatever reason your work lacks that "X-factor" that turns readers into advocates.

I know it's frustrating to get feedback when you've written a script like this.  People offer praise for what they liked and perhaps a few superficial sentences about why is doesn't work for them.  What the writer hears is "Well if there's nothing major wrong with it, why are you passing?"  I've seen writers get very angry when the feedback amounts to "It's just not good enough."  The question that the writer benefits most from asking is, "If there's nothing major wrong with it, what's keeping them from championing it?"

"Good enough" is rarely good enough.  Truly great material is so rare that one rarely has any motivation to not push it higher.  So the next time someone gives you one of these gentle passes, I want you to think about a movie that you saw, but forgot most of within a few weeks.  Think about your own reactions to material - understand that it's possible to not hate something and yet still not LOVE it.

Then once you understand "Oh, I get where they were coming from," see if you can make it better.  Or you might realize "I can't go the distance with this idea, so I need to think bigger when conceiving the story."

It's really hard to learn something from a gentle pass.  As writers, we want to be told, "Here's the tumor in your story - just cut it out and you've got the next big thing."  But it's not always that easy and at some point in the process you need to put yourself in the audience's shoes and understand how to stoke their interest.

Otherwise you're just writing a vanity project that's merely showing off a few strengths without making a real impact.


  1. Yeah I can identify with this. It's hard as a writer when ppl don't see the fascination or the magic you see in your own premise. Obviously, you have to be brutally introspective before wasting time developing a screenplay to avoid this. I still have a project I am honing right now though that might well fit some of the criteria above. It's very hard to tell once you're close to your own material, especially once you've diligently done a number of drafts.

  2. I totally agree with Wereviking. You get lost in your own "Next Big Thing" scipt, but are blind in the fact that it doesn't have that gripping element that needs to become a movie. It is fine, but never leaves an audience member leaving the theatre texting to their friends/enemies/etc. they must see this movie.

  3. It all depends on whether you're shooting for Hollywood, or some place that appreciates non-generic, non-formulaic writing. Hollywood and Hollywood readers want, expect and accept only the generic and formulaic. Anything that isn't is immediately dismissed. The very few - the painfully very few - Hollywood readers who know the genuinely original and interesting when they see it are forced to regretfully pass, simply because they know there is absolutely no chance of ever making anything genuinely original or interesting in Hollywood nowadays.
    I have seen remarkably good screenplays trashed by the gaggle of junior high aged scriptreader interns because those screenplays weren't exactly like every other screenplay and therefore must be no good. The same screenplays often get rave reviews by the grownup readers on the other side of the pond, but unfortunately they don't have any money, so the scripts remain unproduced.
    Hollywood is a fail of monumentally epic proportions.

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