“There are so many bad movies out there. I know I could write a better screenplay!” said just about every screenwriter out there. How about you? Have you ever said that, or thought that after watching a lousy film?
A lot of writers find motivation after seeing a movie that fails. It may be boring, have huge plot holes, unlikable characters, or hundreds of other possible flaws. The tone of the film might be all over the place. The pace might be too fast or too slow, the ending too predictable.
If watching bad movies motivates you to write a better screenplay, that’s great. However, don’t start thinking that you only need to write a film script that’s “above average” or better than a flop. You need to compare your script with the best in their genres, not the worst.
Why do good scripts generate lousy movies? A lot of movies start out as great screenplays. Then “development” happens.
Once your script is purchased, you will (if you’re very lucky) be brought in to be part of the rewrite process. This is development. You will definitely want to be involved in the rewrites for many reasons.
The most important reason is to protect your vision and the integrity of the material. You don’t want to see it watered down or turned into a different film. That does happen.
Another good reason you’ll want to stay with the rewrite process as long as possible, is to retain a writing credit on the film. You might as well get used to this fact; your script is going to go through lots of changes.
If your rewrites don’t satisfy the studio, they’ll almost certainly bring in other writers to take over. With all that rewriting, sometimes your script changes so much, that other writers will get the credit for writing the script.
Because you wrote the draft that the studio bought, you stand a good chance of at least holding onto “Story By” credit. So there’s a lot at stake in the development process.
Another thing that happens in development; executives with power over the rewrites will be influenced by lots of factors; for example — whatever hot movie they saw over the weekend.
Other development executives will let their friends, family members, wives and girlfriends read the scripts they’re developing. Those people, in turn may have strong opinions. Since those people have sway with the executives, their opinions will influence the way they think about rewriting your material.
The reality of how studios make films is that once your script is purchased, you’ll most likely go through the development process; sometimes known as “development hell.”
You’ll be going to meetings with lots of executives who are not writers. They’re going to give you notes they think will make your script “better.” Studios have “Story Departments” filled with these executives. Sometimes they’re very talented and actually steer your script in the right direction.
However, development is a “committee process,” so it’s also quite possible that the group of cooks will push you in a dozen different directions.
Your job as a writer in development is to make executives happy. You’ll need to address as many of their notes as possible. Your goal will be to satisfy everyone who can greenlight your film.
This is where the real skill comes in. Experienced writers will know how to satisfy the executives while not screwing up their script. Experienced writers will be extremely diplomatic in meetings and point out why certain ideas may not work. The trick is to do this without offending anybody.
Rookie writers tend to get thrown by suggested changes. They may think about it like this; the studio liked their script enough to buy it. They said they loved it. It comes as a surprise that now they want to change it, when it’s “perfect” as is.
This is one of the major reasons a film that starts out with a really good first draft, can be watered down, or changed completely and lead to a bad film.
Even after development process is over further script changes can happen. When a director is brought he will ask for changes, too. He may want to rewrite your script himself.
Directors are generally in a good position to get their way. And he may have a very different vision for your story. It’s the same with investors. Anybody who holds power over the production of your script can ask for changes.
I hope can you see now that a very good screenplay can go through a series of rewrites and end up worse than it started. Too many cooks can mangle a decent script. Next time you say “I can write better than that,” about a mediocre film, keep in mind there are many reasons it could have turned that way that have nothing to do with the quality of the original script.
Don’t assume just because your screenplay is better than some flops you’ve seen that you can sell it. Screenplays are notoriously hard to sell. Even the good ones.
Always compare your screenplays with good films, not lousy films. Strive to reach the level of the best, not the worst. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can lower your standards and still be successful.