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The Screenwriting Industrial Complex

I have explained elsewhere, to the approximately three people reading this blog (including my mom—hi mom!), that I have been trying to break in as a writer–director in the film business.

This is a long, arduous, competitive process, and I’m reasonably optimistic, though it’s already been going on for (eeeek!) decades.

The more I have learned about screenwriting, the more I have come to believe that it can be learned, but not taught.

The critic’s conclusion in Ratatouille is true: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

I began my earliest screenwriting attempts in high school, sending in spec scripts to Star Trek: The Next Generation (a story for another time). It was so long ago (1991) that screenwriting software didn’t exist, and I had to pre-set a bunch of tab stops in Microsoft Word.

I later read a few books that made sense, Story by McKee being the most useful one; and was fortunate to cowrite a few scripts with my friend Robert Nathan (Law & Order, ER), a professional writer/showrunner who taught me a ton.

By and large, however, I am self-taught. I hear some screenwriting lingo (“the heel turn”) and I can only guess what they mean. I never do the index cards, write character backstories, or any number of other things that are often advised. My process has evolved organically and I don’t know if it’s unique—it’s probably not—because I don’t care.

Alas, my process has certainly not yielded overnight results, because after starting to write as an adult circa 2001—meaning I’ve been at this TWENTY YEARS—I made every amateur writing mistake, stubbornly and repeatedly: passive protagonists, bad/lame concepts, overly complicated plots, ad nauseam.

And I thought I was smart!

But nobody could teach me before I was ready to learn—as my friend Robert found out (sorry about that). The only way I learned was simply through repetition and iteration, feedback and failure—lots of failure.

Which brings us to the Screenwriting Industrial Complex.

If you google “screenwriting instruction” you’ll be awash in outfits who will gladly take your money to teach you, coach you, critique your scripts, promise the moon and show you their “success stories” of people who went from washing dishes to three-picture deals at Netflix.

The major screenplay contests typically get 8,000 to up to 12,000 entrants. The best estimate I would use would be 10,000 people, at any given time, are serious about writing screenplays to the point where they are entering them in contests. (Although probably only 500–1,000 have learned what they’re doing well enough to advance in those contests.)

It’s not a scam in that, there are, in fact, people who come from nowhere and end up with fabulous, lucrative (though not really glamorous) screenwriting careers.

I tend to think these people were talented anyway. The paid services helped them hone their craft and introduce them to professional managers and producers.

So it’s not like a ponzi scheme or outright fraud.

But for the vast majority of the customers/clients, it’s fundamentally dishonest to present screenwriting “services” as anything other than an entertaining distraction for people who simply don’t and won’t ever have the talent, imagination and artistic sensibility to be successful—let alone impactful at the cultural level.

There is also a whole sub-field of “coaches” who can help with motivation, scheduling, persistence and all those non-artistic things that are essential for success (and which seem to the subjects most often discussed on the message boards, rather than anything having to do with, say, understanding good writing). I was born motivated, so coaches are not necessary for me.

I am hesitant to trash these various commercial places because I’ve met some of their execs and even founders, who genuinely believe what they’re doing and love writers and love helping writers. I would certainly like them to help me…and some of them already have.

But there are some companies that just egregious in their attempts to profit off of people’s dreams. (Above is a screen grab from the sleaziest company, Stage 32. If you register with them, they will spam you 24 times in the next 20 minutes to take hundreds of dollars of courses.)

I used to play in a baseball (hardball) rec league, until our twins were born (and I had had enough of facing 25-year-old ex-college pitchers throwing 85 with a hard slider). I had a great time! I played a sport I loved, met new friends, had a lot of laughs, and even had some thrilling moments getting a big hit or making a good play. Also, I had a number of awful, embarrassing moments of striking out and making game-losing errors. But it was about the experience.

Not for one minute did I or anybody on those fields think we were going to be playing for the Dodgers if only we kept at it or were seen by the right scout.

Amateurs making art is a great thing. Writing and performing plays, having a band, displaying watercolors at the local fair, getting a ribbon—our society would be better off if people did that more often!

But it’s about perspective. The fact that these screenplay contests and instruction sites are fundamentally making it seem like YOU TOO CAN GET RICH instead of saying it’s a hobby that can enrich your life—I do have a problem with that.

Also making things emotionally complicated for me: I made my living as a “professional fan” for a couple of decades. As the founder/publisher of Film Score Monthly, I took money from fans to make magazines and CDs to amuse and entertain them. We did have our share of composers reading, but we were never a “how to” instruction company—nonetheless, I was paying my way on the backs of the actual artists who were creating film scores.

All of this is to say I have complicated, almost tormented feelings about my own journey, and about the “Screenplay Industrial Complex.”

Because honestly, while I’m sure there are some screenwriting instructors who are gifted teachers and found their calling—aren’t most of them just failed writers? I’m pretty sure I would not be a good teacher because I have always found it too difficult to separate content from craft in critiquing people’s work.

Ideally I’d like to break in and never think about it again.

But because we live in the world of social media—and we’re always compulsively checking our phones for the next Facebook response or Reddit argument—the world of screenwriters and emerging screenwriters tweeting shop talk is never going to go away.

From time to time I go on the Reddit “screenwriting” group and try to share my insights, and usually it’s a depressing experience because people don’t really seem to engage in the points that I think are useful. This was the most recent attempt.

Much more to come on this.

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