by John McFetridge
Okay, maybe you should, but I shouldn’t.
I spent a long time writing and trying to sell screenplays. I sold a few options and even had a couple of low budget movies made from my scripts. I even have an imdb listing.
But I will never again write an original screenplay and try to sell it. There are a lot of reasons, but the main one is this: my favourite movies are either based on other material or auteur-driven.
Of course, you may still want to write a screenplay.
So, here’s a test. Write down the names of your ten favourite movies form the last five years. Go to imdb.com and see how many are based on original screenplays and how many are adaptions from another source. If eight out of ten are original screenplays then write a screenplay. If it’s fewer than that, then write the original source material. Novel, comic book, play, short story, song – whatever it is, for some reason Hollywood has more respect for it than they do for an original screenplay.
Eight out of ten is completely arbitrary, of course. You can try whatever formula you like, but you’ll find that most of your favourites are based on material from another source. Or, they’re director-driven movies like Judd Apatow’s or Quentin Tarantino’s, guys who aren’t reading screenplays to find their next project.
Academy Award winners aren’t a very good cross-section but it’s easy to research. So, from 2000 to 2008 let’s see where the winners came from: Gladiator (original screenplay, though it’s based on some historical facts and it was written by the guy who wrote Amistad, also historically fact-based); A Beautiful Mind, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire all based on books, Million Dollar Baby was based on short stories, Chicago was based on a musical which was based on a play which was based on some true stories and Crash was an original screenplay – Paul Haggis won for best screenplay adaptation for Million Dollar Baby the year before and he wrote and directed Crash.
If I researched box office champs I’d find the Lord of the Rings movies and a bunch of movies based on comic books.
Screenplay writing is like the gold rush these days – the people making the most money are the ones selling picks and axes and jeans. They sell books on screenwriting and offer seminars and charge reading and editing fees.
Sometimes writers even sell a screenplay – usually they sell an option. I’m told that for every ten scripts turned into movies a hundred are optioned. That sounds good, you can get paid even of your script is never produced. You don’t get paid as much, of course. In Canada a screenplay option is usually somewhere between $2500.00 and $5000.00. Around the same amount as an advance on a first book. Of course, if the movie actually gets made, you get another fifty grand (or so).
But what if the movie doesn’t get made? What happens to all those scripts?
Nothing. There's nothing you can do with unsold screenplays. You can't self-publish them, you can't publish them on your own blog (well, you could, I guess) and when you do get a book published you can't go back to them.
I spent a lot of time writing what I thought were some good stories. I guess it was valuable experience, a lot of words on the page getting me closer to those million words Elmore Leonard says you need to write to develop your own style. But after a while having really nothing to show for all that work started to really get to me. I made about $10,000 in options over about ten years. And probably wrote about a million words.
But looking back (which I don’t actually do very often) I wish I’d spent that time writing books.
TV is entirely different, though. I just spent the better part of a year working as a writer on a new TV cop show, The Bridge (CBS in the USA and CTV in Canada) and while there is some spec script writing required to get into TV but it’s not like screenplay writing. That’s for another post.
One more thing. This is my first post for Do Some Damage and I want to thank the other guys for inviting me along for the ride. It looks like fun already.
And, I want to say that one of the things I like the most about blogs is that the post is just the starting point - the comments are really what makes it interesting. So please, if you have the time, leave a comment. Thanks.