This is the last of the first-sift genre blogs. There is an anomaly of sorts in the writing of spec film scripts. Nearly 25% of all the submissions we received were films. Yet the BBC only produces (in fact co-produces – they don’t solely fund or produce anything) a couple of handfuls of films each year. A subsidiary cottage industry of agencies, companies, festivals and all manner of activity has grown up around the development of film scripts - one that doesn’t really have an equivalent for radio or TV. Yet opportunities across the industry to actually get your film made and distributed are very small, compared to the hundreds and hundreds of hours of radio and TV drama and comedy that are transmitted each year. We don’t even really have an indie circuit that operates on anything like the scale as that in the USA. So why are so many people writing so many film scripts?
There’s one obvious answer – as with stage plays, writers often find it easier to tackle a contained single drama, and films can work as a great calling card script of your talent, regardless of whether or not they might ever get made. But there’s also the glitz and glamour of red carpets, movie stars and the Hollywood hills - everybody wants to be in the movies. (Though some of the explosion of great US TV shows in recent years came out of movie writers frustrated at the system – so maybe not everyone actually does want to be in the movies?)
From what our readers saw, perhaps herein lies one of the big problems with many of the film scripts we got: people trying to ‘write a movie’, as opposed to people trying to tell a story through the medium of cinema/film. There were a lot of slick scripts that were splashing about in the genre pool (I steal this delightful turn of phrase from one of the readers) but that felt like they didn’t have anything very specific or original to say. Don’t the US studios churn these kinds of things out each year, I hear some people cry (virtually)? Yes they do – but we don’t here, not really.
However this pet ‘glamour’ theory of mine doesn’t quite explain the opposite end of the spectrum: scripts that felt like TV dressed as film, that were small scale (visually and emotionally), that didn’t really try to engage in the potential offered by a vast screen that transfixes a darkened room full of people. We have a valuable tradition here of realistic and naturalistic films that have something big to say about the world – 'something big to say' being the operative thought (rather than the grittiness of the telling).
What was true of the scripts the readers liked was they were trying to do something unusual, something not quite seen before, and were brave in using imaginative ideas and pursuing character and conflict over and above everything else. Too many scripts lacked tension or a dramatic question posed at the start. Too many scripts used long VOs and narrations to crowbar their way into being, or smart opening teasers and tasters, or clever flashbacks. But not enough of them really thought long or hard enough about the story beyond the quirks of the form. We had everything from historical/period pieces (often dull, sadly), to charged erotic thrillers (sometimes soft porn with story tacked on, even more sadly), but rarely enough original story or distinct voice inbetween.
Which sounds harsh, I know. But the movies are a harsh business. Writers are the kings of very few castles in the movies; the ones who are, are the ones who think big, who think cinema, who think character and story and conflict; and the best of those, are the ones who think original.
So next time you sit down to write a film script please ask yourself some difficult questions first. Why am I writing a film? Would the story work better in any other medium? What was the last film that truly transfixed me in a dark room full of total strangers – and why? How similar is it to the kinds of things that actually get made? How different is it from anything I’ve ever seen before? Who do I hope to reach? What do I want them to feel? And if someone were to tell me now that I’ll never walk down a red carpet and never win an OSCAR, would I still want to keep writing?
Intelligent and honest answers on a postcard to yourself.
Below are some useful resources: