Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Why Story Matters

For the last several years, there’s been much talk in Hollywood about the extinction of feature screenwriting. The spec market is dead. Digital platforms are on the rise. It’s widely known that most writing jobs are in television, not features. Even the ABC/Disney Fellowship Program, designed to discover new talent, has put their feature fellowship on hold because they can’t figure out how to yield the same kind of immediate career results that happen in their TV fellowship. Furthermore, nice, character-driven, middle of the road movies just don’t get made anymore. The market has become polarized, from the gigantic, spectacle-driven, sure-bet tent poles, to the teeny, one location, no risk, micro-budgets. In production offices, Directors of Development (if their job still exists) have shifted from shaping and crafting writers and their stories to locating a script that can be shot, as-is, with  certain tax incentives in mind. Hollywood seems to care less about a good story well told, and much more about what can be monetized RIGHT NOW.  

This kind of news can make a feature writer despair, and cause some to think that investing years into a craft that might never pay off just isn’t worth it. For most, it’s not.


No matter what current trend is selling in Hollywood, there will always be longing in the souls of men and women for great stories well told.  The craft of storytelling is immortal, and feature-length stories have been the medium for thousands of years.  There’s harmony found in a story whose length is designed to be long enough to explore a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, and short enough to take in at one sitting, without interruption.

Anyone who attempts to tell a story in any length, for any size screen, must learn feature screenwriting as a foundation to the craft. Even if they never go into the feature market, screenwriters need to study Aristotle’s Poetics and watch classic movies and understand three act structure in the same way that medical students need to study Latin.  Feature narratives are the root language of all screen storytelling. Without an understanding of features, screen stories in other formats will fall, uh, short.

Because of the rise of digital platforms, everyone seems to be watching this recent “change” in format closely and trying to figure out ways to be successful in delivering story content (i.e. reach more eyeballs) in a new way.  The flaw in this kind of thinking is that it presumes that stories change. Story does not change.
Instead of chasing current trends, we students of screenwriting need more of the classics. Everything that is great about a one minute short gone viral can be evidenced in any one of Aesop’s fables.

We need masters of feature writing to continue to teach the craft in the same way that we need masters of sculpture and poetry and charcoal drawings to teach theirs. Feature screenwriting is high art.  Creating delightful characters who make strong choices that further a complex, yet clear plot is high art. Building fantastic arenas which are integral to the story and delivering stunning visual imagery is high art. Doing this in a narrative format with a complex and satisfying beginning, middle and end is high art. Accomplishing this in a two-hour narrative format for the screen is the foundation of accomplishing this in any other medium. 

The business of Hollywood will always be about making money off of stuff people watch. The business of storytellers will always be about communicating truths that speak to souls. There will always be a tension between the two, but it is important to remember that Hollywood needs storytellers more than storytellers need Hollywood. Still, it is better to work together. Trends will shift.  Formats will change. Story will remain constant. 

If you agree that story matters, check out our book, Notes to Screenwriters.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Screenwriter's Prequel: Do You Have What It Takes?

The Screenwriter's Prequel deadline is coming up on June 1st, and applications are rolling in. You can learn more about the program here.

Are you trying to determine if the Prequel is the right fit for you? Want to know more about what it takes to be a professional screenwriter? Here are some questions to consider:

Do you feel compelled to write? Notice I didn't ask, Do you love to write? Many writers I know don't love it on a daily basis, including me. As soon as I get settled into my writing time on some days, I'd rather play another round of Candy Crush, right after a good nap. Well, most days. Okay fine, every day. However, there is a small, sometimes not so quiet, voice that urges me to get to it. Writing is on my to-do list every day, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I check it off the list. If you're already writing, great. You get a sticker. If you love writing all the time, great. You get two stickers and a sideways glance from me wondering if you're a Stepford robot. If you've "always wanted to write" but never been able to get yourself together to actually do it, sorry. We can't help you. We don't carry any magical pixie dust that will automatically force you to sit down at your computer. If you're somewhere in between and just need a boost, a reason, or even just permission to do make writing a greater priority in your life, we can come alongside and offer plenty of motivation.

Do you love having written? So do I. That's why I force myself to do it when I'd rather nap. The reward of having written is what keeps me going when the writing itself feels more like punishment. If you can relate, you are a writer.

Are you willing to learn something new? I went to a holistic doctor recently and she mentioned that one of the most important questions she asks her patients is, "Are you willing to be well?" She says there are many people who are sick simply because some part of them is not willing to participate in the healing process. I think it is the same with screenwriters and coaches. Writers who are open to learning will break through the mental blocks that keep them from growing and achieving success. If you believe you can never be a master of this craft, only a student, then you will go far.

Do you have something to say? Writers are prophetic voices for the masses. An emerging writer may not be able to articulate exactly what it is she wants to say, but she recognizes that it is important, and it has the potential to help others. The bulk of our work mentoring writers is to help them identify and strengthen their voice. However, we can't help you if you think stories shouldn't have something to say.

Do you want to write professionally for the screen? Notice we haven't mentioned any cliches that people typically associate with a Hollywood-based screenwriting program, including how old you need to be, what genres are selling, or how hungry you are to win, win, win. We'd rather you not focus on those things because they tend to become distractions from doing the greater work. That said, the Screenwriter's Prequel faculty are chock-full of wisdom about the need to write content that also succeeds in the marketplace. If you want to make grandiose art that pleases no audience but yourself, knock yourself out- by yourself. If you want to create something of quality intended for a specific audience that has the real possibility of being seen, we can guide you through those steps, and help you lay out a specific plan to get it in front of the right people.