Beginning screenwriters often are shocked to hear how competitive the field is, and how difficult it is to break into. If only the writers with the very best skill, craft, artistry and ideas are able to sell their material or get hired, how does that jibe with the fact that there’s so much “crap” that gets made by Hollywood?
It’s a common and reasonable question, based on conflating two very different events that can happen in the entertainment industry. The first is a new writer getting noticed and moving ahead in their career in some way. The second is a movie getting greenlighted. These two things happen totally separately from each other, and are based on completely different factors.
Let’s start with the new writer getting noticed. What does it take for this to happen? Simple: a single script (in TV or film) that really stands out and impresses the people who evaluate, develop and/or sell screenwriting for a living. (Managers, agents, producers, or certain executives at the studios and networks.) Those folks are looking for new material and new writers. But they don’t need a huge number of them, and they have to wade through literally hundred of scripts they feel don’t work to find the one that might.
What are they looking for? An idea they think could sell, backed by a very well executed script. And just as importantly, original voices — from writers who have mastered the fundamentals, and can produce on the page at a professional level that is compelling, clear, believable, entertaining, emotionally involving, and a true pleasure to read.
That’s not easy to achieve, and most people who try their hand at screenwriting never get there. Those who do usually worked very hard and long on many scripts for many years to get to that level, and educated themselves hugely along the way.
So if it’s such a high bar that so few people ever reach (relative to the tens of thousands who want to), why does it seems like so many movies that get made are “bad”?
The first thing one has to understand is that this is a business like any other, meaning that the only goal of the decision-makers who green light movies is to make a profit. If they don’t consistently do that, they’re out of business. Whether they personally think what they’re making is “good” or not, and whether they’d love to see it, is largely irrelevant. (And most of these people are smart, educated, sophisticated types who might personally prefer the same kind of movies that a typical screenwriter might respect. That doesn’t mean they will make such movies, if they don’t seem like they will be profitable.)
What makes a script or idea for a movie a good choice, from a business perspective? Obviously they want the largest number of people to consume it, based on what they’ve seen audiences buy in recent years. It’s not an exact science, because any movie can end up not working with audiences. But you only have to look at the top grossing movies in recent years to see that prior brand awareness and popularity is a key element.
Sequels of movies that made money tend to make money, more easily than new ideas. Even non-sequels are so often based on material that has already been hugely successful in another media (intellectual property or “IP” is the trendy term), or is at least connected to something or someone that millions of people have already heard of or know about.
It’s much easier to get a distracted population with so many entertainment options to understand, recognize and be interested in something that’s connected to a title or product they already know. It just makes business sense. We don’t have to like it, and it might lead to a seeming paucity of “good movies,” but this seems to be the economic reality.
Also, the vast numbers of people in the potential audience — whose interest or lack thereof determine whether a movie makes money — do not have the same taste as the typical screenwriter. They’re average people looking for two hours of entertainment on a Saturday night. And for most people, “entertainment” comes from something with lots of action, thrills, visual spectacle, and/or hilarious comedy. Maybe with some romance mixed in. It probably doesn’t come from serious cinema, heavy dramas, intense character studies, etc. (Although some of those kinds of movies will win awards every year, and a smaller few will break through commercially.)
So Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 may be a failure in terms of reviews, but it still made $107 million worldwide to date, on a budget of $30 million. (These figures thanks to Box Office Mojo.) That might not be a big hit, but the first Paul Blart made $183 million worldwide on a budget of $26 million. From a business perspective, that’s sound decision making.
Very smart people study these things extremely seriously. It doesn’t mean they don’t guess wrong at times; of course they do. And it doesn’t mean the movies they set out to make end up being good or even effective commercially. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have solid business/economic reasons behind what they did.
The next thing to understand is that no one sets out to make crap (unless they know it will still make tons of money, despite being crap). They set out to make something that will provide audiences with the types of emotional experiences and entertainment that have proven to be successful in the past. It’s just really hard to make something that works, in any genre. It’s a rare thing. A lot of elements have to come together well, almost like lightning in a bottle. It’s much more typical to make a bad or mediocre movie (as it is to write a bad or mediocre script) than to truly succeed, either commercially or in terms of “quality”.
Finally, a lot of movies get made because someone very powerful wants them to. A big star, director or producer (or studio executive) can sometimes push through a pet project that seems less likely to work commercially, but because of their leverage, or even because someone is trying to cultivate business relationships into the future, the movie will still get made. This accounts for a certain percentage of the movies that we writers might look at and wonder “what were they thinking?”
None of this has much to do with the other side of the process, where aspiring writers are trying to break in. Writers aren’t breaking in with a green lighted movie that goes through the above considerations. Rather, breaking in means impressing a manager, agent or producer with a script that likely won’t even sell, let alone get made, but which puts them on the radar of the industry, gets them “fans”, and starts to give them some momentum toward future sales or employment. A grand slam home run for a new writer would be to actually sell a screenplay, which usually means it does satisfy some or all of the commercial criteria above. But even most of those that get sold don’t end up getting made —as the decision to make a movie is FAR more costly and risky than the decision to purchase a script.
You might ask yourself, did the writers of “bad movies” actually make it to the top of the heap at some point, bypassing all the other aspiring writers at the time, with something that completely impressed people as unique and great?
The answer is almost always “yes”.
This “bad movie” you’re now seeing now might be bad for all sorts of reasons that don’t have to do with their individual writing contribution. But even if it does, you’re probably looking at a professional writer who has written many, many screenplays, and gradually worked their way up with some hugely impressive work that ultimately led to their employment on the bad movie. It’s possible that they worked on the bad movie mainly for the money, and it wasn’t the best medium for showcasing their talents. The development process could’ve been rushed. The financing company might have (perhaps rightly) recognized that a great script wasn’t absolutely key to the film’s business prospects. Or it could have just been a flawed approach to a movie that the writer either came up with, or had forced on them by someone else.
But make no mistake, this writer is capable of executing (and has executed) at a very high level. They have gone far past the basic screenwriting lessons that vex 99% of writers who are starting out, and have written at least one “great” script that proved they “had it”. They aren’t just bad writers, who could easily be replaced by the average aspiring writer who has taken a class and written a script or two.
William Goldman may have been right that “nobody knows anything” in terms of being able to absolutely predict whether a certain movie will be a hit of not. But that doesn’t mean that the professionals who give writers breaks don’t know writing quality, and those who greenlight movies don’t know their business, in terms of what makes economic sense to produce. It’s just that like in any business, things go wrong along the way, and it’s not an exact science.
My advice is to recognize and respect the challenge of rising to the level that would allow one to start a professional writing career. And realize that the bad movies you see in theaters don’t mean that it should be easy. It isn’t. Not because the industry is so closed, but because it’s hard to do this really well.
I quote Jerry Seinfeld in Judd Apatow’s new book Sick in the Head. He might as well have been talking about screenwriting when he said, “That’s the greatest thing about comedy. If you’ve got talent, it’s unmistakable. No one misses it and you don’t have to wait around for a break. It’s very easy to get a break. It’s very hard to be good enough.”
I would only add this: “Good enough” does not apply to a writer’s innate worth, potential or ability. It applies to a particular script being “good enough,” in the eyes of professionals, that it could move them forward in a screenwriting career.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.