In Screenwriting, When is GOOD Good Enough?
One fall, many years ago, I happened to visit my family in Israel right around the time of the European Basketball Championship. Israel made it all the way to the finals that year, and on the night of the big game, Tel-Aviv was a ghost town. My uncle, cousin and myself were the only people who left their TV sets long enough to venture out to dinner in an entirely deserted restaurant where even a bus boy (let alone a waiter or a cook) was hard to find. It isn’t so much that early quiet dinner that I remember as it is the drive home from the restaurant. On the radio, the sports commentators were going wild: “The Israeli basketball team just proved itself to be the best in the world!” “No one can argue that we are number one.” Only they could. Israel lost the game, and was not the team being handed the big trophy.
I met with a writer today who makes me think of this particular experience almost every time he finishes a new project. He tells me: “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s soooo good! I’m just loving how it turned out.” And when no one in the industry responded as he had hoped, he tells me: “The writing is there. I know it is. It’s never been better. They just don’t get it. That’s the problem here. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing – because the writing is that good – and everything will be fine.”
It’s important to state that believing in oneself is a critical component to screenwriting success. You have to have conviction in the fact that you have something to say, and the quality of work with which you say it with. Confidence and conviction is key to success, but in an industry where success depends not only on what you generate, but also on how it is received on the other end, building a screenwriting career demands much more than that. Let me say this one more time, in even clearer terms: You have to love the work. If you don’t love the work, you can’t expect anyone else to get behind it. But – for good or bad, and specifically for writers who have yet to make a name for themselves – loving the work is only a part of today’s screenwriting game.
Over the years, I’ve seen this particular writer engage in a habit that, admittedly, makes me uncomfortable: He tends to send the work only to other writers who are in awe of him as he is consistently a few steps ahead of them. Where they might have gotten some industry interest, he sold a screenplay and a pitch in the past. Where they are developing pitches for free, he gets the occasional Open Writing Assignment (OWA). So the one thing these writers do consistently is rave about the quality of the work. Whenever he gives scripts to these writers for reads, he comes back full of compliments. Which is important for every writer, but does not ultimately challenge and therefore enhance the work. So rather than pushing himself further, this particular writer tends to fortify in what he considers unquestionable creative success.
The reality is that screenwriting is an iterative process, and you have to challenge yourself to go from GOOD to GREAT. Sure, there are writers whose instincts are so strong they can hit it out of the part right off the bat, but for many the art of screenwriting is all about rewriting and refining from draft to draft. At the end of the day, many MANY people within the industry are going to have to agree on the quality and promise of the work before it can graduate to any level of industry success. In today’s marketplace, where you have to assume that anyone who’s gotten a bit of traction, landed representation or even won a big contest has the chops to put it on the page, good is not good enough. While I am THRILLED whenever one of my writers is fully satisfied with the work (there are a few writers in my stable who are never entirely satisfied with the finished product), so long as they are trying to have the work surface in the industry, it’s not their final verdict of the work that counts.
For the record: The writer that I am talking about here is a good writer. A VERY good one. But sometimes good is not good enough. It has to be GREAT in order to make a mark. In this particular scenario, I’ve observed the writer, script after script and time after time, deeming the work finished and ready for market without any sign-off from anyone who would dare to challenge him or the work: readers, consultants, successful yet unforgiving friends. As far as he is concerned, and since he has had some success in the past, so long as he deems the work great, it is beyond reproach.
As a writer, you are in the business of anticipating interpretation. This means that it’s not only your job to put the material on the page, but also to understand how it will be received on the other end. What’s resonating? What isn’t? Because screenwriting is really a mastery of the economy of words, are you managing to capture and relay all you’ve intended in the work? Understanding how your material is received and interpreted on the other end is often a real make-or-break.
Add to that the fact that this is a business of opinions. There is no doubt about that. I often see a script that is dismissed by one executive get nothing but love from another. So it’s without a doubt that not everyone will agree on every writer’s work, and even ones that love the better part of a writer’s body of work may one day encounter a script from that one particular writer that they can’t stand. Hell, a few weeks ago I met with a writer of mine of whom I am generally a huge fan and had to tell him that, in my humble opinion, his latest script was not his best work. Trust me when I tell you that it was not a fun conversation to have! And in his own passive-aggressive way, the writer still reminds me how much my response to the material hurt. My point? While it is a business of opinion, it is of utmost importance that the writer impress those whose opinions count. It doesn’t matter how much the writer loves his work, or how many friends he’s developed among his non-executive, no decision-making, non-working writer friends, if the work is not good enough to pass on to next level people, to send out to reps, to excite industry folks into action, it may be good, but good is not always good enough for the marketplace.
Another writer I had worked with for some time, who had had some success in the television space but in her new manifestation as a feature writer had suffered a bit of a drought, was in the regular practice of trying to impress upon me that her writing was as good as or better than an Academy Award nominated screenwriter in any given year. One year she went as far as to write up a document detailing how her script trumped each and every screenplay nominated for an Academy Award for screenwriting. Suffice it to say, she didn’t go far. But more importantly, the script that she wrote that she swore was Academy-worthy fare never generated a single meeting, a single request to read her next screenplay, a single bit of interest. She was good, and I continue to respect the talent she brings to the table. But to her detriment, she also refused to recognize that after sending her work to literally hundreds of industry friends, known reps and working execs, she was the only one who thought the work was great.
When a screenplay fails to surface in the market, it usually does so due to one of three reasons: Execution, genre, or subject matter. Market trends easily fall under the categories of genre and subject matter; one year vampires can be out, while another comedy may be suffering, and those trends are entirely out of your control and cannot to be anticipated. But execution, which encompasses everything from the BIG idea, characters, world-building if you’re writing for television, and innovative plotting, are all critical to your success. While you have no control over market trends, it’s the execution that you are responsible for dialing in.
Now, I am not saying that if your script is executed as well as can be, everyone will love it. In fact, the reality is far from it. And I’ve been known to remind my writers again and again that a handful of passes are not nearly enough of a barometer to determine whether or not this is the right time and the script is of the right quality for the marketplace. But unlike the writer I mentioned earlier, it is your responsibility to challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and make your screenplay as good as it can be in order to have conviction rather than blind faith when it goes out into the marketplace. That means working with consultants who have a reputation for being super demanding on material, with readers who are known for their harsh and unforgiving evaluations of the work. If it’s friends you’re relying on, rely on the ones who are better than you, not as good as you are, or aspiring to arrive at your current station and skill set. Go to the ones whose opinion intimidates you, those who will make you nervous. They are the ones who will dare to challenge your work. In short, engage with those who don’t want to impress you, and whose blessing – when finally given – will mean that the screenplay is really “there.”
While not every screenplay will sell (especially in the current market) you know if a script is good enough when it generates general meetings. Whether the script is good enough to pave some inroads for you is something that will only be found out in time. After vetting the screenplay thoroughly with the right people, I encourage all of my writers to expose the work to anyone and everyone. And you will know that a script succeeded in the market not because it sells, but based on the fact that it generates interest for the writer who created it. Recently, Echo Lake took a piece out by one of my writers. It is a wonderful period piece that serves as an origin story for a beloved fairy tale character, and it’s beautifully written, though by no stretch of the imagination commercial. Everyone knew that it would be a hard sell, and in time the market proved as much. But the writer started getting requests for generals almost as soon as the material went out. Another one of my writers won PAGE with the same work that then became a featured script on The Black List. Well written but uncommercial material. It took him a while to secure representation, but during that time he was meeting with industry execs day in and day out. The point? When the work is, indeed, good enough, it will generate interest. And even if it doesn’t generate a sale or other immediate work, it will generate meetings, opportunities and all important relationships for the writer. That is how you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that a piece of material is good enough for the marketplace.