Thursday, 12 August 2010

Where do we go from here?

I've been thinking about this post for a while, since before the announced demise of the UK Film Council. But that seemed to crystallise certain things for me. Nevertheless I wasn't sure how to phrase this and thought it may come out wrong. So before we get going, this is in response to my own thoughts and to questions I get asked by new writers (even though I still consider myself one of them.) Some of the things I talk about are meant to be hypothetical. I'm not advocating anything, and I am certainly not in a position to influence anyone that matters in the industry. I am just asking questions - to myself as much as anyone else.

A question you often hear is can screenwriting be taught? You'll find different opinions all over screenwriting websites and blogs. I did an excellent Masters at London College of Communication. So you'd assume I'd answer yes. And that's true to a certain extent. Let's take cooking and music as two analogies. I can't cook or play a musical instrument. But if I invested as much time in either of those things as I have in screenwriting, I would expect to be able to do it to a certain standard. But I doubt I would ever be as good as someone who is born with a natural gift for it either. By the same token, if we take two people who were born with a natural talent, and one actively does things to learn more (tutors, courses, reading, whatever) and the other just relies on this natural talent, I would imagine the one who is being taught will progress to a greater standard at a greater rate.

But there are courses and there are courses - and there are books and there are books! I'm not a massive fan of these one day courses, or even long weekend things. I'm not naming names but they are often expensive, have become an industry in and of themselves, and you don't learn anything you can't get out of a book or the Internet. You might get a quick hit of inspiration, and if you can afford the fee, then fair enough. But most writers are broke, at least at the start and for a long time after! So I would tend to advise to save the pennies. Often one of the best benefits of these types of courses are not what you learn, but the chance to network. That's a different beast but it's still worth hunting down free or cheaper specific events to go to.

I believe that as an educational tool, the best courses are degrees, undergrad or postgrad, over a year or two. You get a chance to grow as a writer, to mix over a long period with other writers and to develop relationships that will last throughout your career. But you have to have the time and money to do one of these - and if you don't, I'm not sure it's worth trying to replace it with loads of one day courses. Because you can get so much from websites, blogs and books these days. But be careful of the books too. There are literally hundreds now and some of them are terrible. Again, use free websites and blogs first, and research expensive books before rushing out and buying a sack full.

Next question you hear a lot is: When do you give up? Wait, what? We haven't even started yet and we're giving up? But I get asked this a lot and I ask it of myself a lot too. I don't need to repeat what Danny has said, so just go here instead.

Because I believe, and this is the essence of this post, that there are too many screenwriters around today. And there are simply not enough jobs to go around. Not enough screenworks, TV or film, and radio too, are being produced. So a lot of people will not be able to earn a living out of their chosen profession. Ben Stephenson or John Yorke, I can't remember which, said as much in the recent WGGB podcasts. This is a bit worrying, surely? But what the answer is I have no idea.

However the next question is that despite the swell in numbers of screenwriters, despite the plethora of courses and books and websites and competitions and schemes and on and on and on, the general consensus is that the spec market is absolutely flooded and the overall quality of the slush pile is not getting any better. Why is this?

Recently I found myself watching And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story. Don't ask me why. That's another story. But at one point Sonny says in voiceover "I suppose every jerk who talks english thinks that he can write a screenplay. It was damn hard, let me tell ya." And I burst out laughing. I think every screenwriter should get that printed on their business cards. But although I wouldn't quite put it like that, it has an undeniable ring of truth that doesn't apply to our earlier food and music analogies. If your food tastes awful you're gonna know pretty quickly. If your music sounds terrible people are going to tell you to shut up. But creative writing - that seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

And most screenwriters, myself included, are not doing enough work. We are not doing enough drafts. And that is the single, biggest reason why the market is flooded and the quality doesn't get any better. I see it time and time again as a reader. I'm not talking about work that comes to me through my own feedback service. That by its very nature is to help with development. It's supposed to be for early drafts. I'm talking about stuff I read from companies or producers. Because if it has reached their desks, no way should it be anything but extremely polished. And if it's not, you are going to get found out. But most screenwriters don't know their drafts are not ready, because they are not getting good, honest feedback. (Or maybe any feedback at all.) Screenwriters usually fall between two stalls. Some think everything they write is awful. They are not the problem because they are not burdening the industry. (They have their own problems that they need help with, through feedback, because everything they write is probably not awful.) But there are other writers who think that everything they write is brilliant. And I'm talking about first drafts as well. And those are the ones that are rushing their scripts out to the nearest company or scheme or organisation that are still reading unsolicited scripts (and to agents too) although these are getting fewer and far between - for the very reason that they are completely swamped. So the writer, who has spent six months working on their screenplay, doing half a dozen drafts or more (and I think as a rule of thumb you need at least six) getting feedback every step of the way, and producing a really good piece of work, has to wait months and months for someone in the industry to read it - because these guys have to wade through the pile of scripts that were written in two weeks and are a pile of garbage. If it was a boxing match it wouldn't be allowed. Or something like that.

And so recently I've been wondering what if. What if every single body in this country - from organisations like BBC and UKFC, to production companies, to individual producers, script editors, et al - all said okay, from 1st of January 2011 until the 31st of December 2011, we are no longer accepting or reading any new scripts. They are going to use that time to actually get through the pile on all their desks, in a calm, considered manner, so they can sift out the rubbish and actually concentrate on the few that show promise. They can get those writers in and work with them, actually developing their project, without the pressure of knowing that the next time the post arrives it's going to contain another twenty scripts. They can spend the year making a few great projects they already have in, without having to deal with more and more coming ithrough the door. What would actually happen?

(This if you haven't noticed is the hypothetical bit. It's obviously ludicrous, would never happen, and is cutting my own nose of to spite my face. But hey, I just can't help but wonder.) And what would the rest of us do then? Well, we would write. But we would write without the pressure of trying to get the script done as quickly as possible so we can get it in the post before the (invisible) competition beats us to it. We would know we'd have a whole year to fully develop a project (or two, max) so that when the 1st of January 2012 came, we'd have really cracking projects to approach the refreshed, slush pile free, market.

And what would happen if those writers, who are not doing enough work, who think it's easy peasy to bash out a screenplay, whack it in the post, and get a three picture deal, knew that they literally could not send their masterpieces to anyone for a year? Do you think they'd bother any more? If there's no carrot at the end of the stick, will they just take up another 'hobby' that they think is the next get rich quick scheme? Would it be a mass culling, a sorting out of the truly committed writers, from the people just playing at it?

Like I said, I have no idea, it's all hypothetical, I'm not advocating anything, and I don't particularly want any hate mail. I'd rather just provoke a debate, or at the very least get people thinking. I doubt I'll manage either. But at least I managed to finally write this blog, and get it out of my head. I might sleep a bit better tonight. And that in itself would be a result.



I believe the US screenwriting industry tried your moratorium idea a couple of years ago, but it only lasted about 100 days.

Think they called it a writers' strike.

Jez Freedman said...

hahaha, yes quite. although i think that was the other way around to be fair!

Paul McIntyre said...

Does any writer seriously think of giving up? I mean, the writer who writes for the love of creating something?

Commissions and success are one thing, but really, if that's your long term goal, surely you'd be dedicated and in love with the craft to keep doing it regardless.

Do people really write because they think it's going to earn them money? Maybe I'm being naive.

Not really a big fan of those one day motivational courses - if the people who ran them really wanted to inspire people, then wouldn't they be doing it for free? There are plenty of inspiring blogs out there - like Danny Stack's for instance - that give wonderful advice and they don't ask for anything in return.

Brilliant post Jez.

Jez Freedman said...

cheers paul

i personally can't envisage a time when i won't be writing something. but it gets harder as you get older, and you have other responsibilities.

do people really write because they think it's going to earn them money? you better believe it. and there's nothing neccessarily wrong with that as long as the work is put in. but if it's the only reason for writing, and is some sort of get rich quick scheme, it's very stupid.