In commenting on another post, Mark (last name unknown) shared with us that he is eight years out of a UCLA MFA in screenwriting, has a large body of scripts and has four of them currently in the market. He expressed his frustration at being a starving artist, but says:

“I wrote because I’m a writer, and to get good at it…you gotta write.

I wish more so called writers realized this, but they don’t.
Sad thing…some of those that don’t are selling scripts and writing in Hollywood now, and are part of the reason there’s so much junk being made.”

First, hats off for hanging in, Mark. A lot of aspiring writers are envious of your degree and your ability to focus on your writing. Good luck with the scripts currently out in the market. I picked out your comment because it fits in exactly with the post I’ve been working on and helped me a great deal to focus it.

As a pre-amble, I want to say for serious writers who have been at it awhile and are looking for a break, the answer is frequently to bring the writing up a notch. Keep in mind, I’m not saying Mark needs to do this. I haven’t read his writing. Hopefully, we’ll read about him in the trades next week with three out of the four scripts having been picked up in huge sales. What I am saying is that, if you work hard at your writing, you circulate it regularly in the mainstream Hollywood community, and still it’s not somehow getting real attention (e.g. sales, options, significant mainstream attachments of producers or other real objective elements that establish some degree of acceptance – and don’t fool yourself, you know the difference between real attachments and fluff), then you should consider what you need to do to the writing to get to the next level in your career.

No surprise, I have a suggestion on where you might turn for an answer. Read (or reread, as the case may be) Terry Rossio’s brilliant columns at Wordplayer. Not just a few of them, but all of them. Terry Rossio and his partner Ted Elliott are two prolific screenwriters at the top of their game. They’ve done it all and love to share, in eloquent and extremely helpful terms, the secrets to their success. To me, these columns are particularly useful to writers who’ve already been at it a while, writers who have a solid appreciation for the challenges of writing and a burning desire to get better. Consider the columns an advanced course for turning good writers into great writers.

But enough kissing up to Terry. That’s not really the purpose of this post. Rather, the purpose is to talk about junk screenplays. Mark expressed a frustration that is common, and understandable, among writers at Mark’s level. Namely, that crappy writers seem to get breaks when serious writers work for years without them. There is no question that every producer in town is inundated with total garbage scripts. They clog the system and make it hard to get any script even looked at.

But that’s the business –

and that’s not who we’re competing with. I’m not the first nor even close to the best writer to say that you can’t tell anything about the screenplay from the produced picture. (See Crap-Plus-One by Terry Rossio.) Assuming that bad writing sells every day, is made into bad movies and takes your opportunity is a mistake. I often have the privilege of access to the hot spec scripts and I take every opportunity to read them. I can tell you, by and large, there’s a reason they sell. They are typically highly focused, well written scripts with fresh, accessible concepts. While some bad scripts get purchased, few get turned into movies and fewer yet initiate writing careers.

More importantly, you’re not competing with the bad writers out there. You’re competing with the good ones. In fact, you’re competing with the best writers in the business. Don’t kid yourselves. They’d love every shot you’ll ever be given.

With few exceptions, Hollywood is a pure meritocracy. Good writing gets noticed, optioned, purchased and, eventually, made. Take a scan through the internet movie database. Pick movies you really like. Those are the writers that will write over and over and over again, and whose scripts will actually get made over and over and over again. Why? Because they are very, very good.

Sure, the fact that a few bad writers get a few big breaks is annoying, but it’s inconsequential to you. Screenwriting is the most competitive game around. If you want to make it, the answer is easy. Write better; always write better. Don’t ache over the amount of work you already put into your writing. Don’t fall in love with your own words. Instead, do whatever you have to in order to make your writing better.

All you can ever count on for sure is your skill. It’s the one thing that you can control and it’s the one thing that, if you do it as well as the best, is guaranteed to make your career. So make it better.

5 thoughts on “COMPETING WITH JUNK”

  1. Quick question: How do you feel choice of subject matter influences commercial success. Do you think Hollywood is more interested in another LEATHAL WEAPON or SCREAM 3 rather than another AMERICAN BEAUTY?

    If you were starting out–what genre would you write for spec?

    Thanks for the great blog,


  2. Trev –

    Excellent question. I’m going to borrow it for the next post. I’ll put up an answer in the next couple days.

  3. Terrific topic. Used to hover a razor over my wrist (figuratively speaking) over this. Exited many a multiplex with my head low, wringing my hands, ready to purge that little folder on my desktop labeled FINISHED DRAFTS. Alas, you are right on with this. It’s ultimately about the work and that special thrill it gives you. If not, hit the bricks because nobody out there, as we speak, is pining for your work. (Sounds a little too Glengarry Glen Ross/Swimming With Sharks-ish, but hey, you know what they say about the heat and the kitchen, yes?) That said, I do believe that if you keep striving for quality, you will have no choice but to get noticed. It almost happens accidentally and that’s fine because you’ll be busy on whatever current project is tripping your trigger. It’s a nice circular process that only requires tenacity and a love of the work. That said, to paraphrase Henny Youngman, “someone, take my script, please!”

  4. But… junk can be entertaining, what about enjoyment? Do we need every film or story to be a classic? Also one persons favourite film is rubbish to another, so Bill and Ted are classics to some, Hitchcock to another..

  5. Junk art:

    It’s not about high art vs. comedy. Bill and Ted’s adventure was truly excellent. The point is, as an emerging writer competing with mainstream Hollywood writers, you are competing primarily with those who write well. Looking at pictures that you, yourself, think are written poorly and saying, “I can write at least that well” will never get you a writing career. You must look at screenplays which you, yourself, think are excellent, whether purely escapist, serious drama, raunchy comedy, satire or anything else, and strive to write at that level. Those are the writers with whom you are competing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *