The Third Something

005 / The Screenplay Problem

The problem with screenwriting as a creative pursuit, and three ideas to fix it.

I hit a big milestone on Wednesday: I finished the first draft of the screenplay I have been working on since the summer. The scene-before-breakfast routine I told you about a few weeks ago has methodically paid off.

The script comes to 49 scenes across 132 pages (so a probable run time of a little more than two hours). I’d love to get it under two hours if I can (I can’t stand long movies.)

I’ve had a riot writing this thing. But the process has confirmed something about the nature of screenplays as a medium of visual storytelling, which, in lieu of a better name, I shall call The Screenplay Problem.

The Screenplay Problem

A couple of years ago Laura Olin wrote a hilarious and insightful review of the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass for The Awl. It’s called ‘Aaron Sorkin teaches you how to win the lottery’ and, as the title suggests, Olin is skeptical of these screenwriting courses that promise they can help you write a winning script.

Why? The Atlantic reports 50,000 screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America each year; over the same period about 150 new films get released through the Hollywood system. If you include the independent market and Netflix, that last number creeps up to, I don’t know, maybe 300 films?

So, optimistically, about 0.6 percent of screenplays get produced each year - and even that ignores the screenplays that don’t get registered.

The other 99.4 percent lie in a draw or rotting on a hard drive.

Which, to be honest, should be fine.

I mean, what odds does a painting have of ending up in the Met, or a poem of making its writer rich and famous? That doesn’t stop people quietly painting and poem-ing and deriving huge pleasure from it.

But it isn’t fine with screenplays. And that brings us to (drumroll) The Screenplay Problem.

The problem with a screenplay is that it is not a self-contained thing in and of itself. It is just a blueprint: an architectural drawing in need of a builder; a symphony with no orchestra to play it

Laura Olin articulated this so well, I still think of her argument two years after reading it for the first time:

Unlike so much of continuing education — knife skills, art history, woodworking, photography — screenwriting is nearly useless as a form of art to practice or enjoy in its own right. A script, historically, is not a consumable product on its own. You can’t Kickstart or self-publish it. The movie is the product, and movies (and TV shows) have one of the highest barriers to production imaginable because they are, for the most part, fucking expensive to make at even minimum levels of quality.

The problem is that if your screenplay does not become a movie — and there is a 99.4% chance of that — then you’re left with something that doesn’t have an audience.

A poet can, at the very least, print their poems off and give them away; an artist can sell a canvas, or upload it to Instagram.

And if your goal is to be good at telling dramatic, visual stories, screenwriting isn’t much use. If it can’t be consumed by an audience, how are you supposed to know if it is any good?

This problem has tugged at me for a couple of years now and I have a few ideas for ways around it:

  1. Make screenplays consumable: is there a way to make screenplays an enjoyable reading experience? At one point I wondered about sharing my script with you one scene at a time, like those victorian serials that got printed in the paper. Would you enjoy receiving a story that way?

  2. Change medium: if your goal is to be good at telling dramatic stories, then switching to playwriting might be a smart move. If your goal is to be good at telling visual stories, then are graphic novels or comics a better form of practice?

  3. Literally invent a new form of film story: as Laura Olin says, film and TV have huge barriers to entry, but is that because we are stuck inside the format of the feature or hour-long TV show? Is there a way to strip down a screen story into a format that can really be made on a low budget (but where everyone gets paid fairly)? I have always had faith in this, but over the last decade I haven’t seen any evidence of it happening, so now I wonder if it’s just not feasible.

And that’s all I have so far.

I have still really enjoyed the process of writing my script and, as Van Gogh taught us, that ought to be enough in and of itself. But I still think that if you want to improve, then you need an audience.

Or am I wrong about that?

Readers of The Third Something, what say you?

Until another Sunday soon,

Adam's signature