“Should I write a commercial script or a personal one?”
This is a question I am asked frequently from beginning and aspiring spec screenwriters.
By “commercial,” they mean an entertainment: a high-concept genre piece that emphasizes the core elements of all entertainment (action, humor, and romance) – an often big and sometimes broad piece designed to appeal to a wide audience. A commercial script is often dismissed by the uninitiated as a less serious type of writing than a personal screenplay – more of a technical exercise rather than an artistic one – and writing one is sometimes even derided as a form of slumming or selling out.
By “personal” they mean a script that follows the dictum to “write what you know:” a (usually) non-genre drama, based on the writer’s personal experience, concerns, and/or obsessions. Personal screenplays are (usually) less concerned with entertaining and more in serving as a vehicle to reflect the author’s unique artistic vision. As a result, personal screenplays tend to appeal to a much narrower audience than commercial scripts. A personal screenplay is often considered (again by the uninitiated) to be a more “serious” form of writing than a commercial piece – “deeper,” more creative, more meaningful – and penning one is frequently judged to be a more elevated and noble pursuit than crafting “just” an entertainment.
So, what these writers are essentially asking is if they should choose art or entertainment?
It’s the wrong question – primarily because it’s based on the false assumption that an entertainment can’t (or shouldn’t) be personal/artistic and that a personal/artistic script can’t (or shouldn’t) be entertaining. A good script should be both entertaining and personal/artistic. Whatever else they are and can be, movies are entertainment. That is how they began back in the nickelodeon days and what they primarily remain in today’s multiplex-and-streaming world. Cinema also has tremendous creative potential – it can tell an almost infinite variety of stories (from the most intimate and personal to the most broad and epic) in a wide range of ways (from straightforward narrative to non-linear to impressionistic and so on) and also has the ability to express and provoke incredibly complex ideas and emotions. Both of these aspects should always be utilized to their maximum within the confines of a given project.
The best commercial films are also intensely personal: The Godfather and The Godfather Part II contain scenes directly inspired by the personal experiences of Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola and their narratives present themes and ideas that directly reflect the two men’s concerns and beliefs about family, power, succession, and America itself. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial comes directly from the hearts of Melissa Mathison and Steven Spielberg. The personalities of Robert Bolt and David Lean are in every frame of Lawrence of Arabia. The box-office smashes written and directed by George Lucas and James Cameron could not be made by anyone other than those two men. Can Martin Scorsese’s biggest box office hit Goodfellas be considered anything other than a personal statement by its co-writer and director? The best of the Marvel films clearly reflect the unique visions of their idiosyncratic creators. The personal elements in these movies are not always text in the way they might be in more artistic films, but they are definitely present in the subtext, tone, and sensibilities of these pictures.
Likewise, the best personal films are also very entertaining, if not always in the more identifiable and obvious ways that commercial pictures are. There is arguably no American filmmaker more unique and decidedly artistic than David Lynch, whose most typical movies clearly reflect the writer/director’s personal concerns and obsessions, but are also full of sex and violence and possessed of a slyly wicked sense of humor, all of which engage and amuse viewers while also providing them with a gateway into the more obscure facets of Lynch’s work. Quentin Tarantino’s screenplays and pictures are undeniably personal – the aggressively confident expressions of a truly original voice – but are also jam-packed with (usually dark) humor and (often violent) action, all blasted at the audience from Tarantino’s distinctively-skewed perspective. Jennifer Kent presented her meditation on the stresses and challenges of motherhood in the form of a horror film with her terrifying 2014 debut film The Babadook. While the art in these movies tends to be more prominent than the diversion, there is still plenty in each for the audience to enjoy as they are enveloped by the creators’ strikingly original visions.
When spec writers focus on only one piece of the equation – on just the entertainment or just the personal – their scripts tend to go wanting. When a writer’s sole goal is to produce a commercial script – a script whose only reason for existing is to sell – the result is almost always terrible. This is because a writer whose only motivation is to make a sale tends to be too derivative. They follow current trends too slavishly and copy too many elements from recent hits, resulting in scripts that are overly-formulaic and lack in originality. And because they are just assembling a bunch of pieces from other movies into a new script, their screenplays lack personality, passion, meaning, and heart. This type of by-the-numbers commercial script tends to be very well-executed, but also completely lifeless. On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of personal screenplays that are solipsistic and self-indulgent and are filled with private elements whose meanings are impenetrable to anyone other than their authors.
You will never write anything good unless the material has personal meaning for you (even if that meaning is solely a passion for the genre you are writing in). However, a personal screenplay is useless unless you can get someone to agree to make it into a movie that people will want to see.
So, if you’re working on a commercial piece, be sure to invest it with elements that have personal meaning for you – characters, settings, events, themes, points-of-view, senses of humor, and so on. If you’re writing a personal piece, be sure to find ways to invite viewers into your private world by filling your script with vibrant, relatable characters, humor, thrills, romance, and action (both big and small). Don’t impose these things on a script from the outside, but instead tease them out from the script’s private elements so that you can make the personal universal.
By following these guidelines, you’ll create a script that answers the only question a writer should ever ask themselves about their work:
Is it good?
Copyright © 2019 by Ray Morton
All Rights Reserved
No portion of this article may be copied, reprinted, or reposted without the permission of the author
However, feel free to link to this piece to your heart’s content