Staton Rabin is an optioned screenwriter/novelist, and a freelance story analyst who has worked for Warner Bros. Pictures, the William Morris Agency, the Big Break Screenwriting Contest-- and screenwriters like you (www.StatonRabin.com and www.ScreenplayMuse.com). Staton evaluates scripts and loglines/pitches; coaches writers; and enjoys spotting talent in any film genre. She's available for consultations, and can be reached at Staton@StatonRabin.com.
When I was in film school, all of our attention was on writing and making movies. On day one, they put a movie camera in our hands-- one of those wonderful old wind-up 16 mm Filmo cameras that had probably last seen action on the beaches at the Battle of Normandy-- and sent us out in the world to make movies. That was really unusual in those days, since it was rumored that another famous film school (the one located out West) wouldn’t even let you touch a movie camera till you’d been there at least a year.
But on my first day in film school, hands atremble, I turned the big key to wind up my filmo, enlisted my big brother’s actor friends to star in my films-- believe me, there’s nothing easier to find in New York City than a terrific out-of-work Equity or SAG actor-- and went out in the streets of the City and beyond to shoot movies. It was quite an adventure. Don’t even ask me about the time the parrot I rented for the day managed to entangle himself in a thread, tying his foot to his head just before his “big scene” (Don’t worry, he was okay). Or the time a fellow student enlisted me to shoot his “cinema verité” movie by having me slide down a snow-covered hill on a sled and jump off just before we crashed into a tree (Don’t worry, I was okay).
Film school was a great experience, and the screenwriters among us came out of there knowing how to do every aspect of filmmaking, from editing to sound recording-- and even acting and script analysis. It prepared me for the career I have now as a screenwriter and freelance script analyst. But there was one thing they didn’t teach us: how to pitch and sell a movie script. In fact, back then, we lived isolated in our own creative “kingdoms”, which we ruled with absolute power-- drawing from our own personal energy supplies of Vibranium. We learned almost nothing about the “business” part of the film business. One of my talented classmates-- Chris Columbus-- was already well on his way to success as a director/screenwriter. But for most of the rest of us, learning how to sell a script-- and being aware of what Hollywood was looking for-- was something we had to learn on our own. And it wasn’t easy.
Even getting information about what was in development in Hollywood wasn’t widely available to film students back then, and few of us could afford to subscribe to “Variety”. There were no virtual pitch meetings, no scriptmag.com or other online resources for screenwriters, hardly any screenwriting contests, and-- quite literally— only two books available on how to write a screenplay (and one of them was actually about playwriting and had been written back in the 1940s).
Nowadays, most aspiring screenwriters and TV writers are really savvy about what to write and how to sell it. In some ways, that’s a good thing, because they’re better equipped as businesspeople than the film/TV school grads of the past. But in others, I worry. Yes, pitches and spec screenplays are getting better and better because of all the great information and webinars out there now. I’ve evaluated thousands of scripts for film/TV studios, a major screenwriting contest, and writers— so I know this to be true. But I worry that with so many contests being judged by writers’ reps and buyers-- and pay-to-pitch ZOOM platforms where writers compete like contestants on “America’s Got Talent”-- are screenwriters becoming too business-minded in their creative process?
At the concept stage, will they discard any idea that’s not “high concept”, even if they know in their gut that it would make a great movie, and they’re the only who can write it? Will they stop writing feature films just because TV is “hot” right now? Or not write period pieces anymore because some of the reps and buyers claim (contrary to all the evidence) that they are “not selling” or are “too expensive to make”? Will screenwriters no longer take chances on a groundbreaking script that might offend or challenge some people, is execution-driven and may be hard to pitch-- or that doesn’t check all the demographic boxes for what Hollywood is looking for right now? Will they start writing to please agents or managers instead of themselves-- even if they know this won’t show their talent, and doesn’t speak to their own heart and soul?
Don’t get me wrong. Screenwriters mustn’t live in a vacuum, and selling your script is the goal. But don’t let the “business” of the business get too much inside your head. Many critically acclaimed and, yes, profitable plays, films, and TV shows fit nobody’s idea of what’s selling. For examples, you need look no further than HAMILTON, “Nomadland”, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, “Minari”, and “The Queen’s Gambit”. As a writer, nothing is more precious than your courage and creative freedom— at least up till you finish your first draft. Keep in mind that few of the people who are deciding whether to represent you or buy your material are accomplished screenwriters themselves. If they don’t like your concept or story, figure out whether taking their advice would really improve it (it might!)-- or maybe they just don’t understand your vision, but you plan to direct the film and can picture it all very clearly. Perhaps they think anything in your genre is “a tough sell” (Note: it’s never the genre that prevents a script from selling). Or maybe your script makes them fearful, or they worry what others will think. But when it comes to the arts, making people uncomfortable might sometimes be a good thing.
Learning your craft and doing truly exceptional— not merely “good”— writing should be your mission. Yes, you also need to read lots of scripts and watch movies and TV, be aware of what’s going on in the business and in society, and learn how to pitch. But at the concept and first draft stage for your script, you must remain fiercely independent, and not let anyone tell you what you should be writing about. Shut out the noise. You must be the undisputed King (or Queen) of your own Wakanda. Guard your creative Vibranium with your life. Yibambe!