MEET THE READER: “Into the Sunset”

After two decades and literally hundreds of articles, the time has come for Ray Morton to head off into the sunset with his final Meet the Reader column.
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Lawrence of Arabia, Columbia Pictures

Lawrence of Arabia, Columbia Pictures

At the end of many a classic film, when the protagonist’s job is done, he turns and heads off into the sunset. I have been writing this column in one form or another for almost twenty years now. I began writing it when Script was a print magazine, continued it when the publication migrated online, and continued to continue until today. It’s been an amazing journey with lots of ups and a few downs; an experience that has been challenging, stimulating, and tons of fun. But after two decades and literally hundreds of articles, the time has come for me to head off into the sunset. This is the final Meet the Reader column.

There are a number of reasons I’ve decided to bring MTR to an end. Some are personal – a number of recent and significant life experiences have persuaded me it’s time to make a few changes and go in some new directions – and some are professional – I’ve been developing a number of promising projects that have reached the stage where they are demanding more of my time and attention and I’ve decided to focus most of my energy on them. But the main reason I’ve decided to stop is that I don’t want to repeat myself. In the many years I’ve been writing Meet the Reader, I’ve examined the art and craft of screenwriting from just about every possible angle – creative, practical, business, educational, and historical. I’ve tried to be helpful by providing advice, perspective, support, and the occasional dollop of tough love. I’ve enjoyed it all immensely, but after covering so much ground over so much time, it’s become harder and harder to come up with topics that I haven’t already addressed (sometimes more than once, from several different angles). This has led me to think that perhaps I’ve said all I can really say about screenwriting -- at least at this time and in this format. And therefore it’s time to go.

Ray Morton

Ray Morton

I’m not going far. I’ll be continuing my script consulting work and my old columns will be available on the Script site and will soon be posted on my own website (www.raymorton.com). I hope to write the occasional piece for Script and my books on screenwriting (A Quick Guide to Screenwriting and A Quick Guide to Television Writing) are easily obtainable through Amazon and other booksellers. I’m on Twitter and Instagram at RayMorton1 and you can always email me at ray@raymorton.com. So I’ll be around.

I’m stepping away from MTR at a very challenging time for screenwriters. The relentless focus on blockbusters by the major studios has narrowed mainstream filmmaking to big-budget action and fantasy spectaculars at one end and low-budget indies at the other, greatly reducing the opportunities for motion picture writing assignments and spec script sales. At the same time, the mid-range dramas, comedies, and thrillers that once made up the majority of the studios’ output have all but disappeared from theaters, which is a problem for writers since most specs fall into these categories. The increased programming of reality and game shows on the major networks and the current preference to create mostly staff-written scripts on most programs have similarly reduced the opportunities for television writers.

On the other hand, the rise of streaming services and their voracious need for content is generating many new opportunities for screen scribes. Right now, the streamers seem to be mostly interested in series, which is good news for writers interested in working in episodic, serialized, and long-form storytelling. The streaming services have also ventured into features. The initial results in that realm have mostly been lackluster, but hopefully, things will improve and allow for quality mid-range movies to be made on a regular basis once again.

Streaming has also had a major impact on the way screen stories are. Along with the premium cable and most remaining network dramas, streaming’s emphasis on serialized storytelling is requiring screenwriters, who were once encouraged to tell their tales as compactly and efficiently as possible, to stretch their narratives out over many, many hours. I have serious concerns about the quality of dramatic storytelling under such conditions, but it is a fact of life for now and needs to be contended with. Business conditions for writers are also in flux, with many of the industry’s current practices putting writers at a significant disadvantage.

Combine these factors with the upheavals caused by the digital revolution in production and distribution, as well as the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, and there’s no doubt that these are tumultuous times for the movie business and for screenwriting and screenwriters. It’s hard to know how things are going to shake out. But however they do, the industry will go on in some form or another. And whatever that form is, it will always need people to craft the stories it will tell. So learn the principles of dramatic writing, read a lot of scripts, see a lot of movies, see a lot of older movies (you’ll be surprised to find how of the writing problems you’re wrestling with now have already been solved by screenwriters in the past – even those back when the world was in black and white), write from the heart, don’t worry too much about “rules” and gurus, behave professionally, and (most of all) hang in there and you should do just fine.

As I come to the end of Meet the Reader, I can’t help but think about the beginning. This column was initiated by Shelly Mellot, Script’s founding editor (and now the head of Final Draft). Shelly and I first met in what I’m sure both of us would agree was the single strangest professional situation either of us ever found ourselves in. When we look back on it now, we chuckle, but at the time the events were so strange that it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say they were actually a bit traumatic. Over a long lunch afterward where we decompressed and tried to make sense of the surreal experience we had just been through, Shelly and I became friends, and not long afterward she asked me to write this column. That request led not only to Meet the Reader, but also many other assignments, opportunities, and adventures, all for which I will be forever grateful. As anyone who knows her will tell you, Shelly is a terrific human being – smart, talented, fun, savvy, generous, supportive, and kind. She’s also a great person to work for – a consummate professional who always knew exactly what it took to make a piece better. Thank you, Shelly – for so very, very much.

Thanks also to Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, who succeeded Shelly as Script’s editor and saw the site through some very rocky times as the brand was sold numerous times to a succession of owners, some of whom valued it more than others. It was a real roller coaster, but through it all Jeanne kept everyone’s morale up and never lost her focus on supporting writers, something in which she has no equal and that she continues to do masterfully in her new role over at Script Pipeline. In addition to being a sharp editor and putting up with my nonsense at a couple of screenwriting conferences, Jeanne has also been a great personal friend – her support during some very difficult times meant (and still means) the world. Jeanne’s the best.

I also want to give a shout-out to Script’s current editor, Sadie Dean. Sadie took over when Jeanne left and although she’s only been running things for a relatively short while, she’s doing a marvelous job. Sadie has expanded the site’s scope in some exciting ways and there are more great things to come.

Acknowledgment is also due to some of the other great folks I’ve had the honor of being associated with during my time with Script, including ace editors Maureen Green and Joshua Stecker, super man-of-many-hats Zack Gutin, my fellow columnist and fellow script analyst Staton Rabin, and the great Misse Geatty, the wonderful den mother of Script Services. I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to work with all of these terrific folks.

Finally, I want to give big, big thanks to all of you – to everyone who has read my musings over the years; to those who have reached out to tell me you appreciated my work or to share your thoughts and opinions, or to challenge me when you thought I was full of baloney. It has truly been an honor and a joy to connect with all of you and I can only hope that these columns have been of some help to you.

When I was just starting out, I submitted one of my earliest screenplays to an agent at William Morris. I have long since forgotten her name, but I have never forgotten the advice she gave me when she rejected it. In a kind but firm tone, this agent told me that, while I was not without ability, my script did not tell the story I was trying to tell and it did not make the points I was trying to make. In other words, she told me that, while I had lots of energy and lots of desire, I did not yet know how to write. She said if I hoped to succeed as a professional screenwriter, I would need to go and learn the basics of dramatic writing, the basics of screenwriting, and the basics of the industry in which I hoped to toil and then to work as hard as I could to develop my skills as best as I could in order to tell the stories I wanted to tell in ways that were both creatively and professionally successful. I took that excellent lady’s advice to heart and have spent my career learning and practicing all that I can about the wonderful and mysterious and challenging and frustrating and ultimately rewarding art, craft, and business of screenwriting. For the past twenty years, I have tried to use this Meet the Reader as a way to pass on what I have learned to all of you. If I have succeeded even a bit, then I have done the job I set out to do. And with that, it’s time to head into the MTR sunset.

See you at the movies!

                                                                              FADE OUT.

A Note from the Editor

A monumental standing ovation to Ray Morton from myself and the Script community, for his years of invaluable advice and guidance for screenwriters. His dedication to his Script column Meet the Reader for the past 20 years, speaks volumes to his character, intuitiveness, and desire to educate and inspire storytellers. I am ever so grateful for his words of encouragement and thankful to have had a brief ride on his journey at Script. I implore you all to take a deep dive into Ray's column Meet the Reader, where you'll certainly learn the ins and outs about the craft and business of screenwriting. 

TheEnd-MTR-Script

Copyright © 2021 by Ray Morton

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