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Notes from the Margins: The Blockbuster vs. Acclaimed Indie – What Should You Write?

Danny Manus asks if you were only able to write one script, would it be a hugely successful tentpole blockbuster or a critically loved tiny indie that almost no one sees and that makes little money.

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There was recently a debate in a Facebook group about what you should write if you were only able to write ONE script – a lambasted but hugely successful tentpole blockbuster or a critically loved tiny indie that almost no one sees and that makes little money.

Writers offered arguments on both sides, noting that if you write the critical darling, it could lead to bigger stuff. But that wasn’t the question, was it. You only get to write ONE script. For me, there is no question here - you write the hugely successful blockbuster that everyone hates. At least you’ll be able to live off the money for quite a while.

blockbuster vs indie

Extrapolating this conundrum, it really asks the question of which is more important – art or money? And as Ted Hope’s recent widely-circulated blog post highlights, the mainstream movie-making business has become solely about the latter.

Even for those screenwriters who do get a movie made, much like the music industry, it takes even more hard work not to be a one-shot wonder. That’s why you want to make as much money on that first film as you can. Then again, MC Hammer made millions… and then what?

It begs the question – what kind of writer are you and what kind of writer do you want to be? Are you the type that can see an Avatar-style world in your head and bring that to the page in spectacular detail? Or would you rather write a small, powerful scene of dialogue between two lovers? Do you love to write huge action-heavy, world-ending sequences full of bullets, explosions, aliens, robots, and high physical stakes? Or would you rather write 40 pages of straight dialogue where the characters progress the story instead of violence?

There is no right or wrong answer. Well, technically.

If you want to be a successful studio writer, then you need to write the big-budget blockbuster. If you want to be the indie darling who suffers for their art, then write the tiny indie, go find financing and pray that it gets into Sundance.

Both types of scripts can help you get noticed, but it is a bit of a Catch 22. For years, everyone said that they would not read $150M blockbuster scripts from new or unrep’d writers because they can’t bet that kind of money on a new writer being able to execute an idea. They want to work with writers with a proven track record, and they want to be able to say “From the Writers of THIS MEGA MOVIE…” in the commercial. And writing the quirky indie dramedy was the easiest way to get noticed (thanks, Diablo Cody!). But over the last year or two, every producer, manager and agent I’ve talked to is looking for something big from any writer they read.

Sure, everyone says they just want to read a “great story” or connect with a “great character” – but they don’t really mean it. What they mean is a “great story” that can sell to a broad audience and a “great character” that they can cast with a major movie star who sells overseas. This is why Ted Hope was absolutely right, and why all you writers out there writing stories that only eight people would pay to see, are having a hard time breaking in.

If you write the big blockbuster, it may not sell because you’re a new writer - but reps want to see that you CAN write that so that after they sell the smaller thriller, comedy, horror or action film you’ve also written, they can dust off that blockbuster and get it sold for buckets of cash! If all you got are small uncommercial indie darlings, you either better be privately wealthy, be a crowd-funding maven, or know how to make it yourself.

There are plenty of indie darlings who do cross-over and become big tentpole writers or directors (Chris Nolan, Michel Gondry, Oren Peli, Tarantino, etc.), but their indie stories were still high concept and somewhat mainstream – just done on a small scale with a specific visual twist. But sometimes big tentpole writers make their money and then decide to do a small film “for them.” That’s the luxury of what making millions off the studio system affords you.

Of course in a perfect world, you should try to write both. Write one big blockbuster, and one small indie darling. But know what type of writer you want to be and what kind of career you hope to have. And no matter which you write, be sure to show off some originality and commerciality in story and voice or else it won’t matter which kind of script you prefer.

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