2015 is going to be a great year. It’s going to be fabulous mainly because I’m only going to watch world cinema, European television and independent films. 2015 is going to be my #yearwithoutHollywood. Basically, I’ve committed myself to spending a whole year without watching any Hollywood cinema or American TV, past or present.
When I was living the media-hobo lifestyle in Italy, I had the time and the energy to attend a lot of film festivals. Every year, I’d see amazing films on the festival circuit; films that no one in the screenwriting community was watching or had even heard about. Fabulous films that told fresh and interesting stories. Films that told stories Hollywood would never, ever consider telling. Personally, some the best films I’ve ever seen, have been little, foreign language films I discovered in minor, European film festivals.
Then we returned to England. There was plenty of work for me. Unfortunately, it was the kind of work that was more nine-to-five than I prefer. Suddenly, my viewing choices were limited to the films I could find on the TV, stuff shown at local cinemas, and whatever looked good on Netflix. What I discovered, fairly quickly, is that when it comes to picking stuff to watch, the decks are stacked firmly in favor of Hollywood. It’s not that there aren’t good independent films or world cinema available, but you have to make a real effort to find them. The first problem is figuring out how to search Netflix for international films, and the second is finding sources of information about what films are worth watching. As independent and world cinema are often based on original concepts, and staring actors you’ve never heard of, choosing what to watch is not as simple as with Hollywood movies, where familiar names and brands are all you are offered. Hollywood films and American TV are just easier to access. They’re right in front of you, all of the time. One click and away you go, something to watch that won’t make any demands on you. On top of that, everyone online is talking about them and there is a massive publicity machine supporting them. Hollywood is in your face, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, everywhere in the world.
At the local cinema, it’s even more likely that you’ll end up watching Hollywood’s output. At an average twelve screen multiplex, at least eleven of those screens will be pushing out Hollywood movies. At this point, it’s probably worth pointing out that I’m not American, and I live in England. If I am lucky, I might find one British film a month at my local cinema. Even in America, you have to go to specialist cinemas in order to find independent film.
As a result of this distribution bias in favor of Hollywood, for the past two years I have watched an almost relentless stream of Hollywood’s output. I’ve even enjoyed most of it, sort of. I’ve enjoyed it the same way that I enjoy a cheap burger. I can eat them as an occasional indulgence, but I really wouldn’t want to live on the stuff. And, whilst Hollywood may be very good at churning out entertainment, in my opinion, they rarely make films anymore. Or rather, they don’t make the kind of films that mean very much to me. Hollywood’s films are just too predictable, too lacking in emotional insight, and are too lightweight intellectually.
The sad truth of the film industry is that film distribution isn't a level playing field for all filmmakers. The almost global dominance of Hollywood in cinema chains has nothing at all to do with the quality of their content, but instead has everything to do with their ownership of cinema chains. This isn’t to say they can just churn out anything, they still have to draw customers in. The only competition most studios have, in terms of cinema space, are other studios. If you’re operating outside of that firewall of studio production and multiplex distribution, life is hard. And, this difficulty in making a connection between the films that are made worldwide and potential audiences is one of the central issues in today’s global industry. And, it's not just a problem for international filmmakers, if you're a screenwriter hoping to sell original concepts, this is an issue that directly affects you.
So, how does Hollywood's stranglehold on distribution affect screenwriters? Well, the answer is pretty simple. The issue of Hollywood’s dominance of global distribution, impacts directly on your potential career as a screenwriter more than anything else. The reason that when people talk about “the industry” what they actually mean is Hollywood, is precisely because they are unaware of what’s being made everywhere else. There are thousands of companies, worldwide, making interesting films, but whose products either get lost on the festival circuit or buried somewhere in the darkest out reaches of Netflix. If their work was easier to access and had larger audiences, there would be more work for up and coming writers, like yourself. Remember, these independent companies are more inclined to option spec scripts than “the industry,” more interested in new talent and more likely to get your script into production, as you wrote it, than any of the studios.
The other problem with Hollywood is it only has one storytelling technique. This is the reason that pretty much all the advice you get about screenwriting is incredibly prescriptive about how you tell the story, and the kinds of stories you can tell. World and independent cinema is much more open to different narrative techniques, and to the kinds of stories that Hollywood would never tell. Basically, everything you’ve ever been told about screenwriting should really be labelled “this advice only applies if you’re writing specs for Hollywood.” The rules you’ve learned, the techniques you’re studying, only apply to that very narrow kind of writing. One of the main reasons I’m taking a year away from Hollywood is to retune my writing senses to more sophisticated forms of story-telling. I need to watch stuff that takes me by surprise. I want to watch films that make me think “I wish I’d written that,” instead of watching films that have me asking “How many writers did it take to reduce that film into ninety minutes of bland, tedious nonsense?”
What I find most annoying about the screenwriting community, is its obsession with Hollywood’s output and the general apathy towards independent cinema. All anyone wants to talk about is the latest Hollywood blockbuster… And as far as I can see, for screenwriters, that's like all the turkeys getting together to vote for Christmas. Given that everyone living in Los Angeles is either a wannabe actor or screenwriter, and that “the industry” produces fewer films than it ever has, and that the vast majority of those films are adaptations of existing material, who precisely do people think their spec scripts are for? Well, one idea people might want to consider is that it is the independent companies who make the films that none of us ever talk about on Twitter, the films that we don’t bother watching or finding out about, who would be interested in our scripts. Or at least they would be, if only they could generate sales and interest in the films they’ve already made.
So, this year, I’m taking a year when I’m going to watch films written by writers like me. I know it’ll make very little difference to the profitability of those films. I know it won’t alter the chronic state of the independent distribution industry, which is making it ever harder for filmmakers to make money from their films. What I do know, is that if we as a community don’t support films written by people like us, we may as well all pack screenwriting in and do something else, because the one thing that's for certain is there isn’t going to be opportunities in Hollywood for more than a handful of us, regardless of how good we are as writers… And, if you’re really interested in telling good, unique, well written stories, they’re not interested in you at all.
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