I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about the screenwriting support world—all the tools and services and education available to help both aspiring and professional screenwriters write their scripts. Recently, however, I became aware of a service I had never heard of before—either it’s relatively new or else I have a really big blind spot. Anyway—there are apparently companies out there who you can hire to write your screenplay for you.
There seem to be several of them—some owned by prominent, name-brand parent corporations. The individual details of the different companies vary, but the overall gist is the same: you provide the company with you basic story material—notes, an outline, a treatment, your unpublished or self-published novel, or even your rough-draft screenplay—and the company will give the material to one of their staff writers, who will then transform your material into what they identify as a professional grade treatment or screenplay. They, of course, charge for this service—often quite a lot.
Some of the come-ons the companies use are quite fascinating:
- A few promote themselves as low-cost alternatives, stating that if you hire a WGA screenwriter (in other words, an experienced professional) to write your script, it will cost you somewhere between $72,000 - $136,000 (these numbers are the 2017 WGA minimums for a feature-length screenplay). These companies promise to do the job for much less, although even the cheapest one will still run you around $10,000 and one of the more expensive companies I surveyed was charging around $4,000 for a treatment and an additional $25,000 for the screenplay.
- All of the companies promise that their staff writers are “industry professionals,” but are rather vague on specifics. One company states that all of their staffers have had screenplays produced, but fail to indicate how many screenplays a writer may have had produced, whether or not they were feature films, what the titles of the produced films were, how long ago they were made and so on. The suggestion, of course, is that you’re going to be assigned to an experienced, working pro, although it’s hard for me to imagine any currently-working pro is going to have either the time or the inclination to take on a mercenary assignment for far less than basic minimum wage. Not to mention that any screenwriting working regularly in the professional moviemaking industry would have to be a member of the WGA, which prohibits its members from working for a company that is not a signatory to the Guild’s MBA (which these companies are not) or for working than less for Guild minimums. So, the chances are that your material is probably going to be assigned either to another up-and-comer such as yourself, an old-timer who hasn’t worked in a long time, or someone whose produced work has either been student films, shorts, or low-budget, non-union schlock. Which is not to say that such writers can’t be talented and/or capable, but they’re not exactly what the companies give the impression they are offering.
- One company’s pitch states that one of the reasons you should use its service is that if you do, you won’t have to go to all of the trouble of studying the art and craft of screenwriting along with all those pesky screenwriting terms such as Fade In, Voice-Over, Scene Headings, and Dissolves (I wish I was kidding about this last bit, but I am not). In other words, they can help you become a screenwriter faster because you won’t have to take all that time to actually learn how to be a screenwriter.
- This same company suggests it will save you money to use their service since you won’t have to buy expensive screenwriting software such as Final Draft. A few hundred bucks for FD versus $20,000 for one of their screenplays—the savings are obvious.
- Some of these companies seem to be aiming their pitches at non-English speaking writers, suggesting that using their services will help these writers generate “American-style” scripts that have a better chance of selling in the American market.
As you might expect, I have a number of issues with services such as this:
- First of all, if you hire someone to write your screenplay, then is it really your screenplay? Sure, you will own the copyright, but it’s not your work, so while it might legally be your screenplay, it’s not really your screenplay, if you catch my drift?
- If you represent a script as being your work, but it isn’t actually your work, isn’t that fraud?
- It’s not clear to me who using one of these services can possible result in a quality final product. The services these companies are offering are essentially to create a single draft of the screenplay. But, as any experienced writer knows, a single draft is never enough. The first draft of a screenplay is always the starting point, but scripts are not written, they are rewritten. And rewritten. And rewritten—again and again and again to develop and hone the story and the characters and the dialogue until the result is as close to perfect as the writer can possibly make it. This is the only way to produce good work. I’m sure these companies will be happy to have their writers do draft after draft for you, but you’re going to pay for those additional drafts. You’re going to pay for those additional drafts.
- And will the results ever be any good? A script is not good just because it tells a good story (which by itself can take many drafts to develop). A good script is good because of the way that story is told—because of the specific vision and voice that a writer brings to the material. But whose vision and voice is being reflected in a script generated by a writing service? I can only assume it’s the staff writer’s, not the purported author’s. Which means the piece really has no voice or vision at all. Which means the script can’t ever really be good.
- I suppose a writer can use one of these services to generate a first draft—to just get the basic idea down on paper—and then do the subsequent rewriting and development himself, but that doesn’t quite track for me either. I’m assuming that the reason a person would use one of these services in the first place is because they feel they lack the ability to generate a good script on their own. So if they don’t feel capable of writing that first draft, why would they think they could do a good job on subsequent drafts?
- What happens if a studio or a producer options or buys the screenplay generated by the screenwriting service and then (as they most certainly will) wants a rewrite or two or five? Who will do the rewrite—the person whose name is on the cover or the person who actually wrote the screenplay? Will the identified author tell the studio or the producer that she/he/they didn’t write the script and will need to get the actual writer to do the changes? Or will the author keep quiet and secretly contract with the company to get the rewrite done? And what happens if the original writer is not available or no longer with the screenwriting company—then what does everybody do?
- What if a studio or producer reads the service-generate screenplay as a sample and likes the writing enough to hire the identified author to write an entirely new screenplay on an entirely new subject. Will the identified author then contract with the service to do the assignment or come clean and tell the producer or the studio that they need to hire the actual writer to do the job?
All of these concerns and complications have the potential to serve as the basis for a farce of epic proportions (as the fake screenwriter tries to get the rewrite done without letting the producer find out about the real screenwriter), but none of it seems conducive to developing either a good screenplay or a viable writing career.
Ultimately, this all seems to me to be just another workaround for people who wish to become successful screenwriters but either lack the talent or the confidence to do so and are looking for a shortcut. In the past, I’ve written about other ways people try to do this:
- I once wrote an entire column about the many times I’ve been approached by people asking me to write their screenplays for them—not producers wishing to hire me to write scripts for their projects, but aspiring screenwriters who have ideas for screenplays that they assure me are guaranteed blockbusters, but for various reasons do not want to write themselves. Some of these folks ask me to polish their rough drafts; most want me to pen the entire thing from scratch. The compensation they offer is always no money up front, but the promise of a percentage of the proceeds from the big sale they are positive the script will generate. The percentage they offer me is always less than the one they intend to take, because, after all, they came up with the idea. All I would do is write the characters, action, and dialogue. And, of course, I would take second position in the “written by” credits because, once again, they came up with the idea, which we all know is the important part.
- Every few years, someone comes out with a screenwriting program that promises to write the screenplay for you. The program provides templates for various types of genre stories along with a list of tropes from each segment. You can either select the trope or fill in your own idea and the program will insert it. It will also suggest be best archetypal characters to fill each role the narrative template requires (leading man, damsel in distress, wise old advisor, etc.). It will also provide suggested dialogue that you can alter as you see fit. The scripts generate by these programs are always fresh, vibrant, original, and engaging. Not. Ever.
- There are lots of books and classes out there that purport to tell aspiring screenwriter how to sell their ideas as pitches or treatments without ever having to actually write the screenplay. This is not something that ever happens in the real world for writers who are not already established professionals—nevertheless it’s a dream that never dies.
Why do people gravitate towards these perceived shortcuts?
Even though the spec script boom is long since over, there are still some folks out there that think for screenwriting as a lottery ticket. Still believing that specs can sell for a million dollars or more, they look at screenwriting as a get rich quick scheme—just write one cool action or sci-fi script, sell it for six figures, and you’re set. These folks are not actually interested in screenwriting, so they’ll take the quickest way they possibly can to get a draft out there and then sit back and wait for the big bucks to start flowing in. Which, of course, never happens.
However, the majority of people who gravitate towards these types of shortcuts aren’t looking for a quick score. They have a sincere love of film and a genuine desire to become a good and working screenwriter. However, they lack either the ability and/or the confidence and so are looking for a way to achieve their dream without having to face their shortcomings. And, unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there willing to take advantage of their longing by peddling these phony, patent-medicine cures for the frustrated screenwriter blues.
As I’ve said it many times before—there is no shortcut to becoming a screenwriter (or any type of writer or creative). If you want to become a screenwriter, you have to become a screenwriter. You have to learn the craft—the principles of dramatic writing; how to apply those principles to writing for the screen; and all of the necessary formatting and terminology. You have to learn what makes a good screen story and what doesn’t. And then you have to write. And rewrite. And rewrite again. And rewrite some more. And when you’re done with one script you have to write another. And another. And another. You have to put in the time and effort. You have to endure the blood, sweat, and tears. You have to face the pain and anxiety and self-doubt. No one can save you from it and no one can do it for you.
And you shouldn’t want them to. Because if you do it yourself, the results will be all yours—the scripts and the skills you acquire writing those scripts and the career that may come from them. And those things will make the struggle worth it.
As many of you know, several years ago I wrote a book about King Kong – the history of the character and the making of all his films – so I’m pleased to announce I’m working with Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events to present the first nationwide theatrical screening of the original 1933 King Kong on Sunday, March 15, 2020. If you’re a Kong fan, or a fan of classic American cinema, be sure to check it out.
Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton
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