Meet the Reader: “But it seemed like such a good idea…”

You may hear a lot about what works in script writing … but have you heard about what doesn’t work? In this article, Ray Morton lays out 7 script ideas that just don’t work.
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When you read scripts professionally for any length of time, you see the same ideas—ideas for content and execution—come up over and over again. Some of these ideas work and result in scripts that are both good and saleable. Some of these ideas do not work. Sometimes the ideas that don’t work are obvious (animated musicals about STDs [an actual spec I read once], 200 pages biopics of obscure political scientists, and so on). Sometimes they’re not so obvious—in theory, these concepts seem viable and/or commercial, but the reality is often quite the opposite. These things tend to come in waves, so here is a list of some of the types of scripts I’ve been seeing a lot of in recent years that seem like a good idea, but actually aren’t:

Period pieces with modern attitude: Medieval knights talking in 21st-century slang; Renaissance painters singing hip hop songs; Edwardian ladies and gentlemen acting in accordance with 2021 social and political norms. This is an idea that has already been used in several produced films (including The Little Hours and A Knight’s Tale) and far too many specs. It’s easy to see why this concept is appealing—it’s a fun way to shake up and loosen up period movies, which can often be stilted and stuffy. However, this notion never really works because it’s a one-joke idea more suitable for a sketch than a full-length feature. After a scene or two in which we see period characters speaking and acting in modern ways, the joke is played out and all you’re left with is the story and the characters and if they’re not good, then the joke won’t matter. And if they are good, then you don’t need the gimmick in the first place.

a knight's tale

Dirty children’s characters: Horny Muppets, a Charlie Brown who swears like a sailor, a farting Captain Kangaroo, and so on. Like period pieces with a modern attitude, this is another one-joke idea that is amusing enough for a few minutes but wears out its welcome when it gets stretched out to feature-length. Offensive versions of wholesome things can be funny in small doses, but when they go on too long they can become wearying. And then numbing. And eventually soul-killing. This gimmick has only been used a few times in produced features, sometimes to middling (Fritz the Cat) but more often to disastrous (The Happytime Murders) effect, but it pops up all the time in specs, with no better results.

Dark and gritty origin stories for classic characters (with one-word titles): This is an enormously popular type of spec—I can’t tell you how many versions of “Claus” I have read over the years (along with “Wonka,” “Pan,” “Bunyon,” and many, many others). There are two main problems with this type of script—the first is that treating these light and bright characters with such grim seriousness ultimately come across as silly (in the laughable sense, not in the enjoyably fun sense). This is why scripts like this—even though they tend to get a lot of circulation within the industry and end up on lots of lists, including black ones—almost never actually get made.

[When Writing Your Story, Find Its Best Dramatic Ideas!]

Scripts that push everything to extremes: Horror specs filled with graphic scenes of blood, sadism, torture, viscera, and cruelty. Sex scenes written in X-rated detail. Gross-out comedies packed with scatological humor and offensive attitudes. The thinking behind writing material like this is obvious—to gain attention by making your script as shocking and outrageous as possible in the hope of getting attention from readers and buyers. And it frequently does work—extreme scripts like this do tend to garner lots of attention. But it may not be the kind of attention you want. Strategically-placed bits of shock can be very effective, but a steady stream of it can become numbing and eventually off-putting. Extreme screenplays also bump about against a very practical consideration—major studios don’t release any movies with a rating harder than R, which will not accommodate material as extreme as that found in many of these scripts. This means that the shocking content must either be toned down or eliminated. If this can be done without significantly impairing the story and characters, then fine (of course, if that’s the case then there was really no need for the extremity in the first place). But if shock is all the script has going for it, then toning it down or cutting it may cause the rest of the piece to turn to paste. This tends to be the case in most of the extreme screenplays I read.

Scripts featuring original superheroes: Superhero movies—movies based on the characters from popular, long-running comic book series and graphic novels – are the most popular genre of our time. It sometimes seems as if that’s the only kind of movie the studios make any more. This has inspired many spec writers to come up with their original superheroes in the hope that they can jump on the bandwagon. It’s a waste of time. Studios are notoriously risk-averse—the dream of every studio executive is to fund an entire slate of films that are guaranteed to be successful. The reason the studios originally became interested in superheroes is the same reason they become interested in many pre-existing properties—best-selling books, magazine articles, old tv shows, toys, games, etc.—is because they have already proven to be popular with the public and the hope is that if they make a film based on these properties that success will be duplicated at the box office. It’s as close to a sure thing as it’s possible to get. An original superhero has no such track record and therefore no one is interested in making a movie about one.

[BALLS OF STEEL™: Living and Writing Outside of Your Comfort Zone]

Scripts designed to start original franchises: Every studio loves a franchise. Disney makes nothing but anymore. This has motivated quite a few spec writers to create their own franchises and, as a result, I have received quite a few scripts in recent years that are clearly indicated to be episode one in an ongoing series (these scripts often come without an ending—meant to whet our appetite for part two but that only irritates because after reading 110-120 pages we want an ending, and we don’t get one). I have also received many three-script packages—the screenplays for an entire motion picture trilogy already written and ready to go. As with creating original superheroes, it’s a waste of time. Franchises are based on one of two things—a preexisting property that has already proven successful in another medium (hence the eagerness of studios to make films based on successful series of adult or young adult fantasy novels, comic book series, tv shows, and so on) or on a standalone film that has already been a big success at the box office. No studio is looking for a spec franchise. It’s just not how things work.

Scripts with obscene titles: Fuckbuddies, I Want to Fuck Your Sister, Revenge Fuck, Shit My Dad Say, Psycho Bitch, Kill the Bitch, and Badass Motherfuckers are just some of the many real spec titles that have circulated over the years and I’ve encountered plenty more like them. Titles like this sure do get your attention, but they’re not usable and everybody who writes or reps these ribald monikers knows it. This means that the scripts themselves actually have to be good if they are going to get any further in the acquisition, development, and production process. And there’s nothing saying they can’t be, but in my experience whenever I come across a script with an obscene title, that usually ends up being the most creative thing about it—the only script from the above list that actually got made was Fuckbuddies, which was retitled No Strings Attached and despite its X-rated title, turned out to be a fairly bland and formulaic rom-com. The rest never even got that far.

If your current WIP is in the same vein as any of these, it might be a good idea to go back to the drawing board and come up with something else.

Copyright © 2021 by Ray Morton

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