Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why some writers can't write without a job

I have 34 spec scripts "on the shelf" as the saying goes. They've accumulated over the 20 years I've lived in California. Specs as most of you know are screenplays written purely on the premise that an idea I came up with and wrote without being paid, will be interesting enough for someone to buy it.

And since they're still unsold, some people would say it was a waste of time.

For many years, under the studio system, screenplays were assigned to writers from the idea stage. Sometimes it was the writer's idea, sometimes it was the producer's. Sometimes it was the actors idea if they were big stars.

Basically you weren't writing a screenplay until you were hired. And then after you wrote it, the screenplay would most likely go to another writer who would "polish" it, make some changes the studio wanted, or, again, the actor wanted.

Television was the same, writers were hired for each show and were given assignments, or they came up with ideas.

Somewhere around the 60's, some writers would decide to write a complete screenplay without being hired. There were 2 reasons for this; either they just had a great idea and nobody offered to hire them to write it - or - they just might be able to sell the screenplay.

And there's another reason; because the writer felt so strong about their idea that they would write it for free, without the hassle of constant notes from the studio. Simply put they were working for free.

As an example of what can happen when you're hired, I was hired a few times to write a screenplay from the beginning and for the most part was lucky in that the producers were smart and knowledgeable,  and their notes are almost always good.

On the other hand I've worked with people who can drive you crazy with stupid ideas. I had one producer who told me I shouldn't wear plaid shirts to meet an actor because it would suggest I was too old for the job. I wore plaid.

But the most interesting thing I learned is that a lot of tv writers couldn't write a spec feature at all. I'm not even sure why but it seems that the people who write half hours can't really stretch it out for a 90 minute movie.

David Kelly, one of the smartest and most talented TV writers ever, wrote 2 features that were flops.

Having written for TV series I know that it's more of a communal thing than a feature and often you write together with a few others whereas a screenplay for a feature is with one person -  you.

Another thing with series is that you are writing the same characters every week and writers begin to learn more about the characters, and of the actors. I know we would find the strongest actors after a few episodes and begin to give them more dialog, simply because they could handle it better.

Features don't give you that luxury, once the movie's finished, it's all done. No way to change or improve it next week.

I have a few sitcom writer friends and only one ever tried to write a spec. The other two said they'd never do that, either because they couldn't, or because they wouldn't be paid.

And that brings up the question; is it art of is it a business.

The one thing for sure is that everyone will have their own opinion.

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