Monday, August 8, 2011

The Greatest Screenwriting Secret I Ever Learned

Like every screenwriter I thought my job was pretty much done after I wrote and finalized my submission draft. Screenplay done, edited, vetted by my trusted supporters, and ready for the cold, hard world of the screenplay spec market.

But, no, not so fast. A dear and experienced friend of mine, Director Stephen David Brooks (HeadsNTailz:Video Review ), revealed to me what has become one of my most valued lessons in the screenwriting trade. When we started collaborating on projects together, he revealed that the pros know a simple truth: you never write one screenplay; you need at least four. In other words, every script you write will need four separate versions (not rewrites). Each draft is targeted for a specific stage of the green light minefield. Pass through all the stages, and your script might just get to principle photography.

The logic (which is irrefutable) goes like this:

The Reading Draft:

The first draft you write is meant for the gatekeepers. These include studio readers, freelance story analysts, creative executives, agents and literary managers. These are the first line of defense of the movie industry’s immune system and their job is to seek out and destroy all screenplays that make it past the permeable membrane of Hollywood. The only way your screenplay will not end up absorbed and digested by the killer reader-cells is if your screenplay is written to appease their sensibilities. This means that the first script’s job is to be read. The script must not be geared for a director to shoot, it must not be skewed in any way to appear “camera ready.” No, the primary job of this first draft is to be read. So, the script should be written to be read, not shot. This is a huge point, as most newbie screenwriters think they should write a script that is ready for production. No, just the opposite is true. Think readers, not filmmakers. If the first draft is a good read, then it might survive the Hollywood immune response and make it to the next stage.

The Talent Draft:
Whew! You made past the gatekeepers. Now the agents or the studio creative executives want to package the script. They want to “attach elements.” This is Hollywoodese for “let’s find people to act in this fine film.” Any good agent or creative executive will then ask the writer to make some changes. While the writer will have to respond to what will most likely be inane suggestions, this is actually the time the smart writer will tweak the script so talent will find it irresistible. Now the job of the script is to be acted, not read. The writer wants the dialogue to pop, the characters to shine through the action, and the emotion to swell in the actors' hearts. You want the "key" talent to find their Oscar moment in your text. The script’s job now is to sell itself as a career vehicle, not as a good read for the weekend. The entire script should be rewritten to emphasize an actor's participation; at this stage the play’s the thing.

Distributor Draft:

Double whew!
Gatekeeper killer-cells pacified, talent attached, now the producers of the film, if they’re clever, will ask the screenwriter to do another draft for the distributors. If a studio is already involved this won’t be necessary. But, if it is an indie film then this may be needed. The distributor draft is designed to show the company(ies) partnering with the producers that the filmmakers value their input and respect their draconian contract terms. The job of this draft is to show the market potential for the story. Where could product placement go, what action elements are highlighted to attract the right demographics, etc.? While the play’s the thing in the talent draft, here the market’s the thing. The writer now tweaks the script to highlight market potential and the global reach of the story. This may be subtle and anything but drastic in terms of real changes, but smart writers know they need to do this to be competitive.

Shooting Draft:

Reader killer-cells appeased, talent emoting, distributors counting beans; all is finally ready for the real deal. Now, the filmmakers can finish the shooting draft that will be used for principle photography.
Now (shhh, don't tell anyone else), the writer and director can write the movie they want to shoot. They can undo, rewrite, delete, and reinvent anything they had to do previously to get to this final stage. Now the original vision can be re-written back into the script, if it was lost along the way. Were all the earlier drafts and stages of the process pointless, if now the writer just brings it back to where it all started? No, film making and screenwriting (unlike playwriting) is a collaborative process. The tweaks from all the earlier stages will not be totally undone, especially if a studio is involved, but this is a safe plateau in the process for realigning vision and dramatic focus, if necessary.

So, this is the greatest secret I’ve ever learned about screenwriting.
Writers need to be adaptive to the requirements of the business of writing, and be ready to be responsive to all the stakeholders in a project—money rules, not creative vision. There’s plenty of time for re-establishing vision when you get to the shooting draft. In the meantime, learn the secret and have a long career.

Now, go write four drafts.

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