Monday, July 11, 2011

When is good good?

Quick update on my new Christmas screenplay, one producer wants to hang onto it, however two others are still interested. My main concern is that the Christmas movie market, at least for Hallmark, has closed; they already have their quota of Christmas movies.

What's left is Lifetime who seem to specialize in woman-in-jeopardy stories about bad husbands. And ABC Family which is a whole other story. And of course, straight-to-dvd is always an option although dvd sales are slowing down. 

Anyways, when is good good was the question.

One of my UCLA extension students once asked me when I knew if my screenplay was good. Simplest answer is when someone buys it.

Okay, that's the hard, cold answer. But let's consider what makes a good screenplay and what doesn't. It can be a comic book, a pirate movie, a romcom, a horror movie or anything else. There's no restriction on genre. There's even no restriction in non-genre (if you don't know that term, I'll explain it later).

Take my last Christmas screenplay, the one I wrote in less than 4 weeks last winter/spring. It literally poured out of me, I knew what to write almost every day. It came, as they say, naturally.  I knew it was good.

I passed it around to two director friends. They said it was good. Then I passed it to an agent, he said it was good. He passed it to 3 producers and two liked it and one didn't. And that was the producer who didn't like my writing on a 1-page synopsis. I knew he wouldn't like the screenplay. Can't win 'em all.

Why was it good?

Because when you read it, you feel like you were in a movie, you forget that you're reading it. Stephen King writes like that most of the time. You read page one and all of a sudden you're at page 98. Time flies by. 

And my screenplay had that feel. All of the above people read it on a week-end and they get a lot of screenplays to read on the week-end. And this was the best one. When it's bad,  you tend to say "I'm only on Page 33? It's gonna take forever!" 

When it's bad, you struggle through every page, you know you are reading.  Sure, it's subjective but generally when you think you've spend 5 hours reading a script, it's not good.

One more thing about good.

It doesn't mean it's going to sell. Having a good screenplay is one thing; having someone who wants to buy it is another. Everyone loved my Emperor of Mars, but nobody wanted to make it. I wrote it in 1989 and it wasn't until 2003 that a handful of people actually attempted to make it (and failed each time).

One thing I've always said about my writing, you may not like it, but it's not written badly. So how does that work? A good writer will still engage the reader, even if they don't like the story but ultimately the story isn't what they want, need or expect. And when that happens, you can't argue with it. You just keep showing it to anyone you can find.

So, before I chase you away with arrogance and hubris, not all of my screenplays are good. In fact a lot of them aren't good. They're not bad, just not that good. So why the inconsistency?

I write what is called non-genre screenplays; this isn't a special category, it's just a description for screenplays that aren't action, horror, romantic comedy or sci-fi. And that is what most movies are.

I have written all of the above, but very few got sold. Non-genre screenplays are generally those odd movies, ones that don't fit a category easily. The King's Speech is a good example; it doesn't really fit into a genre. 5 Easy Pieces is another example.

Many indie films are also non-genre,  Wendy and Lucy, Frozen River, same as Winter's Bone.

My best screenplays are in that genre and they're my best because that's the thing I do best, tell offbeat, personal stories that generally end in an ambiguous ending.

Not that I've tried to do big action films and sci-fi material, it's just that somehow, some way, I don't seem to have the same energy nor depth. I once wrote an action screenplay and a producer said that while it was okay,  it wasn't Jim.

What? Of course it was. Me.

But what he meant is that it didn't have the feeling that my Emperor of Mars screenplay had on him. It was just another action screenplay, like all the others. And they could hire anyone to do those films. Lesson: A good screenplay can limit your future work.

But... but...

But I had to admit he was right, I admire guys like Shane Black who created a style of his own, copied even to now. And I would love to write a big action/sci-fi screenplay that would be of blockbuster status.

But it ain't me. And it ain't in me.

Has it cost me? You bet. But I know that when I wrote something of my own, something about my life, my friends life, my ex-wife's life, my small-town beginnings and every other aspect of me, it usually turns out good.

Trouble is, not everybody wants to buy it. And nobody wants to buy anything now anyways, or at least what I write and what my friends write.

So you're not gonna see my name in big lights, I'm stuck with the non-genre category, but what the hell, it's given me a not bad life.

And as my dad used to say, "you can't be rich and beautiful".

And finally, I got some interest from a screenplay yesterday that I had forgotten about. A sex-suspense-thriller woman-in-jeopardy screenplay that a director friend persuaded me to write even though I don't like writing these kinds of movies.

Go figure.