photo by fhartha
I treat every screenplay like it is a piece of real estate. It has value in terms of my growth as a writer, as an original concept and as a developed set of characters. It is an investment.
If I was ever invited to speak on a screenwriting panel, which seems unlikely, this would be the main thing I'd want to tell people.
One of the problems screenwriters seem to face is loss of heart. A loss of self belief which happens simply because writers start to see the cycle of writing and rejection as endless and the possibility of creating a home in the industry as improbable. A process that leads many screenwriters to quit to do other things, and others go off the rails. A good example of which would be the screenwriting in America who recently tried to sue two major agencies for prejudice.
By the time a screenwriter has written five or six screenplays he has, in all probability, faced the following: being rejected by many producers; being ignored by many more producers; being rejected by many agents; being ignored by many more agents; being rejected by many screenwriting competitions/fellowships/foundations; either being ripped off by a bogus agent/producer, or coming close to being ripped off; being rejected by the talentless, overpaid hacks at their local film board, many, many times...
... basically, a lot of rejection. Far too much rejection for regular people to cope with or understand.
All this time, despite all the perceived negativity, this period of "failure" is precisely when a writer is building a body of work, their five or six scripts. Scripts that are sitting on their hard-drive, because they remain unsold. Scripts, many writers consider to be worthless because, after all, they failed when touted around the market. In fact, many writers develop a mentality where it is only their next script that is important. And, in the process, they tend to forget about the work they have already done. They see their back catalogue of work as either wasted time, or merely as part of the learning process. They don't understand the true value of what they have done... or, often, why they have failed to sell these projects. They tend see their old scripts and time spent working on them as dead and beyond redemption. And, seeing that time as wasted and those projects as dead is definitely disheartening.
Personally, I know that abandoning your past projects is mistake... because, whilst it is true that earlier scripts may have been rejected because they weren't good enough, work was still been done on them. Ideas were formed and characters were developed. Regardless of how those scripts were received at the time, there can still be value in them for several reasons:
1) Sometimes scripts get rejected because the person who you sent it to was wrong in their beliefs.
Eight years ago I created a screenplay idea, as my application for a screenwriting fellowship. Both my idea and my application for the fellowship were rejected because, and I quote, "Nobody is interested in making anything related to this subject anymore, it's passe. We're only taking on projects capable of commercial success." Of course, shortly after that a Hollywood director created a monstrous blockbuster with his movie on this very topic, and more recently another writer has created a very successful TV show whose premise is almost identical to my original idea. Obviously, the guy who rejected my idea was very, very wrong about the lack commercial success.
Of course, at the time, pretty much everyone in the business believed the same as the guy who rejected my idea as passe. Sometimes, even when we're right about something, the timing isn't right for the part of the industry we have access to. Regardless of whether we're are able to resurrect the project or not, the fact that our instincts were good is of value. And, sometimes the rejection of an early version of an idea, leads to a better interpretation of best parts of the concept. Or, in other words... sometimes a project needs an early rejection to force the rewrites down the right path. Although I couldn't see it at the time, that particular rejection was the best thing that could have happened. But, only because I kept on rewriting and reevaluating why I was drawn to that particular project. In that script, it was the back story of a minor character I was drawn to. A minor character who I then chose to be my new protagonist. This in turn lead to the concept, which has proven to be my break-through project.
2) Sometimes the new project is only the key to the door and not the sale itself
Just over a month ago, the big TV project I've been working on for the last year was knocked back by a major UK TV company. However, what the rejection said was "We love this, it's a great a idea, but it just doesn't fit in with the kind of drama we're making at the moment, which is drama like this (after which he named three well known TV series)."
Once a screenwriter gets to the point where they are competent, this is the most common cause of rejection... this is the wrong idea for this company. However, because I have existing scripts sitting on my hard-drive, I did have a project that fitted this company's profile, perfectly. So, instead of slinking off into the night, with my tail between my legs, I was able to immediately offer them that project. They're reading it right now. Sometimes a rejection is really a request to see what else you've got for them... and that's when your real estate scripts become paramount.
Now, what's really interesting, is that I probably couldn't have got the second project read, at this level, if it had been the first one through the door. My main project has a lot of attached talent and is getting a lot of heat in the TV industry, internationally. That's what got that one in through the door. Even though, the script they are reading now is a much better fit for their needs.
Now, and this is the key point... the breakthrough moment for a screenwriter happens when they suddenly develop credibility. What's strange about this, is it's almost impossible to predict the tipping point. The moment you go from struggling, to being welcomed in with open arms. I know it took me by surprise, when the shift happened. However, the real question, at that point, isn't so much whether you're worth reading, but is whether you have anything else to read. A writer with only one project may fail to capitalise on that breakthrough moment, simply because their new project either isn't a fit, or the timing is wrong. A writer with a slate of projects is more secure, because once they are through the door, they're not trying to survive on one project, they have their slate to fall back on. And, on top of that, the slate of concepts demonstrates that the writer is creative... they have more than one idea. Even if they don't have anything that is perfect, they're still worth talking to. Multiple ideas keep doors open. SIngle ideas, don't.
3) It's not a movie, it's a TV series... or visa versa
Sometimes we start with an idea and through force of habit we create a script in the medium we are most comfortable or knowledgeable about. So, writers who are interested in movies tend to see their ideas in terms of movie scripts. TV writers tend to see their ideas in terms of TV. Sometimes, regardless of how good a TV series something may make in an ideal world, it's primary market may really be as a low budget movie. Sometimes we have to take a step back and look at the doors offered to us. We have to see what may fit through that door, rather than hoping that if we write something brilliant it will find the right desk. I happen to believe that 80% of the movie scripts currently being written by unknowns would be better off rewritten as novels, graphic novels or web-series. Simply because the spec movie script market is the meanest, hardest, most soul destroying, shark-riddled market in the world.
Of the six film scripts I've written and developed over the past eight years, FIVE OF THEM are now getting interest from major TV companies, both in the UK and in America. And, ironically, ever since the TV interest started, some film companies are now talking to me, as well... go figure.
So, what does this all mean?
Well, I think the lesson to be learned from all this, is that even when we can't get a script away at the time, we developed the idea and the characters for a reason. Even if we've moved on in terms of skill level, even if those scripts look rough to us in comparison with what we're doing now, it's massively important to go back to them and to look at what potential they still have. Do they need a rewrite, based on what we now know as writers. How do they look as real estate? Is the idea a good one, but is it just poorly executed? Is the idea actually pretty poor or cliched, but the characters are splendid? If so, what other scenarios could they be put into? And, finally, is the idea I am working on going to find a home in the industry I am targeting? Does it really fit better somewhere else?
Finally, if you go back though your last six scripts and they have nothing redeemable in them. If there are no characters who deserve a life in a different project, if there are no concepts that just need reworking or rewriting, then maybe you shouldn't be doing this. Yes, it does take time to learn how to be a screenwriter. Yes, we will sometimes put time into projects that are wrong headed. But, right from the very start, the least we should bring to the table are half decent ideas and interesting characters, if we are to have any hope at all of making it in this business.
Ultimately, the years we spend developing our slate of projects isn't a waste, it's an investment... and we shouldn't lose heart if our early scripts don't open doors for us. That time isn't squandered, those projects are not dead. Their rejection by people at the bottom end of the industry, or by self-proclaimed screenwriting gurus doesn't make them valueless. Ultimately, any time we have a script completed, regardless of how it's received at the time, providing we treat it like it's valuable. It's an investment, a property waiting for the right door to open. Our old scripts retain their value to us as products, providing we continue to work on and reevaluate the best parts of them, as our skills and industry knowledge increase. Because, when our break-through moment comes, and we suddenly have people who want to read what we've written, it maybe the project we thought would never find a home, that ends up being our biggest asset.
keep rewriting and viva la revolution