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01/05/2002 - The Paradox Conundrum

There is a paradox in the industry whereby development folk (I honestly don't know what to call them) believe that the best hunting ground for new projects is the constant tide of spec screenplays, while somehow also believing that the vast majority of specs are at best unproduceable and at worst, really, really bad.

They hold such conflicting views because both are logical. All great writers at some time wrote that first great script that turned them from a novice into a Big Name Writer. The next Big Name Writer has to be out there somewhere, right? Then again, after reading thousands of dreadful scripts you come to the conclusion that although the next Big Name Writer may be out there, he apparently doesn't have your address.

This paradox may help to explain why writers are gushingly asked to send in their script and then watch the pages fly off the calendar, as that development person's fascination with your script seemed to vanish as soon as it came into their possession. It's similar to shopper's rapture; that dizzying high that ends once you get home with your purchase. Like everyone else, development people want what they don't have.

I don't have a solution for this. I'm just trying to describe it in colorful ways. Sorry.

So many development folk (Lord, please help me come up with a better name than this) dutifully read the specs while spending their energies looking for projects with a pedigree. They hope that a project may be found on a Best Seller List, or may lie unnoticed in a dusty book, a forgotten short-story anthology, or archived news.

I personally like to prowl used bookstores, library shelves and historical books for anything tantalizing - and I don't just mean public domain material. Although I do remember one Producer X instructing me to muse over public domain fairy tales and find one that could be turned into a modern retelling - not because he wanted to remake a fairy tale, but to control the underlying rights and avoid any ha$$le with a writer. Remember the story meeting scene in THE PLAYER? Where the suits boast that they could mold feature films out of the daily news and subtract screenwriters from the filmmaking equation? Robert Altman didn't make that up. Those people are real.

Producer X had his reasons - some of which I understand quite well. I worked for a production company once that warmly welcomed unsolicited submissions, many of which were definitely not ready for prime time. This was on the tail end of the hot spec market and many nascent writers attached themselves to their material as actors, directors and producers. These writers were at best uneducated about the business and although they may have had a viable premise, they couldn't execute it and wouldn't sell the screenplay outright.

But to be honest, there were a few gems in the pile, which brings us back to the paradox. When the production company passed on my recommendations I contacted the writers of those gems and kept track of them, even setting up one with a director who shared my enthusiasm for - surprise, surprise - a reworking of a fairy tale. I guess Producer X had an influence on me after all. As for the project, it's still out there, looking for a home it richly deserves. The important thing is that it was the legendary diamond-in-the-rough that got through the front lines. Sometimes the system works.

From the writer's point of view, I suppose the only way to deal with the paradox is to check up politely on your script when it languishes at a production office. Tell them you're just calling because someone wants to take it to the next level at another company and you want to make sure that it's an official pass before you give the nod. It may then get read at the company, just to make sure that they're not totally screwing up.

Besides that, all you can do is shake your fist at the sky, denounce God and go sulk at a bar. Who knows, maybe you'll end up sitting next to someone who wants to read your script.


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