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05/04/2002 - The Good, The Bad and The Wannabes

Professional screenwriters relate story after story about executives who understand nothing about screenwriting, yet think themselves qualified to suggest ways to "fix" or "ramp up" the writer's work. I'm here to confirm this awful truth to you: Yes, almost everybody in this business thinks they know how to write.

Why? Because we've grown up watching movies and television. We've been steeped in act structure ever since our first episode of SESAME STREET or our first viewing of BAMBI. If we as the audience know whether or not we like a particular show or movie, we think it stands to reason that somewhere inside we know why.

Thankfully, there are executives and agents, etc. who have practiced the unparalleled horror of staring at the blank page and therefore understand the staggering gap between appreciating good writing and producing it. Unfortunately, there aren't that many. Most wannabe writers abandon their projects out of fear or discouragement, but privately chalk the decision up to busyness or some other euphemism for quitting.

A lot of these wannabes do end up in development - which isn't necessarily the wrong place for a person with more passion than talent. On the positive side, wannabes in development will truly flip for a great script. They want to usher it along, champion the writer and produce a great movie. On the downside, wannabes in development sometimes forget that they themselves did not write the screenplay. They may want to take over from the screenwriter, change the story in foolish ways and behave possessively with characters and concepts that the writer invented out of thin air. Much like the stereotypical stage mother, such development people subconsciously regard the screenwriter as their conduit for second-hand glory.

Not that every failed creative type is doomed to become a manipulative screwball. Lots of unsuccessful actors, musicians, models, directors, etc. segue into backstage professions, finding a comfortable (and more secure) position as an agent, manager or production executive. There are plenty of talented, driven people who nevertheless decide that cattle calls, pink slips and indefinite poverty don't add up to a meaningful life.

In fact, sometimes former screenwriters make the very best executives. They understand and respect screenwriters all the more because of their experience. They learn how to give incisive notes without suggesting changes that their own efforts have shown to be ineffective. They spot a writer's strengths and try to bring them out, encouraging the writer instead of usurping him. If only writing a script were a development job prerequisite! Tell me that wouldn't thin the herd.

My point here is to encourage you to drum up some extra spiritual generosity when you run afoul of an industry type oozing frustrated ambition. If their re-write suggestions are obnoxious, try to hear them out patiently and engage them in your thought process as you respond. Becoming defiant with such types will only pit you against the producers and put you on the defensive. Let such people inspire you instead. The only way to avoid becoming one of them is to keep plugging away.


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