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06/29/2002 - Hot Off The Press

Global warming, Y2K paranoia, shark attacks... What do these keywords have in common? At some point in time, to some extent, they are/were topical screenplay subjects. Although they can be done, topical spec scripts are difficult to pull off. Unfortunately, many amateur writers attempt a topical screenplay only to find that by the time their spec hits the streets the subject matter is stale.

As I've mentioned before my company doesn't accept unsolicited submissions, but many inquiry letters arrive regardless. This is normal and I glance over the letters to see how well the cold approaches are handled. Obviously the inquiring minds are fond of the "this story also plays into current fears/technology/world events..." tack, for any shred of topical subject matter is brightly exploited by the writers.

The problem with topical material is that it ages. Television makes better use of lightning rod subjects, for TV writing schedules move along fast enough to utilize issues ripped from the headlines. Motion pictures however, can take decades to make. The less universal and eternal an amateur spec script is the less likely it is to be produced.

Say you pick a topical subject like... like a missing Washington intern. Factor in three-to-twelve months to satisfactorily write the thing, then three-to-six months to shop it. Assuming it sells, factor in one-to-umpteen years to see it produced. By the time it hits the theaters it could be seriously past the due date.

Better to avoid the headlines unless they spark a more complex idea. For example, Roland Emmerich's spec THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW deals with the extreme possible outcomes of global warming. He took a vague current issue and turned it into a disaster picture, a movie that (done well) will last because it is a disaster movie, not necessarily because global warming is in the news.

In other words, if a current event or issue appeals to you, don't just copy it into a film. Develop it, dramatize it; exaggerate it into entertaining proportions. Find the timeless substance underlying an inflammable news item and focus on that core material.

Then write the thing, fast! This is one type of script you can't afford to noodle over for years, because if an idea is out there in the news, you can bet you're not the only one trying to spin it into success.


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