26th August 2010: Cargo-Cult Screenwriting

Coauthor and arts policy maverick Ben Eltham recently mentioned John Nicoll’s interesting overview of Australia’s scriptwriting market.

For the uninitiated, there’s a small industry that aims to teach the scriptwriting ‘craft’ in a short time-frame. Big names include script doctor William Goldman; script coaches like structuralist Syd Field, archetypal mythologist and development executive Christopher Vogler,  and ‘intensive’ workshop maven Robert McKee; and the ‘industry standard’ of scriptwriting software: Final Draft.  Some A-list scriptwriters like J. Michael Straczynski have a well-connected online fanbase. Keep an eye on Daily Variety for deal flow. You’ll find many of these books in a university library or industry short course. Avoid the expensive script clinics and ‘rewrite’ consultants.

Nicoll’s critique and Eltham’s response suggests that Screen Australia and the equivalent state-based agencies have adopted McKee’s workshop approach for internal development and ‘shepherding’ new scripts through the pre-production process. Perhaps though, the pivotal issue is how government arts ministries and bureaucrats affect the go/no-go cycle of ‘greenlighting’ a script for production funding. Reviewing the past testimony of arts bureaucrats and film producers for a forthcoming academic paper in Media Arts International journal, Eltham and I found a tendency for bureaucrats to rely on ‘analogical’ reasoning and ‘anchoring’ biases: if an Australian film is like ‘X’ high concept Hollywood film then the local production will have a higher probability of box-office commercial and distribution success. Such ‘greenlit’ films were not always successful, suggesting that although the internal development process may work, the ‘stage gates’ and decision criteria could benefit from multi-stakeholder evaluation.

Hollywood is less sanguine about scriptwriters than the small industry conveys. The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) echo the dark side of endless ‘development hell’. Scripts get rewritten, with new dialogue, improvisations, and location changes. Studios often have a ‘dead pile’ of undeveloped scripts that could be redeveloped into new projects. Some scripts remain in debt-laden ‘turnaround’ for years. Scriptwriters also often have little control once producers ‘option’ a script — depending on the deal’s terms — on how A-level directors and stars interpret their characters and narrative arc amidst studio budget constraints. Sometimes it’s also best to keep a script in a drawer for several months and then come back to it.

Hollywood scriptwriters have developed several market mechanisms that their Australian counterparts could learn from. Individual scriptwriters may find Hollywood’s ‘auction’ markets via agencies to be more lucrative than dealing with a government agency. In particular, scriptwriters can gain a significant upside in deal-making if they invest time to understand how option contracts work, and if they have an agent with mastery of real options analysis for asset/intellectual property valuation and game theoretic negotiation strategies.

Drop me an email when you sign to Creative Artists Agency, International Creative Management or William Morris Agency. Drinks are on your agent.