Monday, 3 November 2008

WHAT PEOPLE WANT

Hi, folks! Welcome to November!

Today's thought for the day concerns the market. Perhaps that should be The Market. What is it? And how do we work with it?

For whom do we write our scripts and screenplays? Generally, we write them for ourselves. Nothing wrong with that - if you're not enjoying what you're doing, why do it? At some level or other we have to write for our own satisfaction, otherwise writing anything at all is difficult. This is why our era of multiple rewrites is such a curse on writers. We lose our own investment in the script as we try repeatedly to satisfy a gormless producer and their team of marketing idiots.

But - apart from ourselves - who do we write for?

For the people, of course. For the consumers, the great unwashed, the masses out there who are crying out for quality entertainment.

Right?

Actually, no. The market - in the UK, at least - amounts to about five people. If we're sticking with TV, for now, the 'market' might amount to one person.

That one person is to be found somewhere at the top of the TV tree. Their word is law. They say yea or nay.

Forget about the multitudes out there. Yes, I know it's with them in mind that we toil at our work stations. In an ideal world, a writer would write directly for the audience, for the consumer, but ours is not an ideal world. In the real world, we write in order to satisfy an executive. One person.

That person might have started their new job that week. They might be scared shitless by the sudden responsibility of their post. They might be having a bad day. They may not be in the ideal position to make a sensible judgement.

Worse than that. They might well be caught up in the media buzz.

In London, the media world is surprisingly small. There are certain places where media people hang out. Some of these places should be bombed. The Groucho Club, for instance, is an example of everything that's wrong with today's media. Rather than spending time out there, amongst their people, their audience, the consumers who pay their wages, our successful media types lock themselves away in an ivory tower with others of their calling and do all they can to avoid the people they really work for. Which is bad.

The 'media', as we think of them, have demonstrated sheep-like instincts in recent years. They all bleat the same message. They're all looking for the same thing. What that is, exactly, changes on a more-or-less daily basis.

I had a film script once. This was what we call a 'spec' script. I had taken it upon myself to write it without bothering to get it commissioned first.

It had taken me two-and-a-half years to find the subject and a further twelve months to complete the script. It was based on one of the world's greatest love stories - one that, as far as I could tell, had never been turned into a movie before.

I put everything I'd got into it. Everything I'd learnt over a decade or so of working in the industry.

My agent practically combusted spontaneously when he read it. The film department at my agency got involved. It was all looking very good.

But then, things went rather quiet. I started asking what was happening. Little by little, I began to hear a rather familiar refrain:

'It's not what people are looking for.'

This struck me as odd. I thought, 'So what you're saying is that nobody out there is really interested in an epic based on one of the world's greatest love stories?'

Still, the same message kept coming back. 'It's a great script, but nobody's looking for this sort of thing.'

The screenplay was entitled 'Tristan and Isolde'. Four years or so after I'd written my script I began to hear about a major production, with Ridley Scott as executive producer, that went by the title 'Tristan and Isolde'.

There was no plagiarism, here. Examples of producers and companies running off with your ideas and making them without crediting or paying you for them are legion. But in this instance I was to learn that Ridley Scott had spent something like twenty years looking for a 'Tristan and Isolde' script.

So. The script that 'nobody' was looking for could have been sold. Had anybody decided not to listen to the herd but to just get out there are sell it.

I had been told, in no uncertain terms, that there simply wasn't a market for my script. I had refused to believe that. And I had been right. But by then it was too late.

This situation creates enormous problems for the scriptwriter. What it means is that The Market, so called, has nothing whatever to do with what people want. It means that The Market is whatever the media sheep think it might be today. Tomorrow, it'll be different. However, if your script was rejected on a day when 'Nobody's looking for that sort of thing', who's to say that it will be revived when, suddenly, everybody's looking for that sort of thing?

Who are we writing for? For the viewers and listeners? For the executives who have the power of life or death over a script? For the media herd (most of whom have no ideas of their own, which is why they swill around listening out for somebody else's idea, until today's consensus has been agreed on)?

What is The Market?

A good writer will always know, instinctively, what the public will be looking for - not now, but in two or three years time, when, with a fair wind, the project might just about be ready to hit the screens.

Sadly, the people he or she will be relying on in the media to advance the project can only reference what they saw on the box last night.

This is a real conundrum. I suspect it will continue to be a nasty Catch-22 for the earnest writer until the media industry sorts itself out. When the media realise that the writer's creativity and natural instinct for what people want, what stories they want to hear, matter more than the moronic received wisdom of several hundred hangers-on whose purpose, in life and in the media, is obscure. It will not change until the decision makers stop surrounding themselves with people whose judgement is risible but whose sole purpose is to keep the media mogul isolated, away from the clamour of creatives.

Till then, we find ourselves in an awkward and often unworkable position. We spend months - possibly even years - developing and reworking our material, content, deep down inside, that there is a market for this sort of thing. Sometimes, it turns out we were right. But the boat has been missed, because too many people without ideas of their own have convinced themselves that they know what The Market is and what it wants.

Till then, we will continue writing, not for the majority of citizens, but for a tiny handful of people - those who hold the power, and those who cluster round them trying to look like they know what they're doing.

All the time, the gap between the writer and the true market (the audience) widens dramatically.

This is not a good thing.

4 comments:

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

yeah, it's true. movies are made to earn money, after all. Right now, I can safely say that the hottest screenwriting trend is to write a "quirky" comedy with "quirky" characters and a dirty sense of humor, a'la Judd Apatow or Diablo Cody.

Or superhero movies, which are all the rage today (yuck Spiderman movies fucking suck a huge dick).

all of my complete screenplays are, in one way or another, marketable, because I've been careful to think about what kind of scripts to write that WOULD easily sell to the Hollywood market. So far, I havent written anything that would be difficult to sell.

heyy!!! I wanna hang out at the Groucho Club. It would be so fuckin funny. And I love the steamy love scenes in "Tristan and Isolde," it always gets me HOT everytime I see it.

script doc said...

I've been to the Groucho three times. Hated it every time. But then, I hate London clubs anyway.

It's amazing how often, in the history of publishing, the media, film & TV, etc., that what turns out to be a hit comes completely out of left field - i.e., was not what people were 'looking for'. But these people never learn. They'll just keep looking for what everybody else is looking for.

I must confess I haven't seen 'Tristan and Isolde'. Sour grapes, of course - but the love scenes sound good!

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

yeah ditto. Executives are morons anyway. Somebody told me that executives are usually quickly fired and replaced like condoms, cos they dont know shit about good screenplays if it was placed in front of 'em with a huge gleaming shiny Oscar.

script doc said...

Actually, there's no need whatsoever for an executive to understand scripts - as long as they let those who do understand them get on with their jobs. The worst thing that can happen is when an exec who's a complete asshole when it comes to scripts insists on interfering with them. Then the whole system rapidly gets screwed. But it's all so unnecessary. If these executives knew how to delegate, and didn't imagine that absolutely anybody can edit a script, the problem wouldn't exist. All we'd need is producers who know about scripts. And a producer who doesn't know how to deal with a script is definitely in the wrong job.

P.S. Elizabeth Dole losing her seat in the Senate. Ha fucking ha, or what?