Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why I Fight, er, Write

Recently in the pitching class I teach at Art Center College, I was pontificating about the battle to weasel as much money as possible out of the tight fists of the studios. A student raised her hand and asked me, “Do you have any higher purpose in your writing, any issues that you want to get out to the world, or is it just about making money?” It was a very, very good question.

First of all, let me just say that if your primary interest is making money, there are a heckuva lot of easier ways to go about it than screenwriting. So let me tell you why I write movies.

When I was a kid I remember how I felt when I came out of my favorite movies. I felt energized, alive, and anxious to do…something! At that tender age I couldn’t exactly describe what that feeling was but now I know it to be a lust for life. A sense of Carpe Diem. Those movies made me not just fall in love with movies but fall in love with living. They made me believe the underdog could win and true love was real and justice will triumph if good people persevere.

I was drawn to be a filmmaker to give that experience to other people.

I believe film is an art form but I don’t think of myself as an artist. I’m an entertainer. If I can help create a film that people walk out of at the end having had a thoroughly good time then I think I’ve done something worthwhile. I aspire to quality but I’ll leave it to others to judge the artistic merit of my work.

There are a few issues I feel passionately about and I try to work those into my scripts. I make it a point to write diverse characters, particularly including positive images of gay and disabled people. And I’m careful not to inadvertently promote ideas I don’t actually agree with. But entertainment is always the first priority. And ultimately I think the messages are more powerful if they come in an entertaining package.

Mostly I hope a few people experience that feeling I remember as a kid.

But here’s the other side of the coin. Screenwriting isn’t a hobby for me, it’s my career. And if you’re doing something as a career you better care about how much money you’re making. Furthermore, screenwriting is an entrepreneurial career. When you set out to be a professional screenwriter you’re starting a small business. You have to give some thought and energy to how your business is going to make money. If you don’t want to do that I recommend you stop writing screenplays, get a good, solid day job, and write short stories or maybe a blog as a hobby. You’ll be a lot happier.

If you pursue screenwriting professionally and you aspire to artistry or even just quality entertainment you will struggle with balancing your vision with your need to make money through your entire career. Here’s how I recommend you find the balance:

Work hard to master the business of the business but write only scripts you are passionate about. Ultimately I think that’s how you find your value to the industry anyway. There are hundreds of writers out there that can turn in competent but uninspired screenplays. Why do they need you? Find the stories that excite you and put that excitement into your writing. Find your voice and sell that. Not only will you be happier, I believe you will be more likely to find financial success.

And hopefully you’ll write a film that makes me fall in love with life all over again.

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