Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Politics of Notes Sessions

(Part One of Two on Notes Sessions)

One of the things we sometimes lose sight of when discussing screenwriting is that the screenplay is not actually the final product. It may be our final product, but the ultimate goal is to have a movie made. Filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor even if screenwriting is usually a solitary one. If you want to be a happy screenwriter, it behooves you to embrace this collaboration – and that means recognizing that the story is going to change as it progresses from page to screen.

One aspect of the collaborative process is that some of your filmmaking partners will give you notes on the screenplay. Really, a notes session with a producer or development exec or director is not so different from getting feedback from a writers’ group or your manager – except the producer or exec or director may have the power to fire you and hire someone else to rewrite you.

If you don’t want to get fired, it helps to have an understanding of the politics behind note sessions. Ostensibly these sessions are simply an opportunity for experienced storytellers to give you feedback that will help you improve the screenplay. In reality there is typically a lot more going on.

First, the people giving you notes probably have agendas other than simply making the screenplay better. They may need to get the movie down to a certain budget level or rating. They may be hoping to build a part to attract a particular movie star. They may be trying to impress their boss or justify their job by “saving” a project – even if it doesn’t need saving. They may actually be trying to save a project that they know is in danger of being cancelled. There may be politics and rivalries in the executive suite that you know nothing about that affect the nature of the notes you are given.

True story (no names to protect the guilty): A writer was hired by a studio to work with a director to rewrite a project. The studio asked the writer to help convince the director that the story needed major changes. Meanwhile the director asked the writer to help him convince the studio that the story was fine the way it was.

It is not uncommon to be given notes by two people with differing visions of the project. The studio executive may want the story to go one way while the producer wants it another way. The writer is stuck in the middle to negotiate the compromise, while never being able to acknowledge the disagreement even exists. Sometimes you’ll get conflicting notes from two different people in the same meeting. Nobody ever points out the impossibility of doing both things.

True story (no names to protect the guilty): A writer was given contradictory notes by two executives during a meeting. Each executive called him after the meeting to tell him that their notes were the ones the writer had to pay attention to, and that he could ignore the other executive’s notes.

Ideally the people who give you notes are extremely qualified and good at story development. And often this is the case. But just as often you will get notes from someone who really knows nothing about writing or how to talk to writers. It seems more and more people are empowered to give notes these days. When a twenty-two year-old with a business degree starts lecturing you on how to make the characters more compelling, you might start to wonder about the wisdom of the Hollywood system.

Even worse, sometimes the person giving the notes hasn’t actually read the material, or hasn’t read it all the way through. Sometimes they read it quickly, perhaps while on the treadmill or being constantly interrupted with phone calls. Yet you are expected to take the notes seriously.

Obviously, if you are getting notes from multiple people, the people won’t all be equally powerful. It helps to know who really holds your fate in their hands. But even there things get complex. You may be working with a producer and a studio executive. You get notes from the executive and do a rewrite. The producer wants to see the rewrite before you turn it in to the studio. The producer then asks you to make some changes – changes that go against the studio exec’s notes. What do you do?

If you figure it out, tell me. Some of these situations are like the Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek – no win scenarios.

This doesn’t mean notes are bad by definition. In fact, the majority will probably be at least mildly helpful, and some will dramatically improve the story. First drafts are rarely ready to shoot. Several drafts in, everyone loses perspective, especially the writer. Plus, like I said earlier, this is a collaborative process. You ought to be collaborative. Nobody is trying to make a bad movie.

At the end of the day, though, it’s your name on the script. If it fails, you will get blamed no matter who gave you what notes. If I’m going down anyway, I’d rather go down with a screenplay I’m proud of than one I hate.

Despite the politics involved, there are some techniques to navigating the minefield of notes sessions, and techniques to get the most value out of a notes session. After all, the goal is to make the next draft better. I’ll discuss some of these techniques in next week’s post.

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