Screenwriting matters

It may seem  hardly worth comment to those of you who aren’t screenwriters, but when Universal last week put online six screenplays of recent hits they’re   promoting for the upcoming awards season, it came like an unexpected bunch of flowers to the girl who never gets asked  on a date.

Which might give you an idea how undervalued screenwriters feel in the industry.

At last, many of us thought, some recognition that the success of these films might actually have something to do with the people who wrote them.

The six scripts are:
American Gangster,   The Bourne Ultimatum,   Breach,   Elizabeth: The Golden Age,   The Kingdom and Knocked Up.

But why read a screenplay? Aren’t they just blueprints for movies? Why not just watch the film?

Well, as Paul Laverty said to me the other week, if you’re going to do a job  it’s worth seeing how other people do it. And if you’re going to make a career out of screenwriting, you need to read screenplays.

The problem is where to get them. Being the least glamorous arm of the film industry, the only call for scripts are the legions of wannabe screenwriters. That may be every second person in LA, but once you get outside of there the numbers plummet.

I have a nice collection of published screenplays  and most of them are good. But,   of course, most published screenplays adopt a stage play layout that I personally find annoying. As long as you know that, though, and you’re going to them purely to get a   sense of the writer’s voice, then it’s okay… if you’re actually reading   a draft screenplay and not some transcript (and who wants to read the work of some nerd who’s sat  for hours writing   down every bit of dialogue and summing up the action bits in mallspeak?).

If you want to get your hands on the real thing, there are specialist shops like Scriptfly where you can order actual screenplays made of paper fixed together with brass brads. They come at quite a price, but if you desperately need that one script, it’s worth it.

But I’m all about saving the planet so  what I want is nice little electronic versions that don’t cost me anything. That’s why my biggest collection of screenplays is on my laptop, where I have a folder   that contains about 170 screenplays in a variety of digital formats, all of   which I’ve downloaded free of charge from different websites over the years.

My first port of call for any script I’m looking for is always where you can   find lots of interesting early drafts (again, avoid anything that says ‘transcript’). Then I’ll try, which also has a   nice TV Scripts section. If I’m desperate I’ll look at Drew’s Script-o-Rama but it’s a site designed by a partially-sighted chimpanzee with a lobotomy that came last in the Partially-Sighted Lobotomised Chimpanzee Website Designer of the Year Competition and it hurts my eyes, so I mainly avoid it.

If all else fails, there’s one other route that no one ever tries.

I was recently pleasantly surprised to find that an approach to the writer’s   agent can be very effective in getting a draft script emailed. I was teaching a   course on a couple of TV pilots and both writers were happy to send me PDFs of their draft scripts, as long as it was for educational purposes and not for distribution and all that.

Two draft scripts of major TV pilots. Emailed to me personally. Within half   an hour of asking. Which pretty much exemplifies the ‘Don’t Ask – Don’t Get’ Rule of the Universe.

Even if you’re not doing ‘the Teacher Manoeuvre’ it might be possible to give it the ‘Ardent Fan Dying to Learn from the Master Approach’ and see if they’re   flattered enough to pass on their wisdom.

Worth a try.

But well done to the person at Universal who had the bright idea of putting those scripts online. They’re saying that writing matters. They’re saying that screenwriters matter. And not enough people in the film industry are saying that.

A much shorter version of this first appeared in the daily Screenwriters Network Bulletin for Shooting People.

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