Screenwriting: Understanding Success and Failure

nb. Since writing this piece I realised I have missed an important part of the story from this post. I teach screenwriting but have always had mixed feelings about it. My reservations have always been about integrity. In order to teach screenwriting I have to genuinely believe I am teaching something valuable. I have very little respect for screenwriting instructors who imply that all anyone needs to do is write the way they teach and they will make it in the industry. Recently, I have made the move from teaching in colleges and universities to private practice. The primary thing that has prevented me from doing that in the past has been my understanding that writing a good script is not the same as selling a script. I am not and never will be in the “sell your screenplay business,” what I teach is how to write a script. This article, therefore, is about both my understanding of the realities of industry and what motivates me to write, to improve my writing and to find new ways to teach the art of screenwriting. 

Two years ago I decided to take a break from screenwriting. In total, I took myself out of the game for about a year. In that year I passed a post-graduate qualification in Creative Writing; I taught myself how to draw; I set up and ran an art gallery; I organised three pop-up art exhibitions; and, I wrote about a dozen short stories and the first quarter of a novel. A novel I’m still working on.  There are lots of reasons why I took that year out, but it’s only been since my recent return to serious screenwriting, I’ve remembered how, for the sake of our sanity, we may all need to find other creative outlets for our writing.

Screenwriting is a very hard discipline to master. However, the writing is easy in comparison with the business side of screenwriting.  On average, less than two percent of scripts written will find their way to the desk of a producer. The vast majority of scripts never making it past the initial screening process. Even when a script does find its way onto a producer’s desk the odds are still against it. Even a good producer is unlikely to make more than one film a year. In order to make that one film, they’ll have maybe four or five projects in development.  Some of those projects will be in development for years, possibly even decades. But most of them will get attention for a while, only to fade into obscurity as other projects become more attractive to the producer. Of the thousands and thousands of scripts written only a tiny proportion will ever make it into production. What this means for screenwriters is that failure isn’t just likely, it’s the norm. 

I can only talk for myself, but when I came into screenwriting I wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared for the battering a screenwriter’s ego takes. Basically, writing the first draft of a screenplay takes about six to eight weeks. If you’re going to turn out something half-decent there will also be a significant amount of research and development work before the writing. Research and development can add weeks or months to the project. After the first draft, writers often take a step back for a month and then come back for a rewrite. A solid rewrite is at least a week’s work, or more, depending on how deep the problems run. As you can see, every screenplay represents a significant time investment for the writer. In the past, I have written about the economic investment a screenplay represents, but putting that to one side, it’s also important to understand the emotional investment a writer makes in a project. Every single writer I have ever met, regardless of their experience, pours their heart and soul into their scripts. Even if the script turns out to be an absolute dog the writer was doing the best they could at the time. Like any other art form, screenwriting is about emotional investment. Every writer invests and believes in what they are doing, otherwise, it would be impossible for them to get the words on the paper. 

I would argue, largely from personal experience, one of the reasons it’s difficult to learn to write is precisely because of the emotional investment we put into our writing. We have to believe that every script is a good script. However, at the same time, in order to improve we have to accept that every script is also flawed and capable of being better. Writers who can’t see the good in their writing probably won’t survive the inevitable experiences of failure and writers who can’t see the flaws in their work are unlikely to gain the skills needed to write a good script. 

For many years I have wondered about the best way for a screenwriter to measure their success. Of course, the trite answer is a good screenwriter is one whose work is recognised and whose career takes off. I’m not sure how useful that is. Anyone whose criteria for success is getting scripts into production and that film doing well really doesn’t understand the industry. It is almost inevitable that screenwriters will work in isolation; that we’ll create scripts for movies that will never exist; that when our scripts are made into films, those films will become lost in obscurity; and, even our most successful scripts will only ever be read by a handful of people. Unlike an unknown novelist, who can self-publish, an unknown screenwriter’s work is completely cut off from the potential audience. So, not only is screenwriting more technically demanding than any other form of writing, it’s also conducted in a world where there is almost no possibility of getting your ego stroked. For this reason, I think two things are important. Firstly, we need to define for ourselves what success means to us. Secondly, for our own sanity, we also need to find places where we can write (or create) and get some positive strokes for what we do.

I can’t tell anyone how they should define success, but, for me, I see every script as an opportunity to create a better script than anything I have written previously. If the script is better than the last one it is a successful script. What happens to it after it’s written is largely irrelevant. This is a strategy that has both strengths and weaknesses. I enjoy the writing process more than I ever have in the past when I was chasing external approval from the industry. However, by no longer caring about what producers think about my writing I have also made myself less attractive to producers looking for low-risk scripts. That is an acceptable trade-off for me at this point in my career. I suspect that all writers reach a point where they have to choose between their commitment to the industry and their commitment to the writing. I definitely choose the writing.

Even with redefined success criteria screenwriting is just too strict about form and too restrictive in what you can and can’t do. For that reason, I believe writers need other outlets for their writing. I write these articles and I am working on my novel. These activities feed me as a writer in ways that screenwriting never can. And, in my opinion, writers need a small dose of praise and appreciation every now and again. It’s just we’ll need to create our own opportunities to get it, as it sure as heck isn’t going to come from the film industry.