As you’re learning to write, it’s important to observe yourself and consider what kind of writer you are. Different writers have different strengths and gravitate toward different types of stories. When I was in film school, it was pretty easy to pick up what kinds of writers the other students were. Roughly, we broke down into two camps. Some of us were much more focused on commercial story-telling, while others were attracted to films that were more artistic.
I can almost hear you saying, what difference does it make? Shouldn’t I just tell the story I want to tell and let other people decided what it is? You can do that. However, filmmaking is a collaborative process and you, as the screenwriter, are at the very beginning and there’s no guarantee you’ll be there at the end. If you want to make it to the end you’re going to need to understand as much as you can about what you’re doing.
Now, there are many other ways to describe what kind of writer someone is but for the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on commercial and artistic screenplays.
If you’re someone who loves big summer movies then you might also be a commercial writer. If this is your inclination you should definitely study big budget films and try to figure out what makes them work and look at the types of stories that are being told. And, of course, you should try writing one and see what you get. There are some pitfalls to avoid though…
Commercial films can often be a bit bland, as though they’ve had all their sharp corners shaved off, they can be predictable, and often un-challenging. I can assure you that in most cases the script did not start out that way. As I said earlier, it’s a collaborative process and usually, it’s the producers, the directors, the studios and the actors who manage to kick the life out of a story. So, you shouldn’t do it for them.
When you write a commercial film on spec, you want to use everything you’ve learned about commercial film structure and try to bring as much freshness to the project as possible. Notice I didn’t use the word original. Film history is too long, so it’s not really possible to be original. You can be fresh, though. You can put things together in a way that hasn’t been done for a long while.
Of course, very few commercial spec scripts get made. Most commercial films are built on a well-known underlying project so there’s a built-in audience: Comic books, bestsellers, remakes. Most of the opportunities in commercial film writing are adaptations.
And, if you read the trades, you’ll notice that adaptations often go to writers (and directors) who are the opposite of commercial. Someone makes a splash in the indie world one year and the next they’re directing a big superhero franchise. Studios are still hoping for a commercial film, they’re just hoping to expand their audience by choosing someone to add a tiny bit of the artistic.
If your favorite time of year for filmgoing begins in the fall and ends during the holidays then you may be an artistic writer. If you feel like this is your inclination you should do exactly what I recommend for commercial writers and study the artistic films you like and analyze how they work and look closely at what types of films are being made. And then, write a couple.
One of the first things to recognize about artistic films is that they are meant to make money. They’re just meant to do it on a smaller scale. The idea is not to write a film that no one will come to see, the idea is to write a film that can make money with a much smaller audience. So what does that mean?
It can mean that you keep production costs down by limiting the number of sets and amount of CGI necessary. More importantly, though, you keep production costs down by writing characters actors want to play. Those big, famous actors who play all the superheroes want to do artistic things and they will accept much less money if the part is well written and appealing to them. So, it’s your job to attract them.
Another thing to keep in mind about artistic films is that they are more likely to get made from a spec script. The audience demands are lower so they don’t need the built-in name recognition. You may have already picked this up, but one of the routes to commercial film writing is through artistic writing.
FINDING YOUR SWEET SPOT
It’s very likely that you’ve been reading this thinking, I’m kind of a commercial writer and sort of an artistic writer. That’s not a surprise. Very few of us fit neatly into categories.
One of the things writers should always do is follow their gut… but very often our guts lead us to places that are not profitable. What I tell screenwriters when I’m giving them notes is, you need to look for the intersection between what’s in your gut and what’s saleable.
As you’re studying screenwriting, as you’re learning to write, try to understand the kind of writer you are and keep that firmly in mind. That’s your product. That’s what you’re selling.