Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Amazon Studios Week 1, or, Why You Might Not Think I'm a Real Artist

Housekeeping:It's Wednesday night as I begin this blog post--approximately the end of the first full week at Amazon Studios. There are now 1094 entrants on the site. Also, just today, the displays of the films have been altered--from the front page you can now differentiate between movies and scripts, and the number of downloads has been omitted. To my mind, these are both improvements.

On the interwebs, the first parody sketch of Amazon's endeavor (that I have seen), entitled "Scamazon," has hit YouTube, and Deadline Hollywood has jumped on board to cover the recent criticism, mostly by by quoting blogposts of John August and Craig Mazin, which, if you are one of this blog's loyal readers, you have already seen.

In response to some of the furor--much of which has also been echoing in the forums on the Amazon Studios, Amazon Studios has responded in one of its forums.

And now,
Tonight's topic.
The Rewrite Thing.

A number of people have voiced distress over being rewritten. An articulate phrasing of the complaint has been rendered by John August, who says:
Do you really want random people rewriting your script?

To me, this feels like the biggest psychological misstep of the venture. Sure, most aspiring screenwriters yearn for access to the film industry and the chance to get their movies made. That’s why they enter screenwriting competitions, including things like Project Greenlight, which feels like its closest kin.

But here’s the thing: each of these writers wanted to get his movie made. I’ve never met a single screenwriter who hoped anonymous strangers would revise him.

As someone who has made the choice to be on the site, albeit via different circumstances than some, I've been doing some soul searching, and I've come to the conclusion that given the right circumstances, I might be that screenwriter that John August has never met.

Is anonymous revision by strangers the way I want develop all my scripts? No. But is it the worst scenario I can envision? Not really.

Some background: I go to a school with a good reputation for teaching screenwriting and stuff. I entered school, like many of my classmates, thinking that, with enough skills, I might write a screenplay with a singular vision that might someday be embodied as a film. But as the semesters passed, I started to assemble a different vision of how things work. Some factoids:

1) People work on scripts they are not credited on pretty frequently. As far as I can tell "script doctoring" is a work-for-hire gig.

2) The phrase "working writer." As in "If you want to be a working writer, you have to have a flexible mindset. If the project is "Garfield, the Movie, or Monopoly, the Movie, or Slinky, the Movie," (this is a paraphrase, if there is actually a Slinky movie coming out, I don't know about it yet, but I am excited already), you need to be able to find something in that that resonates with you--you have to find and convey passion for the Slinky."

3) Scripts get rewritten so many times, by so many people, that the WGA has problems allocating credit to the maximum number (is it four?) of writing slots.

4) Sometimes a writer invests in a project only to see it disfigured--if not in the rewrite, then in production, by the acting or directing or the lack of funds or the whim of a producer or in the editing bay. Writing for film for money by all accounts is a collaborative process, and sometimes it goes wrong. Have you had the opportunity to listen to this NPR podcast with Corey Mandell--one of the credited writers on Battlefield Earth? In it he gets to explain how, even though this movie got made, with his name on it, it's not really the movie he wrote.

Out in the real world, some people were interested in the script I currently have on Amazon. They were in the process of giving me notes for how to make my script more marketable--in one case, more of a horror movie, in another, more of a thriller with better action. These notes--which as far as I can tell were good notes-- weren't MY vision, yet I was going to take these notes and rewrite the script myself. This was for no money and no promises--just the possibility that if I could make changes that one person liked, that person would show it to someone slightly more powerful, and maybe something would happen. This, according to my industry class, is a standard starting opportunity for a "baby writer," and in this situation I should grateful and ready to make changes. I absolutely was both of these things, and should I be so lucky, I will be the next time around, too. If the process had completed and resulted in a great produced script, no one would have been more thrilled than me. But none of that changes the fact that even if I typed every word, the movie would have been fundamentally different from my initial conception of it. Basically I'm saying--unless I was a self-financed writer-director, my movie was always destined to change at some stage in the game in a way that I was not going to control.

Now, with the advent of the Amazon thing, the possibility is raised that someone else might change the script. It is hard for me to imagine who has the time and energy to rewrite my entire film for no money--in fact it seems unfathomable--but that is tangential to the discussion at hand. We are imagining that some hypothetical person(s) exist(s) who will rewrite my script. Maybe they will make it more of a horror movie, or a thriller, or write bigger and better chase scenes. Then, we are imagining, that someone (Amazon, Warner Brothers?) will see this revised edition, and want to make it. I will still make at least half the money, and retain writing credit. As an artist, I should apparently say that I will be terribly offended if if this happens, but the truth is, I wrote the script I wanted to write. I dealt with the issues that were important to me, and that script is now published. Truth be told, if someone sees fit to revise--I will be FINE with that. Maybe more than fine, since I probably wasn't the writer (yet) to make that chase sequence work anyway. I don't really get chase sequences--even fancy ones like in the last Matrix movie. I fell asleep during the big chase in the French Connection. But I respect that movies need chase sequences. If someone else who loves chase sequences can write it for me and get my movie made, in any form...I am A-OK. with that. (And I'm ignoring the fact, that in this structure, as the original writer, I can rewrite the rewrites, using the parts I like and disregarding the rest. I don't get to choose--but I get to make my bid.)

I'm sure this has to do with where I am, in my life, and my career. If I were a "working writer" instead of just a writer who works, my situation would be entirely different. But for the moment, if someone, anyone, gives me a lump sum of 100 thousand dollars, I will buy my husband a sushi dinner, and then go write a check for $99,900 and send it to Sallie Mae, where it will pay off some, but not all of my student loans. After I've done that, I will be so frickin’ relieved I won’t be able to see straight. I will feel free and light as I drive to K-town to teach ESL for $14 bucks an hour, and I will give myself permission to write a fifteen-page short story that will be all mine, and no one else will rewrite. If I’m lucky it will be published in a mid-tier literary journal, (which may or may not be funded in part by Amazon), and I will send copies to my friends and family at Christmas and say "I did that!"

And as for the movie that gets made-- if it sucks --I can always point to my original. It's already out there, in public. There's a paper trail of ideas, decisions and mistakes. I may have to apologize for my own writing and decisions that didn't ultimately work, but I will never have to dispute what those were on public radio.


  1. Anonymous2:41 AM

    oh my goodness, i was laughing hysterically at the bit about the loans because i am so in the same boat! i was telling some friends recently that if this book proposal comes through and i sell the damned thing, i'm going to write sallie mae a big check, too! :P

  2. You do realize you put an extra 9 in there, right? :-) I'd imagine you don't owe Sallie Mae a million dollars, although I'm sure it feels like it plenty of the time.

  3. Ha ha--Editing now--it does look a little less overwhelming without that extra digit!