Years ago, I was in New York with my then girlfriend. Her boss at work, a 30 something woman and deputy editor for a major women's magazine joined us for dinner. This woman was bright, funny, very smart, a Princeton graduate. She heard I was a writer and filmmaker and kind of squared off towards me with a question: "Why are movies so bad?" Before I could answer she went into an explanation. She said that the movie In The Line of Fire was a very simple, genre movie but it was good, enjoyable and solid though by no means a complex work of art. She felt that making a movie at least that good was the absolute least a paying audience should expect. In short, she wasn't expecting Citizen Kane every time she went to the movies but surely something as formulaic as In The Line of Fire could be produced with regularity by the high paid writers, directors and actors out in Hollywood. Couldn't it? My answer was simply, "It's not as easy as it looks."
And that's true. It's not. Making films is complex and a lot of things need to go right for something like In The Line of Fire to come out of the hopper at the end. I'm by no means a titan of this industry and at the end of the day, I don't really know for certain why so many movies don't work. But, I have a few thoughts.
About ten years ago I sold a script to a studio. I didn’t have an agent or a manger when it happened. The script was one that I’d written years before that had been sitting on a shelf. It was a good script but I also think I just got kind of lucky. I’d been around, plugging away for 8 or 9 years, not catching any breaks and finally I caught one.
Selling the script set off a chain of events that were very exciting. I got an agent who sent the script out to lots of producers and studio executives. Many of them liked it and wanted to meet with me. These were called “general” meetings and they happen a lot. A writer who has sold a script is thought to be “hot”. Also, you’re a new face. Producers and studio executives get used to hearing the same names and when someone unknown surfaces they want to sit down with you, get to know you and, probably most of all, develop a relationship with you in case you wind up becoming wildly successful.
Since this was the first script I’d ever sold and since it was not a huge sale by industry standards, most of the time I didn’t meet with anyone really high up on the ladder. For instance, my agent would call me and say that Jerry Weintraub’s company wanted to have a general meeting with me. But I wouldn’t be meeting with Jerry Weintraub himself. I’d be meeting with someone further down on the food chain.
Before I go any further I guess I should go into some explanation about how the hierarchy is usually set up at production companies and at studios. First you have the studios. There is the president of the studio. This is the person who is ultimately responsible for deciding what movies get made and what scripts get bought. Below him or her there are other presidents and vice presidents. Some of these people have the power to buy scripts or even green light movies up to a certain dollar amount. Below that you have directors of development and, at the entry level, creative executives.
Additionally, there are production companies that have deals with the studios. These production companies don’t finance films. The studios give them office space and pay their executives and sometimes give them a discretionary fund to use as they wish. Things are set up the same way at the production companies as they are at the studios. There’s usually a main producer or producing team who’s the boss. Under them they have vice presidents, directors of development and creative executives on the very bottom rung.
I never quite understood this whole set up and it always seemed a little dysfunctional to me. It would seem that studios spend the money on producer deals because they don’t want to take the time that it would require to seek out, develop and actually guide a project through all the phases of production. But, then again, the studios have all these executives that seem to be doing just that anyway, which seems redundant. But, more about that later. Let’s get back to my experiences when I first started taking all these meetings.
As I said, I rarely got to meet with the boss. I’d go in to meet with a production company or, occasionally, a studio and I’d wind up sitting down with someone who answered to the boss. The meetings would generally all go the same way. They’d tell me that they read my script and loved it. Then, they’d ask me about myself, where I grew up, what my story was. Eventually, they’d get around to the same question, “So, what else are you working on?” At that point I’d tell them about some of the other scripts I’d written or ideas for other scripts I had. Here, the meetings diverged in a very specific way.
The meetings usually drew to a close. This was always the case with the studios and usually the case with production companies. Whoever I was sitting with would say something along the lines of, “OK, well, when you’ve written that script we’d love to take a look at it” or “Keep in touch. We’d love to find something to work on with you.” I’d say thanks, we’d shake hands and that was it.
There were other meetings though where it became clear that the person I was meeting with didn’t just want to say hello. They were serious. They wanted to be in business with me. Never, ever, did any of these people express an interest in any of my ideas or scripts. In every case they had an idea or a book or a magazine article that they wanted to develop with me. And by “develop” I mean that they wanted me to figure out how it could be turned into a script and then, with their guidance, sell it to a studio who would pay me, again with their guidance, to write it.
Here’s how it would work: I’d leave the original meeting with, let’s say, the creative executive from a production company. I’d mull over the idea or read the book or article I’d been given. If I had a take I’d email or call back the person I’d met with. Usually, we’d talk about my thoughts over the course of a few phone calls until the creative executive said something along the lines of, “I think you should come back in and talk about this with the team.”
This was my first test and it meant I’d be getting to meet the higher ups. Until then I’d just been dealing with a creative executive. Now, I’d be meeting with the director of development, perhaps a VP and sometimes, though not always, the boss. So, if the name of the production company was, “Joe Blow Pictures”, Joe himself might be there.
The mention of meeting with the team was presented casually but I was expected to arrive with all my ideas organized and ready to present. Sometimes I had the whole script worked out. Other times I just had some general ideas. This usually depended on how busy I was and how firm a grasp I had on the idea. Either way, I’d go in and present whatever I had and hope for the best.
There were times when this meeting was the end of the whole thing. Joe Blow, if he was there, wouldn’t like my take, which just meant that he didn’t think we could sell it. He’s say something along the lines of, “Thanks for coming in. Feel free to come back if you figure out another way in.” Other times though, I passed the test. Joe liked what I had to say or maybe just liked the cut of my jib. He thought we could make something happen.
There was still more work to do though. Usually, even though Joe liked my idea he wanted to work with me on crafting a pitch. I’d spend more time on my own and have further meetings with Joe and his team. I’d run ideas for scenes and characters by them. They’d make comments and send me home to do further work. A big part of all this was coming up with ways that the movie we envisioned was very similar to other movies that had been successful. So, for instance, if we were developing a script about boxing we’d spend a lot of time explaining how and why it was very much like Rocky or The Fighter, even if it was nothing like either of those films. I guess this boiled things down in a very easy to digest way and at the same time put the thought of big profits into everyone's minds. I learned very quickly to never, EVER, compare what we were presenting to a movie that hadn’t done well at the box office. So, even if our boxing project was a lot more like Warrior, the great movie about mixed martial arts directed by Gavin O’Connor, it was forbidden to mention that because Warrior had been a box office failure.
This was all in preparation for a bigger, more important meeting with a studio executive who had the power to actually buy the pitch. Once or twice Joe actually set up a meeting with an underling at the studio who was thought to have a good feel for what the boss would and wouldn’t buy. So, in this case, I’d also get notes from the underling and integrate them into my pitch.
Eventually, the time would come where it was decided that we were ready for the big meeting. By now, this felt like a really, really big deal. I’d drive onto the studio lot and gather with Joe and his entire team. Everyone would look at me, excited and say, “Are you ready?” Then, as a group, we’d walk over to another building on the lot. We’d be shown into the studio executive’s office and usually his or her team, including the underling who’d given me notes would be there. Hands would be shaken. There’d be some small talk. A point would arrive where things would get kind of quiet and it was clear to the 7 or 8 people present that the exchange of pleasantries had been exhausted. Then, the studio executive would say something like, “So, Sean, what do you have for us today?” And everyone would look at me, waiting.
These moments were pretty intense. At this point it was my job to, in an entertaining way and in about 20 minutes, outline the main concept, the characters and the major beats or set pieces of the script. And there was a lot riding on this. Joe had by now devoted many hours of his very valuable time to helping me come up with this pitch. His team had also spent a lot of time with me and were very invested. I had the most at stake of all. The decision to buy the pitch and pay me to write the script would be made based on the next 20 minutes. If the answer was yes, I’d be paid a lot of money to write the script. If it was no then the whole thing was dead and I’d just wasted the last 5 or 6 weeks of my life.
I spent several years going through this process again and again and after a while I realized that I was as much a salesman as I was a writer. I began to wish that there’d been a class on sales at film school. There truly is an art to standing in front of a room of people and being clear, succinct, funny and most of all, not boring. But the truth is that this skill has very little relation to a much more important skill, at least in this case, the skill of writing. Lots of writers are weird nerds. Some are socially inept. I’ve met very boring, odd men and women who were fantastic writers. This is the wonderful thing about writing. You get to go sit by yourself and take the time to quietly think of the hilarious, cool things you’d say if you were confident and quick witted. I hate public speaking. I tend to sweat, speak way too fast and blink a lot while doing it. This is one of the main reasons I became a writer in the first place.
But there are other writers who are the opposite of me. They don’t need to sit in a room alone to think of the cool things they’d say if they were confident and quick witted. Why? Because they are, in real life, confident and quick witted. Often these people used to be stand up comics or actors and love being the center of attention. Often, they hate sitting alone in a room and love charming the pants off of studio executives. And often, they’re really crappy writers. But it doesn’t matter. This is the way the system is set up and the way a huge number of movies start out. And I’m not blaming anyone. If I was a studio executive hearing pitches all day I’m sure I’d be much more likely to buy the hilarious one presented by the charming, former stand up comic over the one stuttered out by the sweaty, twitchy weirdo. Nonetheless, this is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that movies are so bad.
Despite my unease with the pitching process I got decent at it and sold a few. This leads to the single most frustrating thing about the whole process. Once hired to write a script, the studio executive disappears, Joe Blow disappears and everything kind of starts all over again. You’re given some time to write the script but it’s not like you just finish a draft and turn it in. When a draft is finished you show it to the creative executive you’d first met with at the very beginning. They give you notes which they feel will improve the script. Often, these notes aren’t very good but they insist that they know what Joe likes and doesn’t like so you have to try your best to execute them. Then, when the creative executive feels your script is ready he or she shows it to Joe Blow. I cannot tell you how many times Joe Blow had notes that ran contrary to what the creative executive had said. So, you write more drafts of the script to please Joe. Then, when Joe feels the script is ready, it is submitted to the studio. Often, it’s not given to the person who actually bought your pitch but to the above mentioned underling, who has more notes they want executed before they’ll show it to their boss. And yes, often these notes are different from what Joe and his underling thought. Finally, it makes it all the way up to the top studio executive who, of course, may say something completely different, which everyone has to listen to because they want this guy to green light their movie or send it up the ladder to whoever can. And you sit there wondering why you couldn’t have just shown the script to the top studio executive to begin with and saved everyone a lot of time.
It’s not uncommon that by this point the script has been stepped on by so many people that it’s a nearly incoherent mishmash of 4 or 5 people’s ideas. This is another reason, again in my humble opinion, why movies are often so bad. This is not completely the fault of the production company and studio executives. At the very beginning, when I was first given the idea, book or magazine article by the creative executives I never asked myself if the piece of material spoke to my soul, if it was something I could make art out of. And I don’t mean to get too touchy feely here but that is where good movies come from. They start with a writer or filmmaker who cares passionately about the story and characters and who has a compelling vision.
There were a few times where I went in on pitches for scripts that I was passionate about. More often though, I just wanted the job. After years of writing for free it was a thrill to suddenly be in a situation where I might be paid good money to write a script. And also, it’s kind of intoxicating to suddenly feel important, taking meetings on studio lots with big shot producers and executives. When I got the job I’d get congratulatory phone calls. My agents would take me out to dinner somewhere expensive. My parents would feel like just maybe their loser son was amounting to something. This is all very hard to resist.
But I didn’t always have a firm grasp on the material. A few times I was completely winging it and just saying what I hoped the producer or studio executive wanted to hear. As time went on and I got better at pitching there were even a couple times where I got a job that I’d been pitching for weeks and suddenly realized that while my pitch sounded good it was all sizzle and no steak. I’d gotten caught up in the whole process and done a very good sales job but I had no idea how to actually write the script. But, I’d been given a check and was expected to deliver so I had to do my best and the result was a pretty mediocre script. This isn’t uncommon and it’s another reason why movies are often so bad. Writers are as motivated by money and the trappings of success as anyone else.
It’s a joke among my friends that I often say, “If I were king of the world, I’d __________”. And you can fill in the blank. I guess I just like the idea of everything going exactly as I wish it would. Of course, I’ll never be king of world but if I were the head of a studio, which may be as close as anyone gets to being king of the world in this life, here’s what I’d do differently:
First, I would ask writers what scripts or ideas they had in their files that they were passionate about and I’d encourage producers to develop these ideas, not ones they came up with or found on their own. Good movies come from good scripts and writers do their best work when they’re speaking from their soul. It’s hard to write a script. It says a lot to me that someone sat in a room and, for free, wrote something because they loved it. These are the things I’d want to see.
Second, I’d eliminate pitching except in very rare cases. I’d spend a lot more time actually reading completed scripts and buying the ones I liked. As for adaptations of books and magazine articles I’d hire writers based on their past work and reputation and pay them to write a draft without going through the silly and time wasting charade of hearing them pitch it to me. Writing and pitching are two very different skills. I’m the head of a movie studio, trying to make good movies. I don’t care if someone is charming and delightful in a meeting. I just want to be given a script that’s great and that I can’t put down. That’s all that matters.
Last, I’d find some way to streamline the chain of command so that there were fewer steps between the writer and whoever has the final say. I realize that the head of the studio can’t read every draft of every script that comes in the door but there should be less room between the writer and final decision maker. This would probably mean eliminating a lot of middle management and more work for everyone else but I think this would make movies better.
In general, a lot of making better movies comes down to working harder. I remember reading somewhere that George W. Bush didn’t like to read. He preferred to have someone on his staff brief him on position papers or whatever other important stuff Presidents are asked to read. And this makes sense. It’s easier. It’s hard to sit down and read a script and much more entertaining to have a charming person come in and just tell you the story. It’s hard to sit down and give serious, intelligent thought to draft after draft of a screenplay and much easier to hire someone to do that work for you even if it dilutes the whole process. It’s hard to write something you care about for free and much nicer to be paid well to do it. But, doing the easy, nice, fun thing isn't what results in high quality, with movies or anything else.