There are plenty of myths and misconceptions about the world of screenwriting and film, just like any industry. The pervasive untruths that people believe about filmmaking are pretty wild, and before I got enmeshed in this world I believed plenty of them myself. (Heck, part of me still wants to believe that I can make bank with screenwriting. Ce n’est pas vrai. C’est la vie).
Here are some of the most common and most untrue myths about screenwriting and the film industry that I have come across.
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Myth: It’s lucrative.
Fact: This is one of those myths that makes me laugh. For the most part, you cannot make a living on screenwriting alone. At least until you’re fairly well established, and even that can be a bit of a tossup. The majority of screenwriting gigs for movies are commission based; you don’t know where the next job is coming from once you’ve finished the one you’re working on. Sometimes big payouts for a script get publicized. Various entertainment and industry publications will tell you about the latest acquisition by big-name directors and up-and-coming writers, utmost scripts rarely get bought. Those that do rarely make the kind of seven-figure payout you think of when you think of Hollywood.
I don’t write screenplays for the money; it’d be nice to make some but I’m not kidding myself. I write because I love it. (And because I want to eventually have someone buy my script and Chris Evans star in it, and then meet me and fall in love with me. Obviously. This is a sound plan.)
(If you’re a poor writer like me, here are some of my favorite financial resources for making and managing money!)
Myth: It’s easier than writing novels.
Fact: I get how people can reach this conclusion. I’ve finished a novel rough draft a few years ago and it was tough. Like, holy cow tough! I still have edits to do to it, but it might not happen because it’s really hard! A screenplay has got to be easier just on principle alone, right? It’s only 90 pages and you don’t have to describe things in massive detail; fewer words mean less work, right?
Well, not really. Sure, the page count may be less, but the dedication to story and character is just as important. Furthermore, writing less is actually much harder than you’d think.* It took literal years for Peter Jackson, Phillippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh to write Lord of the Rings as a script, and they had the story right there in front of them! They started screenwriting in 1997 (and planning way earlier), while the first movie wasn’t released until 2001.
(*One of the key tenants of screenwriting is ‘less is more.’ Some of the best books that do this well are not what you’d expect…)
Myth: There’s only one way to format a screenplay.
Fact: This is one of those myths that is both entirely true and entirely untrue. Formatting, structure, acts, characterization? They’re all ultimately fluid. If the only way to tell your story breaks the rules, then you gotta break ‘em. Story trumps everything.
That said, if you’re a beginner (or even middling) screenwriter, don’t do that! I will be so mad if you do that!
You’re probably not a good enough or established enough screenwriter to pull it off successfully. If you’re trying to pitch a script that has weird formatting or some experimental writing, a poor, lowly script-reader at the bottom of the food chain, barely making minimum wage, is going to trash it. They don’t have time for that, so the bigwig execs they work for definitely don’t either.
Ultimately, this boils down to the adage, “Learn the rules so you can break them.” It’s apt. Read up on your ‘Screenwriter’s Bible‘. Polish your script until it gleams, make your story stronger than steel. That’s the best (and truly only) course of action.
Myth: A good script will be made into a good movie.
Fact: Probably not. The number of scripts that get read and then shelved would astound you. Even worse is the number of really, really good stories and screenplays that never get made into a movie or TV show. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s the business. And sometimes the wrong company will read your script, buy it, then never make it just to keep it out of the hands of their competitors. ‘Dog-eat-dog’ doesn’t even begin to cover it with the film industry.
You got to get it in your head that if you write something halfway decent or even extraordinary, the odds aren’t in your favor that it will ever be made into a movie. Sorry.
Fret not though! That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A good script is a calling card. Someone – either an agent or a reader or manager – reads it and vouches for your talent, and that gets your foot in the door for other writing jobs. That is the standard way to get work in Hollywood. It’s actually an amazing opportunity; you can write something truly great and have it up your sleeve to show people. Your talent will bring you places you cannot even imagine.
(And there’s always the possibility that you can make your own film. One of my UCLA compatriots, Bessy Adut, did just that. Every week on Instagram she’s mentioning some award or another that she’s gotten, and it’s deserved! She did a great damn job!)
Myth: I like movies! I bet I can write one too!
Fact: Oh no, honey.
Here’s the thing: I like turn-of-the-century architecture, but that does not make me qualified to build a house. And I love haute-couture, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about sewing if my life depended on it.
I like movies. In fact, I love them! That in and of itself does not qualify me to write them. In the past few years, I have honed my craft, networked, and wrote a lot. I have a bunch of screenplays on my hard drive that will never see the light of day. Maybe when I was writing them I thought they were good but looking back at them now they’re cringe-worthy.
Liking movies is a really good first step. But there are a lot more steps if you want to be successful.
Myth: The film industry is a boys’ club.
Fact: This one is unfortunately true. Most big-name creators are men. If anything, the myths are that women creators are equal in the industry.
But things are changing, (albeit too slowly for my taste). I genuinely feel we are in an industry renaissance. A lot of things have happened over the past few years that give me such hope for the future of film and screenwriting. The #MeToo movement, the amazing turnout of female-led projects at festivals, and holding accountable some big-name execs who abuse their power are all amazing steps towards the future. And right now there are so many outstanding women creating phenomenal things (here’s a list of some of my favorite!). It is a great time to be a female screenwriter. Further still are the number of creators of color and LGBTQ creators that are breaking into the industry as well. New voices are being heard! This is our time.
It may still be a boys’ club, but we have a better clubhouse, and people are starting to notice.
Myth: Anyone can write a screenplay.
Fact: Yeah, anyone can write a screenplay, but not everyone can write a good one.
At the end of the day, like any other industry, screenwriting and film is just another kind of job. The myths and misconceptions are what makes it seem like more than that to the outside observer. The proximity to celebrity and Oscar nights make screenwriting seem like it is part of a different, glamorous world, but at the end of the day, it’s just hard work, practice, and time. Stick around at the end of a movie and watch the credits. Each person listed is an integral part of the movie and most will probably never walk a red carpet for their work. And that’s okay.
The real myths are that most people will never be successful in the industry the way big-name stars and directors are. That’s probably true, but I promise that that’s okay too. You can still be successful, even if you’re not on the cover of magazines. It’s a big world, and your contribution may just be a drop in the ocean, but it matters. Keep writing and creating. It’s worth it.
Conan O’Brien said it best, “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”
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