Wanted: Sickly Little Mole People to Write Scripts
At the 2010 Academy Awards, writer Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. engaged in a little bit of showbiz banter when presenting the award for best original screenplay. At one point Downey Jr. referred to screenwriters as “sickly little mole people,” (whereas actors were the “handsome, gifted” ones). It’s unlikely that the screenwriters in the audience would have been too offended by the actor’s jibe, given that their job has the potential to be one of the most high-profile and best-paying ones around. Nor is it likely to deter the hundreds of thousands of writers trying to break into this highly coveted profession.
Most would-be screenwriters are aware of Sylvester Stallone’s rags to riches story of how he wrote the script for the first Rocky movie in the 1970s (in which he rather astutely included an acting part for himself). But writing scripts for Hollywood movies isn’t the only way to break into the industry. There are a number of other electronic media in which screenwriters can make it big.
Writing comedy is a collaborative process. Comedy writers work in a pressured environment, where it’s not unusual for 10 to 14 writers to work on the one sitcom. Comedy writers can spend a large part of their days brainstorming ideas and devising plots for each episode of a comedy series. As well as writing jokes, they also continuously work on script revisions until the program is ready for filming.
While a group of writers will be responsible for outlining an episode, only one writer or writing team will be assigned to write the first draft of a script. By the time the script is ready, it will have undergone enough revisions to render it almost unrecognizable from its original draft. As well as the ability to write comedy, you need a thick skin to survive as a comedy screenwriter. Seeing your jokes being cut by a studio executive or a senior writer is one of the ego crushing drawbacks to the job. And talking of ego, this profession is all about team work; there’s no real personal ownership of the work involved in writing a script for comedy.
While there’s also a degree of team work involved in writing TV drama, working in this medium allows a screenwriter the opportunity to at least get to hear his or her lines spoken. However, on some drama programs, it’s not unusual for the executive producer or show runner (the person responsible for the day-to-day running of a TV series) to write the scripts for all episodes and then instruct staff writers to revise and polish them. On other shows, it works the other way round: The staff writers write a script for each individual episode, which is then revised by the show runner. But if a TV drama credits a screenwriter, then it's a fairly safe bet that he or she will have written at least a few lines of dialogue, which may not be the case when writing for a comedy show.
When writing for a feature film, a screenwriter typically works on a more solitary basis than he or she does when writing comedy or TV drama (these are probably the writers that Downey Jr. referred to as sickly little mole people in his Oscar banter with Fey). Writing for a feature film involves working closely with the director and producers on developing an idea. However, once that idea has been established and the characters defined, the screenwriter will be permitted to go off and write alone. He or she may have to submit a number of revisions before a script is finally accepted though. And while it may take many years to complete a script for a feature film, the compensation for a screenwriter can be huge (including a little gold statuette if you’re very good!).
For movies produced by Hollywood’s major studios, it’s not unusual for a number of screenwriters to share the credit for the same script. However, unless two or more writers worked as a team, it’s unlikely that any of them will have actually written together. It’s more typical that just one screenwriter was hired to write, with additional writers being brought in to punch up (Hollywood-speak for “improve” or “build up”) the script, for example to rework some of the dialogue to make it more natural sounding.
The video games industry is a promising medium for aspiring screenwriters. However, writing for video games poses some challenges for a classically trained screenwriter. These can include the lack of a normal linear storyline; different “levels” to the story; new characters being introduced at each level; and interactive functions to factor in when writing. In addition, a screenwriter has to work within the limitations of a game’s functionality; and it's highly unlikely that he or she will have had any input into any of these aspects, almost certainly having been brought on board after the game was developed. The advantage of writing for video games, however, is that the only limitations are those set by your own imagination. This medium offers a great opportunity for writers to hone their craft and become tomorrow’s fantasy and science fiction feature film and movie screenwriters.
Whichever medium you choose be assured that if you make it big, the world really is your oyster. Robert Downey Junior may be one of the handsome gifted people, but remember that as a screenwriter you get to have the last word.