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Brace yourself. This might not be a very cheerful post. But then again, it might have a happy conclusion after all. I’m not quite sure when this dawned on me, but it’s probably one of those trickling-in kind of thoughts, that eventually bubbled to the surface and hit me this week.
Do you realize that screenwriting is one of the few (perhaps the only, no others have come to mind yet) uncompleted art forms? Think about it: a painting. The painter is painting the painting. When it’s finished, it is complete. It is ready. It doesn’t need anything else to be enjoyed, it’s not missing anything. It is ready to be viewed by an audience, no matter how few. A photograph the same thing. Even a novel or anything else written. Sure, you’ll want it to be published somewhere, but you can do that yourself these days, even books and anything else, also smaller things, you can just throw it on the internet which is flooded with blogs and columns. They are ready, as is. People can read it. And thinking of last week, even a theatre play, you can put in a book and if you’re lucky or your name is William Shakespeare, people will read your work and enjoy it. As is. Despite it being meant for the stage. Sure, it’s nice to see it performed, but the fact that people are reading Shakespeare more than watch his plays on stage, says a lot. Now, the screenplay. Even when a screenplay is finished, as a final draft, it still will only become a completed art form, what it was made for, to come to its full potential, how it was envisioned (with alterations left and right usually) once it is produced, taken by a producer, director and made and brought to the screen. It is after called a screenplay.
Now, how many screenplays are written every year? By all the professional, budding, aspiring and novice screenwriters out there. And how many of these are produced, brought to the screen every year? I don’t even want to know the difference between those numbers. I don’t have to, to know that it is big. The screenwriting group on FB I am a member of, consists of over 17.000 members. That’s right. Now, not all of those 17.000 are serious about screenwriting. But just imagine they are, just for the sake of what I am going to tell you right now. Because of course this isn’t the only group on FB about screenwriting and how many aren’t part of any group on FB or are on FB even. Let’s say that of the 7 billion (!) people on this planet, there are only 17.000 people who want to write screenplays. Features, shorts, TV series, the kind. I already revealed in a previous post (Week 13) that in the year 2013 there were 7610 features made worldwide, of those there are 738 made in the USA and the largest chunk in Bollywood, India. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has other interesting numbers, which you can look at for yourself here. This database is widely known as the database for anything that appeared or will appear on the screen soon. And in their statistics there are 580,980 people registered there as a writer of something. Feature, short, TV series, documentary, the kind, in total 3,928,208 titles. This might sound a lot, but this statistic range is from the year 1874 until now (being 127+ years). So, let’s divide that total number by the amount of writers and you will have the gargantuan number (I am being sarcastic here of course) of 6.76 titles per writer. Of course many writers have many more titles to their name and many writers have only 1 title to their name. But I think you’re starting to see my point.
The funny thing is, it wasn’t even the numbers I was thinking of, when I thought of screenwriting as perhaps the only uncompleted art form and how unsatisfying that must feel. I don’t even have to back this up with scientific proof, there is plenty, but it is obvious that having finished, completed something, that can then be enjoyed, even if it’s not exactly how you wanted it to be, but that’s a whole other topic, is one of the most rewarding, fulfilling things and brings a very satisfactory feeling to a person. Try it yourself sometime. With something very simple. Starting a project, no matter how small, and not finishing it, meaning that you can’t show it to people for them to enjoy. What it was made for. And doing that over and over. The not finishing. To me, a screenplay feels like an embryo in the freezer, waiting to be put in a womb one day, to be able to grow into a full living thing, becoming what it was made for, with what’s inside of it. Ok, maybe not completely the right analogy, because we humans still need about 18 years to become fully grown and then there’s the whole nature-nurture discussion of course. But what I mean is that without all the other elements, cinematography, sound, people to play the roles you invented, editing, music, it’s just sitting there, on a shelf, in a freezer, waiting to bud. To bloom. And it can’t, without those other ingredients. Which it might never get. I told you, not a very cheerful post. Well, up till now. Because us artists are a bunch of ridiculously idealistic and hopeful people, aren’t we?
Most of us artists aren’t very pragmatic and/or focus on glooming numbers. ‘Against all odds’ is usually our motto. The grimmer that outlook, the more we’re motivated. Well, most of the time. We are the David, fearlessly determined to beat the Goliath. We cling to ‘the-one-who–made-it’ stories and we choose to ignore ‘the-ones-who-didn’t-make-it’ stories, of which there are many, many more, but we hear less of, because as a society and in storytelling-land we love to focus on the success stories. They give us hope, that despite the odds, there are people who do make it and why wouldn’t I be one of those? This goes for non-artists too. Of course not everyone is like that. Many give up by the first hurdle. Or let the numbers scare them off, focusing on the ones who didn’t make it, instead of on the ones who did. It is true, if you want financial security, working in the arts is not recommended. If you want to be sure you’ll succeed in a project, by all means, don’t try to do something that hasn’t already been done successfully. If you want to play it safe, be sure to stay in your comfort zone. Oh what joy will that bring. Not in my view. But that won’t surprise you anymore.
Then why oh why the statement that ‘I don’t want to (just) be a screenwriter’? It’s not the numbers that scare me off. Ok, maybe a little. Because if I was sure that every screenplay I wrote would be produced, end up on the screen, I probably would think differently. But then again, I might not. You see, I love and practice other art forms, like photography and baking and knitting. And being able to sell those products or not has no influence on me wanting to continue to do those things. Because selling is not the purpose of it. I love continuing with these things, because they are completed, finished products by my hands and don’t require many other stages or external elements that are hard to get to, to complete them. I, and friends and family and others, can enjoy them as soon as they are done, usually pretty quickly after starting to make them. They are ready to be consumed quite quickly. The feeling that that completion gives, as I shared, trumps any ‘might-someday-be-produced’ screenplay. Or screenplays, multiple. Now, hold on a second here, what am I saying? And why is there a ‘just’ in the title and why is it in brackets? Don’t I want to be a screenwriter at all? Well, to be frank, I don’t know at this point.
This is what I know at this point. And focusing solely on screenwriting these months has brought this to my attention. I know in my heart that I love storytelling. And that I am a visionary. I never sat in the cinema and said, when seeing something great, ‘I want to write a story this great too’. I always said ‘I want to make something this great too’. And I always focused on the complete art form. All the elements together. I always envisioned the whole product. I wanted and still want to be a filmmaker. I realize that now. In saying ‘I don’t want to be (just) a screenwriter’, what I am saying is, I don’t want to be solely the screenwriter of a story. Hence the ‘just’. But I put it in brackets, because I am not sure if screenwriting is my thing, mainly for all the reasons mentioned, despite me feeling I might have a knack for it. Perhaps then I will want to write the screenplay for a project of my own, in which I don’t want to do all the elements myself by the way, because nobody can do it all themselves and a great product coming out. Or perhaps I wouldn’t mind writing a screenplay for a project I know will be made.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many scripts we’ve had up until now in the screenwriting course, are also directed by its writer(s). I think it’s to prove that this happens a lot and can lead to successful films, many of them awarded with Oscars even. And many are fairly ‘new’ writers too. In other words, by all means, aim to make your own written screenplays yourself! What screenwriter doesn’t want that? But besides not being able to get the resources easily, not all of us have that directing, visionary talent needed to produce the visual product. And this also happens a lot and results in many, many unsuccessful movies. Let’s not leave that out. But how many screenwriters are just screenwriters anyways? Seriously? I don’t think there are many. And I haven’t looked into this, but it might be not for financial reasons, but for the uncompletion reasons. Unless of course you’re a contracted screenwriter, which usually happens on a TV series. Then you do see your work usually produced, and usually quite quickly too.
And how many writers are writing screenplays, just as a hobby? You don’t write screenplays as a hobby. No one does. Painting, yes. Photographing, yes. Writing other things, yes. Baking, yes. Playing music, singing, yes. I think screenwriting is one of the few art forms you either do with the intention of being sold or produced eventually or not at all. Why else would you put yourself through one of the most difficult things there is to do, master well and then no one will read it, see it? I don’t think anyone writes a story and not wanting it to be told or read by others. Why else write it? Ok, unless it’s your journal.
The tricky thing is, almost a Catch-22 perhaps, that you’ll have to keep writing those uncompleted works to become better, to become the best you can be. Because isn’t that what you want? This isn’t a hobby, remember? We’ve just established that. And maybe you’ll get lucky and your very first screenplay will be made, perhaps by yourself, but this doesn’t exempt you from keep on practicing, especially when the first, or second, or tenth will remain that little frozen embryo and you still have that passion that drives you and each product keeps getting better because you keep improving and you don’t suck, but it’s merely other reasons it hasn’t been sold or made yet. And hopefully you have other things on the side to do or make as a complete art form to avoid that uncompletion feeling. The only other option, if you want to keep away from that, is putting your screenplay into a novel. It happens a lot these days. Something to consider. I wonder if it’s related to this.
I don’t think I am the first to have these thoughts of the screenplay being the uncompleted art form and how unsatisfying that is. I think for both the sake of not being confronted with that feeling of uncompletion all the time and the sake of being able to make a living too and not to forget, staying involved in and open to the ‘normal’ world, a natural resource for writers and storytellers, the best thing to do is ‘not be (just) a screenwriter’. And that is my conclusion. At the moment. And I don’t view that as an unhappy conclusion. And it won’t make me stop learning screenwriting either. Because what I learn from it, bleeds into all the other filmmaking elements too. And will make me a better filmmaker as a whole. I believe as a filmmaker you must master at least one of the big elements (screenwriting, cinematography, editing) and comprehend most elements, to some level at least. And since that without a story, there is no movie, screenwriting is a big piece to understand well, in my opinion.
So, having said all this, which needed a few more words than usual, upwards and onwards with the screenwriting course it still is.