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Screenwriting in the Real World

by Charles Deemer In recent years I’ve ended my screenwriting class at Portland State University each term by showing my students the PBS Frontline documentary, “The Monster That Ate Hollywood.” This is a rather bleak look at the changes in the film industry since corporate conglomerates have taken over the studios and the consequences of this for screenwriters and independent filmmakers. The report is not encouraging for those of us who love quality, original, surprising and thought-provoking movies.

This year I’m changing my syllabus. I’m going to show the documentary the first week of class, not the last.

In the past, by sharing the bad news at the end of class, I was hoping to give my students an honest look at the reality of screenwriting today before they left my class and some of them ventured out into the marketplace. I wanted to prepare them for the real world. At the same time, I feared that sharing this information too soon might discourage them from learning screenwriting in the first place. If the marketplace is so irrational, so fearful of true originality, and so much under the control of corporate bean-counters, why even deal with it?

But I’ve changed my mind. I have a new strategy.

I’m going to show “The Monster That Ate Hollywood” on the first week of class. Then I’m going to tell my class this:

This is the present situation. It sucks. So go out and change it.

Wrestle the control of film distribution away from the conservative corporate mentality. Technology has everything now in place for you to do this. In fact, some of you are doing it already.

Everything begins with the script, so your first task is to learn your craft and learn it well. That’s the purpose of this class, of any screenwriting class. Screenwriting is not rocket science. In fact, it is the easiest kind of “writing” there is. What is hard about writing a good screenplay is not the writing but the storytelling. This is why the first law of screenwriting is something that sounds insane: don’t let the writing get in the way of the story.

Screenwriters need to think of themselves as part-architect (making a blueprint for a collaborative project), part-poet (using an extraordinary economy of language) – and most essentially as a skilled storyteller. But at the level of rhetoric, screenwriting is spare, focused, and minimalist. This is why so many good writers in other forms, especially fiction, make lousy screenwriters – they write too well and too much for the economy of good screenwriting.

Once you learn your craft, once you have the best script you can write, you have several important decisions to make.

Do you move to Southern California? If you want a screenwriting career – and screenwriting, by the way, is essential an entry level position in the film industry (!) because the creative power is found elsewhere – the answer probably should be yes. This is a collaborative art form. Collaboration is about networking. Networking happens where the action is.

But today, thanks to technology, there are increasingly significant alternatives to moving to LaLaLand.

Let your screenplay be the basis of an independent film. Do you want make this movie yourself? If you want to retain creative control, the answer should be yes. An alternative is to find a partner with whom you can make a creative marriage, a filmmaker who shares your tastes and aesthetics in film storytelling.

You, or you and your partner, can make a quality film for less expense than ever before. A growing number of film festivals welcome your work, though the competition is keen for screen time. But getting your film before an audience doesn’t have to go this route either.

Put your film on the Internet. Many films and animations, the vast majority of them shorts, are now featured at a growing number of host websites. There’s an explosion of talent in cyberspace. The link between the Internet and home entertainment screens already exists but is only beginning to be exploited by screenwriters and filmmakers. As prices for these services come down, more action will happen. Cell phones are receiving movies. The possibilities seem endless.

For this reason, screenwriters today have more opportunities than ever before, although much of this opportunity still requires voluntary work. Appropriate economies will be created as product and demand become more commonplace. The huge numbers online should keep prices affordable. This should be where the future of film – and of screenwriting – will be created.

Unless the corporate conglomerates take over and restrict access to the Internet, which could happen, there is no stopping this energy. Every young screenwriter should be prepared to take advantage of it.

But first things first. Learn your craft. Forget about Hollywood, forget about “The Monster That Ate Hollywood,” and just learn your craft. Become the best screenwriter at the level of writing that you can be – and then tell us the stories that come uniquely out of your own experience and view of the world, and make us laugh and cry, and scare the hell out of us, and keep us on the edge of our seats, and make us leave the theater goddamn glad that we went and saw your movie.

Because if you don’t do this, who will?

Charles Deemer teaches graduate and undergraduate screenwriting at Portland State University. He is the author of the electronic screenwriting tutorial, Screenwright: the craft of screenwriting. His book Seven Plays was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. His newest book is Practical Screenwriting.

Deemer maintains several websites, including:

· Personal home page
· Literary archive
· Oregon Literary Review, which he edits and which welcomes screenplays (including features) for publication.

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