What screenwriting advice can we learn from successful producers, directors, and distributors — the insiders that can get a script acquired, developed, produced, and released?

Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series, where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.

Here we turn to this BAFTA Guru video featuring a panel of producers, directors, and distributors as they discuss the idea of screenwriters chasing trends. We pull the best quotes from the video and elaborate on their points.

The panel was presented with a common question that screenwriters often ask — “What attribute or trend can [screenwriters] focus on to give their stories the X-Factor?”

This common question is basically asking what trends will give their script the edge to be acquired, produced, and distributed.

The panel respectfully chuckled.

Don’t Chase Trends

“I don’t think you can pursue trends. You can only pursue stories,” said film director and screenwriter James Watkins (The Woman in Black).

“When people try to do things cynically. Whether it’s a horror film or low budget film in the wrong way, it never really works. It has to be pursued from the point of view of passion and belief in the project. Anytime you try to second-guess the audience, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

Trend chasing never works — unless you’re an established screenwriter with major credits working with major studios and production companies. Studios chase trends because they can greenlight a project quickly.

But if you’re an unknown writer looking to break in, you’re going to miss the boat of any trend that is currently happening. Why? It takes time to develop and write the script, rewrite it, market it, get industry insiders to read it, have them take it out to their contacts if they like it, get the money to produce it, and package it with a director and cast. All of that can take years.

Instead, give them something they didn’t know they wanted by creating original stories. Make your own trend happen.

“Be curious, I think. Always be openminded. Look around you. And when you find a story that you find interesting, I think it’s probably interesting to many other people,” Distributor Xavier Marchand added. “I don’t think there’s a specific recipe for success. Otherwise, we’d all be doing it.  

Offer the Same, But Different

Watkins added, “In Hollywood, they have an expression — same, but different. Close enough to something, but different enough so that they feel the comfort, and they feel the newness.”

If there is any way to make your script have the X-Factor, it needs to get noticed, that’s it. The same, but different.

Take a subgenre that has gone cold (vampires, werewolves, etc.) and offer something similar, but with a much different, surprising, and original spin.

If you have a drama, consider combining it with another genre to make it stand out. Perhaps a love story on a space ship, a coming-of-age tale in a land of fantasy, or a story about a character overcoming alcoholism on a spacecraft. Those may sound ridiculous at first, but that’s how you turn heads in Hollywood — and with audiences.

“Give the audience what they want, but in a way they least expect,” producer Iain Smith (Mary Reilly, The Fifth Element, Entrapment, Cold Mountain, Children of Men, etc.) added.

Watch the whole video here for more elaboration!

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Michael Lee

Author Michael Lee

Michael Lee has worked in development as a script reader and story analyst for a major studio, Emmy Award-winning production company, and iconic movie director.

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