The State of Storytelling & the 3 Essential Truths Screenwriters Should Know

To all screenwriters, take a good look at the chart below for a blast of clarity. To sum up the stats: a writer in Hollywood has better odds of starting in an NBA line-up than getting your project onto any screen (large or small) in today’s market.

 As we all know, the seven major studios finance and/or produce about 26 films a year on an average budget  of $200 million per film. They average an amazing 90 percent return on investment. So, franchises do make  sense, especially if you have stockholders. Movies, in this price range, are literally printing money. Even with  the bad press from a box-office dud, it’s still a safe risk even when considering John Carter or Lone Ranger.

To no one’s surprise this past weekend, Disney’s Avengers: Age of Ultron triumphed worldwide with $191  million in the U.S. — the second highest opening ever in spite of, (pundits opined), Saturday’s grand slam  sports day including the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, NBA, NFL, and the Kentucky Derby.

That audience was composed of 59 percent men over the age of 25. Is this all the audience there is? Could it  be that there’s an even bigger audience to attract than Hollywood’s imagination can envision?

Of course, we all know Hollywood is in the business of franchises. Who can blame them? After all, they need  to keep the lights on. Besides, we all need a super-power to hate… but from whence do we begin the  revolution?

“If you build it, they will come” still applies… Well, perhaps, this is where the fault lies.

Are the screenwriters “building stories” anymore that people want to come to? The screenwriters, themselves of course, will point to the extreme closed-door polemics of getting “inside.” There’s that.

RISK NOTHING, GAIN NOTHING?

Even so, hope springs eternal with the new opportunities for screenwriters to gain exposure from websites like The Black List (which boasts 8 of the last 16 Screenwriting Oscars, 7 of the last Best Picture Winners). In fact, the unread writer’s odds are up 30 percent if you’re discovered in the official Black List come December. Franklin Leonard, the Black List founder says what gets read are those scripts with the “original voice you can’t put the script down when you’re reading it.”

Perhaps out of the dross of those 75,000 registered screenplays, there’s some gold to be mined insofar as wisdom. The fact is, the sheer tonnage of scripts submitted per year reflects a “sameness”- an artesian tsunami of mediocrity in story development judgment. The blinding “avalanche” of this non-stop onslaught creates its own reality distortion field. Most scripts – no matter how well-written insofar as character, plot and sheer white space on the page — reflect the marketplace. They do not move the heart.

Most of all, they are without risk. They are about nothing, but recycling old bromides within genres they have been told the market needs (zombies! vampires! thrillers! serial-killers! scifi fantasy set in a “world that can be developed ad infinitum/nauseum.”) In short, they are stories reflecting back on the stories of the past 5-10 years, a Citizen Kane-like Hall of Mirrors, never ending.

THE THREE ESSENTIAL TRUTHS ABOUT STORYTELLING

Most of these screenwriters (many of whom are well-educated and well-meaning, and have spent years on their craft) are forgetting three essential truths about storytelling:

1) The best storytellers are telling their own story.

2) The audience wants to connect to the storyteller. Great screenwriters take full responsibility for exposing themselves. Their stories possess both a “fierceness” and “embarrassing vulnerability.” This is the passion that connects to the audience. They seek to empathize with the story.

3) Cinema storytelling – at its heart — is about risk. A great movie story depicts a character in the process of discovering the courage to live their life. This discovery can go either way: if it’s a tragedy, we mourn with the lead character that he/she did not “win his life.” If they do “discover their courage,” we are all emboldened, too.

In fact, the more the storyteller risks telling their own story, so the film magnifies their truth. This is the mystical wonder broadcast by the Magic Lantern, cinema’s first name. The audience craves this light on the chaos of their own lives.

THE DOOR IS OPEN

In a conversation I had recently with George Lucas, he said, “You know, all my movies – the story in THX 1138American Graffiti, and Star Wars — they’ve all been about the same story: you’re a prisoner of your own mind. But the door is open. All you have to do is walk out. It’s about making that decision to try something completely new, and go out into the world and live real life. You just have to jump out there and do it. You can’t let fear stop you.”

George wrote these stories from his personal experience, and embedded all three of his films (all from different genres) with his passionate, personal truth.

The internal power of George Lucas’ story still resonates throughout his franchises to whole new generations today. As I write this, May 4, indeed May-the-Fourth-Be-With-You, has become the non-official global Star Wars Day. Even now, there’s an effusive sense of excitement long missing from the marketplace regarding the up-coming Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens opening in December.

Graham Moore, the writer of The Imitation Game, said in his Academy Award acceptance speech this year that he almost committed suicide as a teenager because he felt so misunderstood. Moore wrote from the truth of his personal agonizing pain and embedded this into his tour-de-force screenplay which many readers said was breathtaking in its “original voice.” Who else could have orchestrated such empathic understanding of a powerful character as Alan Turning’s lonely journey in World War II than a young man who understood at heart Alan’s internal fears?

Chris Terrio, upon accepting the Writer’s Guild Best Screenwriting Award in 2012, spoke eloquently about how his WGA membership gave his life meaning when he was utterly broke, facing default on this massive school loans and without a “hope” in the world. But for the fact that he was writing this great story, Argo. Who else but someone who had experienced so much discouragement could mine the depths of the story of the U.S.’s embarrassing “bull shit f**-up” with the Fall of Iran, and the 1980 Hostage Crisis? Who better to find the humor in that situation, and come up with the classic line, “This is the best bad idea we’ve got!”

Doesn’t everyone want to experience “the great story well told” as only Hollywood can imagine with our their technological wonder and wizardry? Could there be a story for everyone? Could Hollywood be leaving “money on the table”?

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Bobette Buster
has served on the guest faculty of Pixar, Disney Animation, Sony and Fox where she’s taught screenwriting through her acclaimed lecture series. Previously she served as an Adj. Professor in the USC Peter Stark Producing Program where she created the first MFA curriculum for film and TV development. She’s currently producing the feature documentary, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound. Her book, DO STORY: How To Tell Your Story So The World Listens, is available on Amazon now. Find out more at www.bobettebuster.com or follow her on Twitter.