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Screenwriting: Art vs. Trade

By Michael Schilf · October 9, 2010

Art: to be or not to be, that is the question. Or could it be that screenwriting is nothing more than a trade? This debate has been battled in writer’s groups, coffee houses, and online communities all across the world. But are we wasting our time? Is it really a war – two formidable foes squaring off from opposite corners, dueling it out over 12 rounds, looking for that ultimate KO power punch to put the debate to rest for good? I say no.

The art versus trade debate is futile. How can one camp win over the other when the simple truth is that screenwriting is both: trade AND art? The real question is to ask what screenwriting is at it’s fundamental root. Is it undeniably art in all instances, and the occupation as a professional screenwriter makes it a trade? Or is it a trade first that occasionally rises to the level of art?

I say screenwriting is a master craft and there’s art in it, but not all screenwriting is art. Writing for the screen is a business, and any successful business in a competitive market with consumer choice strives to deliver a product that the audience will buy – and in the movie business that means box office ticket sales. Let’s just be honest; the audience simply doesn’t always want art. A fabrication, a copy, an imitation is often just fine with them. And the proof is in the numbers.

Often, the audience craves a formulaic rom-com, a popcorn action flick, or a horror-gore exhibition. And sometimes the audience even demands it. Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 film Machete – in which the title character originally debuted in a fake trailer released with Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 Grindhouse – was made in large part because of fan groups making their voices heard.

These types of films may never win an Academy Award for Best Picture, but they just might take home huge prizes at the box office. Take The Hurt Locker and The Proposal as examples. The Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker – a true testament of superior filmmaking – only grossed $19.2M worldwide, while the paint-by-numbers rom-com The Proposal racked in $315M, earning close to eight times its $40M budget. If we’re talking the almighty dollar and satisfying a ready-made consumer audience, The Proposal is clearly the bigger winner there.

This is why screenwriting is a “trade with art in it.” We write screenplays not just for ourselves. We write them for an audience, and usually one with very specific expectations. And at the end of the day, what’s so wrong with providing the consumer with what they ask for? Sometimes all we really want is a burger and fries and not a gourmet meal – both food, but clearly only one would be considered art.