In Defense of Pragmatism When Deciding What to Write Next
October 9, 2020
A few weeks ago there was an article on Vulture that sent writer Twitter into a bit of a tizzy. It was with the creator of Netflix's Ratched, Evan Romansky (article here). For those who don’t know, Ratched is a series about Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where it explores her early, pre-McMurphy life. There was a specific quote from Romansky that invited Twitter’s ire: “I was really just trying to think of some sort of IP that I could re-imagine as my own and would have a title that people would recognize and actually want to read.” The quote prompted groans of anger and disbelief, summed up succinctly by my girlfriend: “I can’t believe he said it so transparently. How could he be so cynical?” I would like to present a counterpoint to my lovely partner and everyone else that had a similar reaction: no, actually, that quote rules, and we should all learn from it. I wouldn’t call it cynical, but pragmatic. Call me a contrarian, but I want to walk through why a healthy level of pragmatism will teach you more about Hollywood and, more importantly, make you a better, more successful writer.
At the risk of being cliché, show business is a business, and if you’re working on being a career writer, you’re aiming to be successful in a business. While being a creative, free-spirited maverick artist will take your writing far, being a cynical, cold-hearted pragmatist will help you turn that writing into a career. You need to be aware of the market and know how your writing is going to make money. While I think this applies to all sorts of writing to varying degrees, screenwriters in particular need realism to make it to the next level. Why are screenwriters special? Because they’re one of the only artists who aren’t presenting a finished product. You can show a novel or a painting to an audience as soon as you complete it. When a script is finished, it’s still only a blueprint, and that blueprint needs to convince a lot of people that it’s worth finishing. Usually that means making the case that the finished product is going to make a lot of money and get a lot of attention. There are exceptions, e.g., auteurs and the occasional awards play, but the reality overwhelmingly trends toward the business side. The sooner you can look that in the eye, harden your heart, and realize that your screenplay needs to exist as a way of selling the finished product, the easier it will be to get people on board. But what does that have to do with Ratched?
By choosing Ratched as his project, Romansky has hit on one of the great truths of getting stuff made in Hollywood: people like stuff they already know. If you look at the top 50 highest-grossing movies of all time, only two of them have no basis in an existing IP (Avatar and Zootopia, and I counted Titanic and the original Lion King as adaptations). The public loves original IP because, to be blunt, it’s easier to convince people to see something if they know they already like part of it. Even though Jack and Rose are completely fictional, Titanic is still set against the backdrop of a famous event, and that already helps inform your prospective audience about whether or not they’ll be interested in your story. It is always more difficult to convince someone to try the unknown when the known is right there. This is very similar to why executives love IP. For them, there’s safety in adaptation. When they’re playing with millions of dollars and their jobs ride on every decision, latching onto an IP that’s already proven successful is always a better bet than taking a swing on an original piece. I’m not saying original projects don’t get made, or that you can’t find an exec to take a chance on a completely unproven idea. I’m just saying that hanging your hat on a completely original and unproven project is going to make your climb to the top that much harder.
Romansky, as a young unknown, knew he needed all the help he could get, so he made a pragmatic choice, and it paid off for him. Now he’s got some serious cachet in Hollywood, maybe even enough to get an original project made. You may call that cynical, I call it smart career building.
You might have your head in your hands right now. “Are you saying I have to sell out and give up being an artist to succeed?” Luckily for you, no. There’s a hell of a silver lining to this sort of pragmatism. Let’s look at Romansky’s quote again.
“I was really just trying to think of some sort of IP that I could re-imagine as my own.”
Even though he used an existing IP to do it, Romansky still put the work in to make the writing his own. He took an existing character and brought in his brand and his artistry; he created, he wrote. It may have taken a cynical move to get someone to read the first page, but his talent carried them through the rest. And you can do the exact same thing. Even if you don’t own the IP, don’t let that stop you. Romansky himself admits getting Ratched made was a fluke, and he only wrote it as a sample to get representation. There’s nothing stopping you from taking an existing story and putting your twist on it as a sample. Some may call that fanfiction, but those people have never been moved to tears by a well-written fic. Alternatively, look to lesser-known IP, a comic that nobody’s ever heard of or a novel that’s long out of print, and put your spin on it. It may not have the same cachet as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but in a manager or agent’s eyes it can still have more cred than something completely original. Go ahead and mine the public domain, too, especially for the lesser-used characters. Dracula, Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, all of these belong to you! For free! Find something about them you love and use them to tell stories that fit your brand.
If you really want to work your ass off, you can even reverse engineer your screenplay into an IP. The vampire movie 30 Days of Night was developed as a screenplay and turned down everywhere; it was too expensive for an original project. The writers took their script, turned it into a comic, and suddenly it was an existing IP, and the execs were happy to pony up for an adaptation. You can do the same thing. Turn your screenplay into a comic, a novel, a podcast, and then you have something finished and proven to pitch to the gun-shy executives out there. You have so many pragmatic options that will let you pursue your art on your terms and then sell it on theirs. Why not use them and make it easier on yourself?
We all want to be successful, and we all want to do it on our terms. As writers, we’re independent, creative people. Cynicism is not our default mode. But there’s still art to be found within the pragmatic moves needed to make it in Hollywood. Embrace the pragmatic, and let that art flow from it.
Written by: Alex SwitzkyAlex Switzky is an LA-based writer and producer. He has worked as a creative producer for Dream Reach Media, development coordinator for Adam Wingard, and as a freelance story consultant for film, TV, and podcasts.