There Isn’t a Perfect Screenplay
September 28, 2022
There isn’t a perfect screenplay.
Hollywood isn’t even looking for one.
No one working in the film business thinks of a screenplay as a finished thing, especially at the development or pre-production stage. It’s only finished when a film is in the can, and even then, there might be rewrites and reshoots (if it didn’t score high at an audience test screening, for example). What a lot of aspiring screenwriters don’t realize is that rewriting a script is the primary job of a professional screenwriter. It’s what you’ll be doing more than anything else.
There are several steps to take and various hierarchies you’ll have to adhere to if your script starts making the rounds in Hollywood. At each stage, you’ll have to address the notes of the person you’re working with.
If you write a marketable script or at least one with a fresh new voice, you might get a manager. This manager will give you notes and you’ll have to rewrite the script. Managers are viewed as a de facto filtering system for agents, producers and studio execs. The fact that your script has gone through the first stage of development with a manager legitimizes your script and tells industry professionals that your script has been through one phase of development.
If you get a production company attached to your spec, they’ll have notes for you and you’ll have to again rewrite the script. Depending on the size of the production company, you might have to work your way up the hierarchy, taking notes and doing rewrites until you get to the top producer (who, of course, will have their own set of notes and you’ll have to rewrite it again).
Sometimes you’ll sell a script to a studio in which case they’ll assign a production company or creative execs to the script, and guess what? That’s right: they’ll have notes and you’ll have to rewrite your script. Lather, rinse, rewrite.
If you get a director attached, you’ll have to take notes from them and depending on the director, possibly their development team beforehand (most A-list directors have their own production company). In most cases, the director will be the last person giving you notes - the last person at this stage anyway.
If you’re really lucky, you’ll have a production company, a director and a movie star attached. And yes, the movie star will most likely have their own set of notes.
If you’re exceedingly lucky, the producers, director and movie star will be on the same page. The trick to getting a film made is having all these parties get along and agree on what the movie should be for a long enough period that it results in a bona fide movie. Sometimes you’ll get brought back to do a production draft, which in a lot of cases involves changing certain aspects of the script for budgetary or logistical reasons (e.g., changing the location of the script, scaling back action or special effects if required, etc). This is the most exciting stage of the rewriting process because you know it’s actually leading to a produced motion picture. There might also be some last-minute revisions required while the film is shooting and, as mentioned above, there may even be revisions in post-production.
Managers, producers, studio execs, directors and movie stars are all part of a fragile ecosystem. The goal is to hang in there long enough to get optioned for additional rewrites. Not only will you gain a good reputation by doing so, you’ll potentially make more money. How well you work with others and how adaptable you are to whatever notes are thrown your way will determine your success in the film industry possibly more than any other factor. You should make everyone feel loved and addressing their notes will do just that. Think of Hollywood as the largest Thanksgiving dinner ever. If a relative offers you some cranberry sauce, take a sliver and say, “Thank you.”
Never forget that Hollywood is a business and it employs a lot of people. There’s also a lot of turnaround. Studios, production companies, and agencies are in a perpetual game of musical chairs. The sharper and more wily suits last. The other ones don’t. And most of the people working in the film business want to remain working in the film business. Why wouldn’t they? You get to dress casually, rub elbows with the occasional celebrity, and impress your family and friends with your occupation. It’s something to hold onto all right.
Now imagine what it feels like to be a person who needs to illustrate their value in the film industry, and more than anything else, just wants to keep their job. Some screenplay is given to you, and your superior asks you to develop it, make it as good as possible, and help transform it from a “screenplay” into “a movie.” What are you going to do? Are you going to read the script and say “It’s perfect. We shouldn’t change a thing.” No, because that wouldn’t illustrate much value to the development process. As a result, this person will be reading with an eagle eye to find ways to change your script.
This is the primary reason Hollywood isn’t looking for a perfect screenplay. Most industry professionals want your script to be a big mass of clay, and they’re going to help you sculpt it into something viable. Most people in Hollywood are in the development business. Give them something to work with and they’ll love you, and why shouldn’t they? You’re helping them illustrate their value and keep their jobs.
This is one of the primary roles of a professional screenwriter.
So if you don’t like collaboration, adjust your thinking. You’re not writing a novel. It’s a screenplay. You shouldn’t even think of it as yours. Unless you’re a filmmaker, who has the luxury to just write their script and shoot it, your script isn’t your script. It’s more or less a written pitch that gives people an idea of what this film might be like. As stated above, no one in the film industry thinks of a screenplay as a finished thing, they think of it as a fluid document that’s in a perpetual state of change. Whether you’re an aspiring or professional screenwriter, you should think of a screenplay in the same way.
So after you’ve finished your spec script and maybe revised it once or twice to your liking, show it to a few close friends or family. Get some feedback and constructive criticism and give your script another once-over, then start submitting it to management companies, screenwriting contests, or by any other means to industry professionals. There’s no reason to incessantly rewrite your script in the hopes of achieving some kind of perfection.
Finish your perfectly imperfect script and get it out there….!!
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.