DON’T REJECT THE REJECTION!
To say that screenwriters tend to be protective of their work is like saying water is kind of wet. As the gods of our fictional universes, we bestow upon ourselves the infallibility demanded of any Creator. We see our work, and it is good. Damned good.
But, despite what our self-affirmations would have us believe, we are not, in fact, omnipotent. While confidence is a helpful– and even necessary — survival trait in the wilds of Hollywood, too much confidence can easily mutate into arrogance. And that’s when, like an overactive immune system, our tenacity and determination can turn on its host and destroy us from the inside.
This is particularly true when it comes to handling rejection. Rejection is part and parcel of anyone working in the entertainment industry. We’re told we must learn to love the word “No,” because we’re going to hear it a lot. We’re also told to treat those “No’s” the way Godzilla treats bullets, to let them bounce off our thick, armored skins and plow ahead secure in the knowledge that, if we just stay the course, our talent and genius will be recognized and all our dreams will come true.
Or maybe not.
Instead of rejecting rejection, perhaps we should pause to consider why our work failed to connect and use the dismissal as an opportunity to improve our product. If a screenplay is constantly being turned down, perhaps it’s not because the readers have no taste, because they lack imagination or because Hollywood is a “rigged” game that only insiders can play.
In fact, there are many reasons why a particular production entity may reject one of our screenplays:
• They may already have a project with similar key elements already in development.
• Your premise may sound too similar to projects they know other companies already have in development.
• The script’s genre and/or budget requirements may be beyond what that particular company normally handles.
Or maybe it’s because, as writers, we failed to do our job. Maybe we just didn’t write a screenplay anyone actually wants to buy.
If you find yourself with a screenplay that is failing to catch fire, here are some questions to ask yourself and, depending on the answer, some corrective actions that may turn things in your favor.
Do I Have a Viable Premise? To build a solid structure, you need a firm foundation. Without a workable premise, no amount of complex characters, scintillating dialogue and dazzling eye-candy is going to prevent the enterprise from collapsing in on itself. A solid commercial premise requires three key elements:
1) A problem your hero can’t just walk away from. Whatever the hero’s goal, it must be something he/she MUST do or suffer horrific consequences. Something important must be stake.
2) Some kind of “Wow Factor,” an element that is unusual, exciting, weird or just plain “cool.” This usually the marketing hook.
3) A strong and obvious element of irony. The hero’s problem should, in some way, represent the worst of all possible situations for that individual. We see irony strongly at play in everything from tentpole sci-fi actioners to small romantic comedies.
All of these factors must be clearly evident by the end of Act One…usually 25 to 30 pages into your script. If you have failed to get your story up on its feet by this point, and have not done so in a way that has your audience strongly engaged in your hero’s challenge, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Can My Premise Be Easily Expressed? Can you explain your premise in one or two sentences? This is not an idle exercise. If you can’t easily express what your movie is about, then chances are the people reading your screenplay are going to be equally lost trying to understand it. You will find that the simpler your premise, the better your chances of connecting with an audience.
Is My Premise Marketable? Some premises are so familiar we believe we’ve seen the movie before we even read the script. Others are so weird we have no context against which to judge them. When selling to Hollywood, you’re looking for that “sweet spot” between the cliché and the bizarre, something familiar yet surprising.
To assess your premise’s marketability, list three or four recent box office successes to which your screenplay is similar. (Modeling your screenplay on box office flops is a one-way ticket to the circular file.) Then note the ways your script is different from the ones it resembles. The trick is to be different…but not too different.
Do I Love My Hero? There are many reasons to fall in love with a character — and they’re not always admirable. As much as we love do-gooders like Atticus Finch, James Bond and Katniss Everdeen, we’re equally drawn to outlaws like Michael Corleone, “Dirty” Harry Callahan and Lisbeth Salander. What makes a hero loveable? Humor. Wit. Passion. Confidence. Competence. And, in virtually all cases, having a strong personal code of conduct. Against these values, how does your hero measure up?
Is It Possible to Hate My Hero? No matter how attractive your hero might be, if he/she does something truly offensive or horrific during the course of your narrative, such a transgression can turn your reader off to your entire project. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason is usually acceptable. Doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason usually is not. Stereotyping. Speaking of offensiveness, if your script contains gratuitous examples of sexism, racism, homophobia or other types of crude stereotyping, this can also be the basis for a rejection. It’s certainly valid for one or more of your characters to behave in a “politically incorrect” manner, but you as the writer can’t descend to that level.
Is My Screenplay Properly Structured? Most of us are acutely aware of the classic 25-50-25 Three Act Structure and, while deviations can yield some compelling narratives, truly successful divergences are few and far between. It’s difficult enough getting readers to accept material from new writers; why add the extra burden of forcing them to contend with unconventional scene organization?
Is There Sufficient Conflict? As noted above, your premise must offer something serious at stake. Above and beyond that basic requirement, the danger (physical, financial, emotional) your hero faces must be acute, and should escalate over the course of your narrative. Until the very end, we must believe that, odds are, your hero will fail. That’s the key to keeping your screenplay interesting.
Is My Screenplay Well Paced? Nothing will turn a reader off faster than boredom. A good movie is one in which things move. Not just physical movement, but stories themselves by means of twists, turns, reversals, escalation, betrayals, reveals and just plain general unpredictability. Successful novels are often called “page-turners.” Scripts that sell tend to be just as compelling.
Does My Story Make Sense? Watch out for plot holes, coincidences, dues ex machinas, character inconsistencies, historical anachronisms, and other contrivances that can cause your readers to suspend their suspension of disbelief. Fiction writing is ultimately the art of creative lying, but if your lie falls apart, your chances of selling your script will as well.
Is My First Page Gripping? Get studio readers drunk enough and they’ll likely admit to making their initial judgments about a script’s commercial potential by the end of the Page 1. A strong, dramatically engaging first page sets an inviting tone and puts the reader in a receptive mood. If your script has failed to sell, it may require a Page One rewrite. Literally.
Is My Ending Satisfying? How do we feel at the end of your script? Endings don’t have to be happy, but they do have to be satisfying. You must keep promises, fulfill expectations and, even if you haven’t answered every question your script has raised, leave your reader with a sense of completion. The ancient Greeks called this catharsis, and claimed it was the very reason we attended theater in the first place. When your ending elicits audible sighs, they should by sighs of satisfaction, not relief that the damned thing is finally over.
Ultimately, is This a Movie? Is your screenplay, in fact, cinematic? Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin, don’t expect dialogue alone to carry you to glory. Your screenplay needs compelling visuals, a variety of locations, physical action, and other elements that declare to the world, “I am a MOVIE, goddamn it!”
Rejections are neither recommendations to find another line of business nor speed bumps to be ignored. They are, in fact, symptoms of problems you are well advised to take seriously and address as expeditiously as possible. Take each rejection as an opportunity to engage in serious self-reflection and analysis. Remember, if you’re a professional, you’re writing not to satisfy yourself, but to satisfy your customer. And if there’s one axiom that has guided business from the dawn of commerce, is that’s the customer is always right.– Allen B. Ury