What’s happening to screenplay writing?

Every now and again I like to pause and reflect on the craft of storytelling in its myriad forms.  For several years now I’ve been scratching my head over the state of screenplays.  I’m primarily referring to big budget pictures but not exclusively.  This is also not to say there haven’t been very good, engaging, fun, or interesting films in theaters.  However, I’ve begun to realize that there are fewer and fewer films that I have a genuine desire to revisit after an initial viewing.  Why does this pattern seem to be getting stronger for me? Is it simply that I don’t fit the demographic for certain films? Are my expectations too high? Am I too lazy and just not seeing the right films in the theater? Certainly any of these are possible but what else might be driving this trend from an industry standpoint?

First, the overall trend of box office profitability has been going down over the past few years.  There will be bumps here and there but the general trend has been down.  People’s viewing habits have changed, sources of entertainment have diversified, and economics are always factors but could it also be that films, in general as well as in mystique, have lost something?

Films are expensive, risk-filled ventures. A single film may spawn a franchise or end any hope of such long term gains immediately.  Studios spend millions making, testing, and marketing their products.  With all this attention to creating a viable movie, why does it feel as if films are increasingly weaker?

Most movies today have a much shorter shelf life in theaters than movies had in the past. They have to make their money upfront then make up for any domestic box office shortcomings through foreign markets and home market (TV, DVD, etc.) release. In some ways this moves them closer to play productions, which feature tight budgets and the need to make a big initial impact or it is curtains.

But increasingly it seems that budget concerns, dreams of establishing franchises, and meeting key demographic needs are superseding good storytelling.  When writers don’t give the audience a reason to care about conflicts, have shallow characters with poor or no clear motivations for their choices, are a tonal mess, or have confusing or convenient ways to solve problems in a story (or you just drop story points for no good reason after you’ve spent time setting something up for the audience) it makes a film lesser.

These are the big factors I’m seeing lately. How many films now sacrifice good storytelling so they can crudely set up elements for another (hoped for) film or wander off on a twenty minute action tangent that does nothing to advance the plot or characters, only extends the runtime of the film and are used as a crutch for having no real coherent story?  It’s equally frustrating when the company behind the film wants you to read a book or comic just so you can understand what’s happening in the movie you’re watching and why.  If it’s that important to the story I’m watching put it on the screen. These issues create a paralysis of creativity because studios have to try to milk a brand name for all its worth, and now it’s happening before they’ve even given us one solid film for a franchise.

To make up for these problems, the marketing of some films seems to have also become more questionable.  Have you been drawn in by a trailer expecting one story but ultimately watching something totally (and tonally) different from what you went to see in the first place? Sure. We all have but this seems to be a complaint heard more often by frequent filmgoers. A film is born of the collaborative process involving a number of voices and influences (writers, directors, producers, studio committees, actors, test audiences, artists – digital, traditional visuals, costumes, make-up, sound, etc.).  On any given production, you could probably ask any of these people if the finished product is even close to what they started out to create and get a firm, “No.” That’s not unusual and sometimes that turns out to be a very good thing. But there seems to be a new level of second-guessing, micromanaging by studios, and an unwillingness to let a story organically evolve and tell itself that hampers films today to the point that we end up with more and more films that no one is really happy with or proud of making.

The goal of moviemaking is no longer one of craft, artistry, or storytelling but of making a big splash with a product and hoping the ripples get your boat to shore.

This approach, when compared to the state of long form television shows (streaming, cable, or broadcast) that develop characters, plotlines, increasingly have cinematic qualities and productions, and are more apt to take risks with stories and characters, has fundamentally flipped the theater and television viewer experiences.  Films, like shows from the 1980’s and early ‘90’s, have become formulaic, can look cheap (often with subpar CGI giving character, setting, or situations an unreal quality that takes the viewer out of a story), or are so poorly executed that they alienate an audience rather than build one. This is not to say that all television is golden these days, there are still plenty of bad shows, but many modern shows do possess stronger (coherent) storytelling than a lot of films.

Again, these are just some thoughts based on general trends and my overall relationship to many of the films I’ve seen over the past few years. That said, I’ll close with a few modest suggestions for films.

  • Give your audience a reason to care what is happening and why.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle, end (in one film) that helps characters to evolve.
  • Don’t be afraid to try making original films (not all stories will lead to a franchise and that’s okay). People still do like originality.
  • Trailers don’t have to either give away every plot point or mislead an audience.
  • CGI can be great when you don’t use it as a crutch.
  • Know who you’re trying to reach (who was Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters aimed at?).
  • Maybe try quality of storytelling over quantity of films per year. Release a few less so that the ones in the theater can find their audience. Plus we’d have to endure fewer “dumping ground” months.
  • Stop having so many characters making dumb decisions that no one understands just so you can advance the plot/ set up mind-numbingly pointless action set pieces.
  • Get people who can actually tell a coherent story, not just a name you can put on a poster. All writers have hits and misses but if there’s a pattern of subpar work, it’s okay to try a new voice.
  • Accountants and studio executives went into those fields for a reason so keep them doing those jobs instead of inserting themselves into others they really shouldn’t – let the writers write and directors direct.
  • Diversify – there are a lot of topics, stories, and genres out there.
  • Stop trying so hard to make films that please everyone. You often end up doing the opposite.

Big budget films help keep studios profitable and make smaller movies possible. But if basic storytelling continues to take a backseat then brands will fade, the number of prominent flops will increase, and moviegoers will inevitably seek entertainment elsewhere.  There’s still no substitute for a solid screenplay and story that is told well.

Pete Planisek