Con Men, Gurus, and the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex

A few months back, I started making Vines. I called them Six Second Screenwriting Lessons. The name meant to be ironic, of course,  a statement on the absurdity of anyone teaching anyone else to write a screenplay, a way of calling out the screenwriting gurus who make money by sharing the ‘secrets’ of the trade with anyone willing to pony up a few (or a ton) of bucks. The way I felt then is the way I feel now: all anyone in a creative field can do for anyone else is to be an example, to encourage, to be honest about the challenges and rewards of attempting the same path. 

I’m glad that some of you have gotten something of value out of these messages. To those who have gotten in touch with me to say that they are writing again after a long hiatus or finally finishing that screenplay, I want you to know that I’m thrilled for you. And I hope 2014 brings you even more accomplishment. 

As this year comes to a close, I want to revisit two of the most controversial Vines.  

On the first SSSL, I said, “All screenwriting books are bullshit. All. Watch movies. Read screenplays. Let them be your guide.”  And then on the fourth one, I said, “ The so-called screenwriting guru is really the so-called screenwriting con man. Don’t listen to them, if you don’t know their movies.” 

Since then, I have been asked many times, “Do you really mean all screenwriting books? Aren’t there any of any value?” And, “Are you including Robert McKee in those statements?”

 There’s a safe way to answer those questions, and it’s an answer I’ve given, “I haven’t read every book. There are parts of McKee’s book that are interesting. Some screenwriters I respect, including Billy Ray and Akiva Goldsman have told me that they’ve gotten a lot out of McKee’s course…”  

 But if I am being honest, my real answer is that I fully believe what I said in the vines. 

 Yes, McKee has been able to break down how the popular screenplay has worked. He has identified key qualities that many commercially successful screenplays share, he has codified a language that has been adopted by creative executives in both film and television. So there might be something of tangible value to be gained by interacting with his material, either in book form or at one of the seminars.  

But for someone who wants to be an artist, a creator, an architect of an original vision, the best book to read on screenwriting is no book on screenwriting. The best seminar, no seminar at all. 

To me, the writer wants to get as many outside voices OUT of his/her head as possible. Experts win by getting us to be dependent on their view of the world. They win when they get to frame the discussion, when they get to tell you there’s a right way and a wrong way to think about the game, whatever the game is. Because that makes you dependent on them. If they have the secret rules, then you need them if you want to get ahead. 

The truth is, you don’t. 

If you love and want to make movies about issues of social import, get your hands on Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network. Read it. Then watch the movie. Then read it again. 

If you love and want to make big blockbusters that also have great artistic merit, do the same thing with Lawrence Kasdan’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark screenplay and the movie made from it. 

If you love horror movies and want to make those, read and watch those. 

Think about how the screenplays made you feel. And how the movies built from these screenplays did or didn’t hit you the same way.

This sounds basic, right? That’s because it is basic. And it’s true. All the information you need is in the movies and screenplays you love. And in the books you’ve read and the relationships you’ve had and your ability to use those things. 

But basic does not mean easy. Or simple. It’s not enough to read and watch. You have to really think, And try. And fail. And work harder. But if you do, and you have a knack for it, you can get there. 

If you don’t, I can assure you that it won’t be because you didn’t read Save The Cat. 

Does this mean that there are no legitimate resources for someone who wants to write for a living? Absolutely not. 

When I say, “…Don’t listen to them if you don’t know their movies,”  I’m saying it for a reason.  There are people out there who are not giving false testimony, who are, in fact, successful screenwriters, filmmakers, novelists who aren’t full of shit. Guys like Craig Mazin and John August, whose podcast Scriptnotes explores the screenwriting career accurately and with honesty. Both Mazin and August are working screenwriters, in the trenches, and have written screenplays that have turned into movies time and time again. 

I know Craig and John. Like them personally (even if Mazin is maddeningly unbeatable in an email putdown contest, which he is). I don’t always agree with everything they say, don’t always think about screenwriting the way they do, but I am sure that for the aspiring screenwriter, what they offer has tremendous value. Because they are actually experts. They write movies for a living. Instead of giving advice for a living. 

So they have no incentive to lie; they are only in it to give back, to teach. 

This is how I have always felt about William Goldman’s books. And David Mamet’s.  But if you check these out, you’ll note that none of them offer dictates on how your screenplay must read, where it must fit in the market, how it must be structured. They are, in other words, written without bullshit. 

And there are wonderful books on the creative process too, on getting through creative blocks, on what it means to live the life of the writer, books like Steven Pressfield’s War of Art and Stephen King’s On Writing that I have read more than once. And plan to read again. 

Once more, these are written by people who have DONE it, at the highest level, and who aren’t trying to limit you in the guise of guiding you. 

So. Do I stand by the statements that all screenwriting books are bullshit. And that screenwriting gurus are con men? Yeah. I do. 

And I think you should save your money and your time and spend both on someone much more likely to impact your success.  You. 

Happy New Year. 

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9 Responses to “Con Men, Gurus, and the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex”

  1. Rich Says:

    Brian,
    I can’t thank you enough for your Vines and I hope you know how much of an impact they are making (at least for me). While I am just beginning my screenwriting career, I have quickly learned that screenwriting is pretty much like everything else in life in that there is no magic formula. You just need to dig in, do the work, and create your own experiences.
    Thanks for continuing to share your expertise and give back to us!
    Hope you have a wonderful New Year!
    Rich

  2. allan Says:

    Wise words for all who enter the arts.

  3. eldave3000 Says:

    Thanks, man. I truly believe that 2014 is going be the year. I don’t know what that year is going to look like, but whatever happens, I’m planning on doing it on purpose. I’ve taken a lot of the info and, more importantly, the motivation from your vines and blog posts that you’ve created to heart. If it doesn’t come from the heart – if it doesn’t exist because I feel it HAD to exist – then it’s not coming from the true heart of the creativity that I want to draw from. (I realize that I’ve used the word “heart” several times – that is not lost on me). I really appreciate the time, effort, and heart that you’ve spent on your efforts here. You certainly didn’t have to do it – you’re not personally benefitting from them. You’re sharing what you’ve learned from hard-earned experience and sharing it solely for the love of the art. Truly, thank you. You’ve made a difference.

  4. Dave Says:

    what that year is going to look like, but whatever happens, I’m planning on doing it on purpose. I’ve taken a lot of the info and, more importantly, the motivation from your vines and blog posts that you’ve created to heart. If it doesn’t come from the heart – if it doesn’t exist because I feel it HAD to exist – then it’s not coming from the true heart of the creativity that I want to draw from. (I realize that I’ve used the word “heart” several times – that is not lost on me). I really appreciate the time, effort, and heart that you’ve spent on your efforts here. You certainly didn’t have to do it – you’re not personally benefitting from them. You’re sharing what you’ve learned from hard-earned experience and sharing it solely for the love of the art. Truly, thank you. You’ve made a difference.

  5. Steve Says:

    Wise words Brian, I just wish there was an answer to the question, “How do I convince someone to read the thing?”

    • Stefan (@Skarter) Says:

      Hey Steve.

      First of all, a small disclaimer. I’m just an aspiring little shithead, I might be wrong bla bla bla etc

      Now, first things first, and this is not only first thing but also the second, third, last…everything is about this one thing: Write a great fucking script.

      Compared to doing that, I believe that getting someone to read it is not that hard, not hard at all actually. Again, I have not written a great fucking script yet so I didn’t even try to get anyone to read anything so I might have no idea what I’m talking about but this is why I feel that way:

      I’ve been lurking online, visited different screenwriting msg boards (only thing I can do really, since I’m on a different side of the world) and I have yet to find one person who was serious about screenwriting, who finished his/hers script and who was unable to find anyone from the industry to read it.

      Anyway, I’ll stop blabing and try to help you, tell you how you could get someone to read your script.

      Go to IMDB pro, subscribe, get a free trial thing. Search for films that are similar to the one you wrote. See who wrote it, find his manager – contact him – do that x 50. 50 different agents that represent different writers…or even a 100.

      Send a personalised (as in not a generic copy and paste the same shit to everyone) email, briefly introduce yourself, say the name of the script, your amazing, intriguing logline and ask if they would be interested in reading it.

      Do that enough times and someone will respond with “yeah, sure” eventually. And if they don’t, go to http://www.blcklst.com/, if you don’t already know what it is – research it a bit, and pay them $ – it’s not expensive, under 100$ and they will read it, tell you what they think and if it’s really fucking good they will send it to industry producers, managers etc – recommend it to them.

      Hope I helped!

  6. Kevin Says:

    I agree with much of what you’re saying, but definitely think there are some books worth getting that can help spur you thinking in the right directions. Sometimes reading a script won’t help you figure HOW they did what they did and why it worked. I put my most-useful and least-useful books in this blog: http://foc-log.blogspot.com/

  7. heidihaaland Says:

    Thank you. And the Vines are splendid. Like a bracing shot of chilled witch hazel.

  8. The Tim Ferriss Show, Episode 10: Brian Koppelman, Co-writer/Producer of Rounders, The Illusionist, Ocean’s Thirteen | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss Says:

    […] The Con-Men, Gurus and the Screen Writing Instruction Industrial Complex […]

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