Drama | Screenwriting 1A - Lesson Two

Welcome to Lesson Two.  Last time, I promised that Lesson Two would include some suggestions on navigating the ocean of information you’ll receive from the internet, some philosophical thoughts about the Film Industry and then a pep-talk on what constitutes a winning attitude on the part of a novice. It turns out that my rant about the film industry got so long we’ll have to leave it at that. However, having gotten that out of the way, we can get back to the ole’ Qwerty Keyboard, where the magic happens, in Lesson Three.

The Film Industry in General.


To understand the film industry, we have to look at its origins. It arose from a simple presentation medium known as the magic lantern. The magic lantern was the PowerPoint of the 17th through 19th centuries. The very earliest ones used a hand-painted glass slide with a simple candle backed by a parabolic mirror (to intensify the light) and a lens, out front, to focus the image on a white wall. Even as early as the 17th century, clergy, university professors and paranormal mediums used the magic lantern, to great effect, in order to castigate, educate and horrify their audiences (in that order.)

Actually, the first “movies” were produced by using magic lanterns that had been rigged to rapidly cycle from one glass slide to another, creating the illusion of action. In those days, even a two-frame film was sufficiently novel to attract “box office” along the boardwalk or in the circus sideshow.

With the advent of electricity the “throw” (distance to screen) and brightness of magic lanterns improved dramatically. Then with the invention of photographic glass slides, and multiple-slide/multiple-lensed projectors, the first “dissolves” and “cross-fades” were possible from one slide to another. The little boardwalk and sideshow attraction was well on its way to becoming the worldwide medium for sharing experience that it is today. The development of celluloid strips of photographic film, sequentially exposed and then projected through a magic lantern type device was the beginning of the motion picture or “movie” industry we know today.

It’s a Business

The point is, that from the very beginning, even from its “pre-history,” the film industry has been a business: the business of creating novel spectacles that people would pay money to sit in a dark room and watch.

The Wikipedia article on “Film” has the following:

“The contemporary definition of cinema is the art of simulating experiences to communicate ideas, stories, perceptions, feelings, beauty or atmosphere by the means of recorded or programmed moving images along with other sensory stimulations…The process of filmmaking is both an art and an industry.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film

That’s the crux. Is screenwriting an art or simply the technical skill used in the “programming department” of an industrial manufacturing process? Is the screenwriter an artist or a technician? Was Frank Lloyd Wright an artist or a technician? People flock to the Marin County Civic Center in California every day, to enjoy and be surrounded by Wright’s artistic genius. But other people go there every day, punch the time clock and put in a day’s work. Was Wright an artist or a technician?  The people occupying those buildings better damned-well hope he was both.

So the reality is, that a screenwriter who is an artistic genius also needs to be an excellent technician and to understand that the gallery for his or her art, the movie theater, is a business, a business that invests huge quantities of money to create spectacle in the hope that the broad spectrum of human beings will be willing to part with their own precious money in order to enjoy it.

The Early Business

In the early days of film, because of the massive amounts of money it took to produce movies, the film industry evolved into a situation with a few giant studios who had the financial resources to keep ahead of the public’s ever-changing, even fickle demands for novelty. There was a need to keep improving the technology—and thus, increasing the spectacle, in order to continually offer the audience something new. Higher technology meant yet higher production costs. To the screenwriter, this meant that the “go or no-go” decision, the “green light” on a given screenplay, was subject to the approval of a tiny monopoly of industry gatekeepers, whose sole criterion for that decision was prospective “box office,” or return on investment.

Because these gatekeeper’s decisions were ultimately dictated by the lowest common denominator of public taste (or lack of same) it is indeed a wonder that any of the films that we consider classic works of art today were ever made. Perhaps we can thank the much-maligned industry “censors” of the time. Today without such strict censorship it is even more of a miracle that anything close to the generally accepted concept of “art” is ever created.

A trip to the local multi-screen along with enduring the long and excruciating process of viewing the “trailers” is a good illustration of what the “lowest common denominator” of public taste is demanding today.  In one recent visit I endured one trailer after another filled with nothing but violence, stylized battles, fights and one boring fiery explosion after another.  That day, in that entire pathetic lineup, there was not one upcoming film promising uplifting human-interaction, or the mutual sharing of real human drama.

The Future of Film

You might be thinking, “My God, do I want to spend months of my time trying to write something that will help other human beings and then be forced to sell it into a market like that?”  If you are thinking that, then take heart. The new trend toward independent film production and then distribution into the “proving ground” provided by America’s small “art houses” has already changed the film industry noticeably. With the advent of cheap ultra high-definition digital video cameras and relatively cheap editing software, the industry will be impacted even more. Art house audiences, by definition, are not the lowest common denominator of public taste.  When many recent independent films proved to be box office successes in the art houses–even though they were works of art–they were taken up by major distributors and became big hits on the big screens, some even winning Oscars. Those big studio gatekeepers aren’t about to leave money on the table. After all, they are businesspeople, for better or for worse.

In my opinion, this trend will continue and expand—meaning that the serious artists among the screenwriting community don’t necessarily have to focus on being “popular” with audiences and studios, but rather can actually focus on artistic excellence–and let the financial chips fall where they may.

In Lesson Three we will include some suggestions on navigating the information flow from the internet, plus some excellent books on the art of screenwriting, along with the previously promised “pep talk” about what constitutes a winning attitude on the part of a novice screenwriter.