I’ve fawned over podcasts here before. Stephen Tobolowsky. Marc Maron. Now on that list is John August and Craig Mazin and their podcast Scriptnotes. The main focus of Scriptnotes is the craft of screenwriting, but since John August (IMDB HERE) and Craig Mazin (IMDB HERE) are both actual professional Hollywood screenwriting veterans their stories carry more weight than your average film and pop culture blog.
In their episode titled “On Screenwriting Gurus” John and Craig discuss the industry of self-proclaimed film gurus who offer how-to books and seminars to amateur writers. I went straight to this episode because it deals with one of the few outlets that an amateur writer has to go for any sort of guidance. Personally I don’t put much faith in screenwriting books and seminars. You can read these books and attend these seminars if you enjoy talking about writing, but do they actually turn a bad writer into a good one? I don’t think so. I agree with Craig Mazin’s statement –
(taken from the episode’s transcript)
“…short answer number one. What book should I read? You can read any book you want. None of them will be as useful as reading screenplays and watching movies and thinking about story and then writing the script. That is the only basic instruction set that you need. And that works. The books are useless, I do believe.”
One question that John and Craig ask is how many professional writers owe their careers to a book or a Linda Seger (IMDB HERE) or Robert McKee (IMDB HERE) seminar? I haven’t heard of any, but I’d be happy to listen if there are any out there.
Oh, and Ms. Seger and Mr. McKee? Pretty much the epitome of ‘those that can’t do, teach.’ By all means, look at their IMDB pages.
Books and seminars are harmless. A book costs a few bucks and as long as you don’t go crazy with the seminars (Please, don’t go crazy and fly to Beijing, Okay?) you’ll be all right.
BONUS: You can usually find some free seminars online via Final Draft or Writer’s Digest.
One service that an aspiring writer needs to be leery of is the ‘paid consultant.’ This is something that you think about once your script is done and begin to wonder, ‘can it be better?’ If you’re Craig Mazin and John August you just have your friends read it and give you feedback and that’s awesome. I can do that too, but the difference is their friends are most likely screenwriters and filmmakers and mine have never even seen a script before. Won’t take too much time to realize whose friends are better at giving you feedback for a rewrite.
SCENARIO: You have a script and you want some feedback. Your friends read it and of course they love it and tell you it’s better than anything Hollywood has made in the last few years. It’s totally like THE MATRIX meets STAR WARS but better. You’re stoked but living in Arizona isn’t doing you any good if want to do anything with the script. Maybe you enter it in screenwriting contests. Maybe you even advance and become a finalist in one or two. Still, nothing comes of it. Damn. Maybe time to consider a rewrite. You look online and find famed consultant Linda Seger who will be happy to read it and give you ten to fifteen pages of notes for $1,200. Crap. You don’t want her notes that bad. You keep looking and look what you found! Script Shark! For about $150 you can get notes from a Hollywood reader. Nobody fancy but still, they’re in HOLLYWOOD and goddamn it that’s awesome.
You get your notes back and your script gets torn apart. They found issues with every aspect of your script. You realize that your main character doesn’t really need or want anything and all of the flashback scenes don’t make any sense. There are too many characters and most don’t really do anything but there’s a missed opportunity for another character to be the main protagonist. Do you rewrite or give up?
Craig Mazin and John August don’t really go into this topic on their “Screenwriting Gurus” episode. They mainly look at the Linda Segers and other high priced consultants that basically “promise” you Hollywood success. It’s obvious that going that route is a big risk and probably a scam and a waste of money, but what about the lesser priced readers? What about getting notes from someone who does it for a living and will charge you less than $100 for notes?
This is a gray area for me, since this is where I sit. I’ve read hundreds of aspiring writer’s scripts and still do occasionally. They find me or are recommended to me. I haven’t sought this work but I’m grateful that it finds me, but it does put me in an awkward position, morally speaking.
A little bit about my site name – EVIL TENDER. This title refers to that money that you make doing something that you love. Call it the money you get for “selling out.” Legal tender. Evil tender. Haha. I went to art school and did art jobs and struggled to reconcile the thought that something I loved doing was getting exploited, or that I was helping to exploit that love in others. Tough, right?
Back to our main discussion currently in progress…
I’ve been considering offering my services as a reader to aspiring writers in a public way. Now, I am not a famous man or even a successful writer. I’m just a guy who has been reading scripts for a long time and can possibly be of some help with guiding an aspiring writer with their next draft. Is this evil? Is this exploitive? I’ve never claimed that by having me read your script that I can guarantee you a successful career. Again. Just a guy. Honest feedback from someone who doesn’t really care about hurting your feelings because one thing you learn trying to make a living at art is, you cannot be precious about your work and be hurt by criticism.
Let me repeat that — you cannot be precious about your work and be hurt by criticism.
So I’ve had this thought about my services to aspiring writers and I’ve had this internal struggle and I wonder what John August and Craig Mazin would say about it. Is it exploitive? Would it be truly earning ‘evil tender’?
This is the gray area that I can’t seem to get out of.
From the writer’s that I’ve given feedback to none have told me I was way off base and I didn’t help them at all. I might have misunderstood some of their story intentions and they might not have agreed with my notes, but overall everyone has been happy.
I spoke with friends in the production end of the film world to see if any such industry existed in his production and post-production world. Turns out, nope. Only writers get harassed and scammed into paying loads of money for expert advice from non-experts. Maybe it’s the intangible aspect of writing that makes it prone to this. An editor or cameraman can get the gear and mess with it, read the manuals and figure it out and once they’re done it either works or it doesn’t. It’s immediately known. This is also something that you can show your friends and they can tell you if that shot was good or that edit made sense. They’ve seen movies before. You can put your work immediately up on YouTube and there it is. Alive.
For a writer you can write and write and once you’re done, or think you’re done (which is really all there is. You “think” you’re done.) but you will never know if you did it right. There is no immediate gauge of success without involving someone outside of your own head.
I have to assume that the aspiring actors of the world are offered similar services that writer get tossed at them. Books. Seminars. Classes.
Is an MFA in creative writing or acting really going to do you any good in a career or is it just a way of putting off entering the real world with your God given talent and all the threat of failure that comes with it? Go out there. Write. Act. Create something that you can be proud of without paying a supposed expert to hold your hand.
For anyone out there interested in the filmmaking process I highly recommend subscribing to Scriptnotes on iTunes. To pick up with Craig Mazin’s statement above —
“The books are useless, I do believe. Useless. Because, look, we live in a time now where we have the Internet. Okay? If I need to know how long a script should be, if I need to know how it should be formatted, if I need to know what it’s supposed to look like, if I need to know how much description I should use and all. That stuff is out there, it’s on your website, it’s all over the place. There’s no need to buy anything.”
So all you aspiring writers, actors, graphic designers, just get out there and scour the internet for useful tools. Find the art that you love and engage in it, take it all in, as much as you can. And most of all, don’t get suckered by false prophets. Least even me.