you’re not helping: screenwriters shouldn’t be resigned to their scripts being mangled by Hollywood

William C. Martell at Script Secrets thinks he’s being wise and helpful with explanation of the abuse screenwriters with Hollywood aspirations should expect… and that’s abuse that comes if you’re “successful”! His recent “Script Tip” opens like this:

Brilliant scripts get shredded every day, it’s just the way the biz works. You think most of what you see on the big screen is junk? You wonder why they bought that crappy script? Heck, it was probably a GREAT script when they bought it. So how does a good script go bad… and why? If the producer liked the script enough to buy it for $3 million in the first place, why change it? Why ruin it?

Let’s take it step by step.

And then he takes us step by step through the meatgrinder that turns a hypothetical great new script by Will Shakespeare called Romeo and Juliet into a science fiction action romance starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s some very funny writing on Martell’s part, and a bitter takedown of Hollywood’s bullshit. It ends on this:

On and on into the night. Each person hired brings in a screenwriter who completely changes the character, story, and plot of the script. When the film finally gets made, it has been ‘improved’ so much that it no longer resemble the script that Shakespeare guy wrote that everybody loved. It might even suck… but they’ve spent so much money on the project, and the film is ready to shoot – so they film a script that everyone might agree is crappy before the money floats away.

Then we pay $10 to see it and wonder why Hollywood makes crap like this.

Well, not, that’s not quite how it ends. Here’s Martell’s final thought:

Now here’s OUR problem as screenwriters: We can’t write the crappy script that ROMEO & JULIET ends up as… we have to write the brilliant script that it started out as. You can’t judge a script by the movie they make of it. Our scripts have to be good enough so that even when they run them through the big sausage machine of Hollywood what comes out is something people might want to eat – something they’d pay $10 to see and think was okay. That’s the hard part!

This is not advice to artists, or even craftspeople: this is advice to hacks. This is advice for people who care nothing about movies except whatever millions they can milk out of them. The basis of a great movie is a great script… not whatever Frankensteinian creature can be cobbled together after spoiled movie stars have had their way with a script. Why would artists or craftspeople willing allow themselves to be complicit in this horror… except for the money? Because, as Martell says, no screenwriter working in Hollywood should ever expect to see his or her actual vision end up on screen.

If screenwriters are the low people on the Hollywood totem pole — as is the blatant implication of Martell’s advice, and he’s not wrong about it — Martell’s article is the equivalent of telling aspiring writers to just lie back and think of England. This is not the way to fix what’s wrong with Hollywood.

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