Cattle rustlers on a torpedo boat

I don’t watch much TV. My decidely LD television delivers a blurry mess compared to the technology available today that magnifies every pimple and pore of the personalities that inhabit the other sode of the camera. Still, I will make a point to watch TV if a decent movie is scheduled for broadcast. And that’s a big “if”. A recent scan of the TV schedule in the New York Times offered these quickie reviews:

“Haunted house foolishness” – Dream House
“Curiously retrograde” – Our Idiot Brother
“Giant Leap Backward” – Apollo 18
“Slick facile entertainment” – Valkyrie
“Wish it were funnier” – Maid in Manhattan
“Ridiculously derivative” – The Astronaut’s Wife
“Juiceless and nearly bloodless” – Twilight Saga: New Moon
“Superficial silliness” – Under the Tuscan Sun
“Not quite coherent” – Drumline
“Couple end their relationship but neither wants to move out. You will.” – The Break-up

And that’s the indictment of movies showing on just a single evening. Jesus. Some of these stinkers had big-time actors attached, including Tom Cruise, Vince Vaughan, Charlize Theron, Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Watts, and Johnny Depp. Which has me wondering. As an unproduced screenwriter all I ever hear is how exceedingly competitive the market is for original screenplays. How there are 20,000 scripts dumped upon Hollywood readers every year from which a few hundred are chosen for production. Obviously with that imbalance in supply and demand, it’s a buyer’s market. Read “Your Screenplay Sucks” by William Akers, and you’ll be repeatedly bludgeoned with demoralizing evidence of why you have zero chance of advancing in the industry. He says right up front, “If I can convince you to quit, and only for the price of this book, you should name your next son after me.” Nice.

The argument is compelling – lots of writers competing for the attention of a tiny sliver of opportunity. OK, so why then does Hollywood produce so much garbage if they have an army of experienced readers and supremely talented producers to separate wheat from chaff? Is the quality of the 20,000 scripts submitted annually so goddamned bad that not even 50 great ones (or a quarter of 1 percent) can be identified? Seems unlikely.

No, I tend to side with the argument posed in “Screenwriting Tricks for Authors” by Alexandra Sokoloff that the rewrite process in Hollywood is a serious culprit. To make a script fit more in line with a current fad, or sell to a different demographic, writers are brought in to rewrite. Sometimes many writers, one after the other. Perhaps the assignment is to relocate the action, or to change the genders of the main characters, or to upend the entire plot.

Billy Wilder captured it perfectly when he has his screenwriter character Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard” recap the fate of one of his scripts. “The last one I wrote was about cattle rustlers. Before they were through with it, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.”

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