Q&A: Quality vs Commerciality
Q: A couple months have gone by since I completed my two screenplays. I have queried multiple agencies through the proper channels and have not gotten any success. All of my main characters are Sikh because I am also an aspiring actor and my dream is to act in and direct my own work. Is it wrong of me to write screenplays with Sikh characters and hope that someone will option my work, or should I start writing in order to sell my work instead of writing good quality screenplays with unique characters?
(The two log lines were included with the question, which I will keep confidential.)
A: I can’t tell you what you should and shouldn’t write. But I can say that an unproven writer who insists on writing screenplays about Sikh characters for American audiences and continues submitting his screenplays – including one about a young man’s suicide – to Hollywood agents (who are interested in movies with high commercial potential), and who then attaches himself to act in the project, should not expect a positive response.
Your question also implies that you have only two options: writing work that sells or writing work of quality. But if you truly believe that nothing Hollywood produces or profits from has any artistic merit, then Hollywood isn’t the place for you. You’ll either be miserable because you’re selling out, or miserable because you can’t sell your work.
It’s fine to write about Sikhs, or whoever else you wish to. But then market those scripts to companies who have previously financed scripts about (and for) Sikhs. If there are none, and if you are serious about wanting a career as a Hollywood screenwriter/actor/director, create screenplays with real commercial appeal. Or at least screenplays that share some similarity with previously successful low budget/independent productions.
Love every single comment from everyone here. They are all right on point beginning with Mr. Hauge, who’s one of the best if not the best in what he does. We as writers must write from the heart, but at the same time we must think as audience members ourselves. Stick to the formula and technique (always first write that first draft, get it all down) then write and re-write, write some more. It will all fall into place and keep pitching, but always keep moving on to the next story and the next. Write stories, like HM said, that touched, that move, that incite conversation, stories that stay with an audience for a long time after they leave the theater and hopefully a story with a message that we can all identify and learn from, making us better human beings to one another. Movies take us in a journey. They (when they are great stories) stay with us forever and we want to see them over and over as the years go by, for the remind us of where we were in our lives the first time we watch it and what emotions it created in us, emotions and feelings that we never forget.
Hey guy, I do agree with what Michael says but I want to go a step further: it’s important to get more non-white narratives into film and on the big screens of the world. Look at all the amazing stories Hollywood producers won’t touch because they “don’t have a character audiences can identify with” (which is code for a white touchstone character, usually a dude)…but look now at how incredibly popular movies without those American-coded characters can be, regardless of the race or religion of the main character, if the audiences can still identify with your MC in some way (look at Mulan: a Chinese fairy tale, girls everywhere are going crazy over the live-action remake). As a commenter said above, Slumdog Millionaire was a raw movie with a broad, highly identifiable main character, someone so pure and good but so kicked around by life that audiences couldn’t help be moved by him. I’m not saying you have to go that route, but if you want Western eyeballs on your Sikh heroes and heroines (and hey, maybe Westerners shouldn’t be your primary market; we’re dwindling, so-called developing-world audiences are booming, Hollywood is supposed to be the gold standard but it’s really not the only game in town anymore, globally), I want to suggest going at least a little broad with your plot. Humans all over the world love the same kind of stories: the underdog who fights against overwhelming odds, the hero who sacrifices everything for a desperate dream, the person who stays brave in the face of suffering, etc. etc., with regional and cultural variations. Look at the popularity abroad of Shichinin no Samurai, or Lagann. If you make a character audiences anywhere can relate to, and a solid story to back him or her up, then maybe Hollywood will keep ignoring you, but Bollywood or Nollywood might come knocking, or some wonderkind director from Iran or Turkey, or…you never know. The world is so much bigger than Hollywood now. Write the stories that touch your heart, AND that you know will touch the hearts of other people. You don’t have to sacrifice the uniqueness of your characters’ culture and faith to create a great script that will move your audiences. Good luck! You can make it.
Listen to Michael. He gave me great, honest advice. I didn’t want to follow it, but I am so glad I did!
Michael’s response might be hard for a frustrated writer / actor /director to read. That’s why it’s so valuable. I happen to think that ‘commercial and ‘good quality’ are *not* mutually exclusive – in fact the creative challenge to balance those elements is a large part of the fun!
I think Sikh culture is fascinating. (I’m white British, irretrievably middle class and now sagging into middle age…) In the UK, there is long established respect for Sikhism. But also remember (ahem) that the British creative industries are guarded by arrogant snobs who only deign to give the time of day to their chosen clique. Outsiders are almost never allowed in.
Think ‘Life of Pi’. Think ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’. Those films involved cultures outside the experience of a large part of western cinema audiences, yet the stories had vivid characters any half sane human would care about, visual magnificence and narratives that corkscrewed between magical romance and raw survival. These films’ cultural settings were secondary to their emotional power.
This young writer faces thrilling challenges, knows what he’s capable of, and should plan a 5 year campaign: 1) To build a good reputation in the right places as a Sikh actor. Be available in many countries, do the biggest possible range of work – including the cringe-making stuff – to *learn* how different aspects of the industry create success (and to see how NOT to do many things!) Respected actors do get opportunities as writers + directors. 2) To offer scripts to specialists in making films that feature Sikh culture. Where are the Sikh film makers, all around the world? Initially he should not ask to act in his own films, until decision makers know and trust his writing and his acting. Hollywood is not the only fruit. 3) To trust that all experience is useful as he works towards writing scripts that celebrate his Sikh culture and weave that material into a wider (western) context that will hook Hollywood decision makers’ attention. Perhaps like the films I noted above? 4) To network, study, work ordinary jobs to pay his bills and discover life; and keep writing.
NOTHING IS WASTED even if it isn’t used this year … or next…
B t w I know all about failing to see beyond my own potential. “If only stupid bookers/audiences would see how brilliant my performances and material are…”
And I’m constantly asked to work for nothing. “It’s just storytelling.” “We’re a charity.”
Just last week a conversation went bad because someone said “It’s not all about the money” to which I responded “But I have to pay the rent”. They’re weren’t willing to take it as read that I deliver my work fuelled by a lifetime of experience, 15 years of full time work and all the artistic integrity of which I’m capable. They assumed I’m crassly commercial.
Right now I’m wriggling my material around to reach a new market. Should’ve done it years ago. But when I started out, the senior practitioners of my (very small) creative industry terrified me into believing that only one kind of work was acceptable. They were the gatekeepers so I did what they said they wanted. And still after 15 years the doors are locked against me. (Somebody put out the hard word on me and I’ll never get past it.) Given the very small, specialised opportunities for spoken word that isn’t comedy, I’m struggling badly.
But if I’d been more confident, I’d have found the way round much faster. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you always got. Creative work MUST be influenced by what audiences like. Otherwise your work is just amateur self indulgence.
To me, creative process means communicating my ideas and glorious imaginings in ways that will win audiences. Grab them, hold them, provoke them into thinking (that’s hard!) and give them laughter and reasons to go on living.
I write across many fields including screenplays and love to include different ethnicities among my characters. The Best (and Second Best) Exotic Marigold Hotel movies show there’s a market for multi-cultural casts. IMO these work because they aren’t “about” any one ethnicity, but about the problems of older people trying to stay involved and relevant. Writing about particular people in a specific setting can work provided the themes are universal, allowing audiences to relate to a background they may never experience. Certainly I agree that no writer will succeed by denigrating their audience or genre, as I’ve been telling would-be romance writers for years.
I’d go a step further and suggest attempting to make the film independently. If it truly is a great script, I’m guessing you could attract an indy producer and a team to make it with a micro budget.
There’s many stories where writers couldn’t get their film made so they successfully went and did it themselves. Worth thinking about at least..
Thank you Michael for your candid advice to this young gentleman screenwriter. H needs to define his audiences, their location, and obtain financial support for his production. Distribution will be prime.
Best of success
What a compassionate and yet absolutely correct answer Michael. You are “on the money!”
I agree. To sell to the market, you must write for the market. That is not to say an unusual piece won’t catch someone’s attention. Look at Harry Potter for instance. But that author struggled through many, many rejections before someone gave it a chance. I suggest to this new writer that he write the story of his dreams and submit to markets that look for that kind of diversity. In the meantime, try writing a quality piece that will appeal to the mass market. Put a lot of sticks into the fire.