One of the joys of reading so many scripts is seeing how they end up on the big screen. There is no exact science to this stuff. A script you were sure was a slam dunk ends up DOA. Or a script you thought was awful beyond belief goes on to win an Oscar. But as the creator of a site all about screenwriting, you’d think I’d have a better track-record than most. So I thought it’d be fun to look back over the years and check out the scripts I misevaluated. These scripts went on to either become box office or critical hits, or box office or critical bombs. Oh Elizabeth, how in the world could I have gotten it so wrong?!
La La Land – La La Land had a box office ceiling of, maybe, 30 million dollars. And that’s on the optimistic side. The budget for this movie was tiny. And while musicals had done okay in recent years, all of them had extravagant production budgets. To do a musical at this price point? Quite frankly, it had never been attempted before. I found La La Land’s script to be the embodiment of cliche. The characters were painfully obvious (we want to be stars! but edgy stars like 1950s Hollywood icons! Haven’t seen that before.) And the script, which featured Los Angeles as its backdrop, seemed to be written by someone who’d spent a weekend there once when he was 12. I’d seen more knowledge of the city in a 1990s Hollywood Best Western brochure. However, in retrospect, these “problems” were exactly what helped the movie connect with people. The characters were simple and easy to identify with. And the obvious Hollywood locations were exactly what people who’d never been to Los Angeles wanted to see. To them, those were the places they’d romanticized with since they were children. Nobody cares about that cool “only in the know” taco-slash-pie stand in Los Feliz that’s open from 2-4am on Tuesdays. Now to my credit, nobody else thought this would be a hit either. Since its release, agents all over town were fired by actors pissed off that they weren’t made aware of the project.
Allied – When I first read Allied, I gave up on it 30 pages in. It went on and on and on and NOTHING HAPPENED. However, when I went back to it a second time, I realized that that was part of the plan, and that I’d read up to a few pages shy of the big twist that would dictate the rest of the script. After going back and reading the whole thing, I thought I’d just read the next Casablanca – a complicated love story set against the backdrop of the biggest war in history. However, audiences didn’t see it that way. The friends of mine who saw the film extended a “Eh, it was okay,” and that was it. In the end I think they cast the film wrong. I don’t think Pitt had the acting chops to handle the male role. And the casting of the female role was uninspired. But maybe I should’ve paid more attention to my initial reaction. What movie takes 45 minutes to get gong? Audiences don’t have the patience for that these days. And I think all that waiting put them in a malaise that they never quite recovered from.
The Founder – A movie about the founder of McDonald’s? How boring does that sound? That was my first reaction when I heard about this project. But I fell in love with the script, whose subject was fascinating. You had an aging failed salesman, your perfect underdog, but also someone who was hard to like. He was a capitalist to the extreme, eager to destroy the very people who helped him become rich. All this amidst the perfect symbol of irony – those golden arches that we’ve come to associate with the American Dream, built on the back of a slimeball, a snake-oil salesman who put himself over everyone else. And yet no one went to see it. It didn’t even get awards attention. Sometimes when you fall in love with a script, you forget about what you were feeling when you first opened it. “A movie about the founder of McDonald’s? How boring does that sound?” And I think that’s why this movie tanked. Was there really some clamoring to know about the guy who invented McDonald’s? No, the box office receipts proved. There wasn’t.
Manchester By The Sea – Oh boy. I need to take a deep breath for this one. I haaaaaaated this script. I think Manchester by the Sea is the embodiment of screenwriting fraud, a glacial lumbering monotonous awards seeker that manipulates people into supporting it less they look like they don’t “get” important subject matter. However, the script would go on to win the screenwriting Oscar for best original screenplay. One of the things I constantly have to remind myself is that I’m not the speaker of the people. Just because I think something is boring doesn’t mean others do as well. I love movies where the story is being pushed forward in every scene (it’s one of the first things they teach you in screenwriting!). But some people don’t need that. They want their movies to reflect real life where the developments come slowly and deliberately. When you don’t have those conventions pulling and twisting at your story, a movie can come pretty close to mirroring real life. And I think that’s what happened here. People saw this and felt like it was really happening. And that was powerful to them.
Draft Day – This script finished number 1 on the Black List, which is a huge deal when you think about it. The Black List loves its quirky and its timely. It doesn’t usually get behind spec-y sports subject matter. It could be argued that Draft Day fits perfectly into the Scriptshadow paradigm. It was designed around a single important day that would make or break an organization (GSU TO THE MOON!). It also had some interesting character development going on, with this father who had a broken relationship with his daughter, both of whom had to work within the same organization. The script had this underdog component to it, and new revelations about this draft pick popping up every 10 pages. It was the antithesis to Manchester by the Sea. There was always something happening. Then I watched the movie and it seemed like every thing I loved about the script had disappeared. The script was one of the fastest I read all year. The movie was slow as molasses. The main character in the script was full of energy. Kevin Costner looked tired and agitated. Everything on the page felt important. The movie felt cheesy. I think this subject matter was too quirky for general audiences. And maybe a football team’s draft just wasn’t as good of a plot source as I thought it was.
American Sniper – Of all the scripts on this list, American Sniper is the one that still keeps me up at night. I thought this script S-U-C-K-E-D. I thought the main character was B-O-R-I-N-G (what was Chris Kyle’s inner conflict exactly?). I wasn’t sure what point the story was trying to make (War is sorta bad?). I thought it was directionless. We’re going off to war, we’re coming back home, then off to war again, then back home again, then off to war again. There was no major goal (with Saving Private Ryan, we were going to get Private Ryan!). And if we’re being completely honest, here, would anyone have seen this movie if Chris Kyle hadn’t died shortly after his biography was written? This is one of my weaknesses as a script evaluator. I am looking for a great story. When I finished Allied, I loved the chances the writer took by waiting so long for his big reveal. And I gave him big points for that, since most screenwriters would’ve played it safe. But most of the time, good movies come down to connecting with the character. And the reason so many people went to see this movie is because Chris Kyle was a hero to them. He killed a lot of bad guys. They don’t need plot points. They don’t need some defining character evaluation. This dude helped protect their country. And they held him in high esteem for that. That’s a lesson in conceptualizing I need to learn.
Collateral Beauty – I’m still mad that I gave this script high marks. In retrospect, its problems were so glaring that I must have been on drugs to ignore them. The notion of “buy-in” has come center stage since the recent release of the batty Book of Henry. When you ask your reader to buy into implausibility after implausibility, there eventually comes a breaking point. I think what I hung onto about Collateral Beauty is that it was one of the last huge spec-y sales in Hollywood. It represented the notion that you could still write something with a fun gimmicky premise, such as It’s A Wonderful Life, and someone would buy it. We don’t have that anymore. Or, at least, we’re on hiatus from it. But even if you like a concept or the idea of a script, it still has to execute. And Collateral Beauty required we make so many leaps of logic that there wasn’t a lick of truth left by the time the closing credits rolled around.
Spotlight - My frustration with Spotlight comes from this being the most fertile subject matter to build a story around in decades, yet the writer choosing to explore it through the most sterile lens available. The characters were empty vessels with zero development. The victims and abusers were barely explored. It was all about the investigation. About the “gotcha.” And I don’t think that’s the right way to explore something like mass child abuse. To be honest, I still struggle to understand why this movie was celebrated by critics (it won a screenwriting Oscar). But if I were to guess, I’d say that hypocrisy had a lot to do with it. Hypocrisy is such a powerful storytelling tool, that when it’s front and center in your story, it can cover up a lot of lackluster writing. What bigger hypocrisy if there than the institution we’re supposed to trust more than anything abusing us and covering it up? That storyline is fascinating to people. And to see the church go down, to get that “gotcha,” was enough for most.
Birdman – Of all the scripts on this list, this is the one I’m the most surprised I didn’t like. It’s got a fun little screenwriting gimmick at its core (contrary to popular belief, I like a good gimmicky setup), with this one continuous day in the prep of a play thing. It’s got a lot of weirdness, a lot of unpredictability. It’s got strange characters. However, even after I saw the film, which was better than the script, I agreed with my original assessment. I think my ultimate problem was that it was trying too hard. It wanted so badly to be considered quirky and different that it ceased being organic. One of the screenwriting skills I hold in high regard is the ability to make one’s writing invisible – to make us forget that we’re watching/reading something. Birdman was the opposite of that. You could feel the writing on every page. However, the movie looked and felt unlike anything else that had been made in years, and that goes a long way. It’s hard to make something that feels truly original. And I definitely give Birdman props for that.
Untitled Chef Project (Burnt) – You guys may have forgotten about this script. It was once in my top 5! And I loved it. The story itself was fairly vanilla. But the reason it rocked was because of its kickass unpredictable unhinged protagonist. Every scene was an adventure because you never knew what this guy was going to do next. So why did the movie (which eventually went on to star Bradley Cooper) fail so miserably? I think Burnt fell into two classic Hollywood holes. For one, it came out too late. It was written during the Chef craze on television but wasn’t made until 7 years later. So everything that was fresh and new about the script felt dated and cliched by the time it hit theaters. Also, it was a tweener. It wasn’t sure if it was a drama or a romantic comedy. And you could feel that when you watched the trailer or looked at the poster. You couldn’t identify the genre. Also, maybe, just maybe, the character wasn’t as edgy as I thought he was. And if that’s how people felt, the movie had nothing left to offer.
There you go guys. All my failings on blast. What scripts were you dead wrong about?