Occasionally in the comments section, a debate will pop up about well-loved scripts that “aren’t movies.” They’re just really good scripts. For the aspiring screenwriter, a debate like this is confusing. What’s the difference? How is it possible to write a good script that would be a bad movie?
I always get anxious during this argument. It takes so much to write a good anything that if you’re restricting yourself in any one area, you’re making an already difficult task even more difficult. The last thing we need is some writer getting traction on a script but believing he’s a failure because, “It’s not a good movie.”
However, I have to admit that there’s something to the argument. There are certain scripts you will write which read well but are doomed on the big screen. Luckily for you, I’m going to tell you what those scripts are, so that even if you decide to write one, you at least know what you’re getting into. And keep in mind that writing a “great script that’s not a great movie” isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s gotten a lot of screenwriters their start in this business.
For ease-of-writing purposes, I’ll be referring to the great script that’s not a great movie as an NGM (not great movie) from here on forward.
The first NGM script is the one without a genre. When you don’t have a genre, you have a film that studios don’t know how to market, and by association, a film that’s not technically a “movie.” The most recent example of this is Passengers. Passengers was known as the best unmade script for a decade. However, once it came out, audiences were like, “Huh?” Is this a sci-fi film like Aliens? No. Is this a love story like Titanic? Not exactly. Is it a comedy? Sort of. Is it a drama? Sometimes. All of these problems were less evident when you were reading it but became enormous once you were making and marketing it. Every once in a blue moon, no-genre scripts will turn into something amazing (Pulp Fiction, Being John Malkovich) but it’s rare enough that it’s like trying to win the lottery. When you stay in the master movie genres (Horror, Action, Thriller, Sci-fi, Comedy) you’re writing a script that’s clearly a movie. Even the less glamorous genres (Drama, Period Piece, Western, Romantic Comedy, Serial Killer) will work. But when you can’t place your script into any known genre, you’re probably writing an NGM.
On the page, “still” doesn’t matter. The reading experience is a static one (you’re sitting down staring at words) so you don’t care as much if the characters and action are still as well. To this end, you can write some pretty good “still” stories. But these scripts will come crashing down once they reach the big screen because, all of a sudden, you’re asking your audience to sit down for 2 hours and watch ZERO movement. “Movies” are synonymous with “movement” so if you don’t have any, you’re going to witness a rapidly borified audience. My introduction into this was Everything Must Go, my favorite script at one time, about a guy who’d been kicked out of his house by his wife and decided to set up a room on his front lawn and continue living there. I loved that script. But once it got to the big screen, all I saw was a man sitting down for two hours. The entire story collapsed. If you’re into “still,” I recommend writing a novel. If you’re writing a movie script, however, make sure your characters are moving towards something, literally. That doesn’t mean you have to write Bad Boys 3. An investigation where the hero is walking from one new clue to the next is fine. But ixnay on the don’t-move-aye.
CHARACTER-DRIVEN (or “TALKING HEADS”) SCREENPLAYS
Every good script should be character driven on some level. But if that’s the ONLY thing going on in your script? If there’s no heightened concept or flashy plot points? You’re probably writing a novel or a TV show, not a movie. A perfect example is a movie like 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right,” or even last year’s “Manchester By The Sea.” These scripts read well (I mean, I hated the Manchester script, but a lot of people liked it). But once they reached the big screen, you’re just watching a lot of talking heads expound emotion. And that’s not good enough for the big screen anymore. People are used to showing up to the theater and seeing 300 million dollar visual spectacles. Two hours of people looking bummed out doesn’t work. The Kids Are All Right is an interesting case because it’s got more of a story to it, but that movie had to be freaking PERFECT just to squeak into the bottom level of the public consciousness. If you’re writing stritcly character driven movies, you may want to move over to TV.
The flip side argument of all this is that there are certain “horrible” scripts that are great movies. The nature of what makes them great onscreen is what hurts them on the page. For example, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are drowning in plot, have a ton of characters, and contain a bunch of cool effects that you can’t see on the page. All these things make them boring reads but “cool” movies. Or a script like La La Land. That movie IS the musical numbers, which you can’t see on the page.
I would agree with all of this up to a certain point. If you’re writing within the system (you’re getting paid to write by the studio), than it’s more important to make your bosses happy than write a script that pleases the masses. But if you’re writing on spec, I’m sorry but you’ve got to pull off both. You’ve got to write something that’s going to work on screen AND on the page. And that’s totally possible.
I hope this helps when choosing which script to write next. Please share your own NGM examples in the comments section in case I missed anything!