I really enjoy the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast, despite the fact that their interviewer, Jeff Goldsmith, is a massive tool. (That’s a post for another day.) The most recent one features several of this year’s Oscar-nominated screenwriters, and I highly recommend it.
One problem I have with this sort of panel, though, is the constant “follow you dreams” talk. Successful writers (and successful people in general) love to talk about how all you have to do is be persistent, and eventually you’ll reach their level of success. After all, they didn’t give up, and look how they turned out!
This is what you call survivor bias.
I used to work for a DVD distribution company. Part of my job was to watch unsolicited movies that were sent by independent filmmakers, and offer recommendations to my boss. I didn’t recommend many.
This was the tail end of the indie boom, when movies were selling for millions at Sundance. Anybody with a 16mm camera and an idea could make a movie. And money.
First, they’d take their project to the mini-majors and studio indie labels. If those didn’t bite, you could always try pay cable networks, or even basic cable channels. Barring that, there’s always Blockbuster and Netflix.
And then there was us. We were the last stop for just about everybody. We got the dregs of independent film, the movies nobody else wanted. And with good reason.
You go to the multiplex and see some terrible action flick, or maybe a boringly pretentious documentary, or whatever it is you consider “bad,” and you might think to yourself, This movie is awful! This must be the worst film of the year!
And you’d be wrong. Every movie that makes it into theatres has something going for it, even if it’s just the fact that the camera is pointed in the same general direction as the lights. You’re comparing it to the top 1% of all films. You’re not even close to the “worst.”
Maybe you’ve flipped through the channels late at night, and discovered a made-for-TV scifi movie, with bad effects and worse dialogue. Maybe you’ve accidentally picked up Transmorphers 2 instead of Transformers 2 at the video store. In any case, you think you’ve seen bad movies.
But you haven’t.
I’ve seen movies so mind-boggling bad that I’m not even sure how to describe them. The closest I can think of is when you open up the milk carton, only to realize it’s gone sour… and then you hold it out to your roommate and say, “Here, smell this.”
That’s what we did around the office. “Here, check this out. Did he really cut to a shot of a snail crawling over a pen?”
But the thing is, the people who made these movies have no idea they’re bad. They had a vision, and by God, they made that movie.
Which brings me back to the pre-Oscars screenwriting panel. The people who made these films believed in themselves. They persisted, they didn’t give up, they followed their dreams.
If you tried to explain to these filmmakers what was wrong with their movies, they wouldn’t even understand. It’d be like trying to explain to a colorblind person why red is prettier than brown.
What I’m getting at is, these people shouldn’t have persisted. They should have given up, moved on, tried something else.
But successful artists don’t consider this possibility. Particularly Americans, I think. It’s in our democratic, populist nature. I’m not special. I just worked harder and longer than the ones who didn’t succeed.
But the sad truth is, some people don’t succeed because they suck. You just don’t hear those people interviewed on popular podcasts.