Hollywood has already chosen the best pictures of the year at the Golden Globes and Oscars, but how come the best pictures always seem to have the lowest box office returns?
The biggest question on everyone’s mind this year is why “The Dark Knight” wasn’t nominated for “Best Picture.” After all, “The Dark Knight” grossed several hundred million dollars, which far exceeds the total box office earnings of all the best pictures nominated this year. People flocked to see “The Dark Knight,” but how many people have seen the other so-called best pictures like “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk,” or “The Reader”?
The simple fact is that movies are judged by Hollywood movie makers and not by public reaction or box office grosses. After all, many movies that made hundreds of millions ultimately turned out to be pretty crappy movies when examined objectively (think of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”).
Hollywood tends to reward dramas while ignoring comedies and especially comic book adaptations. Hollywood also tends to be conservative, ignoring better movies like “The Shawshank Redemption” and ”Pulp Fiction,” and instead granting the title of Best Picture to movies like “Forrest Gump.” Today, how many people remember the best picture in 1941 was “How Green Was My Valley,” which beat out “Citizen Kane” that year?
Hollywood makes mistakes and proves risk-aversive (think “Brokeback Mountain”). In seeing “safe” movies get rewarded over more daring movies, you might think the secret to becoming a professional screenwriter is to pander to the public.
The public doesn’t know what they want until they see it. If you try to appeal to the masses, think this would be a quick route to success, you’ll probably wind up writing a weak screenplay that could be far better than the crap Hollywood is already producing, but if it’s not far superior to what Hollywood is producing, your screenplay will probably be ignored. Hollywood is full of mediocre screenwriters; they don’t need another one.
On the other hand, if you try to write “meaningful” films that only appeal to a small percentage of the population, your chances of getting your screenplay produced is also miniscule. You could have the greatest screenplay in the world, but if a studio doesn’t think it’s marketable, too bad.
So should you write a screenplay that panders to the masses or that stays true to your vision, however narrow its appeal might be? The real answer is to write from your heart.
If you write a screenplay just because you think it will be commercial, it will probably be phony, flat, and boring, and you’ll have defeated your purpose by writing an unmarketable screenplay. On the other hand, if you pour your heart into a screenplay, you may create something wonderful that Hollywood will ignore.
The problem with screenwriting is that you could write anything from pure garbage to a true work of art, and your chances of success are probably equal.
The answer is to write what you want while keeping your potential audience in mind as well. Your screenplay needs to appeal to the public, but it also must stay true to your passion. If you love the story that you’re telling, that emotion will shine through. Even if Hollywood doesn’t think your screenplay is marketable, the effort and experience in creating that screenplay will be far more valuable than if you spent that same amount of time trying to create a screenplay that you think Hollywood will like, and wind up getting rejected anyway.
If you’re going to get rejected, do it on your terms. Don’t pander to the lowest common denominator in hopes of making a sale. Even if you do get rejected, at least you’ll know that you wrote your screenplay from your heart with your vision, and not just to copy the currently popular movie and piggyback on its success.
As a screenwriter, all you can control i what you write, so make what you write something you can be proud of. The reward is partly in the journey.