The past couple of weeks I’ve had five or six fairly futile stabs at writing an article about the importance of niche cinema, with each one less to the point and less satisfying than the one before. It happens. Sometimes I know what I want to say, but am not sure how to say it. Now, although in my last Blog (‘What should I write?’ and the Advice from a Screenwriting Guru) I wrote about the Reality of the industry and what every Writer must write, this is it’s alternative view point, the flip side of the story, which is the importance of Niche Cinema.
In Screenwriting and the Film Industry it’s really difficult to present an alternative view point, without it sounding like an attack on conventional thinking, which I don’t want to do. The irony of this is, the point I want to make is precisely that, it is about attacking conventional thinking. However, at the same time it’s not. Hence the difficulty. Just how do you say, “things need to be torn down and changed,” without saying, “the industry’s way of working is BS?”
The industry doesn’t exist to innovate or to uncover unconventional approaches to screenwriting. The industry exists, quite simply, to create mass market products which fill cinemas and sell popcorn. And, the way the industry does this by sticking rigidly to three basic rules:
- If something worked, do it again, and again, and again
- If someone makes money doing something you don’t understand, hire them
- Once you understand how they do it, apply rule one
Which brings me to the point I wanted to get to, which is, most of the things you will be told to do to succeed as a screenwriter, by either the Script Gurus and industry Script Readers (? Self-proclaimed mostly), came into the industry because an artist / film-maker made money or gained public approval by doing something the industry didn’t understand. These Mavericks and Independents, wrote scripts and made films no one at the heart of the mainstream industry could or would put into production. By doing that, successfully, they forced the industry to reconsider what the rules were and what was possible. Today’s conventional “this is how it is done” thinking, was yesterday’s “mad as bats” alt-cinema.
Did you know that there was a time in Cinema history worldwide when it would have been inconceivable for anyone within the industry to shoot movies on location or to attempt realism in Cinema. At that point in cinema history worldwide, the industry believed that cinema needed to be glamorous, epic and completely synthetic. It was the Independent Filmmakers / Makers of Parallel Cinema who changed that, by making better and more interesting movies by adding the realism of location shooting, and by telling the stories of everyday folk.
So, what does this mean?
Well, in the first place it means that there are always two different kinds of Screenwriters.
The First Kind is Artisan-Screenwriters. These are the kind of writers whose skills lie in finding interesting ways to interrupt conventional wisdom, as it exists in the industry, at that point in cinema history. In 1940’s Italy, that meant studio epics with lots of togas and horses. In present day Hollywood, it means ticking all the boxes a script reader needs to tick. In present day Bollywood, it means making popcorn movies, the no-brainers or star-studded blockbusters. Many articles on internet are written to elucidate and educate artisan-screenwriters, as are most of the books written to teach you how it’s done. Script Gurus live and die by the rigid application of rule one.
The Second Kind of screenwriters is the Artist-Mavericks. These are the screenwriters who don’t give a flying-monkey’s nut about character arcs or plot points. They come to the party with a specific vision of what a film could be like if you just did ‘A’. ‘A’ in this case being the interesting thing the writer has in their head. ‘A’ also being the one thing that no Producer would ever pass, the idea that no Producer / Financier would ever finance.
If you want to be a successful Artisan-screenwriter, you should keep in mind – You are NOT Tarantino. You’re not required to change cinema or bring a unique vision to the screen, you are required to turn out good product. Your job is to help the industry apply rule number one: If it worked before, do it again. That’s what I was talking about in my last Blog (‘What should I write?’ and the Advice from a Screenwriting Guru).
What the industry requires from its Artisans are competence and a willingness to know their place. You get the pay cheque, but you get that by playing nicely with others, dotting your “I’s” and crossing your “T’s.” If your ambitions are to be a successful Artisan-Screenwriter, then when you get notes about typos or unrealistic dialogue, the one thing you are not allowed to say is “Tarantino did this” or “Anurag Kashyap does this”.
Now, ironically, if your ambition is to be a successful Artist-Maverick, then you are also NOT Tarantino. You are not Anurag Kashyap (and actually Anurag Kashyaps of the Industry are also changing). Hollywood already has a QT, Bollywood already has a Anurag Kashyap, it already has a Vikramaditya Motwane, and there are many more coming up and making names for themselves. The Industry doesn’t need or want more than one of those guys. If you want to be a rule breaker and a maverick, you have to present your unique vision of cinema, the emphasis being on the unique element. Show the world a movie we’ve never seen before and change our view of what is possible. Smash the rules to little bits and have all the Script Gurus saying “Well, ‘A’ is unique, his/her work stands alone. The rules don’t apply.” The only thing is, don’t expect the industry to financially support your experiments, until you’ve shown them that a buck can be turned from it.
The bottom line is that the industry is a mass market industry; it is about making the films that pretty much anyone can enjoy. Maverick talents are always niche. They always split audiences into those who love what they do and those who hate it.
My conclusions are different. I believe that whether the industry is prepared to finance it or not, cinema needs a constant battering from new ideas and new talents. The rules the industry applies to make movies need constant refreshing and savagely challenging. We need to write and make the movies that the industry doesn’t even know that it wants to make, yet. We need to write the scripts they will hate, and make the films they won’t take a risk on. And, the great news is that there has never been a better time to do that. Now is the time to write the best scripts we can, and to produce them ourselves.
My final thought is a question:
Given that cinema needs to constantly evolve, if it isn’t to become stale and tedious, what kind of movies should we be making?