Friday, February 25, 2011

The myth of Greenlighting screenplays

I was chatting recently with the screenwriter for one of the great horror films - 'Thirteen Ghosts'

His screenplay was analysed in a curious paper which attempted to determine which screenplays were worth greenlighting - and I wanted to hear his feedback on the paper.

Here's his response:

The basic premise -- that studios greenlight scripts -- is wrong.

They don't.

I have never, in my experience, ever heard of any movie being greenlit based upon the screenplay. 

The writing of the screenplay is simply one point in a rather prolonged process on the way toward a project getting the legendary "green light." 

But the script is absolutely *not* what gets the green light.

I'll give you an example. The recent Robin Hood movie.

That was based on a spec screenplay known as Nottingham -- a retelling of the Robin Hood story as told from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham. 

The script was hugely popular. There was a bidding war. The script was bought. Based on the script, they got Russell Crowe to commit -- to play *not* Robin Hood, but the hero of the script as written - the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Great. Then they hire the Director. Ridley Scott. But Ridley Scott wants to make changes in the script. 

Lots of changes. 

And so he brings in new writers. Lots of new writers.

A couple years worth of new writers.

And by the time the project finally gets "green lit" -- there isn't a trace of Nottingham left. 

And Russell Crowe, still attached, is no longer playing the Sheriff of Nottingham -- he's now, strangely enough, playing Robin Hood in what has now become a rather conventional retelling of the story of Robin Hood. 

So in what sense was the script "green lit?" Which script? What script? 

The studio would have been perfectly happy if Ridley Scott had come in, looked at Nottingham and said, "By George, it's perfect, lets go into pre-production." 

They would have greenlit -- well, greenlit what -- again, not the script -- because a script doesn't get greenlit.

No. They would have given the green light to the *movie.*

Because that's what gets the greenlight. The Movie.

And before a studio will do that, they need to have certain elements in place -- most importantly, a director that they know can deliver -- a producer who can run it, and usually a star with some name value, if not at home, then in foreign markets who need to have that star recognition in order to sell the movie abroad. 

And, oh, yeah, some kind of script. Usually. 

But there have been cases, and continue to be cases, where movies go into production with a script that is unfinished. Or a director will come on board with a script that has been approved by the studio after a couple years of development -- and he doesn't like and throws it out and completely rewrites it and that first draft director's script, often cobbled together in a matter of a few weeks or a month is what they end up shooting.

That's what happened with the remake of Godzilla. 

It's happened with a lot of other movies. 

These guys are looking at scripts they emerge "after the fact" -- after production.

They are not pre-production drafts and even if they were, their fundamental premise -- which seems to be that producers or studio execs or studio heads are confronted with stacks of scripts, simply read them and use a kind of intuition in order to decide which of the scripts to turn into feature films and which not to -- is fundamentally mistaken. 

That's simply not how the process works. 

A script is, for lack of a better word, a kind of bait. Just as in the world of fish and bait, so it is with scripts. There are lots of them around. They're small and relatively inexpensive but you can use them to attract bigger and expensive things. You use a script to attract a big director, a big star, you can use it to attract capital and when you have gathered those things together, then potentially, you may have the ingredients for a real dinner. 

Plus, the people who wrote the paper also ignored the fact that for the majority of scripts, the script itself is a stop along the way, in the case of adaptations. The decision to green light Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter movies was only marginally related to the "scripts" for Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. 

Certainly the studios *approved* the writers in the same way that they had approval for the stars, etc. -- and I'm sure that they looked at the scripts, but what was central to the decision was the underlying material - not the script per se. 

So long as the execution was competent -- in the same way that they expected any professional Hollywood movie to be competently shot and competently edited -- they really didn't much care beyond that. 

So if the question is -- are there elements in any given story that contribute to whether it's going to work for an audience and thus whether it's going to succeed or fail financially? Sure.

(This entry is an archive from my earlier blog on 'The Filmmaker's Factory')

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