The Business of Screenwriting: The screenwriter as problem-solver

Words of wisdom from legendary Hollywood producer Max Millimeter.

What do you see when you think about yourself as a screenwriter? A storyteller? A creative? A professional?

However you see yourself, that’s not necessarily how people in Hollywood see you.

This came up in a conversation with Max Millimeter: Legendary Hollywood Movie Producer. I was trying to make some subtle point about a script we were arguing about discussing when he wagged his finger one way and shook his head the other, body language I’ve come to know means he’s going to drop what he considers to be an essential truth in my lap.

Kid, you just don’t get it. You think they think like you think, that you’re a writer. That’s not what they think. What a studio executive sees when they look at a screenwriter is one thing and one thing only: problem-solver.

See, each of them is responsible for a boatload of scripts. 10, 12, 14, whatever. Now a normal person would look at a script that a studio has dropped coins for and say, ‘Hey, look! It’s a movie!’ Beautiful thing, right? Not an exec. They look at that script and all they can see is one royally screwed-up story. And that’s not only a problem, it’s their problem.

Which is where you come in. You walk in for a meeting, you schmooze a little. Hey, such and such movie really bombed this weekend, hate to be tiptoeing around that studio, eh? You hear about so-and-so, got busted for making out with a St. Bernard at that wedding reception, can you believe it? You know, lighten things up. Then you get to the story. And here nothing matters what you say… nothing… except one thing: Are you gonna solve their problem by fixing their script? They don’t give two titties about your theories, your craft, your art, okay? That script you’re meeting about is a busted toilet filled with yesterday’s beef brisket and you, my fine young friend, are the plumber.”

Of course as Max Millimeter is prone to do, he oversimplifies the situation, but at a very basic level, he’s right. When you go up for an open writing assignment, that by definition means the script needing a rewrite has problems. Your job is to solve those problems.

This is why it is absolutely crucial for you to develop your critical analytical skills, to be able to read a script, identify the issues, then come up with possible solutions. How do you do that?

By reading scripts. Lots of scripts. Lots and lots of scripts. Not just reading them, but breaking them down. Scene by scene. Sequences. Subplots. Characters and their interrelationships. Analyze them.

You can read great scripts which is excellent training for how to craft a solid screenplay. But to hone your critical analytical abilities to identify problems, you should be reading problem scripts.

If you’re not currently part of a writer’s group, where you read each other’s pages and provide feedback, you should do that. Yes, reading scripts and providing feedback is a pain, takes up a lot of time, and sometimes you’ll probably hate it, but again, where else are you going to learn how to prep for an OWA meting unless you have put in the hours actually reading and analyzing problem scripts?

So when you think about yourself as a screenwriter and the images of artist, creative, and professional spring to mind, make sure you also include this: problem-solver. Then do what you can now to develop your critical analytical skills because if you want to have any chance of succeeding in the OWA market… well, let’s hear from Max Millimeter to drive home this point: “You gotta get your shit together.”

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of Go Into The Story articles based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully, you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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Author: Scott Myers