For almost my entire screenwriting career thus far I didn’t think about the audience, not really. Which is to say I didn’t think about the directors or studio executives that might read my work.
No, instead, I thought of the audience at large—the people who would watch the movie. This is a mistake. Let’s call it Mistake Number One.
I’ve only just realized that I also did not think about what the movies mean to audiences at large. I always perceived movies from my perspective: as art—high, low, not important—they were all art. And as such I expected the makers of this art to take the work seriously. Yes, I am aware that I am a naïve little penguin. Let’s call this Mistake Number Two and Three.
Because audiences—for the most part, especially in India—see the movies as a source of an ‘outing’ (not in the Western sense!), an opportunity to pay dearly to sit in front of a larger screen than they have at home to watch superficial entertainment populated by the biggest stars.
And filmmakers may take themselves very seriously but they really don’t spare enough thought to delivering a product that at least endeavours to stand the test of time.
And Mistake Number Four, also know as the Eighth and Deadliest sin of all was my belief that The Work Would Speak For Itself. Well if that is true I genuinely suck as a screenwriter and should immediately begin teaching the craft to other hopefuls better suited to life in this crazy business.
If you are as naïve an aspirant as I was (I am sure this is not possible) here is what I would encourage you to do differently:
- Make friends within the industry, immediately. Whom you know is way more valuable than what you know because screenwriting rules can be learnt at any point. It’s not about being disingenuous, it’s just the very simple fact that it doesn’t matter if you have good work, if no one in the industry knows who you are your work won’t get read. [ PS: This does not mean sucking up to the most influential person you can meet. What I'm talking about here is finding a group of supportive like-minded individuals you can team up with, collaborate with, and generally be useful to, so that some day you can all take that next step together. ]
- Realize that your screenplay needs to be read by The Gatekeepers: this includes studio employees, friends of stars, independent producers, anybody else with a stronger connection to the business than yourself. This is your audience, not the teeming masses you imagine thronging the neighbourhood multiplex on Opening Friday. Figure out how your screenplay could appeal to them, The Gatekeepers.
- ‘Expressing yourself’ through your art is all very well but filmmaking is a collaborative process and many, many (too many) people need to agree to undertake this journey together, before a film can be made. That being the case, almost everyone—other than yourself—will use the ‘is this entertaining/is there a market for this’ yardstick to decide whether they want to be involved in your project.
- And finally, take this job seriously because when you become fortunate enough to get paid to do what you were doing already it is important to remain grounded and maintain focus on the project in hand. Because the next hungry screenwriter is right around the corner.