Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I am NOT a committee!

There's a bit on The Screenwriting Life about a Scottish director who's posted the screenplay for his latest project online, before shooting begins, so as to elicit feedback from "the audience" (presumably any random Joe who wants to contribute his opinion).

I used to be of the opinion that getting feedback on your work could only be helpful. After all, it's just a way for people to give you a new perspective on the situation. Nobody's forcing you to use their suggestions. What better way to see if your screenplay is any good than to let the audience read it before you make the movie?



Let's backpedal a bit. What does it mean for a screenplay to be "good"? On one level, on the artistic level, a given person can only meaningfully say that he likes it or doesn't like it; that it moves him or doesn't; that it seems natural or forced.

On the second level, the commercial level, he can try to gauge how other people will react to it. Movies take money to make; is it worth the investment, given that he can't really know how people are going to react to the movie made from it unless we make the movie and release it? Knowing how they react to the screenplay is useless; we're not trying to sell the screenplay to the audience, or entertain them with it.

Is Joe Audience-Member qualified to do either of these things? He can do the first thing, but he's not likely to be able to offer any constructive feedback about specific dramatic elements of the screenplay, mostly because he has no experience identifying them. He can't do the second thing any better than the screenwriter or the studio executive, so there's no point in asking.

It would be exactly like assembling a cast of actors without a script, then asking the audience if they think the cast is good. If they do, so what? The cast may not mesh well in production. They may be wrong for the parts. There's no way to tell without actually making the movie.

Pogue has a simple philosophy: We, the screenwriters, are the professionals. It is our job to know when a screenplay is good and when it is not; which elements work, and which need fixing. There is no point ever showing an unfinished work to someone in order to get their feedback, because who cares what they think? They are not the experts. We are. We are the experts not because we are Better Than Them; we are the experts because we've spent a lot of time Practicing This Shit.

I said earlier that I used to think getting feedback was a good thing. After hearing the thoughts of Pogue (and others), I revised that opinion. Now I think that getting feedback can be a good thing, but only from another professional. Laymen's opinions of a screenplay are, essentially, useless. But a professional's opinion can be useful, if only as a sanity check.

Despite Pogue's opinion, it is a good idea to have a skilled colleague look at your screenplay before you send it to the People Who Might Give You Money For It. Such sanity checks can save us a lot of trouble. Ultimately, whether the screenwriter is the Ultimate Professional who Knows What's Right is irrelevant; even the greatest writer can make a mistake and miss something.