Can scriptwriting be taught? Judging by the proliferation of courses offering to teach this dark art, there are clearly many who believe that it is possible.
Yet, in over 20 years of being an agent and teaching writers—more about the business aspects of their careers than about being creative—I have seen little compelling evidence to say that the way we are going about it is the right way.
One thing that most agents agree on is that there has not been a significant improvement in the quality of really good scripts over the last decade. In an article in ScriptWriter, Bicât and Macnabb noted that ‘the presumption is that if we keep training and retraining the writers endlessly to write and rewrite to some mystical blueprint, we’ll somehow achieve a great artistic and/or box office smash’. I believe, however, that we need to face the unpalatable truth, that the effective teaching of scriptwriting is nearly impossible. Since scripts are stories about people, what should be taught to upcoming scriptwriters is psychology—in particular, the study of human behaviour and motivation. These are recognised academic subjects and can be taught accordingly. Scriptwriting is not an academic subject, and should not be taught as one.
The dominance of structure as a central tenet in the teaching of scriptwriting has attracted those students with analytical skills rather than creative skills. What aspiring scriptwriters also need to be taught is the collaborative nature of the craft. Unlike other creative occupations, many of which tend to be solitary, scriptwriting is best done in collaboration with others on real projects. In order to collaborate effectively and successfully, student scriptwriters must learn the industry’s requirements and modus operandi. By and large, such craft skills are not academic subjects and are best learned on the job, in the real world. Indeed, equally important—and something that cannot be taught—is life experience.
If the number of high-quality scripts is not increasing, it would appear that the academic, theoretical teaching of scriptwriting is failing the industry. No one can seriously argue that the British film industry is in great shape. If it is in better shape than it was 10 years ago, it could be because of strategic support systems for tax-benefit financing and the late UK Film Council’s largesse. But the great scripts are simply not there.
I believe that one of the most important reasons for the failure of the British film industry to achieve some kind of lift-off is the failure to train the right people in the right way.
In the opinion of many, there is actually an increase in the number of mediocre scripts that circle around industry desks. What we are witnessing is the continued growth of an unregulated development industry, made up of increasing numbers of courses offering to train anyone who can afford to pay, and this has resulted in a huge script mountain. And, as more and more ‘students’ choose to be trained to write scripts, so new courses are continuously made available.
I believe that one of the most important reasons for the failure of the British film industry to achieve some kind of lift-off is the failure to train the right people in the right way. This is why there is a lack of great scripts and it is primarily this—not the acknowledged lack of access to screens for British movies—which is holding the industry back. And the same is largely true all over Europe.♦ @julianfriedmann / www.londonscreenwritersfestival.com
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 24 (September/October 2011)