“At what stage of the screenwriting process would you say it’s time to start thinking about selling?”
“At no stage. You should never think of it, that’s why we have agents.”
So says Richard Walter, author and 40-year chairman of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting, in one of several videos to feature his biting expertise published by Film Courage. Yet, looking at the success rate of some of his students, they’ve managed to sell well enough to work with Spielberg, Raimi and De Palma, on TV juggernauts like The Office and The Simpsons and for mega-budget franchises like Jurassic Park and the MCU.
Walter is proud of these success stories and takes the time to brag about them during the first sitting of his class, including the few screenplays written therein that went on to become movies. These are outliers,
but plenty of scripts win their student-writers rewards in competitions, representation, development deals, and all other manner of opportunities. Once he’s gotten his bragging rights out of the way, Walter asserts that his new students should NOT try to sell the scripts they write in his class.
There’s no contradiction here. As Walter puts it “I didn’t say don’t sell the scripts that you write in the class, I said don’t try to sell the scripts that you write in the class”. Selling your work is of course a tantalizing idea, and UCLA is favoured for its excellent turnout, but when you write with making a sale in mind you come under the sway of influences that will “militate against successful art”. Working with a mindset beyond the story, preemptively calculating what would be expected of you when selling to ‘X’ or what a certain demographic or genre anticipates from the sort of script you’re fleshing out, is a detriment to good storytelling, and especially to absorbing what you have taken a class to learn. You get too into your own head instead of serving the story.
Next, Walter relates a parable about a student who was unsure of whether or not to join the class. He had been admitted but asked his prospective teacher for statistics relating to the success-rate of graduating students, their median income after 5 and 10 years, and more. Instead, Richard put it plainly: “I don’t think you will succeed”. From Walter’s perspective, the young man was fretting too much about his future and had no concern about what would actually be taught should he join the class. The adage is that if you find yourself asking whether or not you should pursue writing professionally, the answer is already no. A doubtless determination and dedication to producing quality material is a requisite, a need to play it safe and maximize your chances intelligently is usually a detriment.
The point of both of Walter’s stories is that looking beyond the purpose of your art when writing will only ever stifle you. Focus first and foremost on creating a fully realised narrative. If you write a great script and try to get someone to take a chance on it, you may succeed. If you write even a mediocre script, expecting it to survive the gauntlet of prying eyes, executives, editors and creatives that stand in the way of its sale, simply because you jerry-rigged it for optimum saleability, you don’t stand a chance.