Several days ago, I logged on to Scriptshadow for the first time in months. Fellow internet screenwriting critic, Carson [the purveyor of the site], and I go way back. I first stumbled on to Scriptshadow in the summer of 2010. I have been an occasional visitor ever since. This most recent visit happened to be the day that Carson reviewed Black List script, Bump. It made his top 25.
I have never put much faith in Carson’s recommendations, as they rarely align with my own. The best part of his site is [and always will be] the comments section. As a critic, Carson is naïve—if I may put it gently. However, a new script in the top 25 seemed like a screenwriting event that might be worth checking out… so, I read the script.
Unfortunately, Bump is no more than a hair’s breadth away from average. On the Joel Barish Scale, we’d be talking somewhere in the 55-60 range. As my process of reviewing is pretty intensive [it can’t be whipped off in an hour and a half] I have decided to pass on reviewing Bump. [A summary of all the extremely valid reasons for why Bump is an inferior script can be found in that wonderful comments section that exists on Carson’s site… with no contribution from him whatsoever.]
Unfortunately [for me] I have used up my free time allowance for the month of January in reading a script that should never make a [highly generous] “Top 250” list– not to mention a Top 25 List. In other words, dammit, I have to write something about this script or I will likely have no entries for the month of January.
In entirely mercenary style, I have decided to review The Reviewer.
Mr. Reeves has quite a site. A Page Rank Checker informs me that [as I write this] there are:
39 people currently reading Scriptshadow
5,516 people have visited today
46,171 in the last seven days
162,208 in the last 28 days
As a level-setter, SearchingforCharlieKaufman just passed 50,000 views last week… in two years.
It’s also worth noting that I have submitted three screenplays to Mr. Reeves for consideration on his Amateur Friday. On one of those occasions, I finished a close second in the popular vote. It’s also worth noting that Mr. Reeves Amateur Friday enterprise is a legitimate place for people to break into the industry. I imagine he maintains it because it keeps people logging onto his site, but I am not concerned with intentions [in this instance] only results. Scriptshadow has helped screenwriters. Period.
So, while I acknowledge that I have a lot of eggs in the basket of this “review”, I am not trying to tarnish Mr. Reeves. He is as God made him. It is a free country. It is his right to like [and celebrate] inferior screenplays—if that is his wish.
However, I do think there is an interesting screenwriting lesson lurking in this celebration of the particular inferior screenplay, Bump. What I propose to do is examine the reasons Mr. Reeves gives for his enjoyment of the script and then see what lessons we can extrapolate [about the Gatekeepers] from his reasons.
In his introduction, Carson singles out Bump for being “one of the only scripts in the top ten [on this year’s Black List] THAT’S ACTUALLY ORIGINAL and not another tired lazy biopic”. It doesn’t take an aesthetic savant to see what attracts Carson to the material is that it is against trend.
Gatekeepers want to be first too.
By this, I mean the people who are reading your scripts want to be responsible for starting the New Trend. If everyone is writing American Sniper-type biopics, and you write a tiny story about a couple of kids growing up in the American Southland, and that story is reasonable well-written, then the Gatekeeper is incentivized to really like your story. No other Gatekeepers are looking for tiny stories about kids in the American Southland, if your script catches on, that particular Gatekeeper will be lionized [for a short time] as the genius who saw what “the market” wanted before “the market” knew it.
Carson’s review begins with a plot summary that gets us about one-fifth of the way into Act 2, then he draws the review up short with the following paragraph:
“I’m not going to spoil the rest for you because the genius of this script is in the ways it keeps surprising you. But suffice it to say, a lot more people get involved, and little wimpy Thomas keeps getting away by the skin of his teeth. Will he make it all the way to the finish line? Bump is one of those rare scripts where you won’t know the answer to that question until the very last page.”
If one parses all those clichés of praise for The Reason Carson thinks this script has genius, one sees that he, personally, was surprised by the plot twists. He didn’t get all Barishy on this script’s theme. He didn’t love it for its poignant subtext. He didn’t think its description would lead to a dozen awards for excellence in cinematography.
The Gatekeepers are only reading for plot.
If I had a month of Sundays, I could not excoriate this approach sufficiently. If Carson were the aberration here, it would be okay. Unfortunately, this Gatekeeper approach deployed by Carson for the maintenance of his moderately successful screenwriting blog, Scriptshadow, is the same approach used by everyone else in Tinsel Town. It is detrimental to the organic nature of the Storytelling process. It is the reason Star Wars is a two billion dollar movie even though the script would not score higher than a 45 on any objective measure of writing merit.
Carson then concludes his review with his omni-present:
“What I learned: One trope that audiences love is good people being forced to do bad things. That’s always interesting because those are the people who will be most in conflict with themselves. Think about that. If a bad dude kills a man, he’s not in conflict with anything. He’s like, “Eh, another job finished.” But if a GOOD MAN does the same, his whole world is turned upside-down. Thomas is a good man. But to save his life, he needs to do a lot bad things. And that’s what makes this so entertaining to read.”
I’m never sure why he condenses the aesthetic content portion of his reviews down into 150 word bursts but, as far as general screenwriting advice goes, this isn’t bad. Calling Thomas “a good man” is a significant stretch, but the overall idea represented [about forcing our heroes to be villains] is sound coaching.
It really is fascinating to me, though, that this is all we get to justify a script’s inclusion on ANY list of: The 25 Greatest Screenplays of All Time. Carson might argue that his list is meant to be a measure of the best he’s read since he began reading seven years ago. Fuck that. If you canonize something, you better be willing to justify it. If all you can tell me in your snippet/burst of justification is something generic about good guys doing bad things, then either you don’t know anything about the craft you are attempting to teach about, or:
The Craft is irrelevant to the position of Gatekeeper.
For sure, that bolded sentence is much more true than surprising. Any of us who spent our early writing years indentured to the written words of others already sense its truth, phonetically. What is surprising, is how little awareness the Gatekeepers have for their own ignorance of the mechanics of storytelling. They are [if Carson’s inclusion of Bump in his top 25 counts as evidence] PROUD of their ignorance. We writers are left with an overwhelming message:
Premise is King.
I sum up this way because that is a chapter in Bowdlerizing Kant. The message of that essay [if distilled to a few bumperstickers] is:
1. Start with theme.
2. Grow your subtext from your theme.
3. Make a mystery.
If you do, then the Gatekeepers will respond. They may not know why, but they will… keep reading.