How Hollywood Sources Its Writers Is Fundamentally Broken
There are over 50,000 screenplay registrations annually with the Writers Guild of America. In stark contrast, the number of spec screenplays sold is a meager twenty-five as of 2020. Generally, the number of sold spec scripts stays in the double digits.
Despite the abundance of subpar screenplays, the reality remains that a staggering 50,000 of them flood the market annually. Each author convinced they’ve crafted the next masterpiece. The odds are far from favorable, as getting a screenplay sold in Hollywood is statistically more challenging than getting struck by lightning.
This challenge leaves studios and writers facing a conjoined quandary: how to discover a high-quality script and effectively get their best script into the hands of the right audience. To address this overwhelming volume of screenplays, studios, agents, entertainment lawyers, and screenwriting competitions enlist a legion of readers.
The next challenge becomes evident: the readers themselves pose the first obstacle. With varying levels of quality, expertise, and personal preferences, your screenplay lives or dies by the reader. I’ve participated in numerous competitions, even squaring off against unexpected celebrity competitors, such as Shia LaBeouf.
Our screenplay contest went all the way to the final round, where I ultimately advanced and secured 2nd place. The very same script that earned second place in one competition would be summarily dismissed in the initial round of another.
Comedies, much like political scripts, are especially unpredictable, as ten readers may have ten different comedic inclinations. Even with this army of readers, it’s still not enough. Reading through 50,000 screenplays is a daunting, labor-intensive task that boggles the mind.
In response, Hollywood devised a strategy to expedite the reading process. Studios and representatives began to “cast” writers based on their intersectionality and a narrow definition of diversity. This incentivized writers to add as many (demographic) descriptors as possible to their bios and to highlight certain traits (while downplaying others).
Not long ago, up-and-coming writers would mainly list their achievements, such as screenwriting accolades and additional skills and experiences. However, a disconcerting majority now focuses on demographic information, resembling casting calls. And a few exceptionally daring even line up mental health issues like North Korean Generals do medals.
Imagine going to a job interview and declaring yourself a walking risk and a potential lawsuit. With no intention of addressing these issues because they’re an integral part of “who you are.” Only in Hollywood (and the American comics industry) does such an approach lead to employment.
In the meantime, both Marvel and DC Comics are grappling with the repercussions of casting call-based hiring practices. On the other hand, manga thrives, dominating the American industry with a merit-based approach while still featuring diverse writers, including successful female authors.
This outcome underscores the fact that, with a merit-based system, the cream inevitably rises to the top.
Calls to empower readers with AI have swiftly been silenced. Primarily out of concerns over replacing one of the lowest-paid professions, if it’s even paid at all. Additionally, there are fears of AI being trained on screenplays, a practice already underway. Nevertheless, AI had the potential to replace the legion of readers and unearth hidden gems within the massive pile of 50,000 scripts. The reason is simple: story is structure.
When you examine Oscar-winning scripts or those with high scores on the Black List or Red List, they all share a common trait—solid, if not impeccable, structure. Crafting a good story inherently depends on a sound structure. Even in the case of screenplays like Memento, written by Christopher Nolan, which deliberately narrates its story in reverse, the underlying structure remains robust.
While AI may never fully capture the human spirit in a screenplay as human writers do, it possesses the ability to comprehend and replicate story structure. This suggests that Hollywood could have harnessed AI to identify their best writers yet, adopting a structural approach that bypasses traditional reading methods.