Plenty of screenwriting pundits and gurus assert that if a screenwriter wants to succeed, she’s got to keep up with industry trends. She’s got to know the weekend’s grosses, chart the rise and fall of box office figures for this picture and that one, and reach back into previous weeks and months, all the while staying attuned to what the studios are buying.
Sounds reasonable enough, I suppose. In another context I have written that if a screenwriter wants to be treated as a professional, she must treat herself as a professional.
In fact the biggest mistake a writer can make, however, is to try to follow the trends. If the writer doesn’t care what she’s writing, why would anybody else?
In fact, there are no trends.
The late Harvard biologist and bestselling author Stephen J. Gould argues in his timeless Full House that trends do not exist anywhere in the world, not only in Hollywood but also in baseball and in evolution and, for that matter, in all of creation.
We’ll skip baseball, evolution, and all of creation here and stick to Hollywood. Some short while ago there seemed to be a number of pictures featuring vampires. Should a savvy writer have slipped a vampire or two into her script to juice its chances?
Just because six or even a dozen movies in release at one time happen to traffic in vampires hardly marks bloodsucking bats as a trend. Hundreds upon hundreds of movies are released every year. One or two percent hardly constitutes a trend.
If there were actually a trend, it would be too late to cash in on that trend simply because it is a trend. If it is a trend today, it had to be in the pipes for at least a year or two or more.
During the ‘80s, the heyday of Beverly Hills Cop, many writers thought the trend of the moment was cop buddy action melodramas. All across town writers were writing spec scripts of that description. There were, therefore, hundreds of them floating around town. Do you want your script to be one among hundreds of similar-sounding screenplays? Is that likely to light up the eyes of any agent or producer?
I advised the students in my UCLA feature writing workshop at that time to choose not the smartest but the dumbest idea that they could think of. I pointed out that nobody was making westerns and suggested that one or another of them write a western.
One did. It was immediately optioned. It didn’t get produced, but the rights eventually reverted to the writer, and he got to keep both the rights and the option money. Moreover, during the life of the option he was shown around town by a producer with a reputation for making hit movies who wanted to make his movie. Though the movie was never made, the writer went from being completely unknown to being very well known. At one major studio they hired him for a rewrite assignment at thousands of dollars a week. Agents then lined up at his door pleading to be allowed to represent him, and he was able to launch a substantial career.
All of this arose out of a writer deciding not to follow but buck the trend, and from a script that never sold.
To follow industry trends is a recipe for frustration and failure.