Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Creative Screenwriting Gets It Right

I've been a Creative Screenwriting magazine subscriber for just about a year now, though I've been an on and off reader for longer than that. While CS can be a pretty valuable resource for writers, I've also found it to be frequently disappointing. The first issue of 2010, though, I have to say, got it right. Creative Screenwriting finally went editorial (at least just this once).

A magazine like Creative Screenwriting, I have to assume, walks a fine line between what it can and can't do while trying to reach a niche market. I say this because, while there are some great segments in the bi-monthly periodical, there are also some parts that are clearly hesitant to be critical.

Let's start with what the magazine does right. the Agent's Hot Sheet is a great piece that polls agents and managers once every two months on a certain subject. Topics can be anything from tent-pole films to the state of the spec market. The advisory panel of go-to managers/agents contribute their thoughts and opinions for the benefit of readers, acknowledging that most of the readers are unproduced writers. Some of the info might be pretty basic, but there are often great little tidbits in there for even more accomplished writers.

The writer profiles that kick off each issue are also usually pretty worthwhile reads. These articles spotlight newly successful writers and detail a bit of their rise to becoming writers with a sale under their belts. Granted, when the headlines try to spin the profile as that of an overnight success, you have to be a little skeptical; often, the "overnight" writer spent ten years as a reader, assistant, and producer first. Still, these are worth reading and are always - at the very least - a good reminder that hard work can pay off.

There are other featured segments on craft and interviews with established writers are that usually worth a read. But throw all of the above together, and I'd say that leaves only about 33% of a typical Creative Screenwriting issues accounted for. The vast majority of the articles are interviews with writers of films currently or soon to be in theaters. These are interesting - often more so if you've seen the film(s) in question - but really not as useful as they could - read: should - be.

So here's where I put on my disgruntled subscriber cap and vent. Here at the League, we periodically review films. We're pretty up front about whether we think something's worked or not, and to the best of our abilities, we try to analyze a picture through the writing behind it. Creative Screenwriting, however, spotlights writers and their films, yet hardly ever offers any analysis of the script in question. For example, the article on SURROGATES, which you might remember we did not like, touted the accomplishment of getting the film made and detailed the writers' process and some of their experiences with the project. Fine. Dandy. But that's the same thing that the piece on BOOK OF ELI did. It's the same thing that the segment on DAYBREAKERS did. It's the same thing that the segment on THE MESSENGER did.

After a certain point, reading about a writer's process and their excitement about seeing their film made ceases to be helpful if it has no discussion of the quality of the film and script. Every writer interviewed will likely be thrilled that they sold something and got it onto the big screen. What readers need is an analysis of why something worked and why it didn't. Had I never seen Surrogates, I would think it was just as strong a film as every other one profiled in the magazine.

I'm aware that a periodical like Creative Screenwriting has to be careful not to alienate the writers it interviews, especially since it will most likely try to interview those people about their next project. No one wants to be interviewed by a magazine that slammed their last script. However, this cautionary approach results in a very finite amount of usefulness to readers. Unproduced writers - and I know this from personal experience - are looking for guidance in the form of lessons learned about what makes a script strong and what omissions can greatly weaken a script. With little to no analysis like this, the magazine becomes little more than a written commercial for the next two months' releases.

Ok, you might be wondering, what did I like about this issue? (If you're wondering why I still subscribe... stop. I do. That's all on that.) This issue, Creative Screenwriting kicked off the year with essays on different genres, how the films of the past decade influenced them, and why certain films stuck out as stellar examples of their genre. In short, this issue was not afraid to be more critical. Not every film referenced was praised. The columnists this issue weren't afraid to refer to scripts that failed to work, and they were equally unafraid to praise the hell out of ones that did. First time readers were introduced to an unfortunately uncommon level of analysis that actually did something to guide new and aspiring writers toward examples of strong and unsuccessful scripts. More than any other issue I've read, this one was a valuable and consistent learning tool. Perhaps the editors in charge will determine a way to get more bang for the readers' buck in the future, while still refraining from alienating or overly criticizing the screenwriters that they rely on for interviews.


radiantabyss said...

I've probably learned more from blogs like yours than from CS. For me too much of it reads like a friendly PR exercise for writers and their movies, so much so that after reading the umpteenth whitewashed love-in, I gave all my issues away and stopped subscribing. Weird thing is, they're still sending them, so hopefully I get this one...

Cake Man said...

You're absolutely right - "a friendly PR exercise" is a great way of putting it. It's a real shame, because they could really do a lot to further the craft knowledge and industry awareness of people who do not have access to screenwriting classes, industry internships, or other valuable contacts and opportunities. Instead, they praise writer after writer for what are frequently weak scripts.

Good luck to you in your writing and thanks for reading us!