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in Filmmaking
on Apr 10, 2009

Via Everything Unfinished, the blog over at Identity Theory, comes an interesting post on the law of supply and demand, marketability, and the Darwinian nature of the marketplace. The discussion is prompted by a post on Curtis Brown literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog, and it’s about the world of book publishing, but it’s not hard to extrapolate the data and apply it to the world of film and screenplay representation.

On Monday Bransford is beginning a contest that is inspired by all the grumbling he’s heard from writers who complain that agents don’t respond to queries. Bransford will be posting on his blog a series of query letters for books. Some of them are fake (i.e., the manuscripts don’t exist), and some are real (they exist and the books were actually published). Readers will be able to request five manuscripts, and the winning “Superstar Agents” will be those who were able to figure out from the pitch letters the manuscripts that were actually publishable.

At Identity Theory, James Warner links to management theorist Scott Adams and pinpoints the discussion as one of “quality” versus “popularity.” From Adams:

The common notion about entertainment is that the better the quality, the bigger the audience. There’s some truth to that. But what I find more interesting is that it works the other way too: You need popularity before you have the luxury of developing quality.

Adams talks about a number of TV shows — The Simpsons, etc. — that were popular before they were good, and Warner picks up the idea:

The analagous problem for works of literature is the problem of pitching. Novice authors imagine publishers will read their books, then publish them if they’re good. But the supply of books by novice writers is so large that agents and publishers don’t have time to read most of them. So typically, unless you’re already somewhat established, agents will decide whether to take a look at your manuscript based on whether its one-or-two-sentence description sounds catchy.

Adams writes, “I have a twofold test for whether something can obtain instant popularity and thus have time to achieve quality:

1. You must be able to describe it in a few words. 2. When people hear about it, they ask questions.” From the comments on Adams’ blog, it’s clear screenwriters don’t think this is news.

At a conference recently, a writer friend told me, “I could make up an idea for a book in a minute that I could pitch to agents, and I know it would be a more interesting pitch from their point of view than the pitch I’m actually able to make, for this memoir I really care about that I’ve been slaving on for years!”

Here’s the useful contrarian — and probablly more accurate view — from one of Adams’ readers, Gareth Lazelle, on the comments thread:

I think your idea of “Quality” is out of context for the entertainment industry. In the case of your examples, that “Quality” was in the scripting, and that quality was clear in spite of the poor acting or cartooning (Friends and the Simpsons),

What these products gained with the injection of money was polish and additional quality in non-essential areas (most folks will put up with a poorly finished film or computer game if the fundamental scripting and concepts are excellent),

Popularity certainly does not generate quality – quite the opposite in many cases as the opportunity of milking any product dry is extreme in modern capitalist societies, resulting in strained acting and poor script-writing as the script-writers burn out or run out of ideas for new and fresh scripts.

There’s nothing tremendously new here, because this is really just a discussion of marketability. Specialty film has always had a difficult time at the pitching stage because many of its concepts, existing just as words on the page, don’t sound that marketable. It’s the value created by direction, talent, production, generally good execution and, these days, audience building, that makes the films viable in the marketplace. Still, in a world in which there are more and more content creators pitching more and more work, it will be interesting to see the results of Bransford’s experiments, and I wonder what a specialty film version of this contest would be like.

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