An ongoing climate of attack & defense in our industry inspired me to these thoughts on the value and nature of feedback and criticism. It’s about scripts in the first place.
Whenever we expose personal work to the judgment of others, we run the risk of getting feedback that hurts. Because our natural instinct is to protect our feelings, our heart will tell us we’re right and the critic is wrong.
What feedback to expect? And what type of criticism is fair?
Of course you want to make your script better. But how to define ‘better’?
When I consult to filmmakers, I have these objectives: 1) to turn the script into a great read and 2) to make the (future) film play for a large audience.
Very few writers I know have ever objected to the first goal. But…
I don’t want to make a dumb commercial movie!
If you want to be un artiste and make an art film, you are on your own. Seriously, what individual can judge your artistic genius? You want to know how you compare to other artistes? Or you’d rather just hear “I LOVE it”?
Purely positive or negative gut feel feedback is useless.
When your work is being criticised, ask not just WHAT feels wrong but also WHY. There should be a good reason. “It doesn’t work for me” is not enough; at least it is not professional.
We look at what has worked in the past and deduct our conclusion from this empirical evidence. Then apply it to our own work.
The ‘principles of screenwriting’ are a science. How you implement them is the art part of it.
Great screenwriting = craft principles + artistic genius.
Of course there is the area of your story’s morality and no-one else has any authority in this. Only you can be the judge of what you believe is right.
But irrespective of what your intentions are, the objective of feedback remains the same.
A competent critic helps to increase your story’s appeal.
Your story’s statement can only have maximum effect if the film appeals to the widest possible audience.
What about those movies that are trying to ‘make the audience think’? Here’s some news: you don’t turn a popcorn audience into a thinking audience. Most likely you’ll piss them off when they smell your patronising.
The result: only the already thinking audience will get to see your film – if you are lucky – and you’ll end up preaching to the converted.
So what was the point of investing millions in that exercise?
Whatever the story or statement of your film, feedback is only useful if it helps increasing the appeal of screenplay and film. This is why you have your script read and pay good money for professional input.
If the reader is really helping you, why the thin skin?
Perhaps you don’t trust the reader. Perhaps the feedback is not motivated. Or perhaps you secretly don’t want a large audience.
Maybe you are so afraid to fail that you don’t even want to try making a mainstream movie.
Before you know, you’re making movies for your peers. That other thin-skinned crowd…
And criticism never ends…
That’s right. When your movie hits the screens is when the feedback bubble really bursts. How do you deal with it at this point?
You listen. You learn.
Shut up. Move on.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.