CinemaMovies or TV series: success scenarios
Screenwriter Roman Kantor takes us behind the scenes of TV series production and reveals what kind of professionals the film industry is still lacking.
Television is back in fashion — any long-awaited series hits the TV channels before spreading to the screens of laptops, tablets, PCs and smartphones. Screenwriters with world-renowned names trade film industry for TV shows – everyone wants to be the first to create a high-quality TV series. Roman Kantor, a member of the new generation of screenwriters, who worked in both – film and TV, and is about to shoot his first full length movie based on his own script – explains how to become the winner of this race, and why every blogger can be a screenwriter.
Cinema is like love. Everybody wants to make it.
In 2001, I enrolled in the College of Journalism at MSU. At that time, in the pre-torrent era, there was a student cinema club with screenings and movie rentals. It was a unique place which attracted critics and film directors. In the four years of my studies, I watched an enormous amount of films. Although I was a film buff before, it’s there that I set my mind on working in the cinema industry.
After graduating, I entered several cinema schools and eventually chose EICAR in Paris and a director‘s career. I shot my diploma film, got my MA and decided to come back to Moscow in 2000. The crisis hit, and movie-making got frozen for the next 1.5-2 years. I realized that if I want to shoot my own film as a director, I need to write my own script.
So I started writing scripts — on my own and in co-authorship. In the end, I became a professional screenwriter hoping to become a director one day. I sold four scripts and created three series (two of them are running on the Russian “STS” channel). Films shot by my scripts are now on various stages of production — we are looking for financing opportunities for two of them, one is on the stage of pre-production, and I will be shooting one more as a director this summer.
A movie can be made 5, 10 or 15 years after the actual script was written – this happens all the time. But the professional community recognizes you as a screenwriter only after a full-length movie, no matter if it's good or bad
Practice is what matters most, and watching movies – you can do this at home. Each profession in cinema requires the study of other professions. Attending a cinema school is a good idea: you will take part in performing duties of a director, screenwriter, video editor, cameraman. It’s a kind of a long game, where everybody is showing they are taking part in the process.
If you can practice without attending a cinema school, you don’t need it. Otherwise, choose the best cinema school — for example, Tisch School in New York or the faculty of cinema production at the Columbia University.
Those who do not have the luxury of free time, can attend special seminars — Robert McKee’s or John Truby’s screenwriting courses, for example. If you want to become a screenwriter, attending a few courses and reading books might be enough.
The movie set is the best place to get practical knowledge. Surprisingly few people are using this opportunity, although one needs just a bit of nerve to get there. Those already in the film industry, won’t have any problems getting there. If you don’t’ have any professional experience yet, just offer giving a hand on a movie set. Cinema students are always on the lookout for assistants to shoot their shorts. They are looking for people to hold the filter above illuminating equipment or bring coffee. However strange this may sound, it's a great chance to acquire new skills and get into cinema. The most important thing here is to find yourself “inside the circle” — your way from an assistant to something more significant may turn out to be shorter than you think.
Cinema or television?
Each budding screenwriter finds themself on the crossroad — should they work in cinema or television? One can progress in both directions but at a certain point you need to make the choice. Traditionally, cinema was considered a high genre, whereas television was the resort of outcasts and misfits. In the last 10-15 years the situation has changed dramatically: screenwriters are leaving cinema to be involved in series production.
“I would really love to work in cinema, but I can’t afford it" – U.S. screenwriters used to joke in 1980s.
Screenwriter for television
Television can be compared to a conveyor. A screenwriter, who has signed a contract with a studio, has a guaranteed job and well being for a few years to come. In contrast to cinema, television is constantly in demand and the screenwriter does not need to find financing. In this respect, being a screenwriter in cinema is like a lottery. It can take a Hollywood screenwriter 10 years to sell his project for a million dollars.
Screenwriter for TV, as opposed to their colleagues from cinema, can manage the shooting process. There are many instances of screenwriters who were leading projects from start to finish, which is hardly possible in movies. Screenwriters can’t control the film after they sell the script – and this is a matter of their immense concern. This story is revealed in "Adaptation" by Charlie Kaufman. In the beginning of the movie, the hero who is a screenwriter can’t get onto the movie set as no one recognizes him.
At the same time, work on television is very well organized — with meetings and deadlines. It’s a separate art, having little to do with the classical understanding of what the screenwriter’s job is about.
Today, we are witnessing the birth of a new profession on the international television scene – showrunner. It’s like a producer of a TV series. They are responsible for the concept, hiring a director and a team of screenwriters. On television, it’s the showrunner, not a director, who controls the production of a series. In Russia, television is still based on the cinema model – “screenwriter-director-producer” – and lacks the showrunner role. Only a handful of companies have started adopting this practice. I think it’s only a matter of time. In a few years, all Russian television projects will be created by showrunners.
Understanding what type of movie you want to create, is vital for movie script writers.
What to write: for this type of cinema, what’s really important is director’s vision. The screenplay is secondary. Oftentimes, directors would write scenarios or take part in screenwriting. In this case, the screenwriter can find a director whose artistic vision is similar to his own, and write scenarios solely for him. You need to have your own voice and write scenarios that no one except you can write.
Once you've found your individual style, it’s time to find a director. I would recommend turning to directors who are as young as you — debutants. Firstly, it will be easier for you to find a producer and, secondly, you will have access to the filming process.
Role models: Tonino Guerra — the co-author of many acclaimed film directors. Anders Thomas Jensen — author of scenarios for the half of the most well-known kids movies (“In a Better World”, “After the Wedding”), he became director along the way (“The Green Butchers”).
What to write: For commercial cinema, you need to write a captivating genre story, to make the producer want to buy it right after they read it. It’s very important to determine the genre from the very beginning . If your first script is an action film, be ready to get offers to work with action films in the future. Writing in the comic genre is the easiest — if the scenario is funny, you are most likely to sell it. It’s more complicated with the rest of the genres — producers may have doubts.
Role models: Coen Brothers. Ideal screenplay for a debut film — “Blood Simple”. First of all, it’s inexpensive — the cheaper your first scenario, the more chances to film it. And secondly, it features a very elegant yet simple language. You imagine and feel what you read in the text as you read it. In this sense, Chekhov is a better example of a screenwriter than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
How to write a script
Find like-minded people
It’s much more productive to work on scripts in co-authorship. It’s difficult and boring to write on your own. Screenwriters frequently go into the wrong direction just because there is no one around to stop them.
Write for the cinema
Literary authors often become screenwriters. They can formulate ideas and it’s their main advantage. On the other hand, they need to learn more than others. They often write “unfilmable” scenarios. That’s why before turning to writing, one should understand if a piece of writing can be turned into a movie or not. Here’s an example of a scene impossible in cinema: «Ivan is walking along a snow-covered road, he is looking at the moon. The moon predicts misfortune». Keep it simple and always ask yourself a question: is it possible to show what I’ve written without a voice-over.
Respect your time
Don’t start writing a script right at the moment when an idea popped up.You need to carry those ideas in your mind for a bit. As a rule, most of the rubbish ideas vanish. I usually carry an idea in my mind for about 6 months — if it still ignites emotions, it deserves to be jotted down and turned into a screenplay. It’s a labor-intensive process, so make sure the idea is worth it.
Screenwriter is not supposed to do director’s work and describe camera movements and cuts, unless it’s crucial for the unveiling of the plot. Think about actors.
It’s important to understand what directors, producers and actors value in scripts. Actors like ambitious and unconventional tasks. They may be drawn by one powerful scene, even if it’s not of primary importance. I strongly recommend all directors and screenwriters to attend courses for actors. You will understand how actors read scripts and what works for them.
Study the genre
It’s important to show that your script is the right type. For instance, screenwriters of “The Sopranos” provide references to traditional criminal movies in each episode — starting from the original “Scarface”, “The Godfather” trilogy etc. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so highly praised by the critics and film connoisseurs.
Don’t show the first draft. Read the script, let other people read it, work around their comments and make the needed changes. Give it some time. Specially if you are working with this producer or studio for the first time.