Hollywood is regarded as a Mecca of the world film industry. However, nearly a billion cinema tickets were sold in Europe alone in the past year, a feat it last accomplished in 2004, according to the European audiovisual observatory. Recent Hollywood blockbusters to hit our screens in recent months have included Avatar and Prince of Persia, though both films were made with European film expertise and finance. It's Julie Gray, Hollywood scriptwriting consultant and CEO of the Scriptwriting Department, who brings these little known facts to my attention. We meet for lunch at Oxford’s historic Ashmoleum museum rooftop restaurant, a favourite haunt of Oxford’s intelligentsia and artists, such as Colin Dexter and Richard Dawkins. 'The template for American films is quicker paced than the European model,' says Gray, an attractive American with a sparkling personality. 'European writers are well advised to emulate the American format and structural paradigm if they wish to make a splash in the US with their coveted European perspective and voice.'
Julie Gray on screenwriting and Hollywood
Julie is in town to give a one-day film scriptwriting workshop; in Hollywood, writers are turning to her for guidance and mentoring. 'Scriptwriting in Hollywood is an undervalued art by the industry,' she explains. 'Gone are the days when scriptwriters turned into multimillionaires. We are seeing a return to the old studio system, with the rise of boutique film studios with small budgets producing movies like District 9 (30 million) and Paranormal Activity (15, 000 dollars) dominating the scene, as the industry seeks to control costs.’ Outside Hollywood, aspiring enthusiastic scriptwriters have been attending her scripting workshops worldwide including ones in Oxford and Bristol; Gray is also an active participant in the Afghan women’s writing project in Kabul.
What surprises Gray about the industry is that many aspiring writers are ignorant about the true realities of the business and seem to think the glamour about the film business is the reality. ‘The fact is Hollywood is basically concerned with the business of making money,' she says. 'Currently, too many films are losing money; everyone is looking for a new formula for success and there is a fear of failure that haunts the industry. That is why the industry is increasingly trying to play it safe; and it is not surprising we are seeing increasingly bland films or remakes of previously successful films like Robin Hood and the Clash of the Titans. Another problem is that the industry has run out of truly original ideas.’ The industry has raided the works of many European writers for ideas for plots for films. Industry executives accept that a truly original successful script is as likely as a hole in one for golfers. Increasingly, they are looking for some new approach to an old idea. It is not surprising we are seeing the return of sword-and-sandals movies like Gladiator, Troy and Centurion.
How to become a screenwriter
Many aspiring writers have their scripts rejected because the script is not in the prescribed United Artists, MGM, Warner, Sony or whatever industry format. Further reasons include issues of grammar, spelling, lack of structure, failure to follow the basic tenants of dramatic writing and lack of originality, reveals Gray.
'Most aspiring writers think a script based on their divorce, love affair or military experience will be immediately accepted'
Still, despite the exaggerated claims that we are living in an increasingly visual age, the printed word still matters. Your favourite movie, play, television or radio programme still depend on scripts written by the unsung heroes of the movie business. Your favourite action hero or heroine would be literally speechless without the dedication and hard work of scriptwriters. 'But hard work and intelligence alone is not enough by itself,' warns Gray, who started her scriptwriting consultancy in 2008 and whose blog and podcasts on the business are increasingly sought after by leading industry decision makers. 'To become a successful writer, you need to be well organised, trained and a good communicator. Most aspiring writers think all they have to do is write a script based on their divorce, love affair or military experience and it will be immediately accepted.’ Writers have to be inventive as in the case of romantic comedies Intolerable Cruelty, Pretty Woman and 2010 gritty Oscar-winner for best film, Hurt Locker. Scriptwriters, it seems the US film industry will not take you seriously. Unless you have at least ten scripts, at least.
Julie Gray’s new book ‘Just Effing Entertain Me’ (Michael Wiese Publishing), based on her award winning eponymous blog is published in spring 2011
Images Julie Gray ©adamlopezphotography.com