Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Discussing November/December with Andrew Shearer, Part 2

Ah, the myriad of screenwriting advice we have to sift through in order to become masters of our craft -- it can drive you to drinking. William Martell’s article “Worldwide Cool” in the November/December edition of Script magazine suggests we should be writing scripts that appeal to worldwide audiences. Sounds reasonable. More potential for international box office. But the part that rubs me the wrong way is when Martell basically suggests screenwriters not write a script that “focuses on culture or politics or social issues that are unique to America.” What happened to write what you know? Write it because you can execute it with flying colors. As a producer, would you rather read a really well written script about an American cultural issue, or a poorly written script with a bunch of “really cool stuff” in it as Martell suggests, that appeals to a foreign audience? My guess is the well written American-centric script is more likely to get you your next gig because you’ve proven your talent (God willing).

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the realities of the business. I just don’t think it’s the best advice for new writers. My partner and I have an old script centered on a teenage, African-American kid in a juvenile-hall setting. It won screenwriting contests and had actors attached and still hasn’t been made. To put it bluntly, African-American-themed stories don’t have foreign appeal, so it’s tough to find funding. But should I not tell that very personal, important, moving story because, as Martell says, “people in Uganda watching the film on the wall of a building” don’t care about some U.S. issue? I care about the people in Chicago who do care about the issue.

Another screenplay my partner and I wrote, which also received accolades and was well-received around town, focuses on another American-centric story. It’s a comedy set in the world of small town, Christian fundamentalism. Again, very little foreign appeal. However, this is the script that has basically launched my and my partner’s careers. Well, pseudo-careers -- we’re getting there. Either way, every deal we have in the works is due to that script. Had we set out in the beginning, attempting to write some movie based solely on international appeal with a bunch of action and twists and turns and without any personal stakes, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have fallen flat on our faces. But that’s our story. Like I said in the beginning, it’s about sifting through the advice.

My partner and I are at the point now with some of the projects we’re writing where we certainly have to consider foreign box-office appeal, so I understand Martell’s advice. I just think depending on where you are in your career, that advice is not automatically the way to go. What do you think?


A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.


  1. A story has to have specificity in order to work. The search for a generic worldwide appeal story risks 'blanding out' that specificity. (So does the search for squeaky-clean American teenage stories.)It's interesting that the British films which have made it worldwide are often those which tell an absolutely, identifiably British story - not those actuallly designed for a global market; so that may be telling us something.

  2. I thought the story was the important aspect regardless of the audience?

  3. I can't believe you chose not to 'publish' my previous comment.


    I simply thought the above post was written in bad (professional) taste. RE: knocking Mr. Martel in the hopes of pimping one's (and his partner's) own work.

    Badly played sir. Badley played. I hope you've apologized to Mr. Martel -- cause (as I wrote in my previous post) without his column, SCRIPT has nothing on Creative Screenwriting.

  4. Oh, no need to pimp my work on a blog, there are other much more talented people pimping my work in the right places. I always try to relate my comments to personal experiences. For the record I pointed out the loglines of my own projects to show the validity of William Martell's advice.

    And I wasn't knocking Mr. Martell, but simply disagreeing the direction of his advice. Perhaps, White Wolfe, you could actually give your opinion on that element of the discussion rather than apologies or which mag you prefer.

    -Andrew Shearer

  5. First they said don't write black male leads into your movie because foreign audiences don't buy tickets to see black people.

    A couple years later those same suits said Will Smith is the only sure-fire international star.

    Now this "stories with distinct American themes don't attract foreign audiences"? Sounds like advice from someone who doesn't travel the world.

    Despite eight years of the world bashing American foreign policy, American culture is still extremely coveted by young people on every corner of the world. Millions of people aspire to come to America, to experience the American dream.

    Look at the number of visas and green cards applied for every year. Look at the percentages of foreign students in American universities. And finally, look at the box office numbers for films like Lions for Lambs (American politics) which bombed stateside but made 150 percent of its budget at the international box office. Not too shabby. Or 8 Mile (American youth culture) which nearly doubled its domestic total in the foreign market. The big social issue test will be seeing how Precious does overseas.

    Look, the bottom line is -- make a good movie. Do that and these specifically American themes BECOME cool. There's your Worldwide Cool.

  6. No. Your post "rubbed me the wrong way", and I think my comments are still valid...

    and I don't think I need to share my opinions on your desired element, because I really have no opinion on it... other than maybe readers of SCRIPT magazine aren't just all "new writers".

    Peace-out Mr. Shearer. Have a wonderful year ;D

  7. The way I've always thought it worked best was to write a story with universal themes that was situated absolutely precisely in a very specific world. I believe that gives the biggest possible audience the chance of the biggest possible satisfaction at your story.

  8. As a Kenyan film buff, I'll say this: Jim Carrey playing Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon? Pass. Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea? Hell no. But The Truman Show? American Beauty? Yes, please. It doesn't all have to be Michael Bay-type stuff to fly internationally. It helps if it is written to travel well.

    BTW, 'African-American stories' (all black movies, movies with black leads) go over quite well in Africa, so I assure you Uganda would watch your movie... if it were distributed there. Pity Africa is not that large a market.


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