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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Genre Bending Part Two

By Margaux Froley Outhred

For a writer to succeed in the entertainment industry, they need to have a voice that can show off their brand of writing. After “Juno” came out, all agents wanted to read was something with “voice”. High concept specs started going out the window in favor of off-kilter and quirky scripts. No one seemed to care if there was a page 60 complication in a script as long as the writer had “voice” and created new characters. I can see from an agent perspective why this push for “voice” is so popular in finding new talent. However, “voice” doesn’t always equate to good or interesting, or more important, to a lasting career and profitable movies.

And this is the funny thing, “voice” on the page creates cute quirky movies like “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine”, but, what kind of voice does that writer have long-term? What do these writers say about themselves and their take on the world? Not a whole lot. Yes, there is probably some underlying message in both movies, but one you’d have to dig for. Diablo Cody already has her next few projects written and ready to go. They vary in genre, but her voice is there, loud and clear. Time will tell, but I’d be willing to make the case that the voice that created her will also sink her in the long run unless she figures out what she’s really saying with that voice.

But, back to being a normal working writer trying to get lift-off in this industry. This is where being consistent with genre can come into play and help you. Getting good at nailing a genre can become your voice, your trademark in town. When a manager or agent sends your high-concept thriller spec wide around the town, there are a lot of people who will see you as a thriller person. Especially if that thriller sells for lots of money, or makes it into theaters and becomes #1. Everyone will want your secret in their hands; they’ll want to harness your voice, your skill, for their own company. So what happens when that successful writer turns around and says they feel like writing a family comedy instead? Everyone becomes very polite, and quiet, and secretly whispers at drinks meetings how much they wish that writer would stay in his/her wheelhouse and go back to writing thrillers. The new script could be twice as brilliant, but, your brand just shifted and now you’ve become harder to identify. When a company hires you they don’t know if they are hiring the thriller you, or the family comedy you. While production companies have a sea of writers to pull from, agencies want you to be an easy sell. If they can’t pin you down for a style or voice, or can’t guarantee what you will deliver, they will move onto the next writer on their list that can and pitch that writer to the production companies. There is always an exception to this, there is always that one agent who will fight for you no matter what, but, they are few and far between, and even that agent has overhead. (and if you know that agent, can you send me his number?)

As a writer, or even actor or director, you need to find your voice, and thus, your brand to sell. Madonna, Oprah, Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, these are brands. Quentin Tarantino, Diablo Cody, The Cohen Brothers, these are brands where you know what you’re going to get. They might tell widely different stories, but you still can count on a certain voice or take to come from their stories. (Well, the jury is still out on Diablo’s take besides quick quips, but I do give her a lot of credit for bringing a different type of female to the big screen.) The best thing you can do as a writer is find your own brand. It not only helps you become easier to track around town, but it makes selling your work easier on your reps, it probably even guarantees your pitches sell better because people know what they’re going to get. There are a lot of valid reasons for creative freedom, but, if you really want to make a career and buy that vacation house on the beach, it’s all about branding yourself.



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4 comments:

JPS said...

Great post, Margaux. This works likewise in the fiction world. Years ago BBC radio ran a series with British novelists entitled "Finding a Voice", where each participant spoke at length on this very subject. In almost every case, as I remember, voice was closely tied not to craft but temperament, experience, upbringing, etc. It's a personal thing that pretty much everyone has (and that in mere mortals is often called "flair" or "style" or "attitude"), but that writers have the time and ability and discipline to bring out.

With young writers the "voice" is often that of their greatest influences. When I first started writing I was teaching seminars in James Joyce to high-school students, and hence was overly influenced by his work. Eventually you shake off the voices you've so much admired and emulated, and find your own. But this is often a real problem for either screenwriter or prose writer. There are a lot of wannabe Shane Blacks out there, just as there are lot of wannabe Hemingways.

The problem has arisen with the proliferation of writing programs, which is why, for instance, graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the U. of Iowa all seem to write in a strangely similar way. Instead of being given the opportunity to find their own voice, they've been compelled to adopt one that is often similar to that of their teacher. And speaking from experience, it takes a lot longer than two years to get there.

J.J. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PJ McIlvaine said...

Another great post.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. More Diablo hating. Can you retitle this "The Green Wave?"