Graphic Novels Are Necessary to Start Screenwriting?

I found this blog by an aspiring screenwriter, who’s documenting her attempt to break into the business, rather disturbing for what it suggests about how comics are viewed by other media and how movie writers are viewed. (Please note that I’m not attacking the blog writer, who seems like her heart is in the right place, but the advice she’s been given.)

Screenwriting

I am a screenwriter who is exploring the graphic novel realm, with very little prior exposure to graphic novels. Follow my adventure, as I learn about the art form and adapt one of my screenplays into a graphic novel.

Why am I doing this, you may wonder? I finally have a manager, which is a very exciting, big step. But I need an agent, too, and my manager has worked with several. She followed her usual procedure; she called a few of them to tell them about me, and expected one of them to pick me up as a client, too. It always worked before. But this time, all of them said the same thing: in the screenwriting market of today, it’s not enough to be a solid screenwriter to break into the business, a writer has to have something else going on –- a book deal, a graphic novel, a popular blog…

I have never been a big reader of graphic novels, but I do have a screenplay with a strong visual story that will make a great graphic novel. [...] I’ve ordered some books and started reading graphic novels and books about them.

It disturbs me that movie people consider a screenplay a suitable basis for a comic. Ideally, one would write for the format one was using, not assume that visual formats were interchangeable. I’m also concerned that aspiring creators would be told to make their name elsewhere, then come back — that’s been the case in comics for a while, where it’s a lot easier to break in if you’ve worked as a TV scripter, a movie assistant, a rock star, or an actor, and I don’t think it’s been a net win for the medium.

I believe that an agent would say that, that they wanted someone who’s built a promotion hook to pull them out of the pack, but I can’t help wondering where this all ends up. If you need to make a comic to become a screenwriter, and you need to work in Hollywood to be picked to work on comics, isn’t it all rather Ouroborean?

Update: For another take, story editor Tim Stout answers the question “Could my screenplay make a good graphic novel?”

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7 Responses to “Graphic Novels Are Necessary to Start Screenwriting?”

  1. Michael May Says:

    It does sound Ouroborean, but hasn’t that always been the way? You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. It’s an old dilemma, but there are places to sneak into the system for those willing to put in the sweat. The truth is that being published elsewhere isn’t the ONLY way to sell a story where you want; it’s just a very good one.

    I share your skepticism though about the wisdom of creating a comic for the sole purpose of scoring a film gig. That’s not likely to result in a very good comic.

  2. Stephen Geigen-Miller Says:

    Writing screenplays and writing comics are different things, but a screenplay is likely to be comparatively easier to adapt into a comics script than, say, a novel, or a short story — or even a play, given that plays tend to be static in setting and driven by dialogue.

    The problem to my mind isn’t really the idea of taking an idea that’s been gathering dust in one medium and adapting it to another; that strikes me as quite reasonable, and it’s something I’ve thought of doing myself, with a couple of screenplays I have in the trunk that went nowhere as screenplays, but that would be just as fun and equally good as graphic novels, with some work.

    Instead, I think the problems are
    a) This writer has been encouraged to hop into a medium she knows nothing about, to “build her brand”. That steep a learning curve doesn’t bode well for her chances. It takes time to become a good comics writer, and to learn how screenwriting and comics writing are the same, and how they differ. You’ll note that I mentioned above that my screenplays might adapt well into comics form given some work, not as-is. Her manager’s assumption that she can just hop into comics is thoughtless, shows a lack of understanding for the writing process and a lack of respect for comics.

    And b) On the subject of her manager… If I had a manager who was supposed to be guiding my screenwriting career, and s/he told me to that I first had to something in another medium to gain any traction, I’d fire him/her. I mean, really, shouldn’t your manager be doing more to advance your prospects as a screenwriter than throwing up their hands and suggesting you give comics a shot, ’cause breaking into the movies is hard?

  3. Johanna Says:

    Excellent points, Stephen, and thank you for adding them from someone who knows the biz better than I. Regarding B, I think the point was that the manager was trying to help get an agent, and the agents were the ones looking for the additional work. (Now, my question is: what is the difference? If you haven’t written professionally, do you need both an agent and manager?)

  4. Grant Says:

    This is probably off point, but I’ve always just assumed that the majority of non superhero graphic novels were created with the express purpose of being adapted to film. Especially after meeting some of the creators at conventions and listening to them talk about comics as though they’ve never even heard of such things.

  5. Johanna Says:

    That’s awfully cynical, but not far off in some cases. I can think of certain publishers that seem to exist solely as movie development houses.

  6. Stephen Geigen-Miller Says:

    As far as screenwriting goes, the role of a manager is to guide and advise you in directing your career; the role of an agent is to take your work to market and negotiate on your behalf. Some people call themselves agents and do both, some people call themselves managers and do both.

    In California, being an agent is by necessity a much more regulated profession than it is in most other parts of the U.S. and Canada, but I’m not aware of similar resrictions on being a manager; I think it’s like being a producer, you can just hang a sign on the door and call yourself one.

    Each gets between 10 and 15 percent of your earnings, so having both means that your representation takes 20 to 30 percent of everything you make as a screenwriter.

    Personally, I can’t imagine why someone just breaking in would need both, unless the manager in question is really more of a mentor — providing advice and support without payment. It’s when you have a career to manage that you might need a manager. But even then, a good agent who has your confidence usually can give that kind of career advice (although whether they will or should depends on the writer and the agent!)

    An agent, on the other hand, is essential, since most writers don’t have the information and experience to negotiate their own contracts, and more importantly, the vast majority of production companies for both film and television won’t even look at unagented submissions.

    I see your point about the manager being more concerned with what agents are looking for; still, as the link you added points out, creating a graphic novel, whether or not it’s based on a screenplay you have ready, is not exactly a quick and easy way of getting yourself out there!

    Johanna, I seem to recall that you’re not exactly a Bendis fan, but his ‘Fortune & Glory’ is about this in reverse: An autobiographical graphic novel about his experiences in Hollywood, trying to create and then sell a screenplay based on one of his early, noir graphic novels. And in additional to being really entertaining and funny, it manages to explain the entire process and the roles of everyone involved very clearly and well. It’s the only Bendis I like, and nothing like either his noir or superhero stuff.

  7. Johanna Says:

    Thanks for all this background, Stephen. I read Fortune & Glory back when it was serialized, and while it does have a lot of detail, I found it remarkably self-indulgent — “waa, they won’t let me write the expensive movie from my graphic novel even though I have no movie experience!” But then, as you said, I don’t care for Bendis’ work much. I do agree that it’s a more enjoyable way than others to find out more about the process in general.

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