The weight of an opinion

How much value should you place on one person’s opinion?

The movie industry is all about opinions; you can write a script you think is fantastic; you can sell it to a producer who loves it; you can find a director who thinks it’s a work of genius; and it will still flop because no one else agrees with you.

I participate on Trigger Street (admittedly less than I’d like at the moment, I’m too busy) and the feedback I’ve received from people reviewing my screenplays has been invaluable. For any scriptwriters who haven’t utilised this, or one of the other sites which provide a similar service, I highly recommend it. Friends and family (or at least mine) are fairly useless when giving you an honest critique. The best I get is:

“Yeah, it’s good. I liked it.”

Not much use. The (mostly) unbiased views of strangers, with nothing to lose from gently telling you the truth, is priceless; it’s the single most important step I’ve taken towards becoming a good writer. You know when a script’s ready because the large majority of the reviewers like it. It may not be perfect; but if they like it, chances are a director/producer will too.

Not agents though. I have no idea what agents like. I know what they don’t like: my work; but that’s a different gripe for a different time.

I say the large majority of reviewers like it because there’s always one who doesn’t. The question then is: how much weight should you place on their opinion?

The largest criteria for me, is: did I already know this, but thought no one else would notice?

Sometimes I think a certain element may be missing from a script; but on re-reading I convince myself it’s not necessary. I can usually think of several examples where films have been lacking just this element and have still been good. It’s amazing what you can convince yourself of when there’s no one to argue against you. If someone points out something I’ve already thought of, then it probably needs addressing.

Fair enough.

What if it’s something I’ve never thought of? If I agree with them and realise I’ve been bloody stupid not to notice myself, then it’s a welcome (although slightly embarrassing) suggestion.

In both of those cases, the course of action seems clear: make the change, it’s for the best.

The next layer of suggestion might be something which is utterly insignificant, or works equally as well as what’s already there; it’s purely a preference. This sort of opinion depends on who’s giving it to you. If it’s a co-writer or a director or a producer who’re adamant their way is better; fine, make the change. It doesn’t matter. If it’s a neutral reader, then pick the one you prefer.

Sometimes the observation is, in my opinion, wrong; but that doesn’t mean my opinion is right. Now it gets a little tricky. How do you judge whether the opinion has merit? If it’s a Trigger Street review, I’d find out what the reviewer has written/directed/produced and see whether or not I like their work. If I already have some respect for them, then it’s worth thinking about. If it’s from someone whose own work is appalling (in my opinion, the only one I have), I wouldn’t immediately reject it; but I’m more likely to decide not to follow their advice.

The difficulty comes when it’s from a producer/director who’s buying your work. I don’t want to be a yes man; but at the same time, it’s their script: they’re buying it, they’re going to (hopefully) make it. They should be able to make it the way they want. I usually go for constructively arguing my case and hoping they come round. So far, that approach has worked. At worst, a compromise can be made.

Recently, a director, who wants to film one of my feature scripts, got in touch. He’d shown the script, which he thought was hilarious, to a producer. The producer pointed out the script had a few flaws, one of which being: it didn’t really have a story.

This was a fair point; one which fell under the category of: I kind of knew that, but was hoping no one else would notice.

The producer also had a suggestion, a simple suggestion which made a series of funny scenes hang together as a film. Brilliant, I made the changes that night.

We’ve been working back and forth since then, trying to get the structure just right. The other day I had an email which said: the producer had read through the new treatment and didn’t think it was funny.

Now funny is one of those really subjective things. I once met a girl who didn’t think BLACKADDER was funny. She’s the only person I’ve ever met with that opinion; but it’s her opinion and she’s welcome to it. Thankfully she wasn’t in charge of commissioning the series.

Now, bear in mind, the scenes haven’t changed much; just the emphasis and the general thrust of the script. The dialogue is mostly the same, they’ve just been hung on a different spine. I think it’s funny; and the director thinks (or at least thought) it was funny; but the producer (who’s not producing this, he’s an independent voice of dissent) doesn’t.

How much weight should be attached to his opinion? He was right in the first instance about the way to correct the meandering story; (Think CLERKS, WITHNAIL & I or THE HITCH-HIKERS’ GUIDE TO THE GALAXY – funny scenes, great dialogue, no plot. Obviously my script is of a much poorer quality, I’m not comparing my writing to theirs.) but, is he right about this? I’d be inclined to say no, reading it still makes me laugh; okay, I wrote it, but I’m hard to please. The director, however, now has doubts about the project. He obviously places a lot of weight on this guy’s opinion, and presumably feels justified in doing so.

When we were writing THE WOW LIFE we worked on a purely majority basis; if it made most of us laugh, it stayed in. I know some sitcoms work on a 100% basis; if it doesn’t make everyone laugh, it’s out; but, I’m not sure if that’s the best way to go or not; it can make comedy very middle of the road and soul-less.

Going the other way, and taking one person’s opinion of what is and isn’t funny is madness. Even people whose work I admire make horrible errors in judgement. BEN ELTON wrote FILTHY, RICH AND CATFLAP; CHRIS MORRIS co-wrote the appalling NATHAN BARLEY; even DOUGLAS ADAMS, my writing hero, made some mistakes…

I can’t think of any right now, but I’m sure there were some somewhere.

The movie industry is all subjective; there is no truth when it comes to good or bad; it’s all in the eye of the beholder; but since film making is a co-operative process, I think it makes sense to go with the opinion of the majority.

Unless they’re wrong.

At least, that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

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