Film fans can afford to stick to the genres and films they know and like. Don’t like romcoms? Don’t bother with them! Prefer aliens from outer space? Watch nothing but science fiction!
Screenwriters don’t have that luxury.
An awful lot of bad writing, especially from students and writers at the very beginning of their career, seems to stem from a limited experience of film. They’ve watched only the genres that appeal to them, and now they’re regurgitating a pale imitation of the movies they’ve seen, hidebound by rules and tropes they don’t even know they’re following.
We all learn our cinematic, and screenwriting, language from the films we watch. How to use time and space, dialogue and silence, which images link scenes together and which provide contrast – all of these are techniques we absorb, without even realising it, from our films of choice. The more styles and genres we dabble in, the more techniques we’ll have at our disposal.
But if we only watch one or two types of film, we’ll only learn one or two forms of cinematic language – and that limits our ability to tell stories, even within the genre we’ve been studying. A screenwriter shouldn’t be a specialist in one martial art, but an MMA fighter, borrowing moves from every school and style to get the story told.
You don’t have to like a movie to learn from it.
And you never know when you’re going to stumble across the solution to a problem. While watching a TV series with a teenage central character, I realised that the nemesis in the feature script I was working on needed to be thirty years younger – and the whole story finally fell into place. If I hadn’t gone outside my story comfort zone, I might never have solved that problem…