William M. Akers
As I read more of William M. Akers’ book Your Screenplay Sucks!, and read more about Akers himself, it’s obvious that he’s well read and well-educated (an MFA from USC). His academic credentials include currently teaching screenwriting at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His standards for great scripts are The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
He’s written network TV shows and feature films that have had theatrical releases. All of those put him in the top percentile of people writing on screenwriting with a some produced work behind him. But to show you what a crazy business this is…one of Akers produced credits is for Ernest Rides Again. A $7 million kids film that made $1.5 million at the box office and the few reviews on Rotten Tomato score it in the vicinity of the average temperature Iowa in February. (Though Akers points out that the Boston Globe said it was “Best of the Series.”)
This isn’t to take anything away from Akers or his book. But to show you that just because you have a lot of knowledge and talent (and an MFA from USC) doesn’t mean that producers are going to be asking to do an updated big screen version of The Old Man and the Sea. Sometimes you have to get the get the credits, experience, contacts, and paychecks from a few rungs below where you were aiming. (Remember Coppola and James Cameron started working on low-budget films with Roger Corman.)
Akers has other scripts currently in development and I hope that his time in Nashville is profitable and that he meets some filmmakers who can produce those scripts in his computer that are a little less Ernest P. Worrell and a little more Ernest Hemingway. Or maybe somewhere in-between like the life story of Ernest Tubbs or others stories that tap into the people and myths that surround him in Tennessee.
One nice thing that came out of Akers working on Ernest Rides Again is a concept that he got from the director of that film John Cherry;
“I learned a lot from John Cherry…He told me, ‘If it’s not about world domination, it’s not about anything at all.’ What do you think that means? And why should something that applies to a goofy comedy created for little kids to watch with babysitters apply to your magnum opus? In a James Bond film, world domination means just that. In Ordinary People, they’re fighting for control of the house. It’s still world domination. If your characters aren’t playing for all the marbles, the reader is going to pack up and go home. If the stakes in your story are small, ratchet them up.”
Related post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)