I just finished Thomas Schatz’ book The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, which was a fascinating read. Schatz says that in any given year in the early 1930s, MGM staff readers alone filed reports on more than 1,000 novels and original scripts, 500 short stories, 1,500 plays, and 1,300 works in foreign languages...all in the pursuit of stories the studio could turn into hit movies. One assumes a similar output was seen at all of the other major studios as well.
At MGM they followed “The Ten Commandments for Studio Readers” laid down by head of production Irving Thalberg, and most of it sounds like good advice for struggling filmmakers, even today. Looking for a film idea? Consider this:
1. Your most important duty is to find great ideas. You’ll find them buried under tons of mediocre suggestions.
2. Read at least two newspapers daily. Photoplays (scripts) sell best when they’re based on timely topics.
3. Analyze all material on the basis of the players who are working for us.
4. Remember, you are dealing with a pictorial (visual) medium.
5. Make a close notation of all books you see the public reading.
6. See at least two full-length motion pictures each week, one by this company, one from a competitor.
7. Everything else is secondary in your work to the finding of a strong dramatic situation, an interesting clash between the principal characters.
8. Prove your ability to recognize creative material by writing and submitting to us stories of your own.
9. Be proficient in one language besides your own. The competition for good stories is so keen that the supply written in English was long ago insufficient.
10. Above all, train yourself to recognize sincerity in a story. Talking pictures, particularly, have made the public very sensitive to false notes in plots.