America is litigation crazy. As a nation, we file about 15 million lawsuits annually. An estimated 2.2 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is tied up in civil cases. For those who file and argue lawsuits, going to court is a calculated risk. More than 50 percent of tort cases are ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
As Hollywood is a funhouse mirror that amplifies and distorts American culture, it’s no wonder that this town is Ground Zero for civil litigation. That Hollywood is also notorious for its slippery business practices would further seem to justify the volume of showbiz-related cases that clog our civil court dockets. It seems a month doesn’t go by when an A-list actor, writer or director isn’t suing a studio for a piece of a project’s profits, an intern isn’t suing a producer for sexual harassment, an assistant isn’t charging an agent with racism or one writer isn’t suing another for plagiarism.
It’s enough to make even the sharks at The Good Wife‘s Lockhart-Gardner collapse from exhaustion.
But while Hollywood lawsuits can possibly yield both $$$’s and publicity, for 95 percent of the town’s employees, they remain a sucker’s bet. A successful suit may deliver a significant payday, but the triumph will probably be short lived. More likely than not, you’ll be branded with a scarlet “L” (for litigant) and only see a studio backlot when you buy a ticket for a guided tour.
Hollywood is, at its core, a relationship-driven business. People do business with people they like to do business with. Known troublemakers have about as much chance of getting hired as 2 Broke Girls has of winning Emmy gold. It doesn’t matter if you win your suit on the strongest of evidence. Even if the defendant is a self-professed embezzling, coke snorting, sex-addicted, neo-Nazi dog-f*cker (and you know who you are), you’ll still be as radioactive as a Fukushima tuna roll.
It’s also a town that thrives on taking advantage of those on the lowest rungs of the show biz food chain. Long hours, low pay, verbal abuse and lousy working conditions are the industry norm. Ever see the 1994 Kevin Spacey film Swimming with Sharks? That level of underling abuse, although not the norm, can be experienced. And those on the receiving end put up with it. Gladly. For every angry litigant, there are a thousand others — men and women — who would happily put up with gulag-like degradation for a shot — however long it may be — at some day becoming rich and famous.
Consider it a rite of passage. A professional hazing process. A Darwinian winnowing system to determine who has the Right Stuff to ascend to top of the entertainment pyramid.
But what about those actors, writers, producers and directors who sue studios — and each other? Well, they’ve earned the right to bitch. If you’ve shown time and again that you can deliver the goods, you can afford to be a pain in the ass. In fact, when you get on the A-List, being difficult — either personally, professionally or both — becomes almost de rigueur. Like fighters in a heavyweight title match, two top-tier show biz personalities can slug it out in court and still go out for drinks when the dust settles. Matches between equals are just business.
So if you are suffering under the boot of some tyrannical agent, if you think your “brilliant idea” has been ripped off or the executive you assist is getting a little “handy,” carefully consider whether seeking redress for your grievances in a court of law is the best career move. Even if you win — and suits in the entertainment arena more often than not fail — you’ll be closing the door on that career path – probably forever.
So the real question you have to ask yourself is: How much do you like selling real estate? – Allen B. Ury
Hollywood is a lot like a suburban tot lot, with dozens of energetic, creative, driven and ambitious kids running madly about shouting for attention. Only instead of their parents’ approval, these kids are looking for validation from agents, producers and studios with big checkbooks.
As a fledgling writer or director, how do you break through the din and get the kind of attention you need to launch your career? Beyond renting a billboard on Sunset Blvd. to advertise your copious talents, what tactics are most likely to put you on the industry’s radar? (Note: Renting a billboard on Sunset Blvd. isn’t one of them.)
Obviously, it’s not easy (or else everyone would be doing it). And a strategy that works brilliantly for one person may fail utterly for another. Which is why a combination of efforts is usually recommended.
But if it’s true that you must “make your own luck,” here are 10 proven (and affordable) ways to make your work stand out and get your career off to a running start.
1) Understand the market – and your place in it. Before you do anything, you need a plan. And creating a good plan requires research. What kind of material is Hollywood buying? What kind of films and TV shows are audiences watching? The Internet is rife with industry news and reports from sites like Variety (www.variety.com) and the Hollywood Reporter (www.hollywoodreporter.com) to Indie Wire (www.indiewire.com) and IMDB (www.imdb.com), not to mention hundreds of filmmaking blogs. Now determine how you want to be “pigeon-holed” (and you will be), at least to start. Do you want to be known for action, drama or comedy? Studio films, indie films or television? Hollywood is very much like high school, only you get to pick the clique to which you’ll belong.
2) Think Internationally. Today, Hollywood gets more than half its revenue from overseas markets. If you want to get the industry’s attention, come up with a project they can sell in Beijing and Budapest as well as Boston and Bakersfield. This can mean including foreign locations and including major parts for non-American actors.
3) Think Economically. Often, a great way to get Hollywood’s attention to is do more with less. Because studios are loathe to spend big bucks on projects from first-time filmmakers, showing you know how to get major results from tiny investments can get you noticed. For writers, this often means writing small but tight horror films, thrillers or other genre scripts. For directors, digital cameras and modern CGI allow you to create mind-blowing short films on basically lunch money.
4) Acquire/Write a Killer Script. Yes, this seems axiomatic. But if it’s a cliché, then it’s a cliché because it’s true. Great scripts are still so rare that when one surfaces, the town starts talking. What makes a great script great? Although, like snowflakes, no two are exactly the same, they seem to share many attributes. Their stories contain big stakes: Life and death, victory and defeat, love and loss. Characters are sharply defined and as memorable for their bad qualities as for their good ones. Dialogue is terse, character-specific and contains plenty of quotable lines. Plotlines are intelligent, twisty and innovative, taking us into worlds we have never seen before – or at least not seen quite this way. And they don’t “cheat.” Plot holes are minimal. Emotions are played big, but are varied enough to avoid monotony and melodrama. The scripts are cinematic; the telling is highly visual, taking advantage of film’s unique ability to move freely through time and space. Endings are surprising yet inevitable, satisfying both emotionally and intellectually. Sound like a tall order to fill? It is. So take your time. Be meticulous in your writing, and your rewriting. Just remember that other cliché, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
5) Develop an Irresistible Log Line. Before anyone can fall in love with your script, someone has to decide to read for script. The best way to ensure this happens is to first present an irresistible log line – a one- or two-line description of your project’s premise. (In this context, “premise” can be defined as where we are at the end of Act One, the moment when your story is in full motion.) In 99 percent of cases, a solid commercial logline will contain three key elements: 1) A hero with a problem he/she cannot just walk away from without suffering serious if not fatal consequences; 2) A “Wow Factor,” that is an element that is so unusual, compelling or just plain cool that it demands our attention; and 3) An element of irony, that is a problem/dilemma that is diametrically opposed to what one would naturally expect your hero to have to face. (For example, if a drug dealer is out for bloody revenge, that’s just par for the course. On the other hand, if a priest is out for bloody revenge – that’s interesting!)
6) Make a Short Film. Although there is no real commercial market for short films, such projects can serve as excellent calling cards for aspiring directors (and writers). As noted above, modern digital cameras, editing and CGI applications make it possible to shoot impressive films on a credit card. You can then burn digital copies to enter into contests, show at film festivals or submit to the industry via Hollywood’s official submission platform Greenlightmymovie.com.
7) Network. A number of organizations [e.g., The Hollywood Pitch Festival] throw regular “pitch festivals” that, for a fee, put you face-to-face with agents, producers and studio executives [Note: Make sure the event features legit companies with actual buyers and reps and not interns and assistants being paid to sit and speak to you]. As Hollywood is all about making connections, these events can be a great way to get your material in front of people who can really make a difference. If nothing else, it’s a great place to schmooze with other writers and filmmakers and expand your Rolodex with Hollywood VIPs.
8) Enter Contests. There are literally dozens of annual competitions that give you opportunities to get your material in front of people who might boost your career. Winning a contest – any contest – usually comes with perks, plus enough kudos from credible sources is going to look damned impressive on a query letter. Which leads us to…
9) Target Like-Minded Agents. In Hollywood, you are invisible without an agent. But how do you get an agent if you’re unknown? Go directly to agents you know already have an affinity for the kind of material you produce. To do this: 1) Sign up with IMDB Pro (there’s a fee); 2) Look up movies that are similar to yours; 3) Look up the writers and/or directors of the movies that are similar to yours; 4) Look up who represents the writers and/or directors of the movies that are similar to yours; 5) Send those representatives – be they agents or managers – a one-page query letter that describes your project and asks if they’d like to see it with an eye toward representation. The letter should be printed – not an email – and contain just enough information to entice the reader, such as your irresistible log line and list of the contests you’ve won (if any). Oh, and don’t forget to include your contact information. That’s kind of important. You may or may never hear back from them, depending on their policy on accepting query letters, so for a guaranteed response, a great alternative is to send your synopsis, short, web series, commercial, trailer via Greenlightmymovie.com.
10) Go Viral. Today, one of the most dramatic ways to generate buzz is to post a great short film on the Internet and have it watched and praised by a few million people. Granted, going viral isn’t as easy as it sounds. A lot of it has to do with timing, placement and dumb luck. But films that hit tend to hit big, and more than one viral video has landed its creator with an agent and paying work.
Like moviemaking itself, getting noticed in Hollywood is as much as art as it is a science. But a solid strategy combined with maniacal, dogged persistence boosts your odds for success considerably.
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if you already have a close relative in the business. – Allen. B. Ury
The Hollywood Pitch Festival is the longest-running “pitchfest” in the world. Conceptualized eighteen years ago by Fade In magazine, the event features over 200 prominent Hollywood studios, agencies, producers, management and production companies and is 100% dedicated to pitch meetings – approximately 19 hours over the course of two days. The festival produces top agency and management signings, national press coverage (such as the New York Times, World News Tonight and The Tonight Show) and front-page Variety and Hollywood Reporter sales and options.
Over the last decade, the Hollywood Pitch Festival sparked a phenomenon that resulted in hundreds of copycat events worldwide but none of them have been able to assemble the caliber or quantity of Hollywood heavyweights that come out each year for the HPF. Several of these emulators have to bribe assistants and interns from production companies with $100 stipends just to show up. Recently, the former editor of Creative Screenwriting magazine, Jeff Goldsmith, conceded, “Paying them was the only way I could get them to attend [the Screenwriting Expo].”
Attendees of the Hollywood Pitch Festival can rest assured that the VIPs attending its pitchfest do so because they are actively looking for material and new talent not a paycheck. The Hollywood Pitch Festival prides itself on not nickel and diming writers for lunches, master classes and private consultations. HPF tickets include a master class on pitching, lunch and private, one-on-one pitch coaching via Skype video before the event, in addition to unlimited pitch meetings. More importantly, its ratio of Hollywood buyers and representatives is 1:1 not 5:1. That’s right, 200 buyers/reps for 200 attendees. When they say they keep the ratio of executives to participants high they mean it.
The Hollywood Pitch Festival also believes writers should be given the respect of having scheduled meetings, just like the pros, so that you are able to know, in advance, which companies you will be meeting with. This also allows you to prepare and tailor your pitch for each company, amend if need be and attend each meeting in a more relaxed state of mind. Attendees of the Hollywood Pitch Festival are able to spread their 30-40 meetings over the course of two days not try to cram a lesser amount of 12-20 meetings in 5 hours.
The Hollywood Pitch Festival believes in a high quality event. That’s why, each year, you’ll meet with the top studios, networks, production companies, financiers and agencies only at the Hollywood Pitch Festival.
For more information, visit http://www.hollywoodpitchfestival.com
While Hollywood has a seemingly insatiable appetite for true stories, such ventures can be fraught with peril. Critics and pundits can eviscerate a film based on perceived historical inaccuracies or political agendas, as we saw happen with this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Just launching such a venture can tie you up in a knot of legal red tape that will make you think Grimm’s Fairy Tales might make a far better source of inspiration.
If you’re still intent on creating a film based on true-life or historical events, here are some key issues you need to consider.
1. Is there a “story” there? Not all true-life events are suitable feature film fodder. Just because a story is “true” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dramatic or even interesting. (For example, a real estate agent may love to regale his friends about how he sold a run-down house for twice its market value, but that would probably make a poor feature film.) Ideally, the story you want to tell has the same elements present in wholly originally works:
In other words, ask yourself, “Would this make a good movie if the story wasn’t true?”
2. Who owns the story rights? If you’re basing your film on events more than 100 years old, chances are the story and the people involved are now in public domain. Even then, if you use one or two particular books as source material, you may have to get the rights to those sources before moving forward. (As Steven Spielberg did with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, when making last year’s Lincoln.) You definitely need to get clearances from living private figures before making your film. And even so-called “public figures” such as politicians and celebrities — even dead ones — often require filmmakers to get clearances before such individuals can be portrayed in commercial entertainment. (The estates of such late notables as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and even Albert Einstein are quite strict when it comes to how their images are used in commercial ventures.) Be sure to work with a lawyer experienced in these matters before committing time and treasure to your film project.
3. How close do you have to adhere to the “facts”? This is where writing true-life stories gets really tricky. Very few true events fit smoothly into the classic motion picture template. Events must often be compressed and/or re-arranged to make narrative sense. Some characters need to be eliminated, some combined and others created out of whole cloth to satisfying the demands of the story as a whole. Sometimes, what really happened isn’t quite dramatic enough, and you need to embellish with a bit of Hollywood magic. (As director Ben Affleck did when he staged the thrilling climatic airport chase in last year’s Oscar-winning Argo.)
This then leads us to the age-old argument, how much does a writer or filmmaker owe the “facts”? Some argue that any major deviation from the historical record undercuts the project’s impact. Others argue, “We’re making a movie, not a documentary!” and inevitably point to the historical plays of William Shakespeare which, although based on real events, are more products of the Bard’s imagination than historical verisimilitude.
In fact, since the earliest days of filmmaking, Hollywood has played fast and loose with the “facts,” preferring instead to focus on a story’s “truth.” What’s the difference? “Facts” are quantifiable data points that, by themselves, mean nothing. “Truth” is the meaning we derive from our interpretation of those facts. As works of art, movies are always far more concerned with truth than they are in facts.
In other words, as a filmmaker, you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story. This approach may be controversial in some quarters, but it rarely yields anything but positive dividends. From Disraeli (1929), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Pride of the Yankees (1942) , Laurence of Arabia (1962), All the President’s Men (1976) and Chariots of Fire (1981) to Schindler’s List (1993), Erin Brockovich (2000) and Moneyball (2011), Hollywood has always had a casual relationship with the “facts,” still managing to produce motion pictures of enormous emotional and sociological impact that has managed to stand the test of time. – Allen B. Ury
Anyone trying to establish — or advance — a Hollywood screenwriting career is inevitably caught between two diametrically opposed forces. On one hand, studios and producers always say they’re looking for stories that are new, fresh and exciting. They’re looking for an “original voice.” But on the other hand, studios only seem interested in developing properties with a built-in audience. They want brand-name projects – remakes, sequels, book and TV series adaptations, toys, board games! – anything with a name the public will instantly recognize and embrace. And why not? Movie-making is a big business. And big business always seeks to maximize profits while minimizing risk.
Which brings us to the key question: How can you present a story that is both new and familiar? Something original with a track record?
One proven solution to this quandary is Genre-Busting.
What is Genre-Busting?
Hollywood likes genre films because their strict narrative formulas make such movies relatively easy to make and market. Horror films are cheap to film, usually use inexpensive B- or C-list actors and have enough sex and violence to easily attract an undiscriminating teenage and young 20’s audience. Romantic comedies will always begin with likeable male and female leads who hate each other and yet find true love by the final Fade Out. Special effects-driven Comic Book/Super Hero films may come with super-sized budgets, but their audiences are legion and their global returns historically astronomical.
So, if these and similar genres represent the proverbial path of least resistance, why not write a genre film? The reason: Because everybody is writing genre films, and therefore no one needs yours. To get noticed, your script must be unusual, if not unique. It needs that original “voice” Hollywood always says it’s listening for.
One way to achieve – or at least mimic – that “voice” is by choosing a popular genre and then devising a story that deconstructs or redefines it. Rather than simply following genre clichés, you need to expose and attack those clichés by 1) Combining your genre piece with elements of other genres, 2) Giving your characters heightened degrees of self-awareness, or 3) Redefining your genre’s principal conceits.
Here are some examples of successful genre-busting over the last few years:
Django Unchained (2012) Quentin Tarantio’s most recent hit is a perfect example of recombinant genre-busting. Although taking its name and attitude from an infamous 1966 Spaghetti Western, the film gets its heat by melding Western conventions with elements of 1970s Blaxploitation movies and antebellum plantation films. This brilliant mix-and-match concept has led many critics to dub the film a Western/Southern, as the bulk of the action takes place in pre-Civil War Mississippi, the kind of location rarely visited by the likes of John Ford or Preston Sturgis. The language and violence is, of course, pure Tarantino.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011) We’re genre-busting Westerns again, this time by combining them with alien invasion movies. Although it wasn’t a critical favorite, C&A did manage to attract the talents of Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Jon Favreau, as well as earn $175,000 worldwide.
Cabin in the Woods (2012) Like Kevin Williamson’s Scream films a decade earlier, this is a horror movie about horror movies. But while the Scream films merely allowed their characters to reflect on the genre clichés they were being forced to endure, Cabin goes one step further by literally taking us “behind the scenes” to explore why these clichés exist in the first place, and why we continue to revel – no, demand! – them.
The Twilight Saga (2008-2012) Author Stephenie Meyer hit paydirt with her young adult novels by taking a well-worn genre – vampires – and redefining its basic principles. Although vampire stories since the days of Bela Lugosi always carried a strong undercurrent of sex, Meyer stripped this away along with the genre’s gothic horror elements, replacing them with romance and alienation, two themes irresistible to pre-teen girls. The result: More than 100 million books sold and a movie franchise that’s grossed more than $1.8 billion worldwide.
Warm Bodies (2013) We haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s easy to imagine writer/director Jonathan Levine’s pitch: “It’s a romantic comedy – with zombies.” Take two of filmdom’s two more enduring genres, slam them together and, voila! You got yourself a movie.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) Again, the quality of the final product is still unknown, but as a genre-busting concept, it’s a classic right along with “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer.” Let’s hope this one is actually fun.
Come Up With Your own Genre-Buster
It’s not all that hard to genre bust. Get a bunch of index cards. Write down as many genres as you can think of: RomCom, Western, Gangster, Ghost Story, Slasher Film, Pirate Movie, Prison Break, Caper Film, Fairy Tale, Time Travel, Alien Invasion, War Movie, Sword & Sandal, etc. (Note: Not Sci-Fi. Sci-Fi isn’t a genre, but an umbrella for a number of genres that can include everything from Space Opera (e.g. Star Wars) to Time Travel (e.g. Back to the Future) to Rebellious Robots (e.g. Frankenstein/The Terminator.)
Now mix and match. Not all genres will fit together easily. Others are naturals (e.g. Prison Break + Space Opera = Lockout; War Movie + Alien Invasion = Battle Los Angeles/Battleship).
As the examples above indicate, not all genre-busters are Academy Award contenders. The finished films may not even be very good. That’s not the point. Regardless of quality, these concepts sold. The movies got made. People got paid.
As a marketing strategy, genre-busting works. Whether the resulting script is good, great, indifferent or just a plain old stinker is ultimately up to you. – Allen. B. Ury]]>
Like all great things, great movie premises are few and far between. That’s one reason they’re so valuable. However, while great ideas may be elusive, a premise that is at least good is actually easier to come up with than you might think. And sometimes, with the right execution, “good” can become “great.”
So what is the benchmark of a good movie premise? A good premise contains immediately recognizable elements of conflict, surprise, obstruction and the potential for character growth. In other words, all those things we go to the movies to enjoy.
Although these elements appear somewhat far-reaching, they can, in fact, be reduced to a single word: irony.
Virtually all great stories, from Homer’s Iliad to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, have reveled in it. Irony is the heart and soul of drama. Without it, drama – like comedy – doesn’t work.
Exactly what is dramatic irony? Mr. Webster defines irony as “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” In other words, surprise. If you have a situation where one outcome is expected and the exact opposite occurs (sometimes called “the old switcheroo”), congratulations you’ve got irony.
When it comes to dramatic characters, irony tends to occur when their circumstances or behavior are in direct conflict with their professions or stations in life.
* The doctor who becomes sick…
* The dancer who becomes paralyzed…
* The fashion model who becomes disfigured…
* The millionaire who goes bankrupt…
* The homeless person who wins the lottery…
* The nobody who saves the world…
These are all classic ironies, and they just reek of dramatic/comic potential.
Look at the following top-grossing movies and Oscar winners. Virtually all of them had ironic premises.
A Beautiful Mind – The story of a schizophrenic genius. His mind was both his greatest asset and his greatest enemy. Irony…
The Lord of the Rings – The fate of the world rest in the hands of the smallest the meekest of creatures. Irony…
Training Day – A top narcotics cop turns out to be the biggest crook of all. Irony!
Monsters Ball – A woman falls in love with a man, not realizing he’s responsible for executing her late husband. Irony! Plus, she’s black…and he’s a racist. Double irony!
In movies, irony often comes from the clash of extremes: The slob and the fussbudget (The Odd Couple), the family man and the psycho (Lethal Weapon), city and country (Crocodile Dundee), master and servant (Gosford Park).
What’s the highest grossing picture of all time? Titanic. It’s not just a story about an “unsinkable” ship that sinks (irony #1), it’s the story of the world’s largest ship (irony #2) that sinks on its maiden voyage (irony #3) as told through the eyes of two lovers who come from opposite ends of the social spectrum (irony #4).
With so many ironic elements, it’s no wonder the picture grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide.
How can you develop your own ironic premise? Here are some simple guidelines:
Try to work in extremes. Develop a leading character who represents the ultimate version of some characteristic. He’s the world’s worst (fill in the blank). She’s the world’s best (fill in the blank). He has the most (fill in the blank). She has the least (fill in the blank). Of course, your characters may not “technically” be the world’s best/worst/biggest/smallest/first/last anything, but this exercise is bound to point you in the right direction.
Put extreme characters in direct conflict. The best with the worst. The fearful with the fearless. The prince with the pauper. The militant feminist with a male chauvinist pig. Not only do such conflicts present immediate dramatic possibilities (i.e., conflict), they also give each character the pressure he or she needs to grow.
Look for “The Least Likely To…”. When a cop solves a murder, that’s not drama; that’s a procedural. When the victim comes back from the dead to solve his own murder…now that’s interesting. Always look for unlikely heroes, for long-shot champions, for ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations.
Make sure you can express your ironic premise simply and eloquently. “The Slobs Against the Snobs” (Caddyshack). “Sam Stone’s wife has just been kidnapped…and he doesn’t want her back!” (Ruthless People). “The general who became a slave; the slave who became a gladiator; the gladiator who defied an emperor” (Gladiator).
Call it the “twist,” the “gimmick” or even the “high concept,” it is the element of irony that propels most, if not all, successful stories.
Some writers take their entire lifetimes searching for this simple truth, yet it’s been staring at us in the face for more than 5,000 years.
Now isn’t that ironic?
– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine
photo credit: CarbonNYC via photopin cc]]>
Just as life itself can only exist within a very narrow range of temperature, pressure and acidic extremes, so too can a studio screen project only be brought to life when it fits within the gap between two familiar and too weird.
For example, following the surprise success of Die Hard, there was a virtual tidal wave of man vs. master criminal movies, all tied to a specific arena. You had Speed (Die Hard on a bus), Speed 2 (Die Hard on a cruise ship), Under Siege (Die Hard on a battleship), Under Siege 2 (Die Hard on a train), Masterminds (Die Hard in a prep school), Passenger 57 (Die Hard on an airplane), Turbulence (Die Hard on an airplane), Con Air (Die Hard on an airplane) and Air Force One (Die Hard on an – oh, yeah…airplane). At this point, studio executives no longer want to see Die Hard on much of anything. Likewise, we went through a seemingly never-ending spate of dark and moody serial killer movies inspired by the success of the Silence of the Lambs. We had Copycat and Se7en and Kiss the Girls and Fallen.
It’s understandably hard for anyone to get excited about another dark and moody serial killer movie. (Even a dark and moody movie about a serial killer on an airplane.)
The worst thing a writer, director or producer can do is try to latch on to a “trend,” particularly one that has actually been around for awhile. Remember, the films released next Friday were actually conceived at least two years ago so the thinking that led to their creation has already moved on to something else. Write another buddy-cop flick or another volcano/earthquake/meteor disaster movie and chances are all you’ll elicit are yawns. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, well-crafted or passionate the writing is. If it looks like every other screenplay that’s come over the transom in the last month, it ain’t gonna get bought.
“But wait!” we hear you cry. “I thought studios love recognizable stories. That’s why they’re still making James Bond movies!” Yes, that’s true. But here’s the rub: They can come up with these clones on their own. They don’t need your help. They already own the rights to that and can hire their best buddies to pound out the story. The one thing you can bring to the party – in fact, the only thing you can bring – is a story that wholly and completely your own. That’s what the buyers want. That’s what they’re willing to pay the big bucks for. And that’s what we’ll get you noticed: Being original…
…Just not too original…
For just as familiarity can be the kiss of death, so can runaway ingenuity. Producers, especially those affiliated with the major studios, are loathe to tackle projects that are too far from the mainstream.
For example, there’s a subset of spec screenplays we see all the time from fledging writers, which we have deemed New Age. The scripts tend to deal with UFOs, reincarnation, witchcraft, out-of-body experiences and parallel dimensions – usually all at the same time. They feature characters with names like Xaxon and Eldrik, and sport dialogue that’s jammed with esoteric code words, arcane phrases and millennial paranoia,. These stories may indeed be original, but they’re impossible to understand and even more impossible to produce. No studio VP in their right mind would touch them.
We also frequently read historical biographies about figures few people have ever heard of, science-fiction opuses that would cost the entire gross national product of Costa Rica to put onscreen, or “true stories” that have relevance only to those people who actually experienced the events portray. The people who write these scripts clearly believe in their material, and that’s fine. Yet their choice of subject matter (i.e., Uncle Ralph’s Alzheimer’s) just as clearly shows little sensitivity to the demands of the marketplace.
The same goes for people who try to revive dead genres – westerns, musicals, sword-and-sandal epics, etc. They inevitably fail. When an exception occurs, it’s because the script is itself exceptional, and provides a new twist on conventions. (It also helps if they’re cheap to produce.) Studios will sometimes take a leap of faith if it doesn’t involve a major financial risk.
So what do buyers want? Well, that changes weekly, depending on what’s making money at the box office. And, as we said earlier, it’s usually lethal to try to exploit a current trend. Generally speaking, those screenplays that are purchased from new writers tend to fall into three basic categories: thrillers (small casts, lots of suspense, person-to-person violence); action pictures (car chases, things that blow up real good); and comedies (romantic and/or broad). They’re what’s known as mainstream or commercial movies. They’re the kinds of movies mass audiences like to go see, so they’re naturally the kinds of stories studios want to buy.
Here are some other guidelines to consider when deciding on a project:
• The story should be “contemporary.” Most buyers have a negative knee-jerk reaction when it comes to period pieces. Stories set in other eras are inevitably more expensive to produce than films set in the modern day, and they tend not to do particularly well at the box-office.
• The story should be castable with English-speaking actors. You might have the greatest script ever written about Australian aborigines, but if there isn’t a major role for a movie star, chances are it won’t be purchased. Stars sell movies. Maybe not to the public, but certainly to the studios. And the biggest stars in the biggest movies speak English. Comprende?
• The project should be, in its physical dimensions, small enough to be produced on a reasonable budget. The average studio film today costs approximately $60 million to make and another $60 million to distribute. (And all that will get you is two name stars sitting at a table talking.) If you’re an unproduced writer, you’re best advised to keep your story’s parameters limited to minimize your buyer’s financial exposure. Fight scenes, car chases and explosions are okay – even desirable – but don’t write huge disaster epics. Don’t write war movies. Don’t write anything that involves the proverbial cast of thousands. Concentrate on character. Nine times out of ten, a character-driven script garners the attention of actors, agents, producers, directors and studios alike.
• Don’t set the story in a “physically hostile location.” When Jeff Katzenberg ran Disney’s motion picture division in the 1980s, he issued an edict that pithily elucidated his criteria for spec scripts: “No sand, no snow, no water.” Knowing the production nightmares that can result from trying to shoot films in even marginally hostile locations, Katzenberg wanted to make sure that the stories he bought were as practical to make as possible. Today, Disney and the other studios may not be this strict, but they’re still cautious when considering a project set in a demanding for inaccessible location.
We recently read a spec script that violated virtually every one of these rules. It was an historical biography set in World War II-era China. Not only was the story set in the past and in a remote locale, but three-quarters of the cast was Chinese and the premise hinged on a number of expansive (and expensive) battle scenes between the Chinese and Japanese armies. It didn’t matter how good the writing was; we felt there was simply no way a studio was going to buy this project from an unknown writer. To date, this analysis has proved correct.
“But wait!” we hear you cry again. “What about films like Schindler’s List? Or Titanic? These films were big, difficult period pieces that when on to make hundreds of millions of dollars and win loads of Academy Awards. Aren’t these the kinds of scripts Hollywood wants to buy?” The answer is Yes. These are the kinds of scripts Hollywood wants to buy. Just not from you.
These high-risk projects were all written, produced and directed by people who’ve been in the business long enough – and have created a long string of successes – to finally wield the kind of clout necessary to get them made. They were created by people who had enough power to walk into a studio president’s office and say, “Give me $100 million to make my movie – or else.” They had a “reputation” other people could bank on.
And they didn’t earn their repetitions overnight. Long before Steven Spielberg could make Schindler’s List, he had to direct TV shows for Universal and make tight little thrillers like Duel and The Sugarland Express; not to mention prove his bankability with Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, etc. And James Cameron, of course, cut his teeth on such Roger Corman classics as Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror before going on to write and direct The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2and True Lies.
No one starts out on top. Least of all you. If you have a personal project you’re just dying to do but that is not readily commercial, keep it under wraps until you’ve accumulated enough credits that a studio wants to take a risk with you. Until that time arrives, don’t be a putz. Give ’em what they want.
– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine
photo credit: kev
in dooley via photopin cc
“Great process so far and some interesting ideas! This is a really great idea.” – Warner Bros.
“Really think this is a great thing you are all doing.” – Lawrence Bender Productions
“I thought the site was very easy to use and the pitches ran very smoothly.” – Participant Media
“You did a really fantastic job with the website. It is such a cool format and so easy and intuitive to work with.”
“I can judge his passion for the project and if he’s a good storyteller that will keep my interest.” – Bohrman Agency
HOW DOES GREENLIGHTMYMOVIE WORK?
Simply upload your project or record your pitch via Greenlightmymovie. Then select the Hollywood agencies, studios, management and production companies you’d like to consider your work – based on what each company is currently looking for (e.g., comedy, sitcom, action, true story, thriller, web series, etc.). You’ll receive a response within approximately fourteen business days – guaranteed. Keep in mind, your video will only be viewed by the companies you submit to. However, all VIPs will be able to view your title, genre and logline, and, if interested, send you a request to submit your project directly to them.
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So what’s the difference between the bore you meet over cocktail weenies and the writers, directors, producers who go into Hollywood studios to pitch their projects? If they’re amateurs, probably not much beyond the label on their designer jackets. It’s not unusual for fledging filmmakers to enter the lion’s den bearing nothing but the germ of an idea and visions of their faces gracing the cover of Fade In. As you might imagine, this is about as smart as facing Patton’s 3rd Army with nothing but a loin-cloth and a peashooter. And the results can be just as bloody.
Those who know the Hollywood Rules know better. They know that everyone else has ideas for a movie, but few have developed that idea sufficiently to turn their idea into a bona fide story. To do so requires several key ingredients:
Structure: The process of properly laying out a screen story is complex enough to fill volumes…and it has. By now you should know, when you talk about your film project, you’ll be able to express it in terms of an Act One (the set-up), an Act Two (escalating conflict) and an Act Three (climax and resolution). At the very least, you’ll be able to tell your buyer how the story ends and what the protagonist wants.
Character Arc: Buyers usually want to know how the hero changes over the course of the story. “He goes from being suicidal to embracing life.” “She learns to accept love.” “He comes to accept his son as an adult.” Producers love stories in which people think and behave differently at the end from how they did in the beginning. When buyers ask you, “What’s the arc?” you not only have to know what they’re talking about; you need to give them an intelligent answer.
Theme: This is an area we’re constantly hounding would-be filmmakers to put more thought into. Far too many screen stories are really nothing but a series of actions diced toward solving a particular problem: Two cops pursue a bad guy. A young woman wants to marry the unattainable man. Someone tries to get away with murder. These stories may work moment-by-moment, but when they’re over, we’re usually left feeling empty and unsatisfied.
In addition to structure and character arc, you should also be able to talk about your movie in terms of its theme. This theme should be designed around a provocative statement, or a question for which there is no easy answer. For example, Schindler’s List wasn’t just a recreation of the Holocaust. It dramatically addressed the idea that, “He who saves one life saves the world.” Its theme heroism. On a lighter note, the following year’s Best Picture winner Forrest Gump had an explicit theme of fate expressed by the oft-quoted line, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.” In other words, life is just one damned thing after another.
For a theme to be dramatically viable, one needs to be able to effectively argue either side. A theme such as “Murder is bad” isn’t very interesting because you’ll find few people who can effectively argue that “Murder is good.” On the other hand, many people lead their lives on the premise that one man really can make a difference, or that life is just one damned thing after another.
When trying to sell your story, you need to be able to present your theme in a natural, organic way. Perhaps you include it as a snippet of dialogue, or use it as the “moral” or “lesson” your hero learns at the story’s conclusion. Whatever route you take, you should know ahead of time what your theme is. If you don’t have one, your story will be about nothing.
Story Credibility: Here’s where details are critical. In their eagerness to make a deal too many writers, directors and producers fail to take the time necessary to make sure that their stories actually make sense. They don’t bother to research their subject matter, or talk to people who might provide them with invaluable insights on the subjects they’ve chosen to dramatize. As a result, these stories never get sold; if they do, they’re not nearly as effective as they otherwise could have been.
As screenwriters, we must recognize that we’re in the business of lying. We ask our audiences to believe – even though they know it’s all artifice – that what they’re seeing on the screen is really happening. (“Willing suspension of disbelief.”) As any good ad man, used car dealer, lawyer or politician will tell you, a really good lie is ninety-percent truth. Support a statement with known facts, and your audience will accept the bits you’ve fabricated. A kernel of truth can “sell” even the wildest of scenarios. For example, in their sic-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were able to explore the very nature of God by first grounding their story in hard scientific principles.
Research can also lead to character facets or story twists you might not otherwise have considered. Truth often really is stranger than fiction, and the real world is rife with people, plots and dramatic ironies that you’ll never discover by simply staring at a blank computer screen. For example, much of Dustin Hoffman’s memorable portrayal of autistic-savant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man was based on his spending time with actual people afflicted with autism. The elderly Rose inTitanic throws clay pots because director James Cameron met and interviewed 103-year-old sculptor Beatrice Wood while doing background for his historical epic. Matt Damon’s amazing mathematical prowess in Good Will Hunting was credible only because he and co-author Ben Affleck took the time to research the real world of advanced mathematics. (You think anyone could make that stuff up?)
Yet despite the obvious value of research, you’d be surprised to discover how many screenwriters concoct their story lines with only the most rudimentary knowledge of their subject matter. They figure, “Hey, if it sells, then I’ll do the research.” Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.
If you’re going to develop a medical drama, learn something about medicine. If you’re going to develop a legal thriller, learn something about law. Don’t write a military drama without some exposure to the military. It doesn’t matter if you’re developing a story about cops, crooks, bricklayers or trapeze artists; know what you write and write what you know.
This holds true even in such fantastical genres as science fiction. It’s amazing how many people write, pitch and/or develop sci-fi and techno-thrillers without even the most basic knowledge of science and technology. They have people flying to the moon in space shuttles, doing DNA analysis in seconds and dodging flaming meteors in the vacuum of space. They figure, “Hey, no one knows about this stuff so they won’t care.” But what they’re really saying is, “I don’t know about this stuff, and I’m too damned lazy to find out.”
The bottom line is, most of us have at least a high school education; we read newspapers, watch television and we live in a world of high technology. We may not all be rocket scientists, brain surgeons, trial lawyers or master detectives, but most of us can smell something fishy. As screenwriters, we owe it to our audiences not to insult their collective intelligence.
To reiterate: Frame your movie in terms of structure, character and theme. Then research, research, research. Know what you’re talking about. Remember, knowledge is power. And in Hollywood, power is everything.
– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine
photo credit: pasukaru76 via photopin cc]]>
1. DON’T “nut and bolt” the movie pitch (that’s pitching everything in the
movie). Keep it short. 5-7 minutes, tops.
2. DO make great eye contact.
3. DON’T use notes or read them the pitch.
4. DO begin with your logline, “This is a story about…”
5. DO “set the table” by also starting with the title, genre and theme.
6. DON’T cast your story, i.e., “This is a part for Tom Cruise…”
7. DO tell your story in the present tense…as if it’s all happening
8. DO break the narrative to focus on at least three set-pieces – scenes
your audience is going to remember.
9. DON’T spend time describing minutia — the kind of car the hero
drives, a character walking down a hall before entering a room, etc.
10. DON’T marry two movies (i.e., “It’s The Mummy meets The English
11. DO provide a specific ending to your story — remember, it’s all about the ending — and then wrap up with thematic closure. Reiterate what this movie has been about – what the “moral of the story” is, which is really a statement of your theme. (e.g., redemption, love, betrayal, family)
3-4 sentences describing your script or screenplay (preferably set pieces)
THEME (What is your story about?)
Courtesy of the Hollywood Pitch Festival http://www.hollywoodpitchfestival.com
photo credit: robotron84 via photopin cc]]>