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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Most Frightening Question for a Screenwriter: So How Does It Begin?

Getting started is the hardest part. Writers like Stephen King often talk about “The Fear of the Blank Page.” It’s intimidating to start with a completely blank screen or piece of paper. There’s that excellent scene at the beginning of Throw Mama From the Train where Billy Crystal sits for hours trying to come up with the first sentence of his new book. Happens to me all the time.

Most writers usually start a project with no clear idea of how they will start it. What attracted them to the idea in the first place was the drama and conflict slated for the middle and end sections. They have the dramatic confrontations, desperate escapes, the thrilling duels all clearly envisioned. But how does one turn that the first blank page into the doorway to those fantastic moments?

Not to add pressure but I participated in a recent Facebook discussion with Larry N. Stouffer with some other readers about how important the first page is. We all agreed that the first page or first ten pages was vital to the writer. Many readers will just read the first ten pages, ten pages in the middle, and ten pages at the end to decide whether or not to pass on a script. Some readers never get past the first ten.

So how does a writer conquer those difficult to write but oh so important first pages? After reading so many scripts, I’ve seen a number of ways to open a script. Some have worked better than others.

(Note: A really killer logline can buy a writer a grace period. If the concept really excites an executive he may overlook a dull opening.)

Exposition: Probably the worst way to open a script yet I see it all the time, especially in fantasy stories. Mountains of imagined history are recapped by solemn narrators and re-enacted by characters who don’t appear in the main story. Yes Lord of the Rings pulled it off but so many others have failed trying to duplicate that sequence. Just once I’d like to see a fantasy spec begin with a typical day in Cymeria and leave the back story for us to discover later on. There are some instances, like a historical drama for example, that we do need a point of reference. The writer should always treat these the way they would remove a band-aid; quick, short and fast.

Furious Action: Some writers attack the beginning by throwing us right into the heart of an action scene. This opening takes its cue from the classic James Bond films. The writer sets out to thrill the audience from the beginning. Elaborate scenes featuring Wire Fu, Gun Fu, Car crashes or whatever is hot at the moment fill the page. Sounds like a can’t miss strategy? Actually it backfires more often than not. The problem is these scenes are description heavy. Seeing it on the screen and reading it on the page are often two different animals. It takes real skill to keep a reader interested through so much physical action. Some writers even turn it into 5 straight pages of unbroken descriptions. Instead of thrilling the audience, the writer has bored the reader to tears. Secondly this is the first time we’re meeting the main characters. The reader hasn’t established a rapport with them yet so placing them in jeopardy right away isn’t as exciting. Worst of all, these scenes almost never have any impact on the story that follows. They are often a Bond-like teaser, exciting maybe but utterly disposable in terms of the story. So yes, a writer can create an opening as exciting as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he runs the risk of boring the reader with a scene that’s not even that important.

Flashforward: A common trick is to flashforward to a scene near the climax of the film where the hero is desperate and on the brink of losing everything. Then the story starts and we wonder how the hero got from his quiet dull life to having a gun shoved up against his face. At least that’s the idea. The truth is this technique has been used so many times that experienced readers tend to ignore it. It really doesn’t take any great skill to write a scene where a man is begging for his life and then cut to a scene “24 hours ago” of him sitting in his cubicle looking bored with life. Yes it’s a contrast, but we’ve seen it already. And writers sometimes mistake jeopardy for sympathy. A jerk with a gun to his temple is still a jerk.

Someplace New: What does get my attention is when I’m taken someplace I haven’t been before. A unique setting can be a great way to open a story. But if a writer is going to open with an exotic location, he has to demonstrate real knowledge. If the writer is getting his info from a travel guide it’s going to show. The writer needs to do some real research (or have actually lived there) to make the setting truly come alive. At the same time he has to keep the story flowing naturally. He shouldn’t be giving the grand tour right away, this isn’t Nat Geo. The writer should strike a nice balance between information and storytelling.

Get the Story Started: I always appreciate it when the writer gets the story in motion right away. It doesn’t have to be a big fight, but if the main conflict is sketched out or hinted at, I’m a happy reader. A thief watches as a well armed security detail gets into an armored limousine, I start to wonder how he’s going to get the loot. An Indian student walks into an all white classroom, even if everyone is polite and civil I know there’s a culture clash coming. Mystery, Thriller, Comedy and Rom Com writers have huge advantages in this area. Thriller writers begin with a puzzle to be solved. How was this man stabbed to death without using a knife? How did this woman drown in the middle of the desert? The writer knows to start at the crime scene with the examiner telling the detectives the news. Comedy writers start with a comedic situation either everyday or extraordinary; the boss is making us work late or the boss is an evil werewolf. The writer knows to start at work with the boss telling the hero he’s working late tonight. Rom Com writers start with opposites who are in love but don’t know it yet. The writer knows to start with his two soon to be lovers enjoying their seemingly incompatible lifestyles. Sometimes a writer just needs to go back to his logline, find the main conflict and open with that. There are far worse ways to begin.

Character: For me the best way for a writer to begin is with the main character. This has so many advantages. It usually means lots of dialogue in the beginning. Good dialogue moves quick. Those first ten pages go by fast if they feature a lot of dialogue. It also tells the reader two very important things about the writer. A) Can he write good dialogue and B) Can he create interesting characters I want to follow. Next to the logline these two might be the most important traits for a writer to master. Look at the screenwriters who garner the most acclaim. Nearly all of them write great dialogue and create unforgettable characters. If a writer creates an interesting character in those first few pages, I’m eager to find out what happens to him even if I’m on my 30th script of the day. That is exactly what a writer wants out of his first ten pages.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Logline Workshop: 5 Steps to Making a Real Logline

I keep going over this because it really is the most important thing for a new writer to learn and it’s usually the last thing they get a handle on. So to save weeks of break backing trial and error, I’ve come up with a concept and logline workshop. Step by step to take you from concept to finished logline.

Step 1 – Find that “Chocolate and Peanut Butter” Combination. Firs come up with a concept. Concept is the idea of the story. It’s sometimes mistaken for the logline but it is separate. This is where the cliché of the Hollywood screenwriter throwing together titles of popular movies comes from; “It’s Top Gun meets The Little Rascals!” This is because studios are looking for two things in a concept, familiarity and uniqueness. They want something audiences around the world will recognize but at the same time something they haven’t seen before. Beginning writers make the mistake of thinking this is the be all and end all of a logline; that if they can just put two mega hit movies together they have the perfect logline. Otherwise they’ll just throw as many pop culture terms together in hopes of finding something that sticks. But a logline is more than just an idea or a set-up. Anyone can put two film titles together. A computer can do it. A writer needs an idea he can turn into a story. Here’s where beginning writer’s fail. By playing a word matching games they come up with ideas they can’t even turn into complete sentences, let alone entire screenplays.

So how does one find a good concept? There’s no one answer. With experience they start to come naturally. A beginning writer is to look for two contrasting things and then put them together. An old screenwriting text gave an example “A man who’s afraid of everything meets a woman who’s afraid of nothing.” Contrast means there will be drama. But despite their contrast they have to be somewhat harmonious. A reader has to be able to easily see how these two elements might combine. So while Crocodiles and Accountants may be contrasting, it’s not the most harmonious of combinations. This is why it’s sometimes called “That Chocolate and Peanut Butter” combination. Not to infringe on anyone but a writer is looking for “Two great tastes” that is two ideas that could stand independent of each other, that have been the basis for stories on their own. And these two ideas have to “Taste Great Together” or that an outside observer can easily see these two together. If a concept needs a ten minute discourse to explain itself then it wasn’t that good. This method can lead a writer back to putting movie titles and pop culture references together (or not in the case sited above) but the writer will have an actual criteria for putting combinations together instead of just randomly tossing the word salad.

Step 2 – Settle on a Main Character. Once a writer has a concept he then needs to put it in motion. Ideas without motion just sit on the page. Even the most explosive idea in the history of Hollywood will only get a writer to “So what happens?” Before the writer answers “What?” he first must answer “Who?” Stories aren’t about events or objects, they’re about characters. Movies are based on roles. The difference between greenlighting and turnaround is often who you can get to star in it. Once the writer has his idea, the next important step is to humanize that idea by creating his main character or characters. In the example above, who is the man who fears everything? Is he a harried insurance adjuster who knows obsessed with accident statistics? A hypochondriac who scans the internet for the latest viral outbreaks? Someone who was mugged as a child? Who is the woman who’s afraid of nothing? A reckless bike messenger? A beautiful, but sloppy and accident prone personal chef? A Dirty Harriet cop? In each case the writer should remember to keep the characters contrasting yet somehow compatible.

Step 3 – What happens? This is the big one. There are so many possibilities it may seem daunting to just narrow it down. But if a writer keeps to his two contrasting characters he’s really down to just four choices. In our example if the Man Who Fears Everything is A and Woman Who Fears Nothing is B, then the storyline is down to one of the four:

1. A can go to B
2. B can go to A
3. A can go to B in the first half, then B can go A in the second.
4. A disaster throw A and B together in a neutral location.

So for example, the Paranoid Insurance Adjuster falls in love with the Reckless Bike Messenger and tries to win her over by joining her on dangerous bike trails and races (A goes to B)

The Man Who was Attacked as Child witnesses a mob hit and the Fearless Lady Detective is assigned to watch over him. (B goes to A)

Our Hypochondriac hires the Sloppy Personal Chef, gets her fired, then to make it up to her tries to help her win a big open air Chili Cook Off (B goes to A then A goes to B)

Or Aliens could kidnap any of the three couples and put them together in a zoo (Thrown together in a neutral location)

Option 4 has a long history. Anytime you see a shipwreck or a plane crash or some other disaster throwing different people together, then you’re seeing option 4. It’s popular because it doesn’t require as much research and it helps the budget by limiting the number of locations. But it has one severe drawback.

Step 4 – Why does He or She Do it? Personal stakes. The “disaster scenario” removes most of the personal stakes because it removes choice from the characters. They didn’t choose to be marooned or trapped or whatever. The only stakes for the characters become elemental, survival or freedom. That may sound like enough stakes to some, but producers want more. They want to see more from first time writers to see if they can give them more. Years ago I pitched a horror idea to a producer, it was about a group of people trapped in a farmhouse with a horrible monster outside trying to get in. One of the producers I was pitching to asked me what were the personal stakes. I couldn’t answer because I thought I had enough at stake for the characters. I was wrong. I didn’t make the sale. A friend of mine once talked to a producer about adapting a comic strip. The original strip was about two characters trying various jobs and failing. The producer wanted to add some personal stakes, like they had to get money to keep the bank from foreclosing. My friend stuck to the original spirit of the strip and as a consequence didn’t get the job. So a writer should always give personal stakes to his characters. It’s what producers are looking for.

To take one example from above, say the Hypochondriac had an old nurse who used to care for him as a child. Her dying wish was that he try and help out her granddaughter, the klutzy chef. So when he gets her fired, he isn’t just letting down her but her dead grandmother as well.

Step 5 – What’s the Major Complication. A good logline encapsulates the story. So how much of the story does a writer need to encapsulate? Surprisingly quite a bit. A good logline should take the reader right up to the first major complication in the hero’s endeavors if not right up to the “fight or flight” moment near the end. A producer needs to be able to envision up to two thirds of the script especially from the beginning writer. This can be a real problem for writers who like to throw twists in the middle of a screenplay, it leaves them with not enough of a logline. A savvy producer, given the concept and the main characters can picture the first act, given the main action he fill in half of the second act, given the main complication and he can picture the screenplay up till the beginning of the third act. In other words the logline has successfully encapsulated the story for the producer and he can make a decision whether to read or reject right then and there.

So going back to Hypochondriac/Klutzy Chef Romance, our Hypochondriac has followed our chef to the big Chili Cook Off only there’s a problem. The main competition is someone who used to bully the Hypochondriac as a boy and still knows how to push our hero’s buttons. The Bully was even the reason our hero developed his condition in the first place (back to personal stakes!)

So there is the construction of a logline from concept to major complication. A logline is more than a game of Movie Title Jumble. It’s not pick a bunch of buzzwords out of a hat. It’s a serious exercise in structured writing and should serve as the basis for a writer’s first treatment or outline. It’s also the best selling tool a writer can have.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Budget Busters: 5 Things To Watch Out For

Sometimes it all comes down to dollars and cents. Imagine a producer sitting down with two incredible scripts in front of him. Both are exceptionally well written. They both have great high concepts. Both stories are exciting, deep and thoughtful. Both contain characters that are vivid and very cast-able. But one is going to cost 100 million to produce and the other can be made for 10 million. The odds of the 100 Million epic being chosen, especially if it’s from an unknown screenwriter, are pretty slim. As in all business ventures, economics are a driving force in movie making. Studios want to maximize their odds of turning a profit. One way to do that is to keep costs low. A screenwriter doesn’t have to watch every penny while writing (unless he’s planning on producing and directing it in which case it’s vital!) But he should be familiar with certain economic realities in the film world.

The first thing to realize is that genre counts. Harry Potter may be setting box office records. Lord of The Rings may have swept the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean Hollywood is screaming for epic science fiction and fantasy specs. Quite the opposite. Those films take almost as much money to produce as they take in at the box office. I say this quite sadly because I have read some really good fantasy specs recently and they would be great films. But I know what the response from producers will be. “No!” The epic fantasy and big budget science fiction world right now is exclusively reserved for screenwriters with proven track records or bestselling novels. So if a writer has a perfect Harry Potter-style fantasy spec, he or she should immediately turn it into a novel. This goes for Historical Dramas as well. Period sets and costumes cost a lot of money. Even if a Historical Drama spec is exceptionally well written, the cost of producing it will be a hurdle.

With all rules there are always exceptions. Low budget fantasy and science fiction are still viable for unknowns. Producers are always on the lookout for the next Terminator or Aliens, a low to mid budget thriller that can spin into a multi sequel franchise. As for Historicals, producers may not be interested in biographies of Susan B. Anthony so much as they are looking for the next 300. Stylized action is in at the moment so a Historical Action spec has a chance (just don’t make it about Susan B. Anthony.)

So what are the genres that aren’t expensive? The same genres that pop up with regularity on the “What’s hot in the spec market” list. Comedies, Romantic Comedies, Family Films, Horror, Thriller, Action. Things set in the here and now and can produced with a minimum of cost. And most of them like Comedies and Thrillers usually have very cast-able lead roles. But even in these “bargain” genres a writer can still do things that will blow the budget.

1. Water – The robot shark in Jaws sank. Kate Winslet nearly drowned making Titanic. And there’s the well known story of Waterworld. The moral of the story; water is expensive. Shooting either on water or underwater requires loads of additional safety features. So if a rom-com writer puts his star crossed lovers adrift in a life raft, or if a horror writer has his serial killer drag his victims down into the deep, he or she has added a good deal to the film’s budget. If the story is set mostly in an aquatic setting, like an undersea wreck or on a yacht in the middle of the Pacific, then the budget has skyrocketed.

2. Night Time isn’t always the Right Time – Often a writer has to set exterior scenes at night. But the writer should keep in mind that night shoots require additional lighting (unless the director is going for a pseudo documentary look using mostly available light.) Those lights need to be set up. That’s additional labor and time. Labor and time equals money.

3. Location, Location, Location – One of the first things Quentin Tarantino learned when he was making Reservoir Dogs was the fewer the locations, the lower the budget. It goes the other way as well. Increase the number of locations, the budget will correspondingly climb. Some writers may want to give their comedy or action film a globe spanning scope, but all those foreign locales add up.

Special mention should be given to the use of historic landmarks. Ever since Hitchcock had Martin Landau chase Carey Grant and Eva Marie Saint over Mt. Rushmore, writers of all stripes want to use the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building as a setting for the big moments in their stories. Writers should remember that shutting down those famous landmarks for filming costs money. Having two guys fight to the death on top of Saint Peter’s in Rome may sound cool, but try getting the permits for that, or building a convincing replica.

4. A Cast of Thousands – Writers should remember that every speaking role means money, and a good chunk of it. The Screen Actor’s Guild has set minimums for speaking roles. Beginning writers will sometimes create whole casts of characters just for one segment of the screenplay then completely jettison them after the main characters move on. That’s wasteful. Any speaking roles should either be brief or vitally important to the story.

5. Unnecessary Scenes – This goes to basic writing, but every scene in the screenplay should be vitally important to the story. Anything that isn’t necessary should be pruned from the final screenplay. I was told of a Lewis and Clarke Historical spec which contained an elaborate scene. It was huge Indian camp with dozens of extras. The purpose of this scene? To have Lewis and Clarke comment on how much they like roasted buffalo.

The writer should be no means approach every project from a penny pinching mindset. A lot of writers challenge themselves to write thrillers set in one single location with just two characters. It sounds nice in theory but the results more often than not are boring. Hollywood wants movie scripts, not stage plays. But the writer just needs to be aware and be on guard against unintentionally raising the film’s cost. On the page there is total freedom. But in reality there are limits. Making movies will always be expensive, but the writer should try and control just how expensive.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Logline By Any Other Name

The lovely and talented Charlie Jane Anders over at IO9 has started a great new writer’s advice column. And in her very first post she talks about she calls the “Elevator Pitch,” which readers of this blog will recognize as a Logline. She even says most writers think of the Elevator Pitch as:

…some kind of crass Hollywood thing: like "It's Rain Man – With Time Travel! It's 28 Days Later meets 9 1/2 Weeks!"

She then goes on to text book description of a logline:

But really, the "elevator pitch" just summarizes what your story is about. And if you can't explain what your story is about in a couple sentences, maybe that's actually a bad sign.

Yes it is a bad sign if you can’t summarize your own story. A very bad sign. I’ve tried to make that point several times in this blog (here, here and here.) I’ve stated over and over again that loglines are what get executives and producers to read screenplays. Anders takes it a step further by including the audience into the equation:

…when you describe your book in a few pithy sentences, you're making a promise to your potential readers, about what they'll get if they invest time and money in your book. You warrant that you'll deliver a story about a guy who gets migraines that let him rewrite the past. Or a dragon who disguises herself as a racehorse so she can take part in the Kentucky Derby. If the reader buys your book based on that pitch, you'd better deliver on it.

Perfect sentiments. Although I will say if a writer promises a Dragon/Racehorse story and deliver an Elf/Motorcross story, the producer/publisher will probably notice long before that story gets a chance to disappoint an audience.

It’s fascinating that Anders should choose the logline for her first advice post. It just underscores the close relationship between the storytelling arts though there are still huge differences between a screenplay and a novel. I wouldn’t use Syd Field to plot out a short story. Another important difference is length. Anders encourages side developments in the course of writing a fantasy novel.

These subplots, and digressions, and possibly philosophical lines of inquiry, are marvelous and should absolutely be in your novel. It's part of the joy of speculative fiction that you can draw such a broad canvas.

A screenwriter who indulges himself thusly will quickly run out of real estate. 120 pages of properly formatted screenplay goes by remarkably fast. Space for subplots is severely limited.

In another bit of irony, some time ago I posted about how really good loglines can act as “human computer viruses” or “Nam Shabs” like the kind described in Neal Stephenson’s Sci-Fi classic Snow Crash. One of the reason loglines or elevator pitches are so important is that broken down it’s easy to see how “catchy” they are. How quickly they can spread just by word of mouth. You see this all the time in the publishing world where previously unknown writers suddenly jump into the bestseller ranks. It’s because their “elevator pitch” was extremely “viral.”

Loglines have been around Hollywood for decades now, going back to the beginning of High Concept in the 80's. From Anders' article it appears as if the publishing world is implementing it's own version. That's great news for screenwriters who want to write novels and for novelists who want to write screenplays.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Never Give It Away

SoFluid on her excellent screenwriting blog has a great post about “Writer Wanted” ads that offer very, very little. She cites examples from a recent Twitter conversation she had with her friends:

J - Just saw script co-writing ad, noting that "The writer would recieve [sic] a copy of the film". Christ, he'll be inundated. What an offer!

J - I love all these "Write a script for us - for free!" ads. There's no money, but you'll get a copy of the film and a full credit. Wowee.

When they asked who would agree to such terms, SoFluid replied:

Me - Some of us have to start somewhere, & if that means writing for free...

That is correct, we all have to start somewhere but a writer has to keep in mind what constitutes a “start.” There are a lot of problems with the kind of set up described above. It pays to know a little something about how the world of independent film finance actually works.

(Note- This excludes student films and shorts which almost never pay. They can be good for your resume.)

If an independent producer is looking to raise money through investors he has to present them with a business plan, including a production budget. If an investor looks over the budget and sees a “0” underneath the “Screenwriter” expense column he’s going to ask the producer a lot of uncomfortable questions.

Do you not have a screenplay? Are all rights secured? How good can it be if you got it for nothing?

If the producer puts a dollar amount in the “Screenwriter” category he’s then obligated to pay the writer that amount. Otherwise the producer could be guilty of fraud.

Another thing to remember is the Writer’s Guild. It should be every screenwriter’s goal to gain membership to the Guild and secure the necessary Guild credits. Although the Guild has made recent efforts to accommodate the independent world, they take a very dim view of writers working for no money whatsoever. They just went through a lengthy strike to secure their rights in New Media. They don’t have a sense of humor about things like this.

That doesn’t mean the writer has to get money up front every time. The “No Money” option is a common practice in the industry. Basically the producer agrees to pay the writer’s fee once certain pre-production milestones are met; usually once the project is fully funded and ready to begin shooting or as soon as the project begins shooting.

The other thing to consider is the reverse of the credit/no money deal. The money/no credit deal. Uncredited rewrites, ghostwriting, and work-for-hire jobs can found everywhere. It can be a little hard to advertise such services since confidentiality is a must. But word does spread and a writer can soon find herself with plenty of such work.

It can be tempting to at least take a chance on a write-for-free offer. It is nice for a writer to have a DVD with actors speaking the lines she wrote, but there’s no guarantee that the resulting product would be anything the writer want her name attached to. For all the bother, a writer is better off producing her own short. That way she can be sure the finished product is indeed a worthy calling card.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Theme: When Concept Met Character

People can be forgiven in believing that Hollywood is full of nothing but profit minded Philistines. Truth be told the popular myth isn’t entirely off. You can enjoy a long and profitable career writing nothing but stories about killer robots from space that are only about killer robots from space.

But the business is also full of people who wrote their Master’s Thesis on William Faulkner, who have seen all the works of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, and who collect Miles Davis records. There are executives who appreciate deeper and more thoughtful screenplays, even if they are about killer robots.

A screenplay that is deep and thoughtful has a theme; larger, universal ideas that underscore the main story. And even the profit hungry mercenaries in the business see the value of a good theme in a screenplay. Themes that are universal by definition have wide appeal with the global audience. That is why you’ll almost always see a family or a love story as the “B” story in an FX blockbuster. Studios want a universal theme to play alongside the explosions and CGI. They want the hero not only to beat the evil alien but to reconcile his conflict with his wife or his lover or his father or his dog.

The “insert family drama here” method is definitely a valid at least from a commercial perspective. It certainly didn’t hurt the box office receipts of Die Hard. But there is a better way. By looking at the screenplay’s concept or logline and its characters a writer can come up with a theme that flows naturally from the story.

The concept and logline encapsulate what happens in the story. The writer should ask how his characters feel about what’s happening. How does it affect them personally? Look at the two versions of The Fly. The original was just a standard monster movie about a man turning into a fly. There was no deep thought about the implications to the character. The David Cronenberg remake however asked what it would be like for someone to undergo this horrific change to their body. It became more than a monster movie, it became a theme and a powerful one for the AIDS aware 80’s. With the remake of Battelstar Galactica, the creators looked deeper into the idea of an attack by unrelenting robots and came up with a theme that echoed post 9/11 paranoia. The list goes on and on. Attention to theme is what separates a Judd Apatow comedy from Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

But writers should never forget that characters are the important second half of the equation. A theme posited by a writer is no good unless it is lived by the characters in the story. Often I’ll have beginning writer’s tell me what their theme is but I look back at their screenplays I find nothing of the sort. Sometimes I find the characters drifted in a completely different direction. They’ll say their story is about staying true to their hearts, but I’ll find that their characters are made miserable by following their passions. The writer should really have a “heart to heart” with his own characters. Really good characters take own a life of their own and can’t be shoehorned to fit the writer’s every whim, at least not without breaking believability. Ask truthfully what personal significance does the story have for the character. Therein the writer will find his theme.

A final word about the difference between theme and politics. They are separate. Politics, though it may not seem like it, are temporary. They are also highly impersonal and tend to treat people as broad categories. Politically motivated screenplays are usually the worst written and worst reviewed screenplays. Not only are they commercially unviable (studios spend millions trying to get the whole country, not to mention the rest of the world, to love their movies) but they usually are poorly written. Writers of either stripe who make overtly political pieces tend to use the same ham fisted approach to every other part of the screenplay. Universal themes on the other hand have been with us for generations and go straight to a person’s core. These core values transcend Blue State or Red State and even transcend national borders. Those are the real themes Hollywood is after.

Writers usually create a theme for their story without even realizing it. Just by choosing what to write about and how their characters react, they’ve already started down the road to creating a theme. All that needs to be done is to take that theme and give it a nice polish.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Structure: The Common Language of Hollywood

Everybody in Hollywood knows structure or thinks they know it. Producers, execs, and assistants all have to be able to talk about plot points, acts, and inciting incidents. This is something everyone is expected to know. If you work for a producer in Hollywood you had better know who Syd Field is.

A typical conservation:
“How’s that Stuffed Animal Crime Noir script I gave you?”
“Got potential but there’s problems in the first act.”
“What’s the inciting incident?”
“It’s the first jewelry store robbery but that doesn’t occur until page 40.”
“Hmmm. Writer has problems with structure.”
Except for the details that little snippet gets repeating a thousand times a day every day in Hollywood.

The biggest reason for this is that while so much of judging writing is subjective, how the bones of a screenplay are laid out, how it is structured, is completely objective. You can argue whether or not an action scene is stylish and exciting or trite and clichéd. What you cannot argue is when it occurs in the screenplay. That’s all structure is really, where the events of the story take place. Take away a movie’s heart stopping stuntwork, amazing special effects, and crackling dialogue and it’s really, as Lemony Snicket would say just a series of events.

Broken down to its “blueprint” even an assistant who has two weeks on the job can see problems. They can see where a writer is spinning his wheels when he should be surging forward or where he’s sprinting ahead when he should be laying down foundations for later. Looking at how the screenplay is structured it’s easy to see if it is properly built.

But what’s the proper way to build a story? There are a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to studying that. They’ve developed what are called “beat sheets” a standard pattern for when important events should be taking place in the story. One of the best available is from Blake Snyder and his book Save the Cat.

It may seem daunting at first to beginners but they should remember what we all learned in High School English; every story has a Beginning, Middle, and an End. So is the same with screenplays. Beat Sheets tell you what should be happening in the Beginning, Middle, and End and how long each of these sections should be. After you’ve read and used a few of them you’ll begin seeing “the beats” in movies you watch and in other screenplays you read.

Inevitably some people do take it too far. Readers complain all the time about scripts that adhere too mechanically to a beat sheet and stifle all spontaneity out of their stories. But on balance readers prefer to see a script that is too tight and slightly mechanical as opposed to a screenplay that’s a mess structure-wise. The one that's a complete mess has almost no chance. The one that's too tight, that one can still be a sale if the concept is strong enough.

It’s a very gratifying thing to be able to go to a movie and see the beats. It makes you feel like more of a professional. And it gives you an in to talk with other professionals in the business. Learn structure, because everyone else already has.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pitchfest Survival Guide: 6 Things to Remember

Pitchfest.

It's a a powerful word. Every year hundreds take time out of their busy schedules and fly all the way to Los Angeles to attend one. I was at the very first Screenwriting Expo Pitchfest. I stood in line with hundreds of others waiting for my chance to pitch to actual Hollywood professionals. After I was done I was sure I was just weeks away from signing that big contract.

It didn't happen that way. And no one else should really expect instant fame and fortune either. But there are ways to make sure you get the most out of your pitchfest experience.

1. Have Fun
Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the city. Los Angeles is a great place. You'll meet all sorts of people, some who may be become your friends some who are just characters you'll want to write home about. It's easy to let the stress and anxiety overwhelm you. Don't let it.

2. Practice Your Logline and Concepts
I've said this a lot but it can't be over emphasized. The logline and the concept are what get people interested in your screenplay in the first place. Plenty of people can write, the ones who succeed are the ones who understand how to craft a compelling logline. Demonstrate you know how to come up with a truly high concept and the people at the pitchfest will take notice.

3. Target Managers and Agents
Production companies are always good but Agents and Managers are the people who work with writers day in and day out. They are the people who can help you not with just one script but with your entire career. Try to get in to see as many of them as possible. Hint: These individuals fill up the quickest so make sure you're the first in line.

4. Find Out Where to Submit To
You'll probably get a lot of people handing you their cards. Always find out where you're supposed to send your screenplay and to whose attention. Sometimes companies even have two or more offices at different locations. A perfect pitch is wasted if you end up sending your script to the wrong individual at the wrong location.

5. Follow Up But Don't Pester
You need to give people a reasonable amount of time to review your script. Wait at least a month before your first follow up call if you don't hear anything. Be polite. Don't let your emotions get the better of you. Expect a rejection. Don't beg or get emotional when you hear, "no." Remember...

6. The Ultimate Goal Is Not a Sale, But the Start of a Relationship
It's not a spring but a marathon. It takes a lot of steps to make a success. A good pitchfest is just one of them. That is biggest lesson beginners should learn. The lottery ticket, jackpot winner is the rarity. The best you can hope for is someone who is willing to let you email them new material, maybe give you some freelance writing jobs. If you're real lucky he or she will let you send them loglines and story ideas for criticism and feedback. When that happens then you're real close to getting repped.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

6 Tips for Screenwriters Outside the US

This post is dedicated to reader who emailed me from India asking if I had any specific advice for writers outside the US.
It's very hard for people outside of Los Angeles to break in. As I stated earlier, so many of the decisions are made here. But writers who are outside of the US (and outside of Los Angeles) do have avenues open to them. Here are tips to finding those paths and making the most out of them.

1. Be Fluent in English

This may seem like a no brainer but the lure of Hollywood can often override common sense. I recently read a screenplay written by someone for whom English was a second language and it was pretty rough sledding. I honestly could not say whether the fault was his English skills or a storytelling skills. Did he write such flat dialogue because he has no ear or because could not fully express himself in English? If a writer's English is at a fifth grade level than the script will look like it was written by a fifth grader. And believe it or not there are plenty of scripts in the submissions pile that look like they were written by fifth graders. No writer wants to be lumped with that group.

2. Find a Good International Contest

Several of the biggest screenplay contests around, in particular the PAGE Awards, welcome foreign submissions with open arms. This is a great way to get an introduction to the film business in Hollywood. If a foreign writer shows real promise, a contest like the PAGE awards will work to get that writer exposure. If a writer wins or places in the contest he or she has an excellent calling card.

3. Use Where You Are and Who You Are

Foreign writers have a lot of handicaps but they do have several big advantages. First and foremost they are foreign. Hollywood wants new and exotic. To somebody in LA, what they eat for breakfast in Mumbai is as exotic as the latest sci fi novel. Too often foreign writers ignore what's right outside their own door. A foreign setting can add spice to any genre be it horror, rom com, science fiction, thriller, action adventure. The best way to gain somebody's attention, producers and agents included is to tell them something they didn't already know.

But Remember to Provide Easy Access to American Readers

Hollywood has gotten better at casting more diverse actors in leading roles but at the end of the day they are still looking at American audiences first. So yes, foreign writers still need to write their stories for an American lead. This isn't necessarily a roadblock to authenticity. And a writer doesn't have to resort to the Ugly American Tourist. In this modern globalize economy, many Americans now work abroad for a variety of companies. And the world is full of American ex-pats who have completely absorbed the culture of their host country. The writer needs to remember that if Brad Pitt is the lead, the movie is as good as made.

Connections Are There to Be Made

Every writer needs representation or help. Foreign writers need as much help as they can get. But where to find it when one lives thousands of miles from Los Angeles? Fortunately Hollywood isn't as far away as it used to be. All the major studios have offices around the globe to handle distribution. Often the only requirement for working at one of those offices is to be fluent in English. Now these offices have nothing to do with production and do not have any direct communication with the decision makers, but they are a conduit back to Los Angeles or New York. People move in and out of these companies all the time, often to join management companies or to form companies themselves. One can never know what casual acquaintances can lead to. Writers should remember that writing relationships are exactly like other business relationships. They require trust, comfort, and compatibility. There are hard to find. One has to be willing to spend a lot of time and energy to find the right one for them.

Don't Forget the Local Movie Scene

Hollywood isn't the only place to make movies. Before a foreign writer knocks himself out trying to impress somebody in Los Angeles, he should at least consider looking at the movies being produced in his own backyard. Hollywood loves foreign films. They especially love to remake them. The rules for breaking into the local movie scene is the same as those for breaking into the Hollywood scene. One has to form good relationships with people one can work with. This can be invaluable experience. A writer who has three IMDB credits, even if they are foreign, is worth more than some hotshot just out of film school.

Writers outside the US have a tougher hill to climb than those who live and work in Los Angeles. But it can be scaled. Foreign talent is constantly finding a new home in LA. No one knows where the next big thing is going to come from.

Monday, July 13, 2009

10 Reasons Why Your Script Got Rejected

Whether it's a contest, an agency or management company, a production company or even a studio, one thing is the same all over; there's too many damn scripts. Face it, you're not the only one who dreams of his name in lights and putting words in the mouths of Brad Pitt and Reese Witherspoon. Getting through that first row of defenses, also known as the reader is vital. That's why you have to avoid these common mistakes. I've seen them sink script after script.

1. The Logline doesn't Match the Story
This is a surprisingly common occurrence. That is because writers are often new to the idea of loglines. They make the mistake thinking that it's something they can get to after they've finished writing their script. So what happens is they follow their hearts and their inspirations and write long complex stories. Then they get to the end and try to shoehorn their stories into 25 words or less and find themselves at a loss. So what they end up doing is come up with a 25 word description that they think producers want to hear that vaguely covers their story. It won't work. If a reader really wants to stick his neck out and recommend your script, the first thing they're going to ask him for is a logline. Professionals work on their loglines first, then write their screenplays. It's easy to spot when you try to do the reverse.

2. Typos and Spelling Errors

Proofread. Proofread it a second time. Then get somebody else to proofread it a third. Screenwriters are allowed a certain number of mistakes as long as the story is good. But if every other sentence has a typo it looks like the writer just didn't care.

3. Formatting Errors

Is FinalDraft worth the $200 price tag? Yes if you're serious about becoming a screenwriter. Screenplay format is very important. It determines how long the actual movie will run. A properly formatted page will equal one minute of screen time. Readers see a lot of people trying to sneak by underwritten scripts with a number of tricks, extra spaces between scenes, double spacing, dialogue squeezed into a thin bar. At worst a poorly formatted script will be half as long in screen time so a 110 page "feature" is actually just a 55 page TV pilot.

4. Poor Dialogue
Readers zero in on the dialogue, sometimes they don't even read the action or scene descriptions. They want to see if the writer has an ear, if he knows how people talk. That he can be witty yet not babble for pages on end without getting to the point. People have to able to not just read a script, but speak it and perform it.

5. Too Much Description
Sometimes a reader gets a script that looks like a novel manuscript. Just row after row of ultra detailed description. Pros almost never pack their descriptions into one long block. Most of the time they break it up into several short paragraphs, each dedicated to only the most important elements of the scene. A writer should give telling and important details about the action, but should leave the actual directing to the directors. Writers shouldn't be describing very camera pan and zoom unless they're going to direct themselves.

6. Low or Middle Concept
A lot of stories have already been told. The sad fact of the matter is that a something that's just a coming of age story or a chase movie has no shot in Hollywood anymore. There have already been too many of those. The new writer will study the classics from 50 years ago and try to emulate those stories. Studios today want something more complex than that. They want High Concept, not Low or Middle Concept. They don't want just a coming of age story, they want a coming of age story about a boy who makes friends with a mafia boss in 1950's Las Vegas.

7. Budget Busters
Everything costs money. Even if the story is good it still his be practical. Some scenes are just too important to skimp on. But it's surprising how many first time writers blow the budget without even realizing it. They'll write in locations and add dozens of speaking characters in one part of the script, then discard them after the hero moves on. Those sets have to be built. Those actors have to be paid. A writer has to make sure the producer is getting his money's worth out of those expenses.

8. Music
Beginners are easy to spot because they often include popular songs in their scripts. Songs are a tricky business. Artists sometimes charge an arm and a leg for every use. And there's always a chance that the artist and the producer don't like each other, meaning the song choice is a complete non starter. Pros get around this very simply. They always say "like INSERT SONG NAME HERE." This is usually an easy fix so one instance won't doom a script. But if a writer has an entire soundtrack mapped out, it'll cause people to take pause.

9. The Ending Makes No Sense
Or it was a downer ending. Beginning writers often attack the fortresses of Hollywood full of artistic vigor. They've studied Altman and Sartre and they don't believe in happy endings or endings that wrap everything up in nice neat packages. That's not wrong, but it's not something Warner Brothers or Dreamsworks is going to be interested in. Studios are very up front about why they are in this business. They want to make money. A story that ends with a question mark or with the hero getting disemboweled (unless it's a horror movie) probably isn't going to make the $100 million grossing list.

10. It Just Wasn't That Good In the First Place
Sometimes a writer just has to suck it up and admit that his script wasn't the masterpiece he thought it was. This is a very subjective business. What one person thinks is brilliant another can think is worthless. A writer is lucky if only a handful of people really love his story. The works of undeniable genius are few and far between and if they were easy they wouldn't be that special or worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is where the real writers get separated from the wannabes. The wannabes pout and complain and try to argue their story past the wall. The pros just shrug and get started on the next big project.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Peaks and Valleys

My last post about monologue and speeches I touched on the idea that there were areas in a screenplay that were stronger than others, areas where you should put your best dialogue, monologue or action scenes. Here they can do the most damage so to speak. Here they have the advantage. These are the peaks.

Forget Syd Field for a moment. Just think of the narrative as a series of peaks and valleys. The hero sets out to do one thing, he starts doing it, looks like smooth sailing, then bang something happens and it’s no longer that smooth. After that the hero changes plans and then starts moving again. Again things are going along nicely until WAM, something else happens. Then the hero has to change plans again. You keep doing this as many times as it takes to get your hero from the beginning to the end.

What beginners sometimes forget is that the valleys are just important as the peaks. They don’t realize that we need those quiet moments where everything is going along nicely. Otherwise it’s going to be like Michael Bay film, all noise and now space to breath. Those kinds of movies are more exhausting than they are exciting.

An excellent example of placing your best scenes at the peaks of your story is True Romance. I used True Romance earlier as an example of great monologue, but the entire script is exceptional well structured. It’s the oddity in Tarantino’s early work. In the first two movies he wrote and directed, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he played around with the traditional storytelling structure. True Romance by contrast was classically structured and showed Tarantino didn’t have to break up the timeline to tell a compelling story.

The story starts out with Clarence and Alabama. They meet and fall in love. Everything is just hunky dory but then something happens. Alabama fesses up that she’s really a call girl hired to be with him. It’s the first big dialogue scene in the movie. It starts here around the 3 minute mark.



So after this things can’t go on as normal for Clarence and Alabama. Clarence marries her and tries to get her away from the life as a call girl. But that leads inevitably to confronting her pimp Drexl in this scene, a fine mix of top dialogue and action.



In the aftermath Clarence and Alabama try to get on with their lives. They flee the city with the stolen drugs and head for Los Angeles. For a moment it looks like they’ve nothing to worry about. But then the mob does show up and interrogate Clarence’s father, leading to the infamous “Sicilian” monologue.



But Clarence and Alabama don’t hear about the murder. They have no idea the mob is on their heels. They’re kicking it in LA, making contacts. Things are going better than smooth for them. Clarence has the potential drug buyers eating out of the palm of his hand. But then the mob does show up in a brutal way with an appearance by future Sopranos godfather James Gandolfini.



This serves as foreshadow to the finale when the mob, the cops and some very dumb bodyguards all converge in the same apartment.



Sure there are other memorable lines and scenes (the whole dialogue with Elvis for one) but these are the peaks of the story and they’re the scenes best remembered. They are some of the best scenes in the movie and they occur at its most important junctions.

So when you’re brainstorming scenes and dialogue that you can use in your story and you come up with something really good, save it. Then when you go to plot out your story, look for where the peaks are, where things have to change for your hero and put them there. You’ll be very pleased with the results.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Talk is cheap. Or is it?

Not long ago I was reading a script for a friend of mine. It was a slam bang actioner sort of in the Crank mode. It was a fuel injected read and I was zipping along when towards the end I noticed something that caught my eye. Towards the end he had three fairly long (half a page to near a whole page) speeches, one by the hero, one by the villain, and one by a secondary character. To my mind this was a mistake. This was supposed to be an action film. Why stop everything so these guys could talk?

I brought this up with him and he told me that it wasn’t a mistake. That actually his managers had told him to do just that. He said companies were looking for longer speeches inside their screenplays. Why? To attract actors.

Actors know that a flashy role, even a supporting one is a great way to enhance their resumes. Actors who’d been missing for years like Jackie Earl Haley can, with a single role, suddenly jump up into the A rankings. It also makes sense for producers. Movie projects are often greenlit based on the actors attached. The more A and B list actors you can attach to a project the better your chances of getting produced.

This is actually nothing new and two of the best examples are from David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino. Mamet made one of the greatest supporting actor speeches in Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet wrote an entire speech that wasn’t in the original play for actor Alec Baldwin. The result, Coffee is for Closers, is one of the most electrifying few minutes of film and an unforgettable part for Baldwin who was able to transition from romantic lead to villainous heavy (and later spoof THAT image) as a direct result of this speech.

Coffee is for Closers


Tarantino is renowned for his dialogue and he often gives his characters speeches lasting more than a page. Possibly the best known is his infamous Sicilian speech from True Romance. It’s decidedly un-PC but you can’t deny the raw power of it. Dennis Hopper didn’t need any career help at that point, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The Sicilian speech. Caution, offensive language


The one thing to keep in mind is where to place your speeches. I advised my friend to space his out more so they didn’t run one after the other. But more than that, the two examples I sighted above stand out because they occur right at the plot points. Coffee Is for Closers kicks off the crisis for the salesmen in the office, if they don’t sell they will be fired. In True Romance, the Sicilian speech occurs just as the mafia starts looking for Clarence and Alabama. The key moments of your story are the ones where the drama is at its heaviest. Consider expressing that drama in a speech. Because sometimes, when it comes to actors at least, it is better to “tell” instead of “show”. As long as the telling is as good as Coffee is For Closers.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

You've Won! Now What?

So you’ve entered a screenwriting contest and, miracle or miracles, you’ve won! Or you’ve placed or made the semi finals. Maybe it was one of the major contests like Nichols or PAGE. So what happens now? Are you set? Should you quit your job and move to LA? What do you do next?

The answer depends on what’s happening with you and what you really want to achieve. There are a few things to keep in mind.

1. The phone probably won’t be ringing off the hook


The winners and finalists of the major contests will get be getting phone calls or emails. But don’t expect a Rich and Famous contract. Winning or placing in a contest does give you an opening, but it’s up to you to exploit that for all it’s worth. Some contest coordinators really go out of their way to help out their top writers, again PAGE immediately jumps to mind. However it is up to you to make the most of those opportunities. Sometimes you have to do all the work yourself. You want representation, call up a manager and say you were a winner or finalist in the Austin Screenplay Competition. That will get their attention. And keep a running tally of how many contests you win or place in. A track record of excellence is always impressive. The last thing you want to do is sit at home, stare at the phone and wait for it to ring. If it rings, it rings, in the meantime, get off your butt and get yourself out there.

2. Don’t impulsively run off to LA. But do think about a planned move


LA is a big expensive city. It’s one thing to be confident of success. It’s another to throw all caution to the wind. If you have a good paying, secure job, don’t walk into the office and give your boss two weeks notice. But…in this business it is vital that you make real personal contact with the people who work here. You need to work with managers, agents, and eventually producers and executives. And they all live and work here. It’s very hard to really get into the LA scene without being in LA. There are exceptions but they are exceptional exceptions. If you win the Nichols chances are that yes, a major agency will shell out the cash to fly you down here and interview you. But they aren’t about to make a habit out of it. If they want you to be at a meeting at Sony, they don’t want to spend $1000 and set it up two weeks in advance. So unless you plan to rule the local independent movie scene, do plan to move out here to LA. Plan is the key word there. Find a good paying job and a cheap apartment. If you have family or loved ones it’s a much bigger deal. That’s a decision you’ll have to make.

3. Be aware that many contest winners aren’t necessarily commercially viable


Biggest problem with beginners is they think all contests are alike and that a contest win equals an automatic greenlight. In fact many contest winning scripts have no chance of being produced. Some contests, the PAGE again being example A, due put an emphasis on commercially viable scripts. But that hasn’t always been the case. A lot of contests tend to reward “prestige” scripts like historical dramas. The market for historical scripts by unknown writers is exactly nil. I had a conversation with my manager about contest winners and he told me about one writer who routinely placed and won screenplay contests. He never came close to selling any script but he knew how to write a script that contest judges loved. You don’t want to be that guy. Remember your goal. The contest is just a step on your way. It is not a goal in and of itself. Once it’s served its purpose move on and concentrate on writing a screenplay that can be sold and made.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Screenwriter's Guide to Success Part 4: Execution

Once you’ve got your logline and concept ready, you still have to execute.

Execution is the last part of the plan and a mistake more beginners make than you would think. I saw this a lot while judging scripts. I can think of two scripts that had good, possibly great concepts and loglines but for some reason the writers did not tell the story.

In one case (without going into too many details) the writer had a logline about a competition between two girls. I even wrote in my notes, I could see the movie poster which is something you always want to hear. But when it came to the actual story, the competition got pushed into the background. Now the writer did good work with the script. The characters were touching, the dialogue was on point, there were laughs and heartfelt moments. But the main concept that I loved so much had somehow gotten lost in the mix. This happens sometimes to writers who are talented but lack experience or discipline. Writing is all about fleshing out the blank spaces. But you can get carried away. You have to remember where your story is, what you’re there for. If you promise a story about two girls in a competition with each other, you need to tell that story.

The second case had a back-to-college-comedy logline that was one of the better ones I’d read in a while. The problem was this writer didn’t even start the college section until about page 60. I’m guessing because this writer didn’t number his pages. (Please always format correctly!) Unlike the previous example, this was a breakdown in storytelling fundamentals. You have to know when to bring the beginning to an end. This writer didn’t and as a result his script, which had huge potential, just shot itself in the foot. The college story which should have been the real meat of the script, was compressed and crowded out. New characters were introduced in the halfway mark and barely got any time to develop at all. The entire college experience for the characters was summed up in montage. You know, Syd Field gets knocked all the time, but he’s right about the first act length. If you’re writing a back to college comedy, you’d better have your characters in the admissions office by page 30 at the latest (and earlier than would be recommended.)

Sometimes you have to think of your scripts as products that you are marketing. You come up with a good name, catchy slogan, an impressive ad campaign. But when you open the box, you have something different than what you were selling. You have to deliver what you promise. If you don’t then it’s bait and switch and the readers and execs will call you on it. Don’t make the excuse of, “I was trying to surprise them.” If they wanted to read your script, it was because they were interested in what you said you were going to deliver. You can give them more than they expected. You can give it to them in a way they don’t expect. But you have to deliver what you promised.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Viral Loglines

How do you find out about a new movie? Trailer on the internet? TV commercial? Movie poster? It’s so easy to forget in this day and age but word of mouth is still one of the most powerful ways to disseminate information. People still talk to each other. They call on cell phones, email and now tweet. Your logline is something that can travel through all those medium easily. A really great logline is viral.

In his novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson, coined the term nam-shab meaning a kind of computer virus that could be transmitted to humans via speech. A screenplay logline operates a lot like the way Stephenson describes a nam-shab, as information that is easy to spread. That’s the key to successful logline, easy to spread. It expresses ideas that are unique and interesting but in a way that is quick and easy to comprehend. It is a hard, hard thing to really do correctly. Almost like a haiku.

A perfect logline will act like one of Stephenson’s viruses. It will spread throughout any social network it’s introduced to. If that social network happens to be, say, a production company or a studio, it will spread from reader to exec to the decision makers. The great thing is most people realize that if a logline can spread throughout a small group like a production company, it can spread through a larger one like the general audience. If the readers and execs can’t stop talking about a title and 25 words, then there’s a good chance everybody else will be equally infatuated.

The good logline can also mutate like a real virus, changing to trailers and posters that can “infect” other streams. The thing you hear from execs about great concepts and loglines is that they can “see the poster.” That means the logline can be expressed in purely visual terms. This is something a lot of beginners struggle with. They are very good at creating strong visuals in their stories, but when it comes to summing up their story, the key conflicts that drive it, into just one image they falter. A great way to give your loglines more of a “viral” quality, you should practice expressing it in visual terms. What is the key conflict of your story? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What is the nature of their conflict? Can you create one image that will sum up all of that? Don’t forget to include your concept in that image.

This is obviously something you don’t want to talk about with anybody but your representatives or your very closest friends. Once you get really good at this sort of thing it really is valuable. In fact most great concepts and loglines aren’t so much invented as they are “unearthed.” They’re floating out there in the pop cultural landscape waiting to be discovered. The problem is more than one person can discover them. A friend of mine had a rock solid concept and logline and had completed a great script only to have a similar project beat him to the market. So work close to the vest and try to work quick (Though you should never rush.)

Create a logline that other people can’t stop talking about and it will spread just like one of Neal Stephenson’s viruses.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Screenwriter's Guide to Success Part 3: High Concept and Logline

So you finally have representation, you’ve got your ear to the pavement and you know what’s selling and what studios are looking for. So what’s next?

Welcome to the world of High Concept and Loglines.

Defining what makes High Concept is a little bit like trying to capture the wind. It’s very hard to put into words exactly what it is because what makes a concept high can change very quickly. The Concept is the basic idea behind the story. It is not the story itself. It’s what makes your story stand out from all the others. The “High” means that the concept is unique enough, yet familiar enough that the top studios will sit up and take notice. There in lies the challenge. High Concept is something that is unique yet at the same time familiar. It has to be new yet not so new that nobody knows what it is. It’s also important to note that High Concept is fit to take out to major studio. A lot of beginners make the mistake with their concepts. They aim too low. They do variations of things from the DVD row or the Sci-Fi Channel. Those areas are the Low Concept neighborhood and ironically it’s an even harder world to break into than the higher end. The pay scale is very low so many reps won’t bother with them. As a result those companies rely almost entirely on writers they personally know. So aim high with your concepts. Go with something you can see on a multiplex poster.

Concept is not the story however. That’s why there are loglines.

Loglines are a cause of constant confusion among beginners. But it’s easier once you’ve come up with a good concept. Your logline is basically your concept put into action. Say your concept is Beagle Detective (I know it stinks, play along). So your logline has to take that idea and make it a story. You can be lazy and say the Beagle Detective tries to stop all the crime in Dog Town. But the hallmark of a good logline is that there is tension (dramatic or comedic) inherent in it. So a much better logline would be Beagle Detective tries to stop all the crime in Cat Town. And it’s even better if you can add some personal stakes. So for example, in order to fulfill his father’s dying request, the Beagle Detective goes to Cat Town to fight crime. Then you need to throw in the main complication. To fulfill his father’s dying request the Beagle Detective goes to Cat Town to clean it up only to find out that his girlfriend is secretly the crime boss. You want to give the logline enough information so that it is “off and running.” A lot of beginner loglines, and even some from experienced writers, just sit there. They don’t move. It doesn’t give any idea what the story is what or how it’s going to play out. You may be saying, couldn’t they just read the script? That’s the whole idea behind loglines. It’s impossible to read every script that comes down the pipe. Execs need a 25 words or less “snapshot” of your story so they can decide whether the whole thing is worth their time. You need to give them that reason to read the whole thing in the logline.

This is very hard to do by yourself. This is where good representation is vital. You need someone you can bounce concept ideas and loglines off of. Somebody once explained psychology to me like this, what is obvious to me is oblivious to someone else. And that is very true when it comes to concepts and loglines. What you think is a great concept might elicit a “Come on, dude,” from a seasoned manager. So you need to fire back idea back and forth until you hit something that you both love. Remember your rep’s best asset is passion. If they get truly excited for your work, there’s a good chance it will become contagious. If they’re indifferent chances are they won’t even bother with it. But yes it is dangerous to bounce around concepts with somebody you barely know. That’s why you need to do it with either very trusted friends or your rep.

Concept and logline are the keys to modern Hollywood. Truly great loglines will get reads virtually anywhere. Concentrate on perfecting your concepts and loglines and you will find doors opening to you.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Screenwriter's Guide to Success Part 2: The Market

Is your screenplay going to sell or just sit on the shelf? Well, what is it? What are you writing? What are you working on now? Are you writing a high concept buddy comedy? A twist filled low budget thriller? An epic fantasy? A historical biography of Cardinal Richelieu?

A project’s fate is usually determined in the first few moments of its creation. Success or failure often begins before the first word is committed to paper. How is this possible? How can your screenplay be doomed to exile on your hard drive before you’ve even started? Simple. You didn’t check the market beforehand.

Writer’s live off of pure inspiration and creativity. They live for the moment when they’ll come across an article or some piece of random information and then suddenly everything clicks and they’re off to the writing race track. In a matter of days inspiration flowers into a fully formed vision of a story. It’s great. It’s awesome. It’s completely and utterly not what the studios are looking for at the time.

Here’s the thing you’re not bigger than the market. If horror is out right now, you’d have to be somebody of the stature of JJ Abrams to get an original horror project greenlit. What chance do you think you have as an unknown?

Always have an ear to the pavement. Pay attention to what is selling and also what isn’t. This is where your representation is a big help. Sometimes it goes part and parcel with getting representation. At least it did for me. I got representation because I asked what was selling at that time. A company I had developed a relationship with told me. Family films, they said. I went home and started brainstorming family film loglines. By the end of the week I had a logline that caught their interest. A few months later I had a script the company was excited about. Later that day I signed with them. I had spent the previous seven years busting my head against the brick wall of Hollywood, trying on my own to get somebody, anybody to read my work. I spend seven years as a nomad. Then suddenly, with just asking the right questions, in three months I was repped. It was a happy day and an eye opener. If I’d been stubborn about writing what I alone found interesting I might still be wandering the desert.

There are so many out there who are still wandering. They write from the heart and can’t believe nobody would want to read their work. At some point it really does become a question of do you want to make a sale or not. If you want to make a sale, then you have to give something the buyer actually wants. If you have a manager or agent, ask them what’s really in demand. Studios execs probably call them up every day with wish lists. Those areas we want to concentrate your efforts. If you don’t have representation yet, you can still find out. There are blogs by people, like this one, in the know who will tell you. You can also read the trades and the spec sale websites and work out what’s hot and what’s not. You have a lot of options available.

Writing is a career like any other. You can plan for success. Success isn’t assured by planning but it sure helps.

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