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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.

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