horror? Aisle 4…”A: Yes.
By “writing to market”, the questioner is asking whether or not spec writers should take advantage of the hot buying trends in the screenplay market. Those trends certainly exist. The alternative is to put your own instincts and passion first, and if that means you’re selling straight-leg jeans when everyone wants bell-bottoms, well…that’s life.
The truth is that doing both ain’t such a bad idea, particularly if you’re still trying to solidify your place in town as a professional.
When I started out writing comedy screenplays, the success of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective had set a clear trend. Everyone wanted what they called “character driven comedies”.
I had a choice. Ignore the trend and write the kinds of comedies I tend to prefer, or embrace the trend, get hired, and then deal with the first-class problem of pigeonholing later.
I surfed the trend.
Still, nothing was stopping me from continuing to learn my craft and explore the kind of writing I wanted to do. Happily, I was able to get employment writing movies that were more my style (although, ominously, those haven’t quite gotten made yet).
Writing is still one of the lowest overhead businesses on the planet. Pretty much every time you’re faced with a decision of writing one kind or screenplay or another, the best answer is to write them both. If you can’t afford to write both, then pick the one that will make you happiest.
After all, life is short. Besides, the trends just changed while you were reading this.
Coming up next, a discussion of “orphan works” and a review of fellow blogger Alex Epstein’s book Crafty Screenwriting.
I’ve been better…I like to get something up on the blog every three days or so, so if you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, I’ve got one word for ya: bronchitis.
Okay, two words: bronchitis and deadline. Hell of a combination. As the levaquin works its magic, two articles should be forthcoming rather soon. First, a discussion of whether or not it’s a good idea to “write to the marketplace”, and then an examination of so-called “orphan works” and how upcoming legislation may further cement the authorship rights of screenwriters in the U.S.
“In a world…”You’re a screenwriter, so here’s an easy image to conjure. There’s a 20-something writer alone in a small room, tapping away at his keyboard. Awful posture. He’s doing his best to write a screenplay that will sell, but in the end, he’s not sure any of it’s going to work.
From that point in time, it’s easy to project out a hundred different fates for this guy and his script, and most of them end in failure. This time, though, let’s be generous. Let’s follow that one magical strand forward, watching along the way as he sells his script. A star and director are attached. The movie gets the green light. It’s filmed, and now the only thing left is the release. As we reach the end of this timeline, we find ourselves in a very familiar spot.
Another 20-something writer is alone in a small room, tapping away at his keyboard. Even worse posture. He’s doing his best to write some ad copy that will sell the first guy’s movie, but in the end, he’s not sure any of it’s going to work.
I’ve been both of those guys.
To be sure, there are plenty of writers who just don’t care if their movies find a large audience. All they want to do is write a good story they can be happy with, and damn the rest of America and the world if it’s not a hit. I, on the other hand, due to either weakness or vanity, have this irrepressible desire to write movies that lots of people see. Since I started out as someone who sold movies, I have a certain insight into the totality of the process. It’s seductive to think that it’s the studio’s problem, but the reality is that you can build marketing success into your screenplay…or lay the seeds of your own marketing doom.
In 1994, I became a marketing executive for Buena Vista Pictures, which is Disney’s distribution arm. I wrote poster lines and trailer copy and all the words for the annoying television ad announcers. I wrote and produced marketing campaigns for Touchstone Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and the now happily defunct Hollywood Pictures. Some of the campaigns were can’t-misses for big movies like Crimson Tide (“Danger Runs Deep”, I thought, and lo, a poster was born). Some were for movies that we in the marketing department really elevated to a big opening weekend, like The Santa Clause (“This Christmas, The Snow Hits The Fan” I thought, and moms and kids thought, “Okay, I’ll give that a shot”).
Some we just muffed. And others, well…there were some we just couldn’t do anything with.
During my two years in marketing, I found that there were certain elements that were necessary for a successful marketing campaign. The funny thing about those elements was that they were either there in the beginning, i.e. the screenplay…or they weren’t.
Please don’t view this as some horrendous method of commercializing your wonderful art. I’m sure your screenplay defies all that come before it, and you would never consider marring it with base concerns like the content of the television commercials and trailers and posters that will attempt to attract patrons to it.
Still, if you’re at all interested in having your movie seen by the largest audience possible, here are a few things to at least consider before you send your script off to be made into a film.
A Great Title
As brilliant as it was, not many people went to the theater to see The Shawshank Redemption. If you think it’s because of a lack of big stars or subject matter, I could cite ten hits that would prove you wrong.
It was the title. What the hell is a Shawshank Redemption? The movie sounds like bible study or perhaps an instructional film on how to prepare lamb.
Look, Stephen King is a genius. Far be it from me to second guess his title choices. I’ll go one step further. Frank Darabont is twice the screenwriter I’ll ever be. It’s possible that they knew the title would give them trouble, but they just didn’t care. I can accept that.
Can you? Think carefully about your title. Does it evoke a feeling? Does it communicate the genre of the film? Does it worm through your brain a little?
If it needs to be punchy, is it short? If it needs to be epic, is it cool?
Show me a horror movie trailer that ends with the title Saw, and I learn a lot. Someone is going to saw through a human at some point. That’s a given. And at three letters, it’s kind of hard to forget. Even better, if someone says, “Saw, what’s that about?” and I say, “It’s a horror film,” they’re going to go, “Oooh, gross,” without any other information given.
Which is what you want.
Let’s talk about the other end of the spectrum. You can do a big epic title if you need to, but it really has to sell something interesting. It was very smart of Disney to call their swashbuckler Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Sure, it’s long, but “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a ride. We’ve all ridden the ride.
A million times.
“Curse of the Black Pearl” says, “Forget the ride. There’s more. And there’s a curse, so that means the supernatural will be involved…and that means this movie won’t be the boring men-in-stockings sword orgy you were probably expecting.”
Good trailer movies have a “twist”, and by that, I don’t mean the oh-my-god-Verbal-Kint-is-Keyser-Soze sort. I’m talking about the twist that elevates your story from the expected to the unexpected.
Mass audiences love genre films. They love horror movies, they love cop movies, they love action thrillers, they love romantic comedies.
On the one hand, that means they’re already inclined to see your genre film. On the other hand, they won’t be if they feel like they’ve seen it already…and they’ve seen a lot.
If you’re writing a cookie-cutter concept, it’s going to be very hard to sell. It may be reeeeeally good, but when it’s run through the two minute and thirty second duck press of the theatrical trailer, it’s not going to be distinguishable from everything else on the shelf at Blockbuster.
Conversely, your movie may be crap, but if it takes a familiar genre and then turns it on its head or exceeds it in some interesting way, trailer audiences will take notice.
Intelligent people may argue over whether or not Underworld is a good film. From a marketing point of view, however, it’s a dream come true. Genre audiences have seen vampire movies. They’ve seen werewolf movies. They’ve seen the Matrix films. And they’ve seen Romeo & Juliet stories. How about vampires and werewolves beating the shit out of each other Matrix style, while star-crossed lovers from opposite sides try and stop the war?
Well, that would defy my expecations of a typical monster flick. The movie nearly earned its production cost back in gross receipts its opening weekend.
Let’s take my favorite example (this is mostly because I like sucking up to Ted and Terry, but also because they make it easy). Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl appeared to be an expected genre film. Pirates. Seas. Swords. Bosoms and wigs. But then…well…
Create Trailer Moments
…the pirates turned into walking skeletons.
Exceeding expectations is wonderful. But more than anything else, a good trailer moment will help sell your film.
Trailer moments are those magical little snippets of film that just grab people by their imaginations. They’re typically dialogue-free (we’ll discuss dialogue in a moment), and by their very nature, they require no context to be impressive.
Allow me to remove my lips from Ted and Terry’s butts and instead, kiss my own ass for a bit. Say what you will about Scary Movie 3, but the trailer for the movie was one of the best I’ve ever seen (kudos to the Dimension marketing department). It was so good, it’s one of the only movie trailers Entertainment Weekly ever put on their “Must See” list.
As of this date, this second-sequel-with-no-big-stars still holds the record for the biggest opening weekend in October box office history. 48 million bucks on a sleepy pre-Halloween weekend. And why?
The reveal of Michael Jackson screaming like a little girl.
It’s a great trailer moment, and it told the audience everything they needed to know about the film.
When you’re writing your screenplay, ask yourself if there’s one indelible image that a marketer can just drop into a trailer. Something no one’s seen before. Something that will crack them up or shock them or make them say “Cool!”. Pirates become walking skeletons, a man offers a woman a diamond ring and then snaps the box shut on her fingers, a hand comes out of the back of a woman’s head, a bridge is seen exploding in a rear view mirror as Dakota Fanning shrieks…
Trailers don’t have time to place your scenes in context. Think of a great trailer moment that fits your screenplay…and write it.
If comedy trailers seem like an endless parade of kicks to the crotch, understand that there’s a reason for this.
Dialogue jokes play okay in trailers.
Physical comedy plays great in trailers (especially overseas).
Sure, kicks to the crotch are done to death. If you’re writing a comedy, make sure there’s at least one great moment of physical comedy, because the marketers are going to need it. Old School had a lot of good jokes, but that tranquilizer dart going into Will Ferrell’s neck sealed the deal for a lot of moviegoers.
One Great Line
This is the hardest thing to pull off when writing. I debated whether or not to even mention this, because trying to write a great line is a sure-fire way to ensure that you write crap.
Still, a great, short line of dialogue can really help sell a film. One of my favorite movies of all time is Unforgiven. It’s a morally complex film with men of ambiguous natures committing crimes in the name of honor and law.
None of that sort of thing matters when you’re cutting a trailer. Movie advertising is reductive in nature; a great line of dialogue may sell the audience on a character, even if the pitch is, well, misleading.
Having a character say, “You just shot an unarmed man,” and then hearing Clint Eastwood respond “He should’ve armed himself” is definitely going to give audiences the wrong idea. It’s out of context, it’s not what his character is really about…and it’s perfect for a trailer. There’s a reason the trailer announcer never says things like, “In a time of moral quandry, one man was indecisive about how violent he should actually be…”
Who the hell’s gonna see that?
Here’s another movie that would have otherwise seemed like homework: The Last Of The Mohicans. A period piece that would have otherwise done okay business with the Merchant-Ivory crowd, the movie’s marketing materials practically boiled down the entire story to one simple line:
“You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you.”
Swooning ensued. The fact that Daniel Day-Lewis appeared to be standing under a waterfall as he spoke this line didn’t hurt.
The marketing for this period piece romance with sub A level stars was good enough to open the film at nearly 11 million dollars (in 1992) in only 1500 theaters, and that was enough to send the total domestic gross into the 70 million dollar range.
Compare that to Howards End, a film that opened just a few months earlier, was also a period piece romance with similar level stars (you could make a good argument that Anthony Hopkins was actually a bigger star than Day-Lewis). Howards End was, by most accounts, a better film than Mohicans.
Yet, without a great heart-pounding line or trailer moment, the movie mustered only 25 million or so for its theatrical run.
If your screenplay isn’t particularly visual in nature, ask yourself if there’s one great line that might captivate a trailer audience. It doesn’t have to be shocking or hysterical, but it must contain one very important thing…
All good trailers and television spots for movies are nothing more than promises. The marketers can’t show you the entire movie. They can’t give you the experience of the unfolding narrative, nor can they exploit the quiet moments that are only earned after watching what leads up to them.
Think about it. Marlin picking up an apparently-dead Nemo and flashing back to a memory of his son as the “egg that survived” is only a tear-jerker if you’ve seen the rest of the film. As a trailer moment, that would be an absurd dud.
No, all a good trailer can do is give the audience the promise of a good film. Some concepts have a good promise inherent to them (shark in the water!!!). Some do not (like whatever the hell Last of the Mohicans is about…sorry, never read the book).
That’s fine. Your job is to make sure that somewhere in your screenplay, there’s a moment that crystallizes the promise of your story, the possibilities of the adventure your hero will undertake. It can be a line, a moment, a joke…anything. People don’t go to the movies because they know they will be entertained.
They go because they expect they will be entertained.
They formulate those expectations based on stars and subject matter and reviews…but a good trailer and television campaign can do wonders. Don’t obsess over it or mangle your work in anticipation of it. Given the reality of this business, odds are the time won’t ever come.
But just in case it does, please ruminate for just a while on your counterpart, the lonely studio marketer. If he could talk to you, he’d probably quote one of those great trailer lines.
“Help me help you.”
Which one’s the hero?A few years ago, I was asked to adapt Mary Chase’s play Harvey for Miramax Films. I read the text about a hundred times (and watched the Jimmy Stewart film twice…it’s incredibly faithful to the play), and I struggled. It wasn’t the updating aspect of the task that was difficult; the themes of the play and the essential character relationships are universal. What started to drive me nuts was the character of Elwood P. Dowd. Something was preventing me from arranging this updated story around him.
After about 10 days of misery, it finally occured to me that I had been hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Elwood P. Dowd, the alcoholic with the troubled past, the man who sees an invisible rabbit, the man who is in every scene of import, the man who delivers the big monologues, the man who you absolutely needed to cast with the biggest star you could find…
…was not the hero of the story!
Five days later, my treatment was complete. I had unlocked the secret of Harvey. Elwood Dowd still dominates the content of the screenplay, but the hero of the story is the doctor who is treating him.
Somtimes certain characters are so spectacular and fascinating that we come to believe that they are the heroes. And yet, “hero” isn’t a function of page count or casting, but rather what I call “thematic character structure”.
If you’d like, you can read my whole theory about that here.
This sort of thing pops up more frequently than you’d think. For instance, a reader writes in:
I have a supporting character that seems to fill a far greater purpose than I originally anticipated. The supporting character seems to fit Wikipedia’s definition of Hero. However, I’ve always thought of the Hero as the main character… John August’s glossary seems to agree.
Well, the hero is the main character, but let’s unmoor the concept of “main” from the concept of “purpose” or “page count” or “originality”. There is a class of character that is incredibly purposeful and original and can dominate the page and screen, but will never be the hero.
Christ figures are the perfect example. Elwood P. Dowd, for all his drinking and hallucinating, is really just a Christ figure. He is perfect in temperament and apparently sinless and loving towards all. That’s not a hero; it’s a messiah. He is fascinating to listen to and his quirks dominate the screen, but he is not an adventurer seeking to discover and then embrace a theme.
No, he is the theme. He’s theme-as-man, just as Christ is God-as-man. The Word As Flesh, and all that good stuff.
It is the hero’s task to discover, understand, and then embrace Elwood. Kevin Spacey in K-Pax, Jeff Bridges in Starman, Bill Murray in What About Bob?, Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands…these characters are already perfect. Flawed humans will be intrigued by them, then doubt them, then betray them…and finally come to love them and be transformed by them.
In other words, Jesus isn’t the protagonist of the Gospels.
Jesus Christ is a particular type of deity. There are other types. Greek gods, for instance, were a bit more selfish and aggressive. Jack Sparrow is certainly in the mold of the Greek god (with a bit of Loki thrown in) who pursues his own interests, helping and hindering the hero as he sees fit. He’s a force of nature–amusing and dominating in every regard, but not the hero. Jack Sparrow is beyond growth or theme. He’s not even human, really. When Jack Sparrow dies, he’s going to disappear out of his clothes and become a constellation (okay, maybe he won’t, but would you be suprised if he did?).
The confusion probably centers around the words “hero” and “main character”. We want to believe that heroes are people who do typically heroic things, and we want to believe that main characters are the ones who draw our eyes and attentions.
The fact is, though, that The Subtle Hero is often the most compelling kind of protagonist. We are the subtle heroes of the stories of our own lives, and we find it easy to identify with subtle heroes as they experience the gods and monsters of their own adventures. Subtle heroes are sometimes so subtle, we hardly realize they’re there at all (I still maintain that Nick is the hero of The Great Gatsby). That’s fine. I’m sure 99 out of 100 people think Jimmy Stewart is the hero of Harvey, and the same number think Johnny Depp is the hero of Pirates Of The Caribbean. That misunderstanding has done nothing to impede their enjoyment of the story. The fact is that Dr. Sanderson and Elizabeth Swan are the protagonists of those stories, and their roles in the thematic character structure is what glues those stories together and makes them, well…good.
The audience doesn’t need to understand that.
Yeah, that’s pretty much what it feels like…My first job in this town was copywriting for a boutique ad agency that did nothing but promos for CBS. It was a nice entry to the business; I learned about television and marketing and the bottom line.
I also learned how to write a large quantity of material in a very short amount of time that would conform to various demands and specifications. More importantly, I was accountable for that material. Responsible. I learned to surf my own adrenaline in that job, and it’s a skill that has served me well for many years now.
Writing under pressure is a symptom of the vicissitudes of this business. It’s not an inevitable curse; it’s like smallpox. We could definitely wipe it off the face of the Earth if we all really tried, but frankly, it’s not really a priority for the people spending the money.
There’s an old saying my ad agency boss had on her door. “Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick Two“. That cutesy little saying has proven to be one of the truer things I’ve ever been taught, and it occurred to me early on that the guys who are Good and Fast are the most useful. After all, who wants to be known as Cheap? And when you’re writing studio films, Good and Fast writers are the ones everyone wants to be in business with.
The problem, though, is that sometimes “Fast” is “Too Fast”. When you move at lightspeed (as I’m doing on my current project), frustration sets in. The deadline is pushing down on you. Your need to do your best work (otherwise known as your need to avoid doing work you know isn’t your best) is pushing up.
The resulting squeeze is enough to make you insane. Still, it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you simply commit. I’ve had producers make demands of me that I thought were nuts. On the other hand, part of me simply says “I can do it” no matter what they ask.
That part sometimes gets me in trouble. More often, though, it allows me to accomplish goals that even reasonable doubt would have forestalled.
Writers who haven’t yet experienced the pressure of the Good and Fast deadline haven’t really tested themselves yet. There’s a crucible phenomenon that occurs when you’re chucked into the fire of some hellish time frame, and I’ve often done my best work in those situations. Conversely, when given months to write, I sometimes lose myself in my own head, and the work suffers.
I mentioned earlier that pressurized writing doesn’t need to occur. I wonder, sometimes, if it isn’t best that it does. It’s not particularly fun or pleasant or Zen or fulfilling as much as it’s exhilarating and maddening and nuts.
Still, if you squeeze a lump of coal hard enough…
Whether you’re a pro or an aspirant, it’s worth a try. Blank page to first draft in five weeks, including a treatment. When you’re racing the clock like that, there’s no time for self-doubt. No time to go backwards or decide the whole thing’s a mess.
And there’s a wonderful built-in excuse if no one likes it. That alone ought to be enough to recommend the Pressure Draft.
Besides, if it turns out you’re Good and Fast, then you get to be a little more Expensive too.
Are these folks
the answer?It’s been a while since I’ve written about credits, so I thought I’d return to one of the great third rails of the WGA credits manual: the penalties levied against so-called “production executives”.
For the purposes of determining credits, production executives are defined as any participating writer who is also serving as either the director or in any capacity as a producer. If you’re a production executive, the rules skew mightily against you.
For starters, if you’re also the first writer of an original, you lose most of your protections (I’ve already written about how stupid that rule is here). Even if you’re a writer on an adaptation, you still get screwed. If you’re working solo, you must always show that you contributed at least 50% to the final script (whereas non-production executive writers need only show 33%) for screenplay credit.
Even worse, all other writers have no specific threshold anymore for credit. The arbiters can reward screenplay credit to the other writers for practically any level of contribution.
Ah, but that’s not all.
If you’re so unlucky as to have written as a team with a production executive, both you and the productive executive really get screwed: you must now show a 60% contribution for screenplay credit, and again, all other writers are subject to no standard for that very same credit.
So let’s review. You work on a screenplay as a team with the director. You and the director write just over half of the final script.
No credit for you.
The path to this particular hell is paved with intentions that are understandable, if not good. The theory is that directors and producers are in a position to glom on for credit. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to others. As such, the standards for directors and producers are made more stringent in the hopes that they will be deterred from taking advantage of opportunity and dabbling with the script just to get credit (and the residuals that go along with credit).
When it comes to directors, there’s not much one can do about this. The rule is what it is. But producers…well, that’s another story.
The problem is that the rules make no distinction between producers who are writing, and writers who are getting a producing credit.
Wouldn’t it be great if the stringent rules applied only to actual producers, and legitimate screenwriters weren’t punished simply for bargaining themselves an “above-and-beyond the call of screenwriting” credit like Co-Executive Producer or Associate Producer?
Until recently, no one really knew what the hell any of those credits actually meant, so it was impossible to imagine credits guidelines that used them as a basis of discrimination.
To be quite clear, the PGA isn’t a federally certified collective bargaining organization like the WGAw or the DGA or SAG. It’s an umbrella organization that represents some pretty big time movie producers who are pooling their resources to try and get some things done. One of their goals is to set some ground rules that define what all those producing credits mean, in order to preserve some legitimacy for the most important of producing credits…”Produced by”.
By defining the sub-producer credits, the PGA may have given us a road map we can use to better define who should be penalized in the WGA credits process for being a “production executive”. The fact is that Associate Producers have no real power to hire or fire writers or influence the writing of the screenplay in any way. “Co-Executive Producer” is often a vanity credit awarded to key studio executives, folks who were around when the project was set up, etc.
I believe that other than directors, the only people who should be penalized for being production executives are those who earn the credits “Produced by” and “Executive Produced by”. The other production credits should be available to legitimate writers to earn freely and without detriment.
Defending writers and their credits against predatory producers is a good thing. Limiting writers’ ability to earn additional recognition as filmmakers is a bad thing. A stupid thing. To date, the Guild hasn’t done a very good job of balancing the need of protection with the right of entrepreneurialism.
Until they do, many writers will continue to anonymously perform filmmaking duties above and beyond the call of screenwriting…because of the punitive policies of their own union.
Call it “counter-productive” in every sense of the word.
A few articles back, I mentioned that I had an assistant. This sparked some curiosity (and a number of offers to take my assistant’s place), and one reader in particular felt I ought to at least describe what a writer’s assistant does and talk about whether or not the rest of you need one.
I don’t know what a writer’s assistant does, and I don’t think anyone needs one (but they’re useful).
I know what my assistant does, and most of it is unrelated to my writing. When I’m in production (or preproduction, as is the case right now), the writing takes on a full-day, all-encompassing scale, and the little matters of life start to be neglected. Someone has to chase down that electrician, make sure the gopher guy is killing the gophers in the yard (I am currently losing this battle), handle the paperwork for my Canadian work permit, check the voice-mail, direct me to where I’m going, remind me about the 14,000 things I have going on at once, and when my eyes start to roll into the back of my head…get me some coffee.
My assistant does these things.
Now, other writers’ assistants may do other tasks. Some take notes, others proofread, some do coverage…it’s really up to the writer who employs them. I’m a bit of a fussbudgety control freak, so I like to do a lot of the creative stuff myself.
The truth, though, is that few writers employ assistants. In fact, my assistant isn’t really my assistant. He’s an assistant to the production who also looks after me. To be fair, there’s a direct correlation between my current caffeine level and the future box office prospects of whatever I’m working on, so it’s money well spent.
Typically, if you’re not in production (or approaching production) you really don’t need a full-time assistant. Of course, if you’re the type who is looking to mentor someone, it’s certainly an option.
I wouldn’t enter production without an assistant, however. Maybe it’s just me, but I get lost in my work very very very very easily. Days could go by. They’d find me on the floor underneath my desk, badly dehydrated and snorting toner. Not pretty.
Since I’m writing about this particular topic, I might as well take the opportunity to publicly shame my assistant, who has failed to complete the first draft of his alleged screenplay in any reasonable amount of time.
I’ve given him another deadline. He’s got three weeks. I’ll publish his address and phone number if he blows it.
Of course, I’ll have to ask him for that info first. Can’t find it…where did I put that…dammit…Ian? Ian?
For our English readers, I offer this image in solidarity. I hope all of you and your loved ones are safe, and I salute the resolve and determination I’ve been seeing in the British people since the deadly attacks occurred.
And the light that is
green shall shineth
upon thee…Much has been made of “development hell”, that creative netherworld into which screenwriters trudge dutifully, fairly certain that they’ll never make it back alive. While any screenwriter worth his salt can rattle off a list of complaints about development hell, a reader recently asked me to imagine what development heaven might be like. In short…what if I were in charge of a studio? How would I run the development system?
What’s my solution?
Enter ye hopeful through the pearly gates, and join me in my tabernacle (or bungalow, or whatever).
Eat What You Kill
If I were running a studio, my immediate priority would be to increase the efficiency of the process. Hell isn’t just hellish for the lost souls burning in its many lakes o’ fire. It’s pretty awful for the management as well. Inefficient development costs studios millions of dollars.
Studios simply develop too much. They are driven by speculation and competition to a point, but the fact is that they’re buying far more than they could ever hope to make. And yet, it’s quite clear that someone (GreenLightMan!) possesses, in either theory or fact, the ability to choose whether or not to make a film.
Even a film with no script. There’s something, right? A treatment at least? A pitch?
A great pitch should be enough. A mediocre script should never be enough.
In development heaven, if a property is bought, it’s on the “fast track”. If you can’t commit to the fast-track, you’re not ready to buy. You’re just hoarding. Hoarding is inefficient.
Unify And Improve The Notes
Notes are essential to the process, inasmuch as good notes essentially save movies, and bad notes essentially kill them. One need only look at the turnover and lateral motion of Hollywood executives to realize that there are a lot of note-givers treading water (just as there are a lot of writers treading water). They’re all good enough, but that’s not the same as ideal.
In development heaven, there are only three or four people who help synthesize notes. Those notes are combined into one unified set of notes, so as to not conflict. Those three or four people are extremely well paid. They know how to stroke the writer that needs stroking and beat the writer that needs beating.
Foster The Creative Nucleus
What is the creative nucleus of successful filmmaking? Is it the studio and the writer? The producer and the director? The director and the star?
It’s the writer and the director. In development heaven, good writers who consistently deliver aren’t just asked to write scripts in their home offices and email them in, and good directors who consistently deliver aren’t bombarded with hundreds of scripts in various states of completion in the hopes that they’ll nibble at one.
Good writers and good directors are paired up. Made into a team. They develop material together as the coauthors of the prospective film. They formulate a real relationship. They get in each other’s heads. It doesn’t have to be a fancy film. It can be popcorn, spoof, Oscar-bait or blockbuster. David Zucker and I are a good team. Ted and Terry and Gore Verbinski are a good team. John August and Tim Burton are a good team.
Look at big successful hit films, and note the repeat teams. Look who Bryan Singer keeps working with. Look who Scott Frank keeps working with.
Team team team team team.
In development heaven, the studio is constantly putting writers in rooms with directors and seeing who bonds and has a meeting of the minds. A writer and director meshing is a beautiful thing. That’s the nucleus of a hit movie.
Make Good Writers Part Of The Family
Here’s a poorly-kept secret: screenwriters are insecure. They want a home, just like anyone wants a home. In development heaven, screenwriters are paid well to stay where they are. It’s not about one project or another. It’s about the relationships and lessons that are formed and learned over the course of multiple jobs. When I wrote my first script for Bob Weinstein, I was in the dark. Somewhere around the 10th script, I started to feel like I was reading his mind…and he was reading mine.
Who gets credit for that?
He could have just let me go and then called up if he had something interesting (or given me an audience if I had a story to sell). But not him. He locked me in. Made it worth my while to become “family”.
In development heaven, you treat your proven employees as family members, and you don’t dare let them go. It’s the studio system…but far more humane and lucrative for your writers.
Granted, this is all a lovely pipe-dream that makes a ton of presumptions (and I think I just eliminated a lot of jobs…whoops). It’s probably completely unfeasible, and I’m sure it reeks of my ignorance of some fundamental business realities.
On the other hand, it’s nice to muse about a better world. I’m not sure the movies would get any better or worse, but screenwriting would be far more enjoyable.
Like those development devils love to say as they dunk us in sulfur: “Be careful what you wish for…”
Courage…Having trouble posting comments, getting into the forum or accessing the blog?
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