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BITTERNESS IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

BITTERNESS IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

There’s a lot to be bitter about in Hollywood. You can craft a pitch-perfect adult drama, only to have it rejected by every production company in town. In the meantime, writers of tentpoles based on toy robots and childhood board games earn millions. Your deeply emotional short film can win award after award, but it’s the flashy music video and commercial directors who get the studio assignments. If you’re a woman or minority, you’ll hear how much progress is being made in Hollywood to promote “diversity,” but at the end of the day, your paycheck still comes from Starbucks. You can spend years — decades — honing your craft, only to learn that all that learning and experience has only “aged you out” of employability.

Yes, it’s easy to get bitter in Hollywood. And such bitterness usually has pernicious consequences. In movies like “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) , “Bowfinger” (1999), “Swimming with Sharks” (1994), “The Player” (1992) and “A Star is Born” (1954), bitterness with Hollywood’s outrages lead to isolation, fraud, kidnapping, murder and suicide. In the real world, the end-results are usually more mundane, often a combination of depression, substance abuse, artistic paralysis and returning home to live to one’s parents’ basement.

Let’s be clear about one thing. Bitterness is not your friend. It may cling to you like an attentive lover and stroke your ego like a royal courtier, but its only aim is satisfy its baneful appetites by eating you from the inside out. Bitterness darkens your world and distorts your perceptions. It causes you to see barriers that aren’t really there and ignore opportunities that are. Bitterness creates a vicious circle of self-hatred, malice and recrimination that ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In short, bitterness blows.

If the Hollywood experience is so conducive to bitterness, how do you avoid it? And if you’re already suffering from its effects, how do you overcome it?

Here are some suggestions:

Accept that Life is Unfair. We’ve all heard that life is unfair or, as one sage so aptly put it, “Fair is what you go to in August.” And since Hollywood is nothing but life writ large, it’s no surprise that the town’s indignities are likewise amplified. So be it. Instead of expecting justice and karmic rectitude, accept that working in Tinsel Town is going to be capricious, chaotic and fickle. Good will not always be rewarded and bad not always punished. In fact, very often, just the opposite will occur. While this inequity strikes deep at the heart of our traditional Calvinist traditions, it does come with an upside. It means that, while your best efforts may go unrecompensed, there’s also a chance you may suddenly find yourself landing a deal for which you are not prepared or even qualified. Sometimes, things can break your way for no discernable reason. Dumb luck works that way. Learn to enjoy the madness.

Diversify. We’ve all been told to avoid putting all our eggs in a single basket. Certainly any competent investor will never put all of his/her money into a single stock or real estate venture. No experienced gambler risks his/her entire bankroll on a single hand of cards. Likewise, you should never invest all your hopes, dreams and emotional capital in a single spec screenplay, gig or film project. Always have multiple irons in the fire. Explore different genres, styles and formats. If something fails — or something always does — you can find hope in the possibility that another one of your projects will pay off. Hell, you never know what’s going to catch a buyer’s fancy or satisfy a producer’s sudden need. Again, luck is like that. Just keep tossing those dice and, sooner or later, you’re bound to throw a natural.

Take Control. In Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Satan famously states that he would prefer to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. There is something to be said for having control, even if it’s over some not-so-prime real estate. With this in mind, bitterness with Hollywood can be avoided by finding alternate outlets for your creativity, outlets where your don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself. Fortunately, the Internet offers myriad opportunities to do just that. Try blogging. Creating YouTube videos. Building a website devoted to your personal passions. Self-publishing a novel on Kindle. Even produce a short digital film. Not only can these activities help divert your attention from the slings and arrows you suffer as you slog your way through Hollywood’s No Man’s Land, but who knows — you might actually find an audience.

Pretend You’re Han Solo. In 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” renegade smuggler and hot shot pilot Han Solo is repeatedly warned by the excitable droid C-3PO against trying to outrun the Empire’s TIE fighters by venturing into a dense asteroid belt. The odds of surviving, Threepio insists, are hundreds-of-thousands-to-one. “Never tell me the odds!” Solo barks back, and immediately steers the Millennium Falcon into the rocky maelstrom. When navigating the Hollywood mine field, it pays to pretend you’re Han Solo. The odds may be stacked solidly against you. Moving ahead may be clearly foolhardy. So what? Fuck it. Do it anyway. That’s how you become a hero.

Play the Long Game. Sales is a notoriously brutal way to make a living. In fact, it’s perhaps the only profession that supports a billion-dollar-a-year side industry devoted to nothing but “motivation.” Salespeople need to be constantly pumped up via seminars, rallies, self-help books and personal counseling just to keep from blowing their fucking brains out. One psychological trick salespeople use to keep themselves going is to see value in rejection. They’re often told, “You need to earn 50 No’s to get a Yes.” (Or some other arbitrary number.) As a screenwriter or filmmaker, you are a salesperson. Your job is to sell stories, be it via a pitch, a presentation, a screenplay or a test reel. Since, in Hollywood, the supply of available stories always vastly exceeds the demand, the numbers dictate that you will necessarily hear more No’s than Yes’s. So start collecting No’s. A lot of them. Hell, it’s easy! Do it long enough, let the No’s add up, and eventually you’ll have collected enough to earn a Yes. And once that happens, as if by magic, the bitterness will vanish.

Look Inward. As Shakespeare so eloquently put it in his tragedy “Julius Caesar,” “The fault…lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” As her hero of our own inner movie, our natural instinct is to blame our frustration on others. But to lash out at others is not only unproductive, it’s often counter-productive. Blaming other people allows you to avoid taking responsibility for your own situation, to take a serious audit of your own strengths and weaknesses, and to take the steps necessary to up your game. To actually accuse others of unprofessionalism, discrimination, conspiracy, etc., is almost certain to get you branded as a crackpot and blacklisted from consideration by any reputable buyer or representative. Remember, Hollywood is always looking for the Next Big Thing. It needs product. If you’re not selling, it’s most likely because you’re simply not offering what they want to buy. It may be time to change your approach.

Ultimately, there’s only one person who can prevent you from succeeding, and that’s yourself. The minute you decide to stop trying, it’s over. Embrace the cliché “No Pain, No Gain,” recognize the long odds and keep plowing ahead anyway. You may never end up where you hoped to go. But it you keep moving — if you don’t let bitterness cloud your vision — you may eventually end up someplace you never expected. And that may turn out to be a good thing. – Allen B. Ury

THE OFFICIAL ASPIRING FILMMAKER’S CHECKLIST MANIFESTO

THE OFFICIAL ASPIRING FILMMAKER’S CHECKLIST MANIFESTO

It’s finally time to take your project to market. You’ve devoted months — perhaps even years — to writing your spec screenplay or creating your short film or web series. Your investment in time, money and emotional capital is substantial. The stakes are equally enormous. Succeed, and your life could change forever. Fail, and all your efforts could all come to naught.

You don’t want to screw this up.

You want to make the best possible first impression.

You want to be recognized as a professional.

Which is why you need The Checklist.

The Checklist is a breakdown of everything you need to do to make your presentation as impactful as possible. It covers the “look and feel” of your screenplay or short film as well as the tools you use to sell it. The Checklist can’t guarantee your work will be received positively. There are enumerable factors beyond your control that can affect how an agent, manager or producer renders judgment at any given moment. But it can ensure that you have optimized the elements that are under your control, that you’ve truly given it your best shot.

And you do always want to give it your best shot.

Here, then, is The Checklist for taking any unsolicited project — be it a screenplay, TV or web series concept, film project proposal or finished short/indie film — into the Hollywood marketplace:

If You’re a Screenwriter

Check Your Length. Your spec screenplay should be no shorter than 100 pages, no longer than 120.

Format Correctly. Your script should be formatted in accordance with current industry standards. (If you wrote it using Final Draft or Movie Magic, this should be automatic.) In addition, check that:

o Page breaks occur between description or dialogue paragraphs. Sentences should never jump from page to page.
o (CONT’D)s in dialogue slugs are minimized. Only use them with dialogue is actually continuing, not when resuming it after beats of physical action.
o Scene slugs are all written from biggest-to-smallest (e.g., EXT. LOS ANGELES – WILSHIRE BLVD. – STREET CORNER – DAY)
o DAY and NIGHT designations used only at the beginning of sequences or when jumping to remote locations.
o INT. and EXT. designations are used only to establish master locations and not when merely changing angles within a location.
o UPPERCASE treatment within description is used only when introducing characters and for sound cues.

Detail. Be sure your descriptions and references are as specific as possible. (e.g., Don’t say “car,” say “sports car” or, better yet, “2016 Chevy Corvette.”) Being explicit with your writing helps make your writing more vivid and engaging.

Spellcheck. Use your software’s Spellcheck function to fix any misspelled words, improper punctuation or typographical errors.

Read the Script Aloud. A verbal read-though can reveal errors that the Spellcheck function may have missed, such as incorrect articles, missing words, wrong character names, duplicated descriptions, etc. If a reader stops reading our script because of typographical errors, you’ve blown it.

Have Your Screenplay Read by a Professional. To know how an industry insider is likely to react to your script, have it read by one. Someone you trust. Who will be honest with you. (No, your mother doesn’t count, even if she’s a studio executive.) If you don’t know anyone in The Industry who can read your script, there are professional script analysis services that can serve this function. Vet them carefully to determine their reputation and record of success.

Take Feedback Seriously. If a professional gives you script notes, listen. If you need to make changes, make them. And then recheck your script for spelling errors, typos, etc.

If You’re a Filmmaker

Polish. If you’re presenting a finished film — regardless of length — it must be a polished as your budget allows. While some aspects of film are immutable — such as your actors’ performances — there are other elements that remain in your control long after your film has wrapped, particularly such post-production details as editing, color balance, sound mixing, scoring, etc. What you’re selling may never be “perfect,” but you damned well better make sure it’s as perfect as you can make it now.

Create a Presentation Platform. To facilitate viewing, post your film online (You may or may not require password access) and make sure the playback function actually works.

Finally, Whether You’re a Writer or a Filmmaker

Create a Compelling Log Line. Boiling the description of your film, TV series or screenplay down to just one or two sentences can be the most challenging part of the entire creative enterprise. But it’s absolutely essential to the sales process. An effective log line contains three essential elements:

o A hero with a problem he/she can’t just walk away from (i.e., stakes)
o A “Wow Factor,” which is an element that is original, clever, compelling, exciting, cool, etc. It’s your marketing hook. (e.g., Jurassic Park’s dinosaur theme park-run-amok.)
o An element of irony, meaning that the hero’s problem is in some way antithetical to what this person would normally expect — or be expected — to face in the normal course of life.
Having a clear, powerful log line proves that you see your story clearly. It also helps your buyer see the story clearly — and then clearly explain the story to others, which is usually an essential part of the sale process.

Write a Compelling Synopsis. Hollywood professionals have to read a lot. And they usually hate reading. A lot. Which is why they like things short, sweet, and to-the-point. Before committing themselves — or their assistants — to the time necessary to actually watch a film or read a screenplay, they often prefer to first review and judge the project in a much shorter, concentrated form: the synopsis. This is a one- or two-page-long telling of the story in a complete, albeit highly abbreviated form. Like the full version, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. (Yes, reveal the ending.) It’s populated by distinct characters who participate in a series of goal-specific conflicts, actions, and reactions that build to a (hopefully) thrilling climax and satisfying resolution. Written in present tense, it should also focus on the key set-pieces and action sequences that make your movie memorable. It should contain the “Wow Factor” that makes your project unique and marketable. And like your finished product, it also should be polished and typo-free. You may not always need a synopsis, but if you’re asked for one, it really helps to have one handy.

Prepare a List of Casting Suggestions. An agent, manager, or producer may ask who you see playing specific roles. (This can help them decide whom to approach.) The first trick here is to have a list of five or six possible candidates for each major character. Never limit your suggestions to just one or two actors, especially if said actors are super-popular (and thus probably either too expensive or unavailable), or relative unknowns (in which case they add no value to the project). The second trick is to keep the list to yourself and only offer it upon specific request. Volunteering casting suggestions makes you look amateurish and naïve.

Copyright Your Work and Register it with the WGA. Before taking your project to market, you want to make sure you are legally protected. Register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office and with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and/or Director’s Guild of America (DGA). Note that even these registrations can’t prevent other people from “stealing” your ideas or even your script. But should you need to sue, they will give you ample ammunition to prove your authorship and when you created the work in question. (Note: Outright plagiarism is extremely rare in Hollywood. But even on the rare chance it does occur, it’s good to have ammunition.)

Build a Website. Today, a website is the equivalent of a calling card. You don’t go to a business meeting without having one. If your intention is to acquire an agent or manager, then a site that promotes you as an individual is appropriate. The site should include information on your background, education/training, previous projects (if any), awards (if any), work samples, contact information, and any other information a professional representative is likely to find relevant. If you’re pitching a specific project, such as a screenplay, TV series concept, short film or finished independently produced feature, then the site should focus on the particulars of your story, including premise, characters, cast (if already produced), narrative, previous critical response (if any), etc. Remember, a public website is just that — public — so don’t include any private or proprietary information you don’t want to share with the world at large. And if any of your printed materials or website content contains links to other websites (such as YouTube postings), make sure the links actually work! There’s no rookie mistake quite as embarrassing as presenting a would-be representative or buyer with a broken link

Create a Valid, Vetted Marketing List. Determine in advance who you are going to market to — and why. Research your targets fully to understand their history, their needs, and how what you’re selling meets their normal business needs. Make sure the contact information you have — including email addresses, phone numbers and mailing addresses — is current and valid.

Prepare a Query Email. Whether you are making a “cold” inquiry or acting on a personal reference, you need an email in which you introduce yourself and explain what it is you want from the person you’re contacting. If you are seeking personal representation, say so. If you have a project to pitch, give the form (TV, film, web series, etc.), the genre and the log line. The email needs to be short and punchy. No more than three or four paragraphs. If possible, open with a personal reference. For example, if writing to a producer, congratulate him/her on the success of a recent film or simply express your pleasure in their recent work. And, as with all your written materials, make sure your query letter is typo-free!

Follow-Up. If, after six weeks, you don’t get a response from your query letter or email, feel free to send a follow-up message. This message should only request confirmation that the first query letter or email was received and perhaps reiterate your log line. Do not ask when you can expect a reply. If they are interested, they will let you know. If not, you may never hear back. No response is a response in Hollywood.

Create a Paper Trail. Keep careful, meticulous records of every email exchange and subsequent meeting you have. Put everything in writing. Such records can prove invaluable when it comes to contract details, credits or, God forbid, lawsuits.

As the ancient Roman Senator Lucius Seneca is purported to have said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” When selling your screen, TV or web project, be prepared — and good luck! – Allen B. Ury

GOING TO A PITCH FESTIVAL? READ THIS FIRST!

5 EXPERT TIPS FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF PITCH FESTIVALS

Going to a pitch festival is a lot like going on a blind date. Emotions whipsaw between giddy anticipation, jaded skepticism, hope, terror and utter dread. Half our brains imagine us passing through a magical doorway on the other side of which lies a glorious future filled with hope, promise, fame and fortune. Our brain’s other half girds us for wrenching disappointment — perhaps even hostile rejection.

As with so many other things in life, what you get out of a pitch festival depends a lot on what you put into it. Proper preparation and execution can’t guarantee you’ll make an instant sale — or even prompt a producer follow-up — but it can tilt the odds slightly more in your favor. If nothing else, what you do ahead of the festival, while you’re there — and even after you leave — will help polish your professionalism and put you in a better position to take full advantage of future writing opportunities when they arise.

Here are five ways to get the most from pitch festivals:

1. Rehearse Your Pitch. A Lot. A pitch is a performance. It needs to be delivered with energy, confidence and emotion. In a pitch, you become an actor, your goal being to wholly capture your listener’s attention — and imagination — with your voice, expressions and body language. As with any performance, this requires rehearsal. A lot of rehearsal. In the weeks and days prior to the pitch festival, practice and, ultimately, memorize your pitch so you can tell it with the same ease with which you can recite the lyrics to your favorite song. Practice in the shower. In the car. In front of your family and friends. Speaking from memory not only makes you appear more polished, it always allows you to connect with your listener eye-to-eye and read reactions in ways not possible if you’re always looking down referring to written notes.

2. Have More Than One Pitch Ready. The adage that advises you to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket is as relevant to pitching as it is to embryonic poultry transport. In a significant percentage of situations, you’ll be stopped soon after giving your log line with such explanations as, “We already have something like that in development,” “We’ve already tried something like that,” “We don’t make those kinds of movies” or simply, “That’s not for us.” Hopefully, this will be followed by the question, “What else you got?” Should this occur, not having a backup pitch ready is a waste of a major career opportunity.

3. Use the Opportunity to Establish Vital Industry Contacts. While a sale or option might be the end goal, in Hollywood, it’s all about relationships. It’s also about being the right “fit” for a project. Pitch festivals give you the opportunity to make the strong first impression you need to get people interested in doing business with you. Start by doing your due diligence. Before the event, research the people and company you’ll be meeting with and the projects with which they’ve been associated. Hopefully, you’ll recognize movies or TV series you’ve seen. Better yet, you’ll recognize movies or TV series you like, and so can compliment them honestly. This will immediately put them in your corner. After the pitch, take any comments or criticisms they give you seriously. These are the people to whom you need to sell, so their tastes, criteria and overall mindset are critically important to your professional future. After the meeting, keep in semi-touch by sending them a thank you card and/or an email when you see their names appear in the Trades. In the lucky event you’re asked to meet with them again, you’ll be able to build on the relationship you’ve already established.

4. Bring a Written Synopsis and First 10 Pages of Your Script with Your Contact Information. Some events advise you not to bring printed leave-behinds, explaining that if an agent, producer or studio executive is truly interested in your project, he/she will provide you with contact information where you can send such material. The counter argument to this is simple: If, after your pitch, you’re asked if you have a written feature synopsis or series concept to leave behind, it never hurts to give potential buyers exactly what they ask for when they ask for it. You should never OFFER such a document — that just comes off as presumptuous — but you should have one available if asked. Also, to stand out from the crowd, bring the first 10 pages of your script. This, along with the synopsis, will demonstrate that you not only have a story worth telling, but you have the technical acumen to actually tell that story in line with industry standards.

5. Use the Opportunity to Network with Fellow Filmmakers. Writing is a notoriously solitary profession, and writers are usually reclusive, introverted and even misanthropic individuals. Even so, social interaction — especially with other writers and directors — can be a stimulating, edifying and, yes, even profitable experience. Pitch festivals are, by the fact they bring artists of all types, backgrounds and sensibilities to a single venue, great places to meet fellow filmmakers to swap information, gossip, test ideas and learn of potential opportunities. Don’t get paranoid that others are going to “steal your ideas.” Writing is 10 percent concept and 90 percent execution. The useful things you can learn by talking with filmmakers far outweigh the risk that your “brilliant idea” is going to be snatched and sold by a fellow attendee. Who knows, the casual conversion you initiate may result in getting you a valuable writing partner, film crew for your short or even an actual paying gig!

When preparing for your next pitch festival, remember your interests are both short-term and long-term. On one hand, you’re looking for buyers and representatives for what you have to sell. On the other hand, you’re looking to establish relationships that can serve your career in the long-term. Pitch festivals offer myriad opportunities for both. Be prepared, and you can take full advantage of the benefits these events have to offer. – Allen. B. Ury

The 21st Annual Hollywood Pitch Festival will take place July 28-30, 2017. For tickets and info, visit HollywoodPitchFestival.com

Hollywood in the Age of Trump

HOLLYWOOD IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

Now that Donald Trump has become the de facto Leader of the Free World — Man, that’s still hard to say — many of those on the Left Coast are wondering how his ascension to The Highest Office in the Land will affect how Hollywood does business. Both up-front content and behind-the-scenes business practices are now in question due to Der Drumpster’s long love-hate relationship with the American entertainment industry.

On one hand, the bellicose Queens-born real estate developer-turned-populist politician has for decades shown an insatiable hunger for attention and publicity. Movies and TV have provided him with the perfect platforms from which to promote the Trump “brand,” whether it be on talk shows (His IMDB profile lists 236 guest appearances), in movies (twenty-two “acting” credits) or as the “You’re Fired” guy on NBC’s The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice (2008-2015). Inevitably, he always played some version of himself.

On the other hand, Trump has not been shy about expressing his contempt for Hollywood’s mostly Democratic, liberal-leaning leadership and the left-of-center positions held by the majority of the town’s creative community. Most of his followers appear to share the same enmity for Hollywood’s “limousine liberals.” And they’re increasingly comfortable saying so.

This schism was recently brought into stark focus when actress Meryl Streep spent most of her Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech slamming the Trump Administration in all but name, followed closely by a barrage of anti-Trump barbs by both winners and presenters at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards. Following both broadcasts, social media went nuts, the President himself branding Streep as “over-rated,” and Trump and anti-Trump forces declaiming “Resistance!” or “He won. Get over it.”

With Trump firmly ensconced in the Oval Office, makers of TV and motion picture products find themselves facing issues on two fronts: creative and financial. On the creative side, studios must ponder whether to start making more products attractive to Trump’s conservative base or feed liberal America’s growing anxieties about the country’s perceived tilt toward fascism. On the financial side, there’s the question what impact Trump’s protectionist, “America First” trade policies are likely to have on Hollywood’s ability to sell its products overseas.

In terms of Hollywood’s product content, producers seem to have a sudden interest in projects dealing with social unrest and national divisions. Just as Ronald Reagan’s heightened Cold War rhetoric spurred such projects as The Day After (1983), War Games (1983), Red Dawn (1984) and Amerika (1987), Trump-fueled anxieties appear to creating demand for stories dealing with American decline. Many have reported to have been fast-tracked to take advantage of the nation’s fractious mood.

At the same time, expect the trends that have defined Hollywood’s product over the past decade to continue unabated. The studios will continue to churn out big budget sci-fi and superhero movies based on popular brands, they’re simple good-vs-evil storylines calculated to appeal to the largest possible audience. These will continue to be embraced by both urban and rural audiences, and ticket-buyers from all points on the political spectrum. (It’s amusing to note how the Star Wars movies have been interpreted from both left-wing and right-wing perspectives, as either stories about the fight against Fascism or about the little guy battling against the tyranny of a strong, central government. Either way, they make money.) We’ll still get our standard ration of horror movies, action blockbusters, animated family films and daring indie projects. Fact-based “issue” films like Hidden Figures and Loving will continue to find audiences, especially when they exist in a safe, historical setting.

TV is also unlikely to veer from its current trajectory. Technology’s fragmentation of the home audience guarantees that everyone will be able to find products that reflect their individual tastes and values, be they left-wing, right-wing, high-brow or lowest common denominator. We’ll continue to see more ethnic diversification, with more shows designed to appeal America’s large (and lucrative) Black, Hispanic and Asian audiences.

For writers and producers, these dual trends suggest the following:

• If you have a project that deals in any way with creeping fascism or home-grown terrorism, the time to move on it is now. Historically, audiences have loved to see their anxieties manifested on film. (Albeit often in exaggerated or fantastical forms.)
• Writers and filmmakers are wise to focus on historical stories that focus on real-life characters who overcame injustice, fought for minority rights or otherwise helped toppled established norms.
• When things get particularly bad, there’s usually an increasing demand for pure escapism. If events really start to go south, expect more interest in romantic and slapstick comedies. Even musicals. Comic-booked-based movies will want to take a lighter tone to counter the bleakness of the Nightly News.

While Hollywood’s voices are unlikely to be threatened creatively, there’s a real danger that Trump could damage the industry’s international business model. Foreign sales now represent more than half of all income for Hollywood films. It’s not uncommon for major studio blockbusters to make more money overseas than they do at home. In fact, sometimes movies that bombed stateside can be saved by doing strong business in Asian and European markets.

Today, China is the #2 movie market in the world, and is likely to supplant North America as the world leader by 2020. (That’s in just three years, folks.) Its $180 billion media and entertainment industry represents a vast, still basically untapped market for Hollywood, which is why studios have been designing so many of their motion picture tentpoles with the Middle Kingdom in mind. (That Disney’s Rogue One featured two monks played by popular Chinese actors was no coincidence.) Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric and protectionist trade policies could derail Hollywood’s worldwide expansion plans. Bigly. Any move by the Trump Administration to restrict trade with China could trigger a trade war that blocks the importation of American entertainment products to a market of more than 1 billion. His “America First” stance could have a similar chilling effect on how American entertainment fares in the rest of Asia, Europe and Latin America.

The global box office is currently $38.3 billion, and is expected to swell to more than $49 billion by 2020, according to Statistica.com. Free trade is central to Hollywood earning a dominant place of that market, at the same time free trade is being derided as a job-killer by Trump and his populist supporters. Ironically, this is one issue where both Hollywood liberals and traditional Free Market conservatives can find common ground.

Whether or not unholy alliance will be enough to overcome Trump’s nationalistic economic agenda, expect it to generate enough drama to power a Hollywood blockbuster. – Allen B. Ury

Why “The End” is Only the Beginning

BACK TO THE FEATURE
WHY “THE END” IS ONLY THE BEGINNING

After months of tortuous, enervating and, hopefully, orgasmic writing, you’ve finally finished your spec screenplay. Now you’re ready to send it to producers, find a buyer and collect your $500,000 check, right?

Wrong!

The worst thing you can do to yourself and your creation is to send it into the market “hot off the printer.” Why? Because writers are the worst possible judges of their own material.

After having spent weeks, months and, perhaps even years honing and refining a script, you will be “too close” to your material to make any kind of objective analysis of its merits. There will likely be plot points that only make sense to you because you conceived them. You will no doubt love every character in your story because they are, in one way or another, a reflection of yourself. The script no doubt contains jokes and zingers that you’ve concluded are priceless for no other reason than you spent an entire day agonizing over them. But the operative question isn’t whether or not you think your script is great, but whether other people do. Especially people who are in a position to offer you a deal.

Some writers – especially new ones who are eager and impatient – opt to send their untested spec into the market and letting the chips fall where they may. If they’re really really lucky, their instincts prove on target and they find a buyer. But most writers who try this all-or-nothing approach encounter rejection and end up asking, “What didn’t you like? How can I make the script better?” Which is all well and good, only once production companies have seen a script and “coverage” has been written, it’s too late to make any changes! Unless you already have strong established relationships, most producers will consider a script only once. If you submit a screenplay or teleplay, even if it’s been vastly rewritten, many companies will just pull their old coverage and base their decisions on that. Even changing titles and character names often don’t help you avoid this treatment.

(You really can’t blame studios and producers for treating writers so coldly. They’r win the business of buying solid scripts, not helping desperate writers launch their careers.)

If you’ve spent any significant amount of time writing your screenplay or teleplay, you owe it to yourself to spend just a little more time making sure it’s the best script it can possibly be before tossing it to the wolves. Just as studios usually “test screen” their movies to determine what works and what’s doesn’t, you need to “test” your script while you still have a chance to make adjustments.

Here are the steps you should take before sending your spec out to agents, managers or producers:

Have your script read by at least five people whose opinions you respect. Offer your script to a mix of acquaintances – young, old, male and female. Other writers are a great place to start. If you know people who are actually in “the industry,” even better. A professional reader or producer’s assistant will be in a great position to determine how your script would be evaluated if it actually went into the market.

Although you’re welcome to give your script to family members for evaluation, don’t take their opinions too seriously, especially the positive ones. It’s virtually impossible for family members to look at something written by one of their own with a cold, critical eye. And at this point in the process, you don’t want praise, you want criticism.

Weigh all feedback before considering a rewrite. Although everyone is entitled to an opinion, one criticisms are more valid than others. For example, one person may find a joke you’ve written hilarious, while another may find the same joke flat or even offensive. One of your readers may love a character while another is unimpressed. Like a wise man once said, “Opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.”

No, what you’re looking for are not individual criticisms, but a consensus on what works and what doesn’t. For example, if 80 percent of your readers think a certain character is flat and lifeless, chances are that character is flat and lifeless. If one reader hates a joke but three other people love it, keep the joke. You can’t please everybody. And if you absolutely, positively, from the bottom of your heart believe a certain concept, character, plot point or piece of dialogue is 100 percent perfect and everybody thinks it sucks, be ready to smash your delicate artistic ego like a bug and side with the majority. As another wise man once said, “If five people tell you you’re drunk, it’s probably time to sit down.”

Hold nothing sacred. Screenwriters often become “married” to a concept, a character, or even a joke so strongly that they insist on keeping it in the script no matter what. And this is often a fatal error. If you want to be a professional, the issue isn’t whether or not you like what you’ve written, but if other people do.

Be prepared to gut entire scenes, change whole characters, or even start from page one if you have to. Nothing in a script is sacrosanct, not even the story itself. There may be times when you’ll be forced to admit that, while your execution is great, your whole premise is off-base or simply uncommercial. Or you may have a great premise but just chose to develop it in the wrong direction. Again, it’s far better to get this information early from people who’ll still love you in the morning than from hostile strangers who’ll have no compunctions about flushing a year of your life down the toilet without so much as a fare-thee-well.

Take your time. Time is the writer’s greatest enemy. We all have bills to pay. We have obligations to meet. None of us is getting any younger, and the urge to become successful now is, for most people, almost irresistible. It takes enormous discipline to step back, give people a chance to evaluate our material, spend the time necessary to extensively rewrite a script, and maybe even put a script away for a month or two so we can attack it with a fresh eye before finally sending it off to meet its destiny.

(Those pervasive, oft-told stories of inspired scribes who dash off a screenplay over a single weekend, put it on the market on Monday and have a deal in place by Tuesday don’t help.)

But discipline is exactly what it takes to make ti as a professional writer. The discipline to write day after day. The discipline to sit alone in a little room in front of a keyboard while those around you are actually living their lives. The discipline to keep your hopes alive despite a seemingly endless stream of rejections and frustrations. So take the time it takes to make your spec the best it can possibly be.

You think rewriting your spec is tough? Hell, just wait ’til you start getting studio notes. – Allen B. Ury

Enter to Win! How to Impress Contest Judges

ENTER TO WIN! How to Impress Contest Judges With Your Screenplay or Teleplay

There are literally hundreds of screen and television writing contests held annually. In addition to the Fade In Awards (now in its 21st year!), notable competitions include the Academy Nicholl Fellowships, Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Austin Film Festival, HBO Access Writing Fellowship and Slamdance, just to name a few.

Some of these contests are open only to amateurs. Others allow both novices and paid professionals to compete. Some competitions judge only screenplays, while others have separate categories for features, teleplays, short films and even web content. Some competitions offer cash prizes, some merchandise, some industry access, and some combinations of all three. All offer winners some degree of much-needed exposure, and perhaps even a bit of prestige.

If you’re thinking about entering a screenplay/teleplay contest, understand that the qualities that define an award-winning script are not necessarily those that make for a blatantly commercial one. Today, with most studios concentrating on franchises and sequels, being able to write within a rigid commercial framework, craft and familiarity are of paramount concern. Most contest judges have other priorities. They’re looking for originality. They’re looking for a distinctive “voice.” They’re looking for writing that transcends genre. While commercial viability may still be an evaluation criterion – and this varies from contest to contest – it is unlikely to carry the same weight as it does when trying to sell to a studio or producer.

How then can you impress contest judges with your work and make yourself a viable competitor? Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of entering writing contests:

Do perform your due diligence before sending in your script and entrance fee. Make sure the contest is legitimate, has a history, is recognized by industry professionals and has a record of spawning working writers. Go in with your eyes open.

Don’t overlook the more obscure competitions. Sure, everyone wants to win the Nicholl, but it awards only one top prize per year. Increase your odds for success — and your opportunities to get noticed — by entering as many competitions as you can find — and your budget allows.

Do enter contests that favor the type of format you choose to write. Some contests only judge feature screenplays. Others have separate categories for feature scripts, teleplays, short scripts and even web-based content. If you want to write for television, enter contests fully or partially geared toward that form.

Don’t submit older scripts that have repeatedly failed to gain recognition in previous contests unless it has undergone a major rewrite. If a script has repeatedly failed to make even the first cut in other competitions, don’t expect different results in the future. Beating the proverbial dead horse not only wastes your time and the judges’, it can, over time, diminish your “brand.”

Do read the rules and follow them. A contest is a game. A game must have rules if it’s going to be any fun. Understand the structures the contest organizers have imposed and follow them to the letter. Unlike Hollywood, a writing contest is no place for an iconoclast.

Don’t ignore the marketing opportunities offered by the contest entry form. Often, forms ask that you include a logline and/or a short synopsis of your entry. Take the time to polish these descriptions and make them as clear, as sharp and enticing as possible. Very often, judges will form initial impressions of your script based on how well you’ve described it before they even look at its first page.

Do choose a subject you’re excited about. A prize-winning contest script inevitably reflects the obsessions of the person who wrote it, the passion woven into every page. If you’re writing just to win — if your script is the product of some kind of clinical calculation — the cynicism is going to bleed through, and will ultimately be self-defeating.

Don’t put too much emphasis on genre. As stated earlier, most contest judges are looking for what’s good, not necessarily what they think can “sell.” Don’t worry that studios no longer make adult dramas or that first-time writers can’t sell $200 million sci-fi epics. At the same time, don’t worry that your script isn’t “arty” enough or may be considered “too commercial.” In a contest, a great slasher script or slapstick comedy can be just as prize-worthy as high-brow historical drama.

Do pay close attention to the fundamentals of good screen- and TV-writing, including structure, pacing, character development and dialogue. Like everyone in Hollywood, contest judges are looking for engaging stories, vividly drawn characters, scintillating dialogue and page-turning suspense. Only the contest judges actually mean it.

Don’t be afraid to test boundaries. When it comes to original screenplays and TV pilots, most Hollywood producers are looking for concepts that fall midway between the exotic and the cliché. They want stories that are original, but not too original. Contest judges, however, tend to lean more toward originality than they do the tried-and-true. If you have a feature film or TV series pilot you feel may be too bizarre or off-putting for general consumption, contests are a good place to look for an eager and sympathetic audience.

Do detail your script to provide specificity in time, place and character. Inserting specific geographic locations, car brands, weapons types, etc., helps create more vivid pictures in the reader’s mind as well as adds to verisimilitude of the story you’re trying to tell.

Don’t be afraid to inject occasional author commentary and other literary devices that are normally discouraged when writing for industry buyers. Unlike spec screenplays, which are the equivalent of architectural plans for eventual motion pictures, contest entries are end-products designed to be enjoyed for their sakes. Use whatever tools you have at your disposal to make the “read” as entertaining as possible.

Do carefully proofread your script before submission. Typos and grammatical errors aren’t just signs of amateurish writing; they are distractions that pull readers out of the script and undermine the “willing suspension of disbelief” necessary to enjoy any work of fiction.

Don’t demand perfection from yourself. Perfection is not just the enemy of greatness, it’s also a paralyzing agent as it’s impossible to achieve. No script is “perfect.” Certainly the best movies aren’t. Great scripts, like great writers, are often messy, flawed and open to criticism. But they’re also exhilarating, inspiring and unforgettable. In other words, they’re alive.

Do be patient when waiting for contest results. Many competitions take as much as a year to reveal their slate of winners.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t win. Like studios and producers, every contest has its own criteria and sensibilities. What constitutes “great” to one group of judges may be a “pass” to others. In this industry, there are no absolutes.

Finally, do keep writing…and keep submitting your work. Any athlete will tell you, everyone faces defeat. The only difference between champions and also-rans is that champions get up and try again. – Allen B. Ury

DRAMATIC TROPES – AND HOW TO AVOID THEM

DRAMATIC TROPES – AND HOW TO AVOID THEM

“How can it be a cliché? Everybody uses it!”
Albert Brooks, 1972.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a trope as, “a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.” In drama, trope has a more pejorative meaning: cliché. Movies and television shows are rife with tropes. From the lowliest reality show to the biggest studio blockbuster, content creators frequently default to characters, plotlines, dialogue, obstacles and solutions that quickly become achingly familiar to anyone with even just a passing interest in mass media.

Here are just a few examples of tropes all-too-common in modern entertainment:

Character Tropes:

1. The renegade cop who “breaks the rules.”
2. The angry, hot-tempered boss.
3. The hooker with a heart of gold.
4. The 30ish career woman who “can’t find a man.”
5 The fiendish real estate developer.
6. The socially awkward tech nerd.

Action Tropes:

1. The car that flies off a cliff and then explodes like a bomb upon impact.
2. Characters who walk blithely away from nearby explosions.
3. Characters who actually outrun explosions and/or fireballs.
4. Characters who fall from great heights without suffering serious injury.
5. Henchmen who can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
6. “Flesh wounds” that cause no functional impairment.

Dialogue Tropes:

1. “He didn’t make it.”
2. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
3. “I was born ready.”
4. “Don’t you die on me!”
5. “We’ve got company.”
6. “It’s showtime!”

Why is the use of tropes so common? There are several reasons:

1. Writing is Hard Work. Being creative is draining process. Mentally. Spiritually. Even physically. And even more so if you’re tasked with churning out hour after hour of series television on an unforgiving schedule. When stuck for an idea, it’s always easier to default to a cliché than to struggle for an original solution that may never materialize. That studio executives – and audiences – often seem perfectly content with tropes provides a further incentive for writers to take the “easy route.”

2. “Going with Your Gut” and “Writing What You Know.” Writers, both newbies and veterans, are often advised to “Go with your gut,” “Write what you know,” and “Trust your instincts.” The problem with this approach is that, as a generation raised on thousands upon thousands of hours of TV shows and motion pictures, what we “know” is a reality already filtered through the eyes of the thousands of screenwriters who preceded us. We got our legal education from “L.A. Law,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal” and “Matlock.” We learned medicine from “St. Elsewhere,” “E.R.”, “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” We learned about politics from “The West Wing,” “Scandal” and “House of Cards,” law enforcement from “Hill Street Blues,” “Law & Order” and “The Wire,” and history from “Gladiator,” “Braveheart,” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

When confronted with the tyranny of the blank page, it’s no surprise that most writers – even seasoned ones – will reach into their media-filled memory vaults and retrieve characters, dialogue, technical detail and story elements that are really nothing but a pastiche of familiar fictions that have become permanent fixtures in our cultural zeitgeist.

3. They Work. Tropes become tropes because they fill a need. They are formulas that have proved themselves successful time and again. If you were going to design an interesting action hero from scratch, a “renegade cop who breaks the rules” would probably be one of the best ideas you could devise. Likewise, when creating a comedic character, the “socially awkward tech nerd” not only offers obvious comic potential, but reflects a societal archetype many of us have encountered in our actual lives. And while explosions that don’t knock people flat or can be outrun by fleet-footed protagonists may be blatantly unrealistic, they do provide the visceral thrill we as audience members pay to experience.

The problem with tropes isn’t their utility – which is often substantial – but that they are, by definition, obvious and lazy. While an established writer secure in his/her own career can afford to fall back on tropes as a way to meet a deadline or please a data-driven marketing executive, new, ambitious writers can’t be so nonchalant. Writers determined to get attention and win fans need to know how to recognize tropes – and find creative and effective ways to transcend them.

How to Realize You’re Using a Trope

When you’re writing and script and have a sudden flash of inspiration – nine out of 10 times, you’re actually defaulting to a trope. As stated above, you can’t help it. Outside of your own personal experiences, virtually everything you know about the outside world has come from TV and the movies. (And books, if you’re still into that kind of thing.) Unless you’ve actually been to prison, virtually everything you know – or think you know – about criminal incarceration comes from other writers. The same applies to cities and countries you’ve never visited, jobs in which you’ve never been employed, and people you’ve never met.
If you feel the need to confirm your suspicions, go online. There are several websites devoted to the identification and celebration of tropes, including TV Tropes (tvtropes.org), Sterotropes (stereotropes.bocoup.com) and this one (www.screenwritingspark.com/the-ultimate-list-of-movie-cliches-for-screenwriters).

Whatever you’re writing, stop for a moment and think: Does this feel familiar? Where might I have seen this before? Do I really know what I’m writing about, or just making an educated – or uneducated – guess?

Also, avoid trusting your first instinct. If you easily came up with a solution, so did your audience. And you want to surprise them. If, faced with A, your hero does B, make B fail. This will force your hero to try C. Or D. Throwing up unexpected obstacles can send your story into new, exciting and ultimately very satisfying directions.

How to Transcend Tropes

The simplest way to overcome the use of tropes is also the most difficult: research. When you choose a subject, go as deep into it as you can with the intent of discovering something you don’t already know. Depending on your time and budget, types of research you can employ include:

• Internet searches. This is the easiest and cheapest way to research a subject. Just type in a few keywords and then sift your way through the thousands of responses to find the nuggets you’re looking for. The Internet is particularly useful for finding technical details that can a patina of verisimilitude to even the wildest of narratives.
• Books. Before computers, people wrote things down on paper and bound them into volumes they could share with one another. Repositories of such ancient volumes – called libraries – still exist in many communities. If budget cuts or public disinterest has shuttered your local library, you can still find many useful reference books on virtually any subject…on the Internet.
• Interviews. Although writing is usually a solitary affair, getting social every now and then can yield major dividends. Whatever subject you’re writing about, seek out people to interview for deep background, technical details or story ideas. Don’t be shy. You may surprised how many people are eager to cooperate when you explain that you’re writing a screenplay.
• Personal Visits. When writing about an unfamiliar place, nothing beats visiting the location in person. Granted, traveling to distant destinations can get expensive, especially if they’re in another city, another country or even another continent. On the flip side, if your efforts produce income, you can usually write off many of these travel-related expenses as “research” when doing your federal income taxes..

The cool thing about research is that it usually provides you with complications and solutions you would have never imagined on your own. It also helps you make your script more realistic – that is, creating the illusion of being real – which is necessary to help an audience willingly suspend its disbelief.
Like freedom, screenwriting requires constant vigilance. We must constantly be on guard against our proclivity to default to the familiar, to follow the path of least resistance, and to timidly go where other writers have gone before. Only by regarding our own writing with scientific-like skepticism, by constantly questioning ourselves like a caffeinated four-year-old, can we rise above the mundane and create stories worthy of the attention — and remuneration– we hope to earn.

Otherwise we’ll all just spend the rest of our lives outrunning explosive fireballs.
Allen. B Ury

Don’t Reject the Rejection!

DON’T REJECT THE REJECTION!

To say that screenwriters tend to be protective of their work is like saying water is kind of wet. As the gods of our fictional universes, we bestow upon ourselves the infallibility demanded of any Creator. We see our work, and it is good. Damned good.
But, despite what our self-affirmations would have us believe, we are not, in fact, omnipotent. While confidence is a helpful– and even necessary — survival trait in the wilds of Hollywood, too much confidence can easily mutate into arrogance. And that’s when, like an overactive immune system, our tenacity and determination can turn on its host and destroy us from the inside.

This is particularly true when it comes to handling rejection. Rejection is part and parcel of anyone working in the entertainment industry. We’re told we must learn to love the word “No,” because we’re going to hear it a lot. We’re also told to treat those “No’s” the way Godzilla treats bullets, to let them bounce off our thick, armored skins and plow ahead secure in the knowledge that, if we just stay the course, our talent and genius will be recognized and all our dreams will come true.

Or maybe not.

Instead of rejecting rejection, perhaps we should pause to consider why our work failed to connect and use the dismissal as an opportunity to improve our product. If a screenplay is constantly being turned down, perhaps it’s not because the readers have no taste, because they lack imagination or because Hollywood is a “rigged” game that only insiders can play.
In fact, there are many reasons why a particular production entity may reject one of our screenplays:

• They may already have a project with similar key elements already in development.
• Your premise may sound too similar to projects they know other companies already have in development.
• The script’s genre and/or budget requirements may be beyond what that particular company normally handles.

Or maybe it’s because, as writers, we failed to do our job. Maybe we just didn’t write a screenplay anyone actually wants to buy.

If you find yourself with a screenplay that is failing to catch fire, here are some questions to ask yourself and, depending on the answer, some corrective actions that may turn things in your favor.

Do I Have a Viable Premise? To build a solid structure, you need a firm foundation. Without a workable premise, no amount of complex characters, scintillating dialogue and dazzling eye-candy is going to prevent the enterprise from collapsing in on itself. A solid commercial premise requires three key elements:

1) A problem your hero can’t just walk away from. Whatever the hero’s goal, it must be something he/she MUST do or suffer horrific consequences. Something important must be stake.
2) Some kind of “Wow Factor,” an element that is unusual, exciting, weird or just plain “cool.” This usually the marketing hook.
3) A strong and obvious element of irony. The hero’s problem should, in some way, represent the worst of all possible situations for that individual. We see irony strongly at play in everything from tentpole sci-fi actioners to small romantic comedies.

All of these factors must be clearly evident by the end of Act One…usually 25 to 30 pages into your script. If you have failed to get your story up on its feet by this point, and have not done so in a way that has your audience strongly engaged in your hero’s challenge, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Can My Premise Be Easily Expressed? Can you explain your premise in one or two sentences? This is not an idle exercise. If you can’t easily express what your movie is about, then chances are the people reading your screenplay are going to be equally lost trying to understand it. You will find that the simpler your premise, the better your chances of connecting with an audience.
Is My Premise Marketable? Some premises are so familiar we believe we’ve seen the movie before we even read the script. Others are so weird we have no context against which to judge them. When selling to Hollywood, you’re looking for that “sweet spot” between the cliché and the bizarre, something familiar yet surprising.

To assess your premise’s marketability, list three or four recent box office successes to which your screenplay is similar. (Modeling your screenplay on box office flops is a one-way ticket to the circular file.) Then note the ways your script is different from the ones it resembles. The trick is to be different…but not too different.

Do I Love My Hero? There are many reasons to fall in love with a character — and they’re not always admirable. As much as we love do-gooders like Atticus Finch, James Bond and Katniss Everdeen, we’re equally drawn to outlaws like Michael Corleone, “Dirty” Harry Callahan and Lisbeth Salander. What makes a hero loveable? Humor. Wit. Passion. Confidence. Competence. And, in virtually all cases, having a strong personal code of conduct. Against these values, how does your hero measure up?

Is It Possible to Hate My Hero? No matter how attractive your hero might be, if he/she does something truly offensive or horrific during the course of your narrative, such a transgression can turn your reader off to your entire project. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason is usually acceptable. Doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason usually is not. Stereotyping. Speaking of offensiveness, if your script contains gratuitous examples of sexism, racism, homophobia or other types of crude stereotyping, this can also be the basis for a rejection. It’s certainly valid for one or more of your characters to behave in a “politically incorrect” manner, but you as the writer can’t descend to that level.

Is My Screenplay Properly Structured? Most of us are acutely aware of the classic 25-50-25 Three Act Structure and, while deviations can yield some compelling narratives, truly successful divergences are few and far between. It’s difficult enough getting readers to accept material from new writers; why add the extra burden of forcing them to contend with unconventional scene organization?

Is There Sufficient Conflict? As noted above, your premise must offer something serious at stake. Above and beyond that basic requirement, the danger (physical, financial, emotional) your hero faces must be acute, and should escalate over the course of your narrative. Until the very end, we must believe that, odds are, your hero will fail. That’s the key to keeping your screenplay interesting.

Is My Screenplay Well Paced? Nothing will turn a reader off faster than boredom. A good movie is one in which things move. Not just physical movement, but stories themselves by means of twists, turns, reversals, escalation, betrayals, reveals and just plain general unpredictability. Successful novels are often called “page-turners.” Scripts that sell tend to be just as compelling.

Does My Story Make Sense? Watch out for plot holes, coincidences, dues ex machinas, character inconsistencies, historical anachronisms, and other contrivances that can cause your readers to suspend their suspension of disbelief. Fiction writing is ultimately the art of creative lying, but if your lie falls apart, your chances of selling your script will as well.

Is My First Page Gripping? Get studio readers drunk enough and they’ll likely admit to making their initial judgments about a script’s commercial potential by the end of the Page 1. A strong, dramatically engaging first page sets an inviting tone and puts the reader in a receptive mood. If your script has failed to sell, it may require a Page One rewrite. Literally.

Is My Ending Satisfying? How do we feel at the end of your script? Endings don’t have to be happy, but they do have to be satisfying. You must keep promises, fulfill expectations and, even if you haven’t answered every question your script has raised, leave your reader with a sense of completion. The ancient Greeks called this catharsis, and claimed it was the very reason we attended theater in the first place. When your ending elicits audible sighs, they should by sighs of satisfaction, not relief that the damned thing is finally over.

Ultimately, is This a Movie? Is your screenplay, in fact, cinematic? Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin, don’t expect dialogue alone to carry you to glory. Your screenplay needs compelling visuals, a variety of locations, physical action, and other elements that declare to the world, “I am a MOVIE, goddamn it!”

Rejections are neither recommendations to find another line of business nor speed bumps to be ignored. They are, in fact, symptoms of problems you are well advised to take seriously and address as expeditiously as possible. Take each rejection as an opportunity to engage in serious self-reflection and analysis. Remember, if you’re a professional, you’re writing not to satisfy yourself, but to satisfy your customer. And if there’s one axiom that has guided business from the dawn of commerce, is that’s the customer is always right.– Allen B. Ury

Writing Movies for the International Market

LOST IN TRANSLATION: WRITING MOVIES FOR THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET

When writing movies for today’s market, it pays to think global.

Screenwriters have long struggled to balance their artistic visions with the mercenary and often soul-sucking demands of their bean-counting overlords. While we all remain free to write the stories we wish, to ignore the dictates of the international market in the 21st century is a financially risky proposition. Which is why appealing to foreign audiences — and the governments that act as their cultural gatekeepers — must always be at the forefront of our minds when crafting stories for the silver screen.

The Numbers Say It All
Foreign markets represent a huge slice of the modern box office pie. How huge? Combined, the top five movies released in 2015 grossed $7.628 billion worldwide, an all-time high.* Their foreign box office brought in $4.958 billion, another record high. That latter number represents 65 percent of total sales.

Today, it’s not uncommon for foreign revenues to significantly outpace those in the U.S. and Canada by as much as 2-to-1. For example, Universal’s Minions, which ranked #5 worldwide for 2015, made 71 percent of its $1.157 billion haul overseas. Furious 7, which ranked #3, made an even larger 76.7 percent of its $1.515 total outside North America.
In fact, all of 2015’s Top 20 grossing films, from Disney’s Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (#1 at $1.871 billion total, 54.1% foreign) to Fox’s Taken 3 (#20 at $326.15 million total, 72.7% foreign), grossed more money overseas than they did stateside. In fact, you have to go all the way down to #21, Paramount’s SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water ($323.4 million worldwide, 49.6% foreign) to find a film that didn’t make at least half its total gross in foreign markets. And even that was a squeaker.

Which makes the international market is the tail that wags the Hollywood dog. And with China expected to eclipse the United States/Canada as the world’s largest market for motion pictures by 2017, the importance of international sales should only increase.

The rush for foreign dollars (and euros, pesos, rubles, yen and yuan) has producers and studios scrambling for properties they can sell to foreign audiences. Screenwriters interested in selling to these buyers must pay heed and tailor their output to the demands of these increasingly important customers.

Crafting an International Strategy
So what do international audiences like? And what kind of subjects/themes should you avoid?
Here are some guidelines.

Franchises. This is the elephant in the room that must first dealt with first. If box office performance tells us anything, it’s that audiences everywhere love remakes and sequels. Eight of last year’s 10 top-grossing films were part of an established franchise. These were:
o Star Wars: The Force Awakens
o Jurassic World
o Furious 7
o Avengers: Age of Ultron
o Spectre
o Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
o The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Only two films in the Top 10, Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out and Fox’s The Martian, had no immediate cinematic antecedents.

Unfortunately, unless you are an established, A-List writer you aren’t likely to have an opportunity to write for the kind of branded franchise that guarantees strong foreign sales. The same goes for getting the rights to adapt a best-selling novel or write for an animation studio. (Virtually all animated features are developed in-house.)

So much for following the path of least resistance. Which brings us to our next subject:

Genres. For decades, it’s been a virtual article of faith that foreign audiences love action films. It makes sense. Humor, drama and even romance tend to have distinct cultural biases, but everyone understands an explosion, be it an incendiary device or a human head. Looking again at the 20 top grossing films of 2015, we find that 13 of them fit into the “action” category. (Some combined with overt sci-fi or fantasy elements.) Beyond the Top 20, we find many other action films like Universal’s Everest (#32, $202.5 million worldwide), Warner Bros.’ Jupiter Ascending (#36, $183.9 million worldwide), Warner Bros.’ Pan (#45, $127.0 million worldwide), Lion’s Gate/Sony’s The Last Witchunter (#46, $124.0 million) doing more than 70 percent of their business beyond the borders of North America. Heck, Warner Bros.’ Point Break may have crashed and burned domestically, making only $28.1 million in the U.S. and Canada, but still managed to steal $79.2 million from venues offshore.

Add straight fantasy and horror titles to this list and you have a pretty clear map to overseas success.

What doesn’t sell? Comedies, for one. (Unless they have strong action or fantasy elements.) Last year’s top-grossing comedy, Universal’s Pitch Perfect 2 (#24) made only 35.8 percent of its $287.1 million total gross overseas. Paramount’s Daddy’s Home (#34) made only 27.9 percent of its $183.9 million worldwide gross outside North America. And while Amy Schumer got critical raves for her feature film debut, Universal’s Trainwreck (#41), its $29.3 million overseas haul represented a mere 21.0 percent of its $139.5 million total.

Finally, sports films and, sadly, films that feature African-American leads, have, to date, had a poor track record overseas. Last year we saw such well-reviewed films as Universal’s Straight Outta Compton (#33, $200.4 million worldwide), Warner Bros.’ Creed (#42, $137.9 million worldwide) and Sony’s Concussion (#102, $37.6 million worldwide) fail to crack even 20 percent in overseas sales.

Diverse Characters. One long-proven way to crank up interest in international markets is to write supporting characters who can be played by “international stars.” As far back as the 1960s, producers started casting high profile European actors in featured roles to secure foreign sales and financing. Today, writing parts for Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Indian actors can significantly boost distribution in rapidly growing Asian markets and goose local box office. In fact, it’s become fairly common for major tentpole movies to shoot extra scenes featuring non-American actors to create “special editions” just for their respective countries.
International Locations. Setting scenes in foreign locations is yet one way more to increase overseas ticket sales — and often help a production company receive valuable subsidies, tax credits or enter into co-production deals. 2012’s time-travel actioner Looper, for example, was a U.S./Chinese co-production and switched some key scenes from the originally scripted Paris, France to Shanghai to appease its production partners. And we can’t ignore the “eye candy” foreign settings provide, often giving otherwise mundane scripts a patina of exoticism.
Political Sensitivities. When trying to appeal to international audiences, it’s increasing important to note the political sensitivities many national film boards have when it comes to how their countries are depicted. China, for example, is notoriously unforgiving of films that depict the Middle Kingdom in anything but positive terms. For example, the makers of 2013’s World War Z had to deviate from Max Brooks’ source novel and change the location of the zombie infection’s source from rural China to South Korea to secure distribution in that lucrative but still tightly controlled Communist state. The makers of Skyfall had to remove a scene in which James Bond killed a Chinese security guard because the Chinese would not tolerate the depiction of a Chinese citizen being killed by a foreigner. Mission Impossible 3 had to remove a scene showing, of all things, laundry in Shanghai hanging on a clothesline. Conversely, both 2013’s Gravity and 2015’s The Martian were particularly complementary of China’s space program, a factor that no doubt accounted for much of their warm reception in this increasing massive market.

It’ a Small World After All
Foreign sales are only going to become more important to the studio’s bottom lines, not less, and writers who can supply their need for scripts with international appeal will have a significant leg up on those whose perspectives remain more parochial.

Of course, if comedy, drama or minority-themed stories are still your thing, there’s always television.
– Allen B. Ury

* All figures from Box Office Mojo

Seven Steps to a More Effective Film Treatment

SEVEN STEPS TO A MORE EFFECTIVE FILM TREATMENT

In Hollywood, you’ll find many types of treatments. You’ll find treatments for chronic depression. You’ll find treatments for sagging skin and receding hairlines. With little effort, and you’ll find treatments for alcohol abuse, drug abuse, spousal abuse and even self-abuse.

And then you’ll find treatments for motion picture screenplays.

Of all the treatments practiced by entertainment industry professionals, the screenplay treatment is perhaps the most challenging and, potentially, the most rewarding.

Although treatments have been around as long as the motion picture industry itself, there remains a great deal of ignorance as to exactly what a treatment is, how one is used, and the shape and form one should take. Because of this ignorance, a good number of screenwriters are losing out on potential sales — and making the job of writing a marketable script more difficult for themselves.

If you plan to make screenwriting your vocation, do yourself a favor and learn how to write a good treatment. Your professional life will be sooooo much easier.

A Bit of History
In the beginning, movies were silent. Motion pictures were just that: pictures that moved. Dialogue was something printed on cards known as “titles.” As a result, for the motion pictures’ first three decades, the document we now call a “screenplay” simply did not exist. Instead, writers penned motion picture “treatments.” Via the treatment, a writer laid his story out step by step, including such information as the scene location and the actions each character performed therein. The resulting treatment was thus the written “blueprint” the director used to plan and then film their productions.
With the coming of sound in 1927, a new way of conveying a film’s story had to be devised. The result, what we call the “screenplay,” fused the pure visual aesthetics of the silent film treatment with the dialogue slugs found in theatrical scripts. But while screenplays ultimately supplanted treatments as the final film “blueprint,” they did not render treatments obsolete.
To the contrary, treatments found new currency as sales tools and as valuable instruments writers could use to increase their efficiency.

So, Then, Just What is a Treatment?
A motion picture treatment is best described as a screenplay that contains everything you need to make a movie except the dialogue. Like the Hollywood treatments of old, they break the story down step by step, scene by scene, describing the action intended to take place on the screen. One can think of a treatment as a movie transcription created by a deaf person. Reading a treatment, you’ll not only understand the story, but exactly how the story unfolds.

It is that last factor that makes treatments so valuable to studios and production companies as well as to writers.
Unlike a synopsis, which is usually just a two- or three-page-long distillation of a narrative, a treatment is a rich, highly detailed explication that gets into the nuts and bolts of how that narrative will be presented on film. Treatments not only allow studio decision-makers to evaluate a story’s idea, but also its intended execution.

Studios often use treatments when deciding which writer(s) to assign to a property they have in development. Give five writers a novel to adapt, and they are likely to all come back with a similar synopsis, which is just a retelling of the novel’s main plotline. But their treatments are likely to vary considerably. Each treatment will, by nature, have a very different take on the proposed film’s structure, tone, pacing, etc., as well as the number of characters used, each person’s role in the story and the amount of screen time they enjoy. Comparing treatments allow decision-makers to better choose between each writer’s “vision.”

In additional to selling scripts, many screenplays use treatments as a transitional step between synopsis and screenplay. By breaking their story down scene by scene, they can play with the story’s mechanics and nail down the structure before taking on the daunting task of writing dialogue. If they need to make changes, it’s much easier to do so when the script is in treatment form compared to when it’s a full-blown screenplay.

Frankly, once you know your screen story backwards and forwards, putting in dialogue is a breeze.

The Seven Steps to Effective Treatment Writing
Here, then, are the seven steps to writing an effective screenplay treatment:

1. Write in the present tense. Like regulation screenplays, treatments are told in the present tense. The description essentially narrates the action as if it was unfolding in front of us in real time.
2. Use traditional scene slugs. Although not required, it’s often easier to write — and to read — a treatment if you slug each scene as an “INT.” or “EXT.” just as you would in a screenplay. Doing so also makes it easier to turn the treatment into a screenplay once you decide to move on to the final step.
3. Tell the story, don’t explain it. As in a screenplay, treatments can only contain that information that can be portrayed on screen. You can’t tell us a character’s thoughts, provide biographical background, or communicate any other information not readily available to the viewer.

Although tempting, you can’t include a phrase like, “Our hero, Captain Jack Powers, is a ten-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Twice wounded in Afghanistan, he bears both the physical and psychic scars of his many years of military service.” Useful information, yes, but how would this information actually be communicated on screen? Putting Powers in uniform could tell us he’s a Marine. Or maybe he’s now a civilian with a USMC “Semper Fi” tattoo on his forearm. Making him in his mid-30s suggests how long he could have been in the service, and adding some scars to his face and perhaps even giving him a slight limp could suggest he’s seen action. There could also be a scene at his home where his medals are in a framed display — or perhaps hidden away in a drawer. (How Powers chooses to display his medals could tell us a lot about how he feels about his military experience.) The point is, this is all visual information you need to spell out in your treatment.
4. Be really detailed. When it comes to action scenes, the more detail the better. It’s not enough to know that a fight occurs. Readers want to know how the fight is staged, how it’s fought, the ebb and flow of dominance, any handy props brought into the brawl, etc. In short, write action scenes just like you’re writing the actual screenplay.
5. Include the emotions. Even without dialogue, you can — and should — put as much emotional content into your scenes. The feelings behind actions and reactions is just as important as the action themselves. Remember, emotions are things actors can “play” even without dialogue. Actors don’t need words to convey anger, outrage, sadness, tenderness, love, euphoria, depression, etc. Always make emotion part of your description.
6. Describe the dialogue exchanged. In your screenplay, characters will talk to each other, so use your treatment to indicate what information they exchange and how they exchange it. In short, use the treatment form to describe the dialogue you intend to eventually write without actually getting into the specific verbiage. (E.g., “Powers tearfully confesses to having mistaken the eleven-year-old Afghan boy for a terrorist and shooting him in cold blood.”)
7. Yes, even include some dialogue. If your screenplay is to include key lines of dialogue meant to drive the action forward or echo throughout the story, (e.g., “Make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “May the Force be with you,” “Are you not entertained!!!”), insert them into your description at the points they’d actually appear in your screenplay.

How long should a treatment be? Many treatments run forty to sixty pages. Yes, that’s a lot of work. But doing all the heavy lifting at this stage of development makes it less likely you’ll have to do it later when the page counts get even higher.
Master the art and science of creating motion picture treatments and you’ll significantly increase your marketability as a writer, and probably improve the screenplays you ultimately sell as well.
– Allen B. Ury

How To Tell Your Screenplay Sucks

HOW TO TELL YOUR SCREENPLAY SUCKS

As anyone who has read original motion picture screenplays for a living will tell you: Most screenplays suck. And not just screenplays by wannabes. A good many scripts from accredited WGA members are equally unproducible. More often than not, they’re boring. They’re confusing. They’re riddled with clichés. They’re torpid. Let’s put it another way: If you think most of the screenplays that did make it into production stank like week-old halibut, imagine the acrid aroma of the 90 percent of yearly submissions that didn’t even make it past the initial evaluation stage.

If you’re currently banging out an original action script, period drama or modern rom-com, understand that, chances are, your end-product will suck, too. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how many “How to Write a Screenplay” books you’ve read or how many AFI seminars you’ve attended, Silverberg’s Law* demands that your screenplay be wanting in one or more critical areas.

Is there a way to tell ahead of time – before you embarrass yourself in front of friends, family, agents and producers — your screenplay actually sucks? And if so, is there anything you can do about it?
Fortunately, the answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!”

Following are five tests you can run on your own screenplay to see if it is a likely candidate for the old circular file (or, in this age of PDF submissions, the handy-dandy “Delete” key), along with prescriptive responses should your script test positive for suckiness.

1. Try to Explain Your Premise in One or Two Sentences. The premise of a film is a statement that describes your screenplay’s narrative foundation in terms of its central character(s) and the principal problem he/she/they must struggle to solve. As I’ve stated in previous articles, a commercially viable feature film premise contains three essential elements:

a. A hero with a problem he/she can’t just walk away from. If the problem can be side-stepped, where’s the dramatic tension?
b. A “Wow Factor.” That is, something about the hero, the problem, the setting, the time-period, etc., that is original, engaging, or otherwise just plain “cool.”
c. A strong element of irony. The problem the hero faces should, in some essential way, be antithetical to his/her character.

For example, the premise of the early summer megahit Jurassic World could be expressed as, “The control-obsessed executive manager of a theme park featuring live dinosaurs faces the crisis of her life when the park’s deadliest attraction escapes and goes on a murderous rampage.” This premise hits all the marks: There’s the heroine with a problem she can’t just walk away from. She’s the boss. Lives are at stake. The Wow Factor is the most commercially potent of the last 30 years – DINOSAURS!!! And the irony? She’s a control freak who’s lost control.

Here’s the premise of a distinctly smaller film, last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Birdman: “A middle aged movie actor famous for playing an iconic super-hero attempts to resurrect his career by staging a serious Broadway drama, only to be literally haunted by the very comic book character that made him famous.” Again, the premise hits all the marks. There’s a hero facing the existential problem of irrelevance. The pseudo-Batman character is the “Wow Factor” (as is the casting of former Batman star Michael Keaton.) And the irony – one that faces many stars in the hero’s position – is that he hates the very thing everyone else loves him for.

If you can’t state your premise this elegantly – if you can’t express your set-up clearly and succinctly in just one or two sentences – and it doesn’t satisfy all three criteria, chances are your screenplay sucks. Yes, you may have wonderful characters, quotable dialogue, thrilling set pieces, etc., etc., but it’s just not going to work as a single, cohesive piece of commercial entertainment.

The remedy is to go back to the drawing board. Strip your core idea back down to its essentials and find a way to express it simply and cleanly. This can take some time. Even days or weeks. But once you’ve leapt this hurdle, you’ll find that the rest of the script’s direction and structure suddenly becomes clearer as well.

2. State Your Theme. The “theme” of your movie is its “moral” or “message.” It’s the question your narrative is trying to answer. Sometimes a movie’s theme is explicit. Other times, it’s implied. Regardless, theme is the tentpole around which your story in anchored. Some classic examples:

The Godfather (1972) – “Organized crime is but the dark side of the American Dream.”
Schindler’s List (1993) – “He who saves one life saves the world.”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – “Without pain, life has no meaning.”
Argo (2012) – “There’s nothing more powerful than a good story.”

Can you articulate your screenplay’s theme? Does the narrative actually address the theme you’ve chosen? If not, your screenplay probably sucks.

All screenplays have themes. Even broad comedies. To make sure your theme is integrated properly into your narrative, think of your theme as a resolution about to be debated. Which of your characters has the “pro” position? Who represents the “con”? How passionately do they fight for their positions? Do their positions waver or even change over time? If so, there must be compelling reasons for them to do so.

3. Describe Your Protagonist/Hero in Three Words. Now do the same for your Antagonist/Villain. A good screenplay is inhabited by multi-dimensional characters. Usually, these “dimensions” are expressed in terms of behavioral characteristics. The more words you can use to describe a character, the more interesting that character is likely to be – especially if these characteristics are at times in conflict with one another. Test your main characters by describing each in at least three words. Ideally, these words should not be synonymous. (“Brave” and “Fearless” doesn’t count as two.)
For example, here’s a quick three-word breakdown of the main characters in the original Star Wars trilogy:

Luke Skywalker – Restless, Awkward, Adventurous
Han Solo – Rakish, Impulsive, Principled
Leia Organa – Committed, Commanding, Smart-Mouthed
C3PO – Fussy, woeful, proud
R2D2 – Loyal, Brave, Chipper
Obi-Wan Kenobi – Wise, Patient, Calculating
Darth Vader – Ruthless, Violent, Spiritual

It’s often been noted that one of the main reasons the Prequel Trilogy was underwhelming was that it was virtually impossible to describe the main characters in even three words. They were flattened into one or, at most, two dimensions.

If you can’t describe your main characters in at least three words – and those descriptions remain valid throughout most, if not all, your story – then your screenplay probably sucks. Take time to flesh out your characters in terms of their temperaments and behaviors, and then stick to those models throughout your subsequent execution.

4. Chart Your Set-Ups and Pay-Offs. In screenplays, few things are as satisfying as triumphs that are earned. The method by which we earn these triumphs is by hiding the solutions to the problems we create earlier in the narrative.

When the spirit of Ray Kinsella’s dad shows up at the end of Field of Dreams, it makes sense because we’re told at the movie’s start that the man was a frustrated ballplayer.

When, at the end of The Usual Suspects, (Spoiler Alert!) Verbal Kint is revealed to be the sinister Keyser Soze, it’s only after Customs agent Kujan has visually spotted all the office knick-knacks the criminal mastermind has used to spin his remarkable tale.

When, in last year’s Nightcrawler, freelance news cameraman Lou Bloom ends up owning a fleet of “eyewitness” news vans, we accept the outcome based on the character’s (repeatedly) demonstrated business acumen, unbridled ambition and sociopathic opportunism.

In each case, the dramatic pay-off is preceded by a legitimate set-up earlier in the story. All great screenplays use this set-up/pay-off technique to one degree or another.

To see if your screenplay is skillfully constructed, chart out all your key “payoffs” and “triumphs” alongside their respective set-ups. If you have one or more major plot twists, reveals, or triumphs that don’t have a corresponding set-up, chances are your screenplay sucks.

Go back and ensure you’ve established a legitimate foundation for these key moments. And, if possible, make sure these set-ups are hidden or subtle enough that they don’t call attention to themselves. You want your payoffs to be unexpected. Predictability is a major script killer. Only in retrospect should the set-up/pay-off dynamic be obvious – perhaps even inevitable – to the audience.

5. Determine How Much Time You’ve Devoted to Writing the Script. Here’s the dirty little secret behind all good screenwriting: It’s a goddamn time-suck. Good screenwriting is a slow, painful process that requires almost religious-like devotion and sacrifice. You’ve heard that you should write what you know? That you should always go with your gut? That’s bullshit.

Good writing requires deep research into whatever world you’re writing about, be it modern law enforcement, 19th century British aristocracy, law, medicine, terrorism, Ancient Rome or running a restaurant. It demands that you push yourself well beyond your comfort zone and delve into lifestyles, values, personality types, ethics, customs and protocols that may be completely foreign to you at the moment. Do you think that Aaron Sorkin already knew all about the U.S. military legal system when he set off to write A Few Good Men? That Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack were already intimate with the economics of the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s when they decided to pen Dallas Buyers Club? Or that Mike Judge was an expert in compression logarithms when he co-wrote the pilot for Silicon Valley? Whatever verisimilitude those scripts conveyed was the result of research.

How many hours did you devote to research before you even typed FADE IN? How many books on your chosen subject did you read? How many online articles did you absorb? How many experts did you speak with? If the number isn’t in the dozens, then you probably relied on genre clichés, stereotypes, cultural myths, “common knowledge” and wild guesses. And your screenplay probably sucks.

Likewise, “going with your gut” is usually a recipe for disaster. When people speak of “going with your gut” or “writing from the heart,” what they’re really talking about is falling back on simple answers from movies you’ve already seen. And which millions of people have already seen as well.

Don’t feel bad about this. It’s human instinct to default to the familiar. It’s how we learn language and behavior, by parroting the language and behaviors of the people around us. But it makes for sucky screenwriting.

To avoid falling into this trap and creating a work that transcends genre, you have to first write, set the script aside for a few weeks, then return to the piece and challenge every decision you originally made. Throw new obstacles in your hero’s path. If a solution worked the first time, see what happens if it fails. Combine or eliminate characters. Try playing wordy scenes with minimal or even no dialogue at all. In short, don’t settle for easy or obvious answers. And be specific, not just in the story you tell and the characters that inhabit it, but also in your language. Characters should never “go.” They “speed” or “stumble” or “amble.” No one drives a “car.” They drive a “lovingly restored ’57 Thunderbird” or a “piece-of-shit Toyota Tercel.” A character doesn’t wield a “gun,” he points a “Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum” or a “Nighthawk 1911.” Look at all the nouns in your script, and ask yourself, “Is this the most precise and descriptive word or phrase I could have used to describe this?”

Once you’ve done this. Do it again. And again. And keep doing it until you are absolutely, 100 percent convinced you’ve written the best script you possibly can. If, weeks later, you suddenly get an idea on how to improve the script, it means you let the script go too soon – and as a result, it probably sucks.

A quality screenplay usually takes at least a half-dozen rewrites. Not polishes. Page-one rewrites, top-to-bottom. The investment is usually in the hundreds of hours. And that’s even before the studios get their hands on it.

Will your script ever be perfect? No. Perfection is the goal of fools. But trying to make your script perfect – that is how you achieve excellence. – Allen B. Ury

* Silverberg’s Law, attributed to prolific science fiction author Robert Silverberg, states, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

Your TV Series Idea is Great! Now What?!

YOUR TV SERIES IS GREAT!
Now What Are You Going to Do About It?!

It’s now an axiom that we’re living in the second Golden Age of Television. Since David Chase debuted The Sopranos on HBO in 1999, television has delivered a cornucopia of quality drama so rich it has made former FCC Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” speech of 1961 seem as antiquated as bloomers, buggywhips and bathtub gin. Series like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, True Detective and House of Cards have not only won both large, loyal audiences and innumerable industry awards, but they’ve helped elevate television to a level of prestige equal – if not superior – to feature films. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the real creative action is today – be it in drama or comedy – and most insiders will point not to Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros and Disney, but to HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX and Netflix.

In short, there’s never been a better time to be in television, especially if you’re someone with truly bold, original and challenging ideas.

At the same time, having an opportunity to actually get those ideas onto the screen has never been tougher. Yes, there’s a massive demand for creative talent in today’s TV industry. But the stakes are so high, the investments so massive, the risks so daunting, and the competition so fierce, the odds of any particular series concept making it onto the air are about as long as hitting the trifecta at Del Mar Racetrack.
Of course, long odds have never kept people from betting on the ponies.

Nor does should they deter anyone who has an idea they truly believe in from trying to realize their dreams.
Just go into the venture with your eyes open, your skills honed and your game plan realistic.
Designing Your Series

Everyone in Hollywood has ideas. Some people even have great ideas. But selling to Hollywood is not about the concept. It’s about the execution. To sell your idea, you must show potential buyers how your idea will be realized on a weekly basis. You must make a convincing case that your idea has the potential to keep spinning off compelling episodes for months, if not years.

This begins with what the industry calls the series “bible.”

Your bible is your series’ defining document. In it, you lay down the overall concept in as much detail as you can. You establish the genre, e.g. police procedural, situation comedy, serialized period drama, reality competition, etc. Is the show a half-hour or an hour? Where does the series take place? In what time period? What are the standing sets? Will the show use single camera or multi-camera filming? Outline the format in terms of length, acts (on commercial television, the periods of actual programming between commercials). And set the overall tone.

Remember, every series – even reality shows – exist in their own particular “universe.” The world of House of Cards is not the same world as in Gotham, Scandal or Duck Dynasty. What are your world’s dominant values? It’s most daunting challenges? Is there a BIG IDEA that drives your story forward? (For example, in AMC’s The Walking Dead, the obvious, overriding theme is that Man is the most dangerous monster of all. Conversely, in Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s that Light conquers Dark.) Take some time to take us into your imagined/interpreted world and give us a tour of its most intriguing aspects.

Then you list and describe your principal characters. Give each major character at least a half page – if not a full page – of description, including backstory and a detailed emotional and psychological profile. Be sure to include each character’s defining characteristics in terms of personality, skills, temperament, strengths and weaknesses. Also mention how each character relates to, and interacts with, the show’s other principal characters. Where are the points of attraction (if any)? The sources of conflict (if any)? If there is a particular long-term mission or challenge a character is facing over the course of the series, be sure to include pertinent details and describe how this affects the series’ overall narrative.

Now walk us through a typical episode. How does the show usually open? How many plotlines are usually in motion? (Most shows have an A and B plot. More ambitious ones even include C and even D subplots.) From where are complications likely to occur? How are they usually resolved? How do episodes usually end? Is there resolution or do we usually go out with a cliffhanger?
These same guidelines apply to describing reality and competition/game shows. Lay down the rules and walk us through a typical episode.

Now that you’ve established your format, it’s time to show us the show itself. Start with the pilot. Write a two- or three-page-long synopsis that describes in sufficient detail how your introductory episode works. Write it in a present-tense narrative style that takes us beat by beat through this critical introduction to the world you’ve created. It should contain all the character, narrative, style, tone and thematic elements that make your series unique and compelling.

Following your pilot episode description, include half page-long descriptions of three or four subsequent episodes. In each narrative, set up the episode’s central problem, describe the main dramatic or comedic set-pieces, and reveal how the episode ends. Although short, these descriptions are critically important as they demonstrate that your series has “legs,” that the premise is strong enough to sustain a lengthy run.

Selling Your Series

Designing your series is the fun part. That’s where you get to “play God” and see your vision complete and undiluted – at least in your own mind’s eye.

But now comes the hard part: getting others to commit that that vision. When it comes to selling a series, there are several paths you can take. The first is convince your agent – yes, you’re going to need an agent – to submit your series bible directly to potential buyers (broadcast networks, cable channels, etc.) While the most direct method, it’s also the least likely to succeed. The fact is, television is, for all intents and purposes, a closed shop when it comes to new series ideas. As stated above, the value of a series concept lies not in the idea but in the execution. Because popular TV is such a difficult thing to produce week in and week out, buyers tend to prefer dealing with people who already have established track records in this field. They usually talk only with creators of past hits or current showrunners who have demonstrated time and again that they can deliver shows of a certain quality on schedule and on budget. So unless you’re Dick Wolf or Chuck Lorre or Vince Gilligan or Mark Burnett, you probably won’t get a hearing.

Which leads us to our second tactic: Partnering with an established show runner. In this scenario, you convince your agent – yes, you really need an agent for this – to contact producers and production companies that have produced similar properties in the past and pitch your idea to them. If there’s interest, you may get a chance to further develop your series with the showrunner who will then become the point person in selling it to the buyer. While this approach has a higher probably of success than going directly to buyers, you pay a price, both creatively and financially. The producer/showrunner will naturally want to “improve” your concept with his/her own ideas. (And because the producer/showrunner has years of experience, these ideas will probably be good ones.) And you’ll have to split any creator’s fee with your new partners. Which is not a bad deal, considering the alternatives.

Finally, consider getting the attention of potential buyers through alternate, more affordable media. The Walking Dead was a comic book before it was a hit TV series. Seinfeld, Roseanne and Home Improvement were all based on the riffs of stand-up comics. The Odd Couple, in its many incarnations, started off as a stage play.

And then there’s the Web. If you have a digital camera, a group of talented friends and a modest amount of cash in the bank (or you’ve yet to max out your credit cards), you can produce a low-budget version of your series for all the world to see. With a little bit of luck – and a lot of social media promotion – you may get a network to buy your web series and make it “legit.” Comedy Central’s Broad City, Workaholics and Drunk History, Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, and IFC’s Portlandia were, like your last audiobook, bought off the Internet. Heck, in 2010, CBS got the premise for $#*! MY DAD SAYS from a #&%! Twitter feed!

Home video technology also makes it practical to produce a “Sizzle Reel,” a mock “Trailer” for your show that includes short examples of the kinds of scenes your show might include without having to self-produce a full-blown pilot. Such “Sizzle Reels” can be particularly useful when trying to sell reality series, since such shows are supposed to be cheap, immediate and “unstaged” – exactly the effect you’ll achieve with a handheld videocamera.

Aim High, but Start Low

In television, as in virtually all other industries, experience is currency. A credible track industry track record will get you further than even the greatest stroke of genius. Which means, if you seriously want to create a TV series, it’s best to start off as a staff writer on an existing show. You do this by writing spec scripts and having your agent – there’s that word again – submit them to showrunners. If a staff opening appears, and your spec is impressive enough, you may get an opportunity to write and get paid for it. Write enough episodes and you may become a head writer. Do this long enough and you may become a showrunner. And once you become a showrunner, you may finally get the opportunity to stop realizing someone else’s vision and pitch a series of your own.

That’s how virtually every series creator today got his/her foot in the door. That’s how they built trust and credibility. That’s how they made the professional connections that are this industry’s life’s blood. That’s how they honed their professional skills to a level where they knew how to deliver 40 to 60 pages of original material every week.

You have a great TV series idea? It’s time to get to work.
Or start a #&%! Twitter feed. – Allen B. Ury

The Hollywood Way

How Even Crazed First-Timers Can Look Like Cool Professionals

Being a Hollywood newbie can be frightening. In any industry, it’s hard enough for an inexperienced first-timer to impress a seasoned pro. But only in Hollywood are you likely to find yourself in a position to thoroughly embarrass yourself in front of men and women whose names are celebrated worldwide. In a town where intimidation is practiced in everything from the make of cars people drive to the size of their McMansions to the resorts where they choose to vacation, it’s easy to feel small, frustrated and overwhelmed. In fact, a lot of people are actually counting on that.

Fortunately, there are tried-and-true methods for first-time writers and directors to interact with industry pros in ways that will allow you to overcome your fears, avoid professional crash-and-burns and even develop long, productive relationships. The trick is to know what industry insiders require from you, to understand their basic motivations and then to adjust your own communications and expectations accordingly. Only when you know the rules of the game can you win the game.

The first mistake you can make is to think that industry professionals have any interest in your success. They don’t. Approaching an agent or producer or executive with the expectation that he/she will immediately spark to your obvious talent and take you under his/her wing is a recipe for soul-crushing disappointment. To improve your odds, initiate any communication with the attitude, “I have something that can make your job easier.”

Know Your Audience

Before instituting any communication, know who you’re taking to and what their interests are. At the very least, use IMBD.com to check on past credits. Use inside sources like Fade In’s Agency & Producers Guides to know what genres agents/managers, producers and production companies specialize in or, if utilizing Greenlightmymovie.com, review VIP profiles.  Read the trades and entertainment-focused websites to know which new projects your potential buyer is involved with, and how well they’ve been received by critics and the public at large.

Remember, flattery will get you everywhere. If given the opportunity, start off by mentioning a recent project and how much you liked it. (If you didn’t like it, simply congratulate them.) No matter what the level of achievement, everyone in this town lives to be recognized.

Be Professional

Hollywood may be a hotbed of wild creativity, but until you’ve earned the right to be an arrogant, irresponsible, undependable flake, treat this like you would any other profession. If writing an email, employ proper English grammar, and be concise. If making a phone call, keep your message short and on point. Be polite to receptionists and assistants. (Especially receptionists and assistants, as they hold the real power.) Say things like “please” and “thank you.”

And never, ever overhype what you’re selling. Never say things like, “This script is guaranteed to make a billion dollars!” or “This has a perfect part for Angelina Jolie!” Keep your descriptions on-point and let the project sell itself. If it’s really good, professionals will immediately recognize its potential.

Talk the Talk

Like all industries, entertainment has its own jargon you must master if you’re going to interact with the natives. Here are some common terms you should utilize in your communications:

  • Above the Line/Below the Line – “Above the Line” refers to expenses for key talent, particularly actors, producers, directors and writers. “Below the Line” prefers to expenses for everyone else involved in a movie or TV series’ production, particularly technical personnel.
  • Assignment – Usually refers to a script you are paid to write based on existing material or someone else’s idea. (See “Spec.”)
  • Attachment – A producer, director or actor who has committed himself/herself to a project to make it more saleable. Attachments are not always good things, especially if the people involved are not particularly marketable.
  • Coverage – A report on an unproduced screenplay, usually involving a quick plot synopsis and an overall quality evaluation.  Coverage is designed to help executives decide which scripts are actually worth their time to read.
  • Development – Within a studio environment, the process of rewriting a script or teleplay to the point everyone feels it’s ready to actually shoot. Many scripts never get beyond this process, landing in what’s affectionately known at Development Hell.
  • Four Quad – Refers to the four key demographic quadrants: Young (25 and below), Old (25 and above), male and female.  Big budget films attempt to aim at all four quadrants. (See “Tentpole.“)
  • Franchise – A “brand name” film that either has, or is expected to, spawn sequels. James Bond, Star Wars, Fast & Furious, The Hunger Games and even 50 Shades of Grey are examples of franchises.
  • Gross – The amount of money a film makes during its theatrical release, usually classified as either “domestic” (U.S. and Canada) or “worldwide.” Synonymous with “Box Office.
  • High Concept – A film or TV series with a simple but powerful premise that can be described in a single sentence. (e.g. The Last Man on Earth.)
  • Prestige Film –  A motion picture – often produced by a studio’s “specialty” division – that is specifically designed to garner critical acclaim and industry awards. These are almost universally dramas, biographies and/or period pieces featuring “seasoned” actors produced on limited budgets because their backers know they’ll be lucky to make back their negative costs. By definition, prestige films can never feature super heroes or be comedies – unless they’re directed by foreign nationals and appear to be shot in a single take.
  • Rom-Com – Romantic comedy.
  • Spec – Short for “speculative,” it usually refers to a script written with the intent of eventually get paid for it. (See “Assignment.“)
  • Tentpole – A major “event” film around which a studio arranges the release dates of its “lesser” films. Also known as “Blockbusters,” a term originally used to describe a film that made a boatload of money, now used to describe a film that’s expected to earn a boatload of money.
  • Turnaround – What happens when a studio gives up on the idea of actually producing a script it has developed and makes it available for purchase to other buyers in hopes of recouping its investment.
  • Two-Hander – A film requiring two stars of equal stature. The Jump Street comedies starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are good examples of this product type.
  • Y.A. – “Young Adult,” usually based on books from the same genre. They usually feature young female protagonist in fantastical situations, e.g. Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.

Don’t be a Pest

Understand that anyone in a position to say yes or no your project is probably saddled with dozens of similar projects to evaluate. And most of these projects will be from writers and filmmakers who are a lot more important than you are.  It’s not at all uncommon for agents and producers to take weeks, if not months, to respond to scripts from anyone who isn’t the current “flavor of the week.” Once a project is out there, the best thing you can do it leave its fate to the Entertainment Gods and move on to something else. If after three months you still have not heard back, send a polite follow-up email asking if the VIP has had a chance to review your project. This will achieve one of two things: 1) Spur him/her into actually reading your script, or 2) Spur him/her to finally assigning the read to someone else who will be so enthusiastic that he/she will actually read your script.

Learn to Take Notes – and Criticism

Development people of all levels earn their paychecks by criticizing other people’s work. If you are lucky enough to get into a development situation, be prepared to receive lots and lots of suggestions about how your material can be improved. During meetings, take lots of notes and nod your head a lot. While you should never appear defense, it is okay to defend an idea if you have what you believe is a strong case. And always be ready to give territory on some small points to preserve more important ones. Above all, be genuinely open to creative input. Filmmaking is and always will be a collaborate effort, and a lot of development people got into their positions because they actually understand movie-making and have genuinely good ideas. Perhaps the great skill you can develop is the ability take other people’s ideas and then change them just enough to make them your own. Then everybody’s happy.

Never Talk Money

In any discussion of work, never bring up the subject of money. It’s not only tacky, but you’re almost certain to say the wrong thing. If the subject comes up, simply say, “I leave that stuff to my agent/entertainment lawyer” and leave it at that. And if you don’t yet have an agent or entertainment lawyer?

If there’s a deal to be made, don’t worry, you will!

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

As the old deodorant commercial advised, “Never let ’em see you sweat.” Hollywood pros can not only smell desperation a mile away, they avoid anything emitting even a hint of failure the way Jenny McCarthy avoids vaccines. Even in the face of frustration and defeat, you must remain outwardly calm, cool and confident. Hollywood is, after all, a town built on fakery. Look  like a winner and, with any luck at all, the artifice will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. – Allen B. Ury

 

A Screenwriter’s Guide to Surviving in Hollywood

A SCREENWRITER’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING IN THE HOLLYWOOD  TRENCHES

Q: How many screenwriters does it take to change a light bulb?

A: None. The bulb is perfect the way it is.

Like many classic jokes, this gag illustrates a painful truth: Most screenwriters are fiercely protective of their work. And why not? Writing an original screenplay, especially writing one on spec, is a grueling, painful and often soul-sucking process. Often, the only thing keeping a writer going is unbridled ego and the dream of future glory. (God knows, it’s rarely the money.) Screenplays are our babies, and criticism of any kind can elicit the same instinctive defensive reaction a mama bear unleashes in defense of her threatened cubs.

But while fierce resistance to external forces may help bears propagate their species, it can prove damaging, perhaps even fatal, to Hollywood screenwriters. Especially new ones. The most successful writers are those who are open to suggestions, sensitive to the power plays that are an inevitable part of the filmmaking process, and able to divorce their egos from the “job” they’ve been hired to do. Perhaps even more important for new writers is the ability to stay focused on the real job — which is building a lasting career — and subsuming any one particular screenplay to the service of that longer-term objective.

Why Movies Get Made

To develop an effective career-building strategy, you first need to answer the key question: Why do movies get made? There’s really only one answer to that question: To make money. Obviously some movies are produced with the goal of making a lot of money — we call them “blockbusters” or “tentpoles” — while others have less lofty ambitions. (We call them indie films.) Sometimes the resulting films turn a profit. Often they do not. But no one backs a film with the intention of losing money. Even a “prestige” film produced primarily to win critical praise and Oscar nominations is still expected to, at worst, break even or, in some cases, as payback to its above-the-line players for participating in the sponsoring studio’s more obviously commercial ventures.

As a screenwriter and member of a production team, your first obligation is therefore to help your movie make money any way you can. The arguable “quality” of the script you write may be irrelevant to that goal. We know this to be true because:

1) Many screen projects are launched before a screenplay is completed — or even started;

2) Screenwriters are traditionally billed fourth behind stars, directors and producers;

And perhaps most telling of all,

3) Many movies are huge hits despite the fact their scripts suck balls.

Face it, if there was any correlation at all between writing quality and box office receipts, we wouldn’t be looking forward to Transformers 5.

Why Screenplays Are Bought

Now that you understand why movies get made, you next need to answer the question: Why would a producer buy your screenplay? Again, the answer is pretty obvious: The producer believes he/she can sell it. And again, this conclusion may have little to do with the quality of the writing. The producer may simply find the concept commercial. The producer may like the overall story but not your particular execution of that story. Or you may have written a part the producer believes will attract a bankable star. In the very best — and rarest — of cases, the producer sees in the script all the elements — premise, story, structure, characters and dialogue — necessary to serve as the foundation for a commercially viable motion picture. Even then, your position remains as tenuous as a rookie NBC sit-com.

To get a film green-lit, a producer must convince backers — usually a studio — that the project can be successfully marketed to its intended audience and that risks have been mitigated. Since, in Hollywood, nobody knows anything but everyone is an expert, this requires taking suggestions from a wide range of stakeholders. These usually include studio development executives, stars and, of course, the director, all of whom may have their own personal agendas. As a screenwriter, your job is to find a way to satisfy everyone while still delivering a script with some modicum of dramatic integrity.

It ain’t easy. Yet being able to do so is critical to your professional survival.

How Writers Survive

Of all the so-called “above-the-line” people involved in motion picture production, writers are by far the most vulnerable. Directors are so powerful that usually only an act of God — or a wanton act of self-destruction — can pry them from their lofty roosts. You can count the number of stars who’ve been replaced once shooting begins on one hand — assuming that hand has been in an industrial accident. Producers get usurped more often than technically replaced as more powerful entities move in to add needed muscle in terms of money, talent or other resources. But writers tend to be commodities that can be replaced as easily as spark plugs. Even if you are the writer of an original spec screenplay, your ownership of that screenplay is forfeited to the buyer as soon as you sell it. While your contract may compel the producer/studio to keep you attached for a set number of rewrites, once that obligation is met, they’re free to cut you loose. They may actually be eager to do so if what you’re delivering is not meeting their expectations. Especially if there’s a credited A-list writer the studio wants to work with waiting in the wings.

(With a big tentpole project, in which literally hundreds of millions of dollars can be at stake, it’s not unusual for a script to be worked on by a half dozen or more writers during its various stages of development.)

Again, to avoid an ignominious firing, you must learn to take suggestions — even contradictory ones — and make people happy enough for them to want to keep you around. This usually involves a lot of nodding, copious note taking, and developing a genuine eagerness to explore new avenues and ideas. If nothing else, you must always respond by delivering rewrites that are immediately and obviously different than ones everyone has seen before. Even if all the changes are your own and not necessarily the ones your “collaborators” requested. (Producers and studio execs often don’t remember their own suggestions, but they can immediately distinguish fresh material from old stuff.) If you can keep coming up with new ideas, you’ve given the powers-that-be a good reason for keeping you around.

And there’s a reason why you want the studio to keep you around. It’s called money. Not just the money you get from pumping out all those rewrites. I’m talking about the big money you get from getting credit on the final film. Being the only credited screenwriter will get you major bucks. If you have to share that credit with a subsequent writer, your cut will be less. It’s even possible to be stripped of credit altogether, being left with a less valuable “Story by” credit, assuming you wrote the original script as a spec and not on assignment.

(Final credit is determined by the Writers Guide of America in a process called “arbitration.” It’s an arcane and somewhat ruthless process that pits writer against writer in what can only be described as a literary version of Thunderdome.)

Why You Should Rewrite Your Spec

With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand why you must be open to rewrites once you’ve sold your script to a studio. But what about prior to your sale? If a producer is interested in optioning your script but wants free rewrites before submitting it, are you under any obligation to comply? How far should you go? As this may be the only time you’re still in full ownership of the property, shouldn’t you protect it as much as you can while you can?

The answer is: Be prepared to rewrite as much as is necessary to sell the damned script. Your script may truly be artistically “perfect” the way it is, but if it doesn’t sell or attract top talent, it does you and your career no good. If you trust the producer enough to sell the project, trust him/her enough to value their input concerning the changes they want you to make. And if such changes go beyond mere “polishing,” so be it. You may need to add or remove characters, cut whole sequences and write new ones. At least, at this point in the process, you’ll be the one making these changes, not someone else. If the resulting screenplay does sell, you’ll still be able to claim it as your own. And, who knows? The suggested changes might, indeed, make your script better.

In addition to resulting in a more marketable property, your rewrite will demonstrate your ability  — and willingness — to take direction. This should help make your producer more confident about championing your continued participation in the project if and when it’s set up at a studio. And confidence — and the relationships that result — is what can keep your career going through this project as well as the ones yet to come. – Allen B. Ury

Write a Synopsis That Gets Results

WRITE A SYNOPSIS THAT GETS RESULTS

Before agents, producers and studio executives agree to read a complete screenplay, they will often first ask to see a synopsis. What is a synopsis? How can a solid synopsis help you sell your project? And how do you write a synopsis that will produce the kind of response you want?

A synopsis is a brief telling of your screen story in written form. It contains all the important elements — characters, storyline, actions, reactions and major incidents — from beginning to end in chronological order. (That being defined as the order in which events occur in the story.) Above all else, a synopsis is a sales tool designed to get the reader eager to read your complete script or view your short film or web series. To accomplish this, your synopsis should be as compelling, detailed and cinematic as you can make it in the limited amount of space you have available.

Many fledgling writers confuse the terms synopsis with treatment. They’re different tools designed for different purposes. As noted above, a synopsis is a brief retelling of your story designed to generate interest. It’s your verbal pitch in written form. A treatment, on the other hand, is a scene-by-scene breakdown that contains just about everything to be found in an actual screenplay or short film, except dialogue. (Although some extended treatments do include dialogue sequences to better illustrate the content of key scenes.) Writers and producers usually write treatments as an intermediary step to help flesh out story elements before committing time and energy to a full-blown screenplay or short film. As helpful as they are to the writing process, treatments aren’t usually as good as synopses for marketing your projects to would-be buyers.

Here, then, are some guidelines on writing an effective synopsis:

Length  A synopsis should be long enough to pack in everything that’s good about your story, but short enough to be read in less than five minutes. This usually translates to two to three single-spaced typewritten pages. Some writers try to tell their story in a single page, but the results are usually so truncated as to be dry and lifeless. And if you go beyond three pages, you risk losing your reader’s interest. So aim for two/three pages. That’s ideal.

Style Like your screenplay, your synopsis should be written in third person, present tense. Tell your story, don’t explain it. Start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end. Relate the narrative in terms of time, place, character and action as a series of (hopefully) connected scenes and sequences. Unlike a full screenplay, a synopsis does not contain scene slugs or cinematic transitions.

Characters Introduce your characters with short, vital and memorable descriptions. More important than physical descriptions are those that describe personality and temperament. Make your characters the focus of your story and take time to describe their motivations and emotional responses to incidents. Why characters do things is as vital to good storytelling as what they do and how they do it.

Dialogue You may want to include small bits of important dialogue to give your synopsis life and personality. (e.g., “Michael Corleone explains to Kay, deadpan: “He made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”) Like everything else in your synopsis, keep dialogue short and sweet.

Action Include as much detail as is necessary to capture the essence of an action sequence, but be stingy with the detail. Focus on the elements that make a particular action sequence or set-piece unique and exciting, writing in rhythms that capture the pacing and punctuation you intend to achieve on screen.

Subtext Subtext — the meaning behind overt statements and actions — is usually verbotten in screenplays, but they have their place in synopses. A good synopsis captures the emotional dynamics of the screenplay or short film it’s describing, and employing subtext is often effective in achieving this end.

Act Demarcations Where your three acts begin and end are theoretical points that help, you, the writer pace your action, but such demarcations don’t actually appear in finished screeenplays. Hence they don’t belong in synopses, either. However, the proportional structure of your synopsis should reflect the structure present in the screenplay it represents. In other words, if your script follows the classic 25-50-25 format of traditional Hollywood screenplays (Act I is 25 percent of your page count, Act II is 50 percent and Act III is 25 percent), your synopsis should be structured accordingly.  If your synopsis is three pages long, about one-half of Page one should be devoted to Act I, about a full page should describe Act II, and your last half-page should deliver a rip-roaring Act III.

Should you reveal your ending? Absolutely. It’s often been said that people remember the first lines of novels and the last lines of movies. You should have a strong last line or memorable image to close out your story; use it to seal the deal on your synopsis as well.

As with any work you submit to potential buyers, make sure it is expertly proofed. Bad grammar, typos and misspellings immediately throw the reader out of the story and brand you an amateur. God forbid your excellent story is rejected simply because you didn’t bother to use Spellcheck.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get to the key question: Using these guidelines, how can you write a synopsis that actually gets results? How can you increase the chances that the person reading your synopsis will then actually want to read your screenplay?

Here are some proven strategies:

1. Begin your synopsis with a log line. Before you actually tell your story, state your premise. This will set your readers’ expectations and allow them to better visualize the tale you’re about to tell. A logline should be one or two sentences long and contain irony if at all possible. Basically describing where the screenplay is at the end of Act I, a logline should include the protagonist(s), the protagonist’s central problem and a sense of what’s at stake. (Example: “A put-upon teenage boy accidentally travels 30 years into the past where he inadvertently interferes with his mother and father’s first meeting. While trying to find a way back to the future, he must try to make his mis-matched parents fall in love or he will never be born.”)

2. Start with Your Lead Character in Motion. Immediately establish what your hero is trying to achieve when the story opens. Get the reader quickly invested in your protagonist’s success.

3. Establish Clear Cause-and-Effect Connections. Synopses aren’t just chronologies, a set of events related in chronological order. Write as to clearly connect your story’s events in terms of  character expectations, actions taken, effects experienced and new plans formulated. As much as what happens, we need to know why they happen.

4. Focus on Emotions. And write them BIG. Readers don’t just want love, they want PASSION. They don’t just want fear, they want TERROR. They don’t just want sadness, they want EMOTIONAL DEVASTATION. As your page count contracts, what remains must be concentrated and deliver a strong visceral impact.

5. Include Your Major Set-Pieces. Set-pieces are large, unified scenes of action, humor or drama. They are the big sequences that make your screenplay unique and memorable. Although your synopsis is necessarily abbreviated, take time in your telling to describe three or four big set-pieces, as these are ultimately your script’s biggest selling points.

6. Think Cinematically. Use nouns, verbs and adjectives that have strong visual elements. Painting word pictures helps the reader see not just your story, but your movie.

7. Go Out with a Bang. As noted earlier, good endings help sell a screenplay. Even more so, a synopsis. Leave your reader with the feelings you want paying audiences to experience at your final fade out. Ultimately, your synopsis is your movie in miniature, so it must necessarily  suggest the intellectual/emotional/spiritual impact of the full, final product.

Any professional screenwriter will tell you that half this job is selling. When you master the art of the synopsis, you will find that sales become much easier to come by. And will leave you with more time to do what you really want to do: write.  – Allen B. Ury

10 Ways to Get Results on Greenlightmymovie.com

TOP TEN WAYS TO GET RESULTS ON GREENLIGHTMYMOVIE.COM

Hollywood is, and never has been, “The Lazy Man’s Way to Riches.” It takes hard work to succeed in this town. It takes creativity. It takes perseverance. And it takes an outsized ego. (All of which likely explains why most people who succeed in Hollywood are hard-working, persistent creatives with outsized egos.)

The same principles hold true of GreenLightMyMovie.com. Although it’s been said that 90 percent of success is just showing up, getting the attention of jaded agents, producers and studios execs usually requires strategies and tactics of significantly greater sophistication.

Here are ten ways to improve your chances on Greenlightmymovie and get the results you’re looking for:

1.         WRITE IN A MARKETABLE GENRE. Hollywood is a castle fortress whose portals are heavily guarded. However, some entrances are less fortified than others. As any military tactician will tell you, you should always attack the point of least resistance. For an unknown writer or filmmaker, this means working in a genre known for films that can be produced cheaply, and that traditionally deliver high returns. Specifically, we’re talking about horror films, thrillers and comedies. Most of today’s top filmmakers and TV showrunners got their first break working in these genres. Today, web series are serving as platforms for many mainstream aspirants, especially comedy writers. Whatever the medium, these genres tend to represent minimal financial investments, yet as a percentage of their budgets, produce profits many times greater than even the biggest studio blockbusters. Showing you can write effectively on a budget will immediately put you in demand.

2.      TIME YOUR RELEASE TO MEET MARKET DEMANDS. Every year, toymakers hold off releasing their newest products until after September 1, when they know demand will be strongest. Hollywood studios schedule their big-budget tentpole premieres in late spring and Thanksgiving-thru-Christmas, because that’s when their audiences tend to buy tickets in greatest numbers. Likewise, you should post your pitch to coincide with times of greatest demand for the genre in which you’re writing. That tends to be right after a similar film makes a huge splash at the weekend box office. How can you time your release so finely? Check the industry trades for studio release schedules. They tend to be published weeks, if not months, in advance. If you’ve written a comedy, wait until a comedy is scheduled to open and then watch the reviews and box office numbers closely. If the comedy is a hit over the weekend, release your comedy pitch Monday. If it’s a bomb, the genre will temporarily be poison, so hold off until the next comedy is due to arrive, and repeat the process. The same holds true for all other genres. In show business, timing is everything.

3.      SUBMIT A PROFESSIONAL SYNOPSIS A synopsis is a two-to-three page narrative rendition of your screenplay or teleplay. It tells the story in the order events are intended to take place on screen. For screenplays, the three “acts” occupy roughly the same 25%-50%-25% proportions as they do in your actual script. For a TV or web series, it sets up the premise, describes the principal characters and outlines a number of proposed episodes. The voice is always third-person present tense, with a focus on action, personality and motivation. Ultimately, a synopsis answers a reader’s key questions: Who are the characters? What is the central problem? What happens? How does it end? Avoid all editorializing and commentary. Don’t pitch this as the Next Great Studio Blockbuster or Emmy nominee. Do mention if there are any attachments or if the piece has won any significant awards. Keep it lean and mean.

4.      EMPHASIZE THE IRONY. When writing your logline — the one- or two-sentence description of your premise — make sure an element of irony is present and obvious. Hollywood VIPs can’t resist an ironic premise. Give ’em what they want! One only has to turn to each week’s Top 10 box office performers to find proof that, in Hollywood, irony sells. Here are some recent examples:

RIDE ALONGHe loves her. Her brother hates him.

LONE SURVIVOR – America’s super-soldiers get their asses kicked by backward peasants.

FROZEN Love forces two sisters to live in isolation from each other.

AMERICAN HUSTLE – Con artists go to work for the FBI.

Irony often drives TV series premises as well. For example:

BREAKING BADFamously pitched as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.”

MODERN FAMILY – A rich, “old school” patriarch contends with his extended family,   which  now includes his much younger, hot-tempered Columbian wife, his neurotic married daughter, and his openly gay son and his domestic partner.

THE BLACKLIST – The world’s most wanted criminal volunteers to become the FBI’s most valuable asset.

THE WALKING DEAD – Survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse find the humans who remain can be just as dangerous — and deadly — as the flesh-eating undead who have overrun the planet.

We could do this all day….

5.      PROOFREAD YOUR PITCH. And then do it again. Nothing turns off a prospective producer or agent (and makes them stop reading) faster than incorrect spelling, grammar, punctuation and typos. Such errors suggest a writer who is amateurish, sloppy and unprofessional. They all pull the reader out of your story. And once they’re out, you have to work twice as hard to pull them back in.

6.      ADD VIDEO. Film is a visual medium. For decades, filmmakers told stories with pictures alone. For decades, professional screenwriters/filmmakers used hand-drawn storyboards, mock posters and other illustrations to market their visions. (Ralph McQuarrie’s classic pre-production paintings were key to helping young George Lucas sell the original Star Wars to 20th Century Fox.) Today, low-cost video technology and software makes it relatively easy to shoot and edit short videos, create preliminary storyboards or produce animations that support elements of your pitch. Hollywood decision-makers often find it easier to grasp a film’s potential through images rather than words, so let your pictures do the talking.

         If you don’t have a visual to include, record a video pitch or introduction of yourself using your webcam. You’ll find Greenlightmymovie’s record button at the top of your submission page. Hollywood VIPs like to know who they will be in business with and whether or not they can put you in a room with other Hollywood VIPs.

7.      GET A VALUABLE ATTACHMENT. An attachment is a person, be it an actor, director, screenwriter, producer, etc., who has already committed to the project. For example, if Brad Pitt says he wants to appear in your film, this will no doubt increase your chances of making a sale. Significantly. How do you get an attachment of any real value? Sometimes it’s a matter of exploiting personal connections. Sometimes it’s sheer force-of-will. Sometimes it’s just dumb luck. But be careful.  Attachments can be assets or deficits, depending on who the attachment is and what a potential buyer feels about him/her. While Brad Pitt may be a coveted attachment, people may not be so crazy about, say, Pauley Shore. So attach wisely. You can also use Greenlightmymovie for attachments by first submitting to the actor and director companies on the site prior to producers and agents/managers.

8.      CAREFULLY CHOOSE YOUR VIPs.  We’ve provided you information about what each production company is looking for currently on the site. Take this information seriously when selecting the VIPS to submit to. You might think a production company famous for action flicks will want your action flick because they’ve made action flicks, but if their profile states they are now only looking for romantic comedies, you’ll be wasting your time — and theirs.

9.      HAVE A FLEXIBLE STRATEGY. You’ve no doubt heard that Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”  By this measure, trying to sell the same project to the same people over and over again is not only an exercise in futility, but perhaps madness. Use every rejection as a learning experience. If you keep running up against the same objections, perhaps it’s time to consider revising your pitch or creating a new one from scratch. Maybe you should be looking at television instead of feature films, or vice versa. Maybe you should consider a web series before setting your sights on a network deal. Or perhaps you should appeal directly to producers instead of agents; if a producer wants your project, he/she can certainly help you find representation. Yes, persistence is wonderful, but to quote Emerson, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Or in the words of another sage, “When nine Russians tell you you’re drunk, maybe it’s time to sit down.”

10.    LEARN TO ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES. Anyone trying to make a living in Hollywood needs to get to love the word “No” because you’re going to hear it a lot. Even the town’s top filmmakers get rejected more than they get greenlit. And multiply that exponentially for B- and C-listers. In a way, trying to break into the business is a dating experience. You’re looking for a like-minded individual with whom you’re going to settle down and make babies. And as we all know from our experiences in the dating trenches, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you ever find a prince. Your dating skills will come in very handy as you try to survive life in the Hollywood trenches. Roll with the punches and keep your eyes on the prize. All it takes is one “Yes” to make magic happen.

 BONUS TIP:

CONTACT US. It’s been five weeks and still no response? Normal turnaround time is approximately 14 business days or 3-4 weeks. [Note: More popular companies can take longer depending on the amount of submissions on their Playlist.] If you have not received a response in this timeframe, let us know so we can send the VIP a reminder or find out, if a response was emailed to you, why you didn’t receive it.

How to Tell If Your True Story Will Make a Good Movie

“Based on a True Story” is a powerful marketing hook. From “Birth of a Nation” to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” filmmakers have looked to historical events, personal biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives for inspiration. Recent critical and box-office successes based — all or in part — on actual people, places and occurrences include “American Hustle” (the 1970s Abscam scandal), “Saving Mr. Banks” (the making of Disney’s “Mary Poppins”), “12 Years a Slave” (the life of Solomon Northrup), “Captain Phillips” (the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama) and  “Dallas Buyers Club” (the life of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof).

But just because a story is true doesn’t mean it will necessarily make for a viable motion picture project. Neither does writing about true events free you from the narrative and dramatic challenges you inevitably face when constructing a tale from whole cloth. In fact, “true stories” tend to come with problems that can make a screenwriter yearn for the freedom of writing pure fiction. (Not the least of which is becoming the target of critics who will inevitably lambast you for playing fast and loose with the facts.)

If you are thinking about adapting a true story into a screenplay, there are many questions you need to ask yourself. Considering these issues critically can save you the time, expense and psychic energy required to put any story — true or otherwise — on the page.

Who is the hero? By “hero” we, of course, mean “protagonist,” the individual who drives the action. Heroes can be obvious good guys like the titular “Captain Phillips,” crooks like stock swindler Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” or difficult-yet-sympathetic individuals like author P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks.” As in fiction, lead characters don’t have to be classically “heroic” as long they they’re inherently interesting. Problems can occur when trying to tackle big, amorphous events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2012. Whose story do you choose to tell?  Will you tell just one person’s story, or perhaps several? Can you tell multiple stories without creating narrative confusion?  For all but the most adept and experienced screenwriters, choosing a story with a single protagonist is probably the best bet.

Who is the villain? Just as a story needs a hero, it also needs a villain. And again, by “villain” we mean the person who works to prevent the hero from achieving his/her goal. In other words, an antagonist. When telling “true crime” stories like 2002’s “Catch Me if You Can,” the villain is often the law enforcement officer who is trying to bring the story’s “hero” to justice. (Likewise, in “Saving Mr. Banks,” Walt Disney made for perhaps the nicest antagonist you’re likely to see in any film this year.) If your story has a natural antagonist, you’re lucky. More often than not, true stories have no single “villain,” requiring the screenwriter to either fashion a composite character based on numerous real-life adversaries or to simply create one from scratch.

Is your hero active or passive? Often, you will happen upon a compelling story about a person who endured the proverbial trials of Job. All kinds of crap happened to him/her. Such abuse can generate enormous sympathy for a character…for a while. But if the individual never took positive action to remedy his/her situation, you can find yourself saddled with a dramatically neutered hero. As in fiction, real-life protagonists need to be active to be interesting. They need to do things. Their actions need not be successful — in fact, failure is often far more interesting than success — but the character needs to be in constant motion.

Does the story have stakes? As in fiction, true stories work best when the hero is faced with a problem he/she can’t just walk away from without suffering serious consequences. There need to be stakes, and those stakes need to be severe. (The stakes not be life or death. Often, the threat of lost love, respect, honor, etc. can be just as compelling.) If your real-life hero wasn’t truly at risk, then you may have to create threats just to keep the story dramatically viable.

Does the story have a natural three-act structure? Conventional stories need three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t always present narratives in such tidy packages. Rare is a true story that builds through a serious of obvious plot points, twists and reversals to a dramatic crisis, climax and resolution. (The infamous Zodiac Killer case of the 1960s/70s is a perfect example of a gripping story that fails to achieve satisfactory resolution.) For writers of based-on-true-events movies, finding the dramatic structure is often the most challenging part of the assignment. The solution often involves combining,

Does the story have consequences? At the end of the story, what changed? What effect did the events in question have on its participants or, better yet, on society as whole? The need for consequences is one reason why stories about trailbalzers — the first people to accomplish various feats — always made good motion picture fodder. It’s also the reason why small, personal stories often don’t make for commercially viable films. When faced with this problem, one solution is to look for themes that go beyond the concerns of the individuals involved. Look for the universal within the intimate.

Is the story too small? Very often, you’ll run across a true story that, while initially interesting, just doesn’t have the size, scope or depth to sustain a feature-length motion picture. Often, someone is faced with a single problem and he/she either overcomes or succumbs to, and then the story’s over. This can pose a serious dramatic challenge. Again, as in fiction, the best true stories are those in which the threat escalates over the course of the narrative, things going from bad to worse than then completely to shit. They need complexity.

Is the story too big? Conversely, it can be difficult to capture a huge, sweeping narrative, such as a famous person’s life, a war or a political movement, within a typical motion picture framework. There just isn’t enough time to explore all the nuances of a world-changing historical figure or movement in just two or three hours. This is why it’s often best to scale down the time frame and just concentrate on a key portion of a person’s life. For example, although Steven Spielberg based his 2012 bio-pic “Lincoln” on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s sweeping biography “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” he and his screenwriter Tony Kushner chose to focus solely on the 16th President’s efforts to pass the 14th Amendment. For 2005’s “Capote,” screenwriter Dan Futterman focused solely on the titular writer’s efforts to write his seminal work, “In Cold Blood.” For the Emmy Award-winning HBO movie “Game Change,” writer Danny Strong took Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s massive book about the 2008 election and focused solely the rise and fall of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Limiting these stories allowed the resulting products to have greater depth and resonance than had they been a more traditional string of historical “greatest hits.”

Assuming you have resolved the above issues, there are still two critical questions you need to consider when writing any based-on-fact screenplay:

1. Do you have the rights? Just because a story is a matter of public record does not immediately put its telling in the public domain. There are numerous laws that protect individuals from having their lives protected from commercial exploitation. In most cases, if you’re going to portray real individuals using their real names, you need a legal release to do so. This even applies to people who have been dead for many years, the rights to their commercial exploitation being held by their estates. Even going far back in history is no solution, since you will likely have to rely on published sources for your details. In such  cases, you’ll need to obtain the filming rights from the authors/historians, or their estates. Before embarking on a based-on-fact screenplay, check with an entertainment lawyer to understand what your legal obligations are.

2. How much can you change the historical details? The pat answer to this question is, “As much as you need to, but as little as you have to.” As a screenwriter, your first obligation is to your audience. You need to tell a story that is compelling, entertaining and, hopefully, enlightening. To do this, you will inevitably have to choose which incidents to dramatize and which to ignore, which personages to portray and which to cast aside, and to structure events in an order that, while perhaps not historically accurate, bests creates an effective dramatic narrative. Details will inevitably differ from historical fact and dialogue never spoken by the individuals portrayed will have to be fashioned. And this is where we inevitably discuss the difference between “the facts” and “the truth.” “Facts” are data points that allow us to measure but, by themselves, lack meaning. They’re just dots on a graph. “Truth” emerges when we look for order amidst the noise, when we find hidden patterns and discover lessons we can apply to make our own lives more rewarding.

And that is ultimately why real-life stories are often so difficult to crack. The order and meaning we look for in drama is often lacking, or at least very well hidden. And, as writers, we too often have to bend, twist and corrupt “the facts” to find “the truth” that makes the tale worth telling.

Or as Mark Twain is supposed to have stated, “Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” – Allen B. Ury

 

10 Ways To Get Hollywood’s Attention

Hollywood is a lot like a suburban tot lot, with dozens of energetic, creative, driven and ambitious kids running madly about shouting for attention. Only instead of their parents’ approval, these kids are looking for validation from agents, producers and studios with big checkbooks.

As a fledgling writer or director, how do you break through the din and get the kind of attention you need to launch your career?  Beyond renting a billboard on Sunset Blvd. to advertise your copious talents, what tactics are most likely to put you on the industry’s radar? (Note: Renting a billboard on Sunset Blvd. isn’t one of them.)

Obviously, it’s not easy (or else everyone would be doing it). And a strategy that works brilliantly for one person may fail utterly for another. Which is why a combination of efforts is usually recommended.

But if it’s true that you must “make your own luck,” here are 10 proven (and affordable) ways to make your work stand out and get your career off to a running start.

1) Understand the market – and your place in it. Before you do anything, you need a plan. And creating a good plan requires research. What kind of material is Hollywood buying? What kind of films and TV shows are audiences watching? The Internet is rife with industry news and reports from sites like Variety (www.Variety.com) and The Hollywood Reporter (www.HollywoodReporter.com) to Indie Wire (www.indiewire.com) and IMDB (www.imdb.com) – not to mention hundreds of filmmaking blogs. Now determine how you want to be “pigeon-holed” (and you will be), at least to start. Do you want to be known for action, drama or comedy? Studio films, indie films or television? Hollywood is very much like high school, only you get to pick the clique to which you’ll belong.

2) Think Internationally. Today, Hollywood gets more than half its revenue from overseas markets. If you want to get the industry’s attention, come up with a project they can sell in Beijing and Budapest as well as Boston and Bakersfield. This can mean including foreign locations and including major parts for non-American actors.

3) Think Economically. Often, a great way to get Hollywood’s attention to is do more with less. Because studios are loathe to spend big bucks on projects from first-time filmmakers, showing you know how to get major results from tiny investments can get you noticed. For writers, this often means writing small but tight horror films, thrillers or other genre scripts. For directors, digital cameras and modern CGI allow you to create mind-blowing short films on basically lunch money.

4) Acquire/Write a Killer Script. Yes, this seems axiomatic. But if it’s a cliché, then it’s a cliché because it’s true. Great scripts are still so rare that when one surfaces, the town starts talking. What makes a great script great? Although, like snowflakes, no two are exactly the same, they seem to share many attributes. Their stories contain big stakes: Life and death, victory and defeat, love and loss. Characters are sharply defined and as memorable for their bad qualities as for their good ones. Dialogue is terse, character-specific and contains plenty of quotable lines. Plotlines are intelligent, twisty and innovative, taking us into worlds we have never seen before – or at least not seen quite this way. And they don’t “cheat.” Plot holes are minimal. Emotions are played big, but are varied enough to avoid monotony and melodrama. The scripts are cinematic; the telling is highly visual, taking advantage of film’s unique ability to move freely through time and space. Endings are surprising yet inevitable, satisfying both emotionally and intellectually. Sound like a tall order to fill? It is. So take your time. Be meticulous in your writing, and your rewriting. Just remember that other cliché, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

5) Develop an Irresistible Log Line. Before anyone can fall in love with your script, someone has to decide to read for script. The best way to ensure this happens is to first present an irresistible log line – a one- or two-line description of your project’s premise. (In this context, “premise” can be defined as where we are at the end of Act One, the moment when your story is in full motion.) In 99 percent of cases, a solid commercial logline will contain three key elements: 1) A hero with a problem he/she cannot just walk away from without suffering serious if not fatal consequences; 2) A “Wow Factor,” that is an element that is so unusual, compelling or just plain cool that it demands our attention; and 3) An element of irony, that is a problem/dilemma that is diametrically opposed to what one would naturally expect your hero to have to face. (For example, if a drug dealer is out for bloody revenge, that’s just par for the course. On the other hand, if a priest is out for bloody revenge – that’s interesting!)

6) Make a Short Film. Although there is no real commercial market for short films, such projects can serve as excellent calling cards for aspiring directors (and writers). As noted above, modern digital cameras, editing and CGI applications make it possible to shoot impressive films on a credit card. You can then burn digital copies to enter into contests, show at film festivals or submit to the industry via Hollywood’s official submission platform Greenlightmymovie.com.

7) Network. A number of organizations [e.g., The Hollywood Pitch Festival] throw regular “pitch festivals” that, for a fee, put you face-to-face with agents, producers and studio executives [Note: Make sure the event features legit companies with actual buyers and reps and not interns and assistants being paid to sit and speak to you]. As Hollywood is all about making connections, these events can be a great way to get your material in front of people who can really make a difference. If nothing else, it’s a great place to schmooze with other writers and filmmakers and expand your rolodex with Hollywood VIPs.

8) Enter Contests. There are literally dozens of annual competitions that give you opportunities to get your material in front of people who might boost your career. Winning a contest – any contest – usually comes with perks, plus enough kudos from credible sources is going to look damned impressive on a query letter. Which leads us to…

9) Target Like-Minded Agents. In Hollywood, you are invisible without an agent. But how do you get an agent if you’re unknown? Go directly to agents you know already have an affinity for the kind of material you produce. To do this: 1) Sign up with IMDB Pro (there’s a fee); 2) Look up movies that are similar to yours; 3) Look up the writers and/or directors of the movies that are similar to yours; 4) Look up who represents the writers and/or directors of the movies that are similar to yours; 5) Send those representatives – be they agents or managers – a one-page query letter that describes your project and asks if they’d like to see it with an eye toward representation. The letter should be printed – not an email – and contain just enough information to entice the reader, such as your irresistible log line and list of the contests you’ve won (if any). Oh, and don’t forget to include your contact information. That’s kind of important. You may or may never hear back from them, depending on their policy on accepting query letters so for a guaranteed response, a great alternative is to send your synopsis, short, web series, commercial, trailer via Greenlightmymovie.com.

10) Go Viral. Today, one of the most dramatic ways to generate buzz is to post a great short film on the Internet and have it watched and praised by a few million people. Granted, going viral isn’t as easy as it sounds. A lot of it has to do with timing, placement and dumb luck. But films that hit tend to hit big, and more than one viral video has landed its creator with an agent and paying work.

Like moviemaking itself, getting noticed in Hollywood is as much as art as it is a science. But a solid strategy combined with maniacal, dogged persistence boosts your odds for success considerably.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if you already have a close relative in the business. – Allen B. Ury

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRUE-LIFE STORIES: Getting “Real” in Hollywood

Basing a film project on true-life events has obvious benefits. True stories — particularly strange true stories — are inherently compelling. Such tales appeal to our desire for authenticity. Plus, if an event that is a matter of public record, it can never be criticized for being “unbelievable.”

While Hollywood has a seemingly insatiable appetite for true stories, such ventures can be fraught with peril. Critics and pundits can eviscerate a film based on perceived historical inaccuracies or political agendas, as we saw happen with this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Just launching such a venture can tie you up in a knot of legal red tape that will make you think Grimm’s Fairy Tales might make a far better source of inspiration.

If you’re still intent on creating a film based on true-life or historical events, here are some key issues you need to consider.

1. Is there a “story” there? Not all true-life events are suitable feature film fodder. Just because a story is “true” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dramatic or even interesting. (For example, a real estate agent may love to regale his friends about how he sold a run-down house for twice its market value, but that would probably make a poor feature film.) Ideally, the story you want to tell has the same elements present in wholly originally works:

  • A protagonist with a worthy goal and something major to lose if he/she fails.
  • A powerful antagonist that prevents the hero from achieving his/her goal.
  • A series of conflicts, triumphs and setbacks that tests the protagonist along his/her journey.
  • Late in the story, a moment of apparent failure.
  • A climax that pits the protagonist against the antagonist.
  • A resolution that is satisfying emotionally or intellectually.

In other words, ask yourself, “Would this make a good movie if the story wasn’t true?”

2. Who owns the story rights? If you’re basing your film on events more than 100 years old, chances are the story and the people involved are now in public domain. Even then, if you use one or two particular books as source material, you may have to get the rights to those sources before moving forward. (As Steven Spielberg did with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, when making last year’s Lincoln.) You definitely need to get clearances from living private figures before making your film. And even so-called “public figures” such as politicians and celebrities — even dead ones — often require filmmakers to get clearances before such individuals can be portrayed in commercial entertainment. (The estates of such late notables as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and even Albert Einstein are quite strict when it comes to how their images are used in commercial ventures.) Be sure to work with a lawyer experienced in these matters before committing time and treasure to your film project.

3. How close do you have to adhere to the “facts”? This is where writing true-life stories gets really tricky. Very few true events fit smoothly into the classic motion picture template. Events must often be compressed and/or re-arranged to make narrative sense. Some characters need to be eliminated, some combined and others created out of whole cloth to satisfying the demands of the story as a whole. Sometimes, what really happened isn’t quite dramatic enough, and you need to embellish with a bit of Hollywood magic. (As director Ben Affleck did when he staged the thrilling climatic airport chase in last year’s Oscar-winning Argo.)

This then leads us to the age-old argument, how much does a writer or filmmaker owe the “facts”? Some argue that any major deviation from the historical record undercuts the project’s impact. Others argue, “We’re making a movie, not a documentary!” and inevitably point to the historical plays of William Shakespeare which, although based on real events, are more products of the Bard’s imagination than historical verisimilitude.

In fact, since the earliest days of filmmaking, Hollywood has played fast and loose with the “facts,” preferring instead to focus on a story’s “truth.” What’s the difference? “Facts” are quantifiable data points that, by themselves, mean nothing. “Truth” is the meaning we derive from our interpretation of those facts. As works of art, movies are always far more concerned with truth than they are in facts.

In other words, as a filmmaker, you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story. This approach may be controversial in some quarters, but it rarely yields anything but positive dividends. From Disraeli (1929), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Pride of the Yankees (1942) , Laurence of Arabia (1962), All the President’s Men (1976) and Chariots of Fire (1981) to Schindler’s List (1993), Erin Brockovich (2000) and Moneyball (2011), Hollywood has always had a casual relationship with the “facts,” still managing to produce motion pictures of enormous emotional and sociological impact that has managed to stand the test of time. – Allen B. Ury

 

GENRE-BUSTING

GENRE-BUSTING

Recombining Your Way to Hollywood Success

text Allen B. Ury

Anyone trying to establish — or advance — a Hollywood screenwriting career is inevitably caught between two diametrically opposed forces. On one hand, studios and producers always say they’re looking for stories that are new, fresh and exciting. They’re looking for an “original voice.” But on the other hand, studios only seem interested in developing properties with a built-in audience. They want brand-name projects – remakes, sequels, book and TV series adaptations, toys, board games! – anything with a name the public will instantly recognize and embrace. And why not? Movie-making is a big business. And big business always seeks to maximize profits while minimizing risk.

Which brings us to the key question: How can you present a story that is both new and familiar? Something original with a track record?

One proven solution to this quandary is Genre-Busting.

What is Genre-Busting?

Hollywood likes genre films because their strict narrative formulas make such movies relatively easy to make and market. Horror films are cheap to film, usually use inexpensive B- or C-list actors and have enough sex and violence to easily attract an undiscriminating teenage and young 20’s audience. Romantic comedies will always begin with likeable male and female leads who hate each other and yet find true love by the final Fade Out. Special effects-driven Comic Book/Super Hero films may come with super-sized budgets, but their audiences are legion and their global returns historically astronomical.

So, if these and similar genres represent the proverbial path of least resistance, why not write a genre film? The reason: Because everybody is writing genre films, and therefore no one needs yours. To get noticed, your script must be unusual, if not unique. It needs that original “voice” Hollywood always says it’s listening for.

One way to achieve – or at least mimic – that “voice” is by choosing a popular genre and then devising a story that deconstructs or redefines it. Rather than simply following genre clichés, you need to expose and attack those clichés by 1) Combining your genre piece with elements of other genres, 2) Giving your characters heightened degrees of self-awareness, or 3) Redefining your genre’s principal conceits.

Here are some examples of successful genre-busting over the last few years:

Today’s Genre-Busters

Django Unchained (2012) Quentin Tarantio’s most recent hit is a perfect example of recombinant genre-busting. Although taking its name and attitude from an infamous 1966 Spaghetti Western, the film gets its heat by melding Western conventions with elements of 1970s Blaxploitation movies and antebellum plantation films. This brilliant mix-and-match concept has led many critics to dub the film a Western/Southern, as the bulk of the action takes place in pre-Civil War Mississippi, the kind of location rarely visited by the likes of John Ford or Preston Sturgis. The language and violence is, of course, pure Tarantino.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011) We’re genre-busting Westerns again, this time by combining them with alien invasion movies. Although it wasn’t a critical favorite, C&A did manage to attract the talents of Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Jon Favreau, as well as earn $175,000 worldwide.

Cabin in the Woods (2012) Like Kevin Williamson’s Scream films a decade earlier, this is a horror movie about horror movies. But while the Scream films merely allowed their characters to reflect on the genre clichés they were being forced to endure, Cabin goes one step further by literally taking us “behind the scenes” to explore why these clichés exist in the first place, and why we continue to revel – no, demand! – them.

The Twilight Saga (2008-2012) Author Stephenie Meyer hit paydirt with her young adult novels by taking a well-worn genre – vampires – and redefining its basic principles. Although vampire stories since the days of Bela Lugosi always carried a strong undercurrent of sex, Meyer stripped this away along with the genre’s gothic horror elements, replacing them with romance and alienation, two themes irresistible to pre-teen girls. The result: More than 100 million books sold and a movie franchise that’s grossed more than $1.8 billion worldwide.

Warm Bodies (2013) We haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s easy to imagine writer/director Jonathan Levine’s pitch: “It’s a romantic comedy – with zombies.” Take two of filmdom’s two more enduring genres, slam them together and, voila! You got yourself a movie.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) Again, the quality of the final product is still unknown, but as a genre-busting concept, it’s a classic right along with “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer.” Let’s hope this one is actually fun.

Come Up With Your own Genre-Buster

It’s not all that hard to genre bust. Get a bunch of index cards. Write down as many genres as you can think of: RomCom, Western, Gangster, Ghost Story, Slasher Film, Pirate Movie, Prison Break, Caper Film, Fairy Tale, Time Travel, Alien Invasion, War Movie, Sword & Sandal, etc. (Note: Not Sci-Fi. Sci-Fi isn’t a genre, but an umbrella for a number of genres that can include everything from Space Opera (e.g. Star Wars) to Time Travel (e.g. Back to the Future) to Rebellious Robots (e.g. Frankenstein/The Terminator.)

Now mix and match. Not all genres will fit together easily. Others are naturals (e.g. Prison Break + Space Opera = Lockout; War Movie + Alien Invasion = Battle Los Angeles/Battleship).

As the examples above indicate, not all genre-busters are Academy Award contenders. The finished films may not even be very good. That’s not the point. Regardless of quality, these concepts sold. The movies got made. People got paid.

As a marketing strategy, genre-busting works. Whether the resulting script is good, great, indifferent or just a plain old stinker is ultimately up to you.

THE ORIGINALITY MYTH

If there was a dispute over who invented calculus (Newton or Leibniz — who’s your guy?), then you’d better believe your one-in-a-million screenplay idea may not be quite as original as you thought.

 

text Allen B. Ury

 

It’s an experience every screenwriter suffers at least once. Some may endure it dozens of times. You get a “brilliant” idea for a screenplay. It’s clever. It’s compelling. And, damn, it’s marketable.

You probably let it percolate for a while. Maybe you play with an outline. You discuss it with a trusted friend. If you’re really ambitious, you actually start pounding out a screenplay. As the project progresses, and what was once an amorphous haze of images and impulses begins to coalesce into a coherent narrative, visions of contracts and green lights and fresh tomatoes and golden statuettes begin to dance through your head.

Then you’re blindsided. Maybe it comes as an announcement in the trades. Maybe it’s a trailer on YouTube. Or, worst of all, it comes barreling off a 50-foot screen as you sit there stunned, unable to comprehend the enormity of the blow that just struck you in the face.

They say that life turns on a dime, and this is one of those shiny ten-cent pieces, the kind that takes your oh-so-certain future, one brimming with hope and money and respect and security and possibilities, balls it up into a fist-sized wad and lobs it into an open trash can of doubt, uncertainty and despair. It’s that big job promotion that comes just as your company becomes the victim of a hostile takeover. It’s finally getting a “yes” to your wedding proposal, only to have your new fiancée elope with her old boyfriend. It’s winning the Mega-Millions lottery, and finding out you have inoperable brain cancer.

Yes, someone else came up with your brilliant, one-of-a-kind movie idea. Worse yet, that someone else actually sold it. Which sends you and your precious script up shit creek.

Discovering that all that time, energy, enthusiasm and perhaps even actual hard work have just gone down the crapper can be devastating. It has driven even the hardiest, most calloused screenwriters to thoughts of suicide. And why not? Having a possibly viable screenplay go up in smoke — especially due to the act of unknown third parties — can seem like a form of death. A potential life that could have grown, frolicked and perhaps even changed the world, has been snuffed out of existence before it could even draw breath.

And like anyone who has lost a loved one or been given a terminal diagnosis, a screenwriter who discovers his work-in-process is D.O.A. before it has even made it to the printer is likely to experience the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief:

 

1) Denial. This is usually expressed as: “My script is different than that other one. Okay, maybe there are some superficial similarities, but I take the idea in a whole different direction,” “The two scripts are in the same basic genre, but otherwise, they’re completely different!” or, even worse, “I don’t think they’re really similar at all.”

 

2) Anger. Usually expressed as: “That other script sucks,” “It only sold because the writer is fucking the producer” or, my personal favorite, “They stole my idea!”*

 

3) Bargaining. Usually expressed as: “If I change this or that detail, or make this person that person, that should make it different enough, right?” or “Why can’t there be two similar movies out at the same time? Heck they made two volcano movies at once, didn’t they?”

 

4) Depression. Usually expressed as: “I quit. This business sucks. I’m going to go work for my father.”

 

5) Acceptance. Finally, you realize you were beaten to the punch and your project is dead. Dead as disco. Dead as Elvis. It’s like the Firefly series’ return to network TV. It ain’t gonna happen.

 

So, you’re back to square one. What do you do now? Pack it in? Press ahead? You actually have several alternatives:

 

Mourn and Move On. If you’ve written a high-concept comedy about a police detective who is killed and reincarnated as a dog, only to discover that Disney has just bought a high-concept comedy about a police detective who is killed and reincarnated as a dog, perhaps it’s best you kill the project and start another spec. The concept is too specific for the market to support two simultaneous iterations. Perhaps you can perform a symbolic burial to help deal with your grief. Beyond that, appreciate the fact that no effort is ever truly wasted, that by pursuing the project as far as you did you gave your creative muscles valuable exercise, and thus better prepared yourself to conquer the next script you tackle, be it a spec or (God willing) a paid assignment. Hey, if nothing else, you can use it as a writing sample!

 

Revise and Repurpose. Let’s assume your project is similar, but not identical, to your rival. In that case, sufficient retooling may result in a marketable product. Sometimes, just changing the gender of your leads can send you into new, yet-unexplored directions. Adjusting the period or location can help. Or mechanical details. (Have a script about an out-of-control freight train? Make it an airplane!) You might even consider repurposing your genre. For example, you could take the core idea of your drama and, with sufficient creativity, spin it into a comedy. Even a romantic comedy. Stranger things have happened.

 

Go Drafting. In auto racing, “drafting” involves placing your car directly behind the leader to take advantage of the lower-pressure shock wave he leaves in his wake. Likewise, there are production companies that produce low-cost homages — a more polite word than “rip-offs” — to big studio films currently in the market to exploit the “buzz” they’ve created. In other words, you may find producers who want your script not because it’s unique, but because it isn’t. These producers may make films for the straight-to-video market, for cable TV or even as low-budget feature films. Either way, they have an audience and they have money. Granted, your payday is apt to be a whole lot less than if you had sold your script to an A-player, but even a tenth of a loaf is better than a sharp stick in the eye, to mix metaphors.

 

Wait It Out. The lousy thing about Hollywood is that no one has a memory capacity of more than five years. On the other hand, the great thing about Hollywood is no one has a memory capacity of more than five years. Need proof? They’re already talking about rebooting Batman — for the third time. Trends go in cycles. Slasher films. Teen comedies. Alien invasion flicks. Body-switch movies. What’s new today is old tomorrow — and new again next weekend. If your script is “dead” this month because a similar script just sold, give it a year. Either the rival project will:

 

A) Never get made.

B) Get made, but disappear in a week.

C) Get made, make a few bucks, and be forgotten.

D) Get made, be a big hit and spur dozens of imitators.

 

Whatever happens, the powers-that-buy will have forgotten about your rival project in just a few years (at most), at which time your “old” script will suddenly seem new and fresh. Just dig your flashdrive out of that makeshift grave you dug in the backyard, slap on a fresh coat of contemporary references and you’ll be back in the game.

The bottom line: No screenplay is ever truly dead. Like a good movie monster, it can always be resurrected. Just be patient, be flexible and always be on the lookout for opportunities.

You never know when a producer will be looking for a script about a cop who is killed and reincarnated as a dog.

 

 

 

 

* Actual plagiarism is very rare in Hollywood. Even if you suspect such a thing, it’s even harder to prove. The number of successful plagiarism suits involving pilfered screenplays can be counted on one hand — assuming that hand has been in an industrial accident. So don’t even go there.

 

 

WRITING A SYNOPSIS THAT GETS RESULTS

The ability to write a compelling summary of your project can make the difference between a prospective agent, director or producer inviting you to submit your entire manuscript or screenplay or them placing it in the trash. So it’s important to hook the reader on the premise from the very beginning. So how do you write a compelling synopsis?

The best way to do this is by first typing your title, genre and logline. A logline is typically a one-sentence description of the premise of your film, TV show or web series. It helps when writing a logline if you can include irony.

Here are some examples of loglines from produced films that include irony:

Logline: The story of a schizophrenic genius. His mind was both his greatest asset and his greatest enemy. A Beautiful Mind

Logline: A top narcotics cop turns out to be the biggest crook of all. Training Day

Logline: The fate of the world rests in the hands of the smallest and meekest of creatures. The Lord of the Rings

Your synopsis follows, and should be written entirely in present tense action. No dialogue unless one of your characters has a catch phrase. For example: “Show me the money!”

Remember, a synopsis is a beat-by-beat description of what happens in your story. Include character names and descriptions. Be as detailed as possible. For example, instead of writing “gun” write “Glock.” This will give you what everyone in Hollywood is looking for when considering a screenplay writer: a unique voice.

THE DOS & DON’TS OF PITCHING

When you pitch a movie, there are certain key points you should keep in mind. Here at Greenlightmymovie, we call them the Dos & Don’ts of Pitching but you can just refer to them as the best tips for a movie pitch.

1.    DON’T “nut and bolt” the movie pitch (that’s pitching everything in the

movie). Keep it short.  5-7 minutes, tops.

2.    DO make great eye contact with the camera.

3.    DON’T use notes or read them the pitch.

4.    DO begin with your logline, “This is a story about…”

5.    DO “set the table” by also starting with the title, genre and theme.

6.    DON’T cast your story, i.e.,  “This is a part for Tom Cruise…”

7.    DO tell your story in the present tense…as if it’s all happening

right now.

8.    DO break the narrative to focus on at least three set-pieces – scenes

your audience is going to remember.

9.    DON’T spend time describing minutia — the kind of car the hero

drives, a character walking down a hall before entering a room, etc.

10.  DON’T marry two movies (i.e., “It’s The Mummy meets The English

       Patient.”).

11.  DO provide a specific ending to your story — remember, it’s all about the ending — and then wrap up with thematic closure. Reiterate what this movie has been about – what the “moral of the story” is, which is really a statement of your theme. (e.g., redemption, love, betrayal, family)

 

TITLE

GENRE

TIME/SETTING

3-4 sentences describing your script or screenplay (preferably set pieces)

THEME  (What is your story about?)

BE DETAIL ORIENTED

 

Everyone has a great idea for a movie. Just ask. Actually, you don’t even have to ask. Go to a party, mention that you’re in the Business, and nine times out of ten someone will pull you aside and say, “You know, I’ve got a story that’s a sure-fire Academy Award-winner. It’s about this real-estate agent…” Oh, yeah, and the guy will be a real-estate agent.

 

So what’s the difference between the bore you meet over cocktail weenies and the writers, directors, producers who go into Hollywood studios to pitch their projects? If they’re amateurs, probably not much beyond the label on their designer jackets. It’s not unusual for fledging filmmakers to enter the lion’s den bearing nothing but the germ of an idea and visions of their faces gracing the cover of Fade In. As you might imagine, this is about as smart as facing Patton’s 3rd Army with nothing but a loin-cloth and a peashooter. And the results can be just as bloody.

 

Those who know the Hollywood Rules know better. They know that everyone else has ideas for a movie, but few have developed that idea sufficiently to turn their idea into a bona fide story. To do so requires several key ingredients:

 

Structure: The process of properly laying out a screen story is complex enough to fill volumes…and it has. By now you should know, when you talk about your film project, you’ll be able to express it in terms of an Act One (the set-up), an Act Two (escalating conflict) and an Act Three (climax and resolution). At the very least, you’ll be able to tell your buyer how the story ends and what the protagonist wants.

 

Character Arc: Buyers usually want to know how the hero changes over the course of the story. “He goes from being suicidal to embracing life.” “She learns to accept love.” “He comes to accept his son as an adult.” Producers love stories in which people think and behave differently at the end from how they did in the beginning. When buyers ask you, “What’s the arc?” you not only have to know what they’re talking about; you need to give them an intelligent answer.

 

Theme: This is an area we’re constantly hounding would-be filmmakers to put more thought into. Far too many screen stories are really nothing but a series of actions diced toward solving a particular problem: Two cops pursue a bad guy. A young woman wants to marry the unattainable man. Someone tries to get away with murder. These stories may work moment-by-moment, but when they’re over, we’re usually left feeling empty and unsatisfied.

 

In addition to structure and character arc, you should also be able to talk about your movie in terms of its theme. This theme should be designed around a provocative statement, or a question for which there is no easy answer. For example, Schindler’s List wasn’t just a recreation of the Holocaust. It dramatically addressed the idea that, “He who saves one life saves the world.” Its theme heroism. On a lighter note, the following year’s Best Picture winner Forrest Gump had an explicit theme of fate expressed by the oft-quoted line, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.” In other words, life is just one damned thing after another.

 

For a theme to be dramatically viable, one needs to be able to effectively argue either side. A theme such as “Murder is bad” isn’t very interesting because you’ll find few people who can effectively argue that “Murder is good.” On the other hand, many people lead their lives on the premise that one man really can make a difference, or that life is just one damned thing after another.

 

When trying to sell your story, you need to be able to present your theme in a natural, organic way. Perhaps you include it as a snippet of dialogue, or use it as the “moral” or “lesson” your hero learns at the story’s conclusion. Whatever route you take, you should know ahead of time what your theme is. If you don’t have one, your story will be about nothing.

 

Story Credibility: Here’s where details are critical. In their eagerness to make a deal too many writers, directors and producers fail to take the time necessary to make sure that their stories actually make sense. They don’t bother to research their subject matter, or talk to people who might provide them with invaluable insights on the subjects they’ve chosen to dramatize. As a result, these stories never get sold; if they do, they’re not nearly as effective as they otherwise could have been.

 

As screenwriters, we must recognize that we’re in the business of lying. We ask our audiences to believe – even though they know it’s all artifice – that what they’re seeing on the screen is really happening. (“Willing suspension of disbelief.”) As any good ad man, used car dealer, lawyer or politician will tell you, a really good lie is ninety-percent truth. Support a statement with known facts, and your audience will accept the bits you’ve fabricated. A kernel of truth can “sell” even the wildest of scenarios. For example, in their sic-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were able to explore the very nature of God by first grounding their story in hard scientific principles.

 

Research can also lead to character facets or story twists you might not otherwise have considered. Truth often really is stranger than fiction, and the real world is rife with people, plots and dramatic ironies that you’ll never discover by simply staring at a blank computer screen. For example, much of Dustin Hoffman’s memorable portrayal of autistic-savant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man was based on his spending time with actual people afflicted with autism. The elderly Rose in Titanic throws clay pots because director James Cameron met and interviewed 103-year-old sculptor Beatrice Wood while doing background for his historical epic. Matt Damon’s amazing mathematical prowess in Good Will Hunting was credible only because he and co-author Ben Affleck took the time to research the real world of advanced mathematics. (You think anyone could make that stuff up?)

 

Yet despite the obvious value of research, you’d be surprised to discover how many screenwriters concoct their story lines with only the most rudimentary knowledge of their subject matter. They figure, “Hey, if it sells, then I’ll do the research.” Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

 

If you’re going to develop a medical drama, learn something about medicine. If you’re going to develop a legal thriller, learn something about law. Don’t write a military drama without some exposure to the military.  It doesn’t matter if you’re developing a story about cops, crooks, bricklayers or trapeze artists; know what you write and write what you know.

 

This holds true even in such fantastical genres as science fiction. It’s amazing how many people write, pitch and/or develop sci-fi and techno-thrillers without even the most basic knowledge of science and technology. They have people flying to the moon in space shuttles, doing DNA analysis in seconds and dodging flaming meteors in the vacuum of space. They figure, “Hey, no one knows about this stuff so they won’t care.” But what they’re really saying is, “I don’t know about this stuff, and I’m too damned lazy to find out.”

 

The bottom line is, most of us have at least a high school education; we read newspapers, watch television and we live in a world of high technology. We may not all be rocket scientists, brain surgeons, trial lawyers or master detectives, but most of us can smell something fishy. As screenwriters, we owe it to our audiences not to insult their collective intelligence.

 

To reiterate: Frame your movie in terms of structure, character and theme. Then research, research, research. Know what you’re talking about. Remember, knowledge is power. And in Hollywood, power is everything.

 

– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine


GIVE EM WHAT THEY WANT

 

If there’s one refrain filmmakers always hear from both production executives and critics alike, it’s that studios want something different! They want something fresh! Something original! And this is true – but only to an extent.

 

Just as life itself can only exist within a very narrow range of temperature, pressure and acidic extremes, so too can a studio screen project only be brought to life when it fits within the gap between two familiar and too weird.

 

For example, following the surprise success of Die Hard, there was a virtual tidal wave of man vs. master criminal movies, all tied to a specific arena. You had Speed (Die Hard on a bus), Speed 2 (Die Hard on a cruise ship), Under Siege (Die Hard on a battleship), Under Siege 2 (Die Hard on a train), Masterminds (Die Hard in a prep school), Passenger 57 (Die Hard on an airplane), Turbulence (Die Hard on an airplane), Con Air (Die Hard on an airplane) and Air Force One (Die Hard on an – oh, yeah…airplane). At this point, studio executives no longer want to see Die Hard on much of anything. Likewise, we went through a seemingly never-ending spate of dark and moody serial killer movies inspired by the success of the Silence of the Lambs. We had Copycat and Se7en and Kiss the Girls and Fallen.

 

It’s understandably hard for anyone to get excited about another dark and moody serial killer movie. (Even a dark and moody movie about a serial killer on an airplane.)

 

The worst thing a writer, director or producer can do is try to latch on to a “trend,” particularly one that has actually been around for awhile. Remember, the films released next Friday were actually conceived at least two years ago so the thinking that led to their creation has already moved on to something else. Write another buddy-cop flick or another volcano/earthquake/meteor disaster movie and chances are all you’ll elicit are yawns. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, well-crafted or passionate the writing is. If it looks like every other screenplay that’s come over the transom in the last month, it ain’t gonna get bought.

 

“But wait!” we hear you cry. “I thought studios love recognizable stories. That’s why they’re still making James Bond movies!” Yes, that’s true. But here’s the rub: They can come up with these clones on their own. They don’t need your help. They already own the rights to that and can hire their best buddies to pound out the story. The one thing you can bring to the party – in fact, the only thing you can bring – is a story that wholly and completely your own. That’s what the buyers want. That’s what they’re willing to pay the big bucks for. And that’s what we’ll get you noticed: Being original…

 

…Just not too original…

 

For just as familiarity can be the kiss of death, so can runaway ingenuity. Producers, especially those affiliated with the major studios, are loathe to tackle projects that are too far from the mainstream.

 

For example, there’s a subset of spec screenplays we see all the time from fledging writers, which we have deemed New Age. The scripts tend to deal with UFOs, reincarnation, witchcraft, out-of-body experiences and parallel dimensions – usually all at the same time. They feature characters with names like Xaxon and Eldrik, and sport dialogue that’s jammed with esoteric code words, arcane phrases and millennial paranoia,. These stories may indeed be original, but they’re impossible to understand and even more impossible to produce. No studio VP in their right mind would touch them.

 

We also frequently read historical biographies about figures few people have ever heard of, science-fiction opuses that would cost the entire gross national product of Costa Rica to put onscreen, or “true stories” that have relevance only to those people who actually experienced the events portray. The people who write these scripts clearly believe in their material, and that’s fine. Yet their choice of subject matter (i.e., Uncle Ralph’s Alzheimer’s) just as clearly shows little sensitivity to the demands of the marketplace.

 

The same goes for people who try to revive dead genres – westerns, musicals, sword-and-sandal epics, etc. They inevitably fail. When an exception occurs, it’s because the script is itself exceptional, and provides a new twist on conventions. (It also helps if they’re cheap to produce.) Studios will sometimes take a leap of faith if it doesn’t involve a major financial risk.

 

So what do buyers want? Well, that changes weekly, depending on what’s making money at the box office. And, as we said earlier, it’s usually lethal to try to exploit a current trend. Generally speaking, those screenplays that are purchased from new writers tend to fall into three basic categories: thrillers (small casts, lots of suspense, person-to-person violence); action pictures (car chases, things that blow up real good); and comedies (romantic and/or broad). They’re what’s known as mainstream or commercial movies. They’re the kinds of movies mass audiences like to go see, so they’re naturally the kinds of stories studios want to buy.

 

Here are some other guidelines to consider when deciding on a project:

 

• The story should be “contemporary.” Most buyers have a negative knee-jerk reaction when it comes to period pieces. Stories set in other eras are inevitably more expensive to produce than films set in the modern day, and they tend not to do particularly well at the box-office.

 

• The story should be castable with English-speaking actors. You might have the greatest script ever written about Australian aborigines, but if there isn’t a major role for a movie star, chances are it won’t be purchased. Stars sell movies. Maybe not to the public, but certainly to the studios. And the biggest stars in the biggest movies speak English. Comprende?

 

• The project should be, in its physical dimensions, small enough to be produced on a reasonable budget. The average studio film today costs approximately $60 million to make and another $60 million to distribute. (And all that will get you is two name stars sitting at a table talking.) If you’re an unproduced writer, you’re best advised to keep your story’s parameters limited to minimize your buyer’s financial exposure. Fight scenes, car chases and explosions are okay – even desirable – but don’t write huge disaster epics. Don’t write war movies. Don’t write anything that involves the proverbial cast of thousands. Concentrate on character. Nine times out of ten, a character-driven script garners the attention of actors, agents, producers, directors and studios alike.

 

• Don’t set the story in a “physically hostile location.” When Jeff Katzenberg ran Disney’s motion picture division in the 1980s, he issued an edict that pithily elucidated his criteria for spec scripts: “No sand, no snow, no water.” Knowing the production nightmares that can result from trying to shoot films in even marginally hostile locations, Katzenberg wanted to make sure that the stories he bought were as practical to make as possible. Today, Disney and the other studios may not be this strict, but they’re still cautious when considering a project set in a demanding for inaccessible location.

 

We recently read a spec script that violated virtually every one of these rules. It was an historical biography set in World War II-era China. Not only was the story set in the past and in a remote locale, but three-quarters of the cast was Chinese and the premise hinged on a number of expansive (and expensive) battle scenes between the Chinese and Japanese armies. It didn’t matter how good the writing was; we felt there was simply no way a studio was going to buy this project from an unknown writer. To date, this analysis has proved correct.

 

“But wait!” we hear you cry again. “What about films like Schindler’s List? Or Titanic? These films were big, difficult period pieces that when on to make hundreds of millions of dollars and win loads of Academy Awards. Aren’t these the kinds of scripts Hollywood wants to buy?” The answer is Yes. These are the kinds of scripts Hollywood wants to buy. Just not from you.

 

These high-risk projects were all written, produced and directed by people who’ve been in the business long enough – and have created a long string of successes – to finally wield the kind of clout necessary to get them made. They were created by people who had enough power to walk into a studio president’s office and say, “Give me $100 million to make my movie – or else.” They had a “reputation” other people could bank on.

 

And they didn’t earn their repetitions overnight. Long before Steven Spielberg could make Schindler’s List, he had to direct TV shows for Universal and make tight little thrillers like Duel and The Sugarland Express; not to mention prove his bankability with Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, etc. And James Cameron, of course, cut his teeth on such Roger Corman classics as Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror before going on to write and direct The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2 and True Lies.

 

No one starts out on top. Least of all you. If you have a personal project you’re just dying to do but that is not readily commercial, keep it under wraps until you’ve accumulated enough credits that a studio wants to take a risk with you. Until that time arrives, don’t be a putz. Give ’em what they want.

 

– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine

ISN’T IT IRONIC? IRONY ISN’T DEAD IT JUST WENT TO THE MOVIES

 

The premise is the cornerstone of all screenwriting. Begin with a great premise and the screenplay practically writes itself. Have a weak premise and all the knowledge of structure, character development, dialogue and formatting in the world won’t save you. So important is premise that many a screenplay pitch has sold on this element alone. Is a good premise worth it’s weight in gold? No – it’s with more. Much more.

 

Like all great things, great movie premises are few and far between. That’s one reason they’re so valuable. However, while great ideas may be elusive, a premise that is at least good is actually easier to come up with than you might think. And sometimes, with the right execution, “good” can become “great.”

 

So what is the benchmark of a good movie premise? A good premise contains immediately recognizable elements of conflict, surprise, obstruction and the potential for character growth. In other words, all those things we go to the movies to enjoy.

 

Although these elements appear somewhat far-reaching, they can, in fact, be reduced to a single word: irony.

 

Virtually all great stories, from Homer’s Iliad to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, have reveled in it. Irony is the heart and soul of drama. Without it, drama – like comedy – doesn’t work.

 

Exactly what is dramatic irony? Mr. Webster defines irony as “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” In other words, surprise. If you have a situation where one outcome is expected and the exact opposite occurs (sometimes called “the old switcheroo”), congratulations you’ve got irony.

 

When it comes to dramatic characters, irony tends to occur when their circumstances or behavior are in direct conflict with their professions or stations in life.

 

For example:

* The doctor who becomes sick…

* The dancer who becomes paralyzed…

* The fashion model who becomes disfigured…

* The millionaire who goes bankrupt…

* The homeless person who wins the lottery…

* The nobody who saves the world…

 

These are all classic ironies, and they just reek of dramatic/comic potential.

 

Look at the following top-grossing movies and Oscar winners. Virtually all of them had ironic premises.

 

A Beautiful Mind – The story of a schizophrenic genius. His mind was both his greatest asset and his greatest enemy. Irony…

The Lord of the Rings – The fate of the world rest in the hands of the smallest the meekest of creatures. Irony…

Training Day – A top narcotics cop turns out to be the biggest crook of all. Irony!

Monsters Ball – A woman falls in love with a man, not realizing he’s responsible for executing her late husband. Irony! Plus, she’s black…and he’s a racist. Double irony!

 

In movies, irony often comes from the clash of extremes: The slob and the fussbudget (The Odd Couple), the family man and the psycho (Lethal Weapon), city and country (Crocodile Dundee), master and servant (Gosford Park).

 

What’s the highest grossing picture of all time? Titanic. It’s not just a story about an “unsinkable” ship that sinks (irony #1), it’s the story of the world’s largest ship (irony #2) that sinks on its maiden voyage (irony #3) as told through the eyes of two lovers who come from opposite ends of the social spectrum (irony #4).

 

With so many ironic elements, it’s no wonder the picture grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide.

 

How can you develop your own ironic premise? Here are some simple guidelines:

 

Try to work in extremes. Develop a leading character who represents the ultimate version of some characteristic. He’s the world’s worst (fill in the blank). She’s the world’s best (fill in the blank). He has the most (fill in the blank). She has the least (fill in the blank). Of course, your characters may not “technically” be the world’s best/worst/biggest/smallest/first/last anything, but this exercise is bound to point you in the right direction.

 

Put extreme characters in direct conflict. The best with the worst. The fearful with the fearless. The prince with the pauper. The militant feminist with a male chauvinist pig. Not only do such conflicts present immediate dramatic possibilities (i.e., conflict), they also give each character the pressure he or she needs to grow.

 

Look for “The Least Likely To…”. When a cop solves a murder, that’s not drama; that’s a procedural.  When the victim comes back from the dead to solve his own murder…now that’s interesting. Always look for unlikely heroes, for long-shot champions, for ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations.

 

Make sure you can express your ironic premise simply and eloquently. “The Slobs Against the Snobs” (Caddyshack). “Sam Stone’s wife has just been kidnapped…and he doesn’t want her back!” (Ruthless People). “The general who became a slave; the slave who became a gladiator; the gladiator who defied an emperor” (Gladiator).

 

Call it the “twist,” the “gimmick” or even the “high concept,” it is the element of irony that propels most, if not all, successful stories.

 

Some writers take their entire lifetimes searching for this simple truth, yet it’s been staring at us in the face for more than 5,000 years.

 

Now isn’t that ironic?

 

– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine

THE “WOW” FACTOR: THE COMPELLING FACTOR THAT MAKES YOUR MOVIE WORTH MAKING

 

What is it that distinguishes a screenplay that is merely well-written from one that is actually marketable?  Is there a single ingredient separating scripts that producers admire from those that they actually want to buy?  Why do some screenplays earn excellent coverage and legions of industry fans, but never go anywhere – while others of lesser quality get snapped up for millions in heated bidding wars?

 

The difference between screenplays that readers enjoy and those that get people to sit up and take notice can often be attributed to one thing. It’s that single creative element that makes the pupils dilate, the jaw drop and the heart pound. It’s the twist, and turn, the conceit that fire the imagination and tells the audience that this project is something special.  It’s an elemental concept like fire, the wheel or the number “0” that, when revealed, makes everyone slap their foreheads and shout, “Why didn’t I think of that?!” In Hollywood, its called the “Wow Factor.”

 

Wow Factors can take many shapes and forms.  Some are purely conceptual while others assume physical form. Some are purely intellectual while others are strongly visceral.  A script’s Wow Factor can be stylistic, structural or topical.  It’s what gets put on the poster. It’s the focus of the marketing campaign. It’s what gets the public’s attention and makes it say, “I have got to see this movie!”

 

A script with a Wow Factor doesn’t need big stars.  The Wow Factor is the star.  Wow Factors start trends and trigger fads.  They turn their movies into benchmarks against which all the films that follow are ultimately measured.

 

A Wow Factor may not guarantee a movie’s long-term success or profitability, but it usually ensures at least a strong opening weekend.  And in Hollywood, where opening night numbers are often all that stand between an executive’s promotion or termination, that is more than sufficient.

 

Anyone writing a Hollywood screenplay – or even thinking about writing a Hollywood screenplay – needs to not only understand the concept of the Wow Factor, but to actively attempt to fit one into his or her project.  It can mean the difference between toiling away in anonymity and unimaginable success.  Wow Factors are the keys to the kingdom.

 

Here are the types of Wow Factors from which you can choose:

 

The Wow Premise:  Sometimes, it’s not so much a script’s story that’s compelling, but how the story is told.  Because movies are inherently temporal in nature, structure – the arrangement of narrative elements – can by itself be a compelling selling point.  For example, Pulp Fiction,  with its Mobius-strip narrative, has a Wow Stucture.  Memento, its story told in reverse order, has a Wow Structure.  Go, with its trio of loop-de-loop plotlines, has a Wow Structure.  The best Wow Structures are those that actually complement the theme of the story (e.g. Memento) and aren’t merely cheap gimmicks.  However, as cheap gimmicks go, a well-executed Wow Structure can have significant selling power.

 

The Wow Character: Come up with a character who is so unusual or exciting and it sometimes doesn’t matter how clever the premise or how creatively structured the storyline.  This often means creating a character with some extreme ability or characteristics.  The autistic savant Raymond Babbit in Rain Man is a Wow Character.  The eponymous lead in Forrest Gump is a Wow Character.  Elle Woods in Legally Blonde is a Wow Character.  The great thing about Wow Characters is that they tend to attract Wow Actors, who attract Wow Directors who attract Wow Studios and can lead to Academy Award nominations (Wow!).

 

The Wow SPFX:  Since the dawn of cinema, special effects have been used to attract audiences by showing them places and things that simply don’t exist in real life.  Today, with CGI, it’s even easier (and cheaper) to create fanciful locations and characters/creatures that can only be seen on the silver screen.  Such effects, if well chosen, can be a screenplay’s principal selling point.  For example, The Hulk, Godzilla, Jurassic Park (and its sequels), and Star Wars (and its sequels and prequels) were all Wow SPFX-driven projects.  Although the final box office totals on these kinds of films may vary wildly, most tend to have a high “want-to-see” factor and open strongly.

 

The Wow Stunt Show:  Action films tend to live or die on the strength of their stunts, so the wilder and more imaginative you can make yours, the more attractive your script is going to be to both producers and audiences.  Look at the trailers for Charlie’s Angles: Full Throttle; Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life; Bad Boys II or any James Bond film.  They’re not selling stories.  They’re not selling characters.  They’re selling stunts.  Visceral thrills.  Spectacular action – especially those involving mechanical carnage of any kind – has always been and always will be a can’t-lose Wow Factor.

 

The Wow Taboo-Buster: Sometimes the way to get your script noticed – and a movie sold – is simply to “push the envelope” of good taste and social morals.  In the decades past, films like Bonnie and Clyde, Dr. Strangelove, The Wild Bunch, Last Tango in Paris, Dawn of the Dead and Body Heat all challenged established boundaries for depicting sex and violence – and in doing so, set established new levels of audience acceptability.  More recently, so called “gross-out comedies” like There’s Something About Mary, American Pie and Jackass: The Movie have shattered comedic barriers and redefined what audiences will and will not laugh at.

 

Admittedly, not all movies – or even all successful movies – have the benefit of a Wow Factor.  American Beauty, The Hours, Catch Me If You Can and My Big Fat Greek Wedding were films that did very well without obvious “Wow” elements.  But if you’re looking to quickly distinguish your screenplay from the others in an executive’s “weekend read,” if you want to give production company readers a clear reason to recommend your movie and audiences and equally compelling reason to see it, then a Wow Factor should be a central element in your screenplay.  Bring on the killer robots!

 

– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine

PLAYING THE GAME: WHAT TO DO WHEN A PRODUCER WANTS TO OPTION YOUR SCREENPLAY

It’s the moment every writer dreams about: You’re sitting in Starbucks pounding down your third Columbia Narino Supremo and tapping out your “final” draft of “Spam Wrestlers from Saturn” when your cell phone rings. (Okay, it chirps. Beeps. Plays the entire first movement of Beethoven’s Third. You get the idea…) It’s that producer over at Sony who asked to see your last spec, “Love Don’t Change a Thing.” She liked it. No, strike that; she loved it. She loved it so much that she wants to option it.

In a flash, everything in your world changes. The clouds part and the sun shines. The hum of traffic becomes an angelic choir. Your $4.50 cup of bean juice transforms into a glass of vintage champagne. You made it, baby. You broke through to the Big Time. You can finally pay off all those credit cards, buy that Z-car you’ve had your eye on and score season tickets to the Lakers. You’re gonna be rich! Rich-rich-rich!

(Insert SCREECHING BRAKES sound-effect here.)

Whoops. Reality check. The sky’s still cloudy, traffic still sucks and the closest you’re gonna get to seeing Kobe from the floor is through binoculars.

An option is not a sale. It’s not even the promise of a sale. But it is a necessary first step to making your Hollywood dreams come true, and it needs to be handled skillfully so you don’t suffer the ol ‘ screwgie later down the road.

First, a definition of terms.  A screenplay option is a short-term agreement between a writer and a producer or production company in which said writer grants said producer/production company the right to shop (submit) said screenplay to various studios in the hopes of actually generating a purchasing offer. (In today’s Hollywood, big-time producers, as a rule, don’t actually buy screenplays. They merely rake screenplays to the larger companies that do. This is slightly different in the world of “independents” where a production company may have its own limited capital for equally limited screenplay purchases.)

Back in “the day” – say, prior to 1990 – most producers actually paid writers for the right to peddle their material to potential buyers. This “option price” was generally around ten percent of the projected purchase price and kept the script “off the market” for a specified period of time, usually six months to a year. The paid option gave the producer/production company the exclusive right to seek a buyer without fear of competition.

The rationale behind the paid option was simple: on one hand, producers want exclusivity. They can’t go around trying to set up a deal with a specific property when another producer is running around with the same script trying to do the same thing. On the other hand, a script that is taken all over town and rejected is essentially “burned” and unlikely to be taken seriously ever again. Since such rejection may not be based on the material, per se – potential buyers may gave simply not liked the producer personally and/or the talent “package” the producer had assembled – a paid option at least offers the writer some degree of compensation for his or her efforts.

About fifteen years ago, all of this changed when the pool of would-be screenwriters suddenly ballooned and producers realized that the balance of supply-and-demand was weighted heavily on their side. With so many writers screaming for attention, producers took the position that they were doing writers a favor by shopping their scripts to the studios and therefore demanded that they be given their options for free. (Hell, many writers would have paid producers to do it.) Under this new system, the writer gives the producer the exclusive rights to “shop” a script, and in return the producer invests the time and effort required to take it around town. Simple quid pro quo.

Today, the “free option” still rules.

Because no actual consideration is exchanged with a free option, it’s form and nature can vary from situation to situation. For example, if a producer is particularly tight with a specific studio – for example, if it’s a producer with offices on a studio lot – then the writer can authorize the producer to shop the script to only that one studio. If the studio says no, then all rights immediately revert to the writer and he or she is free to look elsewhere.

Likewise, you can restrict an interested producer to shop the script only to a certain group of studios, and nothing beyond that. With such an arrangement, you can actually have several producers shopping the same script simultaneously, as long as their “territories” don’t overlap. If two studios want the same script with different producers attached, mazel tov, you have a bidding war. (The one thing you want to avoid is two or more producers taking the same script to the same buyer. That’s when everybody looks like an idiot.)

What’s required to formalize a free option? Because no money is being exchanged or even promised, the agreement can be very simple. It can be a brief memo in which the terms of the option, including the time period agreed upon, are specified. Or it can be as simple as a handshake.

However, because a rejected script is still “burned” – some things never change – it’s important that you trust the producer you’re dealing with, and that the producer not violate the terms set forth in the agreement. If you agree that he’ll only shop the film to Universal and Paramount but then he takes it to a half dozen other potential buyers, you’re screwed. You don’t want that. So be careful.

Is representation required? It couldn’t hurt. If you have an agent or a manager, use him or her. It’s not going to cost you anything (yet), and such professional guidance can provide invaluable down the road. (Actually, if you have an agent or manager, he or she is probably the one who found and arranged the option deal in the first place.) But since no money is yet in play, it may not pay to engage the services of an entertainment lawyer just to write up a simple free option agreement or review the one given to you by a producer. Save the lawyer for later.

If you don’t have an agent yet, this can be a great time to get one. Agents, like sharks, get excited when they smell blood, and contacting an agency with a request for help in arranging an option – even a free one – for which you’ve already done the legwork can be a great “in.” How do you find such an agent? Ask the producer. Chances are, he or she can recommend several (and as long as it’s not his or her agent, there’s no reason to expect a conflict of interest).

Should you and your producer discuss a purchase price at this time? Sometimes ballpark figures are discussed, as well as general terms (right to first rewrite or sequel, etc,), but all of this goes out the window when a studio actually steps up on the plate and the war between the agents and Business Affairs begins. The best advice is to play it cool. Don’t even mention money yet. You could look too greedy – or your figure could actually be too low – so you might as well just leave the issue for the appropriate time and place.

The most important thing to remember when someone wants to option your material is to stay cool. Don’t rush and buy a new car or treat all your friends to filet mignon. Don’t tell your family that you just sold a screenplay (you haven’t yet) or even allow yourself to entertain all but the modest of hopes that you actually will. The sad fact is that most options don’t amount to anything. Scripts get shopped and dropped like sitcoms on the WB. Even with an A-list producer on your side, the odds are still against you.

But an option is still an essential step toward making a sale, and there’s a huge ego boost that comes from having a bona-fide producer validate your work. The trick is to recognize an option for what it is and treat it accordingly. Make sure you’re dealing with someone trustworthy. Make sure the terms of the option are understood by all parties involved. Get money if you can. And then sit back and watch the dice roll.

An option – even a free option – means you’re officially in the game. And who knows, this time around you just might hit the jackpot.

– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine

© Greenlightmymovie, LLC 2017