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