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