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GENRE-BUSTING

Posted by on Jan 18, 2013 in Screenwriting | Comments Off

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.

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HOW TO PITCH A MOVIE SCRIPT OR SCREENPLAY

Posted by on Nov 12, 2012 in Featured, Pitching, Screenwriting | Comments Off

How to Pitch a Movie Script or Screenplay – Greenlightmymovie.com from GREENLIGHTMYMOVIE on Vimeo.

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THE ORIGINALITY MYTH

Posted by on Nov 12, 2012 in Featured, Screenwriting | Comments Off

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.

 

 

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WRITING A SYNOPSIS THAT GETS RESULTS

Posted by on Oct 17, 2012 in Featured, Screenwriting | 0 comments

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.

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THE DOS & DON’TS OF PITCHING

Posted by on Oct 17, 2012 in Featured, Screenwriting | 0 comments

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?)

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BE DETAIL ORIENTED

Posted by on Oct 17, 2012 in Featured, Screenwriting | 0 comments

 

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


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