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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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GIVE EM WHAT THEY WANT

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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