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.