Friday, January 30, 2015

Five Questions About Your Story to Answer Before You Start Writing

Movie ideas typically don’t pop into screenwriter’s heads as fully formed, complete and compelling log lines. Rather, they tend to grow from some initial inspiration, sometimes taking years to really gel.

Perhaps you encounter an interesting person that would make a great character, or read about a technological advance that might be the basis of a science fiction story, or come across an unusual environment that would be a good setting for a dramatic tale. Then you noodle with this inspiration over time, possibly combining it with other ideas, until it comes into focus. If you’re like me, you may fill pages with notes and ideas and research as you explore the terrain of your story. Finally, one day the core concept emerges and you can start to outline.

Except it can be difficult to know if that core concept has really developed enough to be a complete and compelling story. Start writing too early, and you set yourself up for frustration and multiple drafts spent just figuring out what the story actually is. For many writers, this can end up in an abandoned screenplay and months or even years of wasted effort.

This is why it’s helpful to craft a great log line before you start outlining. If you aren’t able to craft a great log line, you haven’t really cracked your story yet. It’s why it’s also helpful to work up a pitch for your idea before you write it. Creating a good pitch forces you to figure out what your idea is really about and exposes any holes. It also allows you to bounce the story off trusted friends to get feedback.

But that still doesn’t really explain how you know whether your idea is fully baked. There are five questions to which you should be able to provide good answers that will tell you if your idea’s ready. I’ll get to what I mean by “good” answers in a moment. Here are the questions:

1. Who is the main character?

2. Why do we care what happens to them?

3. What do they want?

4. What is at stake for them?

5. What is the main thing that stands in the way of them achieving their goal?

Let’s look at these one at a time:

Who is the main character?

Structurally there is one main character in every story. Even if it’s an ensemble piece or buddy film, there will be one main character among two or more major characters. The main character is the one whose decisions are driving the action of the story. In a buddy or ensemble movie, you can pick which character is going to be the main character for structural purposes. Even if you don’t believe me on this (although I’m right), pick only one character for this exercise.

Why do we care what happens to them?

It’s not a given that we will care what happens to your main character. And we only care about your story to the extent we care about the main character. This doesn’t mean they have to be likeable or heroic – there are plenty of great, popular, successful films with main characters who are unlikeable and un-heroic. Of course if your character is likeable and heroic, then you’ve answered this question and your job is done. It’s certainly easier to go that route, which is why most characters fit this mold. (Note that simply being a “regular guy” does not make a character likeable.)

If you’re dealing with a character we don’t naturally root for, then you have to figure out why we care what happens to them. There are ways to make this work. We’ll root for an unlikeable character if we support their goal. A petty thief who’s trying to bring down a vicious crime lord who killed the thief’s brother is a sympathetic character even if he isn’t likeable. Or sometimes the unlikeable character will be responsible for a likeable character – like in The Professional (screenplay by Jacques Audiard & Michel Audiard & Georges Lautner), when the hit man takes in a young girl whose parents were murdered. Answering the next two questions can help you figure out why we might root for your character.

What do they want?

People want all kinds of things all at the same time. You might want to be a great screenwriter and also want a sandwich. We’re talking here about the want that is driving the character through the story. It’s what your story is about. The petty thief may want a date with the waitress at the corner coffee shop, but if your story is about him getting revenge, then that is the want we’re focusing on.

What makes the answer to this question good is if the want is specific, significant and visual. It’s hard to write a story about a character who wants something vague, like “fulfillment” or “happiness.” We all want that stuff – but what does it mean to this character? You need to have a clear, specific goal. We need to be able to see on screen when they have or haven’t achieved it. We can see whether the boy got the girl or the criminal escaped prison or the cop caught the bad guy. We can see if Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code or if Martin Luther King, Jr. got the Voting Rights Act passed.

What’s at stake for them?

This is what we mean by a significant want. What does achieving this goal, or failing to achieve it, mean to the character? How will it affect their life? If it doesn’t have an impact, why should we care? We’re looking for big stakes, but what we mean by this is stakes that are really important to the character. Finding a little boy lost on a train can be bigger stakes than saving the world. Make sure the outcome of your story matters to the character. It should really be the most important thing in their lives – otherwise, why are you telling this story? (Note that this is why it's very difficult to do stories that end up being "all just a dream" - why does it matter once the character wakes up?)

What is the main thing standing in the way of them achieving their goal?

This is the obstacle to the character’s success. There may be many obstacles - should be, in fact - but you should be able to identify the one major obstacle that must be overcome. Often this is an antagonist, another character in the story that doesn’t want the main character to succeed for some reason. It could also be a situation. Much more difficult, the primary obstacle could be internal – some character flaw our hero must overcome. (Often heroes must overcome a character flaw, but typically this isn’t the main obstacle.) If this main obstacle is good, it will then generate many smaller obstacles.

A good obstacle will be something that takes an hour or more of screen time to overcome. This obstacle is going to be the focus of most of the scenes in acts two and three, and it can't get repetitive. The solution can’t be simple or transitory. That’s why antagonists make such good obstacles – they act and react to the main character's actions. And defeating the obstacle should require action on the part of the character. It’s difficult to make a film about a character not doing things. Also, the obstacle should be challenging. We measure our heroes by the size of the obstacles they overcome. Finally, the best obstacles play against the main character’s weaknesses.

You may be tempted to accept mediocre answers to these questions. Don’t. It will only lead to problems when you start outlining your story. Make sure you are absolutely confident you have good answers to these questions before you commit to the story.

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Want to work on your pitching skills? Check out The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing Good Villains

(Spoliers: Die Hard, Sunset Blvd., Selma, The Silence of the Lambs, The Apartment, The Matrix)

Of course we love our great heroes – Die Hard’s resourceful and charming John McClane, farm boy dreamer Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, and Clarice Starling, the determined rookie in Silence of the Lambs. But don’t we kind of like our great villains – villains like Hans Gruber, Darth Vadar, and Hannibal Lecter – even more?

Creating a great villain can really boost the power of a story with a human antagonist. Besides just the entertainment value of a compelling character, our heroes are really only as great as the villains they overcome. If Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) was about John McClane stopping a teenage shoplifter, would McClane be so impressive?

So how does one create a great villain? First, you should lavish the same attention on the villain as you do the hero. And that starts with the villain’s motivation. One of the traps of screenwriting is to make your hero villainous because they’re just naturally evil. But people rarely see themselves as the bad guy. They have goals that they can justify to themselves. A good villain may even see themselves as the real hero of the story!

The Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) weren’t trying to be evil. They were looking for the Ark because Germany was at war and they thought the Ark might be a weapon that could help them win. From their perspective, they were patriots.

So be sure your villain’s motivation is plausible. Doing a treatment of your story from your villain’s point of view, with them as the “hero,” can be a good way to ensure their behavior is believable. (See this post for more on that technique.)

Considering and justifying the antagonist’s goals can also help you create villains who are not overtly villainous. If the antagonist and the hero each have a goal, but the goals are mutually exclusive, then there is conflict.

Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.) is a great “villain,” but her motivation isn’t evil. She wants to reclaim her lost movie star glory. She even helps our hero, Joe Gillis, quite a bit, paying off his debts, giving him a writing job, and buying him nice things. However Joe doesn’t want to become Norma’s arm candy and pet screenwriter. He wants to write a different script with young development exec Betty. And he’s also interested in romance with Betty – and decidedly not with Norma. Thus Joe’s goals are mutually exclusive to Norma’s goals, and that is what makes her a villain from Joe’s point of view.

There has been some controversy about the new movie Selma (written by Paul Webb) because it portrays President Lyndon Johnson as an obstacle to the voting rights act, a take which history does not support. Let’s leave aside the question of historical accuracy for now and look at the nature of the villains in the movie.

First of all, Johnson is not the real villain of Selma. Governor Wallace and the Selma Sheriff are the bad guys. But even they are motivated by a desire to protect a way of life they enjoy, and to a lesser extent what they see as the rule of law. Yes they are racists, and yes they encourage brutal, inhuman acts. But they justify these things as their duty as protectors of society. We may not agree – that’s not the point. Their motivation is plausible.

Johnson is more interesting. He is certainly an antagonist to Martin Luther King, Jr. in this story. But his motivation, even in the inaccurate portrayal in the movie, is not to prevent blacks from voting. He supports King’s goals. He simply wishes to delay and focus on problems he thinks will make more of a difference to the average black person in America. He believes King will bring violence on his followers with little to show for it. Here is a case of mutually exclusive goals – the characters are in conflict, though neither is a "bad guy."

Let’s look at a few more great movie villains.

Hans Gruber in Die Hard: Hans is extremely clever. He also has a cadre of henchmen and weaponry, but it is really his intelligence that makes him such a challenge for John McClane. He’s always one step ahead of our hero. This forces McClane to be even cleverer, making his success more impressive. Gruber also matches McClane’s working class charm with erudite wit. And though Gruber is a thief, he makes it clear that he is no ordinary thief – he’s an exceptional thief. He’s proud of his skills and believes they entitle him to his rewards.

Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally): Through most of the movie, Hannibal is behind bars and not an apparent physical threat to Clarice. But it is made clear that his danger is still real – he likes to psychologically torture and manipulate people. Clarice is repeatedly warned not to tell him anything personal or let him get into her head. And the danger is illustrated when Lecter talks a prisoner in the next cell into suicide. Hannibal is an unusual villain in that he is actually helping Clarice with her case. But he wants something in return. Hannibal’s goal is to learn Clarice’s secrets. In other words, he wants to get inside her head… the very thing she is trying to avoid. Clarice is racing against a clock to find the killer Buffalo Bill, and the only way she can succeed is to win the battle of wits with Hannibal.

Sheldrake in The Apartment (written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond): Here we have a villain who is not a criminal or a psychopath, but is still a bad guy. He is using and mistreating poor Miss Kubelik, promising her he will leave his wife when he actually has no intention of doing so. He justifies his actions by saying women like Miss Kubelik are unreasonable, that they should know these things are just flings and not get so attached. Sheldrake is brought into conflict with our hero, C.C. Baxter, because Baxter is in love with Miss Kubelik. As long as Miss Kubelik is under Sheldrake’s spell, Baxter cannot achieve his goal. It’s hero and villain in a very grounded, common story.

Agent Smith in The Matrix (screenplay by Andy & Lana Wachowski): Smith is a powerful foe. Neo is told repeatedly that the Agents are unbeatable – and in fact we see this when Morpheus, Neo’s mentor, is forced to fight Smith and is quickly defeated. In the end, we know Neo is “the One” precisely because he’s able to beat an Agent – powerful villain equals great hero. Though Smith may be the most “evil” of the villains I’ve mentioned, he still is motivated by what he sees as a heroic goal: protecting the Matrix from the human rebels. The machines need the Matrix and Smith is a machine. He’s simply trying to protect his people.

Notice also that all of these villains (except perhaps Agent Smith due to the nature of the story) are well rounded, three dimensional characters. Again, you want to give the villain or antagonist just as much thought and attention as the hero.

Who’s the villain of your story? Are they powerful and plausible? Because your hero’s greatness depends on them!

Friday, January 16, 2015

How to Control Pace in a Screenplay

(SPOILERS: The Abyss, Inherent Vice)

Pace is important in movies, so it should be no surprise that it’s important in screenplays. One of the major goals of a screenplay is to give a sense of the experience of watching the final film. But it can be tough to match the pace of film with words on a page. A bit of action that might take two seconds on screen might require many words to convey, even when it’s done well. An image can convey so much information – thus the phrase “a picture is worth 1000 words.” In screenplays, we don’t get 1000 words to describe a frame.

This means we have to be very efficient in our writing. We have to pick which details we choose to describe carefully, and we have to deliver those details with as few words as possible. In the polishing stage of the script, a good writer will go through every line and cut anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.

When writing description, pick highly specific, evocative, representative details. So rather than writing:

INT. GROCERY STORE - DAY

Sam enters the grocery store. There are three cash registers, though only one is occupied. The store is small, with a dozen cluttered aisles. The canned goods are stacked several feet high on top of the shelves. The fruit is piled in pyramids. Refrigerators
for dairy products and drinks line the outside walls. Fluorescent light casts a sickly glow over everything. Everything is dusty. There are cobwebs in the corners.

Write something more like:

INT. GROCERY STORE - DAY

Sam enters, eying the precarious towers of dusty soup cans and rice boxes leaning over the dim and dingy aisles.


Assuming nothing else from the former description is necessary to the story, this single sentence captures the flavor of the store without slowing the screenplay.

For dialogue, police yourself for the niceties that make up real speech but can bog down dramatic scenes. Avoid greetings, introductions, farewells and small talk. Often it is possible to simply cut into the scene later, just before the actual conflict starts, or even in the midst of the conflict.

Most of our concern with pace in screenwriting is about speeding things up, keeping the story moving. But there are times when you want to slow things down. Sometimes you want to draw the action out to build anticipation.

For example, it is common to slow the pace in suspense scenes. Suspense is about building tension in the audience. The “building” aspect is important. You can’t take your reader from relaxed to tense in a few sentences. Think about how horror movies do this – the long takes of a character entering a darkened basement, creeping ever so slowly forward. The writer wants to capture that feeling on the page.

One of my favorite suspense scenes is from The Abyss (written by James Cameron). Two characters are trapped in a disabled mini-sub with a leak. But the scene doesn’t start with the characters in a panic, worried about how they’ll survive. Instead, they think the problem’s solvable and begin talking about other things. Then slowly, as the water rises and help doesn’t come, they begin to get concerned. They try to find a way to fix the leak, but are stymied. Now the water is up to their chests. Tension is at its height – for both the characters and the audience. But only because the scene has taken its time to let that tension build.

There are other situations where you might want to purposefully build anticipation. There’s a scene in Inherent Vice (screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson) that is incredibly erotic. But it doesn’t throw graphic, acrobatic, shocking sex at the audience. Instead, it controls pace to build sexual tension.

In the scene, Shasta is visiting Doc (her ex-boyfriend and the main character). She enters the room naked, startling Doc. Then she sits near him on the couch and describes, in a long monologue, why she became the mistress of a wealthy and powerful developer, and how being in that position was a turn on. As she’s talking, she slowly works a foot up Doc’s leg, until it reaches his crotch at the very end of her story. She lies across his lap, and finally Doc can take it no more – he must have her. The eroticism of the scene comes from that long, slow build of anticipation for Doc and for the audience.

Of course, you can’t do this with every scene or your story will feel like it’s plodding along at a snail’s pace. You have to pick and choose when you slow things down. And you don’t want to slow a scene down with boring, mundane dialogue or business. Shasta’s monologue in Inherent Vice is interesting and revealing and sets the tone of sensuality for the scene. The discussion on the mini-sub in The Abyss is about important story issues and what’s at stake for the characters.

Though a screenplay is not a final product – it’s a blueprint for the movie, which is the final product – it is still important for the screenwriter to be aware of how the words play on the page. Not only do you want to set the tone, you also often have to convince someone to make the film! That means a good reading experience that captures the feeling of watching the movie.

You can affect the pace and the perception of pace in the way you write your action and description. Consider these two versions of a hypothetical scene:

Version 1:

INT. HALLWAY – NIGHT

Sam descends the wooden stairs – CREAK, CREAK – arriving in a long hallway. A single bare light bulb flickers on the ceiling. At the far end is a door, smudged with handprints.

Sam studies that door. Readjusts his grip on his gun.

He creeps down the hall, eyes on the door. Feeling his way along, trying not to make a sound.

Sweat drips into his eyes. He pauses, wipes it away with the back of his hand.

He hears a CREAK – spins back toward the stairs. Nothing there. His imagination?

Sam turns back, refocuses on that door. Resumes moving toward it. Quiet. Cautious. Ready.

He reaches the door. Grips the knob. Steels himself.

He eases the door open...

On the other side is Mandy, tied to a chair, gagged, mascara streaks running down her cheeks.

And behind her is Joan… with a pistol pressed against Mandy’s temple.


Version 2:

INT. HALLWAY – NIGHT

Sam descends the stairs, reaches a hallway. At the far end, a door, smudged with handprints. A single bulb flickers.

Sam stalks toward the door, gun ready. Wipes sweat from his eyes.

He yanks the door open–

And finds Mandy – tied to a chair. Joan behind her–

With a gun pressed to Mandy’s temple.



Which is better? It depends on what the purpose of the scene is. The first builds tension, the second is more active and exciting. The second is also shorter and will occupy less of the total length of the screenplay. The point is, you have the power to control the pace of the scene with your writing style. Use it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

10 Best Written Movies of 2014

It’s time for my list of the ten best written movies of 2014! This year feels like a bit of a down year. There were plenty of fine movies, but nothing that really seems like it’s going to become a classic. It was not hard to come up with ten well-written movies, but it was difficult to order them. In other words, the distance between #1 and #10 was not great.

Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. Sometimes a film with a mediocre script will achieve greatness through the contributions of other artists. For example, Whiplash, though it made my list at #10 for the writing, was probably higher over all because of the amazing performance of J.K. Simons and the excellent music. And I probably enjoyed Lucy more than some of these movies on the list, though there were some script problems that kept it out of the top 10.

My usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. I haven’t yet seen Birdman, though I’m anxious to correct that oversight. I also haven’t yet watched American Sniper, which was nominated for a Writers Guild Award so there’s a fair chance it has a good screenplay. I may in the future discover other movies from 2014 that would bump some of my selections off the list.

Also, some movies age better than others, and because many of these are awards season movies, I’ve seen most of them pretty recently. My opinions could cool over time (though looking back at last year’s selections, they all held up pretty well.) And though I’m happy to hear your opinions in the comments, this is my list. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to make your own!

So without further ado, the 10 Best Written Movies of 2014:

1. The Theory of Everything (screenplay by Anthony McCarten) – This was an excellent, moving screenplay about a compelling subject that was tricky for several reasons: we know what happens, it would be easy to wallow in the tragedy of Hawking’s disease, and it would have been easy to lose the audience with the complexity of Hawking’s scientific ideas. The screenplay avoided all these traps. Neither character was overly idealized, I was caught up in the emotion and challenges of the relationship, and Hawking’s brilliance was portrayed in a way that made it accessible without reducing his ideas.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guiness, screenplay by Wes Anderson) – I am not really a fan of Wes Anderson’s writing, but he nailed it here. His characters, as always, were original and indelible. But unlike most of his movies, this one also has a solid plot and real stakes. And the emotions were complex, the happy mixing with the sad in a way that ends up being truly profound – while at the same time ample humor and romance make the film very entertaining to watch.

3. Of Horses and Men (written by Benedikt Erlingsson) – You probably haven’t seen this movie. It’s from Iceland and I only saw it because it was in the LA Film Festival. Arguably it’s not even a 2014 movie – it was released in 2013 in Iceland and hasn’t yet been commercially released in the U.S. But I want to include it because it’s a wonderful movie, full of charm and rich drama, which gives us an insight into a very specific community. It also achieves most of its storytelling visually, with little dialogue. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t tightly scripted. It’s just that this script makes masterful use of the visual aspects of film.

4. The Imitation Game (screenplay by Graham Moore) – This is an excellent story and the writer does a great job drawing these characters and, like with Theory of Everything, dramatizing what is largely a mental process. Kudos, too, for not softening Turing’s rough edges yet making us care about him. The stakes here are huge, both on a personal and global level, and several scenes pack powerful emotional punches. It is only marred by a few clichéd moments.

5. Nightcrawler (written by Dan Gilroy) – This screenplay impresses on many levels. The characters are original and have distinctive voices. The plot is tense with several fantastic twists. And it explores cultural themes in a powerful way without being heavy handed.

6. Edge of Tomorrow (screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth) – Though it’s hard not to think of it as a science fiction Groundhog Day, this is really an excellent movie. It’s tight and taught, and has rich, dimensional, flawed characters. At the beginning of the story Tom Cruise’s character is a coward and Emily Blunt’s character is mean and heartless. And both change believably due to the events of the story. This and the brisk, clever storytelling leavened with just enough humor elevate it way above the average summer blockbuster – and makes it all the more tragic that it didn’t do well at the box office.

7. The Lego Movie (story by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman and Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller) – Pure fun. This is a great example of making the most out of a movie designed to entertain. It felt fresh and original, contained just enough emotional heft, and was thoroughly enjoyable. Oh, and it was very funny.

8. Inherent Vice (screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson) – I’ll admit I couldn’t follow the mystery, but that doesn’t really matter. This feels like Chinatown mixed with The Big Sleep and then filtered through Quentin Tarantino and the seventies hippie culture. The world of the story and the characters are fascinating and richly drawn. Dialogue is snappy and poetic if not exactly realistic. The plot is twisty and suspenseful. And it happens to contain one of the most erotic scenes ever put on film.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) – Some people think big summer popcorn movies don’t require skilled scripting, but writing these things is incredibly challenging (just compare this movie to the ponderous Amazing Spider-Man 2). Guardians is fun, fast paced, charming and heartfelt – everything you could want out of a movie like this.

10. Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) – This is an intense, well-observed movie with two great characters and lots to say about excellence and mentorship. The scenes and dialogue crackle with tension. And it brings us into a fascinating world most of us are unlikely to be familiar with.

(Edited to Add:)

10B. A Most Violent Year (written by J.C. Chandor) – I had forgotten about this one when I made this list, so I'm adding it in a tie for tenth place. (As I said, the distinction between the 10 films - now 11 – is slim.) This is an excellent thriller set in a very grounded world with regular people. The characters are three dimensional, and it's interesting how the story explores the dangers and temptations of violence as a way to solve problems. It is set in 1981, and oddly it feels like it could have been made then. It may not be exactly groundbreaking, but J.C. Chandor is quickly becoming one of our best screenwriters.

There were also some honorable mentions, candidates I considered for this list: Big Hero 6, Snowpiercer, Lucy, and X-Men Days of Future Past all had writing worth noting for one reason or another. (I also thought my former student Rebecca Cremona did an excellent job with Simshar, though I’ll recuse myself from that one since I helped her develop it!)

Normally I also include a worst written movie of the year here, but I can’t really think of one I want to single out. Not that I liked everything I saw in 2014, but I try to reserve this slot for a movie with a truly misguided screenplay that could have been easily fixed, a film that makes you wonder how they ever green lit it. B-movies with low ambitions don’t really count, nor do merely pedestrian screenplays. And there were plenty of ambitious but flawed screenplays (Gone Girl, Interstellar, Foxcatcher), but it feels wrong to harp on someone who took a big swing and missed their target.

So that’s it for 2014… I’m looking forward to more great writing in 2015!

Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 vs. 1984 At the Movies

Happy New Year! Next week (probably) I will do my list of the Ten Best Written Movies of 2014. (I’m still catching up on my viewing). This week, I’d like to take a look at the movies released in 2014 in comparison to the movies released thirty years ago in 1984. 1984 has been mentioned a lot lately because it is considered one of the best years for genre movies in history, though that’s not what I’m really focusing on.

It would be easy to point to declining attendance and box office (when adjusted for inflation) over the last thirty years, but also perhaps misleading. The business has changed too much since then – in 1984 there was no internet or original cable programming, no HDTV, and international box office was a fraction of domestic – for a simple numerical comparison to tell us much. Analyzing the changes could easily be several blog posts, and it’s not really what I’m interested in today. Rather, I’d like to compare the two years in terms of how the types of movies studios produce has changed, and what that could mean for screenwriters.

There were, of course, hundreds of movies released in both years. To keep things manageable, I’ll look at the top 25 movies in each year. I’ll stipulate that this sample size risks being skewed by outliers, but I think it should give us some useful points of discussion. Here are the lists, drawn from boxofficemojo.com, with a few notations that I’ll explain in a moment.

2014

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy
  2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  4. The LEGO Movie (original)
  5. Transformers: Age of Extinction
  6. Maleficent (based on)
  7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
  8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  9. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  10. Godzilla
  11. Big Hero 6
  12. 22 Jump Street (sequel to reboot)
  13. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  14. Interstellar
  15. How to Train Your Dragon 2
  16. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  17. Gone Girl
  18. Divergent
  19. Neighbors
  20. Ride Along
  21. Rio 2
  22. Lucy
  23. The Fault in our Stars
  24. Mr. Peabody & Sherman (based on)
  25. 300: Rise of an Empire

1984
  1. Beverly Hills Cop
  2. Ghostbusters (sci-fi)
  3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  4. Gremlins (sci-fi)
  5. The Karate Kid
  6. Police Academy (action comedy)
  7. Footloose
  8. Romancing the Stone
  9. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  10. Splash
  11. Purple Rain
  12. Amadeus
  13. Tightrope
  14. The Natural
  15. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (reboot)
  16. Revenge of the Nerds
  17. 2010
  18. Breakin’
  19. Bachelor Party
  20. Red Dawn
  21. The Terminator
  22. City Heat
  23. All of Me (romantic comedy)
  24. Places in the Heart
  25. The Killing Fields

I first divided the lists into the source of the idea for the film – original stories, adaptations, sequels, etc. In some cases, I had to make a judgment call. For example, you could argue Purple Rain is based on Prince's album, but I considered it original. And I decided Malificent is based on Sleeping Beauty, though you could make a case that it should be considered a new story. I tried to note the decision I made next to movies where that decision may be questionable. I also categorized sequels that were based on underlying material (such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1) simply as sequels, figuring at this point they rely more on the first movie than the source material. Though I did break out sequels to reboots just because I found that interesting. The results are:

2014 
  • Originals: 6
  • Based on: 5
  • Sequels: 9
  • Reboots: 2
  • Sequels to Reboots: 3

1984
  • Originals: 18
  • Based on: 3
  • Sequels: 3
  • Reboots: 1
  • Sequels to Reboots: 0
Of course the thing that jumps out is how many original movies there were in 1984 and how few there are today. In fact, many of those 1984 originals (The Terminator, Beverly Hills Cop) spawned their own franchises. It’s hard to imagine that happening with the few original movies produced this year, other than The LEGO Movie.

I also analyzed genres. I made a couple of decisions to simplify things – I chose to lump thrillers in with action/adventure, though Romancing the Stone is not really the same genre as City Heat. I also lumped science fiction and comic book movies together. And I categorized musical dramas like Purple Rain and Footloose as drama, though there were enough teen oriented music and dance themed films in 1984 they might qualify for their own category. Here are the results:

2014

  • Action/Adventure/Thriller: 0
  • Sci-fi/Comic Book: 12
  • Fantasy: 3
  • Broad Comedy: 1
  • Romantic Comedy: 0
  • Drama: 2
  • Animated Family: 5
  • Action-Comedy: 2
1984

  • Action/Adventure/Thriller: 6
  • Sci-fi/Comic Book: 5
  • Fantasy: 0
  • Broad Comedy: 2
  • Romantic Comedy: 2
  • Drama: 8
  • Animated Family: 0
  • Action-Comedy: 2

What does all of this mean for screenwriters? I would conclude that it is going to be hard to interest a studio in an original idea. That poses a challenge if you’re trying to write a spec script and don’t have the resources to option a bestselling book or comic book. One possible solution is to try to find public domain characters to base your work on – Dracula or Santa Claus, for example.

Another thing to think about is that most specs these days might better be considered writing samples. So when you’re weighing your ideas, you might consider whether the anticipated spec will properly demonstrate your ability to adapt the kind of material studios are making.

And of course it looks like writing in the science fiction genre makes more sense than writing comedy or drama.

We could, of course, also just bemoan the lack of original movies and limited variety these days. (I do that a lot.) But that won’t help us very much when it comes to making a living. If you want to be a professional screenwriter, you have to pay attention to market trends.

Of course, considering how bad 2014 was at the box office (down 5.2% from 2013), maybe we should also anticipate a change in course for the studios. One can dream, after all…

Further reading: Here’s an interesting article from Variety about the bad 2014 box office and what may be behind it, plus a clue as to how studios are planning to combat it.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Interview with Simshar Writer/Director Rebecca Cremona

Shortly after I started teaching at Art Center College, a young woman from Malta named Rebecca Cremona developed a screenplay in my Screenwriting 1 class called Simshar. She went on to direct the film and this year it was Malta's official selection for the foreign film Academy Award. It's a terrific, moving tale about a maritime disaster against the backdrop of debate over immigration issues in Europe, and how the "little guy" is often caught up in political issues beyond his or her control. Rebecca kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the writing and making of Simshar for my blog.

Q: Simshar is based on a true story. It’s obviously dramatic, but what in particular drew you to this material?

Rebecca Cremona: I am very interested in how large political issues actually influence mundane life, so this fundamental link, which is intrinsic to the story, taps into a dimension I believe is very relevant in life. The story is also a manifestation of tension between tradition and change/progress - and in an increasingly globalized world and hailing from a very particular island, I find this theme too to be of great interest.

Q: What were some of the challenges of adapting a true story and how did you deal with them?

RC: There were many challenges but I would say the three main ones were: being respectful to characters based on real people who have been through extreme circumstances while simultaneously ensuring they are well rounded characters with flaws and all; sometimes fact is stranger than fiction and is just not believable, also sometimes amazing facts do not serve your story, character or themes and discipline is difficult but necessary; last but not least, when dealing with complex situations in little known parts of the world, a balance of giving enough context and not bogging down the story with too many details or too much exposition is essential.

Q: You’re credited as co-writer with David Grech. Tell me about that working relationship.

RC:Writing is such a personal, almost intimate process, so such collaborations are very delicate and can only be successful if people are on the same wavelength. After I had been writing for a couple of years I showed the screenplay to David and his feedback was so pertinent and really towards where I wanted to take the story, so we started a process where we would meet and discuss for hours and then after that I would revisit the script.

Q: This is an ambitious film for a first time feature director – you have refugee camps, a helicopter, multiple boats, a large cast including children, and of course it’s notoriously difficult to shoot on water. Did you have to make changes to the screenplay for practical or budgetary reasons?

RC: We tried very hard not to let those factors affect the story. However, as you say, it was very ambitious and, although together with the help of the team, the Maltese community and the expertise of our line producer we really maximized our resources almost beyond belief, there were times we had to compromise. For the longest time the opening scene was completely different and I wish we were able to keep it as it was intended originally as I feel it was much more effective. I think learning what and how to compromise is a big part of filmmaking, especially independent filmmaking.

Q: I love the complex thematic elements related to the refugees and how you manage to really justify everyone’s point of view and show how so many people are caught in no-win situations. Also, you aren’t heavy handed, letting the story drive the movie and using the immigration issues as a backdrop. How tough was it to keep that balance?

RC: I am so glad you felt that way. We put a lot of effort into that - lots of research not only in terms of reading up about the various issues and incidents but also by means of meeting the various groups of people - fishermen, refugees, soldiers...keeping the people in mind and prioritizing them over the issues was a good guiding principle to avoid being heavy handed.

Q: What did you learn about screenwriting from the experience of directing? Will you approach your next screenplay differently at all?

RC: Because of the emotional intensity and sometimes even the community specific jargon (for instance that of the fishing community) we sometimes derived the actual dialogue from selects drawn from a series of improvisations in rehearsals led by outlines dictated by the script. I'm particularly happy with those scenes and would love to work more along those lines in the future. Of course it depends on what the style of the story is and what access one has to the actors and prep time available...

Q: How has the awards season experience been?

RC: Incredible. Although we didn't make it to the shortlist it was wonderful to screen the film to the academy members and to be considered serious contenders together with some legendary filmmakers and really amazing films. Moreover, it was great to put Malta on the map as it was the first time the country participated. It also led to me getting representation with Management 360 which I am very excited about. So all in all a fantastic first time and I hope there will be others.

Q: What’s next for you?

RC: I have another story I am particularly passionate about and am working on the script for together with an American writer. I certainly don't discount working on films based on other people's scripts whilst the development for that is underway though. And although I am drawn to my country and the wonderful cultural specificity there, I believe that good stories are everywhere and I am happy to go where they are.



Thanks Rebecca! And for my readers, you can find out more about Simshar on the film's Facebook page and by following it on Twitter.

Friday, December 19, 2014

8 Truths for Building a Screenwriting Career

News flash: it’s very hard to break in to the screenwriting business. It’s equally hard to stay in it. There are many more talented people who want to write movies and television than will get the chance. The difficulty level can lead to mindsets that harm your chances of success. Here are eight truths that will help you avoid mental traps:

1. There is no “wall” between you and the industry, no secret password to break in.
For new writers it can seem like Hollywood is surrounded by a big wall, and they need to find some secret door to get past it. This can lead them to stalk industry insiders, or to try embarrassing gimmicks to get attention, or to fall prey to promises of, “if you just buy my product or seminar, you will be able to break in.” But in fact Hollywood is always on the lookout for fantastic new writers. Yes, you have to network. Yes, contests and pitch fests can help get you noticed. Yes, it will take time, determination, and a lot of rejection. But most people fail not because they lack access but because their material really is not yet as great as they think it is or because they don’t put in the required effort. So focus on creating better material and then getting it read, and stop looking for the “secret” way into the business.

2. It is always hard.

Two stories: After Sweet Home Alabama came out I was looking for a new agent via my manager. We were having difficulty getting agents to even read my new spec. I said to my manager, “Wow, I thought this would get easier.” She replied, “Oh no. It’s never easy. Get that out of your head.”

Second story: I got to have dinner with David Seidler (writer of The King’s Speech) at a WGA event. I asked him if winning the Oscar changed anything. He told me a story about going to a meeting (after the Oscar) where he thought he was being offered a writing job. It turned out he was competing against five other writers for the gig – four of whom also had Oscars. He said, “All that changes is you move to a higher level of competition.”

3. You need luck, but it will do you no good if you are not prepared.

Ask any writer how they broke into the business and their story will inevitably contain a moment where they got very lucky. It can make you think success is random. But here’s the thing – everyone who makes the effort gets those lucky breaks. And if you stick with it, you will continue to get even more breaks. The writers who succeed are those who are prepared when the opportunity comes – prepared with good material and professional work habits.

4. Stop blaming outside forces for your lack of success. Even if it’s true, it won’t help you.

You hear a lot about ageism, sexism, racism, etc. in the business. Statistics back up the claim that it is harder for non-white, non-male, non-young writers to succeed. But if this applies to you, you can’t use it as an excuse. Whining won’t change things. And it can be a trap – I’ve seen writers refuse to accept that their material needs work because they blame outside forces for their failure. As a result, they never improve. If the playing field is tilted against you, you really have only two choices: give up or work harder. (The same applies if you have dyslexia, a family to support, or any other reason you blame for your failures other than the quality of your material.) The reality is that it’s hard for everyone, even young white males.

5. It is a business. If you want to be a pro, you have to learn the business side.

If you want to write screenplays as a hobby, you can write whatever you want and not bother to learn about the business. But unless you are independently wealthy, your screenplays will then be doomed to remain unmade. If you want to earn a living at writing, and you want studios or independent financiers to pay for production of your movies, you need to take the business side seriously. You have to follow the trades, network, learn to pitch, learn to incorporate studio notes, etc.

6. Nobody owes you. You have to earn it.

Nobody cares how badly you want to be a screenwriter. They only care how good your material is and how professional you are. Fortunately, passion can help you become a better writer. But only if you don’t feel entitled to a career. Focus on proving that you deserve a career. Be humble, work hard, and be willing to learn.

7. Being selfish holds you back. Being nice, generous, and cooperative opens doors.

Ask not what your industry contacts can do for you, ask what you can do for them. You will need help to start and maintain a career in Hollywood. People like to help people that they like. So remember the golden rule and treat people as you would like to be treated.

8. Watch your back.

Despite the above, be aware that there are many people who will try to take advantage of you, including some straight up con men that prey on desperation. Don’t let that make you overly cynical or suspicious – that will hurt you as well. But do your homework on people. Make sure they’re who they say they are. And seek legal advice when dealing with contract issues. Don’t be afraid to say no if something feels creepy or unfair. It can be better for your career long term to turn down the wrong offer. 

Keep these truths in mind as you climb that difficult mountain that we call a career in screenwriting.