Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sequelitis and the Cultural Irrelevancy of Feature Films

It seems like everyone in the movie business is talking about this year’s “sequelitis.” The term refers to the poor showing of sequels this year – the general assumption being that the audience is sick and tired of them.

How bad is it, exactly? This chart shows all the sequels among the top 100 movies released in 2016 as of September 6th. Exactly one quarter of the top 100 movies this year were sequels (that’s 25 for those bad at math). I’ve calculated the domestic box office performance of the 2016 sequels relative to the domestic box office performance of the prior movie in their series using data from boxofficemojo.com.

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

A few things immediately jump out. First, only four of the 25 sequels released this year outperformed their predecessor. Even worse, twice as many (eight) had greater than 50% drops from their predecessor. It would seem any studio at this point that green lights a sequel not based on Star Wars or a Marvel or DC superhero is insane (or Sweet Home Alabama… everybody would love a sequel to that, I’m sure).

Now there are a few caveats to this chart. Some of these sequels are still in theaters, though all have likely made the bulk of their revenue. I also have not adjusted for inflation – otherwise Independence Day Resurgence, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut and Zoolander 2 would look a lot worse! Probably most important, box office is not the same as profitability. So Barbarshop: The Next Cut, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and The Conjuring 2, for example, may still be quite profitable since their budgets were low. On the other hand, Batman v. Superman is a disappointment relative to budget despite improving over Man of Steel, and big-budget movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Alice Through the Looking Glass are going to rack up even bigger losses than this table suggests.

By the way, if you’re wondering where Jungle Book, Ghostbusters, Pete’s Dragon and Ben Hur are, those were reboots, not sequels (though it’s worth noting that other than Jungle Book all the reboots failed this year as well.)

So what does all this mean? Obviously it means that the audience is sick of sequels. But I think it’s indicative of a bigger problem for the film industry – that of cultural relevance. It used to be that the biggest new pop culture franchises mostly launched with original feature films. The1970s saw franchises like Alien, Star Wars, and Rocky launch with original feature films. The 1980s launched the Terminator, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Ghostbusters, and Lethal Weapon franchises via feature films. And in the 1990s the movie business gave us the Jurassic Park, Austin Powers, and Matrix franchises. But since The Fast and the Furious fifteen years ago, what major franchises have started with an original feature film? A few low budget horror franchises, but not much else.

It’s not that there weren’t sequels in earlier decades, but they weren’t such a large part of the market. Three decades ago, in 1986, only ten of the top 100 movies were sequels. That means this year there have been two-and-a-half times as many sequels in the market as thirty years ago… and this year isn’t finished yet.

In previous decades, people talked excitedly about what they saw at the movies. They bought toys and comic books and video games based on original movie stories. But television has usurped that conversation. What movie today inspires the kind of widespread enthusiasm that Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead inspire?

Actually, there is one I can think of: Deadpool. And I consider Deadpool to be the exception that proves the rule: a movie that bucked trends to be fresh and different while still appealing to a wide audience. And it was a movie that the studio made reluctantly, insisting on a lower budget than many of those “sure thing” sequels that bombed.

In the seventies, eighties, and nineties the movies had a fairly captive audience. Back then, summer television was filled with reruns. Cable had virtually no original scripted programming. There was no Internet streaming. There was VHS in the eighties and DVD in the nineties, but they mostly gave us access to feature films. In the summer, anyway, if you wanted to see something cool you pretty much had to go to the theater.

That’s not the world we live in anymore. We don’t ever really need to go to the movies to see great, original filmed entertainment. In fact our DVRs are full of stuff we don’t have time to watch. And yet the movie business has responded by becoming less original and adventurous. The studios are not pursuing bold pop cultural statements, they are running to the “tried and true,” which are often also the “tired and dull.”

And if they keep going down this path, pretty soon I’m guessing most people will start to wonder: who needs to go to the movies anyway? Maybe most people already have reached this conclusion – as evidenced by 2016’s sequelitis.

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 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Last (Regular) LetsSchmooze Blog Post

I started this blog in 2008 – that’s almost eight full years of weekly blog posts (with an occasional week off). This week, I’m bringing that streak to an end. It’s been fun and satisfying and occasionally wearying. Lately I’ve struggled to come up with new topics that are interesting and helpful. So I’ve decided to quit while I’m ahead (hopefully I’m not too late!).

The blog will remain online for the foreseeable future, so you can read older posts if you missed some. And I may still post here from time to time when I have something to say that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else (I suspect I will continue to post my annual “Ten Best Written Screenplay” lists, for example). But I am letting go of the obligation to post something new every week. If you want to be notified when I do post, you can subscribe by email or follow me on Twitter (@dougeboch).

I thank those of you who read the blog loyally, and I’m especially grateful those who commented on posts, debated my ideas, or sent me notes of appreciation. It’s great to know that this effort was not in vain!

If you’d like more of my thoughts on screenwriting or the screenwriting business, may I humbly suggest my two books:



The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review  
 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"The 100" Controversy

(Spoilers: The 100, Person of Interest)

Today I am wading into the controversy about the death of a major lesbian character on The 100. If you’re aware of the controversy, you’ll know I’m pretty late to the discussion – but you’ll understand why I’m bringing it up now in a bit. Also, full disclosure: I am friends with the writer of the episode in question, Javier Grillo-Marxuach (though we haven’t discussed the episode or the controversy).

If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, the CW show The 100 featured a lesbian relationship between its main character and another character. When the main character’s girlfriend was killed off in the middle of the season, there was an outcry from the LGBT community. The primary reason for the anger appears to be that there are so few LGBT characters on television, though there was also anger at the way in which the character was killed off (in a non-heroic manner immediately after the consummation of the relationship) and in the showrunner's cavalier handling of the uproar afterwards.

On the other side of the argument, it’s important to remember that this is a show where many characters – including heroic and well-loved characters – have died. And the actress who played the character, Alycia Debnam Carey, had taken a major role on Fear the Walking Dead, so likely the character was removed partly because the actress wasn’t going to be able to star in two shows at the same time for very long.

There is certainly good reason to complain about the lack of heroic LGBT characters on television, and about how many of them end up dying. There should be more heroic, happy LGBT characters on television who survive all the way through their series. My fear is that this goal could be jeopardized by the backlash against The 100. Here’s how:

I read an interview with some of the writers of Person of Interest a few weeks ago. The interviewer asked them about the lesbian couple on that show and whether the controversy from The 100 might cause them to avoid killing either of those characters. The writers sidestepped, but the question is a bit disturbing. It happens that the characters on Person of Interest weren’t originally intended to be lesbians. But the actresses had great chemistry so the writers decided to give them a romantic relationship. The trouble is, we’re talking about another show where main characters have died. If making those two characters lesbian takes otherwise valid plot options away from the writers, the writers might not make that choice in the future.

I’m writing this post precisely because I just encountered that in something I’m outlining. I have a married couple in my story. Initially I conceived of them as a heterosexual couple. But it occurred to me that my story could use more diversity. I looked to see which character or characters I could make gay, and I thought it would be cool to turn this couple into a lesbian couple.

The only problem is, one of them is going to die in the story. This isn’t because they’re lesbians – that plot decision was made while they were still a man and a woman. But now I’m wondering whether I should make them a lesbian couple instead. Will people attack me when one of the characters dies as they have The 100?

So The 100 controversy is discouraging me from putting LGBT characters in my story. And that’s not a good thing.

I also recently read a roundtable in the Hollywood Reporter that included Lee Daniels, who said that it offends him when White writers write Black characters. I certainly don’t want to speak for him, but in context I think what he really meant was it offends him when primarily Black cast shows have primarily White writing staffs. And I agree that’s pretty offensive.

But the way he said it – that it offends him when White writers write Black characters – feels like a warning to White writers not to write Black characters. And that would mean less diversity in casts, a bad thing. I sympathize with the frustrations of communities that have been traditionally underrepresented, but it’s important to couch those frustrations carefully. You don't want to turn characters from that group into a "third rail" that discourages showing them on screen.

As I said, there was more to The 100 controversy than just the death of a lesbian character. It could and should have been handled better. Let’s just make sure that we affirm efforts toward diversity and that when someone missteps we couch our criticism in a way that’s productive rather than destructive.

By the way, I’ve decided to leave the characters in my story lesbians.

Monday, June 6, 2016

What’s it Really Like to Be a Screenwriter?

Tens of millions of people dream of being professional screenwriters. Hundreds of thousands each year go so far as to actually write a screenplay or teleplay. But most have a very idealized idea of what it means to be a film or television writer. In this post I will attempt to give you an honest description of the life of a screenwriter.

Screenwriting is hard work.

Yes, being a professional screenwriter means you sometimes get to go to premieres and swanky industry parties and hang with movie stars. You get swag and invitations to free screenings. But most of the job is sitting by yourself writing. Often on deadline. You don’t get to write only when inspiration strikes you. Feature writers have to spend hours every day writing (though you can work in your pajamas if you like). If you work in television, you will go to the office every day and work long hours (pajamas are frowned upon in most television writers' rooms).

And, you have to do the business part of the business. You will have to go to a lot of meetings and pitch yourself and your projects. You will have to deal with things like complex taxes, health insurance, and contracts. You have to keep up on the trades and you have to network. This is true even once you’re successful – in fact, the more successful you are, the more time you’ll spend on business.

And this is a high stakes industry. Film and television is unbelievably expensive to produce. Most people in Hollywood genuinely want to make quality product, but the producers’ and executives’ main responsibility is to make product that turns a profit. People are not there to coddle your ego or help you achieve your artistic dreams. You have to have a thick skin, because if they don’t like something you’ve written, they will let you know. There’s too much at stake to worry about your feelings.

Screenwriting is entrepreneurial.


Many people think it would be great to work for themselves, but I find few people really have the temperament for an entrepreneurial lifestyle. Most film and television writers I know live in nice houses and drive decent, late model cars. A few have mansions and expensive sports cars. Many send their kids to private schools. When you work in Hollywood, you tend to get paid very well.

But you will be constantly scrambling to find work. There are far more talented, hard working writers than there are jobs. For feature writers, the typical contract period for a draft is twelve weeks. These days, most contracts only guarantee one draft. So you will generally be in need of a new job at least once a year. Often you will have to do many pitch meetings over months to get a paying job. Even screenwriters with long lists of credits find themselves without income for extended periods. It’s stressful. You can write on spec, but the spec market has always been a long-odds game, never more so than in the last few years.

If you get a job on a television show, you can probably assume you’ll be working for four months or so… as long as the show doesn’t get cancelled (and of course most shows get cancelled their first season). You will spend that four months trying to make yourself valuable so you get brought back for the next set of episodes. When you are fired or your show is cancelled, you will enter the high-stress competition known as staffing season. It’s like musical chairs where the majority of people don’t get a chair. It used to be not getting a chair meant a full year of unemployment. These days with cable and online networks doing year-round development, there are more opportunities outside of staffing season.

Bottom line, you have to have a high tolerance for risk and manage your personal finances well.

You will not have creative control.

It can be enormously satisfying to work in a creative industry. But do not imagine that you are going to write whatever you want and it will be shot exactly the way you say. In the feature world, executives, producers, directors, and stars get to give you notes on your script. If you are unable or unwilling to execute those notes, they fire you and find a writer who will. They may do that even if you do successfully execute their notes.

Writers have more power in television, but not all writers. All writers who are not the showrunner are there to serve the showrunner’s vision. The showrunner has final creative authority on everything. Except, of course, the showrunner also has to answer to studio and network executives. Showrunners have a lot of power, but not absolute power.

One advantage in television is that if you are on a writing staff and you write something, it will almost certainly be shot and put on the air within a few months. In features, even if you sell a script or are hired to write or rewrite something, the odds are that you will still never see it on screen. I don’t have a reliable source, but I’ve heard the statistic that only about one in ten projects at studios actually get produced.

I’m just going to do independent films.

Great! Make sure you have a job to support yourself. It is nearly impossible to make a living writing independent films. They generally pay little or nothing up front. You will usually make decent money if the film is distributed and is at least moderately successful, but fewer than 1% of independent films achieve this, and it will probably take 5-10 years from when you finish the script.

There are bigger budget independent films that do pay screenwriters decently, but these gigs are pretty much like studio gigs in that producers, executives, and directors will require you to conform the screenplay to their taste and needs. The advantage is that everybody is generally working toward higher artistic goals than the studios. But they still need to make a profit if they are to stay in business.

If you write independent films you should be aware that most independent film writers earn their living rewriting studio films (and often not taking screen credit to protect their artistic brand).

It’s not so bad.

If you do have the right temperament, being a film or television writer can be a great job. What is the right temperament? You have to be dedicated, hard working, and talented. You have to have a certain level of business savvy and salesmanship. You have to be collaborative, willing to compromise the right way to move a project forward.

If you’re not discouraged by what I’ve said, you may have the temperament to be a professional film or television writer. I wish you luck. With the right attitude, it is a great joy having something you contributed to viewed by millions of people. If things go well, you sometimes even get to see your vision achieved in a way that makes you extremely proud. And there are those premieres and parties and free movies to enjoy along the way.

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Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Interview with Sean Nalaboff



Sean Nalaboff wrote and directed the recent movie Hard Sell starring Skyler Gisondo (Vacation), Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies, Glee), and Katrina Bowden (30 Rock, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil). The story centers on Hardy Buchanan (Gisondo), a senior at an elite private school who struggles to support his unstable mom (Chenoweth). Desperate to make some quick cash, he enlists the help of Bo (Bowden), a beautiful runaway, and together they devise a plan of profiting off of the wayward teens at Hardy’s school. When the students learn that Bo has more to offer than what meets the eye, the unlikely duo’s new business takes a unique turn, tossing them headfirst into the lifestyles of the rich and dysfunctional.

Sean was a student of mine at ArtCenter College of Design (in fact, he worked on the Hard Sell screenplay in my class), so I convinced him to do an interview for LetsSchmooze.



Q: The film has an impressively authentic sense of character and place. Where did the idea for the film come from?

I was attending Art Center College of Design about 3,000 miles away from where I called home (Long Island, NY) and I was homesick. I kept thinking about that environment and the colorful characters I grew up with. I thought it was fertile ground for a cool story. And so I started writing about a private school student on scholarship who very much feels like a square peg in a round hole, which was similar to my experience in private school. I was dealing with these morbid themes of isolation and despair with a sense of humor. I thought of the uniformity of the suburbs and prep schools and the resulting identity crisis that spawned from that. All the ideas for plot generated from there.

Q: How did you do your character development?


I would doodle in class having conversations with these characters. In particular, everyday I found myself excited to be in conversation with my protagonist, seventeen-year old Hardy Buchanan. It was all dialogue. Monologues about life, religion, love… I’d wax poetic about a ton of unrelated topics (nothing that really ever made the movie), but I became to understand Hardy’s point of view. I did that for everyone. It started with Hardy and then I’d add one more character to the conversation, then one more, then another, until finally I started to understand everyone’s POV.

Q: Did the characters change once the actors got involved?

The actors were really willing to listen. That was one of the things I was most surprised by being that I was a first time feature film director. I remember Kristin Chenoweth calling me into her dressing room on the first day and asking me to tell her what I wanted. She was so receptive to my vision for this. Little ideas were introduced by my conversations with the actors, you know, like “I think this character should smoke cigarettes,” or maybe they’d want to riff with some improv. Katrina Bowden wrote up a whole background story for Bo that contained VERY specific information about her upbringing that she used for her performance. I thought it was great. I became fast friends with Skyler Gisondo, the actor who plays Hardy, and we had the opportunity to really dive deep into the character and story. The actors brought something to the table that was never on the page, BREATH. Their cadence, their timing, the delivery, it was all so much fun to see it come to life through their unique voices.



Q: What is your writing process like? For example, how much time did you spend outlining? How many drafts did you do?

Man, I’m so impatient. I’ll have an inspiration for a broad idea of a story and I get really excited about it. I try to outline, but I get so eager to jump into writing dialogue. I develop the characters' voices for months writing scenes (that won’t even end up in the final draft) where they’re having a conversation with another character. I just like deciphering these characters motivations and how they represent themselves to the world before thinking about plot points. I re-write and re-write and re-write for years (everyday) until I have a draft that I feel comfortable producing (or at least that’s been the process for the first two films). It’s probably a ridiculous waste of time to not be outlining, but I go where the inspiration is. I really enjoy writing and I don’t want to screw that up for myself by considering it to be work.

Q: Once the script was done, what did you do? This is your first feature – how did you get it financed? How did you get the cast?

This is an incredibly abbreviated response to that question… I knew the script was ready to be made. The script was awesome. Truly proud of it. I figured if I could cast the three leads then I could simultaneously attract money to the project. I researched indie films with NY casting directors that put together casts that I liked and eventually found Bass Casting. While they put out offers for cast, I teamed up with one of my best friends from home who became my business partner, Jared Greenman. Greenman was in sales at a tech startup and wanted to sink his teeth into something more creative. We started lining up contacts to approach for financing. The game plan was to have it all independently financed through angel investors outside of Hollywood. So Greenman, myself, and my other friend from LA, Jimmy Seargeant, partnered up as co-producers on a quest to get this movie made. Meanwhile, The script was getting a great response from agents. Katrina Bowden signed on for the part of Bo. Then, I received a message from Kristin Chenoweth’s manager asking what I thought of Chenoweth for the mom? I had been hired to shoot a behind-the-scenes video of one of Chenoweth’s concert tours a few months prior and it turned out Chenoweth was a fan. I didn’t know at the time, but Chenoweth told her manager if I was ever doing something independently then she’d love to be a part of it. Once we had that, the pieces began to fall into place (sort of).

Q: You directed the film. Did you learn anything about writing from the directing experience?

I learned a tremendous amount about writing from directing and editing. I didn’t edit the movie, but I certainly sat through all the sessions and realized what made the cutting room floor (I recommend all writers sit with editors). Getting back to the question, you realize what moves the story forward in directing that you might overlook during writing. There’s a certain flow/momentum in a script that’s hard to pinpoint until you’re directing scenes. Some stuff just flatlines and you realize it’s because of the shitty writing (my script wasn’t perfect). Sometimes it’ll take an actor to tell you, “I can’t tap into this scene for some reason.” What’s not working here? It’s generally because there’s no POV and maybe it’s exposition heavy or something like that. If there isn’t a motivation to get from point A to point B in every scene then you have to figure something out quick on your feet while directing. We’d have what I called “Writer’s Meetings” on set where the actors and I would sit down and see what worked and what didn’t in the scene we were tackling that day. Kind of like small daily table reads. Some words felt weird coming out of some actors mouths, so I obliged them and let them change it to something more comfortable for them. Directing is one big collaboration and writing for me is an isolated thing.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’m in pre-production on my next film, Kingfish, which we aim to shoot in September. I’m also writing a book about my experience producing my first feature film while it’s still fresh in my heart and head.

Q: Any advice for aspiring screenwriters?

Write what inspires you.

Thanks, Sean. You can watch Hard Sell on VOD and iTunes. Visit the Hard Sell website.

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Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Do You Have to Live in Los Angeles?

If you are an aspiring screenwriter who lives somewhere besides Los Angeles, you will inevitably ponder whether it is necessary to live in Los Angeles to succeed as a Hollywood screen or TV writer.

The simple answer is: Yes.

But the answer is really not so simple. Is it possible to maintain a screenwriting career outside of Los Angeles? Sure, a small but notable minority of working screenwriters live outside of Los Angeles. Is it possible to break into the business from outside of Los Angeles? Possible, maybe, but incredibly more difficult. Most working screenwriters who live outside Los Angeles lived here when they broke in and then moved.

The Advantages of Moving to Los Angeles

Living in Los Angeles has several advantages for the aspiring and working screenwriter. Chief among them is networking. It is almost impossible to get anyone to read your script via a query or other long distance contact. In Los Angeles, you can meet someone who can help you in your career anywhere – at a party, at Starbucks, watching a sporting event. Los Angeles is where almost all of the producers, agents, managers, directors and other screenwriters live. It’s hard to be here long without meeting some of them, even if you don’t try. And if you intentionally set out to network, there are plenty of opportunities every week in Los Angeles to put yourself in proximity to industry professionals. That’s not all there is to networking, but it’s the first step.

You also have many more opportunities to become better at your craft in Los Angeles. There are dozens of seminars, classes, speakers, etc. pretty much every day in Los Angeles. You will also make friends with other serious screenwriters who can give you feedback on your scripts.

Once you crack open the door to the industry, you will need to take meetings in Los Angeles because that’s where the producers and development execs are. You can fly in for a week to do a series of meetings, but that requires everyone else to arrange their schedule around you – something they may not be willing to do if you are just starting out. It also takes you out of contention for emergency gigs – if someone needs a writer to rewrite something ASAP, I can be at a meeting in hours. A writer living in Denver can’t.

Finally, if you want to work in television, almost all writers’ rooms are in Los Angeles. They may shoot the show in Vancouver or Georgia or Hawaii, but the writers are in Los Angeles.

The Disadvantages of Moving to Los Angeles

There are, however, some downsides for an aspiring screenwriter moving to Los Angeles. For one thing, the cost of living is high here. It can take a while to break in, and supporting yourself during that time will probably be more difficult in Los Angeles than elsewhere.

Also, since almost every screenwriter lives in Los Angeles, we are exposed to a lot of the same influences and inspirations. With several million people in the city looking for movie ideas, many are bound to come up with the same ones. Which is why you so often see movies with the same premise being developed at different studios.

For these reasons, it can be wise to time your move carefully. If you live outside Los Angeles, consider building up a body of work – a portfolio of really great spec scripts – before coming out here. Maybe you can even win some contests and make some initial contacts before moving out. That way you hit the ground running, armed with a reason people should want to read your work.

But What About New York?

The one other place that you may be able to break into the screen or television business is New York. There are a significant number of producers and agents in New York – not nearly as many as Los Angeles, but enough. Unfortunately, New York is even less affordable than L.A. But there are some cultural advantages L.A. doesn’t have (and L.A. has some cultural advantages New York doesn’t have.)

There are a few business reasons (as opposed to personal reasons) that you might choose New York over Los Angeles to try to break into screenwriting:

First, if you plan to work in independent film, there are a lot of indie film producers and distributors based in New York. There are also a lot in Los Angeles, but New York is really the bigger independent film scene. It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer of independent films, but many of those writers parlay their success in that world into studio rewrite gigs to support them while they work on their independent projects.

Second, New York is the premiere city for stand-up comedy. If you are a comedic writer who also does stand-up, New York is probably a better place to get discovered on stage. You can then parlay that attention to the film/television business.

Third, New York is the place to be if you are a playwright. Succeeding as a playwright is a good way to get Hollywood’s attention. But now we’re really talking about breaking into a different industry and trying to leverage that into a movie or television career.

New York is also still the center for book publishing, so if you are both a novelist and screenwriter, that might suggest New York is a better destination. But the book business seems less dependent on being in the same city with the publishers. Many authors live outside of New York… not many screenwriters live outside of Los Angeles.

Moving is Scary
It can be a big decision to uproot your life and move to a new city without a guarantee of employment. But guess what? That’s what it means to be a screenwriter. This is not something you can do as a hobby, it has to be your career. And the career of screenwriter is an entrepreneurial one. No matter how big you get, you never really have job security. You will always be hustling to get your next gig.

If you are trying to break in, you are competing against tens of thousands of people who are willing to take the risk, move to Los Angeles, and dedicate their life to becoming a screenwriter. If you aren’t willing to do the same, you will be at a significant disadvantage.


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Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Awesome Stakes with Bill and Ted

(Spoilers: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)

One of the most critical things you must do in a story is establish what’s at stake for the character. What happens if the main character succeeds or fails? The more the character has at stake, the more dramatic and exciting the story. Conversely, if the outcome of the story isn’t going to affect the character, then why does the audience care?

But raising the stakes isn’t just about increasing the size of what’s at stake.

The key to raising the stakes dramatically is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation. We care about the story only as much as the character does. The more important it is to the character, the more important it will be to us. So to raise the stakes, make them more personal to the character.

Stakes come in both positive and negative flavors. Many of the best stories have both. The character gets something good if they succeed and they suffer something bad if they fail. This gives the audience something to hope for and something to fear.

I recently watched the classic eighties comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon). It provides a great demonstrates of the nuances of using stakes. In the story, Bill and Ted are in danger of failing history class if they don’t ace their final presentation. If Ted fails, his father will send him off to military school.

The biggest stakes in terms of objective importance come from Rufus, the time traveler from the future. He is sent back to 1991 to ensure that Bill and Ted form the band that will ultimately bring peace and awesomeness to the world. These are pretty big stakes! But it’s not really the reason we care whether Bill and Ted pass their class.

No, the bigger stakes come from the threat to Bill and Ted’s friendship. We like these guys and we want them to stay together. More importantly, they want to stay together. Their biggest dream is to form a great rock band. That dream will be destroyed if Ted gets sent to military school, which means they have to pass their final project.

The audience hopes Bill and Ted succeed in their quest because that will make them happy. The audience’s way into the story is the characters. We care about their happiness. Sure, Bill and Ted think it’s cool they can create a future utopia, but that’s not what’s motivating them on their quest. And it’s not what we really care about either.

The bit about the future utopia is really only there to provide the mechanism for Bill and Ted’s time travel. It’s why Rufus brings them a time machine, not why we care about whether they pass their presentation final. Really, they could find another way to travel through time and the story wouldn’t change much.

The film does a good job spelling out both the character's excellent potential future: a life as rock stars who save the world – and their bogus potential future: military school and the end of Bill and Ted’s friendship. This gets the audience invested in the outcome of the adventure. And note that the dramatic question of the film – “Will Bill and Ted pass history?” – is relatively mundane and minor. It’s what the resolution of this question means to the characters that makes it significant.

Good stories connect the main character's internal journey to the external journey (the plot). In the case of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, this comes in the form of the characters' self-discipline. They want to create a great rock band, but they don't know how to play their instruments. They are as lazy as musicians as they are as students. But over the course of the movie, Ted comes to the realization that if they want to be great, they have to learn how to actually play. Thus the stakes in the external journey - passing history so Ted can avoid military school - dovetail with the stakes in the internal journey. If Ted doesn't have this realization, the band will never achieve greatness.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure may be just a dumb comedy, but it still has stakes that are the most important thing in the world to the characters. That’s why we engage with the story. Make sure the stakes of your story are equally important to your characters.

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