Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The All Powerful Logline

Since pitching is such an important part of being a working screenwriting, I’m going to devote the next several posts to the art of the pitch. I’ll cover crafting the actual pitch, pointers on style and technique, and information on pitching in the business. (If you want to read what I’ve written about pitching previously, you can see all the posts here.) Before I start, though, I want to do a post about loglines because a good logline is an important part of a good pitch (more on that next post).

Simply defined, a logline is a one or two sentence description of a movie concept. But actually crafting one is never simple.

First, let me discuss why a good logline is so important to the professional writer. There’s a creative reason – if you can’t craft a logline you probably haven’t yet fully grasped your concept in your own mind. I always put my logline at the top of my outlines. It helps me stay focused on what the movie’s really about.

But loglines are even more important from a business perspective. When my agent is about to send out a spec script, he’ll asked me to send him half a dozen loglines. From those we’ll whittle it down to one really good one. Then when my agent calls producers and development execs to alert them the script is coming, he’ll give them that logline.

What happens next is that the producer or exec’s assistant will enter the logline on a tracking board. Tracking boards are private Internet forums shared by development people. They are informal and there are several, loosely grouped by genre and budget interest. The goal is for buyers to track everything coming onto the market.

If the logline my agent and I crafted is good, he’ll start getting calls from other development people saying, “We heard Doug has a new spec coming out… can we get on the list?” If the logline isn’t good we won’t get those calls. Already the script’s in trouble and nobody’s even read it!

Another use for loglines is in the independent world. If you submit a film to a festival they will ask for a logline. That gets printed in a program – and if the festival is big enough, they’ll be printed in the trades. People, including potentially acquisition execs, will make decisions on what film to see based on the loglines. When I look at a festival program I can always tell which filmmakers understood the importance of that logline spot on the application and which just whipped something off at the last minute.

Similarly, if you enter a major screenplay contest and make the finals, they will likely send out a press release listing the loglines the writers put on the application. People in the industry will peruse those to see if any sound promising. Hopefully your logline is as good as your script!

So loglines are important. But how do you write a good one?

It’s really hard. And every film is a little different. Your goal is to capture the movie’s hook – what’s unique and interesting about it. Also you want to convey the genre and tone. A good logline makes you want to see that movie.

Some of the best loglines are unique and pithy. These are usually high concept movies. “Die Hard on a boat” (Under Siege). “During a bachelor party in Vegas, the groomsmen lose the groom” (The Hangover). “Two guys pick up women by crashing weddings” (Wedding Crashers).

What’s great about those loglines is they are short, simple and memorable. Many loglines need to be a little more detailed and focus more on the main character. However you should still keep “short and sweet” as a goal. Ideally people should be able to repeat the logline verbatim after only hearing it once.

It’s important that the logline be specific and clear, not vague. Vague does not help you. Bad: “A family wrestles with success and failure and comes together at the end.” Good: “A dysfunctional family goes on a road trip so the youngest daughter can compete in a beauty pageant.” (Little Miss Sunshine)

One trick I use is the adjective-noun approach to the main character. Saying the story is about a “guy” or a “girl” simply tells you their gender. Is that really the most interesting thing about them? Think of a noun and an adjective to crystallize the character. James Bond isn’t a guy, he’s a “suave spy.” Indiana Jones is a “swashbuckling archeologist.” Clarice in Silence of the Lambs is “an ambitious FBI trainee.”

For buddy films or ensembles, you will often want to turn the pair or group into a “main character” for the purposes of the logline. So Some Like It Hot is about “two womanizing musicians.”

Next you need to convey the story. It should feel external and active. This is supposed to be a movie after all. You want to avoid a “naval gazing” logline like “A man contemplates the significance of his life.” It sounds like we’re going to watch this guy staring out the window deep in thought. Boring.

However, “An angel shows a suicidal man what the world would have been like if he’d never been born” – that’s a movie I’d want to see. (It’s a Wonderful Life)

Often stating the character’s goal can be the way to convey the story concept. Indiana Jones is “searching for the Ark of the Covenant.” Clarice Starling is trying to “stop a serial killer.” In The King’s Speech, “King George has to deliver a speech to rally Britain.”

But you also need to show what major obstacles stand in the way. What’s so interesting about a king making a speech? Well, it’s interesting if he has a debilitating stutter to overcome. And an archeologist searching for an artifact… are we going to watch him dig in the dirt for two hours? Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good story because of the Nazis.

Similarly, make sure the stakes are clear. We understand why an archeologist would want to find the greatest artifact ever. But what’s at stake if King George fails in his speech? Better mention that in the logline.

So, here are some workable loglines:

Some Like It Hot: During prohibition two womanizing musicians dress in drag and join an all girl band to escape the mob after they witness a hit.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: On the eve of World War II, a swashbuckling archeologist races against the Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant.

Silence of the Lambs: An ambitious female FBI trainee matches wits with an imprisoned genius to learn the identity of a serial killer before he can strike again.

The King’s Speech: King George VI undergoes radical therapy for a stutter so he can deliver a speech to rally Britain during World War II.

Some notes – you’ll notice I mentioned the FBI trainee in Silence of the Lambs is a woman. It may seem unfair I have to make that point, but let’s be realistic. If I didn’t, most people would assume the main character is a man. You can’t undo societal prejudice in a logline. Better to be clear.

You’ll also see that the period pieces mention when they take place. If you don’t, people will naturally assume your story is contemporary and may be put off when they discover they’re wrong. You’ll also need to provide some context for sci-fi and fantasy pieces. The best approach is to identify the most telling and important aspect of the world you’re describing. So the logline for Children of Men might be:

"In a future where society is collapsing because all of humanity has become sterile, a depressed loner must get the first pregnant woman in a generation to safety."

With loglines you’ll constantly be fighting between length and clarity. My best advice is to keep in mind that your logline is not your movie. It’s a hook to get someone interested in your movie. Don’t worry if it doesn’t convey everything about your story. Just make sure it sounds cool!