Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Page 1 of Your Break-In Screenplay

My last several posts have been about pitching – important stuff, but I’m anxious to get back to talking about craft. And I imagine most of you prefer that as well. The art and craft are why we do this. But before I get back to the fun stuff, I want to talk a little bit about one of the challenges facing aspiring screenwriters looking to break into Hollywood filmmaking.

This post stems from my experience doing critiques at the Southwest Writers Screen and Script Conference in Albuquerque last weekend. I critiqued the first five pages of four writers’ screenplays. I was pleasantly surprised with how competent the writing was. However, none of the samples really grabbed me and got me excited.

Now maybe that’s unfair – it was only five pages. As one of the attendees pointed out, many movies open with “status quo” scenes showing the character and environment, setting us up for the story to come. Absolutely true. I even advocate this status quo section in my structural breakdown.

However, just the other day I had someone in development tell me that if they read the first page of a screenplay and aren’t hooked, they won’t read the second page. That’s right, you get one page to grab this person.

There’s a difference between movies and spec scripts. The audience for a movie already knows what it’s about. They’ve seen a trailer, a poster, maybe read a review and heard stars discuss the film on talk shows. Maybe friends have told them about it.

But when a development exec or producer picks up a spec screenplay, they don’t have any idea what it's going to be. Perhaps the writer’s agent has given them the logline of the project, but there’s no guarantee they’ll remember it by the time they get to the script in their pile of evening reading. Now if the writer is a big name or simply someone the exec knows has talent, they might give them a little time to develop the story. But if you’re just breaking in, you don’t necessarily have that luxury.

And yeah, it’s not really fair. But Hollywood doesn’t promise to be fair.

The openings I read in Albuquerque may have been fine for a script that was already in development where people are committed to making it. But as a sample to break into the business, many executives wouldn’t make it past these first few pages. (Not everyone in Hollywood is as quick to throw stuff on the reject pile, but no buyer is obligated to continue reading a script they aren’t excited about.)

The writers in question have several things working against them. Number one, they are, at this time, Hollywood outsiders. I don’t think any of them have agents. And they don’t live in Los Angeles, so finding buyers to even read their scripts is probably a challenge. Plus, three of the four scripts were period pieces. Period pieces are a tough sell because they’re expensive.

Of course outsiders break into the business all the time. Every working screenwriter was once an aspiring screenwriter. And you can write a movie that’s a tough sell. Period pieces do get made. But these obstacles mean you have to work that much harder to grab people and engage their interest.

So what is the poor aspiring writer to do? One of the writers told me her script was an action movie, but I pointed out there was no action in the first five pages. I suggested that perhaps she add a prologue, maybe something with the villains, that would establish the tone of the film right up front.

It’s also important to remember that just because a scene doesn’t contain a crucial plot point doesn’t mean it can be a boring scene. Put conflict into those early scenes. Make them about something. Create obstacles for your character to overcome. If you’re writing a comedy, make sure the early scenes are funny. And whatever you do, don’t open with exposition!

This is true even for produced movies. Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) has a very late Catalyst. We don’t find out what the story is really about until twenty-five minutes into the film. But look how it opens: We start with a chase and shootout between cops and bootleggers. Then we meet our heroes – musicians working in a speakeasy. And the speakeasy is immediately raided. We get action, humor, conflict, drama. We’re entertained enough that we’ll wait a little bit to find out where this story is going.

You should look carefully at the first few pages of your screenplay. If you are an aspiring screenwriter trying to break in (or even a professional trying to sell a spec), those first pages have a job to do that has nothing to do with telling a great movie story. They have to grab a reader who knows nothing about your premise and convince them to keep reading long enough to uncover that premise.

When you get to production, maybe you’ll change the opening. But you can’t get to production until you convince someone to buy your script. And with the intense competition in Hollywood, you need to grab them fast and hard from the first page.

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