Thursday, September 6, 2012

Picking an Idea

I’m currently in the process of deciding what ideas I want to develop as pitches for any meetings I get after my latest spec script goes out. At the same time, one of these ideas will likely be my next spec should I fail to get an assignment or sell a pitch. I have notebooks full of ideas for movies. So how do I pick one?

I had lunch a few days ago with a producer friend who was talking about how critical it is to pick the right idea. He said he sometimes spends a year working with a writer to settle on the right idea to develop. Of course, neither he nor the writer are working only on that one project… nobody could make a living if they did nothing else for a full year but select an idea! But the point is selecting the right idea is pretty important.

Recently, someone told me something John August said on a panel at the L.A. Film Festival. I’ve been trying to find the exact quote without success, but here is my second hand paraphrasing of his quote: Rather than write what you know or write what’s commercial, you should write what you would pay $15 to go see.

That’s a really smart way to look at it. Last post I discussed the difficult environment the theatrical film business is in. Going to the movies is expensive now, and people have many other entertainment options. You have to give them a good reason to leave the comfort of their couch and home entertainment system and go to the theater. What would make you do that?

It’s surprising how many times I hear students pitch me ideas that seem far removed from the type of movies they say are their favorites. I often wonder if they would really pay to see the movie they propose to write. And when I evaluate honestly, I have to admit I have occasionally pitched movies that I probably wouldn’t go see because I thought the idea was solid and it was the kind of thing the buyer was looking for. But I never got those jobs…

And remember one of my lessons from Comic-Con was the importance of a good hook. We always need to remember that our script will not be read in a vacuum, nor will the movie be released in a vacuum. The script will be competing with hundreds of others, and the movie will be competing with hundreds of other activities a potential viewer could do that evening.

So before I decide to put time and energy into an idea, I will try to come up with a logline and imagine what the poster and trailer might look like. Then I’ll ask myself how excited I would be if that movie were coming out tomorrow (made by someone else). If I would be buying advance tickets online, then it’s an idea to consider. If there's a chance I would be willing to wait for the movie to come out on DVD, maybe it’s not one to pursue. You have to assume if you would be excited to see the movie, so would other people.

By the way, it's wise to do some research on what movies are coming up soon in your genre. This is why it’s so important to follow the trade press (, Hollywood Reporter, or whatever your favorite source is). I recently had a student pitch me an idea about a guy who forms a neighborhood watch. I asked him if he knew about the movie The Watch (written by Jared Stern and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg). He did not. I suggested he look at the trailer online. As soon as he saw it, he discarded his idea. It happens to every writer sooner or later that a movie comes out right as you’re finishing up a script on the same topic, but a little research can keep the experience as rare as possible.

Another thing to keep in mind is, if you decide to write something, you’re going to have to live with it for months or even years. What may sound cool and clever in the moment might bore you long before you finish the script. Also, you may come up with a catchy logline, but when you flesh out the character and plot, you could find there isn’t any depth there, or you could get stuck on a story point.

So at this stage I’m doing initial development on many ideas. In a few weeks I’ll see which ones I’ve managed to really flesh out and still seem cool. Hopefully I’ll have at least one that I want to proceed with!

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