Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Value of Ideas

Question: What is a great idea for a movie worth?

Answer: Not much.

Are you surprised by that answer? There is a misperception that a good movie idea is an incredibly valuable thing. It’s really not.

I (like every other screenwriter) am constantly told by people that they have a great idea for a movie or TV show. They either want to know how to sell that idea or want me to turn it into a script and split the anticipated fortune 50/50.

Usually their great idea is actually not that great at all. But even when it is, the truth is I have five notebooks filled with my own ideas. In my lifetime I will not be able to write a fraction of the ones I think would make terrific movies. Why should I write yours (and give you half the money for my hard work)? No thanks, don’t need your precious idea.

Similarly, studios don’t want to buy ideas for movies. They also know that ideas are a dime a dozen. What they need are great scripts – and those are incredibly rare. Any economist will tell you that price is greatly affected by scarcity. That which is hard to acquire costs a lot, that which is common costs very little.

On a related note, aspiring writers often ask me how they can protect against people “stealing their ideas.”

The answer: you execute on the page. You turn that idea into a great screenplay. As a new writer you’re cheap. If you write a good script they’d much rather buy it from you than steal the idea and hire a more expensive writer to write it.

(And a note about copyright law: you can’t copyright an idea. They can “steal” the idea from you and it’s completely legal. So can I, by the way. You’re only protection is to turn it into a script which you can protect. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer…if you want serious legal advice hire a real lawyer.)

Agents and managers aren’t really interested in ideas, either. They want writers. Breaking a newcomer into the business is labor intensive. They seldom make enough on a first sale to make it worth the effort. They will only do it if they believe the writer is going to generate income for years to come. That’s why they usually want to read two scripts before they sign a new client.

But now I’m going to contradict myself. It turns out ideas are actually quite valuable and important.

Just not on their own.

Studios do not want a well-executed screenplay with a bad story idea at its core. That happens a lot (I may have even done it myself a few times, though I won’t admit it!) You need both pieces of the puzzle – a great idea well executed.

And people do sell ideas…sort of. That’s what a pitch is. However, I am aware of exactly zero instances where someone who’s never written a script (or alternatively a bunch of novels or plays) has sold a pitch. Because in a pitch you’re not really selling just an idea. You’re selling an idea combined with a writer. They have to like the idea but they also have to believe this particular writer can turn this particular idea into a good screenplay. And if you’ve never written anything before they are not going to think that. The idea on its own is worthless.

So if you want to see your idea up on that big screen (or the small screen – all this applies to TV, too), go out and write the screenplay. That may be bad news for those who just want fame and wealth without any work. But it should be good news for those who truly want to be writers.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Must See Movies: Action Adventure & Animated

And now the final (at least for now) lists of my Must See Movies. That key again for why they made the list: HS – Historical Significance, PF – Personal Favorite, AF – Art of Filmmaking

Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) – HS, AF, PF
Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) – HS, AF, PF
French Connection (screenplay by Ernest Tidyman) – AF, PF
Lethal Weapon (written by Shane Black) – AF
The Road Warrior (written by Terry Hayes & George Miller & Brian Hannant) – AF, PF
Beverly Hills Cop (story by Danilo Bach & Daniel Petrie Jr., screenplay by Daniel Petrie Jr.) – AF, PF
48 Hours (written by Roger Spottiswoode and Walter Hill & Larry Gross and Steven E. De Souza) – HS, AF, PF

ANIMATED (or partly animated)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (Disney – story adaptation by Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank & Webb Smith) – HS, AF
Pinocchio (Disney – story by Collodi, story and adaptation by Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner & Aurelius Battaglia) – HS, AF, PF
Fantasia (Disney - too many to list) – HS, AF
Toy Story (Pixar - story by John Lasseter & Pete Docter & Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft, screenplay by Joss Whedon & Andrew Stanton & Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow) – HS, AF, PF
Toy Story 2 (Pixar - story by John Lasseter & Pete Docter & Ash Brannon and Andrew Stanton, screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Rita Hsiao & Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb) – AF, PF
Aladdin (Disney - screenplay by Ron Clements & John Musker and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio) – AF, PF
Beauty and the Beast (Disney – screenplay by Linda Woolverton) – AF, PF
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman) – HS, AF, PF
The Little Mermaid (Disney – written by John Musker and Ron Clements) – HS, AF, PF
Shrek (written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman) – AF, PF
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (written by Trey Parker & Matt Stone and Pam Brady) – AF, PF

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What Story Should You Write?

I am frequently surprised by the kinds of stories my students choose to write in my class. I don’t care whether they want to do horror, comedy, action or sophisticated drama. I encourage them to write the stories that mean most to them. They, however, often don’t do that.

Sometimes a student will tell me he loves Monty Python and Spinal Tap. Then when I ask what his story is he’ll pitch me a serious drama about a blind, suicidal dog walker. Another student may worship Truffaut and Godard and then pitch me an action comedy about two mismatched cops chasing a drug dealer. Why do they want to write movies they wouldn’t even go see?

The first one probably feels peer pressure to do something “important.” It’s one of the pitfalls of film school. The second probably feels like they need to be “commercial.” It’s one of the pitfalls of the business.

So the first thing you should ask yourself before starting a script is would you go see that movie? The screenwriting profession is challenging and risky no matter what path you choose. Why take on that challenge and risk to write movies you don’t like?

A lot of aspiring writers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what kind of screenplay sells. They want to write something commercial. Paradoxically, choosing commercial ideas is not always the most commercial thing to do.

If you’re an untested writer, why would a producer hire you to execute a by-the-numbers script? He’s got plenty of writers who’ve proven their ability and professionalism that can do that. If he’s going to take a risk on an unknown, it’s because that unknown is doing something the established pros aren’t. In other words, that unknown screenwriter has a voice.

If you talk to a lot of screenwriters who work regularly you’ll find many will have one sample script that gets them most of their jobs. That script usually has never been produced. It’s the script that everyone goes, “I love it but we could never actually make it!” It’s not commercial but it has a strong voice.

So the best script to break into the business is the one that’s the most original and the most personal. Don’t worry; if they buy it they’ll force you to turn it into a commercial, clichéd, main stream script before they make it!

If your sensibilities are very mainstream, good for you! You’ll have a slightly easier time in the business. But if you’re going to write a type of movie that comes out every other weekend – a romantic comedy, for example, or a thriller – you’ll want to think long and hard about what makes your movie unique within the genre.

My agent, who’s been in the business for decades, once told me that he’s always surprised by what sells and what doesn’t. The supposed slam dunks frequently end up gathering dust while the difficult scripts end up as big hits. The one constant, he said, is that when writers write the scripts that they’re most passionate about, they tend to have the most success.

So go write what you most want to write!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Must See Films: Foreign Language, Cult and Documentary

This week's installment of Must See Films are Foreign Language (in other words, not English), Cult and Documentary. It was hard to narrow these categories down, but these are the highlights for me. Remember, the key for inclusion is: HS – Historical Significance, PF – Personal Favorite, AF – Art of Filmmaking.

Cinema Paradiso (story by Giuseppe Tornatore, screenplay by Giuseppe Tornatore, collaborating writer Vanna Paoli) - PF, AF
Delicatessen (screenplay by Gilles Adrien, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet) - PF, AF
Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant) - PF, AF, HS
400 Blows (story by Francois Truffaut, screenplay by Marcel Moussy & Francois Truffaut) - AF, HS
Bicycle Thief (written by Cesare Zavattini & Suso D’Amico & Vittorio De Sica & Oreste Biancoli & Adolfo Franci & Gerardo Guerrieri) - AF, HS
Eat Drink Man Woman (written by Ang Lee, James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang) - PF
Hardboiled (story by John Woo, screenplay by Barry Wong) - PF, AF
City of God (screenplay by Braulio Mantovani) - PF, AF

Rocky Horror Picture Show (screenplay by Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien) – HS, PF
American Astronaut (written by Cory McAbee) – PF, AF
Cry Baby (written by John Waters) – PF
Trainspotting (screenplay by John Hodge) – PF, AF
Edward Scissorhands (story by Tim Burton & Caroline Thompson, screenplay by Caroline Thompson) – PF, AF, HS

The Thin Blue Line (written by Errol Morris) – HS, PF, AF
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (by Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky) – PF, AF
Roger and Me (written by Michael Moore) – HS, AF
Spellbound (by Jeffrey Blitz) – PF, AF

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pitching: Story, Not Plot

Like it or not, pitching is essential to making a living as a screenwriter. And most screenwriters don't like it one bit. Simply put, a pitch is a verbal telling of your story. You do this most often to get someone to pay you to write the script. Occasionally you'll pitch to an actor or director to get them to read your project. When you're just starting out you might pitch someone to get them to read a script you've already written, but those pitches are usually shorter and more of a tease.

The biggest mistake I think writers make is pitching plot. Plot doesn't sell your movie. You should be pitching story. What's the difference? Plot is a series of events -- it's "what happens." Story is more concerned with why it happens. Story is about concept and character.

The thing to remember is you're not telling the whole movie. How could you? You're most often going to be pitching for only five to fifteen minutes. You can't tell everything that happens. You have to summarize.

Here's a good exercise: watch movie trailers. You can find a bunch at http://www.apple.com/trailers/. Good movie trailers are like pitches that don't tell the end. (In an actual pitch you have to tell the end. Nobody's going to give you a bunch of money to write a script if they don't know how it ends). Watch a trailer and then see if you can summarize the concept of the movie. Then watch the trailer again. How do they convey that concept?

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to pitching but here's a breakdown of how I would structure a standard pitch:

1) The logline. I give them the concept up front. It helps them interpret and follow everything that comes after. (Logline = a one sentence description of your concept/story.)

2) The genre and tone. The worst possible question you can get halfway through your pitch is, "wait, is this supposed to be funny?" It's a bad sign no matter what the answer is. Of course the tone should be clear from your story but why leave it to chance? It's okay to say, "This is a sci-fi thriller."

3) Set-Up. The most detail goes into a summary of Act I. It's important to get across who the main character is, what they want, what's at stake and what the main obstacles are. If your story does not take place in familiar, contemporary America, you will also have to set up a bit of the world. For fantasy or supernatural stories you need to lay out "the rules" of the mystical elements.

4) Summarize the arcs of Act II. I don't try to take people through all the events of Act II. Instead, I summarize the major arcs, turning points, and obstacles. So, for example, if I were pitching Sweet Home Alabama I might say something like, "Melanie moves in with Jake and tries to make his life miserable so he'll give her the divorce. Meanwhile, she starts to reconnect with old friends almost against her will. And she also has to deal with her parents who..." You don't have to connect all the dots, just let them know how the story will develop.

4.5) I also make sure in my description of Act II to indicate three of the big set pieces. I don't describe the scenes in detail, but I let them know there will be scenes that will entertain the audience ("Then Batman has to stop the joker from killing the witness in a car chase through Gotham City. Batman is on his bat-cycle and the Joker is in a big rig. Batman disables the truck, but he won't kill the Joker...")

5) The big twist. Hopefully your story has some big twist at the end of Act II that spins it into Act III. Build to that big moment.

6) Resolution. Tell them how it ends. You again want to avoid describing a scene in detail, but you should give them a sense of what the big climax will be. (e.g. Die Hard: "Then John McClane has to rescue the hostage from the roof of the building which is wired with explosives.") And make sure you give them the emotional resolution as well. What has the character learned or not learned? How has their life changed?

Ideally you get all that done in 5-7 minutes. When it comes to pitching, shorter is usually better (though some executives like more detail). Sound hard? Remember, you're not pitching the whole movie. Give them the trailer (plus ending). That's what will make them want to pay to see the whole script.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Must See Films: Comedy

This week’s must-see films are comedies from 1970 onward. This might be worthy of a little explanation. First, I’ve heard that comedies make up half of all movies made. I can’t source that but it sounds about right. Because of that one would expect a list of great comedies to be quite long. In many cases I’ve included comedies on other lists – Studio Films from the 1940’s or American Independent Films for example. These comedies are ones that didn’t fall naturally on any other lists which keeps these two lists manageable in length.

Also, why since the 1970’s? Well, as I said, many earlier comedies fall on other lists. But my lists are biased toward comedies after 1970. This is partly because I’ve seen more movies made after 1970. But it also has to do, I think, with the fact that comedies don’t always age as well as other types of movies. In fact, the more “high brow” forms such as satire don’t tend to age as well as the more “low brow” forms such as physical comedy or romantic comedy. This is because the former usually deals with the socio-political conditions of their times and once those times pass they become less relevant, while the latter deal with human nature which is unchanging.

Comedy is often called a genre though I think of it more as a tone. I do think there are some comedy-specific genres like romantic comedy, satire, parody, broad comedy, screwball, etc. I’ve divided my comedy lists into two broad categories: Romantic Comedy (including lighter character comedy and “dramedy”) and Broad Comedy (including parody).

As always, the reason for inclusion key is HS – Historical Significance, PF – Personal Favorite, AF – Art of Filmmaking

When Harry Met Sally… (written by Nora Ephron) – PF, AF, HS
Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman) – PF, AF
Splash (story by Brian Grazer, screen story by Bruce Jay Friedman, screenplay by Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel and Bruce Jay Friedman) – PF
Arthur (written by Steve Gordon) – PF, AF
Annie Hall (written by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman) – AF, HS
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (story by Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth, screenplay by Charlie Kaufman) – PF, AF

This is Spinal Tap (written by Christopher Guest & Michael McKean & Harry Shearer & Rob Reiner) – PF, AF, HS
Raising Arizona (written by Joel & Ethan Coen) – PF, AF, HS
Shaun of the Dead (written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright) – PF, AF
Ghostbusters (written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) – PF, AF
Fargo (written by Joel & Ethan Coen) – PF, AF
Blazing Saddles (story by Andrew Bergman, screenplay by Mel Brooks & Norman Steinberg & Andrew Bergman & Richard Pryor & Alan Uger) – PF, HS
Borat (story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips, screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer) – PF, AF, HS
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (written by Graham Chapman & John Cleese & Eric Idle & Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones & Michael Palin) – PF, AF, HS

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Structure of Die Hard

Spoilers:  Die Hard.

I recently watched the classic action movie Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) again.  This movie spawned dozens of imitators and became a pitch cliche ("it's Die Hard in a...").  Here's how the structure breaks down by the three act theory:

Main Character:  John McClane!

There are no real domino or prologue.

Catalyst:  The catalyst comes with the arrival of Hans Gruber and his gang of bad guys at Nakatomi Plaza.  Obviously this will give our hero a big problem.  The Main Tension is established.

Main Tension:  Will John be able to defeat Hans and save his wife?

Act One Turning Point:  The bad guys discover John is in the building when he pulls the fire alarm.  The Act One Turning Point is sometimes called "the point of no return."  Now that Hans knows John is loose in the building, they are not going to let him hide or walk away.

Midpoint:  The police arrive in force (because John throws a body out a window to get Al's attention).  This appears to be a high point at the time -- the cavalry has arrived! -- though it will turn out the police are not much help.  It also expands the story and gives the writers more material to keep Act Two going.

Act Two Turning Point:  Hans regains the detonators John had found and John's feet are cut up when he's forced to run across broken glass.  John has lost his leverage, he's wounded, and it seems now that nothing will keep Hans from succeeding.  From here things spiral downward -- Hans gets into the vault and John treats his wounds.  Hans figures out that Holly is John's wife.  All bad.

Twist/Epiphany:  John discovers why Hans wanted the detonators.  This allows him to save the hostages.

Resolution:  John rescues Holly and kills Hans.

One thing that struck me on this viewing, perhaps having just posted about want and need:  John's want is clear.  He wants to save his wife (and secondarily to defeat the terrorists).  But his need is less obvious.  At first glance he might not seem to have a character arc at all.  He's a rich character -- his marriage is in trouble and a lot of it's his fault.  But what does he need to learn/change about himself to succeed?

Then I got to the scene where John is pulling glass from his feet and talking to Al on the radio.  Fearing the worst, John asks Al to tell his wife, among other things, that "she's heard me say 'I love' you a thousand times but she's never heard me say 'I'm sorry.'"  That's his arc.  John needs to admit he was wrong to save his marriage.  His experience in this story causes him to value what's important in life.  It's a nice arc for an action movie because it's plausible in the scope of the story. 

We need those scenes even in action movies so that we care about the characters and what happens to them.  For a character like John McClane, he isn't going to reveal his emotions until he's pushed to the very edge -- which is why the scene falls where it does in the aftermath of the second act turning point.  If you watch, you'll see many such moments at that exact spot in movies.

Perhaps one of the reasons Die Hard is a classic.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Must See Films: Hollywood 60's - 2000, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

This week's installment of Must See Films are Hollywood Films from the late 60's to 2000 and Sci-Fi/Fantasy films. As always, the key for reason of inclusion is: HS – Historical Significance, PF – Personal Favorite, AF – Art of Filmmaking.

Bonnie and Clyde (written by David Newman & Robert Benton) – HS, PF, AF
The Graduate (screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry) – HS, AF
Rosemary’s Baby (screenplay by Roman Polanski) – PF, AF
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (written by William Goldman) – PF, AF
Apocalypse Now (screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola) – HS, PF, AF
Taxi Driver (written by Paul Schrader) – PF, AF
The Conversation (written by Francis Ford Coppola) – PF, AF
Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) – HS, PF, AF
The Shining (screenplay by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson) – AF, PF
E.T. (written by Melissa Mathison) – AF, PF
Back to the Future (written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale) – AF, PF
The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan) – AF, PF
Schindler’s List (screenplay by Steve Zaillian) – AF, PF
Saving Private Ryan (written by Robert Rodat) – AF, PF
Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) – AF, PF

Star Wars (written by George Lucas) – HS, PF, AF
Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) – AF, PF
Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) – AF, PF
Terminator (written by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd) - PF
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (written by James Cameron & William Wisher Jr.) – HS, PF, AF
Blade Runner (screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples) – AF, HS, PF
The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) – AF, HS, PF
Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby) – AF, PF
2001: A Space Odyssey (screenplay by Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke) – AF, HS
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson) – AF, HS, PF