Thursday, April 21, 2011

Do You Have Enough Story?

(SPOILERS: Ocean’s 11, There’s Something About Mary, Children of Men)

One thing I sometimes find when reading my students’ treatments or outlines is that they don’t have enough story to fill a feature film.  (With short films the opposite problem often occurs.)  Once you’ve written several scripts you start to get a better sense of this, but sometimes I still discover that what I thought was a fully fleshed out sequence doesn’t actually have enough happening in it.

We expect a feature to have a fairly dense story.  If you follow three act structure you’ll have several events in Act I and Act III, but Act II can seem like a vast, intimidating stretch of time.  You need to make sure you fill that with significant events, obstacles, twists and turns.  You can’t just rely on the midpoint to sustain 50-60 pages of story.  Using the stages of the mythology structure can help, but probably won’t give you everything you need.

One thing to consider is that the average screenplay will have about 50-60 scenes.  That means you need 25-30 scenes in Act II.  Your treatment or outline doesn’t have to spell out every one, but you should be able to imagine what they’ll be.  If you can't, you need more story.

Next consider set pieces.  I define set pieces as those big scenes that pay off the genre of the story – the outrageously funny scenes in a comedy, the terrifying scenes in a horror movie, the moving emotional scenes in a drama.  You should have at least five of these, and preferably more like eight.  One or two should occur in Act I and you’ll definitely want a set piece for your climax in Act III.  But that means you’ll want at least three in Act II.  Identify them to make sure you have enough.

If you find your story is thin in Act II what can you do?  First, make sure that there are multiple stages to your hero achieving their goal.  I’ve seen many students trying to write a mystery story where the hero finds one clue that reveals everything.  In a good mystery the clues need to be a path – one leading to the next and that one to the next until the truth is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from all the multiple clues.

Similarly, if your movie is about a robbery then there better be several steps the character has to take to prepare.  Consider the Ocean’s 11 remake (screenplay by Ted Griffin).  Before the big heist Danny has to get financing and recruit his team, which involves several mini-capers such as getting Basher out of jail.  They also have to build a replica of the vault to work out the plan, and commit other tricks to get inside info on the casinos.  All of this provides the meat for Act II before we get to the heist in Act III.

You also need to make sure you have multiple obstacles for the hero to overcome.  In There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly), Ted wants to win Mary’s heart.  That would be pretty easy to accomplish if it weren’t for Healy and Tucker trying to sabotage the relationship.  And they don’t just try once… they escalate their attempts through Act II leading to multiple obstacles for Ted.

Escalation is key, as are reversals.  If your character is simply checking off unrelated obstacles or to-do items on his plan, then your story will feel episodic and lack forward momentum.  In Ocean’s 11 Danny’s plans are thrown off by his secret agenda with his ex-wife.  That keeps things from progressing in too linear and predictable a fashion.

What you want is a feeling of “but… so…” instead of “and then...”  The character does A but B happens, so the character does C, but D happens and so on.  Consider Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby):

Theo’s mission is to get Kee to a boat where she'll be safe.  They start out on their journey but are ambushed by a gang, so they go to a safe house run by the Fishes.  But Theo discovers the Fishes actually set up the ambush, so he and Kee and Miriam flee to Jasper’s.  But now they’ve missed the first meeting point with the boat, so Jasper hatches a plan to break them into a refugee camp where they can make a back-up meeting.  But the Fishes find them and kill Jasper so Theo, Kee and Miriam go to the camp on their own.  But then a riot breaks out… and so on.

But… so…  The story builds and builds with each twist and obstacle, gaining momentum and depth.

Another thing to look for is subplots.  Feature films typically have four storylines (we usually refer to them by letter).  The A story is the main focus of the film – your dramatic question.  The B story is often the romance (if the A story is not a romance) or relates to the internal arc of the character.  Then we need two more storylines to flesh things out. 

What should these other subplots be about?  Often they illuminate the theme of the move, demonstrating alternative philosophical approaches that our main character could be taking.  Or they could serve to add dimension to the character in the way that Danny’s desire to win his ex-wife back gives him heart in Oceans 11.  That subplot also becomes an obstacle to the A story when it threatens the unity of the gang.

What if your Act I or Act III don't have enough story?  In Act I it probably means you haven’t adequately set up the character’s status quo before the Catalyst, or your character hasn’t eliminated alternate solutions before taking on the problem.  A short Act I really isn’t bad unless it fails to set up the rest of the film.  You’ll probably realize what you’re missing when you try to write Act III.

If Act III seems too simple then you probably haven’t made your Act II Turning Point big enough.  At the end of Act II we should think there is no way the ultimate resolution could possibly happen.  If you’ve achieved that, then it should not be a problem to fill up 20-25 pages of the hero overcoming that failure.  If the character can rebound from the turning point quickly, it means the failure wasn’t big enough.  (For a film where the hero fails in the end, replace “failure” with “victory” at the end of Act II.)

The purpose of outlines and treatments are to make sure that you’re prepared to write a complete, coherent first draft.  And making sure you have enough depth to your story to fill 90-110 pages is a big part of that!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What Kind of Movie Is It?

When I’m teaching pitching, I encourage my students to provide several pieces of information early in the pitch:

Logline – You need to give us the basic concept of the story before launching into the plot.  It’s hard to track plot details delivered orally, so give us the clothesline on which we can hang the various events.

Genre – If it’s comedy, tell us.  Don’t make us guess if something’s supposed to be funny.  And if we know it’s a horror movie or a sci-fi movie we’ll know what to expect.

Tone – Is it dark or light?  Realistic or fantastic?  How broad is the humor?  Is the emotion melodramatic?  Is it quirky?  Tell us!  All of this will affect how we imagine the scenes as you describe them.

Rating – Is this going to be G, PG, PG-13 or R?  Of course ultimately the MPAA will make that call, but let us know how graphic the sex and violence and language will be.

All of this creates an impression in our mind of what kind of movie you’re talking about.  It helps us imagine how the scenes you describe will be realized.  When you describe a bank robbery I’m going to picture it differently if I’m imagining a broad PG-13 comedy vs. a gritty, realistic R rated thriller.

Imagine you were pitching me something like Austin Powers (written by Mike Myers).  If you launched right into the plot, would I know it was a parody?  Or would I maybe think you were a really bad writer pitching a really bad spy movie?

Specifically identifying these things is not just useful in a pitch.  You need to make these decisions before you start writing your first draft of a spec.  If you know you want this to be a PG family film, maybe you ought to reconsider the raunchy sex gag.  If you want to do a realistic, character-driven thriller, maybe your hero can’t jump from one skyscraper to another.  Knowing what kind of movie you’re writing will help you write it better.

The Jason Bourne movies are in the same genre and have the same rating as the old James Bond movies, but James Bond has a more fantastical tone while Bourne is more gritty and realistic.  A villain with steel teeth fits into Bond’s world but not into Bourne’s.  (Interesting that the more recent Bond movies have changed the tone to be more like Bourne’s.  I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing Bond face another villain like Jaws.)

There are two other things you might want to consider as you determine what kind of movie you have:

Audience – the studios divide the audience into four quadrants: male, female, under 25 and over 25.  The biggest summer blockbusters have to appeal to all four of these categories (they’re called “four quadrant movies”).  But not all movies have to be four quadrant movies.  Romantic comedies are usually geared toward females under and/or over 25.  They are one or two quadrant movies.  This is fine as long as you also consider…

Budget – If you know your movie appeals to a more limited audience, it will be more likely to get made if it can be done at a reasonable budget.  So maybe you don’t include that wacky car chase through the Mall of America in your romantic comedy.

(Note that when you pitch you probably don’t really want to talk about quadrants or budget.  The buyers are looking for you to be the creative guy, not the business guy.  The business is their job.  But it’s worth considering what they’ll be looking for from a business standpoint and ensuring that you’re meeting their needs.)

Discussing budget and rating and audience may sound like I’m trying to push you to make your story more commercial, but that’s not really the point of this exercise.  Instead, it’s to determine in your own mind what kind of film you’re making.  Because you really ought to know that!

In other news:  I’ve finally succumbed to popular pressure and gotten a Twitter account (actually I just want to find out where the grilled cheese food truck is going to be next).  If you’d like to follow me, my handle is dougeboch.  I promise to use it primarily for shameless self-promotion.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The State of the Business April 2011

As I write this, the feature film business in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent worldwide) is in a horrible slump.  Every weekend this year domestic box office has been lower than the comparable weekend last year.  Overall box office is off about 20% so far in 2011.

Now we’re only talking about a roughly four month slump and it’s always dangerous to read too much into short periods of time when it comes to the movie business.  Demand for moviegoing fluctuates greatly depending on the quality of the actual movies.  2005 was a notorious slump year that had people predicting the end of in-theater viewing, yet by 2007 box office had rebounded to a record high, broken again in 2009.

There are some worrisome signs, however.  First, though total box office was down in 2005, some of the individual weekends still beat the comparable weekend of 2004.  Again, it depended on the films.  But this time it’s been months without even a single up weekend, an astounding streak. 

Also, though box office has been trending up for years and hit records in ’07 and ’09, attendance has been gradually dropping for a good decade.  The box office growth has come primarily from ticket price increases.  The theatrical business has been making more and more money off of fewer and fewer customers.  3D accelerated this impact last year with its $3-$5 surcharges.  But the 3D wave is already showing signs of collapse in the U.S., a big contributor to the current slump.  (Don't expect 3D to go away soon, though. Internationally it's still driving big attendance gains.)

One other fact of the business is fewer films have been released in the last couple years than were released back in ’09.  The studios have been focusing on increasing profitability on a small number of “sure bets” (ignoring that in the film business there is no such thing).  That’s part of the reason for the trend toward franchise event films with established underlying material.

What does this mean for screenwriters?  Well, things have been pretty abysmal the last few years.  The number of jobs shrunk along with the number of films.  Original stories became even harder to sell – the spec and pitch markets basically vanished.

But the March 25th edition of the Hollywood Reporter ran an article on the tentative rebirth of the spec script market, pointing to several recent sales.  Perhaps the declining box office and general exhaustion of quality existing properties is causing a shift in thinking that will open up opportunities for writers.  Let’s hope!

The article also mentioned a disturbing trend I, and other screenwriters I know, have been experiencing:  producers asking writers to write the producer’s ideas on spec.  Studios seem to be less interested in screenplay development these days.  They are forgoing pitches, emphasizing projects developed by a producer with stars and director already in place.  In a sense, they’ve outsourced their development.  But they’ve also cut back on development deals for producers so only the biggest names can afford to hire writers at a normal rate.  And so we get “spec for hire.”

The downside of agreeing to this as a writer, beyond the obvious months of work without any income, is that if the producer loses interest in the idea or doesn’t like the result of your draft, or if a similar movie comes out in the interim and does badly, he might cancel the project.  You’re left with a script you can’t shop since you don’t own the underlying idea.  A spec is always a risky business proposition, but relying on one producer’s opinion makes it even riskier. 

And of course one of the normal appeals of writing on spec is creative control.  But how much creative control will you really have when you’re only chance to get paid is to please the producer?

The original pitch is still dead.  And right now the writer driven spec is largely going to be considered a writing sample, as it has been for the last two years.  Unless that spec has a wildly marketable concept as well as excellent execution.  In that case let the bidding war commence.

Take from this what you will.  I’m getting ready to embark on my first new spec in over a year, but my main focus right now is putting together an independent feature I will direct and working on creative content for an upcoming Facebook game.  As the saying goes, “writers write.”  Doesn’t matter what the market does, I’m still going to be typing away at the ol’ keyboard.  If you’re a writer, you’ll be doing the same.


By the way, my sister, YA novelist Chris Eboch, has a writing blog where she’s been discussing what novelists can learn from screenwriters.  Screenwriters can also learn a lot from novelists, so you might want to check it out.