Thursday, April 26, 2012

The State of the Business – April 2012

About a year ago I wrote about the state of the feature film business. I talked about how the movie business was in a horrible slump and what that could mean for screenwriters. As the year progressed, box office improved somewhat, but 2011 ended up down 3.7% from 2010, the second down year in a row.

Well, so far this year box office is rebounding dramatically. Was I wrong to find long-term trouble in last year’s numbers? Maybe. But just like a slump can sometimes be explained away by bad movies, a bump can sometimes be explained by an unusual number of good movies. And the long-term trend of declining admissions is worth noting. 

There's concern about the dramatic drop in DVD sales, which hasn't remotely been made up for by digital rentals/downloads. DVDs have been the economic underpinnings of the business for fifteen years. Currently, international box office is growing like crazy, but this is partly because places like China and Russia have not had enough theaters to meet demand and have been on building booms. That can't last forever. And young people are still often missing from movie theaters - conventional wisdom is that it's competition from video games and the internet, but I suspect it has more to do with the lack of risk taking in big studio films.

So lots of reasons to be concerned about the feature film business... or maybe lots of reasons to expect a creative renaissance, depending how you look at it!

I also mentioned the buzz last year that the spec market was returning. I don’t have hard facts, but anecdotally I’m hearing that the number of spec sales has rebounded to earlier levels, but the money paid for them has not. So more specs are selling at a lower price. Which may not be such a bad thing if you’re not an A-list writer used to making millions on a sale.

Looking at the upcoming films this year, it appears to me that the dominance of pre-branded franchise material still prevails in the studio world. However sales of indie films at festivals were strong last year, and several new indie distributors have been active in the market. It’s possible we’re poised for a mid-90’s explosion of indie films to fill the holes left by the studios’ shrinking slates.

I'm revisiting this topic partly because I really ought to be held accountable when I make dire predictions, and partly because I’ve recently been reading a lot about the progress of “new media.” During the WGA strike of 2007-2008, there was a lot of talk about new media opening up great opportunities for writers. So far, it seems like those opportunities are great only if you don’t want to get paid for your work.

However some interesting things are happening. Netflix is investing in original programming at a budget level close to cable. YouTube is moving aggressively into original channels – though not with big budget material. I’ve been following their Geek and Sundry channel, and their niche approach to programming might have potential. And VOD is providing a safety net for many indie films.

As for me, I’m still focusing on feature films. And I’m moving toward directing. I’m planning to make a short film this summer – something technically ambitious that I think is pretty cool. I’ll talk about that a little in this blog as it progresses – but my focus here will stay primarily on the craft of screenwriting, as it always has.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What Do You Want to See?

The last few posts I’ve discussed some questions that I frequently pose to students who are struggling with their stories – which are often the same questions I ask myself when I’m struggling. There’s another question professional writers ask a lot that I seldom hear from beginners:

Given this premise, what do I want to see in this movie?

When you ask yourself this question, you are putting yourself in the place of the audience. Imagine you bought a ticket to this movie. You’ve seen the trailer and poster and read a review. What are you looking forward to seeing up on screen? Better make sure that’s in the movie!

Sounds simple, but in the outlining phase we can get so caught up in structure and character and plot we forget why we wanted to write this particular script in the first place. (Hopefully that reason has something to do with it being a movie you’d actually want to see!) We craft a perfectly logical story but forget to pay off the potential of the initial premise.

You don’t just have to ask yourself what you want to see. I’m part of a screenwriting group made up of professional, working writers. We often bounce ideas off each other, and it’s not unusual for someone to ask what the others would want to see in such-and-such a movie. It helps cement what the concept is, and ensures that people are getting the premise the way you intend. It’s also a great way to generate some cool ideas.

Structurally, a lot of these want-to-see things will go in the “fun and games” part of your script – the first half of Act Two. You’ve got your story and character set up in Act One and it’s time to have a little fun with your premise. As I’ve mentioned, usually you exhaust most of these ideas by the Midpoint, which is why that’s a good place to throw a wrench in the works. But you can’t exhaust the obviously cool events of your premise if you don’t stop to figure out what they are!

Another place this question can help a lot is with your ending. Chances are your premise promises some spectacular climax. When you go see Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) you are expecting a wedding at some point. When you go to Captain America: The First Avenger (screenplay by Chirstopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) you are hoping for a spectacular battle between Captain America and the Red Skull. When you but a ticket for Hoosiers (written by Angelo Pizzo) you want to see a major basketball game. When you go see Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) you are expecting a child beauty pageant.

Think it sounds obvious? Me too, but sometimes writers get sidetracked and take the story away from the promised ending. Maybe they are writing a comedy about an impending wedding and they decide the wedding should get cancelled. The movie ends with the lovers reuniting in a restaurant. Perhaps the writer thinks subverting expectations will be unpredictable. Usually it’s just disappointing.

But speaking of unpredictability, this is a good time to think about what you might do to play off audience expectations. They expect a child beauty pageant? Let’s give them a pageant, but one that’s very different than what they expect!

“What do I want to see” is more than just a way to generate ideas. It’s a way to remind yourself that you’re not engaged in a technical exercise, you’re writing a movie. A movie you hope one day people will go see in a theater on Friday night. Every once in a while it’s a good idea to step back and think about that theatrical experience.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Socratic Structuring

Last time I talked about a question I ask to help students define their character journey – “What does the character learn from this experience?” You might call this the Socratic method of giving notes. It got me thinking about other questions I use with students and in my own work to identify important elements of my structure.

I’m going to list some of these questions – if you’re so inclined, answer them for whatever story or script you’re currently working on. Then I’ll explain how to translate those answers into your outline.

1. What does your character want in the story? What is their primary goal?

2. Do they achieve it?

3. What’s the worst thing that could happen to them while they try to achieve their goal? What’s the best thing?

4. What happens to the character if they walk away?

5. What happens to the character if they succeed?

6. What happens to the character if they fail?

7. What’s the primary external obstacle they face?

8. What’s the primary internal obstacle they face?

9. What other obstacles do they face?

Have your answers? Okay, now let’s look at how they suggest your story structure:

Question 1. Your character’s want or goal will drive the plot of your story. The point at which you establish that want or goal is probably the catalyst of your film.

Question 2. When we learn whether the character succeeds or fails at achieving their want, the story is over. In other words, that’s your resolution.

Question 3. If the character is going to achieve their goal, then the worst thing that could happen along the way probably ought to happen at the end of Act II. How they overcome that becomes the object of Act III. Conversely, if the character will fail, then the best thing that could happen along the way should happen at the end of Act II. When I see screenplays that lack drama, it’s often because the things that happen to the character aren’t really that bad. They’re speed bumps, not roadblocks.

By the way, if your character is going to succeed, the best thing that could happen along the way might be a good candidate for the midpoint. And vice versa if they’re going to fail.

Question 4. Of course, the character should not be able to walk away from their goal without serious consequences. Most often, the establishment of those consequences occurs at the end of Act I.

Questions 5 and 6. These questions are related to stakes. Again, there should be consequences to the character for success and failure. Otherwise, why do we care? You must clearly establish what is at stake for the character by the end of Act I. And ideally, raise those stakes as the movie progresses.

Questions 7 and 8. The primary obstacle could be a villain or it could be a situation or it could be something in the character’s psychology. You want to make sure this obstacle is big enough to justify a movie. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the accomplishment if they overcome it. The best movies have both internal and external obstacles. Overcoming the external obstacle is the plot, overcoming the internal is the character arc. Whichever is bigger is probably your primary storyline. But you ought to have the other type of obstacle in the film as well.

Question 9. This is for Act II. In addition to the big obstacles, the character will likely face many small obstacles. These are often related to the big obstacles – in fact, it’s usually best if they are. If the character is only facing one thing they have to overcome, you may have trouble fleshing out Act II. Think about what other challenges they might have to face.

You can ask yourself these questions every time you develop a story – I do. If I can’t answer one, then it means I have some more thinking to do. The nice thing about this approach is rather than filling in the blanks on a structural diagram, you are finding the structure in the story that’s already taking shape in your imagination.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Crucial Character Arc Question

(SPOILERS: Star Wars, Almost Famous, Die Hard, Some Like It Hot, Sweet Home Alabama, Casablanca, Little Miss Sunshine, Young Adult)

It’s just, I don’t want to compromise by making it a Hollywood product. An orchid heist movie. Or changing the orchids to poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running. Y’know?

Oh, of course. We agree. Definitely.

Or cramming in sex, or car chases, or guns. Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Y’know? Movie shit.

-From Adaptation (screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufman)

Ah yes, movie shit. I love this exchange. But here’s the question I would ask the fictional Kaufman: If the character doesn’t grow or change or learn why do I care about the movie? If the story doesn’t have any impact on their life, what’s the point?

In the last month I've been helping dozens of writers break their stories, either my students at Art Center or the writers I mentor in Singapore. By far the most common question I've been asking is, "What does the character learn from this experience?"

I've talked here about character need as the way I define character arc. What the character wants drives the external plot, what the character needs drives the internal story. But the idea of need can still be confusing so I'd like to look at it in more detail.

The first thing to point out is that when I say need, I mean psychological or emotional need. Sometimes a writer will tell me something like, "The character wants to rescue his wife, he needs to find out where she is." Finding out his wife's location is not need as I define it for character. Rather it is simply a stage in achieving the want. A more useful character need would be something like: "to overcome his fears," or "to put others' interest before his own," or "to take responsibility for his own failing." If the writer is having trouble identifying the need, I'll ask them what the character learns from this experience.

Ideally, the want and need work together. This usually happens in one of three ways:

1. The character has to get what they need in order to get what they want. In this case, a psychological or emotional aspect of the character is preventing them from achieving their goal. They have to overcome that internal obstacle in order to succeed. Usually, they aren’t aware of this need at the beginning of the film.

In Star Wars (written by George Lucas) Luke wants to rescue Leia, but in order to do that he has to master the force. (The force serves as a metaphor for believing in himself). It is only when he trusts his instincts and turns off the targeting computer that he can destroy the Death Star and save the princess.

Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) also works this way. William wants to be a rock journalist. His mentor tells him that in order to achieve this, he needs to be truthful and merciless. And he is not merciless – he worships the rock stars he wants to cover. Over the course of the movie he is disillusioned by his heroes, which in turn allows him to write a truthful article and achieve success.

2. In the process of getting what they want, the character gets what they need to be happy. In these types of movies, the character has a psychological or emotional flaw that is making them unhappy. The adventure they go on in the story causes them to overcome this flaw. The story has changed their life in a positive way.

For example, in Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) John McClane wants to save his wife from Hans and the criminals. But in the status quo section we learned that McClane’s marriage is on the rocks, largely due to his difficulty accepting his wife’s career success. The story causes him to appreciate how much his wife means to him and ultimately take responsibility for his role in the marriage’s failure.

Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) follows this model in a particularly elegant way. Joe wants to escape the mob, but we’ve seen in the beginning that one of his big flaws is that he’s a liar and womanizer. In order to escape the mob he dresses like a woman, which gives him insight into women’s lives and causes him to change so that he can have a real, honest relationship with Sugar at the end.

3. What the character needs is to realize their want is wrong. In these stories the character's flaw is that they want the wrong thing - maybe their want is morally wrong or maybe achieving it would not make them happy. Maybe their priorities are screwed up. Over the course of the story, they come to realize they are pursuing the wrong goal and they change what they want. In some cases they get what they wanted at the end of Act II, only to realize at that moment they made the wrong choice and have to reverse it in Act III.

This is common in love triangle stories - the heroine has been pursuing the wrong man and gets him at the end of Act II, only to realize she's actually in love with the other guy. This is the approach we took in Sweet Home Alabama – Melanie reconciles with Andrew at the end of Act Two, but along the way she’s fallen back in love with her ex, Jake.

Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) gives a spin to this form – Ilsa tells Rick she’s willing to leave Victor at the end of Act Two, which is exactly what Rick’s been hoping for. Except now he realizes this is not morally right. So he puts her on the plane with Victor at the end.

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) demonstrates a non-love-triangle version of this. Richard, the main character, wants Olive to be a winner. But when they arrive at the pageant, he realizes it is not a healthy situation for her. He has learned that he should accept and appreciate her for who she is. In the end she loses, but the previously dysfunctional family has bonded.

There is a fourth rare form: the movie where the character fails to learn the lesson. This is difficult to pull off and usually makes for a dark story. Most often we see this in black comedy. The important thing in these cases is that the character has the opportunity to learn the lesson they need to learn. The fact that they choose not to tells us something about them (and gives us a bleak view of humanity).

Young Adult (written by Diablo Cody) attempted this – just as Mavis contemplates changing her ways, another character talks her out of it. She ends the movie right where she started – shallow and miserable.

If a character simply goes on an external mission, with no opportunity to change, the result is a superficial story. You can still pull this off if the character is likable enough and you put them in mortal jeopardy. We'll care then whether they live or die. But you can get a more complex, interesting and involving story if you add the additional level of a character arc.

When it comes to applying this to your script, it's not as simple as choosing one, two or three. You have to figure out what is right for your story and character. A good place to start is to ask yourself, “What does the character learn from this experience?”