Thursday, August 30, 2012

What Summer 2012 Boxoffice Means for Screenwriters

As we head into Labor Day it’s time to take a look back at this summer’s boxoffice and try to figure out what it might mean for screenwriters. Analyzing the movie business is always a dicey task… one of the reasons it’s so fun to do! So here are some of my observations and theories... make of them what you will:

Franchise Films are Risky

Only two big summer franchise films were unqualified hits: The Avengers ($618 million) and The Dark Knight Rises ($422 million). Both also did well internationally. Some observers have pointed to The Dark Knight Rises trailing The Dark Knight slightly, but the movie is still enormously successful. The Amazing Spider-Man (see below), Men in Black III ($178 million) and Prometheus ($126 million) did okay – as in break-even, probably-get-a-sequel okay. But John Carter, Battleship, Total Recall and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter were all bombs. And The Bourne Legacy (see below), Madagascar 3, The Expendables 2 and Ice Age: Continental Drift underwhelmed to the point the future of the franchises are questionable.

That’s not a very good track record for extremely expensive films. Perhaps the studios’ recent strategy of spending more money on fewer, bigger films is not so wise after all.

Every summer there are also a few films that are surprising hits. This season those films are Ted ($214 million), Magic Mike ($113 million), and Snow White and the Huntsman ($155 million). Those three have helped ease the losses of some of the big failures, but though all may get sequels, only one – Snow White – could really be considered a new franchise. And the future of that franchise is in danger because of the scandal around the director and star’s affair.

Reboots and Remakes are Even Riskier

The Amazing Spider-Man reboot has done okay with $258 million (plus a nice $422 million internationally), but it’s still likely to gross less than any of the previous three. The Bourne Legacy (without Jason Bourne) will be the lowest grossing in that series. Total Recall is a disaster ($55 million). And, as mentioned, Prometheus – loosely tied to the Alien franchise – did only so-so. Maybe originality isn’t overrated.

3D is Over

At least in the U.S. Back in 2009 Avatar got 83% of its domestic gross from 3D screens. In 2010, Alice in Wonderland got 71% from 3D and Shrek Forever After got 62%. 3D looked like the future. But this summer, 3D accounted for only 45% of The Avengers’ gross, 51% of Prometheus’ gross, 32% of Brave’s gross, 38% of Madagascar 3’s gross, and 44% of The Amazing Spider-Man’s gross.* And this is with higher ticket prices tilting the scales toward 3D! 3D is still going strong internationally, but I’d bet those audiences will grow tired of it the same way American audiences have. We may be seeing the end of what has turned out to be a fad.

The Independent Film Market Shows Signs of Health

Summer is never a big season for indie films, but two did quite well this year: Moonrise Kingdom ($43 million) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($45 million). And several other small films did decent business, among them Beasts of the Southern Wild (almost $9 million), The Intouchables ($7 million) and To Rome with Love ($15 million). You could even argue Magic Mike was an independent film based on the way it was financed, though ultimately it was a studio release.

How to Get the Audience to the Movies?

The industry has a big problem. It’s harder and harder to get people to go to the movies these days. So many people now have huge TVs and great sound systems at home. And TV has gotten really good with the explosion of cable programming. Not to mention the Internet, videogames… basically all the stuff you’ve been hearing about threatening the moviegoing habit. Add to that the high cost of tickets and you’ve really got to give the audience a reason to come out. That’s why studios have been focusing on the big event films and trying to push 3D.

I don’t have a good answer to the industry’s problem, except that the health of independent films shows that people will come out if the story draws their interest. The writer in me wants to conclude that the key to a healthy film business is good storytelling and therefore writers should be given more power, but I know it’s not that simple.

But maybe this summer will cause the studios to start making more, and more varied, movies. Perhaps they’ll stop going all-in on big franchise properties and spread the risk across a diverse slate at a range of budgets. That would be good for screenwriters. But I’m not holding my breath!


Note: All boxoffice is to-date and domestic unless otherwise noted. Some films are still in release. Source:

*Source: Hollywood Reporter

Friday, August 24, 2012

“Hello, my name is…”

In response to my last post, C.S. Wyatt asked if I would address introducing characters. He noted how many scripts he sees that force name and expository character information into dialogue in a painfully fake way. (This is a little different topic than the one I wrote about way back in 2009, which was more about how to introduce your character with oomph – though they are related.)

Let’s start with how we let the audience know the character’s name. The first question I would ask is, “Is it really important that the audience know the character’s name?” Obviously there are some memorably named movie characters – Indiana Jones, “Bond, James Bond,” Luke Skywalker, etc.

But there are plenty of excellent movies where the character name doesn’t really seem to stick with us. I doubt most people could have named the characters in Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton) or Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) or, for that matter, my own Sweet Home Alabama more than a couple hours after seeing the films. Since I’ve recently written a lot about it, many of you might be able to name the lead character in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), but I imagine most people just think of him as “Leonardo DiCaprio.” And none of these movies seems to have suffered from forgettable names.

That last example may give us a clue as to why. In a movie we have an actor’s face – whether famous or not – to help us identify who the character is. And, as you might already be thinking, this is a tool we don’t have in a script. But what we do have is the character’s name printed above each line of dialogue. In essence, that is our “actor.”

But just as casting directors think about casting actors who don’t look similar enough to be confused for each other, screenwriters really ought to choose distinctive names for their characters. I always make sure none of my main characters names start with the same letter, partly so Final Draft will auto-fill with a single keystroke, but also because it helps keep them distinct. I also try to vary the number of syllables in my main characters’ names and avoid rhyming. It’s much easier to keep Kevin, Joe and Alexander straight than Steve, Stan and Sam.

It also helps to use memorable names, though you do want to be careful not to fill up your script with oddball names that will start to come off as goofy. But it’s usually best to avoid common, ordinary names like Dave, Mike or Mary. If you do use them, give them to the minor characters. Or, if you want your main character to have a common, ordinary name, then surround him with characters with more unusual names.

Another way to help the audience remember the name is to use it in the title. People won’t likely forget who the main characters are in Thelma and Louise (written by Callie Khouri) or When Harry Met Sally… (written by Nora Ephron) Of course, this can lead to boring titles. Dave (written by Gary Ross) was a great name for the main character – an ordinary man who has to pretend to be the President – but as a title it really doesn’t grab you and make you want to know more.

But let’s get to the original question of how to reveal the name in the script. It is, of course, natural for people to introduce themselves when they meet. If you’re doing a kind of romantic comedy “meet-cute” then an introduction probably slides in easily. But introductions are inherently boring and you want to avoid having a big group of people meet up and introduce themselves. Just like when you meet a bunch of people at once in real life, the audience will never remember all the names anyway.

The best way to get out names and other basic character info (job, relationships to other characters, etc.) is to create situations where the information naturally comes up (see my post on Show, Don’t Tell).

There are several ways to do that. One is to have other characters talk about the character when they’re not around. This is one of the benefits of advertising the character before their appearance. In Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), several people talk about Rick who owns Rick’s American Bar (helpful to name the place after him). Customers ask employees where Rick is and if they can have a drink with Rick. Finally we cut to a hand signing a check “Rick” and then pan up to reveal our main character. I doubt the audience will forget his name!

Having other characters talk about the character is also a good way to get basic exposition out. By the time Rick appears in Casablanca, we know he’s American and that he runs a bar and that he never drinks with customers. You also need, of course, a character who doesn’t know the information. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine, making the suicidal uncle character a newly arrived member of this family unit allows the father to explain why the son has taken a vow of silence.

And creating a little conflict can motivate people to offer up information they wouldn’t normally say. I often reference the introductions of Joe and Jerry in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan). They debate what they should do with their first paycheck – get Jerry’s tooth fixed, bet it on a dog, or pay off their many debts. Creating this argument gives them a reason to bring up how broke they are. Since both of them know this fact, it would be clunky if they just said something like, “Boy, we sure have a lot of debts.”

Introducing basic character information is a combination of exposition, dialogue and dramatization. It can be a big stumbling block for inexperienced writers. Make sure you create a plausible situation for the information to come out, and do your best to show rather than tell.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Character Diaries

In the last post I mentioned my character diary exercise. This is an exercise I do to help develop my characters’ voices prior to writing my first draft. One common test of dialogue is to black out the character names in a script and see if you can identify which character is saying each line. The point is that each character should speak in a unique voice.

Writing a backstory for your characters will give you information that influences how they speak – their socioeconomic background, education level and career, for example. You can also define how the character uses language. Are they verbose or reticent? Are they more emotional or more analytical? Are they confident, forthright, deceitful, nervous, shy, mean, sarcastic, polite? What kind of slang do they use?

All of this helps, but I find in practice I write the best dialogue once I start to “hear” the characters in my head. Once that happens I don’t have to consciously think about how they would phrase something. The character has become a real person in my mind and I’m just writing what that person would say in this situation. And the best tool I have to jump-start those voices in my head is the character diary.

The technique is simple: write diary entries in the voice of the character. Think like an actor. Become the character and just write about an average day.

Don’t worry about whether your character would actually keep a diary; pretend they would. And if the character is illiterate, write as though it were a verbal, recorded diary. The point is to get their speaking style, after all, not their writing style.

Here’s a way I used this technique on a recent script: I was writing a story about a crew of six on a NASA mission to Mars. Now, most astronauts will have fairly similar backstories and temperaments. They’re all going to be well-educated, highly motivated risk takers with an interest in science and a lot of self-discipline.

So I had to really work to differentiate the characters. I spent considerable time thinking about what the range of personal traits and backstories could be in this narrow demographic group. I tried to make each as distinct as possible, focusing on how they got into the space program, why they chose their specialty, and what role they perform on the team.  For example, one could have worked their way up out of poverty while another came from a wealthy background. One might be the motivator while the other is the stoic, reliable go-to person. One is detail oriented while another can be relied on to always keep the big picture in mind.

Then I wrote one diary entry for each character for every three months of the two-year training period leading up to the mission. In addition to creating distinctive voices, I was able to explore the interpersonal relationships and conflicts that developed between them prior to the start of the script. As a result, from the very first scene these felt like characters that had a history together… because in a way they did, at least in my mind. 

Of course like any pre-writing task there is a danger in getting carried away in a subconscious avoidance of facing that blank page. You don’t need to write a diary of the character’s entire life. You might try doing a couple entries they would have written just prior to the start of your story, plus a few spaced out over the course of their life, and perhaps even an entry set mid-story. Sometimes even writing a single entry is enough! However, for some projects, like my NASA story, doing a bunch of diary entries can be an extremely useful part of my development process.

In the screenwriting class I teach, one of the first assignments is for the students to write a diary entry in the voice of someone they know who doesn’t speak like them. It’s a lesson in listening to how people use language as much as it is in writing. If you struggle with dialogue, this might be something to try.

And as I mentioned last time, I usually do another quick diary entry before I do my character passes in the rewriting stage. It all helps to get the characters speaking in their unique voices in my head.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Character Passes

Last post I talked about the rewriting process I’m going through on my current spec. The task I’m engaged in now is what I call “The Character Passes.” This is one of the final stages of my rewrite process. The concept is pretty simple: I go through the script just looking at one character. I do this for each of the major characters.

Before I read each scene with the character I’m looking at (I skip the scenes they’re not in), I think about what this character’s goal is in the scene and where they are in their arc. I consider their actions and ask if this is what they’d really do. If the answer is no, the scene might require some significant revision.

But usually I’ve done a pretty good job keeping the characters’ actions consistent. If I’m finding a lot of scenes that need major changes, I’m probably not as far along as I thought I was and need to take another plot pass! Really the purpose of the character passes is dialogue.

Before I do a pass, I try to get the voice of that character in my head. One of the ways I do this is with my character diary exercise.* I usually do these as part of my pre-writing, but for these passes I’ll do a quick version of the exercise – basically writing a few paragraphs in the character’s voice just describing their day before I start the pass.

I also jot down some vocabulary the character uses – words related to their occupation, class, or culture. I find writing these down longhand helps ingrain them in my mind. And I jot down some sayings the character uses that reflect their philosophy on life. Remember how in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) Rick said "I stick my neck out for no man" and "Here's looking at you kid" several times? Those are the kinds of defining phrases I'm hoping for.

One of the characters in my current script is a business executive who uses lots of management buzzwords. So for her pass, I jotted down things like “outside the box,” "synergy," and “risk-reward.”

In the previous drafts I had that character use a lot of established business philosophy and actual quotes. But I decided I wanted to create something original for the film. So I made up my own business philosophy and constructed some buzzwords and motivational sayings that will be unique. I did this so my script would have original dialogue rather than clichés – though the clichés would have served my purpose in this case.

I also try to do this with the philosophical sayings. What I’ll often do is take a common saying and try to come up with something that says the equivalent in a different way. So if the character believes in “thinking outside the box,” I might give them a saying like, “We need to fly beyond the nest.”

As I go through the script, I try only to look at that character’s dialogue. Then, anything that doesn’t fit their voice jumps out. If an uneducated character uses a big vocabulary word, I’ll catch it and can adjust it to be more in their voice. And I’ll usually find many opportunities to adjust dialogue to be more original and unique.

Once I’ve done this for all my characters, the result is a script where each character speaks in a believable and revealing way.

*I was looking for the post I did on the character diary exercise so I could link to it, and realized I’ve never posted about it! I will rectify that in my next post.

By the way, this blog is now being run on the website You’ve Got Red on You. It’s a site devoted to horror and horror writing. If you’re interested in the genre, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

When Rewriting, Good Enough Isn’t

I’m currently doing the final few passes rewriting my new spec screenplay. It occurred to me that some of you might be interested to hear about how I approach the process.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably know that I do an extensive outline before I start writing and that I try to do my first draft straight through without going back. (This particular script didn’t work that way – I got about 45 pages in and didn’t like the direction it was going, so I went back, revised the outline, and started over.)

While doing that first draft, I’ll keep a page of notes of things I want to change or plant or set up better in the next draft. When I’m finished with the first draft, I’ll set it aside for a few days then read it through in one sitting, adding to the page of notes with probably another page or two. The second draft is largely doing those notes.

The next few drafts generally are guided by "just make it better.” But I have noticed I tend to fix the plot first, then go back through and fix the character and relationship arcs, possibly bouncing back to adjust the plot as the character stuff affects it.

In this particular script, the relationship arc needed some serious clarifying, so before one draft I put note cards up on my bulletin board for each scene where character adjustments could be made, and then added Post-its of each character or relationship beat. That way I could move the Post-its around to better distribute the beats. I haven’t done this before – one thing about writing is each script is its own animal and you often have to adjust your process to the demands of the project.

At that point the script was in pretty good shape. And that brings me to the pass I want to focus on today: Eliminating the “good enough.”

When I first graduated from film school, my day job was working in the technology department at Walt Disney Feature Animation. My job didn’t have anything to do with creative development, but it allowed me to observe the process they used. One thing that struck me was how they would constantly go through the storyboards and look at each beat, each joke, each image, each line of dialogue and ask if they could come up with something better. This was at the height of Disney Animation’s creative renaissance, and I thought that attitude of always trying to be better at every point had a lot to do with their success.

Once I feel like my script is working, I read through it in one sitting looking for all those places that feel “good enough” but not “great.” Usually there are a lot of scenes that I really like, but also several scenes where I solved a problem but I don’t love the solution. There are also scenes that are successful but a little ordinary or predictable.

My next pass focuses on these scenes that are just okay. I brainstorm ideas of what might be better than what I have. I ask myself a lot of “what if” questions. The changes usually don’t alter the overall plot or characters, but they can have a dramatic effect on the experience of reading the script (and hopefully watching the final film). Sometimes the scenes that come out of this pass end up being among the best in the whole story.

Of course you can paralyze yourself by constantly rewriting a script to death. You have to have a sense of when it’s time to let your baby go out into the world and stand on its own two feet. At some point you’re making your script different but not better.

But doing one pass to turn “good enough” into “great” is the kind of thing that separates mundane, forgettable specs from those that get you assignments and sales.