Friday, December 20, 2013

What You Should Know About Screenwriting Credits

You will undoubtedly have noticed that when I refer to a movie in this blog I include the credited screenwriters in parentheses. That’s only logical, given that this is a blog on screenwriting! I also hope that some of you may notice particular screenwriters you weren’t aware of appearing again and again next to movies you like and check out their other work. I had that experience early on when I first realized Lawrence Kasdan had written not only Body Heat but Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back.

Given the nature of development in Hollywood, screenwriting credit is a complicated subject. Often many writers work on a film. Not all of them get credit. Certainly in many cases not all of them deserve credit. When Steven Sommers wrote The Mummy reboot in 1999, there had been over a dozen previous screenplays written attempting to reboot that particular franchise. Some were decades old and had nothing to do with Sommers’s version. Yet they had to be considered in determining who got credit on the 1999 movie.

If you write under a WGA contract then the WGA determines who gets credit. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons the WGA was formed. Prior to that, producers often determined credits, and could give screenplay credit to themselves or even their girlfriend or a buddy without having to prove any contribution to the script.

In some cases the credit determination goes smoothly. Only those who have written under a WGA contract are eligible for screenwriting credit. It doesn’t matter how many good lines the actor came up with on set, if they weren’t hired as a writer, they can’t be considered. If all of the writers who worked on a film under WGA contract agree on specific credits that conform to WGA rules, then those are the credits – with one exception. (Thus if only one writer worked on a movie, that writer gets credit without much bureaucracy.)

The exception to the above is if one of the writers is also a “production executive” – the director or a producer. Then an automatic arbitration is triggered. This is because it is believed that the director or producer can wield undue influence on the writers to agree to a specific credit. Production executives are also held to a higher contribution standard. This is controversial because it can end up punishing a writer who has the clout to get a producer credit on a film. (EDITED TO ADD: The WGA has changed this last part of the rules.)

An arbitration is also triggered when writers disagree on what the credits should be. In a Guild arbitration, three members who meet certain qualifications (including having screenwriting credits of their own) read all the drafts without the writers’ names attached and determine who gets credit. (It’s actually a little more complicated than that, but in essence that’s what happens.) There’s a saying that you know an arbitration is fair when none of the participating writers are happy with the outcome.

Credit arbitrations can be vicious because there is often a lot of money at stake. Only credited writers are eligible to share in the residual pool, and many writers have contractual bonuses contingent on getting screen credit. Whether or not a writer gets credit can be a million dollar decision.

There are various credits that can be awarded on a feature film and they have specific meanings. The main ones are:

Story By: This credit is for an original story (i.e. not based on underlying material). If you sell an original screenplay, you are guaranteed at least a share of story credit. According to the WGA credits manual, story consists of “basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action.” Sometimes people think this means a treatment, but in fact usually you must write a full screenplay to get story credit. This is a particularly important credit because it gives the writer some additional rights, such as credit and payment for any sequels or novelizations or Broadway musical adaptations that use the characters from the movie. Someone with only “screenplay credit” does not get those rights, at least not automatically.

Screen Story By: This credit is similar to “Story By” but is for when a screenplay is based on source material, but the writer has come up with a whole new story not in the source material.

Screenplay By: This credit is given when a screenplay is based on source material. It can also be given when a writer has contributed to a screenplay based on another writer’s original screenplay. In the case of an adaptation, the writer must have contributed 33% to the final screenplay, whereas if it is based on an original screenplay, the writer must have contributed 50%. The tricky part, of course, is determining what percentage a contribution is. It’s not like writers are only given 33% of the pages to rewrite. This is a subjective judgment the poor arbitrators must make.

Written By: This credit is used when a single writer is responsible both for the story and the screenplay.

A couple points here: First, writing teams are considered a single unit for purposes of screen credit. Writers who collaborated as a team are identified by an “&” between their names. So “Joe Smith & Mary Jones” are a team. If the credit read “Joe Smith and Mary Jones,” that means they each wrote separately. Except in unusual cases, teams are limited to two writers.

Second, you’ll see by the percentages that there is a maximum of three writers (or teams) that can qualify for screenplay credit. This is somewhat controversial as often many more than three writers contribute to a screenplay. But it is the Guild’s position that only those who did at least a third of the work that ended up on screen deserve credit. This means someone responsible for 25% of the shooting script will not see their name on screen or get residuals.

The Guild also enforces rules regarding the publicizing of credits and their size and position on screen. So for a variety of reasons you really want to work under a WGA contract. (Often independent film contracts will specify that credit will be awarded according to the WGA rules – though they seldom spell out how disagreements over credit will be resolved without the WGA’s arbitration process. Worse are contracts that say screenplay credit will be awarded at "the producer's discretion.")

Of course there are different rules for television, and international films are not under WGA jurisdiction and may have other rules. Sadly, screenwriting credit is a lot more complicated than simply asking, “Who wrote that?”


Learn the craft of screenwriting with The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Friday, December 13, 2013

Writing True Stories When We Know the Ending

(SPOILERS: Titanic, Valkyrie, Captain Phillips, 42)

Basing a movie on true events immediately heightens our interest in the story. That’s probably why so many awards season movies are based on true events (this year 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, 42, Lone Survivor and The Butler are just a few examples). If the story is obscure enough – such as with 12 Years a Slave (screenplay by John Ridley) – we might not know what happened and watch to find out how it comes out. But what if you’re writing about well-known events?

Stories where we know the ending can still be good and popular. But you can’t make the dramatic question of the movie be about the well-known outcome. For example, Titanic (written by James Cameron) was widely mocked when it was announced. “Why would anybody watch that? We already know the boat sinks!” Of course, when it was released it became the most popular movie of all time.

Why? Because it wasn’t about whether or not the boat sank. Cameron used the backdrop of the Titanic to tell a love story. The dramatic question was, “Will Jack and Rose end up together?” We didn’t know the answer to that question.

The movie Valkyrie (written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander) wasn’t nearly as successful, partly because the dramatic question was about whether the attempt to assassinate Hitler would be successful. But we already knew it wouldn’t, so the suspense scenes weren’t very suspenseful. (Even if you weren’t familiar with this story, you probably know that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker with the allies closing in.)

When developing a movie based on well-known events, you have to find the story within the story. Is there something interesting that is not widely known? You should think about what drew you to the material in the first place. What is the thematic element that intrigues you? Can you build a compelling story using the true events to illuminate this thematic idea in a fresh way?

For example, everybody knows that Lincoln freed the slaves. The movie Lincoln (screenplay by Tony Kushner), however, revealed the political maneuvering required to achieve that goal. It explored the pressure on Lincoln to accept a lesser step, and on Lincoln’s own self doubts about the constitutionality of what he was doing. These nuances were unfamiliar to most of the audience.

The best place to look for this is in the character. For example, 42 (written by Brian Helgeland) tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball. But we know how that story comes out. We know about racism and we know Robinson was successful. We know baseball became integrated.

What the movie shows us is Robinson’s struggle to resist fighting back when he was attacked. He’s set up as a strong, proud, somewhat short-tempered man. But when he was recruited to the Dodgers, Branch Rickey knew that he would be taunted and that if he reacted violently, all people would remember was that a black man had been violent. The story within the story here is how hard Robinson had to work to overcome his understandable instinct to defend himself.

Similarly, if you follow the news at all, you probably thought you knew how Captain Phillips (screenplay by Billy Ray) ends. But if you see the movie, the ending is powerful and surprising – because it is more about the emotional impact of this experience on Phillips than on whether he physically survives. That’s the story within the story. Captain Phillips also reveals the motivations and life of the pirates, something most people are not as familiar with. (Even so, the movie is a little slow to get going because we're mostly just waiting for the attack we know is coming.)

After watching Valkyrie, I thought one solution to their problem would be to change the main character. Valkyrie tells the story of Claus von Stauffenberg, the organizer of the attempted coup. But von Stauffenberg decides at the very beginning that Hitler is bad for Germany and has to be stopped. And he never wavers in this belief throughout the movie. Thus the question became, “Will von Stauffenberg’s coup succeed?” – a question we knew the answer to.

However there was another character, General Fromm, whose story was much more interesting. He thought Hitler was bad for Germany, but struggled with whether he could betray the legitimate leader of his country, a country he loved. A very compelling movie could have been made about Fromm’s struggle, with the dramatic question: “Will he join the plot or not?”

Digging into the internal struggle of a character is a good way to bring a new perspective on a true story that we already think we know. It allows you to explore the meaning of the events rather than just what happened. And if you’re going to tell a familiar story, you better have a new perspective on what it all means.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Using Planting and Payoff

(Spoilers: Gravity, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Planting and payoff is a powerful tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox. Simply put, planting is setting up an object, idea, or piece of information early in the story (the plant) for use later (the payoff).

One big purpose of this tool is to avoid the cheat of convenience. For example, if a woman has been chased into her attic by a serial killer and finds a loaded gun in an old suitcase, it seems too convenient. The audience will feel like the writer is cheating. But if five scenes earlier we saw the woman put the gun in the suitcase in the attic because it belonged to her deceased husband and she is afraid of it, we don’t bat an eye when she pulls it out with the killer closing in.

Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron) offers us a good example of this. Early on, Ryan says she sees the Chinese space station, then corrects herself to say it’s the International Space Station. This subtly tells the audience that both space stations are in the area. This is particularly important for the Chinese station. After Ryan discovers she can’t reenter the atmosphere with the escape vehicle in the International Space Station, she makes a new plan to get to the Chinese station. It might seem awfully convenient that a second station is nearby if it hadn’t been established earlier.

Another use of planting is to set up information for the climactic scenes so you don’t have to stop the action to explain everything. Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) provides a good example of this kind of set up. Somewhere about the middle of the movie Brody accidentally releases the rope holding the SCUBA tanks in place, causing them to roll across the boat’s deck. Hooper chastises him, warning him that the tanks contain pressurized air and can explode if punctured. This gives us the information we need for the big ending when Brody shoots a SCUBA tank in the shark’s mouth, causing it to explode and kill the beast.

What’s great about this is how the writers hide the plant in another context. The first scene with the SCUBA tanks is about Brody’s lack of experience on boats. It’s meant to show us how out of place he is. But the bit of info about the possibility of explosion is slyly slipped in there as well. We get the information we need, but aren’t tipped off that it will come into play later, which might make the ending feel predictable.

Or consider the payoff of Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan). Indy opens the Well of Souls and discovers it’s filled with snakes. He rolls over and says, “Snakes… why did it have to be snakes?” That’s only funny because way back in the beginning of the movie they planted his fear of snakes with the pet boa constrictor on the plane. Imagine if they hadn’t done that. Indy would have to say something like, “Snakes… I’m afraid of snakes.” It’s a small change, but it would weaken the joke and feel a little forced.

Planting and payoff builds trust with the audience. If you do some early plants and pay them off quickly, the audience will come to believe they are in good hands. Then if something is not explained right away they will stay with the movie, figuring it will undoubtedly be taken care of before the credits roll. Planting and payoff ties your story together and makes it feel cohesive and logical.

You will place many of your plants in the rewriting process. Often you don’t know what you need to plant until you write the scene with the payoff. As I write my first draft, I always keep a sheet for notes of things from earlier scenes I know I’ll want to go back and change in the second draft. That way I can keep moving forward rather than jumping back to older scenes. It is not uncommon for half the notes I make to be things I need to plant.

You should also look for opportunities to use the things you’ve already introduced. For example in Gravity, Ryan uses a fire extinguisher to fight the fire in the International Space Station. That’s not really a plant – it’s a key part of a scene that’s dramatic in its own right. When she has to pull the fire extinguisher into the escape pod because it blocks the hatch, that is a plant. And it’s paid off later when she uses the extinguisher to propel her to the Chinese station. There’s an elegance to the multiple uses of that prop that makes the story feel organic and unified.

And ultimately that’s the most important reason for using planting and payoff. It helps binds the story together into a single narrative, rather than just a series of scenes.


In other news, I wanted to share a really nice endorsement we got for The Hollywood Pitching Bible from director John Badham (Director of Saturday Night Fever, War Games and Stakeouts): 

"Are you Crazy? Don't wait. Buy this book now! Ken Aguado and Doug Eboch are guys who walk the walk, and here they talk the talk. They know as well as anyone how to navigate the trickiest waters on the continent: Hollywood's pitching process. Demystifying the secrets of what works and what doesn't for the not-so-brave new world of corporate Movie Biz. It's on my top shelf of books I can't be without."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Legacy of Syd Field

As many of you reading this will undoubtedly know, Syd Field passed away earlier this week. Syd was the original screenwriting guru. His book, Screenplay, published in 1979, was the first real how-to book on screenwriting and introduced the terminology of “three act structure” which is now the language Hollywood. Syd called three-act structure the “paradigm.”

Although it’s likely that Syd was familiar with the philosophies of Aristotle and the book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lagos Egri (about playwriting), he primarily developed his theories by reading thousands of screenplays and asking himself: What do the good ones have in common? And what do the bad ones lack?

Screenplay and the follow up The Screenwriter’s Workbook were two of the first screenwriting books I read. (I liked The Screenwriter’s Workbook better… it had exercises and if you did them, at the end of the book you’d have a screenplay).

One of the problems of being the first to do something like this is that others come along and expand and improve on what you’ve done. Screenplay looks a little unsophisticated today. It’s not the first book I recommend to new writers. But his books are the foundation of most contemporary screenwriting education – including the class I teach and this blog.

There are always people who resist the idea that you can teach any kind of art. Syd was criticized for dumbing down movies and making them more formulaic. (Recently the Save the Cat book came under similar criticism.)

I think such accusations are ridiculous. Knowing craft does not preclude creating art; in fact it enables art. Only the weakest of aspiring artists would think that knowledge could somehow squelch their creativity. Syd himself was flexible on his paradigm. He’d often say that you have to know the rules to break them.

Which doesn’t mean Syd’s theories and others that followed have never been used improperly. Much of the Hollywood development community has read these books. Trouble comes when they start to use the theory rather than their own judgment to evaluate screenplays and give notes.

But if you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing I don’t have to convince you of the value of learning craft.

An important thing that people tend to forget about three-act structure: it’s an analytical tool to discuss aspects of storytelling. There are no actual acts in feature films. Plays can have acts, separated by the curtain lowering, the lights coming up, and people going to the lobby for a drink. Television has acts separated by commercial breaks. But movies are a continuous experience.

Acts as Syd Field used them are different. They are a way to discuss different parts of a story and the requirements of those parts. He could have chosen different terms. But we needed some language to discuss what worked and what didn’t in screenwriting. Syd’s paradigm is not a formula to be followed, but a way to understand narrative.

If you’d like to read my approach to three-act structure, start with these posts on Story Structure, The Dramatic Question, and Breaking Your Story Into Three Acts:

If you’d like to know what other books I recommend on screenwriting, see this post.

And if you’d like to read Syd’s books, I’d start with these:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Writing Under Contract

Last week I used the example of a “million dollar spec sale” to discuss a variety of contractual and business concepts important to a screenwriter selling a spec. Today I want to discuss similar concepts related to the other type of work screenwriters do: rewrites and adaptations.

In these situations writers are hired to do one or more drafts of a screenplay. This happens when you are hired to rewrite a spec that you sold. It happens when you are hired to write a screenplay based on an original pitch. You could also be hired to rewrite someone else’s screenplay or adapt a book, play, comic book, etc. From a contractual/business standpoint, all of these deals are pretty similar.

These are all “work-for-hire” deals. This is an important legal term that means the person hiring the writer owns the copyright of the resulting screenplay, not the writer. This can create an odd situation when a producer or studio hires you to rewrite a script that they optioned from you, and then fails to pick up the option (see last post for an explanation of options). In this case, the copyright of the script they optioned stays with you. But who owns the rewrite?

The answer is they do, but since they don’t own the underlying material, they can’t do anything with it. You can’t do anything with it either – you don’t own the copyright for the revisions (known as a “derivative work” in copyright lingo). If you added a clever line of dialogue in that revision, you can’t use it if someone else buys the original script. The unusable rewritten draft is often called a “sterile draft.”

There are two big categories of work-for-hire screenwriting deals: union and non-union. The screenwriters’ union is the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA). It’s actually two unions, WGA west and WGA east, but they negotiate the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) that covers screenwriters together. And they mostly work together – mostly. Which one you become a member of depends on which side of the Mississippi you live on.

The advantage of working under a WGA deal is you get the contract language in the MBA automatically applied to your contract. This guarantees you such important things as a defined credit process and residuals. If you work non-union, your attorney will have to negotiate all of that stuff themselves. They probably won’t get as good a deal as the WGA provides. And it will be up to you or your attorney or your reps to enforce your contract. If you work under a WGA contract, the Guild will help enforce it. You don’t want to be responsible for collecting the residuals the studio owes you. Note that once you become a member of the WGA, you aren’t allowed to work non-union.

Non-union deals can be whatever you negotiate, so I can’t really describe them. I’ll discuss how a typical WGA deal works and some of the concepts will apply to non-union work.

The standard work-for-hire contract used to consist of four “steps,” or pieces of writing that the writer would deliver. There would be a treatment, first draft, second draft and polish. If it was a rewrite, the treatment step may have been removed – but sometimes the producers would still want a treatment if the proposed changes were big enough.

Different producers and studios prefer different treatment lengths and formats. It’s best to discuss what they’re expecting before you write it. A draft is what it sounds like – you write a draft or do a revision of the previous draft. A polish is a smaller revision, tweaking dialogue or altering the way scenes play out, but is not supposed to involve big structural changes. Occasionally, though, the difference between a polish and a draft would get fuzzy.

There was also a thing known as a “producer’s pass” or “courtesy pass.” This was when a writer would finish a draft and give it to the producer before officially turning it into the studio. The producer would make some suggestions and the writer would tweak the draft before delivering it. The expectation was that the changes would not take more than a day or so to do. Technically this was against WGA rules, but because it wasn’t particularly onerous on the writer and generally helped the script creatively, everybody looked the other way.

Unfortunately there has been a trend lately to one-step deals. These are deals that only hire the writer for a single draft (or maybe treatment and draft). This is a bad trend for several reasons. First, it takes away the natural collaboration that resulted from a multi-step process. Now there’s pressure on the writer not to show anybody any work until it’s nearly perfect out of fear of getting replaced.

Worse, producers now often abuse the producer’s pass idea to get the writer to do multiple drafts without additional payment. The threat is: if you won’t do another draft for free, they’ll be forced to go hire another writer (ignoring the fact that you won’t get paid either way). It sucks and the WGA is trying hard to end the practice.

When you are hired under a step deal, you are usually paid in installments. The WGA requires that you be paid upon delivery of each step – treatment, first draft, etc. Often payment is also split so you get a portion upon commencement of the draft, and a portion upon delivery.

Or at least that’s the theory. Often in the business writers begin work with only a “deal memo” spelling out the important points of a contract to be finalized later. The actual negotiation of the details drags out for months. But everybody wants to move the project forward so you begin work. However when you ask about your commencement money, you’re informed that the studio can’t pay it until there’s a fully executed contract. Personally I make it a point not to deliver any writing until I receive my commencement money. Some writers will finish all their work and turn it in and still not have been paid for commencement.

If you’d like to look at the MBA (warning – it’s REALLY long) or the schedule of minimum payments, you can find them at the WGA website. Oh, and don’t forget that everything I said last time about paying commissions, union dues and taxes applies to work-for-hire contracts as well.

And always consult an attorney before signing a contract for writing services.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Does a Million Dollar Spec Sale Really Mean?

You read in the trades that a screenwriter just sold a spec script for a million dollars. Lucky guy. That means he’s rich, right? Not quite. I’d like to use this hypothetical to explore how the business of being a professional screenwriter works.

Let’s assume the number quoted in the trades was accurate – never a safe assumption; people tend to exaggerate the size of deals. But even if the one million dollar figure is correct, it isn’t what the writer will be receiving immediately. Usually what’s reported is the total maximum value of the deal. Some of the money is guaranteed. Much of it won't be.

First, a lot of the money in a contract of this size will likely be in the form of bonuses. Often the writer receives a “production bonus” when a script goes into production. They may also receive “box office bonuses” if the movie hits certain box office thresholds. Frequently these bonuses are contingent on the writer receiving credit on the movie. Sometimes if the writer receives shared credit, the amount of the bonus is reduced. If this is a WGA deal (at this level it should be) then credit will be determined by the Guild. The good news is if the writer sold an original spec, then they are guaranteed at least a shared “story” credit.

For the purposes of our exercise, let’s say half the million dollars is in the form of bonuses. That means the actual sale price of the script is $500,000. Not bad, right?

It isn’t bad at all, but chances are the writer hasn’t actually sold the script. More likely they’ve “optioned” it, meaning they’ve entered into an option/purchase agreement. With these agreements the buyer purchases the exclusive right to buy the screenplay for a specific period of time. But purchasing the screenplay is optional, not required (thus the name of the deal). Studios usually don’t actually exercise the option (i.e. buy the script) until the last possible moment, ideally well into pre-production after the film has a green light.

The component terms of an option/purchase agreement are variable, subject to some Guild minimums, but let’s imagine a typical big-studio option deal.

We’ve said the purchase price of our hypothetical script is $500,000. The amount actually paid to option the script could be anything really. In a studio deal, 10% is pretty common. That means in this case the writer would be paid $50,000 against the purchase price. The usual period for such an option is one year. If the studio wants to acquire the script in that year, they pay off the remainder of the purchase price, in this case $450,000. If they don’t, the writer gets the script back and keeps the $50,000 (this is the benefit of the option concept for the writer).

Frequently option agreements contain a renewal clause where the studio can renew the option for an additional year for $50,000 more. This second payment is not typically against the purchase price, though. So if the studio buys the script in the renewal period, the writer would make $550,000 total. If they renew and don't buy, the writer gets $100,000 and regains possession of the script at the end of two years.

Remember, all this is negotiable. The option payment doesn’t have to be 10%. Independent producers will frequently want a “free option.” They aren’t really free because for a contract to be valid both sides have to receive something of value. So the writer is paid a dollar or maybe ten dollars. This gives the producer the right to shop the script for the period of the option without worrying someone will do an end run around him.

If you do a free option, it’s best to keep the option period short – maybe six months. If a producer can’t do anything with the script in six months, they probably can’t do anything in a year. Free options often contain renewals, but usually the renewal requires a bigger payment – perhaps 10% of the purchase price. If the producer has successfully raised some interest during the first option period, they'll be willing to pay to extend the option.

But for the hypothetical we’ll assume our guy got his $50,000. Not too bad, right? But he doesn’t get to take that home. First he has to pay commissions. His agent will get 10%, or $5,000. His manager will most likely also get 10% - managers’ commissions are variable, but 10% is typical for writers. So there goes another $5,000. The writer’s attorney is a bargain at a typical 5%, or $2,500. WGA dues are 1.5%, or $750. Many new writers get upset about paying Guild dues, but when you get a residual check or free health care you realize dues are worth it.

That leaves $36,750 for the writer. Of course, he has to pay taxes on that. Taxes tend to be high for this kind of income. Working screenwriters generally form loan out corporations to help reduce the tax hit. Loan out corporations are legal entities that receive payment and then “hire” the writer so as to spread out their income over the course of a year, rather than having it hit in big chunks. They also have advantages for creating pension plans and a few other things. Your accountant will help you set up your loan out corporation when you need it (you’ll have to pay the accountant for this service, of course, along with annual fees and taxes for maintaining the loan out corporation).

Let’s say our writer is going to pay 30% in taxes on his income. He’ll be left with $25,725. If he's been temping or waiting tables to make ends meet while he writes, he will certainly welcome a check of this size. But it’s a far cry from a million dollars.

Of course maybe the studio will pick up the option. Maybe they’ll make the movie and the writer will get sole credit. Maybe it will gross hundreds of millions of dollars and he’ll get all his bonuses. (He’ll still pay commissions and taxes on all of that, of course.) Then those beautiful residuals will start to roll in. But he might not want to buy a Ferrari counting on all of that happening.

And of course when you’re starting out you most likely won’t get a million dollar deal, anyway. If you run the same numbers with a $100,000 sale price, the writer keeps $5,145 of the option payment.

Depressed yet? Don’t be. Working screenwriters get paid pretty well. You just have to understand that you are not a corporate employee, you’re a small business. You have to manage your revenue properly. That means understanding contracts and commissions and loan out corporations. (Also, obviously, you shouldn't count on retiring on one script.)

There’s another way the writer might earn money from this sale. Often, especially if they have good representation, the writer will be hired to rewrite their script. Next post I’ll describe how those deals work.

(Note: always consult an attorney before signing a contract for writing services.)

The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television is now available on the Nook. And still available at Amazon, iTunes, Kindle and Smashwords.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tension in World War Z and Gravity

(SPOILERS: World War Z, Gravity)

Happy Halloween! (It’s Halloween when I’m writing this… I don’t know when you’re actually reading it, of course.) In honor of the holiday I thought I’d discuss a couple of movies that did a great job of creating tension this year. I’m serious about spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t seen World War Z or Gravity, you might want to wait to read this!

Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron) was one of the best movies of the year. World War Z (screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof) was one of the most enjoyable surprises of the year. Though they are vastly different stories, it occurred to me they operated in structurally similar ways.

Both movies take an essentially likeable character and put them in a fight for survival. Both are structured as a succession of suspense sequences. Of the two, Gravity is the superior movie by a long shot, but both effectively use suspense to create a fun ride for the audience.

Let’s start with those likable main characters. In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is established as a talented scientist and doctor, an inherently heroic character. Moreover, she is the rookie astronaut, out of her depth, suffering nausea from the microgravity. She’s a vulnerable underdog, also someone we root for. And given her situation, someone we identify with as non-astronauts (unless of course you happen to be an astronaut.)

Gerry in World War Z is a loving father and husband, and has some mysterious spy/agent background that will cause him to be summoned to assist the war against the zombies. So he’s a hero and a good guy trying to save the world. We can root for that.

In truth, both characters are pretty thinly defined. Ryan is more complex, and is developed more as the story progresses. There is some nice use of specific detail (the story she tells about her daughter’s lost shoe, for example) that implies the bigger life behind this story. Specifics make the character feel real. And considering Gravity plays out in near-real time, it would probably be unbelievable to cram any more character information into it.

It turns out suspense movies like these don’t really need enormously complex characters, they just need likeable, believable characters to put into jeopardy. This is one type of movie that really benefits from movie stars in the lead roles. We like Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock. We don’t want them to die!

As I said, structurally the movies are a series of suspense sequences. World War Z has the escape-the-city sequence, military-base sequence, Jerusalem sequence, airplane sequence and infested-medical-research-facility sequence. Gravity has the getting-back-to-the-shuttle sequence, getting-to-the-ISS (International Space Station) sequence, getting-to-the-Chinese-station sequence, and reentry sequence.

Each of these sequences is virtually a self-contained miniature suspense movie. The danger with this approach is that the film could become episodic. So how do these filmmakers avoid that danger?

World War Z is structured as a mystery. Gerry is trying to find the cause of the zombie outbreak so they can figure out a way to fight it. Each sequence ends in a clue that gets him closer to the solution while simultaneously leading to the next sequence.

In Gravity, Ryan’s emotional growth helps connect the steps. This is where stronger character work helps. Early on she wants to give up, telling Matt to let her go and save himself. Over the course of the movie she decides to fight for her survival, has that decision tested, and finally commits to living. Each sequence forces her to take more forceful action to avoid death.

Both movies also make use of the ticking clock concept. In World War Z, Gerry’s family has been granted shelter on a battleship only because he’s agreed to take on this mission. As time goes on, the powers-that-be decide they can’t continue sheltering the family. If Gerry doesn’t finish his job soon, his family will be zombie food! (This is also a great illustration of how personal stakes – the family – are more powerful than huge global stakes – zombies might wipe out humanity.)

In Gravity, debris is blowing everything in space apart. The one remaining vehicle capable of reentry isn’t going to be around forever. There is a ninety-minute interval between encounters with the debris field, a ticking clock Ryan tracks on her wristwatch. Moreover, it is made clear that there is a limited supply of oxygen in these various vehicles. Time is running out for Ryan!

Which brings me to the individual sequences. Both movies use a combination of action and suspense techniques. Ticking clocks are again a big part of this. For example, in the getting-back-to-the-shuttle and getting-to-the-ISS sequences in Gravity, the air in Ryan’s space suit is running out. She gives periodic updates to Matt on how low her supply is getting. As she struggles to reach the airlock at the end of these sequences, she’s out of oxygen and we see through camera effects how her vision is narrowing and blurring as she starts to suffocate.

Important to good suspense is the slow build, escalating obstacles, and twists and turns. Look at the military-base sequence in World War Z. Gerry has to get back to his plane, but there are zombies out there, so they have to move quietly. The team sneaks carefully out to the tarmac, the tension building… and then Gerry’s phone rings. Things get worse and worse as characters are killed and Gerry barely makes it into the cockpit.

Or the ISS scene in Gravity. We are relieved when Ryan makes it into the ISS and gets her helmet off just before she passes out. She still has a pretty huge problem to overcome, but for the moment at least, she’s safe. However as she floats through the station, we see a piece of equipment generate a spark. Soon there’s a fire. Ryan grabs a fire extinguisher – but the force of using it in microgravity throws her against a wall, knocking her out.

Obviously, most stories are not constructed from interlocking suspense sequences. And you would certainly be taking the wrong message from this analysis if you think I’m saying you don’t need to develop complex characters! However these two movies provide good examples of how to use suspense to engage and thrill the audience. You can incorporate similar techniques into sequences in your stories, even if they aren’t built this way.

P.S. – there’s an interesting article here about Cuaron’s approach to storytelling in Gravity. Despite the interviewer’s bias against Hollywood suits, it’s clear from Cuaron’s response he does not share that bias. But it does reveal a lot about the potential pitfalls of the Hollywood development process.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Different Pitches for Different Situations

When screenwriters talk about pitching, we usually think of a situation where the writer is pitching an original idea (or an idea based on material the writer has acquired themselves) to a potential buyer, someone who would hire the writer to write the screenplay based on that idea. That type of pitch certainly exists, but there are many other types of pitches and pitching situations. Today I want to cover some of these, and discuss how you might vary your pitch accordingly.

The Full Length Original Pitch

As I said, this is the type of pitch we usually think of. Typically these pitches are twelve to fifteen minutes long, twenty minutes at most. You would describe the story in reasonably thorough detail, including the ending.

The General Meeting Pitch

You do this kind of pitch when you take a general meeting – the type of meeting you get when someone likes your screenplay and wants to meet you. At some point they’ll ask what you’re working on, and you launch into a pitch of about five minutes or so. This is fairly similar to the full-length pitch, except shorter and breezier. You spend less time on story details, focusing on concept and character. The goal is primarily to show them you have good ideas. If you plan to write the script on spec, you want them to ask to receive it when you’re done. You’re also hoping that they’ll like it so much that they consider buying it at the pitch stage. If this is the case, they’ll probably ask you to come back and do the full-length version at a later date, possibly incorporating some of their ideas.

The Pitch Fest Pitch

This is a relatively new type of pitching situation. At a pitch fest you (and hundreds of other writers) meet with a number of representatives of companies that buy screenplays. You usually have five minutes with each to do a pitch. The actual pitch should really be only two minutes to allow questions and a bit of small talk. Your goal is to get them to read a completed screenplay. You are focusing mostly on hook and character, with just a taste of the story. You probably will not want to tell the ending in these scenarios – there needs to be some mystery left for the script! (Although if they ask how it ends you should be prepared to tell them.)

There are other situations where you might do a two-minute pitch. Almost all involve convincing someone to read an existing, completed screenplay. You might do this in a general meeting, if, for example, the person you’re meeting with mentions they are looking for a certain type of script and you happen to have written just such a script. It’s not a bad idea to be ready with two-minute pitches of all your best scripts.

The Thirty-Second Pitch (A.K.A. Elevator Pitch)

This is really a glorified logline, designed to give the concept of your movie idea. It might come into play at a cocktail party or film festival or other networking event when you meet someone who asks what you’re working on. You might use thirty-second pitches to run some ideas by your agent to see which he thinks you should spec. And you could use a thirty-second pitch in many of the same situations you would use a two-minute pitch, if you think thirty seconds is enough to get the idea across. Shorter is usually better in pitching.

When you find yourself in a situation where you want to tell someone your idea but you know they’ll be bored or annoyed if you drone on and on (cocktail party!), then it’s time to bring out the thirty-second pitch. To do this well, of course, you have to have actually prepared it. Every morning I run through thirty-second pitches of my most pressing projects so I’m ready in the event I need them.

Assignment Pitches

All of the above assumes you are pitching an original idea (or an idea based on material you’ve acquired yourself). Of course most screenwriting jobs are assignments where you are hoping to get hired to rewrite a screenplay or adapt underlying material the buyer owns. These pitches are similar to the full original pitch in length, but different in content. You would assume at least some familiarity with the material by the person you’re pitching to. You would also spend more time analyzing what works and what doesn’t in the material, and less time describing the concept (since they already know the concept).

Of course all of these refer to feature film pitches. Television is another animal entirely. If you are pitching an original series, you will design your pitch differently depending on whether it is open or closed ended. Pitching an episode idea for an existing series requires other considerations. If you want to pursue a career in television writing, you need to learn the different types of pitches in that arena. (The pitch documents on talented television writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s website is an enormously helpful starting point.)

For more on how to build each different type of pitch, may I humbly recommend the book I penned with producer Ken Aguado, The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Timing Matters

One of the many, many little things you ought to know if you want to be a professional screenwriter is the development calendar. You might not expect it, but there are good times and bad times to send out a script.

The calendar is particularly important to television writers. Networks operate on a very specific cycle – they hear pitches for a specific period and then order pilot scripts of the ones they like. When they get those pilot scripts in, they decide which ones to make. When they see the pilots, they decide which ones to order to series. Try to pitch something new when they’re looking at completed pilots and you probably won’t even get in the room.

Cable has more flexibility (and networks have recently been attempting to move toward year-round development), but for practical purposes most channels have to look at a collection of pilots at the same time to pick the ones they want to fund that year. And it’s hard to move off that traditional network cycle because writers become available at certain times of the year. There’s a “staffing season” where writers meet with showrunners and producers to get hired on a show. Once that season ends, a lot of the best writers will be tied up for months.

There’s a pretty good rundown of the TV development season here.

The feature film world is not so strict, since movies are for the most part one-off propositions that can take as long as needed to develop. But there is still a loose calendar that comes into play.

The development business shuts down for the holidays, and doesn’t really get going again until after Sundance in early February. Then people come back to work eager and energized and with brand new budgets (most studios have a calendar year fiscal year, Disney being an exception). There’s usually a flurry of activity from February through April.

As you get into summer, things slow down. People are tiring and budgets are getting lower so execs get pickier. Then, it’s kind of an unwritten rule that August is vacation month. Even if your agent or manager stays in town, they will have trouble reaching people. This idea has now become so accepted that if an agent sends a script out in August the assumption is he/she is dumping it because it’s not very good.

In September people come back from vacation ready to work and there’s a good buying period for a month or two. Things start to shut down the week before Thanksgiving. You don’t want to send anything out Thanksgiving weekend, but you might get a week or two after. Nothing much goes out after mid-December because of the holiday distractions.

So you can see that the hottest time to send material into the marketplace is February/March and September. But you will also have a lot of competition in those periods. Also, there may be reasons to send out things at another specific time. Maybe you want to send out your spring break movie around spring break, for example. Or ride the coattails of a similar movie that was just a huge hit. Bottom line, you and your representatives should be strategizing timing.

This schedule assumes you are sending out material through an agent or manager. If you are looking for an agent or manager, you might consider this schedule as well, but in another way. Representation will be very busy in February/March and in September. August and December will still be filled with distraction. However, the slower summer months might be a good time for them to read scripts and meet with prospective clients.

These things can change over time, as does the type of material that does best in the market (pitch vs. script, for example). That’s why you should be at least skimming the trades. Understanding the rhythms of the business will help you create the most receptive environment for your material.

Friday, October 11, 2013

How to Write a Road Movie

(SPOILERS: Little Miss Sunshine, Elysium, Rain Man, Vacation, Apocalypse Now)

There is a common type of movie known as a “road movie” or “trip-with-a-destination” film where the main character or characters embark on a trip from one place to another, learning life lessons along the way.

They’re not exactly a genre – road movies can be dramas, thrillers, romantic comedies, broad comedies, adventure movies, etc. The varied examples include Little Miss Sunshine; The Hobbit; Cloverfield; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Apocalypse Now; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Sure Thing; Elysium; Vacation; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; About SchmidtRain Man; and Midnight Run. So the road movie is more of a structural form than a genre.

There are some common pitfalls involved in writing road movies. The first challenge is that they tend to be episodic. The character is moving from point A to point Z, having little adventures along the way. The trip itself gives us somewhat of a through line, but in many cases that’s not enough to keep an audience engaged.

In good road movies, often it’s the internal story that provides the momentum. Each episode will advance the character’s internal development. For example, the story of Rain Man (story by Barry Morrow, screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow) is really the story of the developing relationship between Charlie and Raymond. The adventures along the way are all built to push that relationship forward. Midnight Run (written by George Gallo) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles (written by John Hughes) work the same way.

A ticking clock can help keep the tension up on the journey. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the family has to reach the pageant in California by a specific deadline or Olive will not be allowed to compete. Each setback along the way increases the tension as time grows short. In Elysium (written by Neill Blomkamp), Max has five days before he dies of radiation poisoning. That puts a good ticking clock on his journey to reach Elysium and get a cure.

You’ll also want to use advertising to keep the audience looking forward and to remind them why we’re on the trip in the first place. In Little Miss Sunshine, Olive is often rehearsing her routine with her grandfather. Nobody else is allowed to see it. This gives us something to look forward to: what will Olive’s routine be like?

In Cloverfield (written by Drew Goddard), the journey is to Beth’s apartment to save her. Rob has received a confused phone call where it seemed she has been injured, but the situation is unclear. Like him, we’re anxious to know what he’ll find when he gets there.

Typically the characters embark on their journey at the Catalyst or the Act One Turning Point. In some cases, they’ll arrive at their destination at the Resolution. This seems logical – the story’s about a journey, it should end when they arrive at the destination – but in fact this is often a bad choice. Ending the journey at the resolution only really works if simply getting to the destination solves the character's problem, such as in The Poseidon Adventure (screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes). In these cases the obstacles are all designed to impede the character from reaching their destination.

But most road movies are not really about the journey. Once you start analyzing them, you’ll find that most often the characters arrive at the destination at the end of Act Two. The journey is there to force the character to grow and to build anticipation for what will happen at the destination. Then when the characters get where they’re going, either the destination isn’t what they expected, or it is what they expected but the character’s goal has changed. This allows the movie to spin into a new direction in Act Three.

For example, in Little Miss Sunshine the family arrives at their destination – the pageant – at the end of Act Two. But they discover the pageant is filled with creepy girls and their stage parents. Suddenly the family is worried about what kind of world Olive is getting into. They question whether she should compete. This becomes a new tension for Act Three.

In Apocalypse Now (written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola), Willard arrives at Kurtz’s compound to discover Kurtz has built a bizarre community of fanatical followers. Willard is taken captive. Act Three is the story of how Willard will resolve the conflict with Kurtz.

In Vacation (screenplay by John Hughes), the Griswold’s finally arrive at their destination, Wally World, at the end of Act Two, only to find it is closed for maintenance. This sets Clark off on a crazed plan to force a security guard to take them on all the rides – the new tension of Act Three.

In Elysium, Max is trying to get to Elysium because they can cure his radiation poisoning. There are plenty of action-packed physical challenges for him to overcome. But as his journey unfolds, Max comes to see the bigger issues and injustices in the world. By the time he arrives at Elysium, he is a different person. He started hoping to save his own life, but now his goal has changed. In the end, he sacrifices himself for the greater good.

In Rain Man, Charlie and Raymond arrive back in Los Angeles where Charlie had planned to use Raymond as leverage to get a portion of his father’s inheritance from the institution Raymond was living at. But since Charlie has learned to love his brother over the course of the movie, when he is offered cash to resolve things, he turns it down. His goal has changed – now he wants what’s best for Raymond.

If you’re writing a road movie, you need to ask yourself what the movie is really about and structure accordingly. Then you need to be sure that you use screenwriting tools to maintain the forward momentum.


If you're in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be discussing pitching at the Scriptwriters Network on October 19th.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Three Tips for Writing Productivity

People often ask writers about their writing process and habits. I’m always happy to talk about mine, though I believe this is an individual thing and what works for one writer may not work well for another. That said, I have a few tips that I find improve productivity, and I think they’ll work whatever your process.

1. Set aside specific writing time. If you are serious about writing, you ought to set aside a specific time to do it, and protect this time. Eliminate distractions. These days people have become accustomed to being constantly connected, but that doesn’t lend itself to productive writing. When you are writing, don’t answer the phone, don’t look at email or texts, don’t let yourself go on Facebook or Twitter. For the period you determine, you are doing nothing but writing.

For me, the key to making this work is I don’t put pressure on myself to turn out a certain number of pages or scenes or whatever. If I say I’m going to write for two hours, it’s okay if I only write one sentence, as long as I don’t do anything else during those two hours. Even if I don’t feel creative, eventually I’ll get bored staring at that blank page and start to noodle with something, and inevitably I’ll get more work done than I thought I was going to.

Some writers, particularly novelists, prefer to set a page or word count target. This is one of those “whatever works best for you” things. But if you take this approach, you should still block out all other distractions until you hit your goal.

2. Write every day. Or at least six days a week. There is momentum to writing that will carry over day to day, but if you take a couple days off, you’ll lose it. The longer the gap between writing sessions, the more time it will take you to get your imagination back into your story and characters. I find it’s much better to do a short writing session every day (or twice a day) than long writing sessions only on weekends.

You also get an advantage because your brain will work at your story for awhile after a writing session. You’ll find ideas popping into your head while you’re cooking or in the shower. But if you don’t get back to the writing soon, that will fade. Writing every day turns your whole day into a “writing session.”

3. Prepare the next day’s work at end of your writing session. Some proponents of the “setting aside a specific time to write” will advocate stopping mid-sentence when your writing time is up. This goes to the momentum idea. If you stop in the middle of something, you will be primed to jump back in the next day. I don’t take things quite that far. In fact, I prefer to finish any scene I’m working on if at all possible.

However I have found it’s dangerous to finish a scene, save my document, and then walk away. The next day I’m faced with that first page anxiety even if I’m in the middle of my script. It’s much better to spend the last ten minutes or so of your writing session planning out what you’ll do first thing the next day. Brainstorm ideas or bits of dialogue for the scene. You won’t feel any pressure because you don’t have to write it until tomorrow, but when you do sit down tomorrow, you’ll have some rough material to work with. And you’ll also prime your subconscious to come up with ideas between writing sessions.

A bonus technique: Outline. I like to outline my screenplays in great detail. Some writers don’t – including some very successful writers – so obviously this is not the only way to go. But one of the advantages of working from an outline is you always know, at a macro level, what’s going to happen next. You won’t write yourself into a corner and then be stuck for days trying to figure out how to get out. And as a practical matter, if you become a professional screenwriter you will often be forced to break your story for others before you can start your first draft, so you might as well get in the habit.

Another bonus technique: If you need a day job, get one you hate. It will motivate you to write every day so you can quit! Just try to get a job that doesn’t have a lot of overtime.

There is a caveat to all of this. You do not want to put yourself in a mindset where if conditions aren’t perfect, you can’t write. Life is busy, even once you are able to make writing your full time job. You may have to write in a hotel room or the lobby of a building between meetings. When you’re starting out, you may have to write during your lunch hour of your day job.

The most important point is that if you want to be a professional writer you have to commit time to do the job. If you don’t start digging the ditch, the ditch won’t get dug.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Three Ways to Get an Audience to Root for an Antihero

(SPOILERS: Breaking Bad, The Godfather, Taken, Elysium, Bad Santa, Low Winter Sun)

With Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gilligan) nearing its conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about how writers get an audience to root for an antihero. Before I go any further, let me define my terms: I’m talking about an antihero in the classical sense, as in a protagonist who lacks heroic qualities such as goodness and selflessness. And I’m looking at protagonists, not supporting rogues like Han Solo or Hannibal Lecter.

Admittedly not every story with an antihero protagonist requires us to root for them. Sometimes we are rooting against them, such as in some gangster or serial killer movies. We are fascinated by them, maybe we even find them charming. But we do not want to see them succeed.

You could argue that Walter White of Breaking Bad belongs in this category, but I disagree. I think we are rooting for him to be successful in his meth manufacturing, at least in the first couple seasons of the show. How do you make the audience root for a drug dealer or other un-heroic lead? Here are three techniques:

1. They do bad things for good causes. This is probably the primary tool used by Breaking Bad. In this scenario you create a likeable character and put them in a situation where their decision to do bad things is completely understandable.

In the pilot of Breaking Bad, Walter White is an underpaid schoolteacher who has to work at a car wash part time to support his family, including a son with serious health issues. Then he learns his wife is pregnant (unplanned) and that he has potentially fatal lung cancer. Poor guy! He chooses to start cooking meth in order to leave behind money that will support his family. His descent into evil begins with this decision that is completely sympathetic and understandable given his situation.

The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola) works much the same way. Michael comes from a criminal family, but he isn’t interested in joining the family business. He’s a war hero! Then someone tries to kill his father. Michael takes his first step into criminality to save his dad. Who can’t root for that?

2. They’re up against an even bigger, more unlikeable opponent. We will root for a bad guy if he’s fighting an even worse guy. In Taken (written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen) there is not much innately heroic about the character of Bryan Mills. He’s a violent, amoral man, a bad husband and inept father. Yet he’s taking on a vicious human trafficking organization. Of course we’ll root for him!

Another example of bad-vs.-worse is Elysium (written by Neill Blomkamp). Despite some charm, Max is basically a selfish criminal. He could easily be the villain in a different story. But in this story he’s going up against an unfeeling, oppressive, unfair bureaucracy of a kind that we’re all probably a little familiar with in the real world. We root for Max regardless of his moral failings and selfish motivation because he’s a little guy going up against a corrupt system.

3. They are helping an enormously likeable character. We’ll root for a bad guy if his success saves a good guy. In Taken, Mills is trying to rescue his sweet daughter from a horrible fate. Similarly, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the protagonist is Richard, a selfish failure and inattentive husband and father. But in this story he’s trying to help his daughter, Olive, achieve her dream so we root for him to succeed.

Bad Santa (written by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa) has one of the most unlikeable antiheros of all as its protagonist. But early on he befriends a lonely, bullied boy. Sure, at first he’s only doing it to get a free place to crash. But we see how much this kid needs a friend and we root for Willie to step up to the task. Which he does.

That’s another important point: in most of these examples the characters become better people as a result of the story. You could say a fourth technique is to give us an antihero protagonist with the potential for heroism.

For a look at what happens when you don’t give the audience a reason to root for your protagonist, check out another AMC show: Low Winter Sun. The protagonist in this show is Frank Agnew, a corrupt cop who kills another corrupt cop. The show is about trying to cover up the murder. But we’re given no good reason for why we would want him to get away with the crime, or why we would want him to succeed in any way. He’s a bad guy doing bad things for bad reasons.

“Likeability” is thrown around a lot in Hollywood. Many execs and writers think a likeable character is more appealing to an audience. But likeability or heroism is not actually the reason we invest emotionally in the character. Rather, we invest in the character when we can get behind their goals. If your character is an antihero, make sure you give us a good reason to root for their success.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Existential Crisis in the Feature Film Business

You may have heard that this summer set a record for domestic theatrical box office. That is indeed true. But if the celebration seems muted, it may be because it’s getting harder and harder for Hollywood to find good news in the feature film business.

Despite the great summer, 2013 ticket sales – a better measure of the industry’s health than box office – are still down 2% from 2012. And this just continues a decade long decline – from 1.58 billion tickets sold in 2002 to 1.36 billion in 2012. That’s a 14% drop.

In fact, the theatrical feature film business is in the midst of an existential crisis. For the first time, industry insiders are starting to wonder if the theatrical feature business might actually cease to exist in its current form. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s much discussed conversation at USC simply put voice to what studio execs have been worrying about in private. Let’s look at some of the disturbing signs.

Making and marketing movies has gotten extremely expensive. The MPAA used to release the average costs for studio movies, but they stopped in 2008, perhaps because it was too depressing. In 2007 the average production cost was $65 million and marketing was $35 million. It’s undoubtedly a lot more now. This means that failures are disastrous and hits make less.

Remember, box office is not the same as profit – exhibitors usually take between 40 and 50% of domestic box office and sometimes over 80% internationally. On the other hand there are ancillary markets like home video and TV that bring in revenue. So it’s complex, but a commonly used rule of thumb is that the worldwide gross must be twice the film’s budget to break even.

That means if we guess that the average budget of a studio film today is around $100 million (a fairly conservative guess), the average film needs to make $200 million worldwide to break even. But bigger films will need even more to make up not only for bigger budgets, but also for bigger marketing spends. And this summer many have not, and sometimes in spectacular fashion.

Disney is expected to take a write-down of between $100 million and $190 million on The Lone Ranger – only a year after taking a $150 million write-down on John Carter. After Earth grossed $183 million worldwide on a budget of $130 million plus likely over $100 million in marketing. RIPD did even worse, grossing $61 million worldwide on a similar budget to After Earth. Other expensive failures this summer include Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, White House Down and Turbo.

Meanwhile, moderately successful movies like The Wolverine and Pacific Rim will make a teeny-tiny return-on-investment due to their high cost. Of course, studios could make lower budget movies. I’ll get to why they don’t in a bit.

Another cause for concern: the audience is aging. The cliché of the blockbuster era, basically dating from Jaws in 1975, is that big studio movies are made for teenage boys. But last year only 12% of tickets were purchased by teens 12-17 years of age (male and female combined). Even the kind of big action-adventure stuff that theoretically targets teenage boys is skewing older. The audience for World War Z was 67% over 25. Man of Steel’s audience was 62% over 25.

This is troubling because an aging audience has a predictive quality – if young people today do not develop a movie-going habit, where will the industry be in twenty years?

The business has been here before. In the sixties Hollywood lost touch with the youth audience. The movies were stuffy and old fashioned. Attendance dropped. And this led to a renaissance in filmmaking when the studios had no choice but to start taking creative risks. The seventies are widely regarded as a “golden age” of studio films as a result.

Some, including me, have held out hope that the same thing could happen now. But there are frightening differences between the world of the early seventies and the world of today. Back then there were only three television channels. Their programming was even more old-fashioned than the studios’ and they showed mostly reruns during the summer. Few people had VCRs and few movies were available on video. If you wanted to see a new, filmed story in the summer, you had to go to the movie theater.

Also, a “big screen TV" was 27 inches and standard definition. Video games were primitive. There was no Internet or texting or social networking. No iPads or Angry Birds. More people had black-and-white TVs than had access to a computer.

The world today is very different. Movies are still a reasonably inexpensive form of out-of-home entertainment, but they have to compete with an unbelievably massive amount of in-home and mobile entertainment. It used to be movies could brag of higher quality in the theater than on your home set. But in the current golden age of television, there are more quality hours on TV than all theatrical movies combined. Whether anyone really needs to go see a movie in a theater is a very real question today.

And it’s now easy to see the best movies from any era, any time. Counter-intuitively, this means the ancillary value of new movies is shrinking. Matthew Blank, Showtime’s CEO said in the Hollywood Reporter, “We see cases of a great library movie title that may perform almost as well as all the great first run titles. By the way, we want to have more movies on Showtime in five years – just not necessarily first-run ones.”

Screenwriters are fond of blaming producers and executives for the sad state of the business, but the “suits” are caught between a rock and a hard place today.

All these pressures mean the variety of types of movies is narrowing. Studios have abandoned many genres, particularly those in the mid-budget range. Who needs to go to the theater to see a courtroom drama or detective story when there are so many high-quality versions on television? How many feature dramas can match the quality of Mad Men or Breaking Bad?

This is a major reason studio films are becoming so expensive. The one thing Hollywood has always been able to count on as their trump card is spectacle. Spend enough money and you can put something on the screen that can’t be seen anywhere else. As competition has increased, so has the studio demand that movies be spectacular.

But now they’re even losing that battle. Visual effects are becoming cheaper and easier. It’s no longer impressive just to see a building blow up – a talented high school kid can make that on his home computer. TV shows like Game of Thrones regularly pull off amazing visuals. And every summer blockbuster is full of routine CG spectacle. Studios are realizing they can no longer spend their way to success.

If the studios are going to survive, they’re going to have to think about what will convince people to leave their giant TVs, Netflix, X-Boxes and iPads. It won’t be more buildings getting destroyed.

And screenwriters who want to write theatrical features need to think about this, too. What material has a shot in the marketplace? More importantly, what material will have a shot ten years from now? Are you building a professional identity that is viable for the long haul?

For many writers it may be time to consider whether features are really the best place for the kind of stories they want to tell. Recent statistics from the WGA are revealing: There were 25% fewer writers employed writing feature films in 2012 than in 2007. There are multiple reasons for the drop, but the biggest is simply fewer films getting made. On the other hand, TV employment is growing and new media residuals went from $6 million to $16 million in the last year. The flip side of Warner Brothers’ film studio needing to compete with Netflix is that Netflix is now hiring writers (and actors and directors).

But don’t fall for all the hype about the democratizing power of the Internet. Look at the shows Netfilx has produced. All feature stars, veteran creators, or both. Amazon Studios is making very traditional looking sitcoms. There is more creative opportunity, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean the barriers for entry have vanished.

It’s enough to make a screenwriter’s head spin. Remember, the saying, “May you live in interesting times,” was meant as a curse.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Character vs. Charicterization

(SPOILERS: The Heat, The Godfather, Casablanca, Kramer vs. Kramer)

My friend Ken Aguado (co-author with me of The Hollywood Pitching Bible) is fond of saying that film is not really about character, it’s about behavior. In other words, it’s not about the elements that have shaped the character to be who they are today, it’s about how that character’s persona is revealed on screen.

This is because film is a visual medium that unfolds with immediacy. You have to reveal in the moment. It doesn’t matter how interesting and brilliant and unique your characters are if they all talk and behave the same.

Of course in order to give proper characterization to a character, the writer must understand who that person is. We have to know what motivates them, what scares them, their hopes and dreams, their political, moral and religious beliefs. But none of that work will come across to the audience if we don’t reveal it through behavior and other elements of characterization.

There are several characterization tools at our disposal:

How the character looks: In most cases the first impression we’ll get of a character is their appearance. In screenplays it’s best to avoid long descriptions, but whatever you choose to describe about the way a character is dressed or their physicality or how they’re groomed should tell us something important about them.

For example, in The Heat (written by Katie Dippold), the contrast between Mullins’ sleeveless sweatshirt and fingerless leather gloves and Ashburn’s button-up pantsuits tells a lot about who they are – and why they probably won’t get along.

The character’s environment: The environment a character creates for themselves at home or work or wherever can tell us a lot about them. In The Heat we see Mullins’ trashed apartment in a run down building, her fridge filled with weapons and a two-day-old half of a sandwich. That gives a pretty good insight into her personality, doesn’t it?

How the character talks: Character voice is one of your most useful tools when it comes to characterization. The way a character speaks can reveal their personality, their socio-economic status, hints of back-story and, of course, their emotional state.

There’s a great scene in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) where Michael goes to Vegas. He meets with Mo Green, who has taken in Fredo. In the scene, Michael tells Mo he wants to buy out his interest in the casino. Mo gets furious, yelling and screaming – “Do you know who I am?” Michael stays calm, waits out the storm, never saying more than he needs to. Meanwhile Fredo continually tries to defuse the situation.

Mo’s bluster tells us he’s an arrogant guy with a temper who’s used to getting what he wants. Michael’s calm authority shows his confidence and self-control. Fredo’s rambling and wheedling and attempts to make nice reveal that he’s averse to confrontation and lacks self-confidence. (This scene also makes good use of costuming: Michael’s expensive, conservative dark suit vs. Fredo’s flashy suit with a scarf tied around his neck.)

For tips on how to create character voice, check out my character diary exercise.

What others say about the character: I suppose this is not strictly characterization, but it can reveal a lot. Remember, actions speak louder than words – we believe what a character does more than what they say about themselves. But we will also tend to believe what other characters say about them. And, it’s much more believable for someone to talk about another person’s character than for that person to talk about themselves.

In Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), other characters tell us about Rick – how he doesn’t drink with his patrons, how he always stays strictly neutral. And it is Laszlo that reveals that Rick used to be something of a freedom fighter. Speaking of Laszlo, he never comes out and talks about what a noble and honorable man he is – that would just sound arrogant. It’s the other characters that tell us that.

Behavior: The best way to characterize someone, however, is through their behavior. Little things can be particularly helpful – the way Sally in When Harry Met Sally… (written by Nora Ephron) always gives explicit instructions about how to prepare her food whenever she orders something in a restaurant, for example.

Behavior can even show character change. In Kramer vs. Kramer (screenplay by Robert Benton), there’s a scene the morning after Ted’s wife has left where he attempts to make French toast for his son’s breakfast. He obviously has no idea what he’s doing, getting eggshells in the mix and burning himself. It’s clear he has not participated much in the domestic chores of the family before this, which tells us something important about him.

Then much later in the movie Ted again makes French toast for his son – only this time his cooking is smooth and effortless and he carries on a meaningful conversation with his son the whole time. He’s a different person now, with different priorities, who has learned from his experiences through the story.

So develop your characters, of course, but also spend some time thinking about how to characterize them with their appearance, environment, voice and behavior. It’s how we tell stories on film.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Recommended Screenwriting Books

From time to time I’m asked what screenwriting books I like. Below are some books I recommend as a starting place to build your screenwriting library.

Making A Good Script Great by Linda Seger

This is the book I would recommend to someone who knows nothing about screenwriting. It’s broad but a little shallow – in other words, it covers most of the crucial parts of the screenwriting craft, but somewhat superficially. It provides a good overview and a good base to build from. It is ostensibly a book about rewriting, but really what it covers is what you have to think about in the outlining and first draft stages as well. Also, Seger’s philosophies and approach to screenwriting pretty closely mirror mine.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler

This book describes how to apply the mono-myth as described by Joseph Campbell to screenwriting. It’s a different approach to screenwriting than the more typical three-act structure, though the two work together well. Not every story fits the mono-myth, however if you think of it metaphorically, most will. What I like about it is that it approaches plot from the standpoint of the character’s journey, making the story very character driven.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Recently unfairly maligned, Save the Cat is as comprehensive as Seger’s book, though more uneven in my opinion. I disagree with some of Snyder’s structural breakdown and a lot of his advice works best if you’re writing the kind of light comedies and family drama that he specialized in. However he also gives a lot of tricks of the trade that I’ve heard pro screenwriters talk about but haven’t seen in a book before. Perhaps that's because this is one of the surprisingly few screenwriting books written by someone who’s actually had screenplays produced.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon

These guys tell it like it really is in Hollywood. If you want to work within the studio system, you should know what you’re getting into. The book is both cynical and hilarious, and it offers some good tips for dealing with difficult situations you'll encounter in the business. It’s less useful when it purports to give advice on actually writing, but for dealing with the industry and maintaining your psychological health, it’s invaluable. And again, here is a book by actual produced screenwriters.

The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard and Edward Mabley

David Howard was one of my professors at USC. This book contains lots of useful techniques that are frequently overlooked in other books. The only problem is that the book is not organized in such a way that a beginner could easily build a writing process from it. However if you start with Seger’s book, this one will offer more advanced treatment of many crucial concepts.

And because I can't not mention it...

The Hollywood Pitching Bible by Douglas Eboch and Ken Aguado

Okay, I have to put a big asterisk by this one because I co-wrote it. But I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t think the information was valuable. Pitching is a crucial part of being a professional screenwriter. Our book tells you how to do it effectively. And speaking of screenwriting books I wrote, there's also...

Any favorite screenwriting books I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Techniques for Tightening Your Screenplay

When I was discussing how to fix a screenplay that was too long a couple weeks back, I promised to give some tips on how to tighten your writing. Here they are!

One of the most common problems in beginner scripts is overwriting. Overwriting is when you use more words than you need to in order to do the job. It’s easy to overwrite because as you write, you are imagining the scene and putting down what you imagine. But now that you’re rewriting, you need to make sure every sentence is working properly and moving the story forward. You want to eliminate that extra padding that the reader might not even notice but that slows down the pace unnecessarily.

I personally have a bad habit of writing the character “turns around” and does something, because as the scene plays out in my head the character turns. But that’s almost always unnecessary to write. If the character is picking up a knife, for example, I can just write, “He picks up the knife.” If on the set the knife is behind the actor, I can trust he will figure out he has to turn around to get it.
Keep your action simple and spare. Only describe what’s needed to understand the scene. Give just enough carefully chosen, specific detail to make the scene come alive and if there’s something you want to emphasize, make sure you hit it hard. Instead of:

There is a KNOCK at the door. Steve stands up and goes over to open it. Megan is on the other side. She enters.

Just write:

There is a KNOCK. Steve opens the door for Megan.

Cut any action or dialogue that doesn’t really advance plot or character. Sometimes you’ll need a line of transitory dialogue to move a scene forward, but make these as efficient as possible. Let’s say you have two characters at a barbecue and you need them to go inside. You might write something like (please forgive improper formatting - difficult to get screenplay format in Blogger):

I’m thirsty. Is there any more beer?


It’s in the fridge.


Do you want to come with me?



They go inside

There’s nothing awful about that dialogue on the surface. It’s reasonably realistic. But it’s also boring. You could get the same result with:

Let’s go get another drink.

They go inside

Even better, you could probably just cut to them inside getting their beers. Would the audience really be confused?

Particularly watch out for the dreaded “greetings, introductions and farewells.” Too many weak scripts begin scenes with characters entering, greeting each other, introducing friends, asking how each other is doing, etc. It’s boring! Cut into the scene at the meat of the conversation. The same rule applies to leaving. We don’t need long goodbyes, just cut out of the scene. And definitely avoid having someone introducing a group of characters to each other. It takes lots of space and the audience probably won’t remember the names anyway.

Watch for overly detailed descriptions. Many new writers start a scene by describing everything in the room. That’s unnecessary. If the slug line says we’re in a classroom we have a pretty good idea of what we’ll find in there. Pick a few specific things to point out that tell us what kind of classroom it is and let us fill in the rest. If the chalkboard at the front of the room is just an ordinary chalkboard you don’t need to mention it.

Something that will help here is specificity. Try to pick specific, evocative words and details. Consider this description:


The walls are painted grey. There are pictures of Presidents above the chalkboard. There are a dozen old desks arranged in three rows and a big teacher’s desk at the front. One wall has dirty windows overlooking the ball field. There is a tattered flag in the corner. The fluorescent lights cast a greenish hue.

Now try this version:


More of a prison than a learning environment. The peeling grey paint was applied at least a decade ago. Some of the graffiti carved into the desktops dates back five times as long.

Doesn’t the second give you a much stronger impression of the environment in a lot fewer words? And yet even that is probably too much for most scenes. Usually all you need is:


A worn and decrepit prison of education.

...and get started on the drama. There are exceptions – sometimes you need to establish a mood. Or sometimes a key location needs more detail to provide context for the scene. But far more often a classroom is just a classroom.

It’s not always easy to ignore the forest and focus on the trees. You have to force yourself to go slow and evaluate every line and even every word. But if you are ruthless with your cutting, you will not only significantly reduce page count, you’ll have a breezy, faster paced screenplay.