Friday, February 27, 2015

How to Know if Your Idea is Marketable

My friend and fellow screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers) has a Venn diagram he uses to determine whether a spec script idea is worth his time. There are three circles on the diagram – the ideas he loves, the ideas he thinks he can do well, and the ideas he thinks he can sell. He only wants to put in time and energy on the ideas that fall in the intersection of these three circles. (I might add a fourth circle – whether the idea will advance my brand/reputation.)

It takes a lot of time and energy to write a spec script. Why would you want to invest that time on an idea you don’t love? And why would you want to invest that time on an idea that you can’t sell?

It’s pretty easy to figure out whether you love an idea, and only a little harder to figure out if it’s something you can do well. However it can be quite tricky to figure out if an idea is something you can sell.

Here’s an exercise that can help: Think of five movies that are similar to yours in terms of genre, tone and scope that have been released in the last three years. Go ahead, do it now.

If you have difficulty coming up with five movies, it may be an indication that there isn’t really a market for that type of movie. (It could also be an indication that you haven’t really developed your idea enough.) Perhaps you should move on to a new idea.

If you were able to come up with five movies, you’re not done yet.

Do you love all the movies on your list? If not, it could be an indication that you aren’t working in the right genre. You should really love the type of movie you're trying to write. Try coming up with replacements for any movies on your list that you didn’t like.

Now, dig a little deeper into your analysis by asking these questions:

Were the movies successful? Don’t rely on your impression or memory, check And don’t just look at gross, compare gross to budget (also available on boxofficemojo). Generally, a movie has to gross at least 2.5 times its budget worldwide to be profitable. Not all five of your movies have to be hits, but if none of them were, it might be a bad sign for your idea.

Now it gets a little trickier. You will have to do some subjective analysis, and you will be tempted to reach conclusions that support the idea you want to write. Try to be as clear eyed as possible as you ask:

What do the five movies have in common? Are they all star vehicles? Are they all within a certain budget range? Do they all have the same rating? Are they all set in a contemporary time period? If your concept does not share the things the five movies have in common, it could be a warning sign. You might want to adjust your idea (for example, if you were envisioning an R rated movie but all five comparison movies were PG-13, consider toning yours down). Or, maybe the movies weren't as similar to your idea as you first thought. You might need to find five different movies to justify sticking with your approach.

(Edited to add: Additionally, if all of the movies you picked are based on underlying material, it might be a warning that your idea will be a tough sell if it's an original story.)

The Same but Different

Now, ask yourself how your idea is different from the five. There is good different and bad different. Bad is when you are ignoring a factor that was relevant to the other movies’ success (e.g. they all had movie star leads while you envision an ensemble). Good is when your idea has something fresh and original about it that is compelling.

Hollywood is not famous for originality and risk taking, but it isn’t looking for carbon copy movies either. If your idea is marketable, there will likely be hundreds of similar scripts floating around at the same time. How is yours fresh? What are you adding to the genre? Again, it can’t be so different than you lose what is marketable about the type of movie, but it has to be different enough that it will interest fans of that type of movie.

This type of analysis is helpful to prevent you from wasting time on an idea that has no potential for selling, or to allow you to adjust your idea in a more marketable direction before you start writing. However, remember that marketability is only one circle on Paul’s Venn diagram. You also need to love the idea and feel you can write it well. If the idea doesn’t fit the sweet spot, it is probably worth spending time looking for a new idea.

And before you get too enamored with the fact that you found the perfect idea, read this post on the value of ideas.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The One Miracle Rule

Let's Schmooze is on vacation this week. This post originally ran in 2012

(SPOILERS: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider-Man 3)

One of the common rules of thumb we have in filmmaking is “The One Miracle Rule.” What this means is that the audience will suspend their disbelief for one improbable or even impossible thing, but not more than that. So, for example, we’ll believe aliens exist. Or we’ll believe ghosts exist. But we won’t believe both aliens and ghosts exist.

Accepting a miracle is the agreement we make when we buy a ticket for a particular story premise. So when we buy a ticket for Singing in the Rain (screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden), we agree to believe people break into song on the street, at least for the duration of the film. When we buy a ticket for Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), we agree to believe that people can enter other people’s dreams.

The miracles need not be that miraculous. They can be coincidences. They can be an unusual but plausible situation, such as a man is wrongly accused of a crime. Spectacular skills the main character has would also count. I might believe a character is the greatest marksman in the world, but I won’t believe that he’s the greatest marksman and the world’s leading physicist… unless one thing explains the other. Similarly, if the world’s greatest marksman is wrongly accused of a crime, it better be because he’s a marksman, not just random coincidence.

I had this problem in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (screenplay by Steven Zaillian). I could believe in the unusual situation that Lisbeth would be recruited to help uncover a brilliant, sadistic, serial killer. But at the end of the movie when they ask me to believe that Lisbeth also was able to pilfer millions and millions of dollars from our hero’s corrupt enemy, an enemy completely unrelated to the killer, I had a hard time accepting that additional unlikely situation.

Obviously Lisbeth’s computer skills were formidable – that wasn’t the problem. It was the implausibility that such a character would get both the opportunity to solve an incredibly spectacular murder and the opportunity to pilfer such a huge sum of money. It was one miracle too many.

Some people have that problem with the Marvel superhero movies. They have a hard time accepting that Tony Stark could invent the Iron Man armor and that Bruce Banner could become the Hulk in the same world. Personally, this doesn’t bother me – I feel like the miracle I’m being asked to accept is that “superheroes exist.” But that is the advantage of the X-men: all the heroes in that world have the same source of power – mutation. It’s a single miracle.

The Harry Potter movies work similarly. There would seem to be a lot of miracles in those – everything from wizards to dragons to time travel to ghosts. But all of it stems from the concept that “magic exists secretly in our world.” That’s the miracle that we’re asked to accept, and everything else extends from it. That allows for a lot of latitude, but an alien invasion in the Harry Potter books would probably break the reality.

That doesn’t mean these kinds of “broad miracle” movies can’t fail the rule in other ways. Double coincidence also counts as two miracles. Spider-Man 3 (screen story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi, screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent) fails on this count. I can accept that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him superpowers. But then an asteroid crashes near him and he’s infected by Venom.

I can believe Venom exists in this superhero world – I accepted Doc Oc and the Green Goblin – but it’s too coincidental that both the radioactive spider miracle and the asteroid miracle happen to the same person completely independently. Sadly, the solution is glaringly obvious. If Peter Parker encountered Venom because he was investigating an asteroid crash in his guise as Spider-Man, then I’d buy it. The first miracle explains the second.

By now you may be thinking of movies like Star Wars (written by George Lucas) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). There are a lot of miracles in those. In Star Wars, you have the force, faster than light travel, lightsabers, aliens, etc. How do they get away with it?

These kinds of movies take us to another world. That other world can have many things that are different from our world. But they can’t do just anything. They have to have an internal consistency. You have to set up the rules of the new world – then anything that violates those rules counts as a miracle. So elves and magic swords don’t bother us in Lord of the Rings, but a car would… even though we know in reality cars exist and elves and magic swords don’t!

Most of Star Wars can be excused with the idea that it’s set in a technologically very advanced world. The few elements that are not a given – the aliens and especially the force – are established as part of the world early. We’re told up front this is the world and we either accept it or we walk out of the movie. But once the rules of the world are laid down, they can’t be violated. The world is the first miracle. No more are allowed.

If you find yourself in a situation where two miracles have to be present for your story to work, try to figure out a way for one miracle to lead to the other, a la my fix for Spider-Man 3. Otherwise, the audience may find the whole thing too implausible.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Four Secrets for Better Exposition

(SPOILERS: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, The Matrix, Inception, Little Miss Sunshine)

One of the most difficult things to handle well in a screenplay is exposition. Exposition is the stuff the audience needs to know to understand the story but isn’t particularly interested in. Because the audience doesn’t inherently care about exposition it is, by definition, boring. Your job as writer is to find ways to make it palatable. Here are four ways to help exposition go down easier:

1. Timing

When you deliver your exposition is as important as how you deliver it. Never, ever start your script with exposition. Readers will toss it aside before they even get to the meat of the story. Instead, place the information somewhere the audience will appreciate it. Often it’s best to dribble the exposition out, slipping it into scenes that have other purposes. But sometimes, especially in stories with complex or fantastic settings or mythology, it can be better to have a scene that is solely for exposition.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) has a very expository scene in Act One. Two FBI agents tell Indiana Jones and his boss at the university about the clues they’ve uncovered regarding the Nazi’s search for the Ark, and then Indy explains the Ark’s history and a bit about the Staff of Ra. It lays out almost everything the audience needs to know to understand the rest of the movie.

If we opened with this scene it would be a snooze-fest in the theater. Instead, it comes soon after a long sequence of rip-roaring action. At that point the audience could use a little break. So one way to handle exposition is to place it after a tense, exciting scene when the audience is happy to take a few moments to catch their breath.

The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) demonstrates another way to time exposition for maximum effect. We don’t get the explanation of what the Matrix is and the history of how the machines have taken over the world, until Act Two. Prior to this we’ve seen all kinds of weird things – people with super powers, Neo’s mouth vanishing, and a pill that draws Neo into a strange world. By Act Two we’re desperate for somebody to explain what’s going on and we happily sit through Morpheus’s lecture. If you make the audience want to know the expository information it won’t seem boring.

2. The Character Who Doesn’t Know

It can be particularly painful to see one character tell another character something they already know. It’s obvious the dialogue is just there for the audience’s benefit. Putting someone into the scene who doesn’t know the information can solve the problem. This is why the FBI agents in the Raiders scene don’t know anything about the Ark or its religious history. That gives Indiana Jones a reason to explain it.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the character of uncle Frank serves this purpose. He is newly arrived to the family, so he doesn’t know things like why the brother doesn’t speak or why Grandpa got kicked out of the retirement home. He can logically ask these questions. And when the reason is explained to Frank, the audience is let in on it as well.

This is why in movies featuring a team of some kind there is usually one new member. Ariadne serves this purpose in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan). She’s new to the team and new to the process of inception, so the veterans have to explain how everything works to her.

3. Reveal in conflict

If you have to have a character deliver information known to another character, try adding conflict. If characters are arguing, they will bring up things everyone knows to support their point. When Joe and Jerry are introduced in Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) they’re debating what to do with their impending paychecks. This allows Joe to point out that they owe money to a whole bunch of people – something he would never bring up otherwise because Jerry’s well aware of it.

Similarly, when we need to learn the reasons the whole family must go in the van to California in Little Miss Sunshine, they are delivered in an argument between Richard and Sheryl. The exposition about money problems, Sheryl’s inability to drive a stick shift, etc., are necessary for the story, but well known to both characters. But the dialogue doesn't sound false in this scene because the characters are mentioning these issues to support their point of view.

4. Wallpapering

Another trick to make exposition go down easier is known as wallpapering. This is when you set the scene in an interesting locale, or have something visually interesting in the background so the audience doesn’t notice how boring the scene actually is.

Inception does this. Many of the scenes where Cobb explains things to Ariadne are set in dream worlds. We see the environment shift – in one case the city folds up on itself. The cool visual effect hides the lack of drama and conflict in these scenes. Similarly, The Matrix delivers much of its exposition in a mock up matrix on Morpheus's ship that provides interesting visuals.

The Terminator (written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd) has an expository scene very similar to the ones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix. Reese explains the time travel premise and what the terminators are and the history of the future to Sarah Connor. This happens in a car fleeing an attack on Sarah Connor by the terminator. Throughout the scene, we’ll get a little bit of exposition, then a police car will catch up to them and we’ll get a little bit of car chase. Then Reese will lose the pursuer and it’s back to exposition. The car chase isn't particularly relevant to the story, it's wallpapering.

(It’s also worth noting that this Terminator scene comes about forty minutes into the movie when the audience is desperate for an explanation for what they’ve seen, and includes a character who needs to know the information. It's pulling out all the techniques to keep the exposition from being boring.)

Every script requires exposition. The key is to use these techniques to make it more palatable to the audience.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Always Be Pitching

In the pitching class I teach with producer Ken Aguado at Art Center College, and in the book we wrote, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, we encourage screenwriters to think of pitching in the broadest sense. When one talks about pitching, most people think of the classic Hollywood meeting where a writer presents an original idea (or their take on underlying material) to a producer or executive. But really, you will be pitching your ideas all the time in all kinds of situations in Hollywood. Pitching in the broadest sense is the process of getting a story idea that’s in your head into the head of someone else. Here are a few examples of pitching situations:
  • You meet a producer, agent, or filmmaker at a party or industry event and they ask what your screenplay is about.
  • You are presenting ideas for possible spec scripts to your agent.
  • You are proposing a project to your co-writer.
  • You are trying to convince a director or star or financier to sign on to your independent film.
  • You are sending out a query letter or creating a “leave-behind.” These are pitches on paper and should be crafted with many of the same principles as a verbal pitch.
  • You are presenting a treatment to your producer or executive. It’s a mistake to simply do a dry plot recitation in a treatment. The reader will worry you have lost the spark of interest of the idea. Craft a treatment much like you craft a pitch.
  • You are summarizing a screenplay for a contest application. Another pitch on paper.
  • You are at a pitch fest event trying to convince a buyer to read your script.
  • You are in a general meeting and the producer or executive asks what you are working on.
  • You are in a general meeting and the producer or executive says they are in the market for a certain type of movie. You have such a script and want to tell them about it.
  • And of course, you are in an actual pitch meeting attempting to sell your original idea or get a job on an assignment.
The different kinds of pitches can generally be categorized by length. The goal of the pitch tends to dictate how long the pitch is. And each length/goal has different requirements.

I’m fond of saying that you should craft the best version of your story for the form you are presenting. A pitch is different than a script and a log line is another thing entirely. They won’t contain the same items and won’t present them in the same way. You won’t be able to include your cool subplot in the log line and it is a mistake to try to cram it in. If you have an elaborate science fiction or fantasy world, you will have to find a way to condense it to only the most salient elements in anything less than a full-length pitch.

So let’s look at the different lengths of pitches and the unique requirements of each:

The stand-alone log line. A log line is a one or two sentence description of your concept, ideally less than 50 words long. It will be a component of any pitch. When you present the log line by itself, you should also mention things like the title, genre, tone and anticipated MPAA rating (in a longer pitch these things might be separated from the log line.) This form requires a tight focus on the concept. It must include the character, their goal, what’s at stake, and what the primary obstacle is. There usually isn’t room for much else. Your one and only goal is to convey what kind of movie you’re talking about, what the concept is, and what’s compelling about that concept.

Stand-alone log lines are by far the most common type of pitch. They would be used in any casual or social situation where someone asks what your script is about. In these situations the listener DOES NOT want you to launch into a thirty-minute description of your idea! Stand-alone log lines are also used when you are presenting ideas to your representatives and a stand-alone log line is how you describe your script in a query letter. There are many other situations that call for stand-alone log lines and it’s wise to have them memorized and ready to go at a moment’s notice. (For more on log lines, see this post.)

Two-minute pitch. A two-minute pitch is most commonly used when you are trying to get someone to read an existing script or hear a longer pitch at a later time. This is what you use in pitch fests. You might use them in a general meeting to discuss an older script that you think the buyer might like. They can also serve as a “door knob” pitch (A pitch you do “on your way out” of the office after you’ve failed with a bigger pitch, though usually you aren’t literally standing at the door. You phrase it as, “there’s one other idea I’ve been kicking around…”)

The big thing about a two-minute pitch is you won’t be able to cover much plot. After you do your “personal connection” and give the log line, you’ll just have time to describe the character(s), give the set-up, and then tee off the story in a way that suggests there’s plenty of material for a feature. You don’t give the ending – remember, the goal is to get them to read the script or hear a longer pitch. They just need to know what the story’s about and why it’s interesting; they don’t need all the plot details.

Five-minute pitch. This is the kind of pitch you do in a general meeting when they ask what you’re working on. Essentially, this is a two-minute pitch with three more minutes of story added on, including an ending.

The danger here is trying to cram too much plot into those three minutes. Plot doesn’t sell your idea. I’ll repeat that because it’s so important: Plot doesn’t sell your idea. In a five-minute pitch you have to tell a compelling condensed version of your story, and it needs to emphasize character (i.e. how the characters evolve through the story). That means you have to identify the crucial beats of the plot, and may even have to alter some of them to make the story work in this time frame (remember, best version for the medium). You’ll want to give the set up, then focus only on the major arcs and obstacles of act two, then wrap up in a compelling climax. You do not want to go scene-by-scene through the story.

Full-length pitch. You pretty much only do this when you have set up a meeting specifically to pitch an original idea that you want to be paid to write, or to get a job on an assignment. Typically these pitches are 12-15 minutes long, though up to 20 minutes is acceptable. I usually find the shorter end of the range is best, depending on the listener. Hopefully you will have some advance notice as to whether the person you’re pitching to has a short attention span or likes to obsess over details. I’ve heard of pitches running as long as 45 minutes, but I can’t imagine that’s ever really necessary.

A good full-length pitch will cover the entire story in detail. The plot will be completely laid out. However, you must be sure to present the plot in a compelling fashion, focusing on the character and emotion and capturing the tone of the film (e.g. if it's a comedy your pitch should be funny!) Reciting boring plot points in a "this-happens-then-that-happens" fashion is a sure path to a pass. This is really about understanding the difference between plot and story.

The ability to tailor your story to different lengths and situations is crucial to success as a professional screenwriter. You must understand what’s appropriate for the situation you are going into and prepare your pitch accordingly.