Archive for July, 2010
Congratulations and further good luck to my clients Joe Puterbaugh and Ron Cecchini and fellow The Writers’ Building member Stephen Hoover on making the semi- finals of the Silver Screenwriting Competition, the Top 20 which represents the top 2.5% out of more than 1,000 entries. Silver is quickly becoming one of the premier screenwriting contests so it’s fantastic validation for these hard-working writers and I’m proud to have worked with them.
Good luck to all the semi-finalists!
The Dark Knight is an expert example of building an active story around Theme, one of the main dramatic elements in the “Basic Story Map.”
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In a movie, especially a superhero action thriller, there must be HIGH STAKES with SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES. Life or death. Loyalty or betrayal. Love or Duty.
In The Dark Knight, the screenwriters wisely push the story to the extremes of the conflict. To find those extremes, they began with Bruce Wayne/Batman’s character and mythology and used those elements to push him into an impossible situation.
Here are three “essential truths” of Bruce Wayne/Batman:
- Bruce Wayne has sworn to protect the people of Gotham City.
- Bruce’s alter-ego Batman is the only thing that can protect them.
- Bruce’s one rule is not to kill.
The screenwriters will push Bruce into a position where he has only two options:
- Give up his identity as Batman and turn himself in to the authorities, or
- Kill The Joker.
In other words: an impossible choice. This is what great drama is built upon.
The glue that holds it together is Theme.
The Theme of The Dark Knight is “Desperation pushes men to act in self-destructive and chaotic ways.”
You know who your story is about and what it’s about and why you’re telling the story…but HOW are you going to tell it?
Think about the general way that you’re going to tell the story before you start to lay out the scene list. What’s your way into this story?
E.T. was crafted to be told from the perspective of a young boy, Elliot. We pretty much only see what he sees, know what he knows. The film even employs low angles to give the audience the perspective of a child.
The Usual Suspects is literally told to us by Kevin Spacey’s character, who spins a long-winded tale meant to answer the question “Who is Keyser Soze?” The answer is not revealed until the climax when we learn that he is Keyser Soze.
Citizen Kane uses the framing device of a reporter’s investigation, thus motivating a trip through the life of Charles Foster Kane, all in answer to the question “What is Rosebud?”
Slumdog Millionaire uses the questions in the quiz show as catalysts for flashbacks that show us Jamal’s journey from the slums to his lower-class job as a Chai server to his chance to win a million dollars on TV — these scenes show us how he gathered the information to answer the question at hand, a deft use of Cause & Effect. The quiz show becomes the spine of the story, providing the foundation for Jamal’s pursuit of his external and internal goals, which are, put simply, the money and the girl. It’s interesting to note that these two goals represent Jamal’s two worlds: the upper class world of money and the lower class world of danger and desperation.
These examples were the screenwriters’ chosen perspectives and central engines for the story. They could have chosen 100 other devices with which to tell these particular stories, but they chose these narrative devices, probably because they best exemplified the key elements in their Basic Story Map, like Goals, Theme and Arc.
Working, professional Reader Carson Reeves runs a site named “Script Shadow” – if you haven’t checked it out, you should do so now.
Script Shadow consistently publishes detailed reviews of spec scripts that have recently sold in Hollywood. Carson reads and reviews the Black List finalists (in which most of the top scoring scripts have been optioned, sold and/or put into production by the time of publication) and any spec that’s hot and garnered a six to seven figure sale or a greenlight. He also runs small contests (with the prize of a published review from him, not cash, which I like) and publishes articles about what goes into a great screenplay.
I’d like to highlight a particular post from May 2010, titled “Why Bad Scripts Sell and Why It Shouldn’t Matter To You,” which has a lot to say about bad scripts but what I love the most about it are the conclusions drawn about GOOD scripts. From the article…
So now you know Hollywood’s dirty little secret. Bad scripts do sell! But here’s the thing about all of the above examples: THEY DON’T APPLY TO YOU. You don’t have agents or managers or the luxury of pitching movies over lunch to people who can actually make them. The ONLY thing you have…is your screenplay. And that’s why YOUR screenplay DOES have to be great.
A screenwriter is hired for a negotiated fee to write or rewrite a script within a certain timeframe. The writer is guaranteed of payment if he/she fulfills the terms of the contract (and the employer honors the contract).
A work-for-hire generally consists of steps in which the writer receives a payment for each portion of the script that is delivered on schedule. Steps might include the beat sheet, treatment, first draft, producer’s draft, polish draft, etc.
Unfortunately, it is becoming more commonplace for studios to use “one step deals” in which the writer gets only one payment for one pass then is often asked to do extra drafts for free (usually to incorporate notes from the studio, the producer or talent). (also see Packaging a script) The WGA is trying to crack down on these abuses.
Work-for-Hire is generally only for experienced writers. A newcomer must be known for at least one quality spec script before being considered for work-for-hire jobs (see Spec Script).
A Work-for-Hire is also known as a writing assignment. The screenwriter is writing “on assignment” (with employer) as opposed to “on spec” (on their own).
An Unsolicited Submission is a screenplay submission that is not coming from a professional source (an agent, lawyer, or manager). Many production companies and studios refuse to read unsolicited submissions, but they all keep a Submission Release Form on hand for when they get tempted by a new writer with a fantastic logline.
Keep in mind that many agencies and management companies also employ a “No Unsolicited Submissions” rule, so you need an agent to get an agent! The way around this is to network and meet repped writers so they will give you a referral to their agent or manager.
The common wisdom is that managers are more likely to read material from new writers than agents but it is my experience that they can be just as tough to get to. The first step is to win over their assistant and get them to accept your submission.
The plot of a screenplay written out in prose form, generally in one to two pages. The story, specifically the action of the story; beginning, middle, and end; very clearly written and meticulously proofread.
The treatment should be very spare and straightforward — it should not contain extraneous emotional or cerebral content nor long excerpts of dialogue. I feel that it is crucial for a screenwriter to write a treatment of their story before they begin writing the actual script to see how it works on the page and how it is balanced to the four act structure, and then also after they’re finished to help market it. Many companies will require a one page treatment sent ahead of time for review before they accept the screenplay.
Also called a synopsis or pitch; not to be confused with a long-form 25 page treatment, or even longer scriptment (a phrase popularized by James Cameron) which includes blocked excerpts of dialogue and can be written moreso in a hybrid screenplay format.
It should also be noted that it is extremely difficult for unestablished writers to sell just a treatment without the accompanying screenplay. Employers want to see your unique concept executed on the screenplay page in your voice before they’ll buy just the idea and general structure in treatment form.
Three Act Structure (a.k.a standard structure) is the classical, proven form of storytelling in film. Form, not formula. It does not dictate your story choices, only where you might place the major plot points.
This structure is based on Aristotle’s three act dramatic structure: beginning, middle, and end. Also known as Three Act Restorative Structure, as the story begins with an order that is thrown into chaos, and by the end a new restoration of order is reached.
My estimate is that 95% of modern movies fit into a three-act structure, including most foreign films and seemingly more experimental cinema such as Paranormal Activity, Borat, Being John Malkovich or The Blair Witch Project.
Personally, I break the three acts into four, separating act two into 2A and 2B.
A waiver provided by a production company and signed by an un-repped writer who is making an unsolicited submission (see Unsolicited Submission). Protects the production company in the event they produce a film featuring a similar story as the writer’s screenplay and it produces a paper trail for the writer as a record of the submission.
The Submission Release Form is the way around the “no unsolicited submissions” rule if a production company really wants to read your script.
Also known as a “Reader.” The person who reads a written submission (usually a screenplay or a novel) for a producer or executive and writes up an evaluation report called coverage. Since producers and executives can’t possibly read every submission that comes through the door, they employ story analysts to sift through most of it, and the exec only reads what gets screened and/or what is dubbed high-priority.
A spec script is a screenplay written to be sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company (see Work-for-Hire). No guarantee of payment. The greater risk of a spec script can pay off in a bigger sale.
The only way for a new screenwriter to break in is to have a strong spec screenplay that will establish them by being an impressive writing sample or their first sale.
The final draft of a screenplay before going into production. Has been given the final okay by the Director, the Producers and Executives and contains scene numbers and possibly camera cues and other visual references.
As a spec screenwriter, you should not be concerned with shooting scripts or formatting your script to look like one. Keep in mind that many of the produced screenplays you see posted online are shooting scripts, not submission drafts (see Reader’s Script) so you should not necessarily emulate the style and format of these drafts. Many shooting scripts also tend to be much longer than your average spec screenplay, which should be around 110 pages.
All screenplays and written material should be registered with the Writer’s Guild of America West or East before submitting to anyone or any professional entity. Your work (anything written may be registered) will be sealed in an envelope (or digitally archived) and date stamped. For non-members, this service currently costs $20 in L.A. (five years registration) and $22 in NY (10 years registration). It may be done online, via mail or in person at the offices in New York or Los Angeles. You should also copyright your work (see Copyright). Titles cannot be protected.
The submission draft. A screenplay written to be submitted to a production company. Should read well and flow; should not contain scene numbers or visual directions. A Reader’s script should feature a dynamic opening, short scenes, fast pacing and never exceed 120 pages in length (see Shooting Script). I suggest you keep it under 110 pages. HERE is more about what I like to see in a great script.
I always suggest opening with a compliment — the “kill ‘em with kindness” approach — that way you don’t just sound like you want something from them but you’re here to contribute something to their obviously stellar output. Plus, everyone likes a little ego stroke, especially in Hollywood.
Open the letter by congratulating them on the success of their latest film and tell them how much you love one of their smaller, critically-acclaimed films. They will appreciate you noticing one of their lesser-known, more artistic efforts. I also suggest doing some research and pointing out an obscure fact about them and their work that could only have been known by someone who took the time to do their homework.
A short letter to a professional company, via email, mail or fax, making them aware of you and your screenplay and “pitching” the story to them in the hopes they’ll request it. Three to five short paragraphs and one page maximum — must be very clear and meticulously proofread. Must include your logline: one sentence, 20-30 words.
HERE is an article with more detail about my approach to query letters.
Attaching talent to your screenplay. I.e., getting an actor and/or a director to officially declare interest in the script to raise the chances of a sale and production. This is very difficult to do without representation (see Unsolicited Submission), and even more so to attach a “star” as their agents will refuse to look at a script not already funded for production. This is also referred to as attaching “elements.”
A major agency (like CAA or William Morris-Endeavor) can put together a package that includes their clients in the key roles (director, writers, leading actors) with partial financing and approach a studio for finishing funds and/or a distribution commitment.
A new writer wants to generate “buzz” on their script in some way that might get name talent to consider it. A contest/festival win, a referral from a friend or existing client or even a well-known true-life inspiration can help to build buzz on a script and get it read.
An Option is when a producer pays for the right to purchase a screenplay in a set period of time, essentially taking it off the market. In that period (e.g., 6 months, 1 year) they have the exclusive right to shop the script around, hoping to get it sold, financed, or produced. Most options to new screenwriters are for small sums of money; in most cases, a new writer should consider the track record of the producer (thus the likelihood of their script being sold and produced) as being more important than the price.
A sale is an outright purchase of a screenplay, but many sales listed in the trades contain the “guarantee/upfront” amount and the production bonus (e.g. $100,000 against $300,000). One sum is paid up front (usually in steps) and the remainder of the money is paid if and when the film either goes into active development or begins production. This is to insure the studio against overpaying for scripts that will just sit on their shelves, since they buy more material than they can actually make into films.
I have been an Inktip member for years and I recommend it to every screenwriter I meet, coach or collaborate with. I know several writers who have found success by listing their scripts on Inktip.
In fact, Inktip is the only site outside of my own that I’ve ever endorsed for the simple reason that they have an incredible track record when it comes to getting films made.
I am proud to be selected by Inktip as one of their approved Consultants for the first annual Inktip Pitch Summit.
It’s the only pitch event that I’ve ever been involved with.
After emerging from my sub-basement cryo-chamber as my alter-ego Telematic Dan, I covered the red carpet premiere of Mad Men Season 4 in Hollywood, CA at the Mann Chinese Theater 6 (in the same complex as the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre).
For a round-up of the night, go here.
One moment that stuck out was when I asked actor Vincent Kartheiser (who plays advertising accounts man Peter Campbell on Mad Men) about what he looks for in a screenplay… his first response was…