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The Difference Between Film and Television Concepts by Daniel Calvisi

Dear Screenwriter,

You may come up with a cool idea for a movie and be told that it would make a better TV series, or you may create a concept for a TV series and be told it’s more fit for the big screen. How do you tell the difference between a concept that works best as a Feature versus a TV pilot/series?

FEATURE FILM

Film is pretty simple: it is a complete story with a closed ending. Unless you’re writing the first part of a trilogy (which I do not recommend, unless you happen to have procured the rights to a best-selling book series), the ending wraps up your compelling tale which (hopefully) had a beginning, middle and end. It can be a happy or sad ending, but that particular narrative has reached a closing point. You’ve exhausted the concept and we, the Reader or Audience, are satisfied. Fade out.

95% of the time, a feature script/film is going to use the “classical” 4-Act structure (Act One, Act Two-A, Act Two-B and Act Three.). Even if the story is told in a non-linear way, it should ideally fit into this meta-structure. My Story Map structure fits ably into this form, and you can learn much more about it in my books and webinars.

The idea for a feature film should be able to be expressed in a logline, which is a one-line snapshot of the unique dramatic situation in approximately 20-30 words. A feature film logline should suggest a stand-alone story, rather than an ongoing saga. Here are three loglines for famous films:

Shakespeare in Love – A comedic “re-writing of history” in which a young William Shakespeare is inspired by his own tortured romance to write “Romeo and Juliet,” the most famous fictional romance in history.

Slumdog Millionaire – A kid who grew up in extreme poverty uses his memories to answer the questions on the quiz show, “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?”

Minority Report – The police officer who oversees the department that predicts future murders must go on the run when the system predicts he is the next killer.

You can see how those loglines suggest just one story. They also have great hooks. A feature film concept must have a HOOK: some kind of unique take, spin, twist or turn that sucks us in and makes the story go in a surprising direction. This may be the thing that makes it cinematic. It may be a new perspective on a classic, familiar story that we’ve heard a million times, but the way in which you’re telling it is new.

I call this the “Big Idea,” but it doesn’t mean it only applies to big-budget or obviously commercial films. A micro-budget film shot on an iPhone can still contain a Big Idea. (Read more in depth about this topic in Chapter III: The Big Idea in Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay.)

Your Big Idea can be focused, contained. Here are four loglines for feature thrillers that made the “Black List” and the “Hit List” in Hollywood:


VILLAINS

Contained Thriller

Two small time robbers become prisoners when they break into a house and discover a ten year old girl chained up in the basement.

 

GREAT FALLS

Dramatic Thriller

After negligently killing a hunter with their patrol car, a Sheriff’s Deputy and her superior must decide what to do with the only witness to their crime – a death row inmate only days from execution.

 

FREE GUY

Science Fiction Thriller

A bank teller stuck in his routine discovers he’s a background character in a realistic, open world action-adventure video game and he is the only one capable of saving the city.

 

ELI

Contained Horror Thriller

Having moved into a “clean house” to treat his auto-immune disorder, 11-year-old Eli begins to believe that the house is haunted. Unable to leave, Eli soon realizes that the house, and the doctor who runs it, are more sinister than they appear.

 

Notice how “Free Guy” is really the only concept here that suggests a sprawling world and possible big budget. The others could easily take place in only one or two locations.

When you submit a feature logline, I suggest you include the genre underneath the title. It can make all the difference to know that your concept is, for example, a comedy before we read it. One man’s drama pitch may be another man’s comedy pitch. Consider these two examples…


SERIAL KILLER
Thriller
When a ruthless killer begins to murder people in a small town, a paperboy realizes the victims are all on his route and he’s the only one who can stop him.


SERIAL KILLER
Comedy
When a ruthless killer begins to murder people in a small town, a paperboy realizes the victims are all on his route and he’s the only one who can stop him!

 

Same title, same exact logline (except for an exclamation mark), but two separate takes on it, depending on the genre. The first one could be a thriller from the Coen brothers and the second one could be a satire from the Farrelly brothers. Citing the genre gives the reader some stylistic context before they consider your logline.

TELEVISION

TV is a bit more tricky. Scripted television is long-form storytelling. The idea (what I call the “Compelling Crisis”) should be able to fill 100 episodes. You don’t need to have all 100 episodes mapped out, but the concept should feel like it could last that long. Your main character will have multiple arcs over the seasons, whereas in a feature film they may only have one arc.

“TV is a playground. You create a fascinating, original playground and fill it with interesting characters who create conflict for one another.” This was told to me by a friend who is a professional feature screenwriter and was making his first forays into television. He was focusing on creating a new world in a subculture not seen on television before.

Shonda Rhimes is an incredibly successful television writer/producer (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.). In an interview, she discussed how you know if an idea is well-suited for a TV series. She recommended first asking yourself whether the idea has an ending. If you can easily picture your story, or your character’s journey, coming to a conclusion, then your idea might be better suited for film. But if your idea sparks hundreds more, it could be the basis for a healthy, long-lasting TV show. For example, she could literally see hundreds of episodes of television for the show Scandal when she learned more about Judy Smith’s job as a Washington D.C.-based fixer (Smith is the real-life inspiration for the show’s protagonist, Olivia Pope). Similarly, Shonda knew that at the very least, she could write seven seasons of Grey’s Anatomy because surgical residencies typically last seven years.

She also suggested considering outside forces when assessing your idea. Where does your idea land when you consider it against the current cultural climate? How does your idea compare to what’s already on television and what network executives might be looking for in their development schedules? You don’t necessarily need to change your idea when you consider these factors, but it’s always good to be aware of them.

Character is important to all dramatic storytelling, but in TV, those long-term character arcs are the most important thing, moreso than plot. If we are going to spend years with these characters, they better be interesting. Especially the protagonist/s…

Breaking Bad: A mild-mannered high school teacher becomes a drug lord under the nose of his brother-in-law, a DEA agent.

Mad Men: An ad man with a dark secret desperately struggles for happiness in Manhattan in the turbulent 1960s.

Sons of Anarchy: “Hamlet in a biker gang.” Stepfather and son fight to keep a gun-running biker gang together amidst corruption, betrayals and escalating violence.

The Americans: Two Russian sleeper agents in the 1980s pose as the perfect suburban couple by day as they run missions by night, which ironically bring them closer as real lovers.

A hot format right now is the 30-minute Dramedy. Dramedies tend to be more culturally specific than most 30-minute sitcoms. For example…

Atlanta: A young black man in a low-income Atlanta suburb struggles to establish a career in the chaotic and dangerous world of hip-hop.

Transparent: A Jewish family in Los Angeles deals with the ramifications of their father becoming a woman.

Master of None: A struggling, Indian-American actor in New York City searches for love and the meaning of adulthood.

It’s still ideal to use one sentence for a TV series logline, but since it can be more difficult to explain a TV story than a feature story, feel free to take an extra line. Just don’t go overboard and submit a five-line paragraph. Here is a three-line logline for a show that sold to HBO that I bet you could fit into two lines…

These Things Happen: Set in present day Manhattan and focuses on two couples – one gay, one straight. They share a 15-year-old son, who lives on the Upper East Side with his mother and doctor stepfather. Trying to get to know his impressive, distant father better, he moves in for a semester with him and his long-time partner who forms an instant friendship with the boy.

Not only is that logline hard to understand, its length demands too much time for the reader (a busy rep or executive) to dissect it. It should be edited for clarity and brevity.

When you submit a TV logline to me and the Industry Advisors in my Story Maps Master Class, I ask you to not only identify the format (one hour, half hour) but also include a “comp” show to help us get a better sense of the style and tone of your series. A comp, or comparison, is a recent, successful series that shares some major elements with yours. Citing the comp will help us visualize and “feel” your show. E.g., maybe your series features a female lawyer protagonist (The Good Wife), a mockumentary format (Modern Family), a 1980s suburban setting (Stranger Things), or it’s a crime procedural (NCIS).

If you have a few concepts and you’re looking for some structure to help you choose the right one to develop into a pilot or feature, don’t hesitate to ask me about my Story Maps Master Class, which is an online course you can take with a group or one-on-one with me. This article is an excerpt from the materials I provide in the class.

Good luck and happy writing,

Dan

 

 

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WHO THE F*$K IS STAN? and 14 other questions about TRUE DETECTIVE SEASON TWO

TrueDetectiveSn2-Chinatown

“Forget about it, Ray. It’s Vinci.”

The great SLOG-WATCH of True Detective season two is over, and I’ve got a few things to say about it. But I’m not just here to point out flaws, I’m also offering solutions so that maybe we can learn something from the 8 1/2 hours of our lives we devoted to this season.

It was inevitable that from the first minute, the second season of True Detective would be compared to the first, and that would be a tough comp for any series. Season two has been almost universally judged to have fallen short of the bar set by the first season, which featured star talent, cinematic production values, some great writing and fantastic direction. Considering its evergreen pedigree, I can’t help but wonder if season two’s 8 episodes, as is, had aired on a different network, under a different name, if they would have been lambasted so badly. I’d surmise that it would have got off easier, but it still would have attracted a lot of criticism. With or without the comparison to the first season, True Detective season 2 was heavily flawed and utterly frustrating to watch. Read more

Interstellar: 5 Christopher Nolan Trademark Techniques

interstellar-nolan-mcconaughey

Christopher Nolan is the most daring film director working in the major studio system today, and each film he directs becomes an event. With Interstellar, he’s created (along with his co-writer, brother Jonathan Nolan) an epic that combines classic Hollywood storytelling with bold narrative choices, all displayed with cutting-edge theatrical presentation. Interstellar is certainly his BIGGEST film yet, not just in cinematic scope but in the size of the narrative stakes and thematic resonance, and makes me wonder how the hell he’s going to top it with his next movie! Read more

Seven screenplay analysis and free download offer

What’s in the box?!

Seven, written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, is one of the great thrillers of the 1990s, a decade with several exceptional thrillers. Walker’s screenplay for Seven shot him to the Script Doctor A-list, establishing him as a hot writer of dark material on spec, like 1999’s 8mm, as well as garnering him uncredited rewrites on films such as Fight Club, The Game (also Fincher-directed films) and Stir of Echoes (directed by Walker’s mentor, David Koepp). Read more

Actor Elijah Wood tells Dan Calvisi what he looks for in a script

I’m more interested in being a part of an entire piece that I think is brilliant, even if it’s a small part to play.

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The Shawshank Redemption Screenplay

The Shawshank Redemption screenplay by Frank Darabont, based on the novella by Stephen King, is a powerful character-driven drama that covers many years in the lives of multiple characters, all tied together around the theme of “preserving hope in the most hopeless of situations.”

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Adapting a book to screenplay with Coppola Part I

The Godfather may be the most famous example of a great movie made from a poorly-written book. With the release of this page of text from Mario Puzo’s novel with hand-written notes by Francis Ford Coppola, we can see this claim in action! In other words, if you click on the image below and actually read the text, you can see how bad Puzo’s writing really was and breathe a sigh of relief that Coppola meticulously planned his translation to the screen.

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What do Revenge of the Nerds and The Beastmaster have in common?

I recently looked at a couple Nineties films (Good Will Hunting and Saving Private Ryan) so I figured I’d hit the Eighties this week, when hair was big and love was real.

Two seminal films in the pantheon of cinematic history, Revenge of the Nerds and The Beastmaster, employ a scene archetype that we see in the climax of many a story — the beat that occurs when the friends that the hero made earlier in the movie, whom we’d forgotten about, return to help save the day, thus facilitating the hero’s triumph over evil. Sometimes, they are former enemies who have become allies out of respect for the protagonist’s actions since they first met. Read more

A Great Thriller

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I’d like to tell you what I love to see in a great Thriller screenplay.
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Pro Screenwriters Panel at L.A. Film Fest (video)

Even Spike "the Story Analysis cat" is not entertained by me.

Dan’s 2-Minute Screenwriting School is back in action with an expert panel of top screenwriters including Dustin Lance Black (Milk, Big Love), Josh Olson (A History of Violence), Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Captain America, Chronicles of Narnia) and Diablo Cody (Juno). These professional script doctors discuss the importance of writing multiple projects at once. Read more

Buy Story Maps E-Book Now!

It’s HERE!

Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay E-Book is ready for purchase. Go HERE for excerpts, a sample story map and three options, including a “Booster Pack” with 12 new story maps!

Story Maps by Daniel P. Calvisi www.actfourscreenplays.com

E-Book now available for purchase - Click on image for Limited-Time Offer

Getting Extreme (Part II)

Story Maps by Daniel Calvisi book coverContinuing this Excerpt from Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay (Part One here):

GET EXTREME!

I love it when I see a movie or read a script and the writer is willing to “go there,” to take the story to the extremes of the dramatic conflict. Not afraid to shock, offend or make their audience uncomfortable, but to be true to the story and the dramatic elements that they have built.

In The Hangover, the guys tell Phil (Bradley Cooper) not to leave the baby in the car alone and he argues, “I cracked the window!” Awful…but hilarious.

In Million Dollar Baby, Maggie (Hilary Swank) is not just hurt but she is paralyzed from the neck down. Her condition worsens in horrible ways and she asks Frankie (Clint Eastwood) to euthanize her. There is no last-minute save; he must end her life to allow his arc to come to fruition.

In Sideways, Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) has already had one affair and got his nose broken in 3 places, but he still insists on sleeping with the waitress, leading him to get caught by her husband. It gets worse when Jack makes Miles (Paul Giamatti) go back to the house to retrieve his wallet, and Miles gets chased by the naked husband. This represents the ultimate test of Miles’ loyalty to his friend.

Or in Total Recall, when this happens to Arnie…

Total Recall copyright Sony Pictures

Now that’s good writing.

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Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg Gets Extreme

Story Maps by Daniel Calvisi book coverExcerpt from Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay, coming soon.

Scott Rosenberg is a very successful screenwriter whose produced credits include Armageddon, Beautiful Girls, Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead and Gone in 60 Seconds. I had been a fan of his for years before I met him at the Austin Screenwriters Conference. Read more

Screenwriter Q & A: common questions answered

Here is a compilation of questions I was asked by screenwriters on varying topics a few years back and my advice still holds firm — some helpful screenwriting tips that I’ve learned over the years and I hope this information can help you…

Questions Below (links removed):

  • What is the criteria for script contests?
  • How long should I wait to submit my work to the industry?
  • Getting the read
  • How long will it take me to break through?
  • What do you look for in a story?
  • Art Films vs. Popcorn Movies
  • A contact wants a “cut” to pass on my script, should I do it?
  • To a writer worried about their idea being stolen…
  • I know I’m shooting my script as an indie feature, do I need your services?
  • Is it a big Hollywood movie or a TV spec sample?

WHAT IS THE CRITERIA FOR SCRIPT CONTESTS?

hi Dan,

What is the criteria for judging scripts in script contests? If you don’t place in one does that mean odds are you won’t place in another? Is it possible for a good script to not place simply because it wasn’t what they were looking for?

I entered my script into the San Diego Script Competition and found out yesterday I wasn’t even a finalist.  I was pretty disappointed and it got me thinking that my script isn’t as good as I thought. I am still waiting to hear from another contest but, I can’t get it out of my head that it is hopeless…

I won’t ever give up and have already begun redrafting, but man did that hurt. Can you offer some insight into to how the whole script contest thing works?

Thank you from a newbie!

J.

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Act Three Tips

Act Three in your screenplay — the final act — is the race to the finish line. It’s a fast-paced, high stakes push toward the climax, which ideally should be a direct confrontation between your Protagonist and your Antagonist. Read more

Story Maps: Meet The Parents

The Meet The Parents screenplay is a classic example of a well-executed, high concept comedy that uses every dramatic element and beat of the Story Maps method of screenwriting.

Well, except one. Read more

Which screenwriting software is best?

Which screenwriting software do you use to format your screenplay? There’s more options than ever out there. This article in Variety (squint!) talks about the two majors, Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, as well as the young upstarts like Scripped.com and ScriptWrite, which exist on “the cloud” (the hot phrase right now). Read more

Screenwriting Career Goals for the New Year

Continued from Page One: Screenwriting Resolutions: Craft Goals

If you aspire to get paid for your writing, you will need to balance your craft development with marketing efforts.  We writers are often most comfortable alone in front of our laptops, so it’s tough to put ourselves and our work out there. But you have to do it. There’s no way around it. Read more

Screenwriting Resolutions for the New Year


It’s that time of year again and we’re all making our New Year’s Resolutions.

Or are you avoiding them, like me? (In my defense, I’m just now finishing up a writing assignment and I wanted to maintain my focus on that, so suck on that, haters.)

Ahem. So…let’s give each other a kick in the pants, shall we? Here’s some advice, take it or leave it… Read more

Sequels to classic Miramax films, with Bob and Harvey once more at the helm?

It was a bygone era known as the late 90s. I stepped out of the elevator on the 7th floor of the Tribeca Film Center into the lobby of Miramax Films and saw the above poster, beautifully framed, for an upcoming movie named Shakespeare in Love. Read more