Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What Should I Write?

Because of yesterday's article about studios possibly relying less on A-list actors, I'm re-posting this from earlier in the year as it directly applies. As an aside, I happened to bump into a development exec from DreamWorks Animation at Saturday's USC/Stanford game. He echoed many of these same sentiments regarding what they are looking for; original concepts, new worlds, timeless stories.
For those of you wondering why a picture of Magic Johnson accompanies this, it's because he's taking a layup. Not a 3 pointer, not half court. Writing a sellable script is tough enough. Let's not make it harder than it already is.

I hear this question often from young writers and the answer will always be the same.... I don't know. Nor does anybody else, but here are some tips. Sure, we can make a few phone calls and tell you "Disney is looking for a Christmas project" or "Columbia wants a thriller, but no noir, or 90's female in jeopardy, and comedies grounded in reality always help" blah, blah blah.
Sure, you could write a script to fill one of those niches, but by the time you finished it the studios’ needs would have changed and you'd still be asking the same inevitable question...What does the market want now?
So, let's get less specific and start thinking about the person who's buying your material (script, short story, novel, comic book whatever). So now you're the studio executive. What's your job? How do you move your career forward? What motivates you to buy something?
As a studio exec. your job is to develop and produce commercially successful films. What does "commercially successful" mean? Well last I checked, the average cost of a studio film (including prints and advertising, P&A) tips the scales at around $79 million. Now think about that and let it sink in. $79 million! So they are looking for projects that can make back MORE than that amount. And remember approximately half the money at the box office goes to the theater, not the studio, so they're looking to gross over $150 million. Are the studios looking for your movie?
So what is a studio exec. looking for when shopping for stories? Even though many of them may not realize it, they're looking for one word.......
MONOPOLIES, or as close to them as they can come.
Let me tell you why. What’s your competition? As a studio exec. what is your entertainment product competing with?
Let's make a list:
Broadcast TV
Cable TV
Video Rentals
Video Games
.......or hell, the consumer could actually get off their ass and go play basketball, or ride a bike or go check out a sunset – or read a book!
Now we know all these activities (even the sunset) have some form of cost, just as going to the movies does. However, in the mind of the consumer, there is a huge difference between these items and going to the local multiplex. From the consumer's perspective all of these items are relatively FREE and movies are not.
When a consumer comes home and flips on the TV he doesn't feel the cable company slipping its hand in his pocket to fish out a couple of bucks, he thinks, or rather he feels at that moment that it’s free. He won't feel the pinch of the cable company until the bill comes in the mail. The same relationship, to a greater or lesser degree, exists between the consumer and the other entertainment options as well.
This is not the case for movies. Movies are like a heavyweight fight; they're pay per view. When you go to see a movie you are going to feel the financial and non-financial pain/costs immediately.
Costs to the consumer related to seeing a film:
Financial: Ticket price, food & drink, and possibly the cost of parking. Let's call this around $15 per person.
Non-financial: You have to drive there and park, you are forced to accept their schedule, you can't hit pause, the seats are far smaller than your couch, you have to share the room with 500 people you don't know etc.......
Thus, every time consumers are faced with an entertainment decision, in order for them to choose a film over other activities, clearly they must feel that the likelihood exists that the movie they will see, the moviegoing experience they are going to have, is not only superior to all those other free alternatives, but so superior that they are willing to give up an extra $15/person, all the creature comforts of home and put up with the hassles of going to the theater.
This means that as a studio exec you have to produce and market a film that is so compelling that Joe Schmoe will put down his beer or soda, get his ass off the couch, drive the 4.2 miles to the AMC Theater 28, park, walk, and plunk down $15 per person to sit in a dark room with 300 people he doesn’t know, in small seats and you cant hit pause to take a piss. In order to get people to do that you need some really good stuff!
So back to that word MONOPOLY. In order to compel the consumer to see your product you want to create a monopoly. You need a product they can’t get anywhere else. If you ran reruns of old Hogan's Heroes episodes at your local theater would anyone go? Hell no! They can get that at home for free. So how do you create a monopoly? There are essentially three ways to do it.
1) Movie Stars. You want to see Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Vince Vaughn, Tom Cruise etc.? You gotta come see my movie. You can't see these stars in new material anywhere else except by paying to see the flick. But here's the drawback, they're really expensive, fickle, and not always available when you need them. It's not like going to the store and pulling a box of Wheaties off the shelf whenever you want. In this scenario the Wheaties can say "No," or "Only if Ron Howard is directing," or "Sure, but I'm not available until next year."
2) Cutting Edge Visuals. Incredible special effects can help fill seats, but are often expensive. Sometimes they are worth the money and sometimes they are not (the same can be said of stars). If you can deliver cutting edge visuals that no one has seen anywhere else before, once again you've created a monopoly. You want to see what it's like to be inside a Tornado? Well you can't get that on CBS, you have to come to my movie. You want to run with dinosaurs, you want to see the Titanic split in two? You gotta come to my movie!
3) Original Concepts and New Worlds. What's it like to be an angel, a fireman, immortal? That's the basis for three films right there. “The Prophecy”, “Backdraft”, “Highlander” all written by Greg Widen. What's it like to play in underground poker games? "Rounders." What's it like to be in the mob? "Godfather 1,2,3" What's it like to be a Jedi Knight? "Star Wars." What's it like to have been in the Special Forces in Somalia....? "Blackhawk Down." You want to experience these worlds? You gotta come see my movie.
Deliver a world or a setting that we've never seen before, or that we haven't seen in a while (remember approximately 50% of the movie going audience is between 14 & 24. If a concept was used 10+ years ago, odds are they haven't seen it). “War of the Worlds” = “Independence Day”="War of the Worlds". “Kelly's Heroes” = “Three Kings”. "Taming of the Shrew"="10 Things I Hate About You," “Disturbia” = “Rear Window.” Are these exact matches? No! But are they delivering, or repackaging if you will, concepts that the earlier films/plays successfully sold to the consumer. Yes!
Now which of these methods of creating a Monopoly is most efficient to you the writer? Absolutely, positively #3. If you can deliver a fresh exciting concept to the studio, then the studio can choose whether or not to spend money on stars or visuals.
Will Smith's market price before “ID4” was squat. The "big stars" were Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Pullman. Was anybody in “Titanic” expensive? No, Leo DiCaprio hadn’t made a big name for himself yet. The expense went into the cost of the production (the ship) and the visuals.
What about “Oceans 11, 12, 13”? Big visuals? No. Big Stars? Yes!
What about Horror films? Maybe visuals, almost never stars, and for some reason monsters only attack hot chicks in their underwear???????
Romantic Comedies starring women? Visuals... none. Stars? These are female marketed films, often if you can’t get one of the five or six hot girls du jour (Sandra, Cameron, Julia, Nicole, Drew, Charlize) forget it. Your project is going nowhere.
(exception)Romantic Comedies starring men? (40 year old virgin etc.) Visuals... none. Stars? Not really. These are driven by the COMEDY, the romance is absolutely secondary. Sometimes the relationship between our hero and his buddy is more important than the fact that the hero get’s the girl like in Superbad (Bromance). These are about laughing and marketed mostly to men, but women will follow if the story has heart, so make sure it does. It's more Com/rom than Rom/com. This gives the writer an advantage.
Theoretically the studio could make a film that is interesting enough, original enough to sell to the consumer and not have to pay the enormous expense of mega-stars or pricey effects. Examples: “American Pie”, “Fast and the Furious”, “Animal House”
So what's the perfect script? I don't know, but since you don't have any $20 million actors as your best friends, or own Skywalker Ranch forget #1 and #2. A great (let’s define that as salable) script is one that delivers a new/revisited and interesting world, with heroes we like and can empathize with and villains we fear, despise and understand. It's usually set present day, in the U.S. and has interesting set pieces. If it lends itself to cool visuals, great. If it offers the kind of challenging or fun roles actors will enjoy playing, fantastic. This is what your buyer, the studio exec., is often looking for. Something he or she can read and immediately see in their minds who's staring in it and what the poster looks like. Something that makes them sit up and say "Wow this is really interesting, this is cool, I can sell this, my boss will be stoked!"
News flash! It's not the 70's anymore. At most studios the head of production and the head of marketing have to agree to make a picture. Regardless of how great your script may be, if they cant' sell it they won't make it, and if they won't make it, they wont buy it.
Does following this prescription mean a Best Picture or Best Screenplay oscar? Probably not, but we can work on that later. What it does mean is having a much better shot at selling your script, which means, getting your foot in the Hollywood door, getting paid for your work and starting your career.
By the way – this applies, to one degree or another, not just to beginners, but to every writer in Hollywood – and every experienced writer knows it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bruce. I had started to figure this out, and your post confirms what I thought. Now I know which screenplay I'm going to work on next!

    Joe G.