Questions and Answers, Part 2

September 15th, 2009 by

The rest of the questions from our last Open Forum:

From Neil:

If a production company asks for a treatment (say a 2-page one) and then they like it and ask for a synopsis (however long they want it), should you leave some time between being asked and sending one over?

If you have the synopsis good and ready, should you just send it over ASAP to keep it fresh with them? Or should you leave it a week say so as not to seem a) desperate or b) as though it’s your only commitment?

While how a writer might appear to a production company based upon how quickly the writer turns around a request may be of some concern, a larger issue is this: Just how legitimate is the production company with whom you are in contact?

The reason I ask is it seems rather unusual — at least to me — for a prod co to read a treatment, then ask for a longer synopsis. Unless by treatment, you are referring to something like a 1-paragraph description, a 2-4 page document (typical length of a treatment) should give the production company a good enough idea whether they want to read your script or not.

So I would recommend vetting the production company in question. Do a Google search on them, check them out on IMDB.com, etc. Make sure they are a legitimate outfit.

Re your original question and the turnaround time: If they’re a Hollywood prod co, it doesn’t matter. Everyone in The Biz tends to run at warp speed, so if you do get a meeting with someone, you’ll be lucky if they’ve even read the coverage on your material, let alone pay attention to your life-schedule.

From Mike:

Realizing now is NOT a good time specs, normally what times of the year are good for the spec market? I have always been under the impression that right after the first of the year (late January into early spring) and early in the fall were prime for specs.

While I do track the spec market, I’m not an expert. Hell, I don’t even play one on TV. But I can provide you with these facts: How many spec scripts sold in what months in 2008.

January – 0
February – 1
March – 11
April – 24
May – 13
June – 10
July – 5
August – 6
September – 1
October – 9
November – 7
December – 1

Now remember: The last WGA strike started November 5, 2007 and ended February 12, 2008. So that burst of activity in March and April (about 40% of the entire year’s worth of spec sales) is almost assuredly due to the floodgates of spec scripts, written during the strike, hitting the market in early spring.

Per this year, check out Life on the Bubble to see the latest numbers:

Overall Spec Numbers:

All Specs Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug* Total
Specs 28 60 77 46 40 48 14 7 320
Sales 3 9 8 9 10 6 3 3 52
% Sold 11% 15% 10% 20% 25% 13% 21% 43% 16%

I wouldn’t say it’s determinative, but note that — once again — spring is the most active time for spec script sales. So if you start on a spec right now, that gives you about 6 months to get it ready for what will hopefully be a prime selling season in 2010.

From Lembit:

What is film distribution? I have read that big studios are often only film distributors. What does that mean?

I’m glad you asked this because as writers, I think we tend to focus too much on getting a movie made, when increasingly the hardest part of the process is getting the movie distributed.

Per Wikipedia:

A film distributor is an independent company, a subsidiary company or occasionally an individual, which acts as the final agent between a film production company or some intermediary agent, and a film exhibitor, to the end of securing placement of the producer’s film on the exhibitor’s screen. In the film business, the term “distribution” refers to the marketing and circulation of movies in theaters, and for home viewing (DVD, Video-On-Demand, Download, Television etc).

So after a movie is produced, it needs to get its prints out to exhibitors (movie theaters). The ‘distribution’ of the movie, including the financial arrangements of who gets what percentage of box office receipts as well as actually transporting prints to theaters, as well as the marketing of the movie — what is often called “P&A” (Prints & Advertising) — is handled by distributors, both domestically and internationally.

Now in the case of the major studios, they have their own in-house distribution outfits, each with their own network of relationships with exhibitors. So when a major studio greenlights the production of a movie or acquires the rights to a movie made by an independent entity, that movie’s distribution is pretty much set.

Some studios, most notably Paramount, have taken to minimizing their financing of movies’ productions, and acted solely as a distributor. If I’m not mistaken, that was the nature of the deal Paramount had with Marvel when it released Iron Man last year.

The mini-majors, like Lionsgate, Summit, and Overture, generally start off using established distributors, but over time will generally create their own distribution networks, preferring to keep those revenues in-house. It can be tricky because it costs a lot of money to grow and maintain a distribution division.

The real rub is in the independent world which is going through a paradigm shift re distribution. As this post shows, the numbers of indie movies that get distributed is atrocious. As John August recounts what transpired at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007, including his movie The Nines:

In his post-mortem, August recounts the 20 movies that received “significant buzz” at the 2007 Sundance festival and here they are:
  1. The Signal
  2. Chapter 27
  3. The Good Night
  4. Joshua
  5. Teeth
  6. The Ten
  7. Waitress
  8. Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)
  9. How She Move
  10. Son of Rambow
  11. Once
  12. Nanking
  13. The King of Kong
  14. Grace is Gone
  15. Dedication
  16. Clubland (aka Introducing the Dwights)
  17. My Kid Could Paint That
  18. King of California
  19. In the Shadow of the Moon
  20. Hounddog

All of them, except Hounddog, sold. How did they fare in the marketplace?

Waitress sold quickly, was released quickly, and made the most by far at the box office ($19M). Second place was Under the Same Moon ($12.5M), followed by Once ($9M) and How She Move ($7M). Son of Rambow will likely end up in fifth. It’s currently in release, and made $8M overseas.

In terms of box office, none of these are hits in the way Little Miss Sunshine was. But you’d be happy being any of them, because beyond those five, the other movies on the list fell off a cliff. None of them made a million. In fact, most didn’t make it over $100,000. The Nines didn’t, despite opening well.

But at least we opened. At least we sold. For our year, 3,287 feature films were submitted to Sundance, of which 122 played. Roughly 20 played in theaters.

20 movies played in theaters (got distribution deals). Out of 3,287 produced movies that were submitted to Sundance. Ouch!

What’s the takeaway re distribution? Write a great script with a strong story concept that will have a wide appeal to a big enough target audience that a studio will feel confident they can distribute it successfully.

From Anonymous:

I write out the structure, then when I write the script it goes “off course”

Similar to storyboarding then shooting something better when you get on set.

When I get to a setpiece I always allow myself to go “off script” The problem is that I feel like I lose control and an understanding of where I’m going. How to build trust in my writing skills is my question.

I could go on at length in response, but let me boil it down to one word: Characters. If you’ve dug deep enough into your characters so that they ‘come alive’ and start doing and saying things that you didn’t plan out, you didn’t outline, you didn’t include in your story’s structure, then good for you! Trust your characters. Follow their lead. Listen to them.

They know what’s going on.
They know the story – probably better than you.

I go back to that anecdote about M. Night Shyamalan and the movie The Sixth Sense. As the story goes, he was into the fifth draft of the script when the Protagonist (Malcolm Crowe – eventually played by Bruce Willis) basically informed Shyamalan of a new and startling fact: Crowe was dead. That’s right. Up until the fifth draft, Malcolm Crowe had been an alive human being. Then Crowe ‘decided’ to let Shyamalan in on the little secret – that he [Crowe] was dead.

Now you or I might have been strongly tempted to ignore this bombshell. How can I write a movie where the Protagonist is dead? Fortunately Shyamalan trusted in Malcolm — the character — and wrote what went onto become a movie sensation.

So yes, screenwriters have to be keenly aware of story structure. And plot points. And act breaks. And all the rest. But if our characters start rebelling against what we’ve planned for them, I would strongly encourage you to follow them, trust in them.

Your characters will take you into and through your story.

5 thoughts on “Questions and Answers, Part 2

  1. Ted Nusbaum says:

    Wow, fantastic response. So encouraging. I've always felt that while outlining and story planning have their usefulness, they also tend to kill the joy of writing the actual script. Which for me, when the writing's any good, is always an act of discovery. Thanks.

  2. Scott says:

    Ted, there's something I remember reading with Neil Simon who said he tried to outline, but every time he did, the characters were (figuratively) 'jumping off' his yellow legal pads. To paraphrase his summary: "Why would I want to work out the story beforehand? I want to discover it and be surprised as I write."

  3. Lembit says:

    Thank you for taking time to answer my question.

  4. Ted Nusbaum says:

    Scott, your response is ironic since, as a high school drama teacher in NYC, I am currently directing the Neil Simon classic, "Lost in Yonkers." What a great play.

    At this point, I just need to have faith in my own process, instead of trying to outline to death. One of my playwriting instructors noticed this early on and told me I'm just one of these guys who write in order to discover the story. He said it's not bad, it's just who I am. And that the flip side of this is I'll be doing a lot of rewriting on the back end to hone the story down to its essence. So true.

    Thanks again…

  5. Scott says:

    Ted, sounds to me you received some solid advice from your instructor. As I'm prone to say, "There's no right way to write." One implication of that is each writer must discover their own way to write. And as your prof noted re your process, it's not bad, it's just who you are.

    BTW, major props to you for the work you do: HS teacher. In my view, all teachers should get double their salaries — teaching is that important to individual students and society as a whole.

    I hope "Lost in Yonkers" is a big success for you.

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