Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Kinds Of Stories That Sell [Part 2]

September 16th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today: The Kinds Of Stories That Sell [P.72-73]:

The motion picture producer wants a story he can film with the equipment he has at hand. He wishes to use the resources of his studio–scenery, directors, stars, and the like–to the utmost advantage. At the same time he wants to produce stories similar to those he has successfully produced in the past and for which his firm has become famous; he knows the public looks to him for a certain type of story.

Although usually willing to invest large sums in the type of picture that has already proved a success for him the producer is generally afraid to risk failure by going outside of his field. Therefore, in writing for a producer, try to conform to the type of picture he has been making–comedy if his stars and studio are known for that sort of picture, tragedy if he has successfully produced tragedies, melodrama if that is his forte. It is folly to try to tempt a producer to buy the sort of story that would entail a change of production policies and possibly financial loss.

At the same time he wants to produce stories similar to those he has successfully produced in the past. Hey, that’s my line: similar but different! Then again, Loos & Emerson prove that I’m not making up this stuff, in fact it’s been part and parcel of the Hollywood movie business since like… forever.

The second takeaway: Notice how often Loos & Emerson think like a producer. As writers, it’s important to be able to don a producer’s hat from time to time, when considering everything from story concept, story setting, set pieces, and so on. It’s your way of making their [producer] job easier.

Next week, more screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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