Spec Scripts: The Way It USED to be!

July 22nd, 2015 by

Some of you probably saw this Den of Geek article from last week, but even if you did, I think it’s worth the time to consider the way the spec script market used to be, back in the Go Go days of the early to mid-90s. To wit, this article: The fate of the $26m scripts Joe Eszterhas sold in the 90s.

That’s right. $26M. That figure alone should give you some sense of what the hell was going on two decades ago. Studio money was plentiful. Hype was king. And spec scripts were a hot commodity. How hot? Consider this list of deals Eszterhas set up in a few short years as detailed in the article cited above. I have divided them into movies which got made and movies which didn’t get produced:

One Night Stand: $4M
Made: Yes

Jade: $4M
Made: Yes

Showgirls: $3.7M
Made: Yes

Basic Instinct: $3M
Made: Yes

Sliver: $1M
Made: Yes

Reliable Sources: $2M
Made: No

Male Pattern Baldness: $2M
Made: No

Gangland: $1.3M
Made: No

Foreplay: $1M
Made: No

Original Sin: $600K
Made: No

Sacred Cows: $500K
Made: No

There was a point where Eszterhas was literally making multimillion dollar deals based on story ideas he had scratched onto a napkin over a lunch meeting. He was that hot. How did he get there? This:

Produced in 1992, Basic Instinct generated an astonishing $353M in worldwide box office revenues. I remember when the spec script went out. Here is P.1:

INT. A BEDROOM - NIGHT

It is dark; we don't see clearly. 

A man and woman make love on a brass bed. There are 
mirrors on the walls and ceiling. On a side table, atop 
a small mirror, lines of cocaine. A  tape deck PLAYS the 
Stones "Sympathy for the Devil."

Atop him... she straddles his chest... her breasts in his 
face. He cups her breasts. She leans down, kisses him...

JOHNNY BOZ is in his late 40's, slim, good-looking. We don't 
see the woman's face. She has long blonde hair. The CAMERA 
STAYS BEHIND and to the side of them.

She leans close over his face, her tongue in his mouth... she 
kisses him... she moves her hands up, holds both of his arms 
above his head.

She moves higher atop him... she reaches to the side of the 
bed... a white silk scarf is in her hand... her hips above his 
face now, moving... slightly, oh-so slightly... his face strains 
towards her.

The scarf in her hand... she ties his hands with it... 
gently... to the brass bed... his eyes are closed... tighter... 
lowering hips into his face... lower... over his chest... his 
navel. The SONG plays.

He is inside her... his head arches back... his throat white.

She arches her back... her hips grind... her breasts are high...

Her back arches back... back... her head tilts back... she 
extends her arms... the right arm comes down suddenly... the 
steel flashes... his throat is white...

He bucks, writhes, bucks, convulses...

It flashes up... it flashes down... and up... and down... and 
up... and...

EXT. A BROWNSTONE IN PACIFIC HEIGHTS - MORNING

Winter in San Francisco cold, foggy. Cop cars everywhere. 
The lights play through the thick fog. Two Homicide detectives 
get out of the car, walk into the house.

An attention-grabber right off the bat. Here is how Den of Geek describes the way the Basic Instinct script deal went down:

Originally entitled Love Hurts, it became Basic Instinct on the morning its auction effectively began, as the screenplay was sent to every production outlet in Hollywood. The plan was to try and get them to outbid each other, to drive the price up. The plan worked.

The auction started at 10 one morning. “By noon”, as Eszterhas tells in his book, “we had offers up to $2 million.” The eventual winning bid? Carolco’s. It paid $3m to Eszterhas, and as part of the deal, it paid a further $1m to Irwin Winkler to produce the movie. “A New Era Dawns In Hollywood” read the subsequent Variety headline. And it wasn’t kidding.

Agents sending out a spec at an appointed hour. Agents hand carrying scripts to buyers, then insisting they read the script while supervised by an agency rep. Specs sent out with kitschy items to generate heat, like ticking clocks for the script “Ticking Man” which ended up selling for $1M… and never getting produced.

Yep, it was a whole bunch of fun there for a few years with spec scripts as the hot commodity in Hollywood. And no one reigned over that domain more than Joe Eszterhas.

The $26 Million Dollar Man Himself

Today? For sure, it ain’t like that. The studios, each of whom has been acquired by ginormous multinational corporations, have bent their business practices to the bean counters. Their obsession is more with franchises and repurposing preexisting intellectual property.

However the spec market, while not nearly at the level it was when Eszterhas was stomping around the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire, yelling invectives at CAA — he didn’t actually do that, just wrote an infamous letter which was faxed around town — is still a thing. Every year, a significant number of writers sell or option spec scripts, many of them outsiders using it as a way to break into the business. Even if a spec doesn’t sell, it can act as a writing sample which gets the writer representation, meetings, and possibly open writing assignments.

Plus there’s this: There are a lot more buyers around today than there were in the early to mid-90s. And many more platforms for scripted entertainment including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube and the like.

So while we can’t expect to jot down “Boy meets girl” on a napkin over lunch with a studio exec and have them whip out the corporate checkbook, inking in seven figures before we’ve had a chance to digest our kale and quinoa… but a spec script still is a powerful tool.

If you need a reminder of that fact, you need look no further than Joe Eszterhas.

For the rest of the Den Of Geek article, go here.

Walt Disney’s 1957 Business Strategy

July 1st, 2015 by

This is pretty amazing: Walt Disney’s 1957 business strategy for the company bearing his name:

What’s remarkable is how much this approach parallels Disney’s philosophy today. Swap out Disney Radio for Disney Magazine, add ancillary revenue sources such as video games and Broadway musicals, and basically what you see in this sketch represents how Disney, expert at repurposing content, goes about their business. And at the root of it all: IP. Intellectual Property.

That’s where writers come in. If you create content a studio like Disney believes they can exploit for profit, you put yourself in a position to reap some benefit from your inspiration.

Via @FilmmakerIQ.

Video: Why Are There So Many Remakes??

June 19th, 2015 by

Produced by PBS Idea Channel and hosted by Mike Rugnetta, this video explores a question that vexes many movie fans today: Why are there so many remakes? Yes, there’s the revenues. And it’s proven to be safer for the studios. But this video makes the argument there’s something else going on about Gen Xers and Millennials which makes remakes particularly resonant to those demo groups.

Industrial technological duplication as a cultural touchstone. What do you think of that theory?

What’s going on with mid-budget movies in Hollywood?

May 8th, 2015 by

Terry Huang is part of the Black List crew and one of his specialties is analytics. For example back in April, he took on the idea that has floated around Hollywood for several years — the highest budgeted movies are the ones which translate into the most reliable profits — and broke down some actual numbers in a Black List blog post to basically support that thesis.

Afterward I emailed Terry to see what he could dig up about mid-budget movies which have taken it on the chin relative to major Hollywood studios – the rise of behemoth blockbuster franchises has led to a precipitous drop in films in the $25-75M range.

So Terry went at it and came up with a post that provides what I believe analysts officially call a “shit-ton” of invaluable information. Here are some excerpts:

Why do we care about these mid-budget movies? Well, increasingly, studios have gravitated toward spending more money on fewer projects. These giant projects are largely, if not entirely, based on things like comic books, YA novels, or previous films. The mid/low budget space is pretty much the only place where original movies are being made. And this means that it’s the only space where original material is being bought.

Take a look at this graph that shows the breakdown of spend by different budget brackets over time:

As you can see, spend on $100 million plus movies has increased quite a bit over the last ten years. This has been particularly driven by $200 million plus movies, which has come to represent about 25% of total production spend.

It’s most noticeably the under $50 million space that has been declining over the past decade. This means that dollars are tighter and that there are fewer movies to split that cash. This also means to get a movie made in this space, it has to be a compelling proposition, even more so nowadays that a decade ago. A script needs to stand out in this space.

And this is just tip of the proverbial information iceberg Terry dug up like “Attributes of Very Successful Mid-Budget Films” including most common keywords in their loglines.

Here are three takeaways Terry came away with from his research:

These are scripts that are more likely to sell in this ultra-competitive space.

* Horror, comedy, romance, and sci-fi tend to do better

*Ignore MPAA rating. There’s little influence in return. And use of the F word is actually an attribute of successful movies.

*Women led movies will have a higher likelihood of financial return. Female protagonist is also a keyword that shows up in successful movies.

My takeaway: If you are writing a spec script for a mid-budget movie, you need to be smart. Really smart. Start with a strong story concept, one that has an undeniably evocative and compelling hook. Next, a roster of distinctive and fascinating characters, ones name actors would love to play. Also make choices in your plotting choices that put you more toward the $20-25M range rather than $70-75M. The more expensive your project’s budget, the less likely it gets bought or even repped.

That said, I honestly believe over the next 5-10 years, we’re going to see a renaissance of movies in the $20-25M budget range. Big enough to draw A list talent and have the sheen of a major motion picture, yet low enough in terms of cost so studios will have a decent chance to make a profit. Why do I think this? Three reasons.

* Audiences will grow weary of $200M franchise movies, especially superhero stories where the plot repeats ad nauseam the same damn threat: The potential end of the world. How many times can they keep dipping into that well? At some point, moviegoers will stop caring.

* There is a huge audience out there that yearns for mid-budget movies, namely Baby Boomers and Senior Citizens. I would argue even the 30+ crowd, depending on the specifics of the project. Movies that engage our hearts and minds, not just CGI eye candy.

* People want good stories. Shared universes, sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and the like, they don’t lend themselves to quality storytelling. It’s more about servicing franchises. Moviegoers are smart enough to sniff that out. Over time, the wearying preponderance of those franchise films will feed the desire for original movies with great stories.

Five years ago, I started blogging that the cross genre Action Comedy would make a comeback… and it has. Now my crystal ball says mid-budget movies are primed to return to the stage.

Writers, if this is your area of interest, just be smart in your creative choices. You can start that education by reading Terry’s latest post in its entirety by going here.

Deal: “Controller” (Short Video)

April 25th, 2015 by

Hollywood’s mini-wave of short proof-of-concept videos continues with “Controller”. From Deadline:

Fox has acquired Controller, a project that Alev Aydin will write based on a concept written by Saman Kesh based on his short film… Pic is a sci-fi rescue film that turns the damsel-in-distress trope upside down. It is set in the homogenized future of New-Taipei, where an imprisoned young woman who has enormous psychic powers perpetrates her own rescue by taking physical control of her boyfriend, turning him into a helmeted Terminator. The film is a modern love story draped in blood, and Kesh went to Taiwan and shot the short film to demonstrate a potential third act for the feature.

Here is the video:

Movies are primarily a visual medium, so it makes sense to some degree that visual representations of stories have a certain cache now that digital technologies have made these type of short films possible for filmmakers. The key seems to be immersing the viewer in the atmosphere and feel of a unique story universe, conveying the story’s central conceit, and lots of eye-popping action.

What do you think of “Controller”?

Breakdown: “Batman v. Superman” trailer

April 22nd, 2015 by

The courses I teach and workshops I run through Screenwriting Master Class never cease to amaze me in terms of the quality discussions that emerge in our 24/7 forums. Case in point, a recent conversation in the Pages II: Rewriting Your Script course, something initiated by Michael W:

Has anyone else noticed the new Batman v Superman trailer and how theme heavy it is?

False Gods, The dangers of Supreme Power (man v authority), The undercurrent of revolution.

Since action shots are often plot spoilers in trailers theme-trailers seem like a good way to set up conflict (especially if you already know the characters like Batman and Superman).

Have you noticed any other trailers that use theme in them?

Picked up by Avi G:

I wonder if an interesting exercise to help fine tune or crystalize a scripts theme in one’s mind would be to imagine what the theme-based trailer of a script would look like?  I’m definitely going to ponder that.

Here is the trailer in question:

Which led me to this:

Interesting subject and I think an apt one. Some types of movies may be able to work on the marketing front by focusing strictly on the action, but by and large, even spectacle / special effects movies have to have to some sort of emotional grounding to connect deeply with a wide audience.

Aristotle discusses spectacle in Poetics and puts it at the bottom of the list of a story’s narrative elements, focusing his attention on plot grounded in character.

So it would make sense that trailer shops and studio marketing divisions would zero in on the emotional meaning / themes of any given story they are trying to sell to the public in order to elicit a connection on that level.

Per the B v S trailer, here is a breakdown of it beat for beat:

[Over black]

“Is it really surprising that the most powerful man in the world is a figure of controversy?”

[Image of city skyline at night with big statue in the center]

“We as a population on this planet have been looking for a savior.”

[cut to image of Superman]

“We are talking about a being…” / [creepy cross talk voice] “alien” / “…whose very existence…” / [woman’s voice] “they are not telling us the truth” / “…challenges our own sense of priority…” / [screaming background voice] “this is our place” / “…in the universe.”

[image of Superman holding up what looks to be some sort of massive rocket component]

[closing in on city skyline and statue]

“Human beings have a horrible track record…” / [woman’s voice] “tragedy” / “…of following people of great…” / [another woman’s voice] “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” / [other woman’s voice] “chaos”

[Superman surrounded by four kneeling uniformed military / police officials]

“Maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing” / [another man’s voice] “we know better now, don’t we” / [screaming background voice] “he’s out of control”

[closing in on statue]

“Devils don’t come from Hell beneath us…” / [scared man’s voice] “they brought their warrior” / “…they come from the sky.”

[closing in on statue]

[man in f.g. reaching up to sky where Superman is floating]

“The world has been so caught up in what he can do…”

[closing quicker on statue]

“…that no one has asked what he should do.”

[super close on statue in darkness as crowd chants]

“Go home! Go home! Go home! Go home!”

[statue illuminated revealing it’s one of Superman, his “S” logo covered with graffiti: “False God”]

This is the 1:00 minute mark.

[Black]

“That’s how it starts…”

[CU – Bruce Wayne]

“…the fever… the rage… the feeling of powerlessness.”

[CU – Batman suit in storage]

“…that turns good men… cruel.”

[Lots of images of Batman, spectacle, destruction, then… image of Batman staring into the night sky where Superman is hovering in the rain]

“Tell me, do you bleed?”

[Superman lands, squaring off against Batman]

[Black]

“You will.”

[Superman logo / Batman logo superimposed over it, the two merging]

[Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice]

Trafficking in themes in trailers allows the marketing to focus more on the psychology, tone and atmosphere of the story rather than plot. But believe me, as we get closer to the release date, there will be additional trailers that do get more plot specific. This trailer is just cutting trail for the rest of the marketing onslaught. But it’s important in creating images and a feel in the minds of potential viewers, establishing central themes.

So given this trailer script, what themes do you see at work? Some of them literally spelled out in dialogue.

BTW I’ll sometimes ask a writer with whom I’m working to conjure up images and V.O. for their story’s movie trailer. What are your story’s trailer moments? Set pieces and key emotional plot points. Do you have them? Do you know them? An important consideration given how much time and money studios spend in marketing movies nowadays and to spur the writer to brainstorm / generate movie-worthy moments in their script.

A good exercise for each of you to do with your current stories, yes?

Have you ever imagined what a trailer for your movie would look like? What themes would it emphasize? Does your story lend itself to ‘trailer moments’?

And for you DC Comics fans, what’s your take on the B v S trailer?

“Everything is changing”

April 15th, 2015 by

That’s what attorney, producer and founder of Cinetic Media John Sloss said yesterday during the keynote address for the 7th annual TV and Film Finance Forum. And Sloss, whose producing credits include Boys Don’t Cry, Before Sunset, and Boyhood, thinks all that change represents an “incredible, exciting time of opportunity” for storytellers. From Indiewire:

Everything is changing. The form of the content, the way it’s being financed, the way it’s being delivered, the way it’s being consumed.

—-

We come from a place where the two-hour narrative was king. It was the aspiration of everyone who created narratives…it was a beginning to end story… hen what came along was the 11-hour narrative that used to exist an hour a week at a certain time slot and is now being put up for view all at once occasionally…

From a creator’s standpoint, it creates an irresistible opportunity to tell a more involved dynamic, complex narrative story than the previous state of art of a two to three-hour narrative… And what’s happening is it’s causing the greatest creators to leap-frog the public viewing creation and jump straight to the small screen and it becomes a question of whether 11-hour viewing will make its way to public viewing.

Sloss, who is one of the most knowledgeable and perceptive figures on the front lines of indie filmmaking, had interesting comments about VOD, day-and-date release strategies, and other issues related to film financing. However I thought his observations about crowdfunding were especially noteworthy:

If you look at crowdfunding as not getting money for nothing or putting your hand out to people to support your pet project but as first and foremost community building around these affinity communities of the content you’re trying to produce and you go from there, you basically focus on bringing the core fans in from the inception and make part of the actual production process… Then you create a loyalty and support that is much more than just relying on fans to show up at a sneak preview.

While Sloss was delivering his keynote address, I was simultaneously giving my final lecture of the semester in my History of American Screenwriting class, then discussing the future of storytelling and new media with my 25 university students. It was a wide-ranging conversation touching on movies, TV, web series, video games, virtual reality, and more. When comparing today to the 1890s, where we began the semester, it’s clear that change is a constant throughout the history of filmmaking, whether that change is technologically, culturally, or aesthetically based. However over the decades, one thing remains the same: Content creators always have a central role in the process of producing entertainment. With the explosion of new media platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, the value of content creators may never be greater than it is today.

A final thought which I stressed with my students yesterday: Think of the internet as a distribution network. Create content, put it online, and see what happens. The right set of eyeballs can change your life.

For the rest of the Indiewire feature on John Sloss, go here.

Congratulations, Christian Contreras!

April 8th, 2015 by

Last week, actor turned screenwriter Christian Contreras set up a high profile pitch. From Deadline:

In a competitive situation, Warner Bros has acquired Principia, a pitch that will be scripted by Christian Contreras, with David Goyer producing through his Phantom Four Productions banner with Kevin Turen.

They are keeping the logline under wraps, but it’s based on actual events. A high-concept historical thriller in the vein of The Prestige, this one involves Isaac Newton and the hunt for a notorious criminal. The scribe, an American who lives in London and has acted in Fury, The Fifth Estate and Zero Dark Thirty, just came to Hollywood a couple of weeks ago with an idea he wanted to write. He signed with WME and Grandview Entertainment, and Goyer heard the pitch late last week and set it up with Warner Bros that night.

—-

Contreras separately scripted Labyrinth, a drama about the murder cases of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., with producer Miriam Segal developing it.

Christian is a longtime GITS follower and Screenwriting Master Class alumnus having taken the Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop with me. In fact, we were in touch in February when Labyrinth went wide and he ended up signing with WME. Here is an excerpt of what Christian wrote to me:

I also know that you’ve made me a better screenwriter.

I thank you for that.

From countless posts or links or interviews that contained a nugget I didn’t know I needed.  Screenplays.  Core elements.  Seriously, this is how my life’s organised: 1-2-7-14.  I shit you not when I say Deep Focus: Film School on the Cheap has been my Film School.  Full stop.  I have breakfast, take a shower and get dressed like I’m going to school. Then I sit down at my computer – 5 days a week – for each subject area.  The 1 screenplay-a-week I read is from one of the 2-movies-a-week I watch.  Reading the Evolution of Filmmaking and Film Criticism has made me better understand the nuances of the form, a film’s place in the zeitgeist, and innumerable other things I can’t articulate.

Anyway.

It’s a long road ahead, I know.  I just wanted to reach out and tell you how much I appreciate what you’ve done and what you do.  You don’t know but you’re a daily part of my life.

So congratulations, Christian! A talented writer who has exhibited the persistence and passion necessary to make it in Hollywood. Here’s a blast of creative juju for both Principia and Labyrinth. WHOOOSH!!! May those projects find green lights!

“News Companies See Movies as Opportunity for Growth”

March 30th, 2015 by

As much chatter as there is going around about the supposed decline of movies as a viable narrative form in today’s binge-watching-short-attention-span culture, there’s this:

In a surprising turn, some of the most aggressive contemporary purveyors of information, journalistic and otherwise, are seeking future growth from what has not seemed novel since Edison’s day: the feature-length motion picture.

In the last several years, BuzzFeed Media, Vice Media, CNN, Condé Nast and Newsweek have all built units or alliances aimed in part at creating long-form narrative or documentary films that will be seen in theaters. They will use time-tested promotional apparatus — including festivals, awards and brightly lit marquees — to draw viewers, many of whom will ultimately see the movies online or on television.

Distributors of short form news stories are creating divisions focusing on long-form feature films, both scripted and documentary. Why?

While they vary, the operations are all planted in the notion that classic movie formats have immense power to open cultural conversations, and to hold viewers who might otherwise be lost to a competitor with the next bold headline, or two-minute video.

If the goal still exists to create content that draws eyeballs that stick around for longer than it takes to click a mouse, movies can be a sound solution, landing a person’s attention for 90-120 minutes. This from Ze Frank, president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures:

Why bother?

Because, Mr. Frank said, long-form visual storytelling seems the best way to deal with life’s deeper themes: “sex, love, war, jealousy and betrayal,” for instance.

“The Russian novel was the standard for a while,” he said. “Right now, I really feel it’s the feature.”

Cycles. The entertainment business is always about cycles. Something’s hot. Then it’s not. Then it’s hot again. That’s just one reason why I’m absolutely certain that while we may be in the middle of the so-called Second Golden Age of TV, there will be a renaissance on the movie side of things.

Who knows? Maybe it’s emerging right now.

For the rest of the NYT article, go here.

Great news for a pair of Black List writers!

March 27th, 2015 by

I enjoy interfacing with all types of screenwriters, but I am particularly fond of getting to know talented up-and-comers. Oftentimes uninhibited by conventional wisdom and so-called screenwriting ‘rules’, they bring a fresh perspective to the craft and to the world of storytelling. So I was thrilled this week when two announcements about Black List writers — Elijah Bynum and Jason Mark Hellerman — hit the trades:

THR: Imperative Entertainment Producing Black List Script ‘Hot Summer Nights’:

Imperative Entertainment will finance and produce Black List script Hot Summer Nights, a coming-of-age drama set during a stormy summer in Cape Cod.

Elijah Bynum wrote the script and will make his directorial debut with the project, which is slated to begin production this summer. Bynum was the only writer to have two scripts on the 2013 Black List, the other being Mississippi Mud.

—-

“Bynum is an exceptional talent and is someone we believe will be a phenomenal director. In our experience, these types of visionaries come along very rarely and we have designed Imperative to have the resources and infrastructure in place to support them and help them realize their vision,” says Thomas.

Deadline: ‘Shovel Buddies’ 2013 Black List Script Heads To May Shoot With AwesomenessTV, Film 360:

Shovel Buddiesa 2013 Black List script by Jason Mark Hellerman, will be produced by AwesomenessTV and Film 360 for day-and-date theatrical and VOD release. The film will be directed by English duo Si & Ad with a likely cast of social-media stars plucked substantially from the stables of AwesomenessTV and its Big Frame talent-management unit.

Casting is underway, and filming is expected to begin by May.

—-

Thus the deal for Hellerman’s script, which ended up eighth on the 2013 Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. The name is a play on the idea of the “bucket list.” Here, a group of four teens whose friend has just died of leukemia strive to do all the items on the friend’s “shovel list” in a single night.

I got in touch with Elijah and Jason to congratulate them. Both are longtime Go Into The Story followers. In fact, Elijah said in his email response, “Thanks man! You’re part of the reason this was able to happen.”

So congratulations to Elijah and Jason! Hot Summer Nights and Shovel Buddies are wonderful stories. May the Cinema Gods be with each project as they move forward into production.

To read my April 2014 interview with Elijah Bynum in which we discuss Hot Summer Nights, go here.

To read my August 2014 interview with Jason Mark Hellerman in which we discuss Shovel Buddies, go here.

Twitter: @BynumElijah, @JasonHellerman.