Reader Question: Is it useful to read a bad script to see what not to do?

October 26th, 2016 by

@DStraker90 tweeted a question the other day:

Is it useful to read a bad script to see what not to do? I mean that as a serious question.

Damien, I tend to focus my ‘preaching’ on good movie scripts as reading material, however bad scripts can be every bit as educational in their own way.

First off, I can’t tell you how many Hollywood writers I’ve interviewed, read, or heard say one of the main reasons they even considered screenwriting was because they had been reading one lousy script after another. I dare say if you could sit down with any pro script reader, assistant, or intern, they would tell you 90% or more of the scripts they churn through are mediocre to poor to utter rubbish. Read enough crap scripts, it’s easy to imagine how someone could say, “Hell, I can write better than that.” So there’s that.

“It’s incredible when you read
the bad screenplays of amateurs and aspirants,
not only do they not resemble real life or human behavior,
they don’t resemble movies.”
— Lem Dobbs

But more to your point, can reading a bad script give a writer a grasp of “what not to do”? Yes. The key, however, is not to read a bad script, but lots of them. One script may suck at a few craft related things. If you want to get more of a grasp of the whole panoply of poor writing techniques, better to immerse yourself in tons of scripts. That way trends start to emerge like:

  • Relying way too much on dialogue to advance the plot.
  • Dialogue which sounds like someone writing, not like someone talking.
  • Characters whose dialogues sounds too similar.
  • Too much exposition.
  • Unfocused scenes with too many things going on.
  • Scenes which go on for far too long.
  • Too many scenes of the same type, one after the other.
  • Characters with unclear motivations.
  • Characters who do something out of character just to service the plot.

You read 10-20 bad scripts where these type of things occur over and over, it’s likely you’ll grok that writing lesson in a way you wouldn’t just by talking about it in the abstract.

I would say this: Balance out your reading of bad scripts with great ones. This will highlight both the good and bad writing even more, and reading good scripts can keep you from slipping into cynicism, an attitude which can develop if all you do is slog through one piece of tripe after another.

Another thing: Your job as a professional screenwriter is basically that of a problem-solver. You want to be able to read a script, identify its problem areas, then come up with ways to fix those issues. One way to develop your critical analytical skills is by reading scripts including bad ones.

How to obtain bad scripts? My cute answer: Read some of my zero drafts! But honestly, this is another reason to find and join a writers group. Not that you’re necessarily seek out bad writers, in fact, you’re doing quite the opposite. However as my tongue-in-cheek response above suggests, even good writers can create bad pages. It’s all part of the process of going from a script that sucks to something which does not suck.

Another route: Various screenwriting contests including, I believe, the Austin Film Festival have volunteers weed through submissions. I don’t have much in the way of details, but I’ll bet GITS readers will have some ideas in this regard. People, please help out Damien with some suggestions.

Also what are your thoughts: Reading bad scripts a good idea? Head to comments and let us know your thoughts.

[Originally posted December 29, 2015]

Comment Archive

Reader Question: What’s the best way to approach pitching?

October 23rd, 2016 by

From Anonymous,

In the next month I will be pitching for the chance to write the script for an upcoming film. A producer, having seen some shorts and a webseries I made along with reading some spec scripts, has asked me to go along but this will be my first time and I am unsure of which ‘way’ to pitch. Would you recommend giving a detailed rundown of the script and beats in 5 minutes, or should I give a quick rundown and concentrate on tone and atmosphere?

First off there is no one right way to pitch. However having sold several original stories and landed many more OWA’s, each based on pitches, I can share with you my general approach.

12 minutes. That’s what you should plan on having. Max. I break it up this way:

Act One [5 minutes]: Introduce the main characters, providing each one’s core essence and narrative function [you don’t need to say, “This is the Protagonist” or “This is the Nemesis,” you can make that clear in how you describe them, but you should know what their respective functions are]; establish story concept and set the plot into motion, basically what happens that jettisons the Protagonist out of their ordinary world and into the story’s adventure.

Act Two [5 minutes]: Do not do a beat for beat breakdown of the second act, rather spotlight 4-6 key subplots [depending upon the genre and type of story] and dynamics that are in play, and provide the listener both some key plot points and the entertaining value of each one. Most listeners are pretty smart and will be able to fill in the dots.

Act Three [2 minutes]: Build to the Final Struggle, show how the story ends up, a taste of the Denouement, and out.

Some tips:

#1: When you start the pitch, don’t talk about the story, tell the story. Just get into it. It’s the story itself that has to be entertaining. All your analysis and points of support for the story, save those for after the pitch. If they are interested in your story, you will have plenty of time to pimp and drill down into it afterward.

#2: Never read from notes. Memorize the pitch, then practice it verbally over and over and over and over again. You should know the pitch backwards and forwards, and be able to convey it conversationally, not like a robot.

#3: Make sure you hit some trailer moments. Try to come up with at least 5 moments that a buyer will be able to see as something they can use to market the movie.

#4: Be passionate. Buttressing a great story concept and well-constructed story is your own emotional connection to the material. A buyer wants to know you are excited about the content and will bring that energy to the writing. Plus there is a psychological subtext at work whereby they feed off your excitement.

#5: That said less is more. Don’t go over the top with your enthusiasm. And this extends to how much detail you provide. The tendency is to want to keep hammering home sales points after the pitch. At some point, you run risk of coming off as desperate. Have confidence in your story. It should sell itself. If it’s not good enough to sell, then no amount of your frenzied verbiage will make up for that.

#6: This is super important: You need to know what the key dynamics of your story are that will create an emotional connection with a potential moviegoer, then make sure you sell those in your pitch. Again not so much talking about those dynamics, but actually conveying through the sharing of the story itself.

Hope that’s helpful. Best of luck with your pitch!

What say ye, GITS community? How do you pitch a story?

[Originally posted January 18, 2012]

UPDATE: Two additional points and underscoring something I noted in the OP.

First, this approach focuses on pitching original stories. If you’re up for an OWA, be prepared to present a more comprehensive take. That’s not always the case, the 12 minute pitch can work for some writing assignments, however depending on the project and the nature of its story problems, complexity, etc, you may have to cover more narrative terrain to provide what the buyer needs.

Second, while you’re at it, work on your one-line version of the story as well as a 60-90 second iteration. That can not only help you crystallize your story and focus your 12 minute pitch, it will also prepare you for those ‘elevator pitch’ opportunities which may arise unexpectedly.

The third thing is to underscore the very last point I made above: Zero in on the story’s emotional core. Why will a listener care about the story? By extension, why will an audience member care about the movie? Most often, you can do this by presenting a clear articulation of the Protagonist’s initial state of being, what I call Disunity. What do they need? Why do they need to change? What is their central inner conflict?

In most movies, Protagonists go through some sort of psychological metamorphosis. Change may be necessary for them to evolve into their New Self, however transformation is a scary thing. If you can identify the Protagonist’s Disunity state, both circumstances in the External World and psychological dynamics in their Internal World, invariably you will tap into key dynamics in the emotional life of your story.

Reader Question: Are there specific ways to simplify and focus a story?

October 21st, 2016 by

A question from Zach:

Anyone know of any specific ways to simplify a story? I feel like I lose touch with my main idea pretty quickly.

There must be some comparable aspects between essays and screenwriting…

Short of knowing the specifics of your situation, here are a few general thoughts.

1. I think your instinct is correct about there being something “comparable” between essays and screenwriting. In an essay, you typically have a central theme upon and around which you craft your ‘story.’ Likewise a good screenplay will almost always have a central theme. For example, the movie Tootsie has a theme that Michael (Dustin Hoffman) states point blank: “I was a better man as a woman than I was as a man.” You can go through virtually every scene in the movie that involves Michael / Dorothy and see that theme at work. Likewise in the movie K-9, I knew from day 1 the central theme of that story: The dog humanizes the human. Again you can see that at work in every scene of the movie.

So ask yourself a question: What is the central theme of my movie? If you can’t answer that question, then that’s probably an area where you would benefit spending some time brainstorming.

2. While the theme is basically an expression of a movie’s central ‘wisdom,’ don’t forget how important your story’s underlying concept is. For example, take the movie District 9 where the central story concept is – set against a backdrop of aliens having landed on Earth, stuck here, and living in apartheid type camps – about a Protagonist (Wikus) who becomes ‘infected’ by alien fluid and begins to transform into a ‘Prawn.’ That central concept not only informs the events of the plot, it also provides the backbone of the Themeline where Wikus moves from a rather racist attitude toward the aliens into sympathy and understanding of them.

So ask yourself a question: What is my story concept? You should be able to articulate that in a few lines, quickly and cleanly. If you can’t, then again, probably an area where you can spend more time digging into your story.

3. In my view, most stories lose their focus in Act Two or even Act Three because the writer has failed to answer some basic questions at the very beginning of the story. So here are some fundamental questions you should be able to answer about your story before you type FADE IN:

Who is the Protagonist?
The central and most important character in most stories.

What do they want?
P is typically conscious of this External World goal.

What do they need?
P is typically unconscious of or repressing their Internal World goal.

Who is keeping the P from their goal?
This is most likely your Nemesis.

Understanding who your Protagonist and Nemesis characters are, and what is at the core of their central conflict, is critical in shaping the spine of your plot, and also in how P’s needs emerge into the daylight and reshape who they are and how they see their ultimate goal.

There are other character questions you can ask, but for starters, there are the most critical. Now some plot questions:

What happens at the beginning of Act One?
How does your P begin the story?

What happens at the end of Act One?
What event thrusts the P out of their ordinary world and into the new world / world of adventure (per J. Campbell)?

What happens at the end of Act Two?
What plot point is a major blow to the P per their goal, an All Is Lost moment?

What happens at the end of Act Three?
How does your P end the story / what transpires in the Final Struggle?

Once again, if you can’t answer all those questions with a good deal of clarity, then you would do well to go into your story even deeper than you have.

A final piece of advice: Watch movies and read scripts. As you do that, pay close attention to how they keep their stories on track. In fact, you might benefit from doing a scene-by-scene breakdown as I did here for Shakespeare in Love. It’s a great way to visualize the ‘spine’ of a story and to see how in a well-crafted script, every scene is tied to and advances both the Plotline and the Themeline.

How about other GITS readers? What advice might you have for Zach simplify and focus a story?

Reader Question: What about writing a spec script for an animated movie?

October 19th, 2016 by

Got this email from Russell:

I know that studios such as Pixar make their movies in-house, but are there any animation studios that you know of that accept spec scripts for animated features? If I have a good idea for an animated movie, is it worth writing the screenplay or would it be waste of time and a hard sell because the process is entirely different than it is for live-action specs?

In the ‘old days,’ when there were essentially two studios with animation divisions — Disney and Warner Bros. — all the movie projects were pretty much determined in-house. IIRC, Disney used to have an annual meeting where their creative types would pitch and kick around various ideas for potential animation projects – but again, all done in-house.

Then other studios began to develop animated movies: 20th Century Fox, Sony, and most notably Dreamworks Animation.

As a result, the doors seemed to have opened a bit – but only just a bit for animation spec scripts. As I rattled through my memories, I could only come up with a couple of specs I thought I’d remembered got set up as animation projects. To check it out, I went to and typed in “animation”. It brought up a list of some 60 projects set up since 1999. If you’re a member of DDP, you can go here to see the results.

Most of the projects are based on books, comic books, graphic novels, children’s books, preexisting animation, either shorts or full-length movies. Only a handful derive from spec scripts or pitches. Here’s that list:

There is “Master Mind” by writers Alan Schoolcraft & Brent Simons, a comedy spec script that sold 4/3/2007. That evolved into the upcoming Dreamworks release Oobermind starring Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Brad Pitt, and Jonah Hill. Here’s an IMDB plot summary:

When super villain Oobermind (Ferrell) defeats his archrival Metro Man (Pitt), the world should be his oyster. But instead, Oobermind falls into total despair. It turns out that life without a rival is life without a point for him. So, he creates a new superhero rival, Titan (Hill). Unfortunately, the new hero wants to be a super villain, too.

Note: That project is now called Megamind.

There was a pitch called “Tortoise and Hippo” from writer Roger S.H. Schulman which sold to Walden Media on 9/15/2005:

An unlikely friendship forms between a cranky old tortoise in India and a baby hippo. The tortoise tolerates the baby hippo at first because it is a chick magnet, but then develops patriarchal feelings and takes the baby on a dangerous journey home to Africa.

That is supposedly still in development.

Interestingly Toy Story 3 got a jump-start from a spec script written by Jared Stern:

Stern developed a story idea for the long-in-the-works “TS3” on spec while a member of Disney’s Feature Animation Writing Program. Several other writers also took a stab at “TS3,” but Disney ultimately chose Stern’s concept.

Though exact details of the script were being kept under close wraps, Stern’s new take is expected to advance the “Toy Story” franchise by taking the characters on the road and out of Andy’s room.

Technically a spec script, but definitely in-house. Of course, Disney and Pixar kissed-and-made-up with Pixar taking over development of TS3. Currently the writer with sole credit is Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine). The plot apparently still incorporates the concept of the toy characters going out on the road. That alone could lead to a credit arbitration.

The live-action / animated movie Enchanted began as a spec script from writer Bill Kelly:

“Enchanted” is about a wannabe-princess who’s banished from the animated world of Andalasia to a place where there is no true love: real-life New York. There she has to rescue herself and find her true love.

Bill Kelly, who wrote the original spec script, is back on the project, which has undergone multiple rewrites over the past seven years. He will ready the script for a hoped-for September start. Pic will shoot in New York.

The original sale date was in 1997.

And that’s it. 3 spec scripts in some 13 years, one of them an in-house project. There may be more that weren’t covered by And there may have been live-action specs that evolved into animation projects. But clearly the odds are extremely long in selling a spec animation feature film.

Then again, the odds are long against any spec feature selling.

So bottom line, if you have what you think is an absolute killer story concept – distinctive yet commercial – and it will only work as animation, or animation and live-action, and you love the project, go ahead and write it. Even if it doesn’t sell, it could be a great writing sample.

I know we have some GITS readers who work at Dreamworks Animation and Pixar. If you read this and have some additional insight or a varying perspective on the subject, please weigh in.

[Originally posted December 5, 2009]

UPDATE: Since posting this, other animation outfits have emerged such as Illumination Entertainment (The Secret Life of Pets), however the dynamic noted in the OP is pretty much the same: The odds are extremely long writing an animation spec script and trying to get it set up.

My current state of advice is this: Write the story live-action. There’s no difference in terms of style of format. Read a Pixar or DreamWorks Animation script, they read just like a non-animation screenplay. Three things on this:

* What in the past may have only been possible through animation, nowadays with Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), filmmakers can do just about anything in terms of visual storytelling which means…

* …You can write the script live-action and that opens the door to a ton more potential buyers and still…

* …someone could decide to do it as an animated feature at the point of acquisition or down the road.

Bottom line, I don’t recommend writing animated spec script as they are an extremely hard sell. That’s not to say you can’t if you’re utterly passionate about the project. Just understand the odds against you. Instead consider writing it live-action which gives you a much wider path to potential buyers.

Comment Archive

Reader Question: How do I make supporting characters distinctive and interesting?

October 2nd, 2016 by

Reader question via email from Joe:

Hi Scott! A question about supporting characters.

How do I make supporting characters that don’t necessarily have that much screen time but that I feel are essential to the story distinctive and interesting?

In the script I’m writing at the moment, I introduce a girlfriend and later fiancé to my main character at around page 25. As the story progresses, I use her in 7-8 scenes but she never gets any major screen time. I did this mostly because I felt that the story needed a strong female character to balance the otherwise male-dominated movie. I do have other female roles in the story but none of those characters are featured in more than one scene.

In the movie Rush, the character of Suzy Miller is featured in only 5 scenes or so, yet she is played by A-List actor Olivia Wilde who receives top billing. (I only used Rush as an example since it was this movie that made me think of the question).

What I think makes this character worthwhile is that she has a small arc (she decides she doesn’t want to be with James Hunt, a notorious playboy, but with a man that adores her) and she shows/brings forth something about one of the main characters (Hunt’s angry temper when he doesn’t get any sponsors).

But other than this, how do I create “small” supporting characters that are interesting, that contribute to the story and that actors want to play?

First off, Joe, it’s great you’re even aware of this concern. I read a lot of scripts where the writer treats the more central characters pretty well, but handles minor characters with less care and attention. They’re generic. Flat. Uninspired. Forgettable. When I run across characters like that, I know the writer needs to up their game. Conversely when I read a script in which all of the characters — regardless of their line or page count — come across as distinctive, vibrant individuals, that’s one sign I’m dealing with a writer who knows his/her chops. And simply being conscious of the need to handle every character well is fundamental to this aspect of the craft.

The next thing: Be clear about each character’s function. Why do they exist in this story? What purpose do they play in the narrative? If you are clear on this and that function is, indeed, important to the plot, then you are on the road toward crafting a memorable character in part because their function is key to the telling of the story.

Your example — Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) in Rush — is a good one. You already cite some of the keys to her role, but it seems to me the most important point for her character’s existence is this: Her eventual divorce from Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) serves as a direct contrast to the relationship between Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and his wife Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara). They have a successful marriage and her importance in Niki’s life is one of the reasons he quits racing, i.e., he doesn’t want to jeopardize losing her. Not so with Hunt and Miller. She comes to understand that she will always be second to Hunt’s obsession with racing. Her affair with Richard Burton can be seen as an act of provocation to spur their divorce.

Rush (2013)

So yes, Miller’s role is a secondary one, but it is key in presenting a contrast between Hunt and Lauda in terms of what they deem to be most important in their lives.

Once you understand a character’s narrative function, no matter whether they are primary, secondary, or tertiary in terms of page count or influence, I would encourage you to use the same character development tools. Questionnaires. Biographies. Interviews. Monologues. In other words, engage each character, no matter how ‘small’ they are in terms of the plot.

Obviously this is scalable. You don’t need to spend as much time delving into the life of BALDING COP or OBNOXIOUS CUSTOMER as you do PROTAGONIST or ATTRACTOR, but you should do enough so that each character emerges into your consciousness – their physical nature, voice, mannerisms.

And that in my view is the key takeaway from this discussion: Engage the character directly. If you treat each character with respect, curiosity, and interest, no matter how large or small their contribution to the story, they ought to come alive to you. After all, every character is the Protagonist in their own story. SNOT-NOSED KID may only have one line of dialogue in the entire script, but his/her experience in the story universe is that they are the Protagonist.

Once a character does come to life for you, focus on what makes them unique. How do they carry themselves? How do they present themselves to the world? What about the way they talk is distinctive? What of who they are strikes you as being worthy of inclusion in a movie?

So to sum up: Determine what the character’s narrative function is. Engage them directly in developing their character. Look for distinctive aspects of their personality which can make their role entertaining and memorable.

Readers, what do you think? How do you go about making your secondary characters unique and memorable? If you have some additional thoughts, please head to comments.

[Originally posted July 1, 2015]

Comment Archive

Reader Questions?

September 28th, 2016 by

Haven’t done this for awhile, opened up the floor to any questions you may have about screenwriting, TV writing, or the entertainment business in general.

Before you post something, be sure to check out this archive: Go Into The Story Reader Questions. There are well over 200 questions and answers covering a wide variety of subjects.

If you don’t see your question listed there, feel free to jump to Comments and post your concern. I’ll be happy to provide my thoughts.


Comment Archive

Reader Question: What’s the scoop on writer’s residuals?

September 19th, 2016 by

Justin asks:

Hi Scott, could you talk about writer residuals in a real world sense, sort of break it down?

The first thing you need to know is residuals are awesome! Seriously. Every three months, screenwriters get these pale green envelopes with checks inside and accompanying statements for any movie or TV show they’ve written that got produced. You open up the envelope and look! There it is! Free money! Even for a guy like me with three nominal movie credits, residuals can translate into a significant amount of income. In fact, I’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars in residuals over the years. Somebody like James Cameron must have made millions off Titanic and Avatar. Granted nothing compared to his salary and bonuses, but still his residuals probably pay for his cigars or whatever other vice he might have.

So pragmatically that’s all the ‘real world’ info you need to know. Every three months = free money. Now there are all sorts of formalities re residuals which you can dig into here courtesy of the WGA. To wit:

What Are Residuals?

Residuals are compensation paid for the reuse of a credited writer’s work. When you receive credit on produced Guild covered material, you are entitled to compensation if the material is reused. It is important to understand that the compensation is for reuse, and not the original use. For example, if you are hired to write an episode of a network prime time television series, the compensation you are paid for writing services includes the episode’s initial broadcast. However, when that episode reruns on a network, in syndication, or in any other market, the Company must pay you for that reuse.

Similarly, for theatrical motion pictures, the compensation you are paid for your script, either as a purchase or employment, covers the exhibition of the film theatrically, including all foreign theatrical releases. However, when your movie is released to other markets, such as videocassette or pay television, you are due residuals.

Who Receives Residuals?

The credited writer(s) on a produced project receive(s) the residual compensation. Regardless of how much you are paid or what you contribute to the final shooting script on a project, you only receive MBA residuals if you receive writing credit.

Note: MBA = Minimum Basic Agreement

The following Guild determined credits generate residuals for writers under the MBA:

For theatrical motion pictures:

Written by

Story by

Screen Story by

Screenplay by

Adaptation by

Narration Written by

Note: Now you know one of the reasons why credit determinations are such a big freaking deal.

Residuals for theatrical and television motion pictures, including episodic programs, are allocated as follows: “Written by” — 100%; “Screenplay/Teleplay by”–(if a “Story by” or “Screen/Television Story by” credit is accorded)–75%; Story by” or “Screen/Television Story by”–25%. In general, if no form of “Story by” credit is accorded, 100% goes to the writer(s) receiving “Screenplay/Teleplay by” credit. The residual for minor credits such as “Adaptation by” is 10%. In that instance, the residual is allocated as follows: “Adaptation by”–10%; “Screenplay/Teleplay by”–65%; “Story by”–25%.

Reuse Market Residual Payment Owed & Due Date

Theatrical: No residuals are due for worldwide theatrical release, including in-flight, which is covered under the initial compensation.

Free Television: 1.2% of distributor’s gross receipts for worldwide free television reuse.

For network television reuse, residuals are due within 30 days of the Company’s receipt of payment from the network.

For syndicated or foreign television reuse, residuals are due within 60 days of the end of the quarter in which gross receipts or licensing fees are received by the Company.

Pay Television: 1.2% of distributor’s gross receipts for worldwide reuse.

Residuals are due within 60 days of the end of the quarter in which gross receipts or licensing fees are received by the Company.

Here is the kicker:

Videocassette and DVD: For theatrical projects that commenced production on or before February 28, 1985: 1.2% of the Company’s reportable gross.

For theatrical projects that commenced production after February 28, 1985: 1.5% of the first million dollars of the Company’s reportable gross (or “producer’s gross”); 1.8% thereafter.

Residuals are due within 60 days of the end of the quarter in which gross receipts or licensing fees are received by the Company.

Basic Cable 1.2% of distributor’s gross receipts for worldwide reuse.

Residuals are due within 60 days of the end of the quarter in which gross receipts or licensing fees are received by the Company.

Those videocassette and DVD figures are a source of major pain to writers. Back in the early 80s, the studios basically said this: “WGA, this whole videocassette thing, we’d like to try to grow it as a business, but we can’t with the current residual percentages. We propose a temporary rollback in the rate, enabling us to use those extra dollars to expand that market. Then when it’s really a viable thing, we’ll revisit the percentages.”

They never revisited the percentages. Which means that writers, including myself, have been out zillions (well, maybe not that much) of dollars of revenue which in the original agreement would have gone to us, but disappeared into the studios’ pockets. And as we all know, they made a shit-ton of money off DVDs for more than a decade.

That should provide you some context for the 2007-2008 WGA strike re Web content where the AMPTP said the exact same thing: “We don’t know if this is going to be a viable market, let us see where it goes, then we’ll figure out a percentage blah blah blah.”

Okay, so what started out as a happy little post about pretty green envelopes with checks in the mail has become mired down in Guild politics. There’s an object lesson here I think… not sure what it is other than perhaps if you talk to any screenwriter or TV writer long enough, they will invariably start to kvetch about the business.

But warts and all, there you have it: some ‘real world’ answers re residuals.

[Originally posted May 11, 2011]

NOTE: Things have changed since I posted this 5 years ago. Videocassettes? Gone. DVDs? Sales have plummeted. Now there’s this brave new world known as ‘streaming content’ (i.e., Netflix, Amazon) which I’m sure is going to be a major source of discussion re the new MBA. Since those companies don’t tabulate result per unit sales, how to figure residuals? The short answer: They don’t. As far as I can tell, they offer writers a flat pay-out. An example of this was the big spec script deal for the Max Landis script “Bright”. Whether this approach remains, who knows. But if streaming continues to grow, the very concept of ‘residuals’ moves into a gray area.

Reader Question: Do all Protagonists need a character arc?

August 25th, 2016 by

From Gregaria:

I am wondering if protagonist character arcs (in which they learn something and grow in a positive way) apply to protagonists of comedy. I can see where the personal growth of the character would be important in drama, but what about in comedy or horror? If the comedy is a farce, for example, it seems like all the characters stay the same or even regress in the course of the story. Do some of these rules change depending on genre? (Fyi, the protagonist of my comedy does grow and learn things about herself, but I wondered if this has to be the case all of the time.)

This is a hugely important question, Gregaria, one I could parse into various areas of focus for several posts. For now, let’s look at three points.

First in most movies, the Protagonist does go through some sort of metamorphosis. You see it over and over and over again. In mainstream commercial movies. Even in indie films. The P starts out in one psychological state at the beginning. They end up in another psychological state at the end. Three examples:

* Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz feels disconnected from her life-circumstance in Kansas, wishing she could go somewhere over the rainbow, only to return claiming, “There’s no place like home.”

* C.C. Baxter in The Apartment starts out as a nebbish who allows himself to be abused by his co-workers in order to land a promotion, then at the end rejects the job and those work values — in other becomes a mensch.

* Michael Dorsey in Tootsie begins as a self-absorbed, insensitive male, then through his experiences as Dorothy Michaels discovers he was a better man as a woman than he was as a man.

If you sat down and wrote out a list of your 10 favorite movies, I’ll bet almost all of them feature a Protagonist metamorphosis dynamic.

Joseph Campbell asserted that transformation is at the heart of The Hero’s Journey: The Hero leaves their Ordinary World and goes on a journey into a New World. Through the challenges they face and experiences they have, combined with wisdom they learn along the way, both intellectual and emotional, the Hero returns home a changed individual.

Carl Jung asserted the process of individuation is the greatest calling of the human adventure and that process is fundamentally about metamorphosis — becoming who we are meant to be, indeed, in a way, become who we already are (as represented in the various aspects of our psyche).

Why is metamorphosis perhaps the single most universal narrative archetype? Again we could talk about this for days, but if I had to name one reason it’s this: People want to believe they can change. Stories that feature characters who do change reinforce that belief.

So I think it’s safe to say that in most movies, the Protagonist does go through some sort of metamorphosis.

Second point: There are stories where the Protagonist does not go through any significant metamorphosis. Forrest Gump, Being There, James Bond movies are a few examples. Forrest Gump and Chance are change agents, that is they don’t change, they change others. In the case of James Bond, that’s more of a reflection how in some action movies the Protagonist’s story is not so concerned with their psychological journey, but rather the impact they have on others, most notably Nemesis characters. Of course, there are lots of action movies where the Protagonist does change — Lethal Weapon and Die Hard spring to mind — but only if the filmmakers are interested in exploring that character’s inner life.

Which leads to the third point, one you raised: “Do some of these rules change depending on genre?” Two things.

* First in my view, there are no ‘rules.’ There are only principles and conventional wisdom. As writers, we have to be free to follow our story wherever it leads. Rules bind us. Principles, however, exist to guide us, but we can choose to bend them, shape them, ignore them, even abuse them. Same thing with conventional wisdom. Sometimes a story is best served playing by what is conventional. Other times, a story will force us to be unconventional. Again we’re not breaking a rule, rather we’re flying in the face of convention. I know it’s a matter of semantics, but I prefer that language to “rules.”

* Second while most stories share fundamental narrative principles, they can vary by genre. For example as noted above, you can write a great action movie where the Protagonist does not go through any significant metamorphosis. On the other hand, that’s likely not the case if you’re writing a drama where viewers expect to enter into the inner life of characters.

Even within a genre, there can be differences. You mention farce, a specific type of comedy. There the humor derives largely from a tangled web of comedic situations. Does the Protagonist have to change in a farce? Maybe. Maybe not. If, however, you are writing a more conventional comedy like Tootsie or even some of the adult-males-as-teenager comedies like Knocked Up, you’re more likely to need to explore your Protagonist’s character arc.

So after that long-winded response, my short answer to your questions is this: No, a Protagonist does not have to go through a metamorphosis. But as a result of a combination of lessons learned from a 100+ year history of filmmaking, human instinct, and common sense, most movies will have a Protagonist who does have a character arc — starting in one psychological start, ending in quite another.

By the way, metamorphosis has been a major point of emphasis in what I’ve been teaching since 2002 as the Protagonist’s evolution not only provides meaning to the plot, it can also create the spine of the main plot itself. In other words: Plot emerging from character. Finally a way to marry the two!

[Originally posted December 3, 2010]

Reader Question: Should I reference other movies when pitching my own?

August 16th, 2016 by

From mscherer:

What is your take on using the infamous: ‘in the vein of…’ (or something akin) when submitting queries? For example, I use the following for one of my specs:

Scorpio Cruise is Falling Down meets Taken.

I have heard/read that most Hollywood types believe it to be amateurish, while others feel it gives the reader a better sense of the story.

As with everything in Hollywood, there are no hard-and-fast rules, and if there are, then it’s a mortal lock someone will come along and break them.

For example, let’s say I declare, “You must never do a mash-up of two movie titles when querying an agent or manager,” I guarantee tomorrow in the trades, there will be an article about a huge spec script sale in which some manager will be quoted as saying, “I was going to hit delete on the email query, but when I read, ‘It’s “Bambi” meets “Caligula,” I knew it was going to be a hit.”

Likewise if I assert, “By all means, you must give reps a mash-up of movie titles for your project to present them with a clear idea of what your story is about,” there will be an article in the trades tomorrow titled, “Pet Rep Peeves” in which sitting there at Numero Uno will be: “Writers who include a title mash-up when querying us.”

So all I’m going to do here — as I pretty much always do with this series — is provide my humble opinion.

99% of the time, I would recommend you do not include a title mash-up in your query. Why? Because to me in a truncated scenario such as that, where you have perhaps 2-3 lines in an email to connect with a rep, a mash-up suggests you do not have confidence in your logline.

In other words, your logline must be strong enough to convey the story to a query reader in and of itself. If your logline isn’t strong enough [and by the way, this basically means your story concept], then tacking on “It’s ‘Bridesmaids’ meets ‘Transformers 3′” is not going to sell it.

The 1% of the time where you may have some latitude is based on two things: (1) Your logline is super strong; (2) The mash-up is a perfect distillation of the story concept.

That is you are coming from a position of strength, not using the mash-up to make up for the weakness of your logline.

Now if you find yourself in an elevator pitch scenario or even a formal pitch setting, there’s no reason you can’t have that title mash-up in your hip pocket, so that at the end of your spiel, when you need that little extra to take your presentation to 11 — “one louder” — you’ve got it right there: “It’s ‘Finding Nemo’ meets ‘The Silence of the Lambs.'”

How about you, GITS people? Yea or nay to title mash-ups in queries?

[Originally posted December 7, 2011]

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Reader Question: Do query letters still work?

August 10th, 2016 by

Ryan, the short answer is yes, query letters do work. However you have to look at the query letter as part of an entire approach and that has to be grounded in this: Your scripts. A person can write the greatest query letter in the world, but if their story concept and execution on the page isn’t great, that’s a pass.

So first and foremost, come up with strong story concepts. Write scripts based on those strong story concepts. Get feedback and rewrite those scripts until they are in the best shape possible. Then do one more pass just to be sure.

One way to maximize the power of your query letter is to write more than one script. Indeed as I’ve have written about here and here, I recommend writing three scripts. And to create the path of least resistance, here is my advice:

  • Write 3 scripts: Not just one. Not two. But three scripts. Written, rewritten, reviewed by pro readers and/or a strong writers group, revised again, and brought to the best level of readability and marketability possible.
    • Rationale: If you have 3 scripts in hand, this demonstrates to someone in the business you are not a one-hit wonder, you are prolific, you are persistent, and you have an effective approach to mapping a story and getting it from FADE IN to FADE OUT. Also 3 scripts triples the chances you can find a set of eyeballs which responds to at least one of your stories.
  • Write 3 scripts in 1 genre: Not 3 scripts in 3 different genres, but 1 genre.
    • Rationale: It is easier to sell you to the town if you are known as an Action writer, a Comedy writer, a Drama writer, and so on. The fact is, people will put you on lists based on whatever script first gets their attention. Like it or not, this is your brand. And having a brand makes the life of managers and agents a whole lot easier to sell you and your writing services.
  • Write 3 scripts in 1 genre which is mainstream: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.
    • Rationale: Scripts in mainstream genres as opposed to those that are not (e.g., Western Musical, Animated Horror) are easier sells because they are more likely to represent what studios, production companies, and financiers are actively developing. So much of it is about their comfort level and if you’re up for a writing assignment in a certain genre, and you have credibility in that genre, again path of least resistance.
  • Write 3 scripts in the $5-20M budget range: Write at least one on the low end and no more than two at the upper end.
    • Rationale: If you write a script with a budget of $100M or more, there are only 6 potential buyers. If you write a script with a budget of $50-100M, there are virtually no buyers. However if you write a script in the $5-20M range, there are literally dozens of buyers. Even if they don’t acquire your script, your reps can paper the town with it and get you meetings. With a $100M script and severely limited number of buyers… not so much.
  • Write 3 treatments: In addition to your 3 spec scripts.
    • Rationale: Assuming you go on the bottled water tour, the first thing they’ll say is, “Love your script.” The second thing: “What else you got?” Having 3 stories worked out in your back pocket makes you that much more marketable.
  • Write 3 treatments based on your strongest story concepts: And this goes for your spec scripts, too.
    • Rationale: Along with execution and voice, story concept is one of the most important sales elements of your script. Moreover if you can demonstrate you can generate great story ideas, that makes you all that much more desirable for representation.

If you do this, you can write a query letter which — if your story concepts are strong enough — should almost assuredly get the attention of a manager. Why?

* With 3 scripts and 3 treatments, you are giving them a lot of script and story material they can use to sell and position you in Hollywood. Indeed any one of them could translate into a sale or option, and at the very least, if they are well written, serve as a writing sample to get you meetings with producers and execs around town.

* With 3 scripts and 3 treatments, you are saying to a potential rep, “I am not a fly-by-night writer, I am persistent, productive, and motivated. Moreover because I have created so much content, I have developed an approach to story prep and writing which has prepared me to work well under deadlines and pressure.” That’s the subtext your productivity will convey to a manager.

* Because your stories are all within one genre, that makes it easy for a rep to ‘brand’ you and put you up for open writing assignments in that narrative space.

Note: I’m not saying this is the right or only way to go about things, only that it’s the path of least resistance.

What to do after you’ve done the work and created the content? Sign up for Done Deal Pro ($30) and IMDb Pro ($150). Pick your strongest script and research 10-15 movies of the same type, genre, or arena from the last 10 years or so. Hopefully at least some of them have done well at the box office, but even if they have not, if they have solid critic ratings, that’s fine. Go through IMDb Pro and find the producers who are managers (this is one big difference between managers and agents, the latter cannot produce movies, managers can). Once you have a list of manager-producers for 10 movies or so which are similar in some key respects to your script, go to Done Deal Pro and check out the Management database there. You’ll likely find email addresses for most of the managers. If not, Google them and with some mental elbow grease, you’ll probably surface their email.

Now it’s time – finally! – to write your query letter. For your email subject line, I’d put: “Have 3 spec scripts, 3 treatments, all same genre”.

In your email, lead with the logline for your best script. Keep it short. A logline isn’t supposed to tell the story, rather it’s supposed to sell the story. Hook their attention.

Note you have 2 other specs and 3 treatments, each has been thoroughly written, vetted, and revised.


And out.

Don’t mention how you were a quarterfinalist in some obscure script contest.
Don’t mention how excited you are at the prospect of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.

Let the strength of the writing you’ve done speak for itself. Blow them out of the water with your creativity and productivity, and a brief query. That’s a nice, neat package.

Again I can’t imagine any manager not wanting to at the very least talk with you.

So as I said, query letters can work, but they are best served by being part of a holistic approach whereby you lean on your creative passion to generate content in a smart way. And one approach is what I’ve outlined above.

Writers, what do you think? Any other thoughts about query letters?

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