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?
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.
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?
SCOTT, WHEN A WRITER GETS HIS/HER CHECK, do they then pay the agent and or manager OR is the agent/manager’s cut taken out before the writer touches the check?
Brendan Cowles was kind enough to provide this response:
Usually you will sign a release allowing your agent/mgr/or lawyer to process your checks. Buyer sends check to agency. They pay themselves, lawyer, manager, then pay you the difference along with a statement and copy of the original check from the buyer/employer.
That’s pretty much it, at least in my experience. You do see occasional lawsuits by agencies against talent (I Googled “agency lawsuit talent withholding commission” and came up with this example) which suggests perhaps there are arrangements where talent gets paid before reps. But I believe standard procedure is for reps to get their cut first.
Second and more important question from Robert:
Also can you give some advice on what a writer should do when he gets that first big check? i.e. get an accountant (if so why) etc
Once again Brendan was kind enough to weigh in with this solid advice:
Sock that money away. Build up two years of income before you give up your steady day job pay check. I didn’t do this and wish I did.
Abso-effing-lutely. A writer doesn’t know all that much about the mysterious ways of Hollywood business, but this axiom is The Truth: You get gigs, you don’t get gigs. You’re hot, you’re cold. You’re flush with cash, your bank account gathers cobwebs.
In other words, you should expect to go through some lean times to go along with – hopefully – your successful stretches.
Selling one script is a breakthrough, not a career.
You need multiple deals to become established, not only in terms of your own personal finances, but as a known entity within the Hollywood development community.
But let’s say you score big with your first deal, your buddy cop action comedy spec script Lugnutz & Corndog sells for a cool $1M! Huzzah! A millionaire!
First off, the reported $1M includes a production bonus that only gets triggered if the movie gets made. So the actual numbers may be $500K versus $1M, meaning you are only guaranteed the first half-million.
[By the way that production bonus can be reduced depending upon who gets what ultimate writing credit for the movie. Thus if you end up sharing credit with someone who comes on board the project to rewrite you, your $500K production bonus would go down to $250K. If two other writers share credit, your bonus gets reduced by 67%.]
Unfortunately like so many projects that Hollywood acquires, Lugnutz & Corndog dies a slow painful death in Development Hell, so you don’t see any of that production bonus. But hey, you get $500,000! Granted, that’s a nice hunk of change, however let’s figure in some of your expenses.
You will also need at least an accountant who knows entertainment finances or a business manager to handle your money, the latter of which can charge an additional 5% or more (their pitch is the investments they orchestrate for you will result in revenues that more than cover their percentage).
So you’re looking at about one-third of your income gone before you see it. That $500K is now down to $350K. Then there are taxes which you can mitigate somewhat by creating a loan-out corporation, but that results in certain administrative costs and taxes of its own. Let’s just figure you owe another 33% in federal and state taxes, and corporate fees, so your $350K is reduced to about $225K.
Still decent money, but what if you don’t land a gig for a year? Spread out that $225 over 2 years and suddenly your million dollar deal translates into about one hundred grand per year.
And it’s not just about the money. It’s about the pressure to make the money. It’s hard enough to write and be creative while doing it. Having the proverbial sword of Damocles dangling over your head in the form of zero income for an extended period of time can flat-out wear on you. Also given that pressure, you may find yourself going up for writing assignments you’re not particularly enthusiastic about (“Battleship 3? Sure, I can write the HELL out of that,” you exclaim to your agent lying through your teeth.)
Circling back to Brendan’s advice, best to establish yourself within the business and sock away some dough before quitting your steady gig slinging Slurpees at the local 7-11.
Three other things.
First, if you live outside Los Angeles and sell a spec script, your reps will almost certainly advise you to relocate to So Cal. While it’s possible to start and even sustain a career as a screenwriter living in North Dakota or Lichtenstein, the simple fact is it’s more difficult. Why? One big reason: Networking opportunities are so much greater if you live in L.A. That means everything from setting up meetings with industry types to sudden OWA opportunities to chance intersections with movers and shakers who could become big proponents (insert meet cute with Studio Exec in the organic produce aisle at Gelsons).
Unless you live in some major urban area like NYC or San Francisco, moving to L.A. will probably mean a steep increase in your expenses. However it may be worth the additional cost to put you more into the center of action.
Also if you have any interest in working in television, you pretty much have to live in L.A.
Second, one practice you can adopt to maximize your earning potential is to stack projects [I wrote a Business of Screenwriting column about it here.] That way you are always working on multiple stories, each of which is a potential sale and/or writing sample.
Third, always be working on a spec script. Even if you’re flush with writing assignments, several of them lined up into the next year, if you have an original story you’re passionate to write, there’s no good reason not to be working on it. I wrote about that here in another Business of Screenwriting post. And if you do hit a lean stretch, you’ve got a spec ready to go out, at least put something out there to kick-start your stalled career.
Then again Lugnutz & Corndog may get produced. It may become a smash hit spawning sequels (Lugnutz & Corndog: This Time With Mustard). You may become the action comedy king or queen. An actual A-list writer. Good for you! From my keyboard to God’s ears!
But while you may not have to worry how to cover this month’s rent, you’ll have your own set of financial issues. I am reminded of the story conveyed to me by an agent about a famous A-list screenwriter who every January would hold a confab with his team of reps, list all of the various real estate properties he owned (e.g., Aspen, Vermont, Jamaica), totaling the amount of money he needed to cover his annual “nut,” then he would ask, “So how are we going to get me that income this year?” First world problems admittedly, but still enough to keep you up at nights in your $50,000 Monarch V-Spring bed.
What say you, GITS readers? What money advice do you have for aspiring and fledgling screenwriters? Please head to comments and have your say. And speaking of money matters, best of all, like everything here on the blog, it’s free!
UPDATE: Screenwriter John Gary notes:
@GoIntoTheStory It bears mentioning – that $1m first sale would be basically unheard of these days.
True. Although seven figure deals for first time writers do still happen, albeit in very rare circumstances as with “Grim Night” a few years back.
The reason I chose the $1M example isn’t to feed the Hope Machine — I believe I have been explicit many, many times about how hard it is to break into the business and that movies don’t owe anybody a living — but rather to show how the very idea of a million dollar spec script sale is itself not only rare, but also in some ways illusory in reality. Break it all down like I did above and what you’re left with is not nearly what you thought you might have made.
Screenwriter Young Il Kim notes this:
@johngary@GoIntoTheStory If you make $400K sans loan-out, expect about 35% net ($140K). Tax refund will raise this to about 42%.
That is more reliable tax info than my guestimation.
Finally I’ve had some back and forth with a few other writers via email re this post. While the advice Brendan offers — keep your job, bank your money — is prudent, the fact is when I sold K-9 as a spec script, I quit stand-up comedy and moved from the Bay Area to L.A. Granted terminating my stint as a entertainer may not have had the same gravitas as, say, walking away from a career as a lawyer or a dentist, but still I took a leap of faith. And frankly in one respect, it was precisely what I had to do in order to immerse myself in the craft, basically a 24/7/365 pursuit to play catch-up after not having any formal and barely any informal training in the craft.
Which is to say, there is no one way to approach the business of screenwriting, just like there’s no one way to write. If you sell a script and are confronted with a choice about whether to write full-time or relocate to L.A., get the best advice you can, talk it out with your loved ones, consider the pros and cons, listen to your gut, then decide.
But know going in, you are in for a roller coaster ride, my friend. As the lady says:
What are some principles you use for opening scenes? What makes an opening scene really hook the reader, and get behind our “hero” for the long haul?
This is a great subject because as we have discussed before, an opening scene can be hugely important to a script.
For starters, much of how you approach an opening scene is influenced by the story’s genre. For instance, if you’re writing an action or action-adventure movie, you’ll most likely want to begin the story with a bang, a ‘hard’ opening sequence that generates a high level of energy (as opposed to a ‘soft’ character-based opening). Good examples that come to mind: The bank robbery in The Dark Knight, Agent Smith and his guys trying to capture Trinity in The Matrix, the escape from the prison chain gang in 48 Hrs.
If your story is more character-driven, then you look for an entertaining way to introduce your main characters and set the plot into motion. Some good examples:
* Juno, where the opening scene introduces the story’s Protagonist Juno, staring at an abandoned living room set (“It started with a chair”), a snippet of a flashback where Juno drops her drawers and straddles a naked Paulie Bleeker (who is seated in the aforementioned chair) – obviously initiating intercourse – followed by an abrupt transition back to the present by a barking dog, and ending with Juno swigging down the contents of a big jug of Sunny Delight. That is an effective opening because it creates so many questions in the mind of the reader, immediately creating curiosity which compels us into the story to find out the answers.
* Little Miss Sunshine which in 5 pages provides one ‘snapshot’ after another of all the story’s key characters, beginning with Olive who studies with rapt attention a videotape of a beauty contest. This approach not only creates curiosity, it also gives the reader an immediate sense of the characters’ and their respective core essence.
* How about the opening scene of Sideways:
The rapping at the door, at first tentative and
polite, grows insistent. Then we hear someone get
out of bed.
The door is opened, and the black gives way to
BLINDING WHITE LIGHT, the way experiences the first
of day amid, say, a hangover.
A WORKER is there.
Hi, Miles. Can you move your
The painters got to put the
truck in, and you didn't park
(a sigh, then --)
Yeah, hold on.
He closes the door with a SLAM.
It’s a ‘soft’ opening, not much in the way of action, but it’s funny and provides immediate insight into Miles’ character – the hangover reference in SD and the line “you didn’t park too good” strongly suggesting that Miles has issues with alcohol. Again we’re curious. Again we get a key insight into the character. Plus we establish a theme: The world (the white light) intruding on Miles’ life (darkness), a foreshadowing of his journey to come.
If you’re writing a comedy, it is important to write an opening scene that will elicit some laughs from the reader and establish the tone of your story’s humor. A good example of that is the recent horror-comedy hit Zombieland which uses misdirection for comedic purposes –moving from a shot of an American flag accompanied by the song “This Land is Your Land” to post-apocalyptic images — then introduces a zombie, who zeroes in on the cameraman shooting the footage, a brief chase, which the cameraman loses:
The camera FALLS to the ground, askew, shooting nothing
but treetops and sky. Offscreen, the CAMERAMAN SCREAMS
and SCREAMS and SCREAMS, accompanied by ripping, cracking,
CRUNCHING. Something just God-awful is happening to this
guy. Then he gacks and falls SILENT. We hear munching.
The scene ends with a zombie belch. So it not only establishes the story’s genre, the tone of the humor (dark comedy), and the central conceit – it’s a zombie movie – it also creates some laughs.
For thrillers, you go for something that creates suspense. A good example of that is the script Basic Instinct which describes – in detail – a sex scene that turns violent:
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…
Here the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas titillates the reader, establishes the story’s genre, and gets the story off to a kick-ass start — all in 3/4 of a page.
So what are the keys to a great opening scene? Here are some of them:
* Get the story off to a strong start
* Establish genre and tone of the story
* Introduce basic story premise in a compelling way
* Set the Plotline into motion
* Play to your genre (i.e., if it’s a comedy, make the scene funny, if it’s a thriller, create suspense)
* Provide an indication of your key character’s core essence (typically your Protagonist)
* Make the scene a quick one (1-2 pages)
Bottom line: You want the opening scene to pull the reader into the story straight-away.
How about you? What do you think are the keys to a great opening scene?
And what are some of your favorite opening scenes?
Big fan of your site. Easily one of the best screenwriter sites out there for info and inspiration. Anyways, I wanted to get your opinion on something. I was putting the finishing touches on an outline of my current script – almost finished with 1st draft now – when a pitch was sold with the same general idea…
Now I’m used to hearing about parallel development so I pretty much knew that this was going to kill any chance of a sale. However, since I am an unrepped writer my main goal is to get reads from agents and managers so I was curious if you think my target “audience” would still request this script even though a similar idea has recently been sold.
First of all, let me share this sentiment with AGR and anybody else out there who has worked up a story only to see another project with a similar premise get set up:
It totally sucks!
I’ve had it happen more than once. There’s nothing quite like the gut-churning sensation you get when you open the trades and see the project you have been working on just sold to a studio. It gets to the point where you almost hate to read about script deals, always that nagging fear that through some hideous twist of fate, you’re about to discover you just got beat to the finish line by some other writer.
In other words, I feel your pain.
Before I get to your specific question, let me also add this: The simple fact is that this cruel experience is going to happen. You can almost bank on it. There are so many people writing screenplays, graphic novels, comic books, books, pitches, and so on… and only so many good ideas. Steel yourself for the inevitable disappointment.
Fortunately, AGR, you have three things working in your favor:
#1: As we have discussed many times on GITS, Hollywood movie studios operate upon the ‘similar but different’ principle. They are loathe to greenlight completely original stories because they represent big risks (unless, of course, it’s a James Cameron or Christopher Nolan project, their track records effectively minimizing the risk). That risk factor (read: fear of flop) is one major reason why the studios tend to look for stories that are ‘similar’ to other stories. Everything from remakes to sequels to familiar subject matter — those represent a smaller risk because since the original movie was a success, therefore, the logic goes, this new version should stand a good chance of being successful, too. So, AGR, if your script is similar but different than a project which recently sold, that fact could actually help you get your script read. Perverse logic, I know, but hey, if Hollywood knows anything at all, it’s perversion.
#2: Here’s another perverse thing: The mere fact that you generated an original story idea that happens to hew closely to that of a project that recently sold suggests that your creative instincts are in line with what the movie studios are looking for. One of my agents told me this after two ideas on our possible ‘to script’ list sold within a month. When you first hear it, you think, “Well, he’s just saying that to make me feel better.” But when you step back from the blunt trauma of seeing two your ideas snatched away, you realize that yes, you are in sync with the current buyer’s marketplace. So, AGR, as rotten as you may feel, hopefully you can see the broader picture and realize that the sale of this other project actually validates your own creative instincts. Which leads to the third point:
#3: Despite their hard line against reading unsolicited manuscripts, managers and agents actually want, even need to read new writers. And most of them aren’t reading a script with the hope of selling just that script, rather they’re hoping to find a writer they can nurture into a writing career. 10% of a single script sale is one thing. 10% of multiple years of script sales, pitch sales, OWA gigs, TV writing is a whole other thing. So the fact that you came up with a story idea similar to another project which sold could catch the attention of a possible rep. Maybe you’re not just a decent writer, but one who can generate solid original story ideas.
Now if I was in your shoes, in my clever yet succinct query letter, I would include some info supporting my assertion that I came up with my story idea before the other similar story project got set up. For example, perhaps you registered your treatment or outline with the WGA. Then you could include that documentation as proof. Otherwise who’s to say that you aren’t just making it up. But even if you don’t have proof, I doubt it will be much of an issue. Something to consider in the future.
So in sum, I say go for it. Acknowledge to the reps that you’re aware of the other project (this shows that you savvy enough to track the acquisition and development market), point out whatever differences there are, and note that you have plenty of other equally commercial story concepts. And if you don’t, you know what you have to do.
UPDATE: Here’s something from Ryan Mullaney in comments:
Rework the idea into something more original. I had to do it, just like everyone else at one time or another, and I ended up with something better than what I had originally, so there is a silver lining after all.
By all means, yes. Probably the first thing you should do after discovering a similar project to yours (after knocking back a stiff drink). See if you can twist your story concept to make it more different than similar. Even something as simple as switching the gender of your Protagonist can work.
Nate Winslow said this:
Seeing the post Scott put up about DEVIL got me thinking about the number of times Hollywood has “doubled up” on their premises for produced films, which reminded me of the OTHER stuck-in-an-elevator-thriller that just sold.
So, DEVIL got made, DOWN is on its way to getting made, and what are the odds that someone buys two scripts that even involve elevators as a main plot point, much less the major location? (Not to mention they both start with D!)
And then a three or four years ago, again–who would have thought that out of all the genres and premises out their, we’d find two movies released in the same year about…19th Century magicians? The Illusionist and The Prestige came out within months of eachother, if I remember correctly.
Off the top of my head, there are at least three sets of movies covering the same subject that are currently in production/greenlit/racing to the greenlight: competing Three Musketeers movies, competing Don Quixote movies and competing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movies. The trend there with the current ones being that they’re all adaptations, but still. So. Just heaping the evidence onto the pile that already lets us know that Hollywood digs the same but different. And in these cases, sometimes doesn’t even bother with the “different” part.
To which I responded:
You can add K-9 and Turner & Hootch to your list. How about 18 Again, Like Father Like son, Big, and a fourth one that I can’t quite remember, all of them coming out within a year of each other? This springs, I think, from the fear that underlies much of how studios operate. Hard to spring for an original, fresh idea, but if Studio A buys a body-swapping movie, the execs in Studio B think, “Hey, if THEY think that’s a great subject matter, maybe WE should try to find something.” Put out the word to reps, dig through their development trough. The latter is pretty much what happened, as I understand it, with Turner & Hootch – it had been collecting dust at Disney until K-9 sold, then all of a sudden they sprang into action, hiring new writers, and so on.
In other words, sometimes it actually HELPS to have a similar project out there.
Finally Teenie said:
Scott, your reply gives us all hope and when you stop to think about it, it is amazing the amount of similar films or re-makes being made.
Yes, even at times where your project gets blown out of the water completely by something else. I remember reading an interview with David Milch once, where he spent months working up a big TV project set in ancient Rome. He pitched it to HBO. They said, “Sorry, we’ve just bought a project called ‘Rome.'” They liked some of the themes and characters in Milch’s pitch, so he switched it around, and pitched them something else — which became “Deadwood.”
Most of what I have read on Acts division shows it typically like: 20:40-40:20, in 120-page script, with 40-40 being the middle Act and with a mid-point. However in some films I have observed that the Act I point comes around 25-30 page mark. As in 30:35-35:20.
Of course each story has it’s own structure and it’s not a sacrosanct equation to follow, yet I admit that I felt a relief, since working on a romantic drama I couldn’t get that Act 1-end, the Threshold Crisis/Crossing come in too soon. Establishing the world and characters is taking time; I will confess that when I dig in more I may realize that the Crisis should come earlier.
What’s your take – do you believe it typically takes a wee bit extra time for the first Act to end or is it wise to get in early? Or…is it more genre dependent? Guess can’t have a thriller sitting ‘low’ for a while.
I had another query, which I had mailed you earlier: I haven’t heard of it but I can’t say why couldn’t it happen – writing for a preview/trailer? Or…what could be the stuff to focus on to make a trailer? Does it even make sense?
Thanks for your wonderful endeavor…
First off, despite all the screenplay structure paradigms, theories, methodologies, and approaches floating around, there are no hard-and-fast rules about this stuff. So if your first act lands on P. 31, it’s not like the Script Police are going to burst into your room and haul you away to Final Draft Prison.
There are principles and three-act structure is one of the most commonly used versions in Hollywood. While some would decry it as old-fashioned or irrelevant, they are missing the point. All stories have a Beginning, Middle and End.
Beginning: Act One
Middle: Act Two
End: Act Three
If there is a Golden Principle related to screenplay (indeed story) structure, it’s probably this one.
So your question is how long can Act One be?
Answer: As long as it needs to be.
I’m serious. On the heels of my 4-part analysis of True Grit, the recent remake by the Coen brothers, Act One — where Mattie finally gets Cogburn to agree to go after Chaney — doesn’t end until P. 39. And in fact, there’s an argument to be made that Act Two doesn’t officially begin until Mattie rides off with Cogburn and LeBouef — and that scene ends on P. 45.
So here you have a story with a long first act. This is especially true in light of the fact scripts are getting shorter. It used to be you had 120 pages (1 page per minute of screen time). Now the upper end of page count is around 110. And for certain genres like Action, Comedy, Horror, scripts can clock in at 100 or even 95 pages. As a result of the overall script shrinking in length, so, too Act Ones. I have a colleague who teaches screenwriting in a well-known university and he tells his students Act One should be no longer than 20 pages.
But then we have True Grit. And I’ve read several articles and interviews with screenwriters who state they tend to write longish first acts primarily because they feel a story needs that much time to set up characters, story universe, plot conceit, genre, tone, and so on.
Again if it works, then a first act can be as long as it needs to be.
Of course, there is a difference between how a script written by a professional screenwriter and an aspiring screenwriter will be read and perceived. And scripts by the former are less likely to draw quibbles from a script reader / coverage than the latter.
So after all that, let me land on this advice: If you write a script and your first act is 35 pages long, and you are certain it has to be that length to work, then you’re probably okay — as long as those pages rock, are entertaining, don’t feel slow, etc.
However my guess is you can tighten up those pages. Why do I say that? Because there’s not a script written that couldn’t be tightened. In fact, I’ll be running a 4-part series next week called Trimming Tricks of the Trade, so look for that.
Re writing a movie trailer: No point in it. Trailers are cut by post shops who specialize in that sort of thing. They do tons of market testing, then re-cut and re-cut trailers. In other words, it’s not a writer’s domain at least directly (obviously what you write and what gets shot becomes the assets for the trailer).
My advice: Focus on writing a great script so you can sell it and get it produced. Then sit back in a theater and enjoy the trailer to your movie!
UPDATE: I originally posted this question and my response in 2011 and while I would still contend the needs of a story trump any sort of preconceived formula or paradigm, specifically re page count, the continuing trend of genre movies to get the plot going and get it going fast raises the bar. In other words, we have to make damn sure it’s the STORY which requires those additional pages in the setup and not just us being lazy when it comes to editing or stubbornly insisting the first act works as is when it could benefit from tightening.
Citing a couple of examples from last year:
* Ex Machina: Caleb finds himself deposited at Nathan’s compound by minute 5.
* Lucy: Lucy finds herself swept up into the plot by minute 4.
Scarlett Johansson in Lucy
Granted these are opening incidents and there’s more in the way of setup comprising each movie’s first act, but they reflect a continuing pattern we see in – especially – action, horror, and thrillers to drop the viewer into the plot as quickly as possible.
We see this same drive to ramp up the pace when comparing contemporary movies to those from as recently as the 80s. What used to function as the Act One ending plot point, where the Protagonist is propelled into the New World experience of the central plot, is nowadays much more likely to happen as the midpoint of the first act with the act end an event which drives home and foretells what’s in store for the Protagonist the rest of the way.
Seriously, check out almost any 80s action, comedy, horror, or thriller movie and you’ll be amazed to see how slow they feel in getting things going as compared to movies in this decade.
There are many reasons why this is the case, but I think two big ones are (1) audiences are used to seeing what they want, when they want, and how they want, so instant gratification is their default expectation, and (2) contemporary audiences are much more sophisticated in at least an unconscious understanding of Story because they’ve seen, heard, or read a gazillion more stories in their lives than previous generations. They ‘get’ it and don’t need as much setup or exposition. Just go!
Which is not to say you can’t write a movie with a ‘slow burn’ or lengthy setup. Again the bar has been raised and you would be wise to make sure it’s your Story requiring those additional pages… and not something else blinding you to a flabby first act.
I know all rules are made to be broken, but are there any Script rules that really shouldn’t?
I don’t think there are any rules for screenwriting. There are important principles, and dozens of tips and techniques. There is also a lot of ‘conventional wisdom’ floating around that gets transmogrified into being perceived as rules, and that is where the problem lies.
Stories are organic. Even in a screenplay, which is heavily structured by virtue of it being the blueprint for producing a movie, the underlying story — that universe, its characters, the events that transpire there — all have to feel alive, spontaneous, and native to that narrative environment.
Enter the plethora of screenwriting approaches, theories, paradigms, models, and formulas. While some of them reflect dynamics that are innate to story itself and what people expect when they read or see a story, once they get codified in the minds of writers, a big problem arises: The writer can write to the formula instead of to the story. Hence all the complaints from moviegoers about formulaic movies. And by the way, the complaint exists within Hollywood script development circles, too, as folks there often lament being forced to read one formulaic script after another.
Besides if you give me a supposed screenwriting rule, I am 99% positive I can come up with a movie that breaks it.
Movies have to be told with a linear narrative. Consider Memento, Pulp Fiction, or Betrayal.
Movies have to have a sympathetic Protagonist. Consider Sideways, As Good As It Gets, and Taxi Driver.
Movies always have to have a happy ending. Consider Citizen Kane, Shakespeare in Love, and Manon des Sources.
There are scripts where the screenwriter breaks the 4th wall and ‘talks’ to the script reader [The Last Boy Scout by Shane Black]. There are scripts that have sides of dialogue one page long or longer [Network by Paddy Chayefsky]. I remember reading a script by Justin Zackham [The Bucket List] that was in the 2nd person [“You turn on the light. You open the door.”]
Should we let ‘rules’ restrict our creativity? I should think not!
My advice: Learn the conventional wisdom, what is pretty much the standardized approach to screenwriting. It’s not hard to do, you can go virtually anywhere online and pick up the supposed ‘rules’ in a matter of a few months.
Then write. Experiment. Read scripts. Write some more. You are developing your own voice, your own style, gaining confidence in who you are as a writer.
Then if you develop a story that requires you to break a supposed ‘rule,’ absolutely will make for a better read if you go against convention, do it. You have to be smart, you have to be judicious, and you have to know what you’re doing. Most of all, you have to believe in yourself and in your story. But you should have the freedom to make those choices and dismiss the negative nabobs of negativism [homage to Spiro Agnew there].
In all cases, the story rules.
Having said all that, I do confess to having one semi-rule. It pertains to first drafts. And that semi-rule is this: “Finish the damn thing!” I’ve seen far too many writers fade out before hitting… you know… FADE OUT. Even if what you write is certifiable crap, you can always rewrite it. Plus I guarantee that you will learn a ton about your story and characters in the process that you would not have if you quit.
That’s it, my only screenwriting semi-rule. As far as the other ‘rules’ go, you have to figure them out on your own, then become your own writer.
My advice: In all cases, story trumps formula, story trumps ‘rules,’ story trumps all.
What say ye, GITS readers? What’s your take on rules? Feel free to disagree with me. Maybe there are some rules that simply can’t be broken. If so, what would you say they are?
During the 8+ years of this blog’s existence, I’ve answered nearly 300 questions from readers about the craft of screenwriting. Here are my responses and subsequent comments on the subject of format and style.
First I would like to tell you that I am enormously grateful for your blog and your advice, which is really priceless, especially for an aspiring screenwriter. You really are a true mentor and a fantastic person for doing that. I could not imagine a better teacher.
I would like to ask you a question, if I may.
Is there any way to convince the producers to cast a certain actor in the movie made out of my script?
Let’s say, they liked the pitch, they are interested in the story and there is a chance they are green lighting the project.
However, to me, there is only a certain person, a certain actor I would like to play the lead. I do not care about the money as much as I care about the story itself, the right casting included, and let’s say I had a certain person in my mind while writing my Protagonist, and I would suffer to see anyone else in this role.
Is there any chance I have anything to say in this, or do I just need to accept the truth – that the producers decide, who is cast, especially if I am a newbie and do not have any connections or know that actor personally.
I would be really grateful for an answer, because in my method of work, I cast certain actors in certain roles in my mind a lot and then get attached to characters who have their faces and their voices and behave in a certain way.
Thank you very much in advance!
Z.D., when you “cast certain actors in certain roles” in your mind, this is a practice pretty common among screenwriters. It’s often referred to as ‘star casting’ and I’ve interviewed pro writers who do the same thing. It’s a way of ‘seeing’ a character, ‘hearing’ a character, getting a fix on them to facilitate the writing process.
That’s all to the good and I can certainly understand how and why a writer such as yourself, Z.D., can “get attached to characters who have their faces and their voices” reflecting a particular actor.
Here’s the deal: You have little to no control over these matters. Let’s say you sell a spec script. In meetings with producers, execs, and the director, you can certainly let them know your desires. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that at the end of the day, it’s the director who is going to head off and make the movie. A casting director will be hired. They will put up dozens of names for key roles, perhaps including your actors, perhaps not. Offers will be made. Some actors will accept. Others won’t. Some may drop out to schedule issues. Casting a movie can be a highly fluid situation.
And there’s this: The actors you have in mind may simply not be available to do your movie. They may not even respond to the material. You have no control over that.
Besides your focus, especially as someone just breaking into the business, should be on getting the movie made. You want that credit in your resume. That’s how you can start to build a career.
So my suggestion is prepare yourself for the likelihood that your movie will not land your ‘star cast’ actors. However while making that suggestion, let me offer up another thought: What if the actors they do cast knock the ball out of the park? What if they do an even better job than you could have imagined with your ‘star cast’ actors? It’s quite possible they can. So while steeling yourself to shut the door on your fantasy cast, open another door to the chance the real cast can take your story and do wonders with it.
Meanwhile if ‘star casting’ works for you as a tool to help you write great characters, keep at it. Just don’t get too attached to them. Once you set up your script, it becomes the blueprint to make a movie, a process in which the writer’s role gets smaller as the production moves forward. Therefore you would be wise to shift your fixation on your cast of actors to getting the movie produced.
If anyone has another question about the craft or business of screenwriting, please head to comments. For nearly 300 other reader questions and answers, go here.
Scott: I’d be interested in reading an elaboration on something you posted recently:
“…the shift the last two decades has been away from using directing / editing lingo in screenplays toward more of what may be called a literary approach to style,…”
Or do you have a previous blog post on this you could point me toward?
Keep up the great work!
Let me preface my comments by making a distinction between a selling script and a shooting script. A shooting script is a production draft and style considerations pretty much go out the window. A selling script is any script we write, whether on spec or assignment, in which the goal is to set up the project initially or get the project green lit. For a selling script, there is one golden rule in terms of style:
Write the story in the best, most entertaining fashion possible.
In terms of a selling script when I say literary approach, you can see it quite clearly by comparing older scripts to newer ones. For example, here is a Scene Description Spotlight post I did with an excerpt from the 1951 movie The African Queen:
EXT. A NATIVE VILLAGE IN A CLEARING BETWEEN THE JUNGLE AND
THE RIVER. LATE MORNING
LONG SHOT -- A CHAPEL
Intense light and heat, a stifling silence. Then the SOUND
of a reedy organ, of two voices which make the words distinct,
and of miscellaneous shy, muffled, dragging voices, beginning
"Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah..."
INT. CHAPEL -- LONG SHOT -- THE LENGTH OF THE BLEAK CHAPEL
PAST THE CONGREGATION, ON BROTHER, AT THE LECTERN, AND ROSE,
AT THE ORGAN
BROTHER, a missionary, faces CAMERA near center; ROSE, his
sister, is at side, her face averted. Everybody is singing.
"Pilgrim through this barren land..."
MEDIUM SHOT -- BROTHER:
middle-aged, rock-featured, bald, sweating painfully, very
much in earnest. He is very watchful of his flock. He sings
as loud as he can, rather nasally, and tries to drive the
meaning of each word home as if it were a nail. He is beating
with his hand, and trying hard to whip up the dragging tempo:
"I am weak, but Thou art mighty..."
CLOSER SHOT -- ROSE
early thirties, tight-featured and tight-haired, very hot
but sweating less than Brother.
She is pumping the pedals vigorously, spreading with her
knees the wings of wood which control the loudness, utilizing
various stops for expressiveness of special phrases, and
rather desperately studying the open hymnal, just managing
to play the right notes -- a very busy woman. She, too, is
singing her best and loudest, an innocent, arid, reedy
soprano; and she, too, is very attentive to the meanings of
"Hold me with Thy powerful hand."
INSERT -- HALF-WAY THROUGH THE FOREGOING LINE, AN EXOTIC AND
HORRIBLE CENTIPEDE-LIKE CREATURE SLITHERS INTO VIEW BETWEEN
TWO OF THE ORGAN KEYS. WITHOUT INTERRUPTING HER PLAYING, AS
METHODICALLY AS SHE WOULD PULL OUT A NEW STOP, ROSE SWIPES
Compare that to this excerpt from The Matrix (1999):
She bursts out of the room as Agent Brown enters the hall,
leading another unit of police. Trinity races to the
opposite end, exiting through a broken window onto the
EXT. FIRE ESCAPE
In the alley below, Trinity sees Agent Smith staring at
her. She can only go up.
On the roof, Trinity is running as Agent Brown rises over
the parapet, leading the cops in pursuit.
Trinity begins to jump from one roof to the next, her
movements so clean, gliding in and out of each jump,
contrasted to the wild jumps of the cops.
Agent Brown, however, has the same unnatural grace.
The metal SCREAM of an elevated TRAIN is heard and Trinity
turns to it, racing for the back of the building.
The edge falls away into a wide back alley. The next
building is over 40 feet away but Trinity's face is
perfectly calm, staring at some point beyond the other
The cops slow, realizing they are about to see something
ugly as Trinity drives at the edge, launching herself into
From above, the ground seems to flow beneath her as she
hangs in flight --
Then hitting, somersaulting up, still running hard.
Mutherfucker -- that's impossible!
They stare, slack-jawed, as Agent Brown duplicates the
move exactly, landing, rolling over a shoulder up onto one
What can we learn from such a comparison:
* Contemporary selling scripts do not include camera shots anymore, so gone are the days of LONG SHOT, MEDIUM SHOT, CLOSE UP.
* Contemporary selling scripts generally don’t have long blocks of scene description, but rather break them up into smaller paragraphs (2-4 lines).
* Contemporary selling scripts normally don’t have primary slug lines that extend over one line.
* Contemporary selling scripts most often avoid using directing jargon.
In fact, we can see screenwriting style change even since the time of The Matrix. Check out the opening scene from The Black Swan (2010):
INT. DARK STAGE - NIGHT
A SPOTLIGHT slices black space.
In its beam, a DANCER in a white dress materializes. She is
fair-skinned. Beautiful and pure.
She twirls on pointe, a smile on her face, light as air and
Suddenly, her face grows worried. Sensing someone watching.
Scared, she peers into the darkness.
She moves now, looking, growing more frantic.
But she can't see anything. She pauses, relaxes. Convincing
herself it was just her imagination...
Then, a SINISTER MAN emerges out of the darkness behind her.
She stumbles backwards, frightened.
She tries to escape, twirling away, but he pursues.
He flings his open hand towards her, casting the spell.
She wants to scream, but nothing comes out. She looks at her
body, sensing something happening to her. Something
She spins, panicking, clawing at her body with her hands,
trying to stop it. But it's too late.
As she turns, she morphs into the WHITE SWAN, the iconic
protagonist of SWAN LAKE.
See how much white space there is? How much easier on the eyes that is? How each line suggests a camera shot? To me it reads more like a story than something you use to produce a movie. And that’s what I mean by literary where the emphasis on style is about story, not script.
My theory is this is a natural evolution as screenplays become their own literary form. There are companies such as Newmarket Press who publish screenplays in book form. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of that in the future where people will sit down to read a screenplay with a similar expectation as they do with a book — to read a story.
What does that mean for us practically as screenwriters?
First read screenplays of movies that are being released this year so you can track style trends.
But most important we have to think about how we approach screenwriting style because it is a reflection of our writer’s voice — and when you’re in competition with a zillion other scripts, if you have a distinctive voice and an appealing writing style, that can make the difference between a sale or no sale, representation or no representation.
Gee, if there was only someone who taught a course on screenwriting style. Something online so it was easy to take. A class that went beyond format and really talked about how to develop one’s sense of style as part of their writer’s voice.
Wait. There is a course like that? Oh yeah, right here.