Reader Question: Are movies featuring LGBT leads destined to be relegated to indie film permanently?

August 26th, 2014 by

Question from j_midtown:

While we mourn Robin Williams’ untimely passing [last] week, among the more frequently mentioned of his credits was The Birdcage. Released way back in 1996, The Birdcage ranks as the highest-ever grossing LGBT-themed movie at $124M domestic and was released by MGM. Paramount had a couple of gay-themed releases in the years closely following, but since then no major studio has dipped their toes into those waters, despite the dramatic swing in societal and cultural acceptance of LGBT people over the same period.

Certainly, part of this can be attributed to the swing to franchise-driven, tent-pole releases at the majors and the death of the mid-budget drama and comedy productions generally, but are there other factors at work? Are studios afraid of the subject matter? Are specs with major gay characters or themes complete non-starters? Is there any hope for change or will gay cinema be relegated to low-budget, independent film permanently?

Indiewire came out with a recent article (August 5) on precisely this point: Why Don’t LGBT Movies Make Money At The Box Office Anymore. Check out these charts:

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (1990-1999)
1. The Birdcage (1996) – $124,060,553
2. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – $81,298,265
3. Philadelphia (1993) -  $77,446,440
4. In & Out (1996) – $63,856,929
5. To Wong Foo (1995) – $36,474,193
6. The Object of My Affection (1998) – $29,187,243
7. Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (1997) – $25,105,255

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (2000-2009)
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005) – $83,043,761
2. Bruno (2009) – $60,054,530
3. The Hours (2002) – $41,675,994
4. Monster (2003) – $34,469,210
5. Milk (2008) – $31,841,299
6. Rent (2005) - $29,077,547
7. Capote (2005) - $28,750,530

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (2010-present)
1. The Kids Are All Right (2010) – $20,811,365
2. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) – $2,199,787
3. I Love You, Phillip Morris (2010) – $2,037,459
4. Farewell My Queen (2012) – $1,347,990
5. I’m So Excited (2013) – $$1,368,119
6. La Mission (2010) – $1,062,940
7. Kill Your Darlings (2014) - $1,030,064

As the article notes, the numbers are a bit skewed in that we are only five-and-a-half years into this decade. Maybe there’s a Birdcage or Brokeback Mountain yet to come in the next four years that could significantly alter box office results.

[Note: Even though Dallas Buyers Club did not feature a gay lead character, the subject matter as well as some other characters did tie into the LGBT community, and that movie has grossed $55M worldwide.]

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might be tempted to compare these downward numeric trendlines of LGBT movies to those of recent Christian theme films like God’s Not Dead [$62M], Son of God [$68M], and Heaven is for Real [$100M], which have been generating solid numbers at the box office. Do Hollywood studios and financiers perceive there is more money to be made in religious films now rather than movies featuring LGBT characters? Of course, they do not have to be mutually exclusive, however if movie companies are actively seeking religious audiences, might they be hedging their bets on LGBT projects as not to offend more conservative church-going movie fans?

I doubt very seriously if the two are connected, however the reality is the primary focus of any Hollywood film company is one thing: Profits. In this regard, a more telling fact about the chart above is that none of the movies released since 2010 has been distributed by a major studio, whereas The Birdcage [United Artists], The Talented Mr. Ripley [Paramount/Miramax], Philadelphia [TriStar], and In & Out [Paramount] all were.

Is Hollywood afraid of dealing with LGBT subject matter? That seems unlikely as there is a significant paradigm shift going on in the U.S. over the last several years. There are 19 states now where it is legal for gays to get married, a number that is sure to continue growing. Support for same-sex marriage has jumped 21% since 2003, including 61% of young Republicans. So it’s not like movies with LGBT themes would be more controversial nowadays. On the contrary from a cultural standpoint, it seems like this topic of conversation is becoming normalized.

Perhaps that’s a contributing factor to the decline in box office. In the 90s, when the subject matter in a movie would have been more controversial, the studios could generate buzz simply with the casting: Robin Williams as a gay character! Matt Damon as a gay character! Tom Hanks as a gay character! Would that generate as much noise in today’s marketplace?

Part of this shift, too, has to be tied to the studios’ bifurcated approach to business, where they spend a lot of time and money on franchise movies, heavy with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) and little in the way of A-list actors, and low budget genre movies on the other end of the slate. In other words, they’re just not making many mid-budget dramas or comedies which is what all of those successful LGBT movies from the 90s and 2010s were.

Re spec scripts: If a writer has a fantastic story to tell featuring an LGBT lead character and they passionate to write it, my advice would be to set aside market considerations and go for it. Remember, specs are not just about sales, they are first and foremost a way to convey talent and voice to the Hollywood development community. Yes, a spec can sell. It can also get you representation. Meetings with producers and development execs. Your name put onto lists for writing assignments. A great story executed wonderfully in a screenplay can do all of that for you.

Bottom line, perhaps we are in a period where movies featuring LGBT lead characters have been ‘relegated’ to the indie world. But as soon as a gay version of The Heat or Bridesmaids comes out and does great box office, Hollywood will be all over that, to test those waters for potential revenues. If a company thinks they can get such a movie produced and make money on it, they’ll buy it… and try it.

Readers, what do you think? What sort of trend do you see for LGBT theme movies?

UPDATE: In the meantime, Love Is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a longtime couple whose lives are changed when they decide to get married, gets a wide expansion in theaters this weekend.

Reader Question: How to write about a historical figure, but not basing it off previous material?

August 20th, 2014 by

Question from Bretton Zinger:

I’m wondering about how you go about writing about a historical figure but not base it off of previous material. For example, let’s say I want to make a movie about George Washington. (He’s not the subject of my idea.) Numerous books have been written about him. If I’ve read many of those books, I have a reasonable understanding of his life. Is it possible to write an original script about him or would I have to secure rights to one or more of the books I have read that created my interest? Of course, I could do my own research by looking at his original correspondence, records, etc., but I would have still read the biographies of him and the material would obviously greatly overlap. Does that make sense?

Related question from Eric Harris:

How do you deal with stories that are partly based on real life people that are famous or infamous? Can you quote them verbatim for stuff they actually said? or should you make up dialogue for them? Can you make up stuff, change up timelines, make composite characters to tighten up the start and drama…and streamline it? Real life often does not fit the Hollywood 2 hour 3 act formula….so some finessing needs to be done.

I am not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on TV. And even if I did, I would not suggest you rely on me for any concrete legal advice.

That said, I think I’m pretty safe in stating this: If a person is in the public eye, they are pretty much fair game to do whatever you would do with them. I mean, for God’s sake, Hollywood produced a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I think I just summed up my argument right there.

Seriously, our 16th President. Emancipation Proclamation. Face on Mt. Rushmore. Saved the Union. And this is how Hollywood treated a real life historical figure.

As far compositing characters, changing timelines, making up stuff… there’s an old saying in Hollwyood: “Never let the facts get in the way of the story.”

In other words, Scott Myers, Non-Esquire says: “Go for it!”

Okay, let’s be serious for a second. Some of your choices would depend on the type of story you are writing and how historically careful you feel you need to be. If, for example, you are doing a drama that can best work by hewing close to historical facts, then you would need to do research to support that goal and shape the narrative accordingly.

But there is historical truth and there is aesthetic truth. And in almost every case, Hollywood is much more concerned with the latter than the former. Top Priority: Tell a good story.

Which brings us back to Abraham Lincoln, who as Bill and Ted discovered, has the last word on the subject with this advice to writers:

Any lawyers out there, please step in and steer Bretton and Eric onto the path of righteousness… and no culpability from a legal standpoint, if my expert analysis falls short of the truth.

Reader Question: What is a good number of scripts to have in my portfolio?

August 14th, 2014 by

Question from patchieg23:

I know there has been a lot of content generated surrounding breaking into the business, how to gain attention/notoriety (Black List, Screenplay Competitions, etc), how to get agents, etc…I guess my question is a bit of a variation on that theme: I’m wondering, as someone who is currently working on generating a large slush fund in order to quit their job and move to L.A. in the next few months, what is a good number of scripts to have in my “portfolio”? I know traditional wisdom says “Write a great script and you will be found” and “Write every day to get better” but I guess if there exists an agreed upon cache of developed pieces that a new-to-town aspiring writer should arm himself with, how many should be in that cache? And should they be a mix of feature and TV to show versatility? Or just whichever format you are passionate about? (Personally this writer would love to do either/or). Thanks in advance for your insights!

I actually addressed this subject before in a Business of Screenwriting entry [originally posted April 19, 2012]. I just read through it and think it’s worth reprinting in its entirety:

This is advice for the front end of your life as a screenwriter. Advice you may not want to hear… but advice you need to hear.

Three scripts. Don’t even contemplate working in Hollywood as a writer until you’ve completed at least three scripts.

You may think you know your way around a screenplay after you’ve written your first one.

Trust me, you don’t.

After finishing your second script, you are amazed at how much further along you have come in your understanding of the craft.

You’re still not where you need to be yet.

In my experience working with writers, It’s not until at least your third script that you can distinguish between your metaphorical ass and metaphorical hole-in-the-ground.

You can study the craft, you can read books, you can take classes, you can watch movies, and all that you should be doing. But there is a kind of knowledge you can only get by writing and completing scripts, a conscious and intuitive understanding of the craft you must have to succeed as a working writer.

Why three? Why not five? Ten?

In all honesty, after you’ve written five scripts, you will look back at the You Who Wrote Three Scripts and say, “What the hell was I thinking?” And when you’ve written ten scripts, you’ll reflect back on You Who Wrote Five Scripts and say, “Gawd, what I didn’t know.”

You will always be learning.

So why three? Oh, I could give you all sorts of theories… how after 1 and 2, three is the first number to signify a pattern… how there may be a synergistic connection to a story’s three acts… but in truth I choose three because K-9 was my third script, and I sold that as a spec. Hey, if it worked for me, maybe it can work for you!

Now let me share something important. I deal with this all the time: A writer who is finishing their very first screenplay. And they are consumed with the idea about how they are going to use it to get representation.

Fine. I get their enthusiasm. Finishing that first script is important, perhaps the single biggest step in a writer’s career path because it proves you can do it. The first script separates you from all the people out there who simply talk about writing a script, but never do.

So please understand, I grasp the significance of that first script.

But imagine for a moment it’s you who has just finished that first script. We are talking about it and you utter these words: “How do I get an agent or a manager?”

This is a scenario I want you to consider.

Let’s say you blind query 500 managers.

You get that script to a manager who reads it, contacts you, and agrees to take you on.

Then that script goes around town and you start to take meetings.

One of the meetings goes great. They hit you up with a story they have in development. It needs a fresh take. You throw out a few ideas off the top of your head.

Lo and behold, they love your ideas! And the next thing you know, you have landed your first professional writing gig.

You get an agent! You get a lawyer! You get a hangover from a celebratory night on the town!

Cut to your lawyer’s office. You’re sitting at a table. In front of you is a contract. For this vaunted writing gig. And right there in black and white is a date: 10 weeks from today.

That is the day you will be contractually obligated to deliver the draft of the script.

Your script.

Now I ask you these questions: “Are you ready to deliver the goods? Do you have a set of practices you have developed to get you through that writing process? Do you have the confidence to believe you can nail that story?”

Because when you sign that contract, that’s it. Play time is over. Your butt is on the line.

I say this not to scare you, rather to inject a sense of reality into the situation. Ultimately your competition is not with some hypothetical aspiring writers or writers in screenplay competitions, but actual professional writers. And you need to be able to match up to their level of creativity, proficiency, and understanding of the craft and the business.

Will one script get you there? Almost assuredly not.

Two scripts? Maybe.

Three? If you write and complete three screenplays, at least you will have a foundation of experience and understanding. You will have faced the peaks and valleys of the entire scripting process multiple times. You will have started to develop your own approach to the craft, your own writer’s voice.

This is not to say you will know everything. See my comments above about five scripts and ten scripts. And no matter how good you become as a writer, it is almost a lock at some point you will fuck up. In a business where, as William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything,” that is a given.

But at the front end of your career, you want to do everything you can to give you the best chance at succeeding as a professional screenwriter. And a certain amount of that can only come by knocking out scripts.

So you’ve finished one script. Great. Congratulations. Go write another one.

You finish a second script. Excellent. Congrats, again. Go write another one.

After you do that three times, maybe… just maybe you’ll be ready for Hollywood.

UPDATE: On Twitter, @alxhuls agreed about three scripts and made another good point:

It’s mostly because I know how amateur it would be to have an agent see one script & say “What else you got?” & have nothing

True. I made the exact same point here.

It may take you five, seven, ten, fifteen or more scripts to break into the business. Your mileage may vary. All I’m saying is bare minimum, you should have three completed scripts under your belt.

As to writing TV or movies: There’s so much crossover nowadays, you don’t hurt yourself by writing specs in either area. Yes, TV is hot right now. Upside: People are actively looking for TV writers. Downside: The market is being flooded with TV spec pilots.

patchieg23, I’d recommend setting aside market considerations and go with your instinct about writing what you are “passionate about” if for no other reason you are more likely to create something that conveys your enthusiasm for it and do a better job writing it.

Readers, how many scripts do you think a writer should have in hand before trying to break into the movie or TV business? If you have any thoughts on these matters, please head to comments and weigh in.

UPDATE: You should check out @JohnGary on Twitter and find the thread of tweets he’s doing as a follow-up to my post. He’s providing more important insight and information on this very subject.

Your questions?

August 13th, 2014 by

If you have a question about screenwriting or the movie business, and you don’t see it answered here, feel free to post it in comments. I do my best to get to all questions. And even if I don’t have deep insight into it, often members of the GITS community do.

Screenwriting theory. Style. Trends. Movie business. Whatever is on your mind. I’m happy to provide my virtual two cents.

Also any suggestions for the blog, I’m all virtual ears.

While I’m here, let me take this opportunity to thank each of you for following the blog. 6+ years and approaching 10,000,000 unique visits. Never ceases to amaze me what this community has become.

Go Into The Story is all about understanding the craft in a deeper way. Writing great stories. Making more and better movies.

As the noted screenwriting guru Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.”

Thanks for joining me in this collective effort.

As always…

Onward!

Reader Question: Do any screenplay competitions take comedies seriously?

August 5th, 2014 by

Question via email from Joey (jmclarke22):

1. What, if any, major screenwriting competitions take comedies seriously? It seems to most comedies are at a disadvantage in screenwriting comps.
2. Secondly, does the Black List take them seriously? I do not believe I’ve seen one of the featured scripts be a comedy yet. Am I right on that?

I think there’s some truth to your observation, Joey. For example, I just perused the 2013 annual Black List and only found these comedy scripts:

Fully Wrecked, written by Jake Morse and Scott Wolman: “A talking car with a foul mouth is resurrected from the 1980s and teams up with his former partner’s son.”

The Politician, written by Matthew Bass and Theodore Bressman: “A disgraced politician goes on the lam from the FBI and gets kidnapped by a crazy constituent.”

Make A Wish, written by Zach Frankel: “A 14-year-old boy with terminal cancer has one last wish — to lose his virginity — and convinces his reluctant football star Make-A-Wish partner to help him score.”

Beauty Queen, written by Anniel Neal: “An unhappy wife embarks on a Las Vegas road trip with her best friend to compete in a beauty pageant.”

Dude, written by Olivia Milch: “Four female best friends try to get through the last semester of high school before going their separate ways.”

Last Minute Maids, written by Leo Nichols: “Two pals form a company for people who want to hide indiscretions from their loved ones after they’ve died.”

I may have missed some, but even if there are a couple more, since there were 78 scripts on the annual Black List for 2013, comedy as a genre clocking in around 10% is not a resoundingly strong number by any stretch of the imagination.

Of the 2013 Nicholl winning scripts, one out of 5 was a comedy:

Joe Banks, written by Patti Jones: “The son of a Nobel Prize–winning novelist via a genius sperm bank is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, but suddenly finds himself on a wild odyssey with his real father, a drinking, man’s-man, lothario author of airport novels who was stripped of his own Nobel after a sex scandal.”

That comes out to 20%.

So looking at two of the top ‘competitions’ — Black List and Nicholl — comedy does seem to have some trouble gaining traction. Of course, to provide a more definitive analysis, someone would have to go through, say, the last 5 years or so of both winner lists. Any takers?

The fact is, at least in terms of awards – and I guess you could say both the Black List and Nicholl fall into that category – comedy has had a tough time gaining respect, especially the Oscars. I believe the last comedy to win Best Picture was Annie Hall way back in 1977.

Why is this the case? There are a bunch of theories floating around, but I suspect it’s a combination of (A) comedies by definition don’t take things seriously, (B) people who don’t write or produce comedies don’t typically understand how hard it is to do comedy, and (C) comedies typically don’t have the sort of aesthetic or narrative ‘heft’ of a drama, thriller, science fiction, etc.

That said, comedy is still a major player among genres when it comes to project acquisitions, development and movie production. For decades, it was the #1 genre in terms of spec script sales, only in the last 2 years dethroned by action and thriller. Plus physical comedy as featured in movies like The Heat and Neighbors continue to demonstrate strong ROI based on low to low-mid production budgets and strong box office.

So if you write comedy great. There is always room for a great comedy spec script. If you’re concerned about submitting the script to a comedy-friendly competition, there is the Austin Screenplay competition — which has a special comedy category — Tracking-b, and the Black List website. But the ultimate contest is with reps and buyers. And for that, you need a killer story concept, strong logline and even stronger script.

GITS readers, what are your thoughts? Other avenues for comedy spec scripts? If you have any suggestions, please head to comments.

Reader Question: What is life really like for a beginning screenwriter who has just broken into the business?

August 4th, 2014 by

Reader question from Eric Harris:

What is life really like for the beginning screenwriter who breaks in with a manager/agent, maybe sells a spec? Do they start taking meetings, competing for open writing assignments? Are they chewing their nails because it’s an unstable profession? No one ever gives a detailed explanation of what it’s really like and what to expect. Are they writing for free with producers in hopes that it will get set up?

Eric, let me take this opportunity to frame the conversation by offering this reminder I post regularly just so everyone understands this fundamental reality about breaking into the business as a screenwriter or TV writer: It is really, really hard to do. The odds are long, so the chances of anybody being in the position your question suggests are slim.

There may be others out there in the online screenwriting universe who claim otherwise. Learn the keys to selling a million dollar spec script! My advice: Run away from those people as they are not dealing with you honestly and almost assuredly out to take your money, and little else.

Okay, now that we’ve established that, there is another fact: Every year hundreds of writers do manage to sell a script, obtain representation, land a gig on a TV series and the like. It is not impossible, a sentiment worth the double negative.

What happens when a writer breaks in? Well, that depends on the writer… what they wrote… and what you mean by “breaks in”.

If you hit a grand slam and sell a movie spec script — not an option, but an actual sale in the six figure range — here are a few things you may expect to happen:

* If you sold the script via your manager, you will meet with agents for additional representation. Screenwriters from the Old School often only have an agent or in some rare cases, just an entertainment lawyer to handle them. I don’t know what the percentage is with Young Turks, but my guess is perhaps half of them have dual reps: manager and agent. Yes, it’s 20% commission as opposed to 10%, but having an agent as well as a manager can offer certain benefits. For more background on the roles of managers and agents, go here.

Note: You’ll also meet with lawyers as you will need one to handle your contracts. That’s another 5%, but trust me, do everything you can to get a damn good lawyer.

* That spec script of yours that sold is not just of value to the company that bought it to develop into a movie. It is also valuable to you as a writing sample. Depending upon the splash your deal made, you could find your reps sending it out to a lot of studios, financiers, and producers. This will result in the vaunted “bottled water tour” wherein you do a ton of ‘meet and greets’. This is a crucial part in establishing the foundation of your career as a writer. How you do in those meetings — how comfortable you are, how knowledgeable you are about the craft, how well you mesh with people in the industry — is a big deal. This is Networking with a capital “N”.

Rule of thumb I’ve discovered about Hollywood: People like to work with the people they like to work with. So apart from your talent, voice and ability to translate a story onto the page, if you come across as someone who will be enjoyable to work with, a problem-solver, not a problem-creator, that can go a long way in helping you secure gigs.

* You will be invited to premieres, industry screenings and other social events related to the business. This is also time for Networking with a capital “N”. And let me say, at some point, if you do not know names and faces of the players in the business, you will want to start doing that ASAP. This is not only important in understanding the ebb and flow of who is where and who is doing what relative to project acquisition and movie development, the fact is Hollywood is a small community. You will almost invariably be out shopping, jogging or wherever, and bump into these people. Yet again Networking opportunities.

* Assuming you are a flavor-of-the-week, you may also expect to meet industry types at lunch meetings. For some thoughts on how to handle yourself and what to expect, read my post Let’s do lunch.

* The sale of your spec script would almost certainly qualify you for membership in the Writers’ Guild of America, so at some point you’ll have to pony up a $2,500 initiation fee plus 1.5% of applicable gross earnings. Once you are official, you will be invited to a WGA new members meeting. I’m actually still in touch with a couple of writers I met when I had my welcome to the Guild meeting back in 1987. Oh, be sure to sign up for the WGA movie series, a great deal to see movies at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills.

* You will meet with your reps to strategize. You may go after Open Writing Assignments which will require you to be able to read a piece of material, analyze it and come up with a take you can pitch. You may go out with an original pitch. In either case, you will need to work on your ability not only to pitch, but work a room. You and your reps may determine it’s best for you to write a new spec script. There’s no etched-in-stone plan, everything is malleable and dependent on you and current business opportunities. But bottom line, you will be expected to be creative and productive.

So no matter what happens in terms of the whirling dervish of Hollywood life of someone who sells a spec script, you need to keep your eye on the ball: Writing. That’s one great reason for you to develop solid writing practices now so they are in place once you do break into the business.

That’s just a few things you can expect if you sell a spec script. It is much more common to break in by getting representation alone, no spec deal, in which case you will likely find yourself writing multiple drafts of one spec script (or more) your reps can take out to market. But that’s a whole other subject.

GITS readers who have been there, what can you add to the subject for Eric? Please head to comments for your thoughts.

Reader Question: Is it possible to have a Protagonist who doesn’t have a backstory?

July 31st, 2014 by

Question via email from Faizan (Mumbai, India):

Is it possible for a protagonist not to have a back story?

The first thing that comes to mind is the so-called “Dollars Trilogy” of ‘spaghetti Westerns’: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). In those movies, Clint Eastwood plays the same character and has come to be known as The Man With No Name. He has such a mysterious, shrouded personal history, even his name is nonexistent. In each movie, Eastwood’s character shows up as a stranger and goes through the entire story without revealing much, if anything, about his life leading up to FADE IN.

Clint Eastwood Man With No Name

A contemporary example is the 2011 movie Drive. Here is the IMDB plot summary: “A mysterious Hollywood stuntman, mechanic and getaway driver lands himself in trouble when he helps out his neighbor.” The Protagonist (Ryan Gosling) is known only as Driver (that’s his character designation, no one in the story calls him that, rather his name never even comes up as a subject). We learn some key bits about Driver’s past through a few events, but still very little in the way of backstory.

So the short answer to your question is yes, it is possible for the Protagonist of a movie not to have a backstory. That is, a backstory that is unknown to the script reader and movie audience.

However the character, like all characters in a screenplay, exists within their story universe. Twenty four hours per day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days per year, their whole lives. As such each character in a story has his or her particular personal history. In their own way, they have lived their lives as fully and complex as you or me.

But I like to draw a distinction between personal history, which is everything that has happened to a character in their life, and backstory. Here’s how I define that:

Backstory is comprised of specific events and dynamics in a character’s past that play directly to the experience of the character in the Present and set into motion the culminating events of their Future.

I am talking about the Present and Future of the story. Personal history is general. Backstory are those distinct narrative elements that have a direct influence on the physical and psychological journey of the characters in a story.

Some examples of backstory:

  • The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne was a successful banker who was found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover.
  • Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope: Luke Skywalker’s father was a Jedi knight murdered by Darth Vader, resulting in Luke living with his aunt and uncle.
  • Casablanca: Rick Blaine, an American ex-patriot, fell in love with Ilse Lund, only to be jilted by her when he left Paris to flee the German army.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones was colleagues with Abner Ravenwood until Indy broke up with his daughter Marion.
  • Rear Window: Jeff Jefferies is a world traveling photographer who broke his leg and is stuck in his apartment in a wheelchair.
  • The Shining: Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic who was fired as a teacher due to his violent temper, moves his family to a remote hotel with a ghostly past.
  • Aliens: Ellen Ripley survived a battle against a deadly alien only to discover she has returned to Earth decades after her daughter has died.
  • Unforgiven: William Munny was once a vicious killer, but after marrying and becoming a father, gave up drinking and gun-fighting.

Reviewing this list, it is easy to see how the specific elements of each Protagonist’s backstory tie directly to the story’s Present. They also carve possible paths toward the future — whether it’s in Unforgiven and Munny’s violent capabilities, Aliens and Ripley’s loss as a mother, or Rear Window and Jeff’s need for adventure.

I get into this subject in great detail in my Core VIII: Time class, but let me just say this here: In a screenplay, time is not static, rather it is kinetic. We write a script in present tense, unlike most novels and short stories. Why? To convey the experience of the story happening in the moment. Therefore the influence of a character’s backstory means one way we can think about screenplay time is Present-Past: There is an inextricable link to what’s happening now, and key events and dynamics in the characters’ past. There is also, as I’ve suggested, Present-Future, but that’s a whole other area of consideration. Want to learn more? Take my Time class.

So can you tell a story where a script reader isn’t privy to the backstory of a Protagonist character? Yes, but the fact is, that character will have a backstory. Even if you don’t reveal it, you – the writer – need to know it. Of course, most Protagonists as well as other characters have backstories that do get revealed, the specific elements of their personal history that are directly relevant to the unfolding of the overall story, which is all the more reason that ‘stuff’ needs to emerge in the prep and page-writing process.

Let me close my comments by noting this: I hope the subtext of the question isn’t, “Gee, digging into a Protagonist backstory is really hard work. I wonder if I can just wing it and not give him/her any specific details, and just start writing, and forget all that jazz.”

Sure, a writer can do that. And the resulting script will almost certainly end up in the recycling bin.

In almost every movie, the Protagonist is the single most important character. Their wants, needs, conscious goals, unconscious goals, fears, desires, and backstories shape and influence virtually every aspect of a story. Generally their beginning psychological state implies where they need to go on their journey, what I call the narrative imperative. You don’t want to avoid digging into the Protagonist’s life-story, rather you should embrace it because that’s where the gold is, the backbone of your narrative, the arc of the character’s metamorphosis, the nature of relationships to other characters. The deeper you dig into their personal history, the more they reveal their personality, their voice, their psyche, and all the rest.

In a way, a Protagonist’s backstory might be the single most important area of research and discovery in getting in touch with and unearthing the story.

My advice: Engage that character. Ask him/her questions. Interview them. Encourage them to talk through sit-downs or monologues. Delve into their past by writing a biography. They want you to tell their story. Reach out to them. Reach into them. The heart, soul, blood and guts of your story lie within your characters… especially the Protagonist.

After you’ve found out what you can about the Protagonist and other characters, what you choose to reveal of their backstory is up to you as a writer. They can be The Character With No Name. But in order to know your story well enough to tell it in a compelling, entertaining way, the bottom line is even if you keep the script reader in the dark… you need to know that shit.

Readers, what are your thoughts on this question? Head to comments, curious to see your reactions and thoughts.

Reader Question: For great films, should I watch them or read script first?

July 30th, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @JoshHoltCity

Scott, if I’m fortunate/unfortunate enough to have never seen a number of great films, should I read or watch first?

First off, you are both fortunate and unfortunate not to have seen a “number of great films.” Unfortunate because you do not have the collective experience — yet — of having seen all those great cinematic stories to have fed your mind, body and soul. Besides on a practical level, you absolutely need to watch as many movies as you can, especially great ones, because every conversation about story development in Hollywood references movies over and over and over again. A studio executive trying to make a point says, “Like that scene with the horse head in The Godfather,” instead of nodding your head limply because you haven’t seen the film, much better to be able to get the reference because you have screened it.

That said, you are fortunate because you have virgin eyes. My God, the thought of seeing some of my favorite movies for the very first time: The Apartment, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Strangelove, Casablanca, Annie Hall, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Alien, Psycho, The Exorcist, Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources, Tampopo, Fanny and Alexander, Wings of Desire and on and on…

You have a great gift: You get to experience these classics and more for the first time. In that respect, I envy you.

Advice: Print out the IMDB Top 250 list and make it your goal to watch every single one of those movies. That may be the most important thing you do as a budding screenwriter and filmmaker. There is a Gestalt type of learning you can attain in no other way than immersing yourself in a bunch of movies.

Now to your actual question: Read the script or watch the movie first? I am curious what readers will say, but if we are talking great movies like Citizen Kane, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lawrence of Arabia, I’d say watch the movie first.

You want to take in that whole film experience knowing as little as possible about the story so you can be swept up in the narrative. On your first screening of a great film, you don’t want to be sitting there comparing the movie to a script and going deep into story analysis, rather you should allow yourself the chance to become immersed in that universe.

After you see the movie, then you can bust out the script and re-watch it, comparing script to screen. By the way, that’s a great exercise.

I will say there are a bunch of movies I’ve seen after reading the script, but I’m nearly three decades into this. It’s hard for me to watch movies without having one track of my mind in analysis mode. So knowing the story before I watch a movie isn’t such a big deal to me. With certain exceptions, of course, movies I just absolutely have to watch knowing as little as possible about the story in advance.

But you’re young! You still deserve the chance to experience the awe and wonder of seeing movies fresh.

So my bottom line advice is watch the movies first. Then read the scripts.

Readers, what do you say? I suspect most of you will agree with me, but maybe not. I’d be especially curious to hear from folks who work in Hollywood development circles whose job requires them to read scripts before the movies get produced. How do you deal with that? Do you find that hinders your experience of watching a movie? Or not?

See you in comments for your thoughts.

And Josh, enjoy the classics!

Reader Question: Are writers included in “nuisance lawsuits”?

July 21st, 2014 by

Reader Question from Eric Harris:

You always hear about movie studios getting sued for films like Liar Liar, Terminator from some person that claims they had a similar idea…. in these nuisance suits, in the writer’s deal….are the writer’s protected from this? Do they sue the studio/production co. or the writer?

Funny you should ask that because

The creators of web series about a foul-mouthed teddy bear with a penchant for drinking, smoking and prostitutes has filed a copyright infringement suit against Seth MacFarlane, Universal Pictures and the producers of Ted, the 2012 film about a foul-mouthed teddy bear with a penchant for drinking, smoking and prostitutes. Bengal Mangle Productions claims that Ted “is an unlawful copy” of its own animated teddy, who was featured in two different web series, Charlie The Abusive Teddy and Acting School Academy. The suit (read it here), filed today in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, states that those web series aired in 2009 and 2010 on You Tube, FunnyOrDie.com and other streaming websites.

“Both Charlie and Ted reside in a substantially similar environment, including that both Charlie and Ted spend a significant amount of time sitting on a living room couch with a beer and/or cigarette in hand,” the suit claims. “Charlie and Ted each have a substantially similar persona, verbal tone, verbal delivery, dialogue, and attitude.”

I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave expert opinions on the matter to those who may practice law (feel free to weigh in), however let’s use this as an opportunity to talk about what is known in the business as nuisance lawsuits. Basically these refer to any lawsuits brought by people against media companies or even individual, such as a celebrity, that presumably have little to no merit. As far as TV and movies go, they are as much a part of the Hollywood terrain as palm trees.

I remember when I had an office on the Universal Studios lot talking with someone there in legal affairs who told me that every single movie Steven Spielberg had been involved in had been the subject of a nuisance lawsuit.

Why do these lawsuits happen? Several reasons.

First of all, the world is filled with greedy bastards.

Second, there are a lot of people coming up with ideas for movies and TV series. My rough estimate of how many: A zillion. With that many folks generating that many story concepts, it’s inevitable that someone is going to have an idea similar to any movie or TV series that gets produced.

I suppose there have been attempts to sue studios by some lunkheads who had a similar idea flit through their dome while plunked on their Barcolounger, yet never made an effort to get said idea to anyone in Hollywood, but more typically what happens is the people behind these lawsuits actually have some semblance of credibility that their concept may have intersected with the company in question.

Sometimes these lawsuits trace a path between a script that got submitted to an agency before a similar project was put into development. Whether the agency did or did not have an actual interface with the other project is almost irrelevant. The Hollywood acquisition and development system is a tight community, so it’s assumed that everybody knows everybody’s business. Idea enters the system in Burbank, the thinking is it must have made its way over to Culver City. No actual proof, mind you, but enough for gold diggers to sue, hoping to shake some coin from Hollywood’s coffers.

That said, I have seen reports where there are demonstrable points of connection, for example, where a writer pitched a project to a production company, then that company went on to make a movie at least somewhat similar to the original pitch. A lawsuit like that may have more legitimacy than most.

Then there are cases like Ted, where the plaintiffs have a public venue — a web series — as proof of their Intellectual Property. In effect, the Internet is a global distribution network for ideas. Combine that with the fact that Hollywood voraciously searches the darkest corners of social media to find The Next Big Thing, it is not out of the question that a certain amount of creative… er… borrowing might occur.

So this whole area of determining the source of creative inspiration is an ooey gooey thing where there can be legitimate cases of outright IP theft, but more often than not, the suits are based on little more than greed and the good ol’ American dream of squeezing dollars from profiteering corporations.

The odd thing is, we see announcements about the issuance of nuisance lawsuits, but hardly ever read anything further about them. My guess is most cases get dismissed, but I’m sure studios will sometimes pay off a plaintiff just to get them to drop the suit. Indeed, I’ll bet that’s a line item in each studio’s annual budget. Curious as to what the legal term for those funds would be…

Anyway back to your original question, Eric, as the movie Ted demonstrates, the writer can be subject to a lawsuit. That seems odd to me because in the U.S., if a writer sells an original project to a studio, ownership of the copyright transfers to them. In effect, the buyer becomes the “author”. In that case, I’m not sure about actual legal liability on the part of the writer. Again, any legal eagles out there, please chime in with your expertise.

Of more relevance to writers relative to the subject:

* Nuisance lawsuits are making it harder and harder for outsiders to get material read by Hollywood buyers. To my knowledge, no studio and most agencies refuse to consider unsolicited material. Many managers and producers are more open to queries, but will often have you sign some sort of submission waiver release form. Bottom line: Frivolous lawsuits suck because they make it harder for aspiring writers to break into the business.

* If you bring a lawsuit against a studio, whether justified or not, it’s a pretty good bet you’ll have a hard time working in the business again… that is until you write a killer spec script which everyone wants in which case all is forgiven.

* A more pressing concern is the blurry area of sweepstakes pitching wherein multiple writers pitch their takes on one project. In theory, the studio or prod co could aggregate their favorite talking points from the round of pitches, then assign the project to a writer including those notes as being of their own inspiration. This can eventually lead to each of the sweepstakes pitchers sitting in a movie theater, looking at this bit or that which seems awfully similar to what they pitched… and there’s literally nothing the writer can do about it. If challenged, the studio can always say, “We had that idea before you pitched it to us.” Besides the writer doesn’t want to get on the bad side of a potential employer by getting all pissy with them.. This reality is just something that is part of the Open Writing Assignment circus. It’s your choice to enter the big tent… or stay outside.

Readers, what thoughts do you have on this matter? I look forward to any insight you may have on the subject.

Reader Question: What about the Protagonist and the inciting incident?

July 16th, 2014 by

Question from @SB_Boxing:

hi Scott. Should a protagonist always initiate the inciting incident or can they be reactive to it?

Let me approach this question with two considerations in mind.

First, with a few caveats [see note at end of post], almost every story by definition is going to have this dynamic in place: The Protagonist(s) will begin in the Old World / Ordinary World. That is, we meet the Protagonist in the context of the life they have been living up to the point of FADE IN. This is only natural. We need to get to know this key character in their ‘natural habitat’ in order to have a baseline against which to measure everything else that happens. Their personal metamorphosis, changes in key relationships, the contrast in events that transpire in the New World, and so forth.

To that point of the New World, inevitably something happens in the first act / movement / stage of the story that propels the Protagonist out of their Old World.

This brings us to the second consideration: That ‘something happens’ event has a lot of names. Joseph Campbell calls it the Call To Adventure. Screenwriting gurus call it Inciting Incident. I even have a name for it: The Hook because this event both hooks into the plot and gives it a twist, and hooks the reader’s attention. Ah, that’s interesting. What’s going to happen now?

It doesn’t matter what you call it, just that you understand something has to happen. An external force that intrudes in the Protagonist’s life. A Herald who arrives with an invitation. A sudden realization the Protagonist makes to leave their Old Life behind.

Something. Happens. In my view, that is the essence of an inciting incident.

As to the specifics of your question, @SB_Boxing, frankly I think more often than not, the Protagonist does not initiate this event, rather it happens to them, it comes at them. Some examples:

* Casablanca: Rick is given the letters of transit by Ugarte.

* The Matrix: First Trinity, then Morpheus reach out to Neo about him being in danger.

* The Silence of the Lambs: At the end of Clarice’s startling initial interaction with Lecter, set into motion by her FBI chief Crawford, Lecter gives her a clue bound up in a riddle.

* Raiders of the Lost Ark: Two Army Intelligence officers seeks Indy’s help with some messages they have intercepted from the Nazis about possibly locating the Ark of the Covenant.

* Bridesmaids: Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor.

Each of these Calls requires a response: In Casablanca after Ugarte is shot, Rick keeps the letters for future use. In Matrix, Neo refuses to heed Trinity and Morpheus, ending up being taken captive by Agent Smith and his cronies. In Lambs, Clarice unravels the riddle Lecter gave her which sets her onto the case. In Raiders, Indy enthusiastically agrees to pursue finding the Ark of the Covenant. In Bridesmaids, Annie agrees to be the Maid of Honor.

This dynamic, whereby Fate intervenes in the ordinary life of the Protagonist, is a common one in movies. As demonstrated with these examples, we see that responses can vary. Campbell talks about the Reluctant Hero, and as with Neo in The Matrix, this is a familiar theme, and understandably so from a writing standpoint as this take gives the Protagonist more room to grow. On the other hand, some Protagonists are ready to rock and roll, whether they are conscious of their innate desire to change or not, and that can bring its own unique energy to a story’s setup.

Sometimes, however, the Protagonist helps to create the circumstances of the inciting incident:

* The Wizard of Oz: After Miss Gulch takes Toto, who then escapes, Dorothy and her dog run away from home.

* The Apartment: Busted by Sheldrake, Baxter agrees to give the key to his apartment to his boss for Sheldrake’s illicit trysts.

* Up: Carl’s unfortunate interaction with the construction crew leads to him being evicted from his house.

* Her: Unhappy over his impending divorce, Theodore purchases a talking operating system with artificial intelligence named Samantha.

In each of these cases, the Protagonist either initiates or is at least implicated in the unfolding of the inciting incident.

So the direct answer to your question, @SB_Boxing, is this: There is no “always”. Not to the issue of the inciting incident. Not to anything involved with crafting a story. As writers, we should feel completely free to follow our stories wherever they take us. Screenwriting gurus who say things like “Never” or “Always” are more than likely armed with some sort of formula they want to sell you. And formulas almost inevitably lead to formulaic writing. And formulaic writing leads to virtual slush piles.

Forms, on the other hand, are different. For decades, movie narratives have had patterns, tropes, memes, themes, dynamics. Three act structure. The Hero’s Journey. Metamorphosis. Archetypes.

However these are tools, not rules.

They should inform our creative process, not inhibit it so that we feel like we are engaged in little more than paint-by-numbers storytelling.

Beyond that, the much more interesting question for a writer to ask is this:

Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?

Consider your Protagonist. Their state of Disunity at the beginning of the story. They need to change. The Story Universe recognizes this. And it’s the Story Universe which makes that critical something happen event occur in the middle of what we call Act One.

Ponder the idea that your Protagonist has a Destiny, what I call their Narrative Imperative. Their Disunity state implies a Unity state, something 90% of mainstream Hollywood movies have in place as part of the resolution to the Protagonist’s journey.

Bottom line: Go into the story and find the animals. And those animals ought not be constrained by “Always” and “Never”. Stories are organic. Formulas kill 99% of scripts that funnel into Hollywood before they get past the first script reader’s iPad.

Your Protagonist may initiate the inciting incident. They may inadvertently set it into motion. The call may tumble upon them out of the blue. They may be forced into their journey. They may go willingly. They may leap into it.

Any of these options — and many, many  more — is possible.

Immerse yourself in your Protagonist and your Story Universe, keep asking questions and see where they lead you.

Find the heart and soul of your story…

And for heaven’s sake, stay away from formulas.

Caveats: Stories do not need to proceed in a linear fashion, going from Beginning to Middle to End. Granted, most mainstream movies do, but filmmakers can:

* Tell the story backward (see Memento)

* Craft the story in a nonlinear fashion (see Pulp Fiction)

* Omit the middle (see Blue Valentine)

However even if you tell a story with a nontraditional narrative structure, let’s say, you start at the end, in what constitutes the first 10-15 minutes of your movie, something will happen. It may not technically be the Call To Adventure — that may emerge later in the story when the narrative gets around to the beginning — but it will function as a hook that twists the plot and incites a reader’s interest in the plot — hopefully.

Readers, what thoughts do you have? Please head to comments to share them.