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Posts Tagged ‘story’

Are Movies Getting BIGGER?

February 3rd, 2011 1 comment

In the 1950 classic “Sunset Blvd.,” when down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) meets faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), he says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.” Norma’s response: “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.”

“Sunset Blvd.”‘s script won Academy Awards for screenplay and story for writers Billy Wilder (who was also nominated for Best Director), writing partner Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.. It’s one of many memorable lines in a classic Hollywood film about Hollywood that garnered 11 nominations, including Best Picture, winning the coveted statuettes for Screenplay/Story, Art/Set direction and Best Score (by Franz Waxman). Seen at the time by movie stars and studio heads as an indictment of Hollywood, “Sunset Blvd.” has gone on to become a beloved drama often quoted by cinephiles. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” is another classic line, having worked its way into the popular lexicon as an alternative way of saying “I’m prepared.”

But Norma Desmond’s biting response about Hollywood raises an interesting point. Fewer studio films are being made (110 in 2010 versus 121 in 2009), and the cost of most of those fewer films have risen. Since box office figures represent a drop in attendance in 2010 of 8%, and the total domestic box office return dropped 4%, it’s clear that fewer people are going to the movies – and they are paying more. Premium 3-D ticket prices are the reason the box office take hasn’t shrunk as much as attendance, but the fact remains that the movie business is undergoing a paradigm shift. Are pictures getting smaller? Quite the opposite: they’re getting BIGGER.  

A quick look at the upcoming slate of pictures for 2011 makes one thing very obvious: for better or worse, consider 2011 ‘the year of the numeral.’ Sequels, prequels and remakes rule the roost in the coming year, with titles like “The Hangover 2,” “Transformers 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 4,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Cars 2,” “Scream 4,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Planet of the Apes” prequel “Rise of the Apes,” “Shrek” spin-off “Puss in Boots,” a remake of “Arthur,” another Tyler Perry ‘Madea’ film – “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” along with a new Muppet movie, as well as “Mission Impossible 4,” “Sherlock Holmes II,” another remake of “The Lone Ranger,” (due in 2012) and an American version of Sweden’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” directed by “The Social Network”‘s David Fincher. And that doesn’t even count the veritable flood of superhero movies coming our way: “Captain America,” “Thor,” and “The Green Lantern,” to name a few.

So – are the pictures getting small? No way. Studios and moviemakers depend on recognizeable ‘properties’ to stoke their B.O. furnaces, and just about every film listed above will have a budget equal to (or more than) the previous film in its series. After all, ‘bigger is better,’ right? At least that’s what Hollywood is counting on. The studios are also readying ‘familiar’ projects (many of them in 3-D to optimize profits) like “Dark Shadows,” an adult-themed “Red Riding Hood,” “The Smurfs,” “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a 3-D motion capture film by Steven Spielberg (and ostensibly the first of a series), in addition to “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” based on the beloved 1938 kids book.

So – pictures are getting bigger. TV and movie maven J.J. Abrams has his super-secret “Super 8” project coming out in early June – it’s a nod to the early sci-fi films of Steven Spielberg. And things are really going to get loud and in-your-face when Michael Bay opens his next “Transformers” film on July 1st. In addition, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau has his hybrid western/action/sci-fi graphic novel adaptation “Cowboys & Aliens” opening at the end of July. Even Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) has another action film opening with “Sucker Punch,” opening on March 25th. If you didn’t get enough titan clashing in 2010, Mickey Rourke and the next Superman, Henry Cavill, will become “Immortals” in a Grecian epic opening in November.

So – unless you are a denizen of indie arthouse fare, depend on one thing: movies are getting bigger. Running times often underscore this, making some action/adventure films feel like an extended assault on your senses. It’s all part of the ‘magic of the movies,’ although the coming glut of pre-packaged entertainment might leave one wondering whether it’s dark magic – or merely time-worn tricks being utilized to, as Harry Cohn famously said, ‘put fannies in seats.’

Next: Hold On – aren’t movies getting smaller?

What should I write about?

December 10th, 2010 No comments

The question frequently arises among writers: “What should I write about?” It’s not coincidental that the most frequent answer is “Write what you know,” especially since it’s easier to draw on personal experience than create a new world from whole cloth. But both approaches have their merits, and their adherents. It’s really about which you do best, since writing well is the goal…

Recently I attended a holiday dinner party which came together almost spontaneously. At the dinner I was joined by a high-level film studio executive-assistant, a Tony-nominated playwright, a British screenwriter (son of a Knight!), a set dresser and a costumer. As the lone blogger, I was both intimidated and fascinated. Talk ranged from gossip to philosophy, from food to metaphysics, and I did my best to take it all in (meal included, truth be told). By evening’s end, I had enough ‘material’ to write several screenplays, from the “Big Chill” aspect of this rag-tag group of celebrants to the farcical “Home for the Holidays” spirit of the day; if I wished, I could tap darker undercurrents which would lead the tale an entirely different direction.  Regardless of what direction I wished to go, from comic to heavily dramatic, I gained enough inspiration (and story material) from our dinner together to keep me busy for a while.

Knowing what to write about is half the battle. What remains is a difficult – albeit frequently fun – task of defining your story, identifying its beginning, middle and end, and applying a plot structure to it which moves the story forward while satisfying audiences’ desires to be entertained. It’s a careful balance of  plot, character, dialogue, pacing and tone – and any one of these elements can ‘tip’ the overall project off-kilter – and into a studio’s ‘reject’ pile. So it’s obvious that knowing your story is paramount to your screenplay’s success, but getting it right is just as important, and that takes an artist’s touch.

Personal experience is a tricky thing: we often lack the perspective to ‘open-up’ our own stories and instead get bogged-down in minutiae, so it’s important to step back to see the bigger picture (the one the audience deserves) to ensure your story is being told completely. It’s no accident that many of the best novels are adapted into screenplays not by the books’ authors, but by experienced screenwriters who understand the structure and demands of a screen story. Many book authors get the opportunity to adapt their work for Hollywood, but few see their efforts get to the screen unchanged; conversely, those writers who eschew Hollywood work in favor of writing more books often score a higher success rate in getting their titles to theater marquees. A prime example of the latter is Elmore Leonard, who gave up adapting his works in the 80s, although he continues writing novels to this day – and movies continue to be produced (“3:10 to Yuma”) based on his enormous volume of work.

So what should you write about? The answer to that question is as varied as life itself. Material should present itself, whether it comes from a dinner party, a walk to the store or a phone call with a loved one. It’s up to you as a writer to recognize this opportunity and write it down.

Once you’ve finished writing, don’t forget to make sure your work is immune to critical nit-picking. Every successful story, play, screenplay, teleplay and novel became a success because the author took the time to get it right. Story analysis from an experienced professional is the best way to gain perspective on this very personal work. Constructive criticism is the key to refining your project into the ‘bulletproof’ property that will increase your odds of success!

Why Analysis?

October 12th, 2010 No comments

Story analysis? (At this point, we touch our fingertips together, lean forward in our chair and observe, while asking “How do you feel about that?”)

Lots of jokes have been made at the expense of touchy-feely psychoanalysis, which is typically represented by a patient unburdening themselves from a psychiatrist’s couch while a thoughtful, goateed doctor listens and occasionally inserts a probing question into the mix. Jokes aside, analysis is a powerful tool to correct deep-rooted problems, and it is why patients visit psychiatrists, doctors specially trained in treating disorders which may very well go unrecognized by others. In doing so, hopefully the analyst gives the patient a new control over their life, leading to success and fulfillment.

Story and script analysis, while mercifully short on comic stereotypes like couches or goatees, are just as powerful tools to offer a screenwriter perspective, focus and context involving their own work. A good story analyst has years of experience and (on the job) training, with a knowledge of film history and current film, as well as a feel for the ebb and flow of the movie industry in general. And at least 1,000 scripts under their belt – read and analyzed; 2,000 is better. Every script read and synopsized, every story analyzed, every set of reader’s comments informs the analyst’s next set of notes; in short, story analysis is cumulative. Over the course of many years, I have analyzed more than 3,500 scripts, manuscripts, plays, teleplays and treatments; as a result, my ability to identify writing missteps, story mistakes, plotting errors and the like has allowed me to assist writers of all kinds, from total neophytes to jaded Hollywood A-Listers.

Regardless of whether you choose a professional story analyst, it’s important to have someone other than yourself read and provide an independent assessment of your work. No one sets out to write a ‘bad’ script – but stuff happens… If you are so immersed in your work you do not recognize logic gaps, uneven characters, plot holes, strained dialogue, formulaic structure or one of the many other traps screewriters fall into, it’s time to bring in a fresh eye – hopefully someone with the skill set to offer constructive criticism that will make the writing process easier and less mysterious for you. I have friends and colleagues who pooh-pooh  the idea of paying a story analyst to read their work (hey – I didn’t say they were good friends…), but they are often the ones who come to me privately and ask me to look at their work. I’ve also offered to read pals’ work gratis and given them advice, but the majority of screenplays I have analyzed have come through the studio system to the production companies or film finance clients I work with, in addition to those personal clients who discovered Forbard Story Services’ website on their own.

So. Analysis. Hmmm… I know how I feel about that – but how about you? It may make all the difference in your pursuit of screenwriting success!

Pitch, Treatment or Script?

August 13th, 2010 No comments

 

At first the question sounds like a philosophical enigma. And, in a way, it is.

If you have a GREAT MOVIE IDEA, and want to share it with the world, how should you present it? As a ‘pitch,’ which usually involves a verbal presentation to a studio ‘creative executive,’ (meaning someone who got to the job fair a half-hour ahead of you… Although, to be sincere, some creative executives know what they are talking about – I met one. Once. To his credit, he’d actually seen some of the same movies I had.) In any case, your ‘pitch’ involves describing your GREAT IDEA using theatrics, rhetorical devices and basic drama. At the end, you’ll usually hear “We’ll get back to you,” but anything short of “Get out of my office!” should be taken as a good sign. Rumor has it that the most successful, shortest pitch ever was Tom Mankiewiecz’s “Dum de Dum Dum” reciting to get the 1987 “Dragnet” greenlit. Too bad… a little longer and the creative exec might’ve decided more wisely…

A treatment for a film usually covers 10 or so double-spaced typed pages. It is ordinarily a combination of characters, plot description and key dialogue, and imparts the general idea of the film’s structure and plot points with the pacing and tone included. I’ve read 10-page treatments that essentially spelled out the entire film (Think “John Carpenter’s ‘Ghosts of Mars,'”) or treatments which merely touched on the subject at hand. One of the more memorable treatments I read dealt with a novel-in-progress about organized crime involved during the rebuilding and reunification of Germany (along the lines of “Eastern Promises”). By the time the script actually appeared (a couple of years after the novel’s publication), the story was dated and diluted. It was disappointing, because the novel-in-progress (and its associated treatment) had a ‘Sopranos’-like appeal – which only faded as time intruded.

And the last choice is the ‘gold standard’: a script. They’re the hardest to complete (well), but they are what studio executives will ask for most (and usually first – “Do you have a finished script? – Or a writing sample?”) A finished – and bulletproof! – script is really the best way to go with anyone who is serious about producing (or investing in) your project. Your writing needs to be ready-for-production in a manner that won’t allow anyone to question its practicalities, characters, plot loopholes or other logic gaps so that you can lead with your very best. If your ideas can be called into question by a single query, does it make any difference what form it’s in?

Pitch, Treatment or Script? Do it the way you want to – but do it! And – this is important – if you’re submitting it for consideration, your work had bettter be the best it can. Otherwise the decision of ‘Pitch, Treatment or Script?’ won’t be important. At that point, the only important answer you’ll need is “Which way’s the door?”