Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hook, Line and Sinker

More on the elements of commercial ideas...

I have worked on some high-grossing, very commercial films in my career. They were fun. It's great to sit down with your first preview audience and hear them roar to life over an idea you pitched during a story meeting. Very gratifying. That said, there are certainly sources out there (John August, Josh Friedman, Kung Fu Monkey's John Rogers come to mind instantly) who can, and have, pounded out the elements from a writer's perspective. I'm trying to bridge the creative/executive divide here a bit.

Clear Concept

The main thing is to make your idea "pitchable". There's a lot to be said for going up to random strangers and pitching your idea: I'm writing a script about a little boy who meets an alien left behind by his scouting party. Sounds cheesy, but, a lot of ideas won't pass this initial test and audiences want to understand WHY they are in the theater. Now, an exception (and there are always exceptions) would be almost any independent film, but, and here's the catch, even those films (which tend to be structured as minimalist, 2-acts), fit into a container -- USUAL SUSPECTS, a heist film with a twist, ROMEO IS BLEEDING, a great female assassin film from the mid-90's.

Random aside: I recently had occasion to pitch a story I'm working on to someone who can help me gain access to a "secret world". In this particular case, security protocols make it difficult to get secondary research material. I've been working out the story for quite some time now, so when I got my big shot with the Man-In-Charge, I was able to pitch my heart out and tell him in a basic one-liner what my story is, and convince him that his help would put "flesh on the bones". Result: I'm going to see some secret stuff and get to write about it. Pitches aren't just for studio execs....

Part of the reason genre films (e.g. action-adventures, rom coms) are so successful is the interplay between the audience and the film. The expectation and fulfillment cycle is powerful, and when it's powered by fresh insight into the questions that these genres pose (Will I survive? Will anyone ever love me?), it can speak deeply to people. Be original within a genre using it to provide the structure and the "clear concept" elements will save you and give you the basis for a truly commercial film. If there's interest, I can expand this section. It's simple, powerful, and difficult as hell to get right.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Can I Sell That?

Commercial ideas are the stock and trade of the film business. We don't make pants, we don't service cars, we sell good times. I'm going to do a little primer on this for the next few posts, then circle back around and answer some questions I've received via e-mail.

Basic elements:

Target Audience

The basic parameters for a commercial film are that it services a specific Target Audience. A demographic. Understanding this eases the journey a little bit. I make a certain type of film. My mandate is for films targeting males 25-45 (the real pie chart would say males over 25, but I'm not really interested in making RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, or BASIC INSTINCT 2) and females over 25 (I can't say I'd make DOUBLE JEOPARDY, but I'd definitely make a WAITING TO EXHALE or a STEEL MAGNOLIAS). As a writer, however, I tend to write stories that would appeal to males under 25. Go figure. Clearly, my muse needs to get her head examined. :) Anyway, I know this about me. When I'm pitched ideas, I read screenplays or books, or I go out for a writer meeting (rare so far but that little "sideline" is growing), I know what types of projects I can get through, and what ideas I can sell. I don't believe in the romance of movies like THE NOTEBOOK. I don't get it. I don't follow the genre, the nuances escape me, and when I pitch (or hear pitches) with these types of ideas I can't work up the passion to paint a picture. I can't sell it. I spent a few long, agonizing months when I first gave up my studio gig pitching and hearing comedy ideas. At the time, it made sense to me. I have producer friends who are very versatile and able to sell ideas in many genres. Bully for them. I'm a one-trick, sucker punch pony, and that works for me.

Learning who you are writing for, what your demographic is, takes a little bit of research, some strong intuition and friends who are willing to tell you the truth. Break out a piece of paper and start writing down all the movies you've ever loved. Draw a circle, cut it into quarters labeled 1-4, then, start assigning those films to a quadrant. Some will have more than one label. If you come up with a fairly even spread either you are very versatile or you haven't done it right. Now, this isn't to say you can't reach from say GO to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, but the exercise is to help you define your core demo, it's also going to help make you more aware of the film elements that target specific demographics. Wash and repeat until you understand how a film like 8 BELOW could be reimagined for each of the four quadrants.

Upcoming posts....

Clear Concept

Sympathetic Protagonist

Worthwhile Journey


OK, this is going to sound crazy, but I automatically go into spin cycle whenever anyone asks me what I'm up to -- force of habit. Soooo, today, I met with a potential financial backer for several projects (film-related and otherwise). Great meeting, arranged through a close friend at a small intimate restaurant. The backer is a gatekeeper -- meaning someone who has access to the person who has the money, in fact, to several somebodies who have the money. We had a great time, laughing, joking about vacations we've had, films we love, food we've eaten, in short, the kind of love fest you hope to have when a lot of money is potentially at stake (don't you love how smoke and sky-pie feels like reality when you work in the entertainment industry?). As we circle around to the real (as-yet-unspoken) reason for our meeting, the backer asks me (quite legitimately), what I'm up to.

Backer: So, what kinds of work are you doing?
Me: I have a film going into production any day now.

Pause tape.

Technically, this is true. I do have a movie going into production any day now, if I can get the money together, thus my reason for having dinner with the backer. Oh, yeah, and if my writer turns in his draft on time. Ahem. OK, it's not really a lie, is it? And am I wrong for saying this?

I grew up in a very strict household with clear lines about what is true and what isn't true. In the sense of a James-Frey-truthiness of the truth I'm telling the emotional story about my project's status, the hoped-for outcome of my dinner with the Backer. Back to tape.

Backer: Hmm, what does that mean?
Me: (laughing) That means I'm hoping you'll write me a check so my writer can eat for a few months.

And the jaws snap shut. Hee hee hee! I'm paraphrasing here to protect the innocent, but basically, I think I may have just found the yellow brick road. Fingers are crossed, second meetings are being set, and a series of introductions (to the check-writers) is in the offing. I'm not about to pop any bottles, but the rain clouds are gathering so I'm just going to keep pounding my feet until I feel the pitter patter of water on my face. And now back to our regularly scheduled post....

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Where Are My Pages????

OK, I'm going to admit that I've been in hiding for the last few weeks. I didn't meet with my writer who is visiting Los Angeles from New York this weekend because I had a 101 degree fever, and last week, I totally blew off a girlfriend of mine. BUT, I did do some charity work, bugged an actor to help out with a war-refugee foundation I'm helping (this is the direction I'd like my "real" life to take), and I drove to the Bay Area. Twice. Do Not Ask Why..... That said, I thought I'd take this precious time away from my tivo'ing of Grey's Anatomy to add the promised posts.

Green, newbie and baby writers

It's not a bad thing to be a wannabe. Everybody in the entertainment industry is. Even people who've "made it". Let's face it, unless you are actually in production or under contract, you're a wannabe. (Even when you're a studio exec with a nice cushy deal, you wanna be the head of a studio, or hustle up your own production deal or at least get your movie made.) And a LOT of people aren't working at any given time. Your job is to remember that, and keep on trucking anyway. New talent is the lifeblood of managers and producers. Successful companies (like Bender Spink, Kaplan/Perrone, et al) know this and foster an open door policy. Do not make the mistake of blowing your wad on any single piece of material. Have several projects in various stages of readiness (i.e., 2-3 scripts, a few treatments, some short-form material, non-screenwriting material, a few outlines, and a few concept pitches you can flesh out within a few days' time) to share when you get your break. Or one kick-ass SEVEN, TRAINING DAY, USUAL SUSPECTS type spec that will burn the eyeballs of anyone who reads it.

Craft is craft, Art is something else entirely

Because I'm working on my book (fiction, not film industry related AT ALL), I'm going to focus on writers today. Directors are a whole other thing. I love directors, have worked (at times uncomfortably) closely with quite a few, but the work is very different. That said, writers: please take an acting class. Yes, I mean you. I know it sucks to get out from behind the desk and be seen in public, however, unless you're on FIRE, you need an acting class. Preferably one which will teach you how to break a scene down beat by beat. Learning how to create emotional beat work will keep your characters from suffering from plot-watching overload. There's a veracity to the emotional work when you've "thought" it through your emotional apparatus. I personally prefer acting teachers who've had some method/stanislavsky background. Uta Hagen's RESPECT FOR ACTING book is an excellent start, and for those of you living in New York, get your butts in gear and get involved with a theater group. Screenwriting is great, but if you can learn scene work doing 1-2 act plays for a small troupe, you will be far ahead of the game when you get here.

All that aside, do not confuse YOUR (and my) appreciation for your fancy footwork with commercial viability or the ability to get work. Craftsmanship in Hollywood is like building Michelangelo David and having someone use it for a coatrack, right? Don't despair. Your hardwork pulling together your craft will pay off. This does not mean run off and pitch that epic romance set against a backdrop of the fall of Constantinople. Some people like banging their heads against the wall and writing material that no one is going to make without a fight. I'm one of those people myself. If you'd like a more reasonable approach, take the above advice and write an emotionally truthful genre piece and you will win big.

I'm going to promise a post on commercial ideas, but not when I'll be able to post it. I'm raising money for a documentary, a charity and me. I do not want to return to the darkside, but economic conditions may force me to...*sigh* Here's hoping my little rain dance at least yields a few clouds.... Everybody's on the hustle in Hollywood.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Begin at the Beginning

I had a whole plan for how I wanted the blog to go. I've given that up in the face of an overwhelming schedule of commitments. Mostly personal ones. Today, and for the next few posts, I'd like to focus on some basic business skills that I've found need to be emphasized to people over and over again, but heck, if it ain't stickin' repeat it.

Planning ahead

I'm assuming that people who visit this blog are interested in becoming paid professionals writing, directing, producing or exec'ing in Hollywood. That said, many people have no idea what they want to do. It's a little shocking. For example, you say you want to be a screenwriter, yet you have no plan for what that means in your life. Trust that the guys who are making it do. They may not be aware that their plan is to work at one of the big studios writing movies for 18-25 year old males, specifically character-driven action or high-concept science fiction, but they have defined these things to themselves in their work. So, plan ahead. How are you going to make it? Are you a woman over 35 who likes to write thrillers and whodunits? Then, don't waste your time trying to get work at Disney. While their Touchstone label may occasionally venture into that genre, that's not what they do. Spend some time with yourself and a good movie guide (Variety does a good one with grosses) and get to know yourself. Who put together the movies you love and the types of movies you create? Those are the people you need to plan on meeting, and appealing to.

Making contacts

With a good plan you can find people who are sympathetic to your cause. Do not call people who most likely have no interest in you or your work. In the beginning that's going to seem like everyone, but persistent (read: working) writers know that triangulating on a set of folks who are going to be predisposed to like you works best. Contact those people. Get to know other people starting out like yourself. Over time, some of you will make it and some of you won't. I know several people who started out with me who are now either running major production companies or at or near the top of the studio and agenting food chain. Some of those folks are friends of mine, some of them aren't, but they know who I am, and they return my calls. And that is the name of the game.

Maintaining said contacts

This is a little tricky. You are balancing the line of pest and someone it's nice to hear from. If you really hit it off with someone -- you find movies you like in common, share a worldview, etc., then plan on calling that person as often as the relationship allows and no less. Remember, your job is to sell yourself. Your industry contact has a job. It's to read and find new material for the market. Have a little information loop -- nothing confidential or you'll get slammed -- and share out tidbits as you make your calls. If you do not live in town, see the next bit about postcards. If you do live in town, try to set up coffee dates, and screening groups.

Holiday and progress cards

These are absolutely essential if you want to stay in business. They do not have to be fancy, but they do have to feel personal. This is a visual art, people. Keep that in mind. I send my holiday cards out at the beginning of December and no matter how many people are on my list -- the last one was at 350 -- I write a personal message to the person recalling the last time we spoke or hung out. Shame on me if I can't remember because it means I need to call or set up some time with that person to make a new memory! It sucks, and I usually start them in October (not the personal note part, just the mailing list), but by Thanksgiving I'm smiling and happy as I pay for my postage and get those puppies in the mail. They always bring a phone call or return card, so it's nice.

Progress cards are important for young talent. Don't send out cards saying you've just completed a screenplay, film, or play. For writers, progress cards should mark awards milestones, publishing of pieces written outside the film world (articles, etc), agency rep changes (or if you get one to announce it to people you know so they can reach you), or if you win a prestigious writing fellowship. For directors, it is sometimes acceptable to announce the beginning or end of production since this a huge milestone in terms of actually making a film, however if the film doesn't have anyone recognizable in it, outside of your mentor or someone willing to critique or review it for a paper, this information doesn't help. Screenings for the public, awards, agency status, again, those are good things to announce. For actors it's important to let agents and casting directors know of upcoming performances, and any producers or directors you've worked for or had positive auditions for in the past (even if they didn't hire you, but gave good comments). For producers, the only people who care about your progress are writers and directors. So, if you get a movie set up, option a book, or have a screening have at it. Otherwise, your progress is best left in your diary. Sorry, it sucks, but no one cares about producers.

The irony.

My hands hurt from typing such a long post, so I'll leave off here. I'm going to follow up with two more short posts detailing some of the below.

Green, newbie and baby writers

Craft is craft, Art is something else entirely