Friday, March 31, 2006

?'s and Answers

Eleanor writes:

I tend to write for the 18-25/25+ male category, but I like some depth to things so my stories also tend to contain a hunk of female 35+ drama. I know this is breaking the "rules". Is it a massive mistake on my part to do this? Would a more purist approach increase my primary target audience's enjoyment?
My guess is that you really want to write for women over 35. That's a huge demographic and a steady line of work in Hollywood. Don't fight it. The only real test is to pitch to your audience and see how they respond.

The Slate

Studios "program" their year's worth of movies by quarter. This is the studio's "slate" for the year. Wars have been fought over this extremely closely held information. When a studio announces the release date of a film, it's after the marketing and distribution department has had their chance to weigh in on what they think a particular film, with a particular set of elements (i.e. cast, subject matter, filmmaker) will do in a given date range. This is where the film business becomes very corporate. The release date of a film can make or break a regime. The $$ made or lost on a single film can move the stock of a multi-billion dollar company up or down by a quarter-point or more.

In each year there are certain seasons where studios, based on market data will program a "tentpole" film. Tentpoles are films that have a built-in audience -- the premise is high concept, the elements are A-list, and there's a tremendous amount of buzz and anticipation. Audiences already want to go see these films. The rest of the slate is built around these dates. Studios try to find good "slots" for their films which won't have too much competition for the same audience. That's why you'll see a kid's movie programmed against an R-rated film , or a date movie programmed against another release that targets males under 25.

Take this weekend's releases for example:

ATL (Drama) Warner Bros. No. of Theaters: 1,602 -- core: males under 25, urban, african american, fans of hip hop -- relying on fans of cast to broaden it beyond this

Basic Instinct 2 (Thriller) Sony No. of Theaters: 1,453 --core: males/females over 25 (really over 35) with sexually explicit content.

Ice Age: The Meltdown (Animation) Fox No. of Theaters: 3,964 -- core: kids under 12, with the likelihood of crossover to all four quadrants

Slither (Sci-Fi Horror) Universal No. of Theaters: 1,945 -- core: males under 25

Ice Age has a very wide release (pretty close to the most theaters you can open a film in) -- it's a sequel to a hit movie, it's animated, it has Ray Romano (males/females over 35), Denis Leary (males over and under 35), Queen Latifah (females over 35, african americans) and John Leguizamo (males under 25, latinos).

ATL, BASIC INSTINCT and SLITHER are pure counter-programming.

Fox has a list of the releases for the next two years with some dates and release patterns. Interesting information, check it out. Also, there's a great website called BOX OFFICE MOJO where you can do some research on demos. I'm putting a call out to all seven of you -- research films that are similar to your own, look at how the demos break down and post a comment or email me and we'll parse it out together.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Those Pesky Demos

Who pays for movies, anyway? This is one of those annoying posts that talks about demographics, so if you want to dig into some structure dish, you'll have to haul ass back here later. Right now, mama's got to pay some bills and she's making the kiddie's watch her do it. So, pull up a chair and stop yer whining. We got checks to write. For those of you precocious preteens out there, just snark quietly and let the little ones sit up front.

Movie goers fall into four basic, very broad categories. Males and Females over and under 25. That's it. So, while it would seem obvious that movies have to be made for at least one of those groups, a lot of novice, and not so novice, filmmakers fail to think about their core audience before they pour their passion and loot into a project. One of the reasons films fail to find their core demo is that interests change every day. Oprah introduces James Frey to the world, his books jump up the charts, and now women over 25 are interested in redemptive stories of drug addiction and are willing to wade through 300+ pages of crap to get it.

Studios are constantly on the look out for what's hot in the world of pop culture. When video games started to prove themselves as an enduring source of material, a whole class of executives made their bones pursuing titles, game makers and gamers in search of the viral video game that would service this very under-25 male demo.

So, the big question for the filmmaker is: does my project effectively target an audience? If not, who am I making the film for? If so, am I so servicing this demo that I'm precluding anyone outside of it from going? Narrowing a target isn't always a bad thing. Look at the SNAKES ON A PLANE example. Rather than trying to make it appeal to a broader audience (something NL probably realizes wouldn't be likely right off the bat), the studio has decided to service its core demo for this film (males over and under 25, probably the sweet spot is 18-25) and hope that by dominating that core, they will be able to generate enough word-of-mouth that the film will become a sort of ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW kitsch favorite and cross-over into the mainstream. They are counting on the legions of nutty fans out there who make fanfic, and fan-art, appropriating lines from message boards and elsewhere to make a sort of community art project out it. It'll be interesting to see if it works.

With the advent of the internet, this type of advance market testing will probably become more common, though not likely the norm -- filmmakers are artists, afterall, not just market-driven content generators, we have studios for that.

The next post will take a list of movies and break them down by demo, and then talk about what "servicing a demo" really means in terms of elements and methods that can be used to enhance this appeal. As always, if there are questions or comments, have at it.

Koffee Klatch

I'd like to emphasize, again, the importance of finding like-minded peers. In this business, you only make it as far as your circle of friends. For good or for ill, it's imperative that you reach out to writers, directors, actors, aspiring producers, agents and executives of all ages, who share an interest in the films you like.

I posted a while ago about making contacts and keeping up with them, so I won't repeat myself here on that topic, but please do go out and make friends. They are the people who will keep you sane on long lonely unemployed stretches of the hustle. The ones who will call you and invite you to their fabulous vacation homes and even give you frequent flier miles to get there. They are also the ones you make a standing date with every week for Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons or Thursday night meals at El Coyote to dish, bitch, sympathize, drown your sorrows and toast your successes with.

I like to call it the Koffee Klatch. I'm a small town girl, so all this Hollywood shit overwhelms me sometimes. I like meeting up, sharing recipes for cake or romantic comedies. Over the last year, my klatch has changed from one that was almost all managers, producers and executives to one that is filled with screenwriters, directors and novelists. We don't meet as often as the Type-A group I surrounded myself with in years past, and I think we suffer for it. We are, however, each deeply committed to our careers and to helping one another fulfill our dreams for them. We share books on craft, or just books that we think exemplify an aspect of craft in the work. We email one another articles, read rough drafts (sometimes so rough your eyes get scraped, but that's what friends are for...), offer condolences when ideas prove unworkable and share our analyses and insights on films we've each seen.

I feel blessed to have had this group coalesce around me, and I encourage each of you (all 7 of my regular readers!) to fan out and find a klatch of your own.

Of course, the flip side of this is that you need to make sure these folks are as talented, if not more talented, than you are. I know, it sucks to judge your friends, but I did start out the post telling you to go looking for your peers. People whose work you don't like, don't get, don't value are not your peers. Also, don't comb the Earth looking for someone who also wants to write what you write, make what you make, find people who have mastered the craft in ways that you haven't, but that are complementary to your skills, find people whose comments, notes and opinions make sense to you, who you "get" and who "get" you.

Then, find a likely coffeehouse and meet there, at least once a month, but if the group is about 9-12 folks you can swing a weekly meeting time that at least 3-5 folks will reliably show up for, and voila! Instant kofee klatch.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Style Matters

A follow up to this question from Chris:

Would you say... you prefer the style of the "L.A. Confidential" excerpt you quoted?
Yes, my preference is muscular, spare prose with a healthy use of visual metaphor -- Andrew Kevin Walker, Joe Carnahan, Lem Dobbs. I want to hear military marches, see storm clouds bearing down on the horizon, and feel my arm hairs stand up.

The most important thing in the screentrade is that the script tell a story. All the rest of it is gravy. So, if you are getting solid feedback on your material (meaning people who make movies are showing interest in making movies with you) than don't worry too much about the purple prose. I've read some of the driest work on earth that is absolutely brilliant in its ability to lay out conflict between people and create real drama that transforms the characters and the viewer. And that's what it's all about at the end of the day.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Journey, Setting, and Tone

The last one of my little commercial ideas mini-series articles is here!

Basically, all great commercial films take us on a journey through a specific "world". To unclarify things -- in Campbell Herospeak this is the "external goal" of the film. A few examples: INDEPENDENCE DAY explores the world of an Earth under siege by genocidal aliens, THE MATRIX explores the world of human subjugation by machines, LORD OF THE RINGS explores the world of Middle Earth in the face of Sauron. My observation (after having read about 10,000 scripts (I kid you not)), is that screenplays that fail to make the next round in evaluation fail because they don't clearly identify exactly what the journey is and what kind of world we are exploring. Why are we here? Why should we care? And exactly what is this film about anyway?

I had a difficult time writing this post because I had to unpack a few things in my brain that are part of the industry's jargon. In Hollywood filmmaking, we talk about "setting" meaning, the world, its tone, and any other conceptual things about the world that will let us know what type of journey we are about to undertake. Truly commercial screenplays clue the reader and audience in early to the types of things that can happen in this world. The "promise" of the screenplay's setting (the rules, regulations, and norms) must be set up in the first minutes (pages) of the film, or the reader/audience starts to wonder why they are on this journey. And the minute that happens, you've already lost. Your script will be skipped through, flipped around (I know readers who skip to page 30, page 60 page 90 and the end, then write up their coverage) and generally mistreated.

A great example of setting is 13 DAYS by DAVID SELF. This screenplay is readily available on the internet and should be read if you are a die-hard drama writer. The film itself suffered from information overload, but was probably one of the most commercial ways to bring a story like this to the screen. The opening is essentially two parallel ribbons -- one details a spy plane capturing those infamous shots of the missile silos, the second follows a man at home with his kids, only this guy's not ordinary, he's got two phones in the kitchen, one black and one red, and breakfast table conversation includes a game of Name-That-Diplomat. From the beginning of the film, we know we are going to be treated to intrigue, and that our eyes and ears are going to be domestic, sympathetic, and very very politically plugged in. It also does a neat job of foreshadowing exactly what is at stake should our heroes fail to resolve the problem -- the end of those beautiful little babies we get to love in the opening.

Another great drama example is LA CONFIDENTIAL. It starts off establishing the tone of the film with a 50's style series of montage images and newspaper headlines, then immediately plunges into a little editorial commentary:

Palm trees in silhouette against a cherry sky. City lights twinkle. Los Angeles. A place where anything is possible. A place where dreams come true. As the sky darkens, triple-kleig lights begin to sweep back and forth.
That line "A place where dreams come true" defines as much as anything else, what type of journey we are going on, and what the stakes are in that journey -- the life and death of our dreams. Now don't get all crazy and prose-write your way through the script. Keep it down to a line or two across a sequence. These should rightfully be saved for establishing things at the top of act breaks and during major turning points in the script, when this writer's conceit won't be as noticeable, because, hopefully, your characters and story will have earned some buy-in by your audience.

Science fiction and adventure scripts have a very rigid 7 or 9 act structure which builds in the description of the setting and the journey. It's called the "teaser" or "inciting incident". In romantic comedies, dramas and other subgenres, this part of the screenplay is typically given over to a character introduction which is meant to do the same thing, but which frequently trips up inexperienced writers.

A character's introduction must establish setting and journey not just the character's idiosyncrasies. If your leading lady is a klutz who always puts her foot in her mouth and she's going to fall for Mr. Suave, please don't show her tripping on her own shoe laces to land at his feet. This doesn't give us much to go on in terms of the world we are going to be in, nor does it establish the rules for the other characters in the script.

Another way that films "cheat" in doing this is through casting established actors. Movie stars bring with them their own "baggage" as far as establishing setting and journey. We know that if we see Jim Carrey, the film will be funny, if we see Reese Witherspoon we'll be treated to a character-work deeply rooted in motivation (as opposed to say, Jessica Biels or Chad Michael Murray whose respective acting appeal is rooted in hotness), if it's Tom Cruise, we'll see a hero working through his own arrogance and foibles to save the day. These actors have done a good job in defining what their audiences are looking for in their work, and finding roles that deliver that, when they stray from the formula, actors (and movies) are generally punished by low audience turnout. This is a whole post in and of itself, so I'll leave that one for now.

To wrap up what's turned into The World's Longest Post, the journey = the setting = $$$$. There are a lot of things to master in filmmaking. This is just a bit of technique. Think of it as the tempo in a bit of music.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Movies, movies, movies

Watching MILLION DOLLAR BABY right now, and I'm thinking to myself -- why can't more big budget action/adventure films have interesting dramas at their heart? It's sad really. When you watch a film like THE TERMINATOR, as cheesy as the music and effects look now, at the center of the story is a love story. It's not as developed as the one in THE NOTEBOOK, but it's far more developed than the one I just saw in V FOR VENDETTA this weekend. It's a hard balance, some filmmakers actually count out the number of scenes devoted to each storyline (the A plot and the B romance subplot), Hitchcock is a great one to study for that, others rely on intuitive or arcane story theories (I heard from a friend that the folks at Bruckheimer have a 17-beat outline, if anyone has it email it to me, 'kay?). Anyway, my 2 cents for the day. Back to the grindstone.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I'm baaaaack!

And I will be posting the final in the commercial ideas mini-series that I'm writing. I had an incredibly productive retreat with a wonderfu group of women writers and I'm ready to kick butt and take names -- bring it on Hollywood!

If there are any questions floating out there feel free to email them to me, or post them to comments.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Just thought I'd post a little to let you all know why I'm MIA. I'm on vacation. Hah! For the next 10 days I will be writing. A few proposals, a treatment or two, a biz plan and my fiction book. I've already banged out a blog entry (five pages that needs to be 8 paragraphs) for a great political blog I'm guest-posting on (hopefully), and now I'm going to start on my other business stuff so I can get to the nitty-gritty fruity creative stuff over the weekend.

I build frequent writing "retreats" into my schedule. As a writer/producer it's tough for me to do both at the same time and I prefer to really focus when possible. Last year I did the whole 4-6 hours writing in the morning and then business all afternoon thing, but found that it didn't leave me enough time to really plan a writing project from start to finish. Subsequently I went off half-cocked on a bunch of crap I'm now having to re-structure. And I give my writers a hard-time for doing exactly that, so shame on me! Part of the reason I started the blog was so that I could learn how to follow my own (brilliant) advice. Lucky you, huh? :-) Anyway, while I dodge mosquitoes and sunburn (And wouldn't you like to know where I am?? ;-) Not telling. ) I'll be thinking of my next post in the mini-series on commercial ideas: A Journey Worth (Under)Taking. All about how to pick a good "world" for your character's emotional journey and some ideas on how to get the research done.

After that I'm going to circle back around to demographics, and I may even have a mini-interview or two on here if I can get my sh*t together and write up the questions. As always, if there are questions or comments you'd like to share have at it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I Need A Hero (Updated)

Penultimate Post on Commercial Films....

Every movie needs a hero. Not just any hero, but someone we can root for, even if we hate him or her. People often mistake "sympathetic" for likable. Sympathy is rightfully defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as:

1a. A relationship or an affinity between people or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other. b. Mutual understanding or affection arising from this relationship or affinity. 2a. The act or power of sharing the feelings of another. b. A feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another; compassion or commiseration. Often used in the plural. See synonyms at pity. 3. Harmonious agreement; accord: He is in sympathy with their beliefs. 4. A feeling of loyalty; allegiance. Often used in the plural: His sympathies lie with his family.
Basically, you are trying to describe a person in whom the audience can believe, follow, and invest. The definition above gives a good little road map for your story's progression.

One of my favorite films, LA FEMME NIKITA, has a deeply flawed heroine. Nikita is a drugged out punk rocker who kills with no compunction at the open of the film. She goes to court where she literally spits in the eye of authority and is sentenced to death. All this by the end of the first 15 minutes, (the "inciting incident" or act 1 of a 5 or 7-act structure, or the end of the first half of Act 1 if you are following a 3-Act structure). From here, the first major twist comes along -- Nikita is made an offer to work for an ultra secretive spy agency or die. Given this choice, she picks the lesser of two evils, at least that's what she thinks at first.

As training progresses, Nikita refuses to join in all the litte reindeer games painting graffitti on the walls of her dorm room, not participating in the make up and hair sessions, ultimately leading Bob (played by Tcheky Karyo) to remind her that her death sentence has already been issued and can be carried out with impunity. Freshly motivated, Nikita decides to go along with the program and it is this choice (which happens around the minute 40 mark, neatly beginning Act 3 of a 5 or 7-act or Act 2 0f a 3-Act) which sends Nikita's sympathy factor skyrocketing. Before this we're invested because the outlandish things that are happening to her have a strong appeal, but each minute that ticks by after Nikita's decision to really try, makes us care for her more and more as we see her insecurity in her womanhood. By the time of her "graduation dinner" with Bob at a fancy restaurant, we are rooting for her because of the emotional obstacles she's overcome, we've been impressed by her native talent and intelligence in learning the assassin's skill set and we share in her quiet pride as she dresses, flawlessy does her makeup and hair and heads out.

Then Bang! All this sympathy which Besson has been careful to build up is immediately put to work. If you haven't seen it, it's worth watching just for the restaurant sequence -- an action turn that satisfies as much for it's gratuitous stunts and unlikeliness as it does for the narrative push that it gives to Nikita's character and the development of her character's central dilemma.

If I can squeeze it out I'll round out the series with one more piece tomorrow then answer a couple of questions that I received through one of my development consultations. A writer hired me to help shape up a piece he's finishing and we had a long discussion about the changes he'd have to make to his story to make it more "commercial".

AND my potential Backer called my friend yesterday to say how excited the company was about my pitch! Still no checks, but the 2nd in command wants to see my biz plan and talk turkey. Can't wait. Now I just have to get my CPA to work on contingency.... :-)


Chris Soth points out in the comments section the prejudicial nature of the word "HERO" in screenwriting. The main point of my using the word "sympathetic", and then going on to define it, was to clarify that the main character, the PROTAGONIST, doesn't have to be likeable, but rather someone the audience can understand and follow. Hope my earlier colloquialism didn't muddy the waters any. I do think it's an important semantic distinction (I have a degree in Comp Lit so I love me some semantics) to make.