CHAPTER ONE: WHAT IS IT?
We’ve all had this experience …
It’s Saturday night.
You and your friends have decided to see a movie.
One of you is picked to read the choices from the newspaper while the others listen and decide. And if you are an aspiring spec screenwriter, you’re about to learn a very important lesson.
If you’ve ever had the honor, if you’ve ever been the one elected to read the film choices for a group of gathered friends, congratulations, you have now had the experience of “pitching” a movie —just like the pros. And just like the pros, you have been faced with the same problem. Yes, the film stars George Clooney; sure, it’s got amazing special effects; of course, Ebert and Roeper give it two thumbs up.
But what’s it about ?
If you can’t answer that question, you know it pretty quickly. If what the movie is about isn’t clear from the poster and the title, what are you going to say to describe it? Usually what you’re left with, standing there, newspaper in hand, is telling your friends everything about the movie that it’s not. What you heard. What People Magazine said. Some cockeyed re-telling of the plot that the star revealed on Letterman. And odds are that at the end of that rather feeble explanation, your friends will say what filmmakers everywhere fear most: “What else is playing?”
All because you couldn’t answer a simple question: “What is it?”
“What is it?” is the name of the game. “What is it?” is the movie. A good “What is it?” is the coin of the realm.
Let’s CUT TO: Monday morning in Hollywood.
The results are in from the weekend. The burning wreckage of the big box-office disaster is smoking on the front page of Variety. The makers of the surprise hit that stunned everybody are still working the phones saying: “I knew it! I told you so!” And for everyone else the process is starting all over again:
> A producer and writer are in some movie executive’s office about to pitch their “big idea”.
> An agent is on the phone describing the script her client wrote that she read over the weekend and loves!
> An executive is meeting with the studio’s marketing team trying to figure out what the poster should look like for their upcoming summer release.
Everyone, all across town, in a position to buy or in the effort to sell, is trying to wrap their brains around the same question your friends were asking on Saturday night: “What is it?”
And if they can’t, they’re toast.
If you think this sounds cold, if you can’t believe that Hollywood doesn’t care about “story” or the artistic vision of the filmmakers, trust me, it’s only going to get worse. It’s because just like you with your newspaper trying to pitch your friends their movie choices, the competition for our attention spans has gotten fierce.
There are movies, TV, radio, the Internet, and music. There are 300 channels of cable; there are magazines; and there are sports. In truth, on any given weekend, even an avid moviegoer only has about 30 seconds to decide what to see. And what about those moviegoers who aren’t so avid? How are you going to cut through all the traffic that’s competing for their attention and communicate with them?
There are just too many choices.
So the studios try to make it easy to choose. That’s why they produce so many sequels and remakes. They call them “pre-sold franchises” — and get ready to see a lot more of them.
A pre-sold franchise is something that a goodly chunk of the audience is already “sold” on. It cuts way down on the “What is it?” factor because most people already kind of know. Some recent examples include Starsky and Hutch, The Hulk, and Resident Evil, based on a TV show, a comic book, and a video game respectively — and each with a built-in fan base. There’s also a plague of sequels: Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, Mission: Impossible 3. Ocean’s Twelve. It’s not that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt; the decisionmakers just don’t think that you out there with your newspapers every Saturday really, deep down, want to try anything new. Why gamble your 10 bucks on something you’re not sure of versus something you already know?
And maybe they’re right. If you can’t answer “What is it?” why take a chance?
The problem for us, the spec screenwriters of the world, is that we don’t own any of these pre-sold franchises nor are we likely to. We’re the guys and gals with a laptop computer and a dream. How are we going to come up with something as good as Lawrence of Arabia that will sell like Spy Kids 3-D? Well, there is a way. But to try it, I want you to do something daring. I want you to forget all about your screenplay for now, the cool scenes that are bursting forth in your imagination, the soundtrack, and the stars you KNOW would be interested in being in it. Forget all that.
And concentrate on writing one sentence. One line.
Because if you can learn how to tell me “What is it?” better, faster, and with more creativity, you’ll keep me interested. And incidentally, by doing so before you start writing your script, you’ll make the story better, too.