So are your synapses starting to misfire? Are the growing pains too much? Well, whether this is old news or new news, the “What is it?” is the only place to begin this task of ours. The job of the screenwriter, especially one writing on spec, must include consideration for everyone all along the way, from agent to producer to the studio exec who decides what gets made. And that job starts with that question: “What is it?”
Along with a good “What is it?” a movie must have a clear sense of what it’s about and who it’s for. Its tone, potential, the dilemma of its characters, and the type of characters they are, should be easy to understand and compelling.
In order to better create a good “What is it?” the spec screenwriter must be able to tell a good one-line or logline – a one- or two-sentence grabber that tells us everything. It must satisfy four basic elements to be effective:
- Irony. It must be in some way ironic and emotionally involving – a dramatic situation that is like an itch you have to scratch.
- A compelling mental picture. It must bloom in your mind when you hear it. A whole movie must be implied, often including a time frame.
- Audience and cost. It must demarcate the tone, the target audience, and the sense of cost, so buyers will know if it can make a profit.
- A killer title. The one-two punch of a good logline must include a great title, one that “says what it is” and does so in a clever way.
This is all part of what is called “high concept”, a term that came about to describe movies that are easy to see. In fact, high concept is more important than ever before, especially since movies must be sold internationally, too. Domestic box office used to account for 60% of a movie’s overall profit, but that figure is down to 40%. That means movies must travel and be understood everywhere – over half of your market is now outside the U.S. So while high concept is a term that’s not fashionable, it’s a type of movie all Hollywood is actively looking for. You just have to figure out a quicker, slicker way to provide high concept ideas.
Finally, this is all about intriguing the audience, so a good way to road test an idea is to get out from behind your computer and pitch it. Pitch your movie to anyone who will listen and adjust accordingly. You never know what valuable information you can learn from a stranger with a blank expression.