London Screenwriters' Festival

Archive for September, 2011

Get The Most Out of Speed Pitching by Jared Kelly

Posted on: September 30th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay 3 Comments

One of the more outstanding elements of the London Screenwriters’ Festival is the Speed Pitching. Whether it’s with agents, producers or both, speed pitching presents the golden opportunity to get your desperate face in front of the creative behemoths and life-changing giants who spend the rest of their year locked behind The Firewall of F*** Off.

There can often be a whisper of negativity and cynicism surrounding these kinds of sessions, especially from those who have participated in similar events and not had any success, but success really boils down to three massively important factors:

1. Have you got something that they want?

2. Can you present it to them in a way that makes them understand what you’re selling?

3. Have you got a snub-nosed .38 pointing at them under the desk when you slide them the “read my script or die” note?

I’ve speed pitched before. I pitched to three producers and it resulted in all requesting to read my work without me having to fire a single shot.

The guidelines are very straightforward: research who you’re pitching to, prepare the very best pitch you possibly can, and present it to the best of your ability without ******* your pants. Although the speed pitching sessions lasts five minutes, you really need to be pitching your project in 30 seconds, definitely in under a minute, allowing enough time to chat about your script and work. If you give a confident and succinct pitch, you are more likely to have a confident discussion about that script in the time remaining. If you don’t think you can pitch your project in under a minute, then you won’t be able to pitch it in five. I pitched two projects in each five-minute session and had a relaxed chat about both of them. Two producers requested to read one, the other wanted to read both. It is doable.

You need to strip your story back to basics to cater for the event and also for small attention spans. I guarantee it’s much better to have a brief pitch that leaves questions than a rambling pitch that creates doubt, plus, no matter how well rehearsed you are, the moment you sit in front of Scary Person Who Can Change Your Life, it’s understandable that you will most definitely, unquestionably, without shadow of a doubt, break down and start weeping uncontrollably, so creating a short pitch gives you less words to get wrong and less time to make a complete arse of yourself.

Introduce yourself, include any credits and awards (but leave out criminal records and diseases), thank them for their time and set the scene for your pitch. I said something like, “I’d like to pitch you a low-budget screwball comedy set in contemporary England.” Once you establish those basics they instantly know how to listen to your pitch. You’ve now got under one minute to briefly explain your story plus any business the script has been involved in (placed in any competitions, significant development, etc).

The session is immediately easier once you’ve got over that pants-soiling first hurdle, because then you’ll be fielding questions about a story and characters you should know inside out. Just don’t ramble. Have another longer and looser pitch prepared that expands your opening salvo into a half-page/one-page synopsis. Learn that in the same way and use it to riff back and forth while discussing your film.

Always have back-up pitches. Were they to apologise and say comedy isn’t really their thing, you can calmly respond with, “I have a creature-feature horror set in the Scottish Highlands at the turn of the century. Would you mind if I pitched that to you?” Hopefully this is less likely to happen because you’ll have researched who you’re pitching to in order to cater your pitch and projects to their preferences. Try saying that drunk.

Don’t take along scripts or USBs to thrust into their hands, but do take along carefully prepared one-page pitches and business cards. Your one-pager should include logline, synopsis, any script business and your details. Ask before you produce either of them. The producers who requested to read my work were not interested in my one-pagers, but other folk I met during the festival were interested in them (okay, so it was for a paper aeroplane competition in the car park, but I’ll take whatever I can).

Plan your pitch like you would when writing dialogue in a script. You need to hone it by reading it out, by performing it, to iron out any word combinations that don’t feel or sound right coming out of your mouth. Once you’ve got your pitch down, print off several copies to take with you and keep reading and rehearsing.

Remember the recipients of your pitch are not in your head (at least not until you follow them home and eat their brains), so make sure you explain your story as simply, clearly and calmly as possible without overselling yourself. Do not tell them your comedy is “hilarious” or your horror is “really scary”, that’s up to them to decide when they read it later that weekend at gunpoint.

It’s important not to confuse speed pitching with speed dating. Also, do not eat whilst pitching. I made the honest mistake of buying a baked potato with tuna, cheese and beans just before I was due to pitch. Not wanting to wait (cold beans? I don’t think so) I brought it to the pitching table. Turns out me going to all the effort of providing an extra fork for the producer is somehow not considered thoughtful. Neither is using that fork to stab the security guard. Basically, if you want to eat a baked potato during the pitching session, simply buy extra ones to give to each of the producers and agents when you sit down.

Good luck with your speed pitching and your writing and try to enjoy the experience!

Jared Kelly

Why YOUR story IS important and you SHOULD tell it…

Posted on: September 28th, 2011 by Chris Jones No Comments

My good friend and film maker Oli Lewington posted an interesting article on his blog yesterday, posing the question ‘does it really matter if people do not see your work?’ The main thrust being (and I paraphrase) ‘in the act of creating art, is an audience important? Does in fact longing for an audience impact on creative integrity negatively?’

I have never seen myself as an artist.

I remember giving a lecture at Oxford University when I made this statement and there were audible gasps from the audience who clearly felt that film making IS a profoundly important artform. I ended up in a long and heated debate with a very serious young woman who was determined to make me see that I was an artist.

My position is simple.

I am a storyteller. By definition that means I need an audience.

And therefore, on a deep and profound level, yes it does matter if my work is seen or not.

This conversation goes to the heart of the art versus commerce debate that rages so fiercely in European cinema.

As a storyteller, the audience is my boss.

If I were an artist, my ego, my id, my subconscious etc. would be my boss.

Of course when you allow the audience to dominate, you end up with empty and shallow stories that ironically audiences will avoid.

And when you allow art to dominate, you end up with pretentious, impenetrable and boring nonsense.

So for me the trick is this. Allow my artistic instincts to inspire me, give me a unique spin on a story or situation, then get up close and personal with the audience. I always try to respect their intelligence, demand their attention and continually attempt to surprise, enthral and captivate them from second to second.

Anyone who has heard me speak about the importance of ‘stories’ to our culture, our psyche, our global health, will know that I passionately believe that what we contribute to the world is of significant importance.

Storytelling is fundamental to being human and helps us understand the world and get through our tougher days.

It’s easy to sweep popular culture and ‘movies that move us’ to one side, to make way for more ‘artistic’ work.

But I say to all storytellers and film makers, whatever genre you work in, be it drama, horror, comedy, sci-fi… don’t be fooled. What you do and offer IS important, IS significant and DOES require an audience.

And remember, that same audience also NEEDS YOU AND YOUR STORY!

If you are a storyteller, it is your duty to tell your stories. It’s an ancient and sacred tradition, so don’t underestimate its power or trivialise the act.

Keep your eye on the ball, tell the story you need to tell with passion, brevity, integrity and push your craft to the edge… and ironically, you know the critics may start to hail you as an artist. Oh and remember to come to the London Screenwriters’ Festival in October! (get 10% discount with code CHRISJONESBLOG)

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author


Don’t Just Stand There, Adapt Something by Paul Bassett Davies

Posted on: September 27th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay No Comments


The other day I got a parking ticket. I was very impressed by its potential, so I’m adapting it into a film. It’s a high concept project and it will appeal to the most profitable contemporary audience demographic: people who will watch anything. I like to think the title says it all:

Parking Ticket – The Movie.

In fact, the title says so much that I may not have to write anything else. Writing tends to gum up the machinery of film adaptation, which is now an efficient industrial process that renders everything into the same product, whatever its origins. Who cares what the film is about? The action sequences will be like epileptic siezures, with special effects that punch you in the retina so hard you wouldn’t notice stuff like story and character anyway. The only purpose is to impress you, regardless of how well the thing works. It’s like someone buying a solid gold bidet and then installing it in the living room.

Now try this simple test about forthcoming film adaptations. Are the following statement true or false? Answers below.

The next film to be based on the work of Dr Seuss is called Tomatoes, Tuna and Toilet Roll and is adapted from a shopping list found in a pair of his trousers.

The charismatic matelot is re-launched as a brooding nautical avenger. As a boy, Popeye (Justin Timberlake) sees his uncle Bluto (Colin Firth) murder his parents with poisoned spinach. He runs away to sea and endures unspeakable abuse aboard a series of tramp steamers, from a series of tramps. A ship’s purser, an undercover Tibetan lama (Denzel Washington), takes Popeye to a remote temple and trains him in secret techniques of enlightened violence. His final challenge is to face his worst fear: spinach. He eats it, and discovers that it unleashes an awesome power, which he vows to use only in slow-motion. He returns to confront Bluto, and to woo the enigmatic Olive Oyl (Natalie Portman).

Several big studios are developing films based on road signs. The most notable is the Tarantino project STOP, about a team of driving test examiners who are secret Ninja assassins.


1. False. The shopping list was found in his raincoat.

2. True. Or it would be, if any of the studios I pitched the idea to would recognize its brilliance.

3. False. The most notable is the Charlie Kaufman script about a screenwriter writing a script about a writer trying to adapt a map of the Beverly Hills traffic flow system into a movie. The action is set inside a suitcase that’s been left on a bus.

There’s a paradox here. Producers want adaptations because they figure there’s a better chance of people liking a film if they liked whatever it was before it was a film. On the other hand, whatever it was before it was a film is going to be irrelevant once the film has changed it beyond all recognition. The only thing you can be sure of is that producers distrust original ideas and don’t want to risk money on some crazy nonsense that a writer made up out of their own head. Why should they, when anyone can still walk into a kid’s bedroom and find a toy, comic book or game that hasn’t yet been used as the basis for a film? By the way, if you’re going to snoop around a kid’s bedroom it’s best if it’s your own kid’s room.

Of course, there are good and bad adaptations, and the best ones are reinventions not rewrites. You can make a fresh work of art when you turn a book into a play, or a play into a film, or a collection of songs into a musical, unless the songs are by Queen and the musical is We Will Rock You, obviously. Tim Burton’s first Batman movies created a new world, stimulated by the comic books that had already reimagined the character. Great adaptation is a process of transformation, and many of them take liberties with their source material. In ‘Chimes at Midnight’ Orson Welles turned three separate Shakespeare plays into a fresh story about Falstaff, and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was a blast even if it offended some purists. They’re the same people who object that Shakespeare didn’t write a version of ‘The Tempest’ which ends with a crew of gay sailors dancing around an octagenarian blues singer performing ‘Stormy Weather’, so why did Derek Jarman film it that way? Maybe because it’s better than simply putting a camera in front of a stage play and expecting it to work as a film. But adaptation can be tricky for writers. You need to be able to make the material your own, and at the same time you need to respect its origins. You’re screwing around with another writer’s work. It’s even worse if you’re adapting your own material because the original author is always there, giving you a hard time.

Novelists, playwrights and TV writers are now aware that their work might be adapted into a film. Even screenwriters know their film might be adapted into another film, especially if they’ve committed the eccentric solecism of not being American. If you’re French, Swedish or even English, it must be annoying to know that the more successful the film you write, the greater the chance that Hollywood will turn it into a bucket of steaming donkey vomit. I’m prevented from discussing the exceptions to this rule by the red mist that descends every time I think about The Ladykillers or Dinner for Schmucks (originally Le Diner du Cons), which were great films that were then degraded into vile insults to the human spirit. You might say I’m talking about remakes now, not adaptations, and I might agree that you’re technically right, but morally wrong to deny me the satisfaction of a good rant on the grounds of a minor category error, and then in a few days I might cut the brake pipes on your car.

But if we’re aware that what we write could end up being adapted, and it affects the way we write, is that always such a bad thing? Literary critics often accuse authors of writing novels with an eye on the movie adaptation. “It reads more like a screenplay than a book,” they sniff. But some authors have always written cinematically, and some of them were doing it long before the invention of cinema. And many great authors wrote adaptations. Dickens collaborated on stage plays based on his stories, and Shakespeare ‘adapted’ (i.e., stole) ideas from historical and literary sources. These writers were happy to recycle material, both their own and other people’s. They were working stiffs who needed to make a crust. “That’s right,” people say, “if Dickens was around today, he’d be making money by writing for TV cop shows!” Maybe. But it’s more likely that if Dickens was around today he’d be making money by selling whatever it is that’s kept him alive for two hundred years.

If film adaptations, good or bad, currently dominate the market, can you still pitch an original idea of your own? Yes, with the reservations I’ve already outlined in my article How to Have Someone Else’s Idea. But here’s another strategy: pitch an original idea but make it sound like an adaptation. Reassure producers it’s based on something that’s already been succesful. They’re not actually interested in the source material, they just want to know that this thing didn’t come out of nowhere. In this respect Hollywood is Darwinian and not Creationist. What they really want to hear is that your idea was originally a popular cave painting, and has since appeared as a book, an edition of sepia photogravures, a long running radio show, several films, a TV series, a comic book, a children’s cartoon, and a beer commercial. Tell them you’re not doing anything new, and then do something new. Sure, it will need to conform loosely to what they expect a film to be like right now. But everything changes, and meanwhile you have to do what it takes to work as a writer. We all have to see which way the wind is blowing, and make the best of it. We have to adapt.

NB: This article is currently being adapted into a ringtone.

Paul Bassett Davies runs a blog, The Writer Type – find him on Twitter here.

Networking The Shirt Off Your Back by Janice Day

Posted on: September 25th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

Writing’s hard. I discovered this when I was five years old and was told off for plagiarising the work of the little girl at the next desk. The teacher had asked us to write our name. I figured that if I copied the strange marks on my neighbour’s page I would be able to write my name too. The little girl was flattered and we became friends. Result!

And the writing? The teacher said one of us must have copied the other and her money was on the one who wasn’t called Susan.

Hey ho, at least I’d made a friend. Many years later I’m still much better at networking than I am at writing, and looking forward to my Networking Workshop at this year’s Festival.

I teach Interface Networking. That means I can help you to make that all important personal connection with the industry player who’s going to make you money.

Of course I can only teach it because I learned it at the coal-face. Unconscious networking is a doddle. We’ve all been doing that since we first shouted “Get off me you bastard” to the nurse who smacked our arses on arrival.

But conscious networking has most of us stumped. And I was no exception…

I stared up at the speaker, a celebrated screenwriting agent. She’s the one, I thought: confident, sassy, passionate and tough. She knows her onions. I want her.

 I followed her to the bar and joined the queue of writers nonchalantly pretending that they weren’t queuing to speak to her.

 As I moved up the queue I practiced my perfect pitch. This was it! I knew I must reveal myself as her next must-have new client. I just had to.

 Suddenly I was on. My mouth dried up, a ball of tumbleweed rolled across my vision and the eerie sound of nothingness whistled in my ears. While she looked at me expectantly, my knuckles grazed the floor and a little sliver of drool escaped from the corner of my mouth. My eyes rolled back up into my head. The seconds ticked away. 

 “What a lovely shirt,” she said, to break the ice.

“Would you like it?” I said. “You can have it. Honestly.”


 But, hey, there’s always another chance. The next time I bumped into her…

 “We met last year. You said you liked my shirt. I’ve got it with me. Shall I get it?”


 But, hey, there really is always another chance. The next time I bumped into her…

 It occurred to me that she might be tired and thirsty after her speech. She was only human after all.

 I approached her as she came off the stage and offered to buy her a drink. I said I’d get the drinks in and find a table in the bar. She accepted gratefully and joined me after she’d seen off the wannabes offering her the shirts off their backs. We began a relationship and not long after that I joined her agency.

 The difference?

Acts I and II were about me. Act III was about her… 


Janice Day is a Writer Performer and Writers’ Agent who teaches Interface Networking. Author of the comedy cancer memoir GETTING IT OFF MY CHEST, she is currently working on its stage adaptation with top West End Director Matthew Gould. The film adaptation is in development with Island Pictures. She’s also developing a documentary about Adult ADHD with Maverick Television.

Everybody Knows Everything by Daniel Eckhart

Posted on: September 24th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

The post’s title is the upside down version of William Goldman’s famous quote about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything”. As a screenwriting newbie, take it to heart. Believe in yourself and realize that you have all it takes. You, my friend, have as much of a chance of making it in this crazy business as everybody else out there.

I’ll let you in on a little secret – writing a screenplay is easy. As you start out on your screenwriter journey you’ll want to learn, of course. You’ll read the many how-to books, you’ll attend the workshops and seminars, you’ll follow websites, forums, blogs – and of course you’ll be attending the London Screenwriters’ Festival. All of the above is useful as this business is incredibly multi-faceted. But all of the above is also dangerous. It can keep you from writing, it can stop you in your tracks. It can serve as indefinite excuse, as there’s always something more for you to learn before you actually begin with your brilliant story. In addition, all of that knowledge offered out there can seriously drag you down to the point where you think you’ll never be able to get it right.

I’m neither wizard nor guru – I’m just an average screenwriter schmo. I’ve been at it for twenty years now and I have the good fortune of getting hired for doing what I love doing. About a year ago I started a screenwriting blog and guess what – most of the post are not about the actual craft – but instead about everything else – about passion, discipline, stamina, meetings, collaborating – about all the stuff I’ve picked up along the way. Basically, it’s about living life, attitude, guts – it’s about believing in yourself when everybody tells you to give up and go home.

Which brings me back to the beginning – writing is easy. Learn from others, but don’t depend on them. Trust your instincts and stay true to yourself. YOU – CAN – WRITE. And write you must – if you don’t, you’re not a writer, simple as that. And no, you’re not going to be Aaron Sorkin right away – but once you start writing, you’re on your way.

That’s it, there’s no great magic – it’s just words, it’s just life – now go write!

Daniel Martin Eckhart

Success stories from the festival

Posted on: September 20th, 2011 by Chris Jones 1 Comment

Henry placed 2nd out of 115 entries

It’s said you have to “speculate to accumulate” – and this certainly seems true in building your career as a screenwriter and/or filmmaker. It seems there are companies, initiatives and organisations everywhere just begging for your hard-earned cash, promising you training and opportunities in return. But are they worth it?

We can’t speak for the others, but we think London Screenwriters Festival is! We subscribe to the notion that we’re “all in this together” – and we designed the festival, its ethos and everything within it (including the schedule) on the basis of what WE’D like to have access to, as well! We got tired of expensive courses and schemes that offered time-limited opportunities to their delegates; we wanted to create a whole NETWORK for ours, not just in our private group but across social media and blogs, where people could meet and foster creative partnerships for years to come. The motto of London Screenwriters Festival is “inspire, educate, connect” on this basis.

But don’t take OUR word for it. There have been many success stories from last year’s festival already. We asked Henry Fosdike, the second place winner of our Short Script Challenge 2010 his thoughts on LSF and what he’s been up to since the festival…

“… Prior to the LSF, I hadn’t entered many competitions.” Henry says, “I was just starting my final year at Bournemouth University studying Scriptwriting for Film and Television and had decided that entering contests could be beneficial to my writing as it’s all feedback at the end of the day.”

Henry entered his dark short THE DECISION into our contest: “The original concept was for the job interview scenario to involve killing someone, a bit like those tough and violent movies that Asia have become so well known for (Battle Royale, Oldboy, etc.) The final ending only came as I was already writing it when I had a, “Oh hang on!” moment where everything suddenly came together.”

LSF’s readers noted Henry’s lean style of scene description and economical dialogue, scoring it highly on nearly all counts, meaning his script was number 2 out of a whopping 115 entries. “Naturally there was a tad of annoyance when I realised I was only one script away from winning,” Henry admits, “but that soon passed!” Henry won a ticket to the festival and was personally congratulated on stage by TV screenwriting legend Tony Jordan.

But that wasn’t it for THE DECISION, for new film production team White Tiger Films picked it up shortly after the festival, gaining Henry his first production credit. Director Trev Walsh and Henry got together after both posting on LSF Festival Organiser Lucy V’s “Film Shorts Club”, a registry of people interested in collaborating on short film. “The fact it was runner up in LSF’s contest peaked my interest,” says Trev. Like the readers at LSF however, Trev is complimentary of Henry’s writing – and his understand of logistics: “It was the writing itself and the fact that logistically it could be short with a tiny budget and in a great location I already had access to.”

There were lots to learn on the journey from the page to the screen for both Henry and Trev. “I learned a hell of a lot through the production process, a real baptism by fire.” Trev explains, “There were inevitable mistakes made during filming, but overall I am pleased with how it came together in the edit.” Henry agrees. “There wasn’t much editing of it that needed to be done, but there were a couple of slight changes for logistical purposes, including changing the gun from a pistol to a shotgun. It’s all the better for it.”

So what’s next for Henry and Trev? “Having just graduated, I am currently spending my days writing all sorts – a novel, a number of screenplays and a play. When I’m happy with the back catalogue, I shall go about trying to find an agent and hopefully go from there!” Says Henry. It’s more of the same for Trev, too: “I am currently in production on an ambitious short film with huge production values, Big Pink, which is aimed at Cannes 2012.” Big Pink was even written by LSF’s Short Script Challenge winner, Laurence Timms!

So was it all worth it? Henry thinks so – and recommends the festival itself, too. “I got some great tips from a wide variety of speakers – Linda Aronson being my personal favourite – and a chance to meet new people who are all just as passionate about writing as I am! Some of these people have become firm friends so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone pondering whether or not to attend.”

Three Tricks of the Trade for Getting Ideas by Linda Aronson

Posted on: September 18th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay 1 Comment

There were 115 entries for last year's Short Script Challenge.

I’m not on the panel of judges for the LSF one-page script competition, so I have no idea what they’ll be after, but I’ve been writing scripts since the late Iron Age and have judged many script competitions, so here are a few tricks of the trade that just might help.

I can’t think of short film competitions without remembering a colleague some years ago telling me that she’d just judged a short film competition with over 400 entries and to her amazement a staggeringly high percentage had the same story. This was, a person emerges from home/work/shopping centre/pub to see someone trying to steal their car. Said person wrestles the thief to the ground only to discover (boom, tish) it wasn’t their car. I heard a similar story from the writer Carl Sautter, who when he was head writer on a US TV detective series was amazed to find writer after writer turning up to pitch the identical idea for an episode.

Were all of these people terrible writers? No. They were stressed writers, more precisely, they were writers who’d jumped at the first idea that came to them. Let’s look at this business of getting ideas because it’s something you’ll be dealing with for your whole writing career. The first idea that comes to you is usually a cliché because it’s coming from logic and memory banks rather than imagination. Since we all share essentially the same memory banks, the first idea that comes to you is likely to be the first idea that comes to other writers. Hey presto, you, a good writer, have produced a cliché.

The thing here is to realise that all writers think of clichés (because clichés are only overused good answers), but good writers expect to hit clichés, hence look out for them, then either dump them or put a new spin on them
So, how are you going to get a brilliant idea for this competition? The first thing you’re going to do is NOT dash off the script. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that speed necesarily means brilliance. Plan. Find five minutes here and there at work to brainstorm. It’s amazing what you can do in five minute slots.

Trick number 1

Start by listing for yourself the restrictions and aims of the job. Every writing job comes with restrictions, but it’s surprising how many writers won’t think about restrictions. I suspect it’s because they’re terrified that thinking of the negatives will put them off. Ironically, avoiding the negative actually places you permanently on the edge of being disheartened, permanently watching your back. Listing restrictions empowers you. You know the nature of the task so you can get on with it – and, to be cold-blooded, you have already given yourself a distinct advantage over the people who are ignoring the restrictions rather than, as you will be doing using them as a springboard to originality. So, list the restrictions and any solutions or workarounds that you can think of (and don’t worry if you can’t think of any yet), then start to think of ideas using trick number 2.

Trick number 2

Don’t try to think of just one idea. You need to think of at least twenty then choose the best. Don’t panic. There’s is a knack to this. Start by telling yourself that your idea must be ‘real but unusual’ and (for this competition’s purposes) add the instruction ‘ and runs for only a page’ . Next, write down every ‘real but unusual and runs for only a page’ idea you can think of – good or bad. It’s most important not to limit yourself here. Give yourself permission to have bad ideas among the good (or you’ll paralyse yourself) and think ‘quantity not quality’. The reason for working this way is that to get vividly original ideas you need to access your lateral imagination, which necessitates you suppressing your logical intellectual hypercritical self – which will fight to take over and make you choose a cliché, particularly in any situation where you’re under stress (which for writers of course is most of the time). So, shut down your hypercritical self and let your imagination go wild with your topic ‘real but unusual and runs only for a page’. When you’ve got your long list of ideas then you can be hypercritical, and yes, you’ll have some junk in that list, but you’ll be surprised how little.Use this ‘real but unusual’ trick every time you need to make a plotting decision of any kind in creating this (and any other) script – and double check for clichés because stress will permit them to sneak in.

Trick Number 3

Now you’ve got the hang of getting story ideas by accessing your lateral imagination and thinking ‘real but unusual’, turn your attention back to the list of restrictions. Use the same method for getting as many original clever solutions to the restrictions as you can, not worrying at first about quality. Try to see advantages in the restrictions. Try to get excited by the challenge, fired up. Think ‘what can these restrictions give me?’ ‘What will nobody else have thought of?’. It’s hard, of course, but focus, and keep brainstorming.
When you’ve done all of that, choose the best idea and the cleverest answers to the restrictions. You may find you can combine ideas.
Good luck! And see you at the LSF!

By Linda Aronson, 21st Century Screenwriter

Writing Genre

Posted on: September 15th, 2011 by Chris Jones No Comments

A writer is free, of course, to write any story they want. Hopefully fortune smiles upon them and they sell a script to Hollywood or elsewhere. However, if they have any realistic chance of developing a career as a professional screenwriter, they need to understand the mindset of people involved in the acquisition and development part of the filmmaking process – agents, managers, producers, studio executives. Comprehending how these industry insiders look at movies can help a writer make more informed choices about the stories they choose to write.

Genre is an all-important tool in understanding and writing the types of stories studios and producers want to buy. But what do we mean by ‘genre’? Genre is “a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.” In relation to movies, that means the categorisation of a story in terms of its premise, setting, and mood.

So what are the main movie genres? There is no official list, but here are eight of them we can say with confidence that pretty much cover the spectrum of stories studios and producers routinely buy, develop, and produce:

Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction and Thriller

What do we mean by ‘cross genre’? These are movies in which the story has narrative elements representative of more than one genre (e.g., Action-Thriller, Comedy-Drama).

What do we mean by ‘sub-genre’? These are specific story types within a genre (e.g., Romantic Comedy, Action Adventure).

Why are genres important to movie studios and producers? A studio has what they call a development slate.  In that slate of potential movies, they seek a balance of genres. Independent producers may do the same, or in contrast, may specialise in one particular genre. This is why it is always worth doing one’s research into what independent producers actually produce, not least watching their actual movies!

While some studios may focus more on one genre over another, if you looked at a studio’s slate, you’d more than likely see projects representing most if not all these aforementioned eight main genres. One way of discerning a studio’s development inclinations is to look at the movies they release in a given year. For example, here is the slate of movies Warner Bros. released in 2010 listed chronologically and with their genres, cross genres, and sub-genres.

While there is a focus on Action and Comedy, you will note a wide mix of genres, cross genres, and sub-genres. Why do studios seek this mix? Three primary reasons:

  • Seasonal programming: There are two big ‘seasons’ for movies in the United States and Canada: Summer (May-August) and Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays (November-December). Since these are periods where some age groups have more free time (i.e., no school), typically studios schedule movies for release that target children (like Cats & Dogs and Yogi Bear) or teens (like Splice or Jonah Hex), or so-called “four quadrant movies” that appeal to adults, children, males and females like Harry Potter. During the other months (January-April, September-October), the studios tend to develop movies with a narrower targeted audience like Edge of Darkness and The Town (adults) or Going the Distance or Life as We Know It (females). In addition there are special holidays when the studios develop movies like Valentine’s Day.
  • Counter-programming: If all six major movie studios (20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Warner Bros) schedule the release of big blockbuster action-adventure movies on Memorial Day weekend, they know that makes no sense because there simply isn’t a big enough audience to support six movies in the same genre at the same time. So the studios develop movies they can slot against other genre pictures. For example on the weekend of July 9, 2010, when 20th Century Fox went wide in opening Predators, an Action-Science Fiction movie, Universal Pictures counter-programmed with Despicable Me, targeting the family audience, and The Kids Are All Right, released through its specialty division Focus Films, which went after the adult crowd.
  • Minimise risk: Just as mutual funds reduce risk by investing in a variety of different types of companies, so it is with development slates. If, for example, action movies suddenly tank at the box office, would a studio be better suited to survive with a slate filled with action movies or one that has some action projects, along with comedy, dramas, thrillers, etc? Having a number of movie projects representing different genres allows a studio greater flexibility in terms of what it chooses to produce and when it decides to release those films.

Note: The movies you see released in theaters today represent the studio’s acquisition and development philosophy anywhere from 2-5 years previous as that’s generally how long it takes to go from purchase of script to the movie premiere.

What does all this mean to me as a screenwriter? Practically speaking it means  whenever you come up with a story idea, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is, “what genre is it?” This is important from a creative standpoint to help steer how you develop the characters and plot. But it’s equally valuable in terms of maximising the viability of your script with buyers. For example, if you come up with an idea you think feels like a Mystery, perhaps you can make it a more marketable script if you shift its genre to Action or Thriller.

The underlying principle here from a writing perspective is that the same idea can be a different movie if you switch genres. For example, let’s look at the logline of the Warner Bros. hit comedy Due Date:

High-strung father-to-be Peter Highman is forced to hitch a ride cross-country with aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay in order to make it to his child’s birth on time.

Let’s go down the list of the other main genres to see what variations we come up with:

Action: Peter is forced to hitch a ride with Ethan on a road trip in order to make it to his child’s birth on time, only to discover Ethan is wanted by the FBI, sparking a frenzied cross-country manhunt.

Drama: Filled with self-doubts about his ability to be a father, Peter discovers heretofore unknown parental instincts by tending to Ethan’s emotional needs and psychological wounds on their cross-country trip to get Peter home in time for the birth of his child.

Family: Peter is forced to hitch a ride with Ethan, a single father traveling with his infant septuplets creating hijinks and mayhem on a cross-country trek to get Peter home in time for the birth of his child.

Fantasy: Desperate to get back in time for the birth of his child, Peter’s cry for help is answered when Ethan shows up, claiming to be the Stork King, patron saint of fathers-to-be, driving Peter on a magical cross-country trip home.

Horror: Driving cross-country to get home in time for the birth of his child, Peter stops at a backwater town to get his car repaired, only to discover the mechanic Ethan is a psychopath with deep-seated father issues.

Science Fiction: Peter desperately tries to get home for the birth of his child, but he begins to believe he has been abducted by aliens who have implanted the story of his potential fatherhood in his brain – for some ulterior motive.

Thriller: Peter is forced to drive a rental car across country to get home in time for the birth of his child, but runs afoul of a hostile motorcycle driver Ethan who pursues Peter in a deadly game of chase.

Okay, not the greatest ideas in the world and doubtless you could come up with some better ones. But these variations make the point: an idea becomes a different story if you switch its genre.

Three more reasons to think genre when you think story ideas:

  • Indie films: Let’s say your interests lie not so much in writing mainstream Hollywood movies, but rather independent cinema. Even here genre is an important consideration, in fact perhaps even more so. The name of the game in the indie film world boils down to two things: funding and distribution. You are more likely to be able nail both of those if your script has a strong story concept and a popular genre. For example, successful indie films like The King’s Speech (Drama), Black Swan (Drama-Thriller), and 127 Hours (Drama Adventure) fall into major genre, cross genre, and sub-genre categories.
  • Writing assignments: Let’s assume you sell your spec script, line up a few other projects, and you’re settling in as a Hollywood screenwriter. Something like this will happen. The phone rings. It’s your agent. “Hey, Sony is looking to develop an action-comedy for Will Smith and Ben Stiller. Can you work up something?”  So you’ve got two actors and a cross genre. If you’re used to brainstorming story concepts and working within genres, you’re more likely to put yourself in the position to go up for open writing assignments.
  • Find your voice: Perhaps you already know (A) you like this genre and (B) you’re good at writing this genre. Great. That makes things much simpler. What if you do not know what type of genre for which you have that right mix – interest and talent? The best way to find out is to write scripts in various genres to test your chops. But you can also get a good idea by working up story concepts within certain genres. The goal is to find your voice. In what type of stories and genres does your distinctive writing style and approach emerge? Determining that will make it much more likely you will write strong, evocative, and entertaining scripts.

Concluding, it is vital for a screenwriter to think “genre” when you think “story”. It can help you creatively in multiple ways, plus it mirrors a key approach the studios and independent producers use in the process of script acquisition and development.

About the author: Scott has written nearly 30 projects for every major Hollywood studio and broadcast network. His film writing credits include K-9 starring Jim Belushi, Alaska starring Vincent Kartheisher, and Trojan War starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. He is co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class, a unique online resource for writers, and host of the blog which has been named Best Blog for Aspiring Screenwriters.

Scott Meyers




Back from the dead…

Posted on: September 15th, 2011 by Chris Jones No Comments

Yes it’s back, our London Screenwriters’ Festival is back from the dead…

Check back in for regular updates.

Onwards and upwards

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author