London Screenwriters' Festival

Archive for the ‘Genre’ Category

Writing Fantastical TV by Neal Romanek

Posted on: October 29th, 2011 by nromanek 1 Comment

Planet Maui from The Cyclopedia Of Worlds

 

Saturday afternoon’s panel Writing Fantastical TV featured a collection of brilliant genre writers who all have enviable genre careers. The panel was moderated by Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C. Clark award. The writers were Adrian Hodges, creator of Primeval, Dr. Who novelist and writer of Stormhouse Jason Arnopp, sci-fi novelist Philip Palmer, and the only man nominated for a Hugo award in three categories Paul Cornell.

The opening question was, What exactly is this “fantastical tv” we’re talking about? Science fiction, fantasy and horror are the standard macro-genres, but the topic really covers any story depicting events which could never happen in real life. This is separate from surrealist stories in that the fantastic does assume that there is a real world that adheres to real laws. It introduces an unreal element into this world to see what might happen.

Most of the discussion was around the current state of the fantastic in British tv. Is it in good health. Everyone agreed that Dr. Who and Merlin, phenomenally successful, have helped advance fantastic genre series. But it does seem we are at a “tipping point”. Dr. Who did prove that genre works and works well, but producers are still scared. Sci-fi and fantasy especially are usually expensive and that’s still a bar to their being made. One thing that has changed, and works in the favour of genre shows is that the newer breed of executives have all grown up on sci-fi and horror – and, unlike execs of past generations, understand it. There isn’t the hurdle of past decades where a sci-fi pitch might be met with scorn or bafflement. Still, when one just one genre show is a flop, producers fear that none of them will work anymore. It’s almost more reassuring, the panelists agreed, that Merlin is doing well rather than Dr. Who. Dr. Who has a built in audience, but Merlin has had to fly on its own merits. In an age of tighter budgets and brutal cuts, caution prevails. Paul related hearing that BBC1 will no longer look at sci-fi shows from indy production companies. If any shows were going to make it to air, they would be developed in-house.

Despite the great success of many sci-fi and fantasy franchises, they are still mostly cult hits and do not often venture outside their niche audience. A sci-fi series, no matter how successful, is never, ever, ever going to have the same viewership as Coronation Street. Broadcasters understand this very well. Writers need to understand it too.

Writers can do themselves a big favor by thinking first of the broadcasters and their needs. For example, think really hard before you put something on another planet. Budgetary considerations make this an almost impossible ask. Even Dr. Who has shunned extraplanetary adventure, simply because it takes so much effort and money to do it convincingly. In fact, don’t use the words “science fiction” when you are pitching or selling a story to execs. Immediately their tendency is to assume it’s something alienating, that will be difficult for them to get. At best they’ll think “Oh, spaceships.” There still is prejudice – fear probably – against fantastic genre storytelling, despite its success and rabidly loyal fan base. The average costume drama is comparable to a big sci-fi piece in budget, but is somehow seen as more value for money. Paul Cornell noted however that often costume dramas are based on established brands or proven concepts, and this is something sci-fi writers should note and perhaps emulate. The success of Merlin and Dr. Who would seem to support this.

It is a male dominated genre – in part because television writing itself is already male dominated. There has been only one female writer on the renewed Dr. Who, Bev Doyle, who is also a writer on Hodges’ Primeval. One attendee pointed out the horrible irony in this by reminding us that Mary Shelley was one of the inventors of the genre as we know it today.

For those clinging too tightly to their own otherworldy visions, ignoring the realities of the business and the requirements of producers, Paul Cornell offered food for thought applicable not just to genre writing, but to any facet of our industry: “You’re signing up for a team game. Everyone gets to have a go at the ball. If you think that’s your ball, you need to find another industry to work in.”
Neal Romanek

www.nealromanek.com
@rabbitandcrow

The Guru In The Attic: Memento – A Weak Story, Redeemed By Structure? By Linda Aronson

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

Brought to you by Charlotte Bronte and Linda Aronson

Read The Guru In The Attic, Pt 1 HERE.

The story so far…

At Thornfield Hall

In the swamps near Thornfield Hall, Jane Eyre is catatonic with repressed lust for Mr Rochester, who hasn’t noticed because his reality TV show, So You think You can do an Appendectomy, has a chance of finance from a wealthy international organ donor bank that’s hoping for a spin-off called Strictly Come Kidney Harvesting.

Meanwhile, the guru in the attic, non-linear and parallel narrative script expert Bertha Antoinetta Rochester, has been approached by Steroid Productions to write a bio-pic about the Borgias called The Pope with the Dragon Tattoo, to be shot in Far North Queensland starring Hugh Grant as Pope Alexander VI and Vin Diesel as Michelangelo.

Bertha receives a letter.

Dear Guru in the Attic,

I have recently been approached by a group of businessmen who run a dispute resolution company. They want me to write a crime movie. However, while half of the group want me to construct it like Memento the other half have heard that Memento has a weak storyline made interesting only by its structure, so want it linear and say all non-linear is rubbish. What should I do?

Screenwriter (name withheld)

PS. At meetings these men all wear glasses, insist on sitting with their backs to the wall, and last week paid me for a treatment in bank notes stained with red dye. One laughingly said that if I didn’t write the film like Memento, I would get my kneecaps tickled with a persuader. Since I am not ticklish this does not worry me. However, should I register the treatment with the Writers’ Guild?

Dear Screenwriter,

Quite possibly this is not the time to point out that if Memento is indeed a very weak story made brilliant only by its non-linear structure this is a reason for anyone in the film industry to run into the streets weeping with joy, since, if true, it means any old nonsense can be turned into a cult success by its structure.

Personally, I don’t think Memento’s story content is weak, however if it IS weak, isn’t that even more of a triumph for the non-linear rendering?

Non-linearity is definitely a fix for many kinds of problem scripts. Properly done, it’s not only a way to tell stories that arrive in your head obviously needing flashback, or, like The Hours or Amores Perros clearly cannot transmit their message in the standard one-hero linear way. It’s also a miraculous fix for a wide range of top-heavy, predictable or anticlimactic storylines.

However, this does not solve your problems with your producers. I would suggest plastic surgery and an air ticket to South America. By all means register your treatment with the Guild

Kindest regards,

GITA

Meanwhile, Hugh Grant, Vin Diesel and the producers of The Millennium Trilogy Project are suing Steroid Productions because none of them has heard of The Pope with the Dragon Tattoo, and in North Queensland, tropical cyclone Brian has washed four crocodiles into the Borgia Palace and the fibreglass replica statute of David was last seen heading out to sea.

Bertha is unfortunately unable to attend the LSF . However, if you’re interested in hearing more about how to construct non-linear scripts (flashbacks, ensemble films, time jumps, structures like ‘Pulp Fiction’ ‘21 Grams’, ‘ Babel’ etc) , Linda Aronson will be talking on the topic in a two hour lecture on 30 October. Visit Linda Aronson’s website HERE.

Announcement: LSF Advanced Mentor Programme Candidates

Posted on: October 23rd, 2011 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

Last week The LSF Advanced Mentor Programme was announced: delegates were invited to apply for a script workshop or “Lab” with either Linda Aronson (Non-Linear & Multi-protagonist); David Reynolds (Family Audiences) or Gub Neal (TV Drama). We had nearly 50 entries for just a few places in each Script Lab and as ever, my readers & I had some difficult choices to make!

Without further ado then and in no particular order, here are the LUCKY participants and their scripts who will take part in the Script Labs, which will happen during the festival next weekend:

LINDA ARONSON’s NON-LINEAR & MULTI-PROTAGONIST WORKSHOP

Nell Denton, THE JAZZ TSAR

Graham Walker, HEARTS AND MINDS

David McCrea, LONDON CALLING

David Atkinson, THE REALITY PRINCIPLE

Jacqui Canham, VERA OF THE ADMIRALTY

David Gilhooly, ROUNDABOUT

DAVID REYNOLDS’ FAMILY AUDIENCES WORKSHOP

Darrin Grimwood, MYTHOS.

Stephen Potts, COMPASS MURPHY

Guy Fee, THE BOY WHO LOST CHRISTMAS

Julia Andersen, THE LEFT HAND

Nick Horwood, GURK THE SLAYER.

 Norah Henderson, CHUBB & PETER KING

GUB NEAL’s “PRODUCER’S DEN”

 Sophie Petzal, SANCTIONED

Dominic Carver, WHITE KNIGHT

Tom Kerevan, WRECKERS

Paul Goetzee, OUT ON A LIMB

Steve Turnbull, MONSTERS.

Richard Wheildon, I AM YOU

Many, many thanks to all who entered and especially to those who didn’t make it through *this time* – all the entrants demonstrated impressive CVs and packages (ooo er, missus) and for them and indeed any other interested parties, here’s a brief overview of the pile:

Looking Out For Linda. The entrants submitting for Linda Aronson’s workshop were the most hotly contested, plus this was a VERY strong bunch indeed. There was some fantastic risk-taking in terms of storytelling, with ingenius methods of breaking up the narrative and character introduction. However, some ideas/premises were quite similar, meaning there was literally a hair’s breadth between applications at times and quite a lot of soul-searching for our readers. The scripts and writers that often made it through in this section were those with strong visual flair and that elusive “je ne se quois” in terms of grabbing the reader’s attention via an unusual, intriguing or shocking hook in the first instance.

Remembering the (Family) Audience. Bizarrely, sexual nudity, drunkenness, swearing and general bloodshed played a major part in many of the David Reynolds’ submissions. Despite Reynolds  being responsible for the likes of Finding Nemo, there was a dearth of talking animals, fish or supernatural elements like friendly ghosts which the readers predicted at the beginning of sifting the pile. Here the scripts and writers that made it through usually demonstrated a child-like charm or tone seen in the likes of Roald Dahl (even if there were no children in it); the gothic overtones of Tim Burton or an important element of family life, ie. Christmas, birthday parties or fantasy stories.

Identity Crisis. The TV scripts were some of the most accomplished in the pile, both on the page and in terms of previous development, but some premises *felt* quite familiar, especially with reference to existing stories and/or series. Others had a bit of genre crisis, making them difficult to place in the schedules writers claimed they were suited to. The scripts that made it through this round were those with a strong identity, with writers who had managed to visualise their story worlds not only in the script, but in the production bundle.

Once again, many thanks to ALL who entered and to the mentors for making this initiative possible, I hope to see ALL of you at some point during the festival!

Positive & Negative Deadlines by Michelle Goode

Posted on: October 23rd, 2011 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

Deadlines: “The latest time or date by which something should be completed.”

Deadlines. We have all come up against them at some point or other, be it a school assignment or a bill payment. But when it comes to writing it can take on two forms: professional and personal.

Professional deadlines will inevitably be important. If you’re contracted to complete a draft by a certain date, you’d be wise to do so. If you work as a script reader or editor, you’ll also have deadlines you will need to stick to lest you upset your clients.
However, as writers we also set ourselves personal goals and these can take on two forms: positive and negative.

Positive deadlines:

  • I’ll write each evening after dinner for at least half an hour
  • I’ll spend an hour each weekend reading writing-related literature
  • I’ll complete my short script by the end of the week
  • I’ll get this draft sent off to a script reader by the end of the month
  • I’ll get this feature script finished in time to enter the XYZ competition

These sorts of deadlines are fabulous – you’re positively reinforcing the need to be proactive and the art of dedication. You’re not being unrealistic and you’re training yourself to work within limited time-frames. Give yourself a pat on the back!

Negative deadlines

  • If I don’t get short-listed for a competition by the end of the year I’ll give up entering them
  • If [3 x production companies] give this feature script a pass then I will put it in the bin
  • If I don’t get paid work by by next birthday I will give up writing altogether

The “if” deadlines. Dangerous territory… By giving yourself these sorts of deadlines you are setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s like basing your career on chance and superstition.

So, what if those production companies “passed” on your script but gave encouraging feedback? Readers need to be harsh in their judgement when it comes to sifting through the spec/competition pile, but that doesn’t mean they don’t see potential and it doesn’t mean that, with a few revisions, your script wouldn’t have the chance of being given a “consider” or a “recommend”. Anything is possible if you work at it.

We all get frustrated when things don’t go our way, but if you are passionate about becoming a writer it’s essential you keep going and keep positive. Rejection is a big part of being a writer; for amateurs and professionals alike. It’s impossible to give yourself a deadline to succeed, because success comes in many shapes and forms and it takes time.

At the beginning of 2010 I decided I would be really organised and have a cork board with a sheet of paper for each month, onto which I’d write deadlines and enter as many competitions as I could. I wrote a bit but months passed, life got in the way (y’know, houses to be bought and decorated and all that) and guess what? The cork board remained empty. For the whole year. I only entered three initiatives. Rubbish, right? No. Sure, I felt like I’d let myself down given the big plans I’d made, but I realised that I had still achieved a lot throughout the year and that there would be more opportunities ahead. Sometimes you just have to get over your shortcomings and appreciate what you do achieve, however small a step it is on your journey.

If you feel yourself starting to think of those dangerous “if + negative” deadlines, turn them into positives by changing the “if” to “I’ll aim to” and the negative to a positive; “If I don’t manage it I’ll + positive”. So instead of “If [3 x production companies] give this feature script a pass then I will put it in the bin”, you can re-evaluate this as “I’ll aim to get my script to 3 x production companies. If they all pass on it I will get more feedback, re-work it and then try again”.

The London Screenwriter’s Festival will leave you feeling educated, rejuvenated, energised and raring to get going as fast as your writing/typing hands will allow. You will be setting yourself challenges and goals. Setting yourself personal deadlines will help you keep focussed, but you must remember not to set negative deadlines; only positive ones. And if things don’t go entirely to plan, allow yourself to re-evaluate your deadlines and don’t be too hard on yourself.

___________________________________

Michelle Goode is a script reader, editor and writer. Trained in script reading and proofreading/copy-editing, Michelle has read for The London Screenwriter’s Festival and Hollywood-based Screenplayreaders and also offers her services to individual clients via her script reading service Writesofluid at www.writesofluid.co.uk. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.

What Not To Write by Ellin Stein

Posted on: October 19th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay 3 Comments

Between working one-on-one with writers as a script consultant and working in the development departments of off-Hollywood companies like Miramax and Zoetrope, I’ve read quite a few scripts. While their virtues are all different, the same mistakes come up over and over again.

This list will probably be familiar ground to anyone who’s ever taken a screenwriting course and these problems obviously occur most often in scripts by inexperienced writers. But not always – you’d be surprised how often they turn up in scripts submitted by top agents.

Reading a script is a bit like getting in a car with an unfamiliar driver. If you set off smoothly and the driver seems to know what he or she is doing, you’ll relax and enjoy the ride. But if within five minutes the car stalls out, you’re thrown forward by sudden braking, and the driver swerves to escape a collision, you’re going to stay tense through the whole trip. As a writer, you want to encourage the perception that you are in full control of your medium so the reader assumes you know what you’re doing and stays receptive. I don’t believe in prescriptive formulas for screenwriting, and I hope anyone reading this will remember rules were meant to be broken, but avoiding these common pitfalls will encourage the reader to approach your script in a state of expectation, as opposed to dread.

1) NO LOOKING, NO NODDING, NO ENTERING, NO EXITING. Many writers don’t bother to hone the interstitial business, the paragraphs between dialogue. In fact, every word you write is a chance to show the reader you can create dramatically compelling narrative that pulls us into the story and makes us want to keep reading. Don’t use the business to describe meaningless action like walking or glancing, unless it reveals character or sets up a significant development to come. Nodding does not reveal character – give the character a line so we know why they’re agreeing. Similarly, why tell us someone enters? If they speak in a scene, they’re obviously there. On the other hand, “John enters the room, unaware that his coat is on fire,” will keep us reading.

2) DON’T SOUND LIKE A MEMO. A variation on the above. Make sure your writing in the interstitial paragraphs is involving. So, “as John comes into the living room, everyone else falls silent. He opens the closet door, then steps back in horror – there’s a moldering body inside” is fine. “John enters. He walks over to the closet and opens the door. He notices a body inside” while accurate, will send us to sleep.

3) DON’T BE TOO FLOWERY. At the same time, don’t try to be overly poetic or “literary”, like this line I’ll always remember for the wrong reasons (from a script sent in by a big agency): “the moon chases its orbit across the sky.” You want to set the scene without being overly descriptive but at the same time give us any significant or telling detail. Show your talent for dramatization by describing characters and scenes in pithy, vivid prose.

4) NO TREADING WATER LINES. Like the interstitial paragraphs, dialogue must pull off the trick of sounding naturalistic while in fact being highly crafted. But it’s possible for dialogue to be too naturalistic. You have very little room to tell your story, so every line needs to count. Make sure it needs to be said, and at that particular moment, for a reason. Don’t have characters saying something just to have something to say. It happens all the time in life, but this is art. Not that every bit of dialogue has to be laden with significance, but every line should tell us something about how the character feels, or wants other people to think he feels, or should advance the story. Of course, it’s all right for a character to say things like “really?” or “ummm” if you want to make the point that they’re kind of a boring person without anything interesting to say, or that in these particular circumstances they want to say something innocuous.

5) NO PASSIVE VOICE. Writing 101. “The envelope is torn open” hardly has the dramatic impact of “he rips the envelope open”.

6) BE SPECIFIC. “Maybe some laundry on the floor”, “the action goes something like…”, “they discuss his trip”. You’re the writer, this is a universe you’re creating, so don’t leave it up to other people to fill in the blanks. The first draft will be the only place where what you say goes, so make the most of it

7) BUT NOT TOO SPECIFIC. Don’t direct. Even if you’re planning to direct the script yourself, even if you are a director who’s turned to writing, for purposes of the script you are only the humble writer. This means being very sparing with directions, both for the camera and for action. You make a story cinematic by revealing character through action, not by specifying camera angles or every little detail of what happens in the shot. Tell us what’s essential for moving the story along and leave out the rest. The director, if that ends up not being you, is going to ignore all your brilliant ideas anyway.

8) LET THE ACTORS DO THEIR JOB. By the same token, don’t tell us what the actors’ expressions should be, unless it’s not what we would expect, e.g. “as the coffin is lowered, there’s a faint smile on her face”. Write the scene properly so we know what the characters are feeling and then trust your actors and director.

9) NO KEEP OUT NOTICES. There’s no need to put copyright notices, “Registered with WGA”, “an original screenplay”, etc. on your cover page. It goes without saying you’ve taken all the necessary precautions, and to stress the fact evokes a high school notebook with “Private property! Do not open!” on it. You want to give the impression you have no need for such warnings because if anyone were to be so stupid as to try to rip you off, your lawyer, manager, and agent would be on them like a ton of bricks. In any case, your problem is far more likely to be getting potential financiers to read through your script to the end rather than their being so enamored of it they want to rip it off.

10) TYOPS. No one’s going to pass on a totally brilliant script because of a few spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, but they don’t help matters. For one thing, typos create an impression of carelessness, and if you can’t be bothered to care passionately about every word in your script, why should anyone else? Secondly, grammatical errors or poor usage (unless intentional in the dialogue) suggest you are not really in command of your craft. As noted above, you don’t have to be a great literary stylist, but if you don’t seem to know when sentences just don’t sound right, the reader will lose confidence in you (I know Quentin Tarantino is dyslexic and the original script for Reservoir Dogs was far from a model of spelling and grammatical correctness and was written on the back of a cocktail napkin or something, but I’ll bet Lawrence Bender cleaned it up before it went out. It’s also true that many producers, in the tradition of Sam Goldwyn, wouldn’t know incorrect usage if it fell on them, but development staffs tend to attract English majors, who care about these things).

Also, while imperfect punctuation is hardly going to undermine your credibility, not putting question marks at the end of questions in the dialogue or putting question marks where they don’t belong suggests you’re not really hearing how the dialogue will sound when it’s spoken as opposed to written. Similarly, the grammar police will not be monitoring your comma use but how you use commas indicates you’re hearing (or not) how a line will be phrased and you’re aware that actors need to breathe now and then. Finally, lots of exclamation points do not add dramatic excitement.

The problems I’ve mentioned are all very easy to avoid and it doesn’t require an enormous amount of talent to do so. Unfortunately, getting them right is no substitute for the ability to bring a story to life. The perceptive reader will have noticed I’ve avoided dealing with the big issues, like creating believable, involving characters who get up off the page and walk around, or tight, fast-moving structures. Those things are hard to get right. It’s more like the difference between showing up for a job interview in a torn T-shirt and dirty jeans or looking sharp. It doesn’t really affect how qualified you are, but it never hurts to make a good first impression.

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Find Ellin on Twitter here and via her website and blog, here.

LSF Success Stories, Pt 3. Penny Dreadful: Evolution of a Project by Elinor Perry-Smith

Posted on: October 17th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

If I’ve learnt anything about this scriptwriting lark, it’s through the evolution of Penny Dreadful, a script I started to develop under the auspices of a scheme at London Metropolitan University. It started life as a realisation, on my part, of how fed up I was with the passive portrayal of women who are murder victims in Ripper stories.

So I decided to write a story about a woman who assumes the cloak of Jack the Ripper in order to wreak revenge. It was through London Met Uni that I met Lucy. In fact I chanted for Lucy in Buddhist fashion so that my script was assigned to her, having seen from her old blog that she was into horror. Then, ‘Penny Dreadful’ was called ‘Sever’ and it was a right old mish-mash structurally and included the sacking of Benin, a crippled aristo and more voodoo altars than you could shake a virgin’s thighbone at.

Lucy helped me sort it out into a half-decent piece of work (I think her exact words were: ‘There’s a really good idea in here, I just wish I knew what it was’) and subsequently, myself and some of the other participants presented it and other scripts at the EIFF. I’ve picked it up and rewritten it at least twice a year ever since. If you go to my blog you can see a short trailer for the script by MyVisualPitch. I also honed my synopsis, treatment and pitch doc skills on this story, which are just as important as the script, I now realise.

Only now, after 4 years is it anything like I hoped it would be. I tried out different versions of the first ten pages at Off the Page at the LSWF 2010 (read a review, here). I must say it was a revelation to me to see my words come to life with the skilled direction of Michael Clarkson and the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves very much. Matthieu Gras created some excellent storyboards that suited the story well and Nick Norton-Smith composed some suitably atmospheric music. I honestly couldn’t fault it.

I made some revisions to the first ten pages and entered them at Bafta 2011 with the Rocliffe New Writers’ Forum where ‘Penny Dreadful’ was trashed by the esteemed Julian Fellowes! He didn’t seem to like it at all, particularly the aristos being spanked by East End whores, though perhaps I touched a nerve there?

I’ve met a lot of good people over the years writing Penny Dreadful  and can’t recommend a live reading highly enough in terms of seeing how actors bring your words to life and how audiences react.

My latest plan is to turn Penny into a graphic novel. Another new skill for me! Bring it on…

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

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.

DR. SEUSS
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.

POPEYE
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).

SPEED LIMIT
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.

Answers:

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.

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 www.GoIntoTheStory.com which has been named Best Blog for Aspiring Screenwriters.

Scott Meyers
www.gointothestory.com