Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Concept is King

In today’s tight spec-script market, nothing is more important than your idea. In fact, an inferior concept can render even talent and opportunity effectively meaningless.
It comes as a revelation to many talented, hardworking screenwriters to learn that the ultimate commercial fate of their script depends more on the underlying idea—the central story concept—than any other single factor. Moreover, crackling dialogue, sizzling action and description, and stunning visual imagery expressed on the page can all be rendered worthless, in terms of a sale at least, simply because the story concept is not deemed big enough or good enough.
That’s why Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, Déjà Vu) preaches a standard he calls “the Warner Bros. hallway test.” The premise is this: If a producer walking by an office notices an assistant reading your script, he or she might ask “What’s that about?” If the assistant can’t summarize your tale into a clear, compelling sentence or two, you fail. Simple as that.
And many, many scripts that make it into Warner Bros. and other studios are rejected precisely because of that failure—regardless of the quality of the writing.
“Concept is the thing that people relate to,” says Joyce San Pedro, a Sony-based creative executive at Zhiv Productions. “People can understand a good concept within a second. It’s a simple, clear, concise idea that people are just drawn to.”

12 Monkeys (Photo: Universal Pictures)
Producer Robert Kosberg (12 Monkeys, Deep Blue Sea, Commando) has crafted a 20-year career from that very premise. “The best high concepts I’ve ever sold are the ones that grab your attention in one or two sentences, and you know what the whole movie is about that quickly,” states Kosberg, currently based at Nash Entertainment with a number of studio projects in development.
In turn, he notes, a precisely formatted version of the two-sentence concept becomes a logline. And, as almost everyone knows, a powerful logline is the currency of the kingdom in Hollywood.
But, says independent producer Brian Udovich (The Key Man, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), whose The Wackness won the Audience Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, a strong concept must also transcend a simple logline. “I agree that [the idea] has to be easily digestible immediately,” he says. “But once you bite into it, you have to realize that there are more layers to be understood.” A good recent example of that principle, Udovich offers, is Inception. His point is that it’s not a movie about dreams and dreaming. It’s a heist film—a commercially proven genre for almost a century—that uses dreams as a novel new twist.
When it comes to an informed assessment of a prospective concept, no test is more important than a simple, practical question: Is this something millions of people all over the world will line up to see and pay their hard-earned money for? Not always is a good idea a movie.
“For example,” says San Pedro, who has been a Hollywood development executive for almost a decade, “what’s the ending that’s going to drive the story? What about this story is going to attract an audience? You can have a good story that won’t attract an audience. How will it keep an audience interested for two hours? What are the three acts? How does the story play on the screen?”
Udovich suggests that aspiring scribes use what he calls “checkpoints” along the path to a fully developed concept. “And the number-one checkpoint,” he says, “is to ask whether you have a broad enough, commercial enough genre and concept that will allow a producer like me and a studio to put butts in theaters.”
That said, notes Paul Junger Witt, a legendary TV producer (The Golden Girls, Soap, Benson) and veteran film producer (Dead Poets Society, Three Kings, Insomnia), a strong commercial concept today must also demonstrate the potential for crossover business in international markets. That’s because each year, a bigger slice of Hollywood’s total annual revenue is generated in overseas markets. And to play globally, a movie must come off as emotionally honest and truthful—within the context of how regular people live and function—while representing a truly universal experience or emotion.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Photo: Optimum Releasing)
That principle is exemplified in the huge success ofThe Hangover and its highly successful sequel—which puzzles some people. But, Junger Witt says, men hanging out with their friends, getting into trouble, and being hung over is a cross-cultural experience all over the world, regardless of language.
Given the daunting challenge of coming up with ideas that studio executives and producers think can gross at least $100 million in the U.S. and double or triple that internationally, writers make a series of fundamental miscalculations and mistakes.
“One of the biggest challenges for new writers is the struggle to find their voice,” states San Pedro, who spent years in the publishing industry before moving from New York to Los Angeles. “They see what’s selling and they see the movies that are out there. And a lot of writers just try to mirror [the trends]. But that’s not a good way to approach material. For example, people say there are no original ideas anymore. Maybe not, but you can have an original voice that tells a story clearly, which is what is going to separate you from other writers and carry you through. So that’s what you should be focused on, instead of market trends or gimmicks.”
As a purely practical matter, Kosberg sees four common conceptual shortcomings in scripts submitted to him by new writers. “One is extreme period pieces that take place in 400 B.C.,” he says. “No studio executive I know is ever going to make a movie that takes place in 400 B.C.”
The next fatal flaw is a huge budget that renders the script impractical—no matter how brilliantly written it might be—simply because a studio would have to spend $400 million to make it. “No studio executive is ever going to want to make a movie that costs $400 million,” Kosberg adds with a chuckle.
Another weakness Kosberg sees in scripts by new writers is the most common … and self-defeating. “And that,” he says, “is a general lack of knowledge about the market—what has made money, what has not, and what is in production or development now—and the direct competition your idea faces, one way or another. Like it or not, making movies is a business. And to be in the business, you have to know the business side of things. But, too many writers ignore that.
“Instead,” Kosberg says, “writers get caught up in their own prejudices, which is fully understandable. They get caught up in the love of their own ideas. But if they would spend as much time as they’re going to spend writing the script trying to find that simple, great, one or two-line concept that will be the heart of the movie, they would save themselves months and months of getting off on the wrong foot.”
Last, but not least, on Kosberg’s Richter scale of seismic blunders by newbies, is trend-chasing—trying to emulate box-office successes with a similar tale. It never works. “The more you chase a trend, the more you’re in competition with a million other writers doing the same thing,” Kosberg states. “But there’s nothing wrong with coming up with a vampire or werewolf story if you can put a brand-new spin on it. The problem is the people who say, ‘I’m going to write a vampire movie,’ or ‘I’m going to write a werewolf movie’ think the sheer skill of their writing will get their script sold and the movie made. That is not the case. You have to have a gimmick. You have to have something truly original.”
Regardless of talent and opportunity, in order to become a success in Hollywood, a writer must understand and adhere to certain principles that studio executives and producers appreciate by well-established consensus.
“To get noticed, writers have to write to their strengths,” says Junger Witt. “Nothing is going to get writers noticed more quickly than really displaying their talent. So, the work should be reflective of a real passion for whatever story they’re telling. And that talent and passion will get noticed, whether the movie gets made or not.”
Genuine passion for your story is at least as important as talent. Maybe more so, Junger Witt notes and others agree, because so many talented writers lack real, enduring passion for their work. “You see the passion in the approach to the story, in the quality of the writing and the depth of the characters,” Junger Witt says. “Those are the things I react to. I want to be moved.”
That being the case with most producers and studio execs, Udovich suggests that a writer pursue a genre for which he or she has real passion. “Then work your personal story within that genre,” urges Udovich, who holds an M.F.A. in producing from the American Film Institute. “That will make it a lot easier when you’re done to find out what studios and producers are amenable to the kind of film you wrote.”
The bottom line, Udovich says and his peers agree, is that passion and expert knowledge of genre cannot be faked. “You can tell within the first five pages whether a script is written from the heart or whether it’s being written for a paycheck.”
A related truism, he adds, is that “You’re never going to succeed in Hollywood trying to write what you think other people want.” Instead, Udovich advises, careful study and analysis of the movie market is essential to the creation of commercially viable concepts.
Junger Witt concurs: “All a new writer has to do is look at the box-office [grosses] of both domestic and international films and see which films crossed over successfully,” he explains. “Then analyze what is similar about those films. For one thing, they tend not to be culturally specific, meaning that it’s not true that only a few cultures can understand the situation and the relationships or the frame of reference.”
If there is indeed a secret code or mantra for conceptual triumph in Hollywood, it is the adage “Give me the same but different.” In fact, Kosberg says, that statement embodies the essence of the movie industry.
“That is a great one-line description of how the movie business really works,” he says. “It gives a studio exec or producer something that has done well in the past, but with a new twist—representing the best of both worlds because if you give people something too different, it scares them. And there’s a lot of fear in Hollywood.” But, Kosberg summarizes, give studios and producers a genuine new twist on an old idea that made a lot of money and you and your work will become very, very popular around town.
Go forward and win!
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Balls of Steel: Stick a Fork In It

by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman (thanks for the contribution)
Professors, agents, producers, and managers drum into our heads, “writing is rewriting.” We accept that fact and rewrite over and over until the mere sight of our script makes us cringe.
But when is a script “done”?
By “done” I’m referring to when it’s ready to be read by industry insiders. After all, even after a script is optioned,it’s never truly finished until the picture is locked.
I wrote a post a few months ago called Rewrite from the Gut. I discussed Slavery by Another Name being a Creative Screenwriting Expo finalist, but how despite the honor, we chose to rewrite it. Since that post, I’ve received many emails asking how to determine when a script is truly finished.
If only scripts had Butterball® pop-up timers.
Looking back on my writing career, I can say without hesitation, the number one mistake I made was submitting my work prematurely. I’m appalled I wasted producers’ time reading a pile of amateur word vomit.
I’d email an apology, but they probably have my address blocked and labeled “horrid writer.”
Yes, if you submit bad writing, labeled you will become. Unfortunately when I started my career I had no idea production companies kept files on a writer’s talent. I naively assumed they considered work on a script-by-script basis.
Live and learn, albeit the hard way.
In the years between then and now, I’ve embraced the benefits of rewriting. In fact, I consider myself a rewrite junkie. The trick is to find the balance between improving your work with each rewrite and avoiding the dangers of overwriting.
For me, feedback is my guide.
Find a handful of respected writers to trade scripts with. Better to hear the problems from a friend than to hear a “pass” from a producer.
Getting Honest Feedback is a post I wrote with the consult of screenwriter Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2Bad Boys, and Hostage). We discussed the value of analyzing feedback to enhance your story, not change it into something you don’t recognize. I refer more writers to that post than any other I’ve written.
Back to the question of how to feel confident your script is “done.”
For me, that happens when the feedback stops.
I have a few writers who ruthlessly rip my words apart. Those are always the final eyes on my script. If they read it and offer praise instead of notes, I know it’s ready.
Since I’m not as seasoned as Richardson, I gave him a call and posed the same question to him. His response was similar.
Richardson gets his scripts to the point he’s ready for a second set of eyes, knowing it isn’t finished but needing distance and feedback. While his reader is making notes, he’s digesting and answering his own questions, ready to dive back in.
Once he’s rewritten to the point where he’s answered not only all his own questions, but also those of his readers, he’s ready to submit.
I never turn in anything I have questions about. The only way it’s going to be right is if you work on the feedback and clarify your intentions, making them strong… bulletproof.”
Let me warn you, it takes a lot of rewrites to get to that point, but when it happens, it’s magic. There’s no feeling in the world like confidently handing your script to a producer, knowing it’s going to knock their socks off. Whether it’s a fit for their company is a whole other question.
But your job is to write, and write well – and know when to stick a fork in it.”

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