How to Sell a Screenplay to Hollywood from the UK – Part One

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The screenwriter’s dream: now you too can get to work in the bath.

 

Okay, here is the big one. How do you sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK? I suppose this is what this blog is supposed to be all about. So let me take you through the steps involved. Sounds simple, right?

First of all, about myself: I am a British screenwriter, but I’ve made spec sales and had options with companies in the UK, Europe and Los Angeles, USA.

Secondly, as William Goldman famously said: “Nobody knows anything”. He was talking about the movie business. So as you read this, please place your tongue firmly in your cheek and take all of this with that pinch of salt.

However, this being the confessions of an English screenwriter and all, I thought I should at least attempt to share with you what I have learned when trying to sell a script to Hollywood without having to go and live in L.A..

And what better way to start than with the secret “one easy step to success”?

The secret trick to success

First of all, here is the secret trick — the magic bullet, if you will — that all professional writers know about…

Ready?

There is no magic bullet!

Yes, that’s right. There is no secret trick to selling a screenplay. No magic bullet. No one way that ensures success. There is only hard work, practice, lots of practice, a lot of luck, and a lot of failure.

“What? I’m going to fail?”

Yes. You will fail. Sometimes spectacularly. Sometimes you will want to quit. But to quote from Benjamin Franklin “Energy and persistence conquer all things”. That is especially true of screenwriting.

Let me explain…

There is no one way to sell or option a script today. Elliott Grove in his excellent book “Randance Writer’s Lab” compares the movie industry to an enormous building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people who you can make deals with or who can further your career in some way: agents, industry executives, producers, etc.

Your job is to get in the doors. It doesn’t matter which one. Just keep trying.

Now all this sounds pretty wishy-washy, so let’s get down to brass tacks.

Step One – Write the screenplay

The first step to selling to Hollywood is: you must be able to write great screenplays. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many writers produce script after script which never sells. But as long as you are learning your craft, you are progressing.

“But how come so many bad movies get made? I just saw a terrible movie. I could write better than that!”

Yes. Bad movies do get made. For a variety of reasons. Sometimes a producer just desperately needs a screenplay because they have actors or locations available. Sometimes studios butcher screenplays because they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience than the material can support. Sometimes a “star” will insist that the script goes in a terrible direction to make them look good. Sometimes a hurricane will blow the set away. The list goes on. And don’t forget that making movies is hard. Really hard. Heck, if it was easy everybody would be doing it, right? Just because you can spot a bad movie doesn’t mean you can make a good one.

You must write, write, write. Devour all the screenwriting books you can find.

You must read screenplays. Actually read them.

Watch movies. A lot of movies. Deconstruct them on paper to see how they work.

This will require you to invest time in your craft and will also involve spending money. A lot of money.  In short, you must approach screenwriting like a job. Because that’s what you’re trying to achieve.

I can’t stress Step One enough. You will be up against UCLA college graduates who have done nothing but read and write screenplays for the past 3 years. Think you can measure up to them? Knowing your craft is the only part of the business you can control. So make sure you deliver a superb script. “Competent” is not enough. “Good” is not enough. Your screenplay must be “great” to stand out from the hundreds of thousands of screenplays circulating every year.

Got that? Good.

Once you’ve done all that, you may be ready for step two:

Step Two – Learn about the Business

Let’s go back to Elliot Grove’s comparison of the movie industry to a building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people you want to do business with. And this IS a business, make no mistake. It’s called “Showbusiness” for a reason. Yes, you can enjoy giving your creativity full reign when you come up with an amazing scene. But remember that you have to sell the script when it’s done. And like any salesman, you must know what people want.

One mistake writers often make is to try to predict trends. Every now and then a movie does phenomenal business at the box office. For up to a year afterwards, everybody wants something similar, be it “Memento” or “Saw” or “The Lord of the Rings”. You may be tempted to begin work on a similar project, hoping that people will go crazy for it. But by the time you have finished your script, which can take anywhere from a month to even years, the market will have moved on, and people will be clamoring for the next big thing.

What’s a writer to do?

Instead of thinking in terms of the hot movie genre, you should think more in terms of what is sellable. You will find that certain types of movies are always in demand, while others are pretty much dead. For instance, don’t bother writing that Western or Period Drama. Even if you see a major picture in those genres. The spec market for those films are almost impossible to break into. Most new films in those genres are initiated by the studio, who then hires a writer for the project.

(Caveat: remember how we said that nobody knows anything?)

My advice is, if you have a great idea for a new Queen Boadicea film, turn it into a novel. Then Hollywood can come to you when it sells a million copies. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Genres that are always in demand?

Cheap ones.

Block Comedies, low budget horror movies, found footage movies (a recent trend which probably will not continue as the justification behind them becomes more and more bizarre), movies without lots of SFX, low budget thrillers, “contained” movies with only a few locations or characters.

Did I mention cheap?

One of the biggest independent hits of all time, “Halloween”, which launched the careers of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis, was about a man in a William Shatner mask walking around homes with a knife. It was made for $325,000 and raked in $47 million at the box office alone.

There are several other things you must know about the movie industry before embarking on your odyssey to net that lucrative spec sale.

What is a spec sale?

A spec is a screenplay initiated by a writer who has not been hired to write a screenplay. That’s about it.

Sometimes studios mainly generate their own projects and put calls out to everyone they know (agents, managers, producers) that they are looking for writers for the project. The lucky writer than gets to “pitch” their take on the material to the studio. These jobs are called assignments.

The film industry is bigger than Hollywood.

Motion pictures are made all over the world these days. China is a huge upcoming market. My first option was to a company based in Germany. I’ve also written for companies in England and Canada as well as the USA. Plus, nowadays everyone can be a filmmaker. Just invest in a decent phone camera. Recent indie breakout hit “Tangerine” was filmed entirely on an iPhone. Now you too can be Cecil B DeMille! (note: if you don’t know who Cecil B DeMille is, stop reading this immediately and go watch a ton of old movies made before 1960. I’m serious).

Sales vs Options

More fun terms! In the movie industry, you don’t have to sell your screenplay until it’s produced. You can option it instead. The producer usually pays you less money than they would for a sale. They then have the option, within a specified period (say, 12 months) to get the money to make the picture. If they do, you should be then paid more money to sell the script to them. If not, you get the rights to the script back. It’s a win-win for a newbie screenwriter.

However, an option can also be a disappointment if the producer is not willing to pay a lot. I have seen (and signed) options for as little as $1. Are you being taken advantage of? Well, that depends on where you are in your career. A dollar option to someone with no credits whatsoever is a step up the ladder.

So, to recap: there is no one way to sell a script. You can sell screenplays around the world these days, thanks to the Internet. But you must work on your craft. Read as much as you can. Read screenwriting books, read online articles (there are many free ones), read the trades (by which I mean the trade magazines such as Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – all of which are online), subscribe to newsletters. The Scoggins Report can also give you invaluable guidance as to which companies are buying which type of script. These will all give you a feel for how the industry operates. You must become familiar with this, because these are the people you will be trying to sell your work to.

Hot tip: You will find that writing equates to about half of a screenwriter’s working life. The rest involves that dreaded word: marketing. You must become your own PR expert, agent, manager and marketing guru, because that is how you are going to sell your script. Enjoy!

In the next part we’ll look at what to do after you’ve written the script, and how to (hopefully) get it into the hands of Hollywood professionals!

It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

See you next time!

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THE MOST VISUALLY STUNNING FILMS EVER MADE

There have been some beautiful films made. The films in this list aren’t necessarily the prettiest, but they all share some of the most visually striking images ever committed to film. The films below may be obvious, or they may be obscure. But they were all made by master directors who can tell a story visually.

 

A still from Sunrise. Watching this Oscar-wining silent movie is an unforgettable experience.

A still from Sunrise. Watching this Oscar-wining silent movie is an unforgettable experience.

 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
The first in our list is a silent movie that has to be seen to be believed. Every frame is like a wonderful painting coming to life. Added to that, the film is filled with cinematic tricks, double exposures, and everything but the kitchen sink. FW Murnau was lured to Hollywood after making Nosferatu by the promise of being able to do whatever he wanted. The result is this awesome film that tells a very simple story in a very imaginative way.

 

Fantasia (1940)
Fantasia is the first animated Walt Disney feature film to depict classical music though animation. It’s gorgeous, funny and thrilling, comprising dancing ostriches, nymphs and satyrs, dinosaurs and demons. Apparently Disney wanted to make more experimental films, but the Second World War destroyed his foreign markets so he had to go back to fairy stories. It makes you wonder where he would have gone from here had not WWII intervened.

 

The Red Shoes (1948)
Powell and Pressburger made some beautiful films, such as A Matter of Life and Death with its celestial court, Black Narcissus and Tales of Hoffman. But this updated fairy tale is a gorgeous riot of colour filled with tableauesque shots like oil paintings come to life. Martin Scorsese’s favourite film.

 

A gorgeous technicolor moment in The Red Shoes.

A gorgeous Technicolor moment from The Red Shoes.

 

 

The Third Man (1949)
The black and white photography is perfectly suited to post-war Vienna and the shady dealings in Graeme Greene’s crime thriller. But it’s the final underground chase scenes involving the mysterious Harry Lime that makes this one of the best photographed films I’ve seen. The Vienna sewers become a nightmarish funfair ride to the accompaniment of that famous balalaika!

 

Night of the Hunter (1955)
Who can ever forget the image of the murdered mother at the bottom of the river, her hair floating in the ghostly current? Or the tattooed knuckles of Robert Mitchum? Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is an American Gothic pastoral fable filled with iconic, haunted images.

 

Lillian Gish keeps a lonely village in Night of the Hunter.

Lillian Gish keeps a lonely village in Night of the Hunter.

 

Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock’s most handsome production sees James Stewart haunted by the memory of a lost love, only to find it again in Kim Novak, who so clearly resembles his former lover that he even remakes her in that image. Right from the title, this film is a delight to watch, with terrific composition, all of Hitchcock’s trademark camera tricks, and an intense performance by Stewart. By the end of it you will be dizzy!

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean’s masterpiece is a true desert epic. There are giant vistas, sand dunes and Arab armies mounted on camels. But there are also much subtler moments of symbolism – the way the Arabs follow Lawrence’s shadow on the ground as he postures after winning a battle. A legendary film that deserves every one of its accolades.

 

Japanese ghost stories come to life in Kwaidan.

Japanese ghost stories come to life in Kwaidan.

 

Kwaidan (1964)
The most expensive film ever shot in Japan for a time, Kwaidan tells several ghost stories set in that country’s feudal history. The first, Snow Woman, is probably the most beautiful to look at. Shot in colour, but with sets that were hand painted by the filmmaker, it makes you feel cold just watching it. Well worth tracking down.

 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Little needs to be said about this sci-fi classic. Its groundbreaking sets and models paved the way for movies like Star Wars a decade later. Indeed, its incredible just how well the space scenes stand up. Also refreshing is the lack of sound in space, which really amps up the tension when the astronauts face off against psychotic supercomputer HAL in the film’s later sections. A sequence of incredible images presages the film’s climactic journey through the wormhole, only to leave us guessing at their true significance as the film fades out.

 

 A plague of locusts descends in Days of Heaven.

A plague of locusts descends in Days of Heaven.

 

Days of Heaven (1978)
Gorgeous Terrance Malik movie with Richard Geere and Brooke Adams. The Depression-era landscape is sparse, consisting of sky, corn and the huge house – emblematic of the simple, human story the film reveals. One of the 1970s greatest films.

 

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s advertising agency background is nowhere more apparent than in this cult sic-fi, featuring Harrison Ford as a futuristic P.I. and a unforgettable turn by Rutger Haur as the android he is sent to destroy. 1940’s noir is everywhere here, but with the dial turned up to 11 on the style setting, from Rachel’s enormous fur coat to the art deco pillars in the Tyrell Corporation HQ. A beautiful film.

 

Movies at the speed of light in Koyaanisqatsi

Movies at the speed of light in Koyaanisqatsi

 

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
Using state-of-the-art (for the time) tricks such as slow and fast motion and time lapse photography, Geoffrey Reggio’s film contrasts the timeless beauty of Monument Valley with the dizzying pace of modern life. Shot to a hypnotic Philip Glass soundtrack, it became one of the most iconic pieces of film ever, copied and imitated countless times.

 

Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)
Although not appreciated fully on release, Alan Parker’s extended music video of the Pink Floyd concept album features a rather lifeless Bob Geldoff as rock star Pink, a man on the cusp of a complete mental breakdown. But it’s the wonderful Gerald Scarff cartoons interspersing the live action footage that steal the show. Marching Hammers, a demonic Judge shaped like something rather indescribable, and a Hammer-headed schoolmaster pushing his pupils though a meat grinder are images that have passed into public consciousness. An underrated film that is well worth revisiting.

 

What Dreams May Come (1998)
Robin Williams stars in this tale of a man who finds himself stranded in the afterlife following the death of his children and his wife’s nervous breakdown. Not a comedy, you might think. But this movie contains so many emotions that watching it can be an exhausting experience. The film also contains an unforgettable rendition of the hereafter, where whatever you dream becomes reality, and Heaven resembles something out of a Renaissance work of art. A rare example of a modern movie that uses gorgeous colour to its full potential.

 

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Robin Williams looks out over a heavenly vista in What Dreams May Come.

 

Marie Antoinette (2006)
I’ve long been a fan of Sofia Coppola’s movies ever since seeing the very stylish Virgin Suicides. Although the plot here is minimal, with Kirstin Dunst’s titular ruler having fun a lot before the Revolution arrives on her doorstep, the photography captures a kind of childish innocence and a love of nature and beauty. It’s a pleasure to watch the images unfold in cinema verite fashion, showing us a childish monarch who was simply divorced from reality.

What do you think? Do you agree? If not, be sure to let me know! Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed this selection of some of the most beautiful films ever made!

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Eastercon: Mancunicon convention report 2016!

This year’s science-fiction/fantasy convention EASTERCON took place in Manchester, England. Mancunicon, as it was called, occupied four floors of the iconic Hilton Hotel, a slender glass-and-steel building shaped like the number “1”. The convention gathered together sci-fi and fantasy authors, fans, publishers, gamers and cosplayers. There were almost a thousand people in attendance, and one of them was yours truly.

The Hilton Tower... in the sun.

The Hilton Tower… in the sun.

 

Now, I’ve been to FantasyCon before and the odd sci-fi movie fan convention. But I’ve never been to Eastercon, so I was unsure what to expect. Fortunately, some friends of mine from the Manchester Speculative Fiction Group were also there, so there was always someone to chat (or moan) to.

The first thing we did was gather at the bar. This was (unsurprisingly) the focal point for the Con. However, the Hilton is a very tall, narrow building so sometimes the bar became very crowded. This never became a real problem, but it did make queuing for the two lifts difficult. The small meeting rooms also meant that several panels were oversubscribed. I was sorry to have missed the panel on rare sci-fi and fantasy TV shows of the 1950s -1970s. But on the whole things ran pretty smoothly.

The atmosphere was, for the most part, very friendly, with everyone united by a love of sci-fi and fantasy. Although some were more hard-core than others – there was a cosplay competition on Saturday for those dedicated enough. I am not the most gregarious person in the world. But even I found myself chatting to a diverse array of people over the weekend.

My writing group has an anthology called “REVOLUTIONS” out at the moment, so this was an ideal place to plug the book. We sneaked up a few posters and shifted quite a few copies. My only regret was that I didn’t manage to prepare any advertising material for my own novel. But then Easter always sneaks up on me.

The events programme was varied and jam-packed. This year’s guests of honour were authors Sarah Pinborough, David L Clements, Aliette de Bodard, and Ian MacDonald. But many more took part, and topics ranged from hard sci-fi to sewing. So there was something for everyone… even a cookery class!

So after catching up with my fellow attendees, I made my way to the first panel…

Welcome to Eastercon – Saturday

This was highly informative and useful. It soon became apparent that Eastercon has a culture all of its own. Some people had been going literally all their lives, while the oldest member was a mere 90 years old.

Afterwards, I browsed the dealers’ rooms. Against my better judgment I gave into temptation and walked away with an armful of beautiful 1970s paperback editions. But some deals are just too good to pass up!

Diversity in SF

The first panel I attended was about diversity in SF/F. This was a very intelligent and nuanced discussion about how difficult it is for authors who are not white and middle class to get published. The speakers made their points with eloquence and precision. Afterwards, I found myself with a far greater appreciation of issues of race and gender.

MSF Group’s “Crit Sandwich” – Saturday and Sunday

Next day, Manchester’s SpecFic group held the first of two long feedback sessions for budding authors. My fellow group members and I reviewed 3 pieces each day of up to 10,000 words per author. The sessions were very enjoyable, with some interesting, varied and (intentionally) amusing samples of work. All those who took part said they found it very useful. I take my hat off to them, as I’m not sure if I’d have had the courage to submit my work to complete strangers at my first Eastercon!

Jo Fletcher Books Launch – Sebastian de Castell

There were several book launches over the weekend. We ascended the lift to the Presidential Suite on the 22nd floor for a reading by the author. The view and the plentiful red wine made this a memorable occasion, and the publishers were open to questions from anyone who attended. Indeed, the wine flowed a little too freely on occasion, with several people complaining of feeling “under the weather” as the Con wore on!

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..And the view from the 22nd storey in the rain.

 

The Fuzzy Set of Horror

That evening I attended a lively discussion on the boundaries of horror, given by three gothic/supernatural fantasy writers with helpful contributions from horror grandmaster Ramsey Campbell. There were some hotly debated questions about Waterstones’ policy of no longer segregating horror from fantasy and science-fiction as well as on the merits of zombie films.

Later, we sampled the gastronomic delights of Manchester (there are many) before returning to a packed bar and hobnobbing with anyone who would talk to us. But after over ten hours on my feet, I was exhausted. So I limped off to bed to grab four hours’ sleep before Day Three.

Trailblazing Comics of the 1980s – Sunday

Next morning – my head buzzing with a litre of coffee – I took part in my first ever panel. Thankfully, it was a subject I can ramble on about for hours – comic books. My fellow panellists Karen Brenchley and Tony Keen provided the focus of the debate. Together, we discussed which creators shaped the comics field in the 1980s and beyond.

Inevitably, “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” were mentioned. But we also managed to include such diverse matters as 2000AD, John Byrne, and “Cerebus the Aardvark”! The attendees called us on our knowledge, so we had to be on our toes. But we all brought something different to the table and managed to give the audience a broad overview of both mainstream and indie comics in the decade. Afterwards, we got chatting to several interesting people. I enjoyed this a heck of a lot and would thoroughly recommend the experience.

Kaffeeklatsch with Sarah Pinborough

Guest of honour at this year’s Eastercon was horror/crime/YA novelist Sarah Pinborough. Fresh from Hollywood, Sarah shared tales of writing and more in this cosy setting. This was a nice change of pace from the panels and a chance to ask more detailed questions of the author. As for the content, I’m afraid I can’t tell you more because, as Sarah says, “What happens in Kaffeeklatsch stays in Kaffeeklatsch!”

Author Reading – open mic

This two-hour session gave authors a chance to read their own work. My nerves were set on edge by the announcement that it was to be a competition. When the “judges” were given sticks with numbers on, the whole thing took on the aspect of a David Lynch film. Authors read their works until a gong signalled they had run over the time limit, whereupon the judges gave the scores. Fortunately, the whole thing was just a bit of fun. The readings were diverse and entertaining, and the host excellent. Although I really felt for one poor chap who had only written his piece that morning.

SF Pub Quiz

Late on Sunday, we took part in the hardest pub quiz I have ever seen in my life. Categories ranged from “Name the scientific instrument” to “Name the TV theme tune… and composer”. Needless to say, our score was abysmal!

By this stage everyone was relaxed and the party mood was in full swing. It was with a heavy heart that I retired to bed in the early hours, knowing that there was only half a day to go.

The Deeper the Grief, the Closer to Life – Monday

By Monday a few people were looking the worse for wear. But a crowded audience still packed out the main room to listen to a panel about grief and loss. Despite the heavy subject matter, the talk proved to be worth waiting for. Authors Sarah Pinborough and Neil Williamson discussed writing about grief, as well as recounting real-life tales, both sad and funny. This was definitely one of the better talks, although I can’t really remember why!

Criminality in SF/F

The final panel of the day got a little raucous at times, as several authors discussed the representation of crime in sci-fi and fantasy novels. By this stage we were all just relaxing. Some great debates arose, though. One of which may have just given me an idea for my next story…

In Conclusion

Eastercon was something of an unknown quantity for me. At first I found the fan-based culture a little intimidating. But having it in Manchester helped my travel plans and allowed me to stay much longer.

Given the unique challenges of the Hilton tower, the organisers did their best to keep things running smoothly. Volunteers were always present to help, and being on a panel was tremendous fun.

If I had any suggestions it would be to offer more author readings and to include more horror. At the moment, Eastercon is quite “sci-fi heavy”.

So will I be going to another Eastercon? Hell, yeah. I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone who likes genre fiction.

Will I be more prepared next time? Definitely!

 

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Top Horror Clichés The World Can Do Without!

Let’s get down and dirty in this post by exposing some of the worst horror movie clichés out there. Some of these – like the axe-murderer in the back seat – are so old I’m not even going to talk about them. Instead, here are some of the more insidious violators of the audience’s desire for something new. Most of these are lazy, cynical ways to make a movie. Don’t let them find their way into your screenplay!

 

Just because you know you're using a cliché doesn't mean it isn't a cliché.

Just because you know you’re using a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t a cliché.

 

Girl trapped in the basement of a serial killer

We’ve all seen this one. A hot girl gets kidnapped by a serial killer and spends the next two hours screaming, trying to break out, breaking out, getting recaptured, and finally killing the serial killer. Yes, it’s zero budget. It’s also zero-entertainment. If there ever was a point to telling a story like this, it was done in “The Silence of the Lambs” over twenty years ago. Please, no more!

People in a bunker

In the 1960s shows like “The Twilight Zone” used this setup to tell thought-provoking stories of bigotry, prejudice and paranoia in a Cold War age. Today, it’s an excuse for a low-budget movie. If your movie isn’t a political allegory, avoid this cliché. In fact, even if it is avoid this cliché.

Group in a haunted hospital/abandoned building/old house etc. etc.

A group of unfeasibly hot scientists/investigators/college kids go snooping around in a big old building. Of course they can’t find their way out once they’re inside. It’s haunted, you fools! Cue ghosts, demons, a serial killer etc. If you’re going to tell this story, you better have one very cool monster. Oh, and those smart-alec kids/investigators? They’re really annoying.

Sexy vampire/werewolf/warlock/witch etc.

Must be incredibly hot, twenty-somethings and dressed to kill. Uh, not literally. No, because these beautiful creatures won’t be doing any killing. They’d sooner get it on with each other! In these stories – allegories for wealthy high schools and colleges – we usually sympathize more with the villain who is trying to bump off as many of his classmates as he can – until of course he starts spouting those cheesy lines of dialogue.

 

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Spot the difference? That’s right, the one on the left made more money!

 

Shoulder touch

Picture this: your girlfriend is wandering alone through a scary old house/asylum/abandoned hospital/hillbilly shack etc. You see her and decide to get her attention. How do you do it? Call her name? Cough loudly? No, you creep up to her silently and grab her shoulder. Watch how she screams! This ploy also works when you reverse the genders. Seriously, what’s the matter with you! Oh, it was an excuse for a cheap scare by the writers. Ah…

Medicine cabinet scare

Basically any scene where someone closes a mirrored door and sees a face behind them. Or closes the refrigerator and someone is standing there. How did they get there? Are they wearing cushioned slippers so they couldn’t be heard? Damn those psychos and their cushioned slippers. Oh, and this one works ever better if you have some “jump scare” music as well.

The double twist

So you’ve reached the end of your boring slasher movie. Now what? What this movie needs is… a double twist! So now the final girl gets killed, and it’s the not-so-final girl who survives! Or maybe the final girl has hallucinations that she’s being stalked by the killer even though she’s safely strapped to her psych ward bed. She’s a basket case. The horror! First popularized in Brian De Palma’s version of “Carrie” in the Seventies. Nowadays, it’s just another excuse for a cheap plot twist that robs the film of any emotional payoff it might have had.

Nothing can stop Milla Jovovich, not even plot tension.

Nothing can stop Milla Jovovich, not even plot tension.

The kick-ass heroine

“The Matrix” has a lot to answer for. Floor length PVC coats. Funky spectacles. Kung fu fight scenes. But one thing we can do without is the kick-ass heroine. Impossible to defeat, able to take out 250-pound gorillas despite looking like she never even hits the gym, this frail-looking hot girl can punch holes through solid steel and perform improbable back flips. Sometimes explained by SCIENCE. Sometimes not. Next time you see a hulking serial killer who has spent his life stalking and murdering humans taken out by a five-foot co-ed with a stick, you’ve met the kick-ass heroine.

The dumb jock

If you thought this was a stereotype, you’d be right. It’s a well-known fact that any male who does sports in high school is a sexist bully with a brain the size of a hen’s egg. You can usually spot this character by his natty baseball top and rippling muscles. Whatever the most sensible course of action is, he will oppose it. Even if he has just seen his friends get ripped apart by a murderous sasquatch, he will run into the woods and chase the monster down armed with nothing but a wet towel. But it’s the way he badmouths his girlfriend that seals this character’s doom, because he just insulted the movie’s target demographic!

Loss of cellphone reception

No matter how extensive your network coverage, you can bet that your cellphone will start to misbehave at a crucial moment. This is most likely to happen just after the first death occurs in your party. No matter how expensive your pricing plan, your movie phone is not going to save you now. You see how I just isolated the characters so the monster can pick them off one by one? Genius!

Any kind of hybrid monster, e.g. Sharkspider vs Mechacrocodile!

Most of the said monster will be rendered in appallingly bad 1990’s computer animation. Sharks are the favoured creature of choice, modified by a mixture of sabretooth tiger, giant snake, octopus, robot, crocodile, or whatever graphic the CGI animator has to hand. For bonus points, find a ridiculous way of getting your aquatic monster onto dry land. Ghost Shark, anyone?

 

A truly terrifying postmodern serial killer.

A truly terrifying postmodern serial killer.

OMG it’s just so postmodern!

If you’re too cool for regular horror tropes you might just want to go full postmodern. In this kind of movie, the teens know all the rules for serial killer movies. They endlessly reference plot points from horror films, thereby continually reminding the audience that what they’re watching is in fact only a movie. Used ad nauseum in the “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” TV Series and to varying effect in the “Scream” movies, this irritating glitch makes us want to punch our TV sets as hard as possible while yelling “Shut up talking about horror movies and show me a horror movie!” This type of movie is often coupled with the Double Twist. Because OMG, it’s just so postmodern!

There are plenty more bad clichés out there, clichés so ugly they should have been destroyed at birth. But these are the ones I keep seeing over and over again in modern horror movies. So before you rush out to make the latest girl-trapped-=in-a-basement-by-a-serial-killer movie, please check out this list.

As for a big budget tentpole horror movie set in a bunker by one of Hollywood’s top directors… that couldn’t happen nowadays, could it?

 

 

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The Shannara Chronicles reviewed

THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES aired on 5 Star in the UK today and MTV in the USA. The beloved fantasy novel written by Terry Brooks was the sequel to his hit 1977 bestseller The Sword of Shannara, an epic fantasy in the vein of The Lord of the Rings but with one unusual twist – the stories are set in a post-apocalyptic future that only resembles the medieval world of fantasy.

The Elfstones of Shannara is a much darker affair and sees elves pitted against a demonic invasion. Only a young, half-elven boy and an elven maiden can stop it. The book captured the imagination of millions of readers. But how does the new TV series shape up?

 

The Shannara Chronicles airs on MTV and 5Star

The Shannara Chronicles airs on MTV and 5Star

 

The TV pilot opens with an action sequence not in the novel, as Amberle, an elven princess, competes in a difficult race to become one of the Chosen, a religious order sworn to protect the Ellcrys, a magical tree that protects the elves from demons sealed off from the world by The Forbidding. We are then introduced to several of the main characters, including Will Ohmsford, the young boy whose destiny is linked to the Ellcrys in some way.

The show boasts some excellent CGI visuals, especially the enormous backdrops of the Elven palace of Arborlon and several shots of old world superstructures, now crawling with vines and forgotten. It’s a handsome production, although sometimes the elven costumes and hairstyles resemble Arborlon 90210 rather than those of a medieval fantasy land.

Initial signs were encouraging.

The writing was for the most part serviceable. The first episode was more of an introduction to the characters, which worked fine on a story level. However, there were some cringeworthy moments. Series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are known for Smallville, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and I Am Number Four.  And that kind of writing style lingered throughout. There were several moments of heavy-handed cliché: the kick-ass heroine, the dumb young male hero, the kick-ass female warrior, the kick-ass female thief, etc., etc. Also, several rather unfeasible physical stunts: a male elven warrior knocked out by a young girl with one blow of a sword hilt. But hey, maybe these elves all have glass jaws.

The writers also changed a lot, bringing in some characters earlier and adding more romance, which is forgivable when you’re trying to draw in new viewers. One strange plot hole was that none of the elves believed in the magic of the Ellcys, not even Amberle. Which was odd, because she’d just competed in a dangerous trial to become a member of a religious order dedicated to protecting that very magic. The king also had an advisor specifically dedicated to monitoring the tree’s health. Kind of makes you wonder why they bothered if the tree’s power was just a fairy story.

Also apparent was some groan-inducing dialogue. This was dialogue obviously added to appeal to modern teens: “I smell elf-boy hate” says one character, while an elven princess tells her friend “Thanks for the save”. I’m pretty sure people won’t be talking like that in 10 years, let alone thousands of years from now. That kind of writing made Arborlon feel more like an American High School than a place of high fantasy.

But what really got on my nerves was the directing – or more specifically, the editing. During the first 25 minutes I had to resist the urge to switch off, because I was getting dizzy. Director Jonathan Liebesman (known for Wrath of the Titans and the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie) seems to have a rule that the camera cannot stay on anything for more than 2 seconds. As the shot constantly changed, sometimes even mid-sentence, I felt like I was inside a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning. Even a dying woman’s last moments featured multiple shots because I guess that just wasn’t dramatic enough. When the camera finally lingered on a money shot of Arborlon for a whole 10 seconds, I felt real relief.

All of which was a shame, because I wanted to love The Shannara Chronicles. I’m a huge fan of the stories and of Terry Brooks’ writing in general – The Elfstones is one of the few novels I’ve read several times. And like many fans, I’m amazed that Hollywood has not seized upon the chance to adapt these into big budget movies. Because that’s what they really need.

Despite this, the series showed some promise. What was smart was the way the filmmakers used backdrops – the Seattle Space Needle now like a giant, fallen tree. The sense of wonder conveyed in the trailers really drew me in. The demons also look suitably weird and scary. And there are enough wonders in the book to provide many CGI  amusement in future episodes.

The acting too was pretty good. The leads certainly look the part, with Will Ohmsford and Amberle (played by relative newcomers Austin Butler and Poppy Drayton) both being particularly strong, if not outstanding. John Rhys-Davis (possibly the only man to play both a dwarf and an elf) adds his usual gravitas as the elven king. As for Manu Bennett as Allanon – he’s a bit of an unknown quantity at the moment. A man of monolithic stature, he looks the part. But does he possess the menacing mystique of Brooks’ creation, or will his character degenerate into a brute superhero?

I am going to watch future episodes, if only to see whether the editing style will calm down. I hope so. Because if the creators can steer away from the patronizing, market-driven approach of so many other forgettable TV shows, they could still create something great. Or at least something that gives people a flavour of Terry Brooks’ unique and moving vision of the world of Shannara. This series’ saving grace just might be the incredible plot of the original book. But at this point, after viewing the pilot, I need a little more convincing that the magic is there.

 

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The Dreaded Coverage (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Feedback)

Today’s topic is about one of the most dreaded things a write can encounter: professional feedback, otherwise known as coverage. How to use and deal with feedback is one of the most important skills for a writer. As a screenwriter, that goes double.

WHAT IS COVERAGE?

Coverage is obtained when a writer submits his or her screenplay to an industry professional for written feedback. The professional does not undertake to produce the script, but instead provides a written report listing its strengths and weaknesses.

The difference between professional coverage and feedback from other people, such as the writers in your writers’ group (you do have a writer’s group, right?) is that you pay for the former. But the principles about how to deal with feedback are the same whether you pay or not.

HOW TO GET COVERAGE

There are many ways to get coverage. Websites and screenwriting gurus abound offering consultancy services ranging from around $50 upwards. The sky is the limit. I have seen consultants ask for thousands of dollars. The pros and cons of these services may depend on where you are as a writer, and I won’t go into whether they are worth the fee here.

You can also approach your peers – other writers. I would not suggest using friends and family unless they are also writers.  Your mother will always say your latest torture horror opus is “lovely, dear”. Likewise, friends may not wish to offend you. Those who are not writers may simply lack the skills needed to analyse a script or to tell you whether it is marketable or not. So always go with someone with experience of writing, editing or script reading.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into what coverage means to a writer:

 

Signs of when it's time to move on. (via Bluecat)

Signs that it’s time to move on.

STANDARD COVERAGE FORMAT FOR SCREENPLAYS

In the film industry, coverage consists of 2-3 pages of synopsis, followed by (usually) 2-3 pages of actual analysis, sometimes followed by a score card. The “meat” of coverage is the 2-3 page analysis. The score card illustrates at a glance the strengths and weaknesses of your work according to that script reader.

What is the purpose of the synopsis, you ask? I submitted my script to get an analysis, not to have my own story told back to me! I’ve been swindled!

Well, it’s tempting to consider the fist 2-3 pages as filler and ignore it. But another way to look at it is to consider that your story may not have translated itself into someone else’s head the way you imagined it in your own.

Writing is the art and craft of transferring thoughts from your own head into someone else’s. It is a kind of telepathy. Whether the other person “gets” your scene or not, or has a different impression of what just happened in your story, can be a sign that you were not successful in getting them to imagine everything as you did.

 

HOW TO DEAL WITH COVERAGE

Whenever a writer receives feedback, whether verbal or written, the initial reaction may well be to clench your teeth, dig your nails into the arms of your chair, then launch into a tirade about “idiots not getting it” or accusing the reader of skipping important parts that explained everything.

But remember, as a writer your job is to communicate. Just as the customer is king in the restaurant industry, in the writing world the reader is king. If the reader doesn’t get  what you want them to get, you have only yourself to blame.

Another reaction is panic. Panic at the amount of work that needs doing. Despair at the insurmountable cliff one faces. Did you spend enough time on your script to begin with? Most writers write around ten drafts of a script and at least two drafts of a novel before even showing it to anyone.  Now another rewrite looms. How will you ever get the work done?

Trust me, it’s something everyone dreads.

The way I deal with this is as follows:

Read the feedback all the way through, from start to finish.

Do nothing.

Let it percolate. Don’t be temped to dash off a hasty e-mail cursing the reader for his or her stupidity. If you’re in a writer’s group or face-to-face situation, take the comments with good grace and make a note of them. You will be glad you did. Giving feedback is an art in itself (that’s for another time). Some people are better at it than others. The other person may only wish to help as much as possible. They may think that by being ultra-critical they are only strengthening the material.

Let the dust settle.

After about a week of nursing your feelings by overindulging on cappuccino or another beverage of your choice go back to the feedback. Read it again.

Now that your feelings are out of the way, doesn’t it make more sense? You may even be inspired as you read and gain ideas about how to improve the script. How did you miss that plot point? And of course that character wouldn’t do that!

Maybe the reader knows something after all.

Read it again.

This time, break it down into the things that don’t work. Also make a note of the things the reader liked. Don’t change these. These are your story’s strengths.

I always copy the feedback into another document, then edit it down so that I just have the reader’s criticisms  bullet-pointed in a list.

Still looks like an awful lot of wok, doesn’t it?

Here’s a secret tip.

Do the easy stuff first!

Did you use the wrong word somewhere? Commit a typo? Attribute dialogue to the wrong character. Go and change that sucker now. Each time you do, remove that point from your document.

Feels good, right?

You’re making progress!

NOW FOR THE REAL WORK

At this point, go back over your shortened document. Now separate the points out into things like “STORY”, “CHARACTER”,  and “DIALOGUE”.

I now go through the script one time for each of these things. Take another pass for story problems, then another for character and dialogue etc. I recommend Paul Chitlik’s excellent book “Rewrite” for a structured approach. If you already did this, now’s the time to do it again.

By taking a structured, methodical approach to addressing feedback, you can make the process of rewriting much less painful.

If you find yourself unwilling to throw out a cherished scene or piece of dialogue, simply save another version of your novel or screenplay file. You can always go back to it. And you may find that without the psychological crutch of having it there you’ll find a much better way to write that scene or show that character’s journey.

Feedback is painful. It’s painful because we writers like to believe that what’s on the page is a little bit of our soul. And rejection hurts. But that’s not how it is. Rare is the script that cannot be improved, even Oscar-winning screenplays. Henry James, the great American novelist, used to return to his stories and tinker with them ad infinitum.

By taking time to let your wounded pride recover, you can approach feedback with a clear head. By breaking it down into small tasks, you can make rewriting seem less daunting. If you do these things, receiving feedback may become less like a chore.

As always, if you think I’ve missed anything, or disagree with me, let me know. I welcome the feedback!

Happy (re)writing!

 

POSTSCRIPT:

There will come a time when you cannot rewrite any more. Recognising this is just as important as knowing the script needs improvement. When you reach this stage, don’t delay. Get it out there! Form a marketing plan and execute it. Don’t let someone else beat you to the punch. This has happened to me several times. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone sell your idea to a studio when your script is sitting on a shelf waiting to be marketed!

 

 

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This is pretty exciting news. My vampire novel PROJECT NINE is now available as an e-book on Amazon!

But this isn’t your usual horror story. It contains science-fiction, mad scientists, government conspiracies and, although it has its fair share of spinetingling romance,  you won’t find any sparkly vampires here!

PROJECT NINE  is the story of a young man named Luke who lives in a small Iowa town and who dreams of an escape from his own mortality. He finds it when he meets Lynne, a beautiful drifter who offers him eternal life. But the price is an insatiable addiction to human blood.

FrontCover2

What Luke does not know is that Lynne has escaped from The Tower, a secret government installation hidden in the cornfields of  the American Midwest. Within its walls, a clandestine experiment has gone terribly wrong. Aimed at breeding a new generation of super-soldiers, the Project has instead created genetically engineered creatures who live in darkness and feed on the blood of others.

Now, pursued across the country by an obsessive detective, Lynne and her fellow test subjects roam America’s backwoods in their quest for victims.

And Luke has joined them.

But theirs is no romantic existence: it is a world of spiralling violence where Luke must kill each night to survive. He is about to find out that his new life is very different to what he imagined…

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

PROJECT NINE is equal parts Stephen King, Anne Rice, Michael Crichton, Phillip K Dick, and Mary Shelley.

These vampires are psychologically realistic, damaged people. And the science behind their creation is so believable that, according to several sources, it’s even technically possible!

I’ll be telling you more about the characters, human and otherwise, in later posts.

WHERE CAN I BUY IT?

You can buy PROJECT NINE on Amazon as an e-book here.

Or in the UK you can get it here.

If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry, you can simply download Amazon’s own free e-reader for PC or smartphone when you buy. It’s so easy, even I did it!

You can also read a free sample before you download it. So why are you still here? Just click on one of the links above to get reading!

 

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December 26, 2015 · 9:55 pm