Monthly Archives: April 2013

The dreaded telephone conversation

Why do I fall victim to this most horrific of plot devices every time I write a script?

Most screenwriting gurus say the same thing. For the sake of all that’s holy, DON’T include telephone conversations in your screenplay. Not only is the formatting a bitch, but it’s inherently undramatic to show two people talking in different places. For some reason, there’s something jarring about seeing onscreen what we all do on a daily basis.

But then, there are other things we do on a daily basis that I also wouldn’t want to see onscreen…

However if you’re like me and unable to write a single Act without that most unwelcome of characters making an appearance,  here are some formatting tips:

Voice-Over (V.O.) or Off-Screen (O.S.)?

I would say, if you must, V.O.

O.S. implies a character is in the same place but talking out of shot of the camera.

V.O. is when we hear the words spoken over the action.

Intercutting Scenes

The easiest way to avoid the above dilemma is to use “INTERCUT” in your sluglines.

For example:

INT. BOB’S HOUSE – DAY

Bob picks up the phone.

BOB

Hello?

INT. DAVE’S HOUSE – DAY

Dave on the other end of the phone.

DAVE

Hi, Bob. I hear you’re wrting a scene with a phone call.

INTERCUT. BOB’S HOUSE/DAVE’S HOUSE

Bob sighs.

BOB

Yeah, those things are a sonofa bitch.

DAVE

I hear ya.

Get the idea?

Remember to set your two locations up with a brief scene before you use “INTERCUT” as I have in the above example.

Another way of writing the last slugline would be:

“INTERCUT BETWEN BOB’S HOUSE AND DAVE’S HOUSE AS REQUIRED”

Don’t get hung up on this. Remember, correct format serves to convey meaning. Not the other way around.

However you should always include an action line immediately after EVERY slugline. The slugline is not a replacement for action but serves to inform us what location we are in.

AND

I’ll let you into a little secret. I find that if you have one character doing something that’s important, but which is hidden from the other character, this distracts the reader from the fact that you’ve ever used a phone call. For instance:

 INT. BOB’S HOUSE – DAY

Bob picks up the phone.

BOB

Dave? I hear you’re going to that High School reunion later.

INT. DAVE’S HOUSE – DAY

Dave on the other end of the phone.

DAVE

That’s right.

INTERCUT. BOB’S HOUSE/DAVE’S HOUSE

Bob laughs at a memory.

BOB

You remember that kid Brian who bullied you all year?

Dave loads a magazine into a gleaming 9mm Glock handgun.

DAVE

Oh, yeah.

Not Shakespeare. But you get the general idea.

So there you have it. You need never have nightmares about writing telephone conversations in a screenplay again.  Unless, like me, you can’t avoid writing them in the first place.

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The Death of Cinema?

At Cinemacon recently, studio heads tried to wrap their minds around why theater ticket sales are declining. Various factors were blamed, from DVD sales to online channels and ticket prices. The answer? A new “delivery method”. A way to get movies streamed instantly into peole’s homes, via the Internet.

After all, the Internet will solve everything.

In my opinion, this view fails to understand the fundamental reason why ticket sales are declining. I can only speak for myself and the people I know. But when asked why they don’t go to the movies, they invariably say “because there’s nothing worth watching”.

I would submit that this is the fundamental issue. It’s a simple cost/reward ratio. People don’t want to shell out a hefty £8 or $8 to sit in a  theater and be bored for 2 hours by a mediocre movie.

The real culprit, folks, is “Tentpole fever”. This can be traced back to the 1970s and the rise of the summer blockbuster. Spielberg’s “Jaws”, “Close Encounters” and Lucas’s “Star Wars” were both phenomenal successes. Together the pair created another franchise: the Indiana Jones films. And Hollywood has been chasing that golden ticket ever since.

It’s no surprise that Disney studios (Remember when they used to make charming family animation films?) has announced they plan to release a new “Star Wars” movie every year.

“Star Wars” was released in 1977. Yes, it was a global cultural phenomenon. But that was then. Thirty-six years ago. Since then we’ve had two sequels and three pretty poor (and universally panned) prequels. Do we really need more?

Recently some huge tentpole movies have bombed.  “John Carter” and “Jack the Giant Slayer” for instance. Why?

Let’s contrast these movies to the far more successful, “Tron Legacy”.

“Tron Legacy” does a good job of updating the original which was Disney’s way of tapping into the home computer revolution of the early 1980s. The light cyces are cooler, the world bigger, the SFX more polished. The acting is solid in most places. And it has a great atmospheric score by Daft Punk. But it also has something else… soul. At its heart, this is a father/son story about estranged parent/offspring reuniting, bonding, and letting go.

However while “John Carter” may be a love story, there is no real sense of the romance between the two leads, and any sense of reality is blown away by the ever-escalating and frankly ridiculous plot devices (wait, it’s aliens, Martians, more aliens, different Martians AND magic?) which destroy our sense of disbelief early on.

The point to all this ?

These are STORY issues.

Yes, Hollwyood is still capable of making great movies. 2012’s “Avengers Assemble” and “The Hobbit” to name a few.

But by focusing on STORY and less on SFX, Hollywood could reach more people, deliver more satsfying stories, spend less cash per picture, and make more money.

Nowadays, studios make only about a dozen films a year tops themselves. Each one is stuffed with SFX. It’s an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket strategy. And if a film flops, the results can be disastrous. Disney lost $160 million on “John Carter” alone. But in the golden age of Hollywood, studios churned out hundreds of movies.

You do the math.

My take? The Internet will not solve the problem of why fewer people are watching films. I would argue that the demand is still there. People will always want an evening of magic, living vicariously through 40 foot high technicolor  images on a silver screen. The real question is one of supply.

Wait, zombies and… poetry?

Yes, it’s true.

“Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes” from Coscom Entertainment has been out a while now and it’s sold pretty well. So well, in fact, that there’s only one copy left on www.amazon.co.uk.  Well, what are you waiting for? That copy could be yours!

It's not like any garden of verses you've been in before!

It’s not like any garden of verses you’ve been in before!

I’m pretty happy with the way this one turned out. And I get to brush literary shoulders with the likes of Steve Rasnic Tem. I may have to write some more poetry soon…

You can find it here http://www.amazon.co.uk/Vicious-Verses-Reanimated-Rhymes-Zombie/dp/1897217951/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366048742&sr=1-4&keywords=eric+ian+steele

To trend or not to trend… writing in the “hot” genre

What is “hot” in Hollywood? What kind of screenplay does Hollywood want?

Surely, the cynical starving writer thinks, if I find out what genre is hot and I write in that genre, Hollywood will want my screenplays? The simply law of supply and demand will do my marketing job for me. If “found footage” scripts are hot, simply write one and riches will await.

But hang on, says the artist (who doesn’t mind if he or she starves or not), isn’t that betraying your art? Isn’t it selling… out?

Well, I have no problem with someone writing for a living. Even Leonardo da Vinci had to eat. And although I could do without yet another “disaster mash-up” movie (SyFy channel, I’m looking at you), I remember one of my earliest instincts was to find out what Hollywood wants in a screenplay. After all, they are the buyers and I am the seller.

But there are several problems with trying to write in the “hot genre”. First of all, Hollywood is a long way away. Not just in space, but in time. Studios frequently undertake test screenings to gauge the popularity of a film before it is finished. People in Hollywood know what the outcome of these screening are. Hence in your newsletter you might get an inexplicable slew of requests for stories about “dogs verses aliens” from producers anxious to copy the newest surefire hit.

And therein lies the problem. Because by the time you write said screenplay, the trend will be over, and “Buster Saves the World” will be yesterday’s movie news. Writing for the latest hot trend is like trying to hit a constantly moving target. By the time you’ve nocked your arrow and written your screenplay, the movie world has moved on to the next “hot” project.

Having said that…

Certain types of script always stand more of a chance of getting made. They are generally as follows…

– Female driven

– Limited location

– Low budget

– Horror/thriller

– No SFX

These are the calls for screenplays you will encounter most frequently in newsletters and advertisements.

BUT.. and this is a big BUT!

I personally have found that I have less success trying to write in low budget genres. For some reason I naturally (and unfortunately) gravitate toward big action set pieces, usually sci-fi or horror. And yet I have more success selling these type of stories than when I write my one-location character-driven drama.

So if anything can be drawn from my limited experience, it’s this… write in the style and genre you love AND which you are best at. Whatever the budget. Whatever the genre. And THEN worry about rewriting it so it can get made. Maybe you can reduce the budget without losing that great scene with the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building.

This is a strange business. As Dan Ackroyd once said: “I write ’em big, and they keep making ’em.”

Here’s hoping you can write big too!

Organising your troops

Been a while since my last post, so here is something I hope is truly useful.

HOW TO SELL TO HOLLYWOOD

Hollywood is a long way from Britain. A very long way. Yet, thanks to the Internet and telephone, it isn’t!

Over the years I’ve devised a number of plans to get my scripts into the hands of people in LA. I’m not saying this is THE way to sell a script. If I was, I would be so rich and successful I wouldn’t NEED a blog. But these are steps that have worked for me in the past .

So in no particular order, here are my steps for selling to Hollywood.

Just don’t forget to thank me when you write that blockbuster.

1. Write a really, really great script.

Possibly the hardest step.

2. Feedback

They say insanity and genius are separated by a hair’s breadth. But how to tell if you’re one or the other?

Ask people.

BEWARE. There are many “gurus” who will take even more money to give you generic, unhelpful, even destructive “feedback”. Even well-meaning folks can send you on a wild goose chase. More on this in another post. But at some stage you will need to navigate this potentially expensive minefield to find out if you have chicken breast or chicken shit  (as my dad says).

3. Go to Oxbridge or Eton, come from a long line of film or theatrical producers, be born into the aristocracy, or join RADA at the age of six.

Sound discouraging? Good.

Because these are the TOP ways that people in the UK become Hollywood screenwriters. There, I said it. Your suspicions were justified. Nepotism is rife. Pod people really are everywhere. Don’t believe me? Go check out their bios.

Yes, it’s disheartening to know that the odds are stacked aginst you. In fact, this is the number one reason everyone I know who quits screenwriting uses to justify their decision. As William Goldman says in his excellent “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, in Britain, if your father is a blacksmith, you better like shoeing horses.

Of course, if you’re still reading this, then you have the burning ambition and drive to succeed against the odds. You are Han Solo piloting your rusty, war-torn script through the asteroid field of Hollywood gatekeepers, pursued by the Imperial Star Destroyers of poverty and family pressure.

Good for you. Now read on…

4. Get familiar with Word and Excel

For us mere ordinary folks, we need more than just a pedigree worthy of Shergar.

You need to keep a record of everyone you’ve sent your script to. This will avoid the embarassing mistake of sending it out twice to  the same agent/manager/producer.

5. List your own industry contacts

I always try these first. Be selective. Don’t bug them too often. Treat them like the customer who comes into your literary restaurant and always spends well.

6. List companies and individuals who accept unsolicited submissions

This is the equivalent of Will Smith going head to head with all those alien fighters in Independence Day but sometimes, just sometimes, it can pay off. Think of it as a numbers game. After all, you resulted from the same process…

7. Get help from other companies

This requires some discretion on your part. There are many companies who will gladly take your money (lots of it) and promise nothing in return. It’s up to you which companies you choose. But experience has taught me that producers do not respond with rapt enthusiasm to yet another unsolicited, mass-produced email landing in their private inbox. Logically, you are more likely to have success with targeted submissions, or submissions to people actually looking for new material.

Listing sites offer the best value for money. Some of them are even free. Producers scouring the net for scripts sign up for these sites and can then search under specific criteria. So you are less  likely to get a producer who specializes in family-friendly pet movies soliciting your R-rated slasher script (Now there’s an idea).

8. Use online tools

Again, there are many of these. I haven’t used it yet myself, but IMDB pro looks like a very useful tool to find out who is making your kind of movies. Whether they will accept your submissions, however, is another story.

9. The dreaded query letter

Remember when people used to write letters, using real paper?

Some gurus say the query letter is dead. But remember, this is an industry where nobody knows anything.

Just don’t do anything CRAZY… like sending your script out in a radioactive container with a guy in a HAZMAT suit (been done, honest). That is not the way to win friends and influence people.

Also, don’t do what someone else did recently and take our a full page ad in Varierty telling Harrison ford you’ve got the perfect script for him. Something tells me Harrison won’t be calling any time soon.

10. The even more dreaded actual telephone call

Amazingly, you can actually speak to an agent in LA by picking up the phone. Turns out these people have offices. Sure, you might get the bum’s rush by the receptionist who can’t understand your thick Geordie accent, or the gatekeeper who gives you a stern “no unsolicited submissions” then hangs up. But so what? Just don’t lie to get through to the agent. Yes, I did that once.  Well, it wasn’t technically lying… and actually they agreed to read my script, which sucked (See step 1).

11. One step beyond

Don’t, repeat… DO NOT…. pitch in social situations. Not unless you’re asked. Do not follow execs into toilets and pitch them at the urinal (yup, been done… not by me, I hasten to add). Do not give your business card to your studio tour guide while on vacation.

A tip if you ever go to LA (and you should)… EVERYBODY wants to be in the movies. From your barrista to your taxi driver.

Separate yourself from the herd by being professional. For the sake of sanity.

I’m about to embark on some major selling sprees, so I’ll keep you updated as to the progress of these steps.

Meanwhile, keep writing!