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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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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?

 

 

The Best Horror Movies of the Past 50 years! Part 5! The Nineties!

Ah, the 1990s… when the Eighties were a distant memory. The Nineties were mad for it. Grungier than its predecessor, we never thought there would someday be a price to pay for all those late nights spent clubbing it. Nowadays the whistles and glowsticks seems just as bad as those silly hats.

Horror movies had a hard time in the 90s. The 1980s had milked the slasher movie to death. Vampires and werewolves were old hat. Even the horror comedy was on its way out. In a way, many of these movies represent the dying breaths of horror’s staple bad guys. The horror genre was about get ugly…

Exorcist III 1990

The decade began with a shuddering return to form of William Peter Blatty’s faith-based possession franchise. The film doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. Maybe it simply had nothing new to say. But with some genuinely chilling moments involving a bone saw, this was a worthy sequel to the classic horror hit, if not a new beginning.

Jacob’s Ladder 1990

As a counterpoint to that kind of “old-school” horror, here we have the first of several psychological horror movies as Tim Robbins does a star turn as a man haunted by visions of demons. In true Nineties style, the story turns out to be a bit “meta”.

The children of the night may be beautiful, but they're not very scary.

The children of the night may be beautiful, but they’re not very scary.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula 1992

Francis Ford Coppola turns Bram Stoker’s classic bloodsucker into a kind of modern fairytale. Not scary in the least, and certainly not a definitive version, despite the claim to closely follow the novel (which it doesn’t), and full of wildly uneven performances, you have to admire its impressive, visual style, while Gary Oldman’s outing as Dracula would cement him as a great actor for years to come.

Army of Darkness 1992

Sam Raimi rounds off his “Evil Dead” trilogy with this rip-roaring slapstick live-action cartoon. Boasting some great comic one-liners and an even more OTT performance by B-movie legend Bruce Campbell, this Halloween treat contains skeleton warriors, flying books, and an extremely surreal scene in a windmill where Ash chases around little versions of himself. This is one of those films that’s so bizarre it stands in a category of its own. It is also so downright mad that it ended the series, albeit on a high note of laughter.

Interview with the Vampire 1994

Neil Jordan brought audiences the visually alluring but story-lite “Company of Wolves” in the 80s. Here, he tackles Anne Rice’s novel of a vampire telling the story of his 200 year-old existence. Starring Tom Cruise in  role nobody expected of this all-American action star (a bloodsucking ghoul), and a young Brad Pitt, as well as a 12 year-old Kirsen Dunst, this is a lavish tale worthy of those old Hammer classics of the Sixties. But the novel has a touch of 1990s despair about it. This vampire doesn’t know his place in the world and is constantly seeking something to believe in – a little like people in the 1990s. Once again, the vampire is a reflection of his times, which perhaps explains why it took so long for the book to reach the screen.

From Dusk Til Dawn 1996

Quentin Tarantino hit the big time in the 1990s with his multiple-storyline post-modern heist flick “Reservoir Dogs”. Here, he dips his wick in the horror genre, at least for the first half. Once the vampires cut loose, he turns directing over to Robert Rodriguez, who brings his over-the-top campy action style into play. Hard to take seriously today, this movie has its tongue surgically implanted in its cheek. It is also the movie that inspired a million tattoos thanks to George Clooney. A fun film at the time that is less fun with age, it had some strong actors but is ultimately a bit of a gimmick rather than a serious movie – the main draw being actors getting killed whom you expect to survive. Horror, it seemed, was running out of ideas.

Are you cool? I'm cool. Are we cool? Vampires are not... cool in this movie.

Are you cool? I’m cool. Are we cool? Vampires are not… cool in this movie.

Scream 1996

The last word in Slasher movies belongs to Wes Craven, who was ironically one of its creators. This film is postmodern in every sense. Teens stalked by a slasher discuss how slasher movies work in order to escape their killer, only to discover that the killer also watches slasher movies and knows as much about them as they do. The death knell of the slasher movie can be heard loud and clear in this horror/thriller. After this, there was simply nowhere for the subgenre to go.

Event Horizon 1997

An underappreciated film that makes little sense on first viewing. Imagine Star Trek crossed with a John Carpenter film and you get the picture. Horror icon Sam Neil (at this time a big draw thanks to Jurassic Park) takes a risk as a doomed character in this story of a space ship that returns from its journey into hyperspace without its crew, like a futuristic Marie Celeste. As scientists try to uncover what happened to the passengers, they learn that something nasty waits on the other side of the dimensional border. A Lovecraftian sci-fi, in a sense, this is one of the few truly original horror movies of the decade.

The Faculty 1998

Movie stars got younger and younger in the 1990s as studios targeted their “real” audience. Here, Robert Rodriguez is on form as he directs a tale of high schoolers taking on an alien invasion with the help of a pot-smoking rebel. This B-movie boasts some standout future stars like Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnettt. It is also much more enjoyable than it deserves to be, given the number of irritating jargon-speaking schoolkids. A very “nineties” updating of old 1950s B-movie tropes. Once again, however, the “alien invasion” horror movie had no real place to go.

The Sixth Sense 1999

This movie marked the debut of M Night Shyamalan, whose career would (for a while) be known for its outrageous plot-twists. The movie also resurrected the career of action star Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist treating a kid who “sees dead people”. Although people disagree as to whether the plot twist at the end was a surprise or obvious, the film packs some genuinely creepy moments, and lots of shocks along the way, as only the boy can see the dead folks, but they can see him.  Shyamalan’s tale proved hard to copy, but revived a lot of interest in the flagging horror genre for a new generation of filmgoers.

Like it or loathe it, this movie gave the genre a breathe of new life.

Like it or loathe it, this movie gave the genre a breath of new life.

The Blair Witch project 1999

As if to underline audiences’ boredom with standard horror fare, the found footage genre re-emerged at the end of the century with the most profitable independent film in movie history, usurping John Carpenter’s “Halloween”. Three people get lost in a wood on videotape. It really is that simple. What follows divided audiences. Some loved it for its clever use of a very (nonexistant) limited budget and the way it raises your hackles by not showing you what is going on. Others hated it for precisely the same reason. The found footage genre proved an enormous hit, no doubt because it was very cheap to copy. But whether you love it or hate it, this subgenre gave the horror film a new direction, one that would create a whole new set of filmmakers in the ‘Noughties and beyond, and who would exploit rapidly-changing technology to give the studios a run for their money.

The Nineties suffered from the overdose of slasher movies that took place in the Eighties. For a while the genre was left reeling. But new technology and clever filmmaking resurrected the horror movie at the end of the decade. With audiences demanding new thrills, better special effects, and grimmer storylines to reflect the pessimism of the times, horror movies were about to go to a very dark place indeed.

Next time…

Zombies, zombies, zombies! The world goes mad for George A Romero’s creations. Horror goes viral, ghosts turn Japanese, and it seems that anyone can make a horror film as long as they have a mobile phone.

 

 

The Best Horror Movies of the Past 50 Years, Part 3! The Seventies! 1976-1979!

Hi, there, horror fans! Last time we looked at how Hollywood was unafraid to make more experimental horror features in the early 1970s. Although Spielberg’s “JAWS” would lead to studios forever chasing the summer blockbuster, the late Seventies were still an exciting time for horror movies. Foreign filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Dario Argento were developing cult followings. Meanwhile, low budget filmmaking was about to come into its own, as was a certain young horror writer from Maine, New England…

Let’s start our list of late seventies horror with…

The Omen 1976

No-one can doubt the influence of Richard Donner’s by-the-numbers horror movie. With more than just a passing nod to artsy horror masterpiece “The Exorcist”, this is a rip-roaring Hollywood-style horror flick. It boasts some bravura set-pieces, such as the decapitated photographer. With stalwart acting from heavyweights Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Billy Whitelaw, and David Warner, the picture is very believable. But there’s no happy ending here as the Antichrist is born to a powerful American politician. This movie created a profitable and mostly well-made series of sequels that gave the world Sam Neil. It also became the bane of children named Damien everywhere.

Martin... a new kind of vampire.

Martin… a new kind of vampire.

Martin 1976

George A Romero, back from “Night of the Living Dead”, triumphed again with this underappreciated cinematic gem. It’s a genuinely original take on vampires. Is homicidal young loner Martin a vampire or not? Is he merely disturbed, or is there some truth in his bizarre flashbacks to another time? Terrific, glory, explicit, sensual, thought-provoking and beautifully filmed, this movie features an amazing performance by the underused John Amplas. Overlooked at its time, this has become a true cult classic.

Carrie 1976

The arrival of a young writer called Stephen King created a reign of terror that is still going today. Hollywood struck gold with King’s curiously brief tale of an alienated young girl with awesome telekinetic powers. Phenomenal directing by Brian De Palma (of “Sisters” fame) catapulted King into the popular consciousness. At one level this is a time-tested tale of an ugly duckling who gets her revenge. But DePalma used split screen and slow motion camera work to viscera effect for the final massacre that is actually too much to fit on one screen! What is mentioned less often is the great cast of actors including Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. This is one horror blockbuster that stands the test of time.

Suspiria 1977

Italian Filmmaker Dario Argento’s most well-known film is about a coven of witches posing as a ballet school in Italy. Some memorable set-pieces elevate this beyond its video-nasty style violence. Argento often treads a fine line between good and poor taste. Here, he manages to keep it on the straight and narrow. It also boasts a great score by the world’s foremost horror band… Goblin!

Dawn of the Dead 1978

Which brings us to George A Romero’s sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”. Where “Night” finished, “Dawn” goes a step further. Civilization is falling into chaos at the hands of the zombie invasion. We begin with some great scenes of things literally going to hell. Four survivors hitch a ride on a helicopter and hole up at an abandoned shopping mall. They soon learn that having everything does not make you happy. A social satire as well as a very frightening movie, the impact of “Dawn” may be diluted now due to dated make-up effects and the current trend for fast-running zombies. But the Romero’s innumerable hordes of shambling ghouls still make for claustrophobic viewing. This movie gave us memorable images like the Hari Krishna zombie, elevators full of undead shoppers, and an eerie kids’ TV theme tune. It also features some great acting from a cast who sadly never went on to stardom. “Dawn” has influenced virtually every horror movie since, including current TV sensation “The Walking Dead” and 2004’s delightful “zombie-rom-com” “Shaun of the Dead”. And come on, don’t you wish you were in that world, just a little bit?

The slasher genre... the most profitable genre in movies!

The slasher genre… the most profitable genre in movies!

Halloween 1978

John Carpenter’s film debut is actually not his film debut. That came with sci-fi black comedy “Dark Star” (1974). But he will forever be associated with this low-budget shocker about a psychopath that comes back to a leafy suburb to kill again on the titular eve. The movie made Jamie Lee Curtis a scream queen and cemented the “slasher movie” as a staple of cinema. The slasher movie’s key components of low cost, titillation, and violence was a wining combination, one that survives to this day. Arguably, this is the one sub-genre that has blackened the reputation of horror films, due to the many terrible or poor taste rip-offs branded “video nasties” in the 80s, such as the inept “Driller Killer”. But what makes “Halloween” a lot more intelligent than many of its successors is John Carpenter’s expert direction. He makes every shadow in your living room menacing, every closet or couch the potential hiding place of a madman. So that by the end of the movie your own house is no longer a safe place to hide. For a long time the most successful independent film ever made, “Halloween” is a true horror classic.

The Amityville Horror 1979

Hollywood must have been confused by the success of “Halloween”, if this return to the tried-and-tested haunted house formula is anything to go by. To be fair, it’s a very effective movie. The haunted house is given a twist by adding a bit of demonic possession, as well as copying the “true story” myth from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to give it added credence. But the worrying priest, bleeding walls etc are all things we’ve seen before. A well-made film that spawned innumerable sequels of decreasing quality and suffered the obligatory 21st century “reboot”. But that’s really the only reason it’s here.

It's enough to put you off eggs for life.

It’s enough to put you off eggs for life.

Alien 1979

Which brings us to the end of the 1970s. If Hollywood was running out of fresh ideas, it found one of its most enduring franchises in this unofficial adaptation of the B-movie shocker  “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” (1958). At the time, science-fiction mania was sweeping the world, thanks to the pop culture phenomenon of “Star Wars” (1977) and Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). The time was ripe for a sci-fi/horrror hybrid. Cue Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schussett’s script of a rather unpleasant alien that stows away on a space ship. A very simple movie, enhanced by amazing visuals and strong actors, this is essentially hide-and-seek on a space ship. The groundbreaking chestburster scene also gave audiences a scare they would never forget. Responsible for a slew of sequels, some better than others, the end of the Seventies showed that horror was still prepared to boldly go where no ghoul had gone before!

Next time… The Eighties arrives!

In which aliens get even nastier, vampires get even cooler, werewolves get even hairier, and a some teenagers have their sleep disturbed on Elm Street. Sweet dreams!

 

 

The Best Horror Movies of the Past 50 Years, Part 2! The Seventies! 1970-1975!

Last time we saw how horror movies changed in the 1960s, from classic Gothic horror like the Hammer films and Roger Corman’s Edger Allen Poe adaptations to pessimistic modern horror stories like “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Night of the Living Dead”. This time we turn out attention to the 1970s – possibly the most exciting time for horror since the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

During this decade, Hollywood proved it was willing to take risks with stories, to go places they had never gone before. Add to this a new tide of horror authors who wanted to update the Gothic horror staples of vampires and werewolves, including a certain Stephen King, and you have a decade of some of the greatest horror movies ever made. In fact, there are so many great horror movies of the Seventies that I’ve had to split this post up! So here are what I think are the most influential horror movies from 1970 to 1975!

blood

A Bay of Blood (1971)

One feature of early 1970s cinema is the debt it owes to cinema verite. Even Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” owes a debt in places to this documentary-style of film-making. The trend suited low-budget movie-makers and would lead to the infamous slasher movie. The start of that craze can be found here. Part Italian giallo, part murder mystery, “Bay of Blood” was made by Mario Bava, a film-maker who deserves far more recognition than he has enjoyed. A number of potential heirs and heiresses to a fortune are invited to the titular Bay. They then try to kill each other off in various gory and brutal ways. Boasts some bravura set–pieces. The octopus is a great surprise also!

Deliverance 1972

You’ll never play the banjo again. Disturbing hi-jinks in America’s backwoods when some city slickers cross paths with the twisted locals. John Boorman’s gripping horror-thriller features a young Burt Reynolds. Copied many times, sometimes humorously, sometimes not.

Exorcist 1973

This is a movie which probably needs no introduction from me. A supernatural chiller directed by William Friedkin and based on the best-seller by William Peter Blatty, itself based on a supposedly real event. It broke all records when released and became notorious not just for fainting audiences, but for the treatment its stars were subjected to. Today, it’s been copied so many times that it may have lost its power to shock. It has directly influenced every exorcism movie since, as well as forming the basis for the dubious Leslie Nielsen comedy “Repossessed”. Still, as a meditation on the power and seductiveness of evil, it’s compelling.

Sisters 1973

Brian DePalma’s first movie. So demented it’s terrific. Margot Kidder stars as a pair of French-Canadian Siamese twins that were separated with horrific consequences. This is a movie that seeks to turn horror tropes and clichés on its head. Its twists keep going right to the end. It is also part of the illustrious mad-doctor movie that became popular with “Eyes Without A Face” and keeps on going today with movies like “Hostel” and the distasteful “Human Centipede” films.

The Wicker Man 1973

The world’s first horror musical! Fantastic British chiller starring Edward Woodward as a religious police officer who goes to investigate a disappearance on a remote Scottish island where paganism is rife. Although it was remade poorly, this really is a one-of-a-kind movie. Music by folk-rock band Pentangle serves as an atmospheric soundtrack  to what is probably the bleakest ending ever.

Black Christmas 1974

This expertly-made psycho-thriller started the old gag that the killer is making phone calls from inside the victim’s house.A killer is stalking a sorority sisterhood. Margot Kidder again resurfaces, this time as the victim.  A genuinely disturbing movie in some places and a forerunner of the teen slasher movie that was to come.

Texas chainsaw Massacre 1974

Another 70s shocker that has lost most of its power due to continually being copied. It’s hard to imagine the modern psycho-killer movie without TCM. This brutal film began the “endurance horror” craze and took the idea of murderous hillbillies one step further. You actually see very little gore in this movie. But audiences were convinced they saw more, such was the power of suggestion. Today, its ferocity is hard to understand, but on release this was one of the movies that changed the horror landscape and paved the way for the “video nasties” of the 1980s.

Deep Red 1975

Dario Argento’s best movie. This is a true giallo film — a type of Italian thriller that closely identifies with the killer and features elaborate set-pieces. David Hemmings is the American out of his depth who witnesses a murder in Rome. Or did he? A superb mystery with some excellent death scenes. Probably the finest giallo movie ever made.

Shivers 1975

This unsettling sex horror (is that even a genre?) signalled the arrival of Canadian body horror maestro David Cronenberg. The residents of a luxury apartment building are attacked by repulsive turd-shaped parasites that drive the into a sexual frenzy. This is a movie that is bound to deeply disturb anyone remotely normal. Which of course, is great. The body-horror genre has its roots in the Atomic bomb era of the 1950s and the plethora of paranoid B-movies where the main character was mutated by radiation.  Cronenberg made that fantasy disturbing reality, which would lead to many other movies in that genre, such as Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” and Cronenberg’s own “The Fly” in the 1980s, as well as direct homages such as 2006’s “Slither”.

You'll never get into the bathtub again... Cronenberg's "Shivers"!

You’ll never get into the bathtub again… Cronenberg’s “Shivers”!

Jaws 1975

The daddy of summer blockbusters. “Jaws” rewrote the Hollywood paradigm for making movies and still rules the waves. Okay, so the shark looks a bit rubber now. But thanks to a mechanical failure, Spielberg has given us one of the best (and most quotable) thrillers ever made. The movie’s success would lead to other popcorn movies like 1977’s “Star Wars”. As we know, these movies would influence the box-office for decades to come. Not for much longer would studios take a gamble on artistic and risky fare. Eventually, this would lead to the cut-and-paste plots of most big-budget movies today. In a way, “Jaws” sounded the death-knell of the kind of low-budget film-making that created so many different kinds of horror movie in the 1970s.

Next…

1975 – 1979!

Telepathic teenagers go on a rampage, zombies go for a morning stroll in a supermarket, a particularly unpleasant alien hitches a ride on a passing spacecraft, and a certain Michael Myers decides its time he went home…

 

 

Intermission – how to calculate movie budgets

Before we carry on with our discussion of action lines, here is something I learned about movie budgets.

One of the most popular questions asked of screenwriters is “What is the budget of this movie”? Yet there are no websites I can see which offer guidance on this. So, to fill a gap I thought I would share my research with you, gentle reader…

It can be frustrating for a screenwriter trying to estimate his or her potential screenplay’s budget. How much do SFX cost? How much does it cost to shoot in a particular city or range of locations? Will those exotic wild animals bump up the cost?

The only way I’ve found any answers is to look at previous movie budgets. Now, inflation can be a vexing devil, so I’ve only gone back a few years in most cases.

Here’s a list of recent movies from a range of budgets, along with what it cost to make them (All numbers are taken from http://www.boxofficemojo.com):

BIG BUDGET
Man of Steel = $225 million
Iron Man 3 = $200 million
World War Z = $190 million
Fast & Furious 6 = $160 million
Gravity = $100 million

MEDIUM BUDGET
Crazy Stupid Love= $50 million
Zero Dark Thirty = $40 million
The Social Network = $40 million
The Rite = $37 million
Saving Mr Banks = $35 million
Looper = $30 million
Anchorman = $26 million
The Conjuring = $20 million
The Apparition = $17 million
Nebraska = $12 million

LOW BUDGET
Paranormal Activity 2 = $3 million
The Purge = $3 million
Last Exorcism = $1.8 million
Insidious = $1.5 million
The Devil Inside = $1 million

MICROBUDGET

Paranormal Activity = $15,000

What does this mean? Well, let’s break it down.

BIG BUDGET

At the top end, we have big budget tentpole studio movies crammed with SFX and bankable stars. If you can make one of these for under $100 million, good luck. This is a very small market. Studios may only make a handful of these a year. Most of them are adaptations. Competition is fierce, and writing jobs are usually assignments that are  given to writers with a proven track record for generating serious cash. Here you will find your Joss Wheedons, David S Goyers and Zack Snyders.

MEDIUM BUDGET

In the middle range we have movies that are between £10-$100 million. This is a big range, and may movies are made for this amount of money. Factors that can push your script into this bracket include SFX, a few bankable stars, or lots of animals and stunt scenes. So if you’re filming Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, or Steve Carrell, or your script calls for a family of tigers, or a scene where someone jumps onto a moving semi-trailer (that’s a lorry for those of you who are English), or a wise-cracking CGI alien, this is likely to be your budget range. Again, there is tough competition here. Writers like Aaron Sorkin have made this budget range their own. But it may be possible to break into this market if you have a seriously strong concept and story that attracts star caliber talent or high-level investment. Note that many of these are dramas or dramedies. That’s because it’s tough to get a drama made unless you have a star, or an ex-star that wants to come back. Both of whom can push your low-budget piece up into this category.

LOW BUDGET

Next, we have the low budget world. This is the easiest spot to aim at. Most of these movies have either no SFX, a limited cast, are contained (i.e. they have limited locations, ideally less than 4), or are found footage. This is the world of the TV or family movie, However, it is also notably dominated by the horror genre. Horror has been the proving ground for many directors who went on to be A-listers (Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson) and tends to feature actors who can carry a movie without having the ego or bank account of so-called “stars”. A good horror movie can break box-office records, and studios know this. For instance, Insidious (2011) cost only £1.3 million to make, yet grossed over $55 million. Compare that to infamous flop “John Carter” (2012), which cost $250 million yet has recouped only $75 so far.

MAICRO-BOUDGET!!!!

Finally, we have the weird and wonderful world of the microbudget movie. This can be the kind of thing that premieres on the horror channel (if anywhere), or the kind of megahit that makes an entire career. Again, horror tends to dominate. Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and Halloween all became the most profitable independent films ever at one time. However other genres proliferate, such as 1980s sci-fi cult hits like Charles Band’s Trancers. However, it’s pretty safe to say these are flukes.

In reality, the low budget movie seems like a more sensible place to start. However, a word of warning: limiting your ideas to deliver a tiny budget movie may be a mistake. My own movie “Clone Hunter” was written as a big-budget space opera, yet managed to translate into a much lower budget movie. However, I’ve written microbudget movies by shoe-horning my ideas into confined locations without any SFX, and these failed to ignite any interest.

In my opinion, it doesn’t hurt to put your eggs in different baskets. You can always try for a big-budget payoff while honing that indie coming-of-age drama and rattling off that limited location found footage horor movie.

Like everything with writing, it seems there’s no single surefire quick access route to success. Sometimes it’s just a matter of writing what excites you and finding someone who is as passionate about your material as you are. If nobody else shares your vision, move on.

 

 

 

The lost art of the television movie?

Today I thought I would focus on the much-maligned made-for-TV-movie. For years dominated by WomJeps (that’s women-in-jeopardy movies to you and me) the TV movie is a misunderstood animal. At its worst it’s characterised by melodramatic stories, below-par acting and shoddy production values.  But TV movies have also given us some classics. Here are some examples chosen to show you a broad cross-section and history of this overlooked art form.

No SFX required. Just great characters.

No SFX required. Just great characters.

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVEYWEIGHT (1962)

Jack Palance chews up the scenery as only he could in this Rod Serling teleplay about a washed-up boxer. Yes, he of the Twilight Zone. Before he became forever associated with breaking the fourth wall in creepy tales, Serling was a heavywight himself in the world of playwrights. This is arguably one of his greatest efforts.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

Darren McGaven shines as abrasive but likeable reporter Carl Kolchak in the first of the character’s outings. The second most popular telefilm of all time (the honour of being the first goes to The Love Boat), McGavin and his long-suffering editor track down a vampire in Las Vegas. Screenwriter Richard Matheson, one of the greatest fantasists of the 20th century, sets up many of the reworkings of the modern vampire story that have become staples of the genre today. The film was so successful it spawned a (pretty good) sequel, “The Night Strangler” and a television series that has special effects so poor it is best reserved for fans of McGavin . Features a particularly creepy ending.

kolchak

DUEL (1972)

Yes, it’s directed by THAT Stephen Spielberg. From a script by Richard Matheson (again) and featuring popular TV actor Dennis Weaver, this is 70s TV personified. A nameless truck driver hunts a hapless motorists along the desert for no good reason. SPOLIER ALERT! Features Spielberg’s characteristic” roaring shark” sound when the trucker gets his comeuppance at the end.

SOMETHING EVIL (1972)

Spielberg was on a roll in 1972. This curiosity features Darren McGaven again as a man whose family is targeted by an unholy presence when they purchase a farm with “something evil” in the barn. Genuinely creepy, especially the two glowing eyes. Has that great blend of realism and the supernatural that characterizes 1970s horror.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)

One of the great things about TV movies was that nobody really cared too much about getting things right. Lacking the immense budgets of today’s productions, they were enticements to audiences to stay home rather than go to the movies. The results were some genuine oddities, such as this little horror gem.Recently remade by Guillermo Del Torro, who is obviously one of the movie’s legions of fans. A tip, don’t watch it in the house alone.

THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973)

A post-Star Trek Shatner stars alongside a cavalcade of 1970s TV royalty that includes Chuck Connors, Buddy Ebsen  and Paul Winfield. A spooky tale of a ghost on an airplane. ’70s television had such a strong lineup of character actors that they could fill out an entire movie. In this made-for-TV shocker, the actors sell the not-so-special effects.

KILLDOZER (1974)

From the strange to the downright crazy. A bulldozer (yes, you heard right) is taken over by an alien lifeform. Construction workers wisely wait for it to run out of gas. But wait, they’re on an island and there’s no cover! Wickedly entertaining hokum from a story by sci-fi legend Theodore Sturgeon.

SNOWBEAST (1977)

When Spielberg and Lucas created the summer blockbuster, TV producers were quick to emulate them. This TV horror movie, for instance, is actually Jaws with Bigfoot. And for that, it works incredibly well.  Just as we found out in Lucas’s reissue of The Empire Strikes Back “Special Edition”, seeing more is not always a good thing. It pays to hide your Bigfoot. During this fright-fest we barely glimpse more than a hairy arm or a snorting nostril, but the result is a growing atmospere of suspense and dread that’s hard to beat.

See the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxgPgQT155Y

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978)

TV’s answer to Star Wars was also to create something similar. So here we have the Book of Mormon… in space! Managing to be both campy and portentous at the same time, this capitalized on the groundbreaking SFX that had made George Lucas an overnight success. Coupled with iconic costumes, ships, and sets, and some suitable gravitas from Lorne Greene, the movie paved the way for a TV series that has stood the test of time.

SIBYL (1976)

TV movies could also tread more psychological turf than movies, which were becoming increasingly gimmicky and SFX driven in the late 1970s. Here Sally Fields excells as a woman with multiple-personality disorder. The piece is not just a character study, it’s a study of many characters, and Fields shows off her acting chops in a varierty of personalities.

hulk

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (1978)

Another function of the TV movie was to test the waters for upcoming series. Shows such as Hawaii Five-O and the Six Million Dollar Man all had movie-length pilots. But few are so successful they go on to have a theatrical release. In 1978, the top TV show in the world was the Incredible Hulk. Bruce Banner was played with sensitivity and emotion by actor Bill Bixy, while his alter ego was played by bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno in green slippers.

THE DAY AFTER (1983)

Although not as gut-wrenchingly scary as the British 1984 TV movie “Threads” (see other post), this portrayal of nuclear armageddon is a contendor for one of the most watched TV movies ever. Told with realism, this grim tale gets ever grimmer as the true scale of a nuclear war is realized. People are either vaporized or survive to face all the horrors of radiation sickness and survival in the ruins of the old world. A good example of the kind of epic storytelling on a budget that TV can achieve.

The end of the world as we know it. But will you be feeling fine?

The end of the world as we know it. But will you be feeling fine?

THE HAUNTED (1991)

The TV movie fell out of vogue in the 1980s. TV itself lapsed into sitcoms, rather than try to compete with the ever-balooning budgets of blockbuster movies. But every so often a low-budget gem emerged. One of these is The Haunted, a very scary tale about a family who buy a haunted duplex. Like every sensible family, they move out at the first sign of ghostly phenomenon. But in a clever twist, the ghost follows them. Based on a true story, for added creepiness.

The 2000s

That would have been the end of our tale. An increasing number of TV channels did not equate to an increase in quality. In the 90s and 2000s, TV instead chose to churn out poorly-made, poorly-scripted and poorly-acted creature features using the ultimate tool for the lazy filmmaker, CGI. Soon our screens were filled with unconvincing CGI mammoths, sabretooths and giant crocodiles. Meanwhile the dramatic TV movie became the womjep we know and revile today.

Sabretooths and crocodils and sharks.. oh, dear!

Sabretooths and crocodiles and sharks.. oh, dear!

However in recent years TV has taken an upswing. Maybe it’s the lack of movies as studios adopt an all-or-nothing mentality to blockbuster films. Maybe it’s that older actors (who tend to be better) head into TV land in their golden years. Or maybe it’s that TV has replaced the movies, which are increasingly losing their connction with audiences due to massive ticket prices, lackluster SFX-driven spectacles and grosss-out comedies. Because the TV movie is making a comeback…

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)

Who would have though that in in this day and age a movie made by HBO would become a popular and critical success at the box office? Espeically when you consider the source material. But this Liberace biopic is doing just that. So maybe the TV movie isn’t dead. We’ve had the Renaissance of TV drama. Perhaps now it’s time to resurrect this forgotten art form as well.