Tag Archives: screenplay

How to sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK – Part Two!

Here is the second part of my article on how to actually sell screenplays for film and television to Hollywood while living abroad, for instance, in the UK. This may seem like a daunting if not impossible task. But let me assure you, it can be done.

To recap what we learned last time:

 

Step One – Write the screenplay

Last time we covered the fact that there really is no magic bullet, no secret trick for success. Also, be prepared for failure. You will encounter rejection. Lots of it. But the beauty of writing is that there is no way to “fail” providing you keep learning and improving in terms of skill.

 

Step Two – Learn about the business

We also covered the importance of leaning about the movie business. Doing this will help you understand what types of script people want and the different people who work in the industry: agents, managers, producers, actors, directors and executives. Learn their jobs. Discover what it is they are looking for.

 

So without further delay, on to Step Three!

 

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in "Adaptation" by Charlie Kaufman.

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in “Adaptation” by Charlie Kaufman.

 

Step Three – Reverse engineer your career

What kind of writer do you want to be? Do you know the kind of screenplays you wish to write? Do you long to write character-driven indie productions or big tentpole pictures? And do you know how to get there?

When I was first starting out, I knew my strengths were writing action scenes, creating cool, often fantastical images and snappy dialogue. I am also a huge comic book fan and enjoy adapting material from other sources. So I looked at what it takes to be a successful studio writer for hire.

I wrote that down.

Then I looked at the easiest way to become that kind of writer: get an agent and get handed writing assignments. Okay, now how to get an agent… I found that it was possible to submit directly but that this was unlikely to garner results. Many (but by no means all) agents pick up clients based on recommendations from other people. So I knew I needed an established track record of sales or options to get their attention.

Backtrack a little: how do you get a sale or option without any contacts and without living in Hollywood?

I scoured the Internet for sources to help get screenplays produced and to meet other people who might be able to give me that recommendation. I discovered listing sites like Inktip and others where you can even pitch direct to an agency via Skype or in writing.  It’s no longer necessary to live in L.A. to sell pictures to Hollywood. That’s another screenwriting “lie” you can expect to hear a lot. Does it help? Sure. But you still need an awful lot of luck and talent.

So I wrote down where I wanted to be. Then I listed all the steps that could get me there. Then I simply followed those steps!

Obviously, it’s not that simple. Would that it were. Some steps are much harder to take than others and none of them ensures your script will be accepted. But this kind of mind-mapping can be a good way to focus your career and create a strategy. There are many routes to getting a film made. The above methods are just a few of them.

One strategy for success is copying the strategies of others who are successful. For this I recommend studying how big name screenwriters got where they are. Read Tales from the Script edited by Peter Hanson and Robert Hermann to get an idea of how top Hollywood writers made it in L.A. There’s no one path. Joe Eszterhas was a journalist, William Goldman a playwright and novelist, Antwone Fisher was a security guard at the studio that produced his incredible life story. Paths to success can be as individual as the writers themselves.

This is the biggest step. It requires time and commitment. Read the stories of other writers. Listen to interviews and podcasts. The Internet contains a wealth of information. Use as many free resources as you can find. That’s really the only way to find out what working as a screenwriter is really like. Without working as screenwriter, of course.

 

Step Four – Don’t quit.

You only fail by quitting.

Along the way I have seen many people give up on screenwriting for a variety of reasons. They have a family to support and have to get a “real” job.  They don’t have the time. They can’t stand the constant rejection.

In order to be taken seriously in this business, you have to take the business seriously. Like any career, screenwriting requires an investment of time and money from you. You have to commit to it.

Write. Read. Submit. Repeat.

 

Step Five – No, really. Don’t quit.

It’s easy to be crushed by rejection. When you’re typing away in solitary confinement, day after day, it’s also easy to get bitter and frustrated. It’s also very easy to get desperate, especially when you need money.

If you do need money, I recommend getting a job that will allow you to write. A 9 to 5 job will grind you down. A vocation will demand too much of you. Find something that will leave you time to write each day.

One thing you must do is learn to love the process. By this, I mean the process of Writing, reading, submitting and repeating.

You won’t hear back from everyone who requests a copy of your script (Annoying as that is, but true for so many reasons it’s impossible to list them). Even if it is accepted your work may be rewritten. You may be fired from projects. Not paid for others. Projects you invest lots of time in will come to nothing. People you work with may be difficult, others will be pleasantly professional. You may even become friends with some of them – and wouldn’t that be cool?

Elliott Grove in his excellent book Raindance Writer’s Lab says you should rephrase the statistics. Think of every rejection as bringing you one step closer to a “yes”. And you only need one “yes” to make it happen.

Good luck!

 

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

trumbo

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!

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.

 

What-Dreams-May-Come-4

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!

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!

 

 

The only guide to writing a logline you’ll ever need – Part Three!

Welcome to the third and final part of a series of posts about how to write a logline. Whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, a logline is an important marketing tool. But with a little practice, anyone can create the perfect logline

Let’s go over what we’ve learned so far (and if you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to read parts One and Two of this guide):

What is a logline?

A logline is a one or two sentence pitch for your story. 

What is a logline not?

A logline is not a tagline or a teaser. It summarizes the essential elements of the story so that someone can see at a glance what the story is about and whether it is marketable.

What does a logline contain?

A good logline contains as many of the following as possible:

A great TITLE. The GENRE. A HOOK with IRONY. The HERO. The CATALYST. The CHALLENGE the Hero must face. The Hero’s JOURNEY. The ARENA.

Last time we covered what constitutes as great title, how to signpost your genre, what is a Hook, and the importance of a central Hero.

Now for the difficult part!

CATALYST

The next ingredient in our perfect logline recipe is the CATALYST.

In Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, the catalyst is referred to as the incident that sets the story in motion.

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s not necessary to reveal all three, but the story must begin somewhere. This is the Catalyst. This moment usually occurs about 10 to 12 minutes into the film. For instance, the catalyst in “Star Wars”, the catalyst is Luke Skywalker discovering the secret tapes held by R2D2. It is this incident which sets the story in motion, as Luke then begins his journey to join the Rebellion. So the Catalyst is Luke joining the Rebellion.

Here is what I’ve noticed: most loglines fail because they are too VAGUE. Authors don’t want to give up the main plot points of their story. Tey want to generate enthusiasm and excitement by not giving the game away.

That is a mistake.

The excitement is in the writing. Not the logline. The logline is a selling tool.  Remember when I said it’s not a Teaser or a Trailer? People need a logline to see if the script is their kind of thing. You don’t have to generate the same amount of page-turning excitement that is in your script. Just focus on getting the essentials down.

For example, here’s my own unproduced “Demophobia” script logline again:

A man with a phobia of people must search a crime-infested city for his missing girlfriend, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population.

Okay. We have a hero. We also have Irony. But what’s the catalyst? His girlfriend is missing. This may be the thing that kicks off the story. But it’s weak. She’s already missing when the story starts? A weak catalyst indicates a weak structure.

I revised this and came up with the following:

When his girlfriend goes missing following a clinical drugs trial, a man with a phobia of people searches for her in a crime-infested city, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity that controls the homeless population.

It’s not quite “Liar Liar”, but it’s at least a little better. We know that the catalyst is when his girlfriend goes missing. We also get more of a sense of the genre. The drugs and the mysterious entity indicate this may be science-fiction or horror.

CHALLENGE

Again, most weak loglines omit this. You can’t afford to dance around this issue, as it is the main conflict in your screenplay. It is the struggle the hero faces.

For instance, in “The Poseidon Adventure” the challenge is that the ship is sinking.

Here’s a logline for the movie “Predator”:

“A team of commandos on a mission in the Central American jungle find themselves stalked by an invisible alien hunter.”

How’s that for a challenge?

If your logline doesn’t have a central conflict, chances are your story is weak. This may be because the hero doesn’t have a strong enough GOAL. A lot of scripts and novels have a hero who wanders around without taking charge and pushing the action forward.

So how’s my “Demophobia” logline shaping up?

When his girlfriend goes missing following a clinical drugs trial, a man with a phobia of people searches a crime-infested city for her, only to find that a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population is out to stop him.

Hmm. It has a challenge and conflict. It’s not terrible.  It also has something else going for it:

THE HERO’S JOURNEY.

A movie sets up a promise to the audience. Sometimes this is inherent in the GENRE. Sometimes it’s obvious in the hero’s FLAW.

Audiences are smart these days. They watch a lot of movies. If you set up a hero with a huge flaw (for instance, that he’s a compulsive liar) the audience expects that by the end of the movie he’s going to learn that lying is sometimes bad. You can imply a lot, so you don’t necessarily need to spell this one out.

Improve your logline by hinting at the hero’s TRANSFORMATION – the inner journey he goes on. Here’s where you can even use your logline top improve your script – you can tailor the challenges to suit the FLAW.

For instance, to use my own example of “Demophobia”, the hero has a phobia of people. But he’s forced to go out of his comfort zone into a city and come into conflict with the entire homeless population.  Chances are that by the end of this ordeal he’ll either be a basket case or he’ll have shaken off his phobia off people.

By now you may have realized that the Hero’s Journey stems from the Challenge which forces him to overcome his Flaw.

FLAW + CHALLENGE = HERO’S JOURNEY

For instance, at the end of “Liar Liar”, the challenges that lying attorney Jim Carrey will face are going to show him how he can win the day by being truthful. That is his Hero’s Journey.

ARENA

Sometimes a story can grab a producer’s attention if it involves a setting, group, society, place, or occupation we’ve never seen before. “Top Gun”, for instance, is set in the exciting world of the  USAF’s flight school.

You can also tweak the arena to better suit your story.

To use my “Demophobia” example again, the city is a place full of people – exactly the opposite of where someone with a phobia of crowds would want to hang out. I may have overdone it with having a “crime-infested” city. Sure, cities have crime.  But this seems a little irrelevant to the rest of the logline. But I’ll stick with it for now as it conveys the kind of  intense experience he’s going to face when he sets foot in there.

BONUS POINTS – ANTAGONIST

Sometimes you can add a little spice to your logline if you have an exceptionally cool villain. For instance, the invisible alien hunter in “Predator”. Or how about the great white shark in “Jaws”? A character is only as good as he opponent she is facing, so if you have an unkillable cyborg from the future, you may also want to mention it here. Remember, the aim of the logline is to SELL. If you have something UNIQUE in your story, whatever it is, don’t omit it.

So to wrap things up, here’s our all-singing, all-dancing logline formula:

HERO + IRONY + CATAYST + (FLAW + CHALLENGE = HERO’S JOURNEY) + ARENA (+ ANTAGONIST) = SALE!

 

NOW SIMPLIFY…

If your logline contains all these elements, chances are it’s still not ready for the world.

Why? Because it’s probably too complicated.

It can be very hard to distill 110 pages into one or two sentences, especially if you’re emotionally invested in the story. This is why I recommend doing nothing.

Nothing?

Yes.

Nothing.

Let it sit. Give yourself time to drift away from the story and forget about it. Come back with a fresh vision. Once you are objective, you are in a better place to examine whether or not the logline conveys everything you want it to convey.

For instance, in my logline, do we really need so many adjectives? Do we need the homeless people? Sure, they are a major part of the script. But we’re trying to boil the story down to its  bare essence.

Another thing to remember is that you can go too far in paring things down. You have to give the reader the bare concept, but with enough specifics so that it doesn’t become just another Tagline or Teaser.

This takes time. But the more time you put into your marketing materials the better your chances of success. Remember, you only have ONE CHANCE to make a good impression. That industry pro will not take a second look at the same logline. So make that first time count.

And finally…

Here’s the latest version of my own logline for “Demophobia”:

After his girlfriend goes missing following a clinical drugs trial, an artist with a phobia of people searches the city for her, only to find that a mysterious entity that can leap from body to body is out to stop him at all costs. 

 

What do you think?

(Let me know if you think I’ve left something out!)

 

…ONE LAST WORD

By now you are probably sick to death of loglines.

Good. You are now less likely to send it out before it’s polished to diamond hardness. Put the script in a drawer for a week, then come back and take another look at that logline.

It’s amazing what a different time makes, isn’t it?

You should now know what makes up a successful logline. However, your logline is only as strong as your story. If your logline is weak, it may be that your story is weak. In that case, use your logline to improve your story.

One last thing to bear in mind, is that nobody is perfect. Some of the above loglines lack some elements. “Predator” lacks a hero with a journey. Arnie at the start of the film is Arnie at the end of the film. “The Poseidon Adventure” lacks a central hero, but makes up for it by having a terrific arena and unique challenges.

The point is, you can make up for deficiencies in one aspect by having something else that is truly great. So don’t get all paranoid about loglines to the point where you’re too paralyzed to write. Just ask yourself if your logline contains enough of the above elements to hook whoever it is you’re pitching to.

I hope this guide improves your loglines. And don’t forget, above all else, have fun!

The only guide to writing a logline you’ll ever need – Part Two

This is the second in three posts on how to write a logline.

In the first post, we looked at what a logline is and, more importantly, what it is not.

We learned that a logline is a basic selling tool for your screenplay or novel. It is  a one or two sentence pitch that aims to tell the reader about your story in a succinct manner in order to save the reader TIME.

We also talked about the difference between a logline and a tagline, a teaser, and a movie cross.

Now comes the meaty part. This where we break down what goes into a good logline.

The NUMBER ONE MISTAKE writers make when pitching their story is that they do not invest time in their marketing materials. Incredible as it seems, they spend months or even years honing their script, then hammer out a logline in minutes and wonder why nobody wants to read it. However, a good logline can open doors, create working relationships, and get your project sold or made.

Sound good, right?

Then read on!

 

ELEMENTS OF A GOOD LOGLINE

A good logline gets a producer, agent, manager, executive, publisher etc. to continue their relationship with you. Ideally, it gets them to read the script. To this end, you have to ask yourself “What is a producer etc. looking for?”

ANSWER: something they can sell.

Okay. Not very helpful. But you should already have done your research on them to check if this is their kind of project. More on that another time. For now, let’s look at things from their point of view. How do they know if this project is the right thing for them? Bear in mind that they have many, many submissions to go through every single day?

ANSWER: by ensuring it contains the following:

A great TITLE.

The GENRE.

A HOOK.

Who is the HERO?

What is the CATALYST?

What is the nature of the CHALLENGE they must face?

And for added points:

The Hero’s JOURNEY.

The ARENA.

Who thought loglines could be so complex? Actually, it’s simpler than you might think. Most of these are intuitive anyway.

But let’s go through them one at a time, just to make sure you have them:

 

TITLE

It sounds obvious, but a movie should have a great title, something that sets it apart from everything else. Ideally, it should also inform the audience aboout the subject matter. I’ve noticed that many well-made but obscure movies don’t do as well as they could have because they have a generic title that says nothing about the subject or the plot.

For a recent example, how about “Edge of Tomorrow”? A title so generic they had to rename it for the DVD release. It doesn’t say anything about the plot or the characters.

Or how about: “John Carter”. This assumes that you already know who John Carter is. For my money they should have gone with: “John Carter: Warlord of Mars”. Now that would have piqued my interest.

One of the best movie titles is “Ghostbusters”. It’s funny and tells you the entire premise. It gives away not just the concept, but also the fact that this is an action-comedy movie.

 

GENRE

You can sometimes even give this away in the title, as with “Ghostbusters”. Otherwise, you want to indicate it in the logline.

To use my the example of my own script “Demophobia”, can you tell what genre this is:

A man with a phobia of people must search a crime-infested city for his missing girlfriend, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population.

Clearly something speculative is going on. But is it a sci-fi? A fantasy? A horror? I would say the logline implies that this is a straight story, not a comedy. But to make it clearer what kind of genre we’re talking about, I added:

When his girlfriend goes missing following a clinical drugs trial, a man with a phobia of people must search a crime-infested city for his missing girlfriend, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population.

There. That hints that this is a sci-fi thriller, which indeed it is. Maybe there’s a little horror thrown in there too. It’s okay to have more than one genre in your logline, BTW.

Okay, so  my own logline isn’t perfect yet. But there’s a way to go before we’re done. In any case, giving the GENRE away in the logline will allow your producer to see at once whether your script is right for him or her.

 

THE HOOK

This is one of the main stumbling blocks, and something that’s talked about  a lot when discussing a “high concept”.

QUESTION: What is a “hook”?

ANSWER: A hook is the kind of thing you use to catch a fish. It’s a shimmering, bright, dancing object that teases your target into wanting to know more, until they request the script and… ulp! They”re hooked!

So much for metaphors. Now let’s get more serious:

Sometimes the hook is a fantastic concept that’s never been done before. For instance, “An ocean liner capsizes in a storm. The survivors must fight their way out through the sinking, upside-down ship to survive.” (The Poseidon Adventure)

Sometimes it’s just a catchy idea. Something that’s both new and familiar at the same time: “A father loses the right to see his children, so he dresses up as a woman to become the ideal nanny.” (Mrs. Doubtfire)

One of the easiest ways to ensure you have a hook is to use IRONY.

Irony is defined in the dictionary as: “A situation that seems funny or strange because things happen in a way that seems the opposite if what was expected”.

In a logline, it could appear because the hero has a specific occupation, and get to see the opposite of what we expected to see happen to her unfold in the story.

Or, if the hero has a particular character FLAW, you can play on this by making the worst thing possible happen to them.

Some “high-concept” movies do both.

For instance: in “Liar Liar” an attorney is forced to tell the truth after his kid makes a wish that comes true.

This logline tells us a lot about the movie. It’s funny. So it’s probably a comedy with a hit of satire. It’s not necessarily going to cost a fortune to shoot, unless we get someone like Jim Carrey in the lead. And it’s IRONIC. An attorney (who, it is implied, lies for a living – it is a comedy, after all) is forced to tell the truth! It’s irony based on occupation and character flaw (he lies a lot). Classic high concept!

 

HERO

Movies are often mythic stories. Especially high -grossing ones. As a result, producers like to see a central hero.

Most of the above examples make it pretty clear who is the hero of this movie. However, what do you do if you have an ensemble cast? For instance, The Poseidon Adventure doesn’t have a central hero.

ANSWER: The easiest fix for this is to pick out one character and make them the hero.

“Ocean’s Eleven” is about a group of con artists who rob casinos. All of the eleven are part of the group. But who changes the most? Either that, or who is the central focus of attention? It’s got to be Danny Ocean himself. So a logline for this might read:

“An ambitious ex-con gathers together a team of experts to rob three Las Vegas casinos at the same time.”

 

So there you are. We’ve covered TITLES, GENRES, the HOOK, and the importance of a central HERO. But we’re not done yet…

There’s a lot to digest in this post. So next time we’ll take a look at the rest of our logline ingredients: the CATALYST, the CHALLENGE , the Hero’s JOURNEY, and the ARENA.

See you there!

The only guide to writing a logline you’ll ever need – Part One

Do you want to know how to write a logline? Do you even know what loglines are? Chances are, if you’re an aspiring screenwriting you will have heard of them. But even prose fiction writers and novelists can use loglines.

The ability to write a logline is one of the most important skills you can learn as a writer. Having used them with a pretty good success rate, I thought I would share with you my observations on how to create a compelling, marketable logline. That’s why this post is longer than normal. In fact, it comes in three parts.

Here is the first…

WHY USE LOGLINES?

Loglines evolved out of the old Hollywood practice of studios and producers asking writers to pitch them their story in 25 seconds or less. Nowadays, loglines are used to SAVE TIME. This is the major concern of most professionals. In Hollywood, time is severely limited.

A logline is a powerful selling tool

A logline is usually the first thing a potential buyer of a (TV or film) script or novel looks for. It tells them whether or not they wish to read the entire work.  So the better your logline, the better your chance of getting your movie made, your script sold, your book published etc. etc.

As nobody has any time to read in Hollywood, it can also tell someone whether they want to buy it!

It also shows the decision-maker how they may be able to sell it to others (including collaborators and studios).

Finally, a logline is a good indicator of the writer’s skill level. If he or she can’t stitch together a decent logline, they’re probably an amateur.

All this from two sentences max!

You would think that people would take more time of something so important. However, about 98% of all loglines are poor. Most are terrible!

This means that by taking the time to craft a compelling, marketable logline, you can instantly rise above 98% of everyone else out there who is clamouring for attention. A good logline can show a producer, agent, publisher, or manger that you are professional enough for them to invest at least a little more time in you.

The good news?

Loglines are easy!

In it’s simplest form, the logline is a one or two sentence pitch for your story. 

Look at the TV guide. You will see dozens of loglines. They are a BRIEF summary of the film. Something that helps you decide if you want to commit to watching the whole thing.

If they can do it, you can too!

As with most things except particle physics, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. And loglines have another purpose. They can be your guide as you create and rewrite your script or novel from initial concept to finished screenplay or manuscript.

WHAT ARE LOGLINES NOT?

i) TAGLINES

Look on IMDB.com and you will see taglines for many movies. For instance, the famous tagline for JAWS 2 is “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”

It’s a great tagline, but it’s not a logline. It reveals nothing about the story.

A great tagline is almost a dare to go see the movie.

Here’s another: “Whoever wins… We Lose.” (Aliens vs Predator)

Great tagline. Tells you absolutely nothing about the film.

So why use them? Well, posters and other marketing materials such as TV spots and trailers should have already clued the audience in as to what the movie is about. The poster for Jaws makes it pretty obvious what is going to happen in this movie. It’s about a killer shark. A logline doesn’t have that. It’s the sprinkles on the icing on top of the cake.

A logline must be SELF-CONTAINED.

ii) TEASERS

Too many times I see loglines that hint at the story… loglines that say ; “If you just read this mysterious script you will eventually figure out what is going on. But as the writer, I created this mystery, so I want to tease you and incite your curiosity without giving away the bast part.”

Wrong.

A logline is not a teaser. You need to reveal the WHOLE STORY. By that, I mean the ESSENCE of the concept and the plot.

Can we see what the movie is going to be about just form the logline? If not, the logline is not working.

For instance, here’s the first draft of a logline I worked on for a script I wrote called DEMOPHOBIA.

A man with a phobia of people must search a crime-infested city for his missing girlfriend, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population.

What do you think?

Here’s what I think.

It’s too vague. What is the “mysterious entity”? And how is it connected to the search for the girlfriend? It’s a mystery, right? Therein lies the problem. What is a producer going to think when he or she reads that? Probably: “What the hell is this story about?”

Does it tell them what to expect? Is this a comedy or a horror? Is it big or low budget? What is the mystery about?

It’s not just a tagline; there’s at least a hint of story there. But nor is it a fully developed logline.

iii) THE MOVIE CROSS

This is sometimes used in addition to a logline. However, you still your basic logline. Otherwise it tells the listener nothing about the story. Sure, it may “The Graduate” meets “The Matrix”. But what is it about?

Nevertheless, some people find them useful.

For me, it has pros and cons.

The pros are that Hollywood always loves a remake, reboot, or whatever you call it. It gives the decision-maker an excuse if things go south. “But Ghostbusters was a massive hit, so how was I to know a film about a team of dedicated fairy hunters wouldn’t work?” etc etc.

The cons are that you have to get it right.

Choose a movie that didn’t do well, and you’re sunk. Also, the movies you choose must be the same genre/tone to your own. And at least one must be recent. By that I mean it was produced in the last year. This could be tricky if your movie breaks new ground (unlikely) or if you choose a movie that gives a false impression about your script (more likely).

There is no right or wrong answer. It’s a judgement call. I’ve used it, sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. For instance, I pitched my “Demophobia” script as “It’s Inception meets Scanners” to mixed results.

You may have heard that “Alien” was pitched as “Jaws in Space”. Great story. But I would watch out for anecdotal evidence. Ridley Scott was famous for being a commercials director. You are not… unless you are, in which case, go ahead!

SO WHAT IS A LOGLINE, REALLY?

So far we’ve covered the basics. What is a logline used for? What is a logline not? We’ve discovered that vague or incomplete loglines do not work. We’ve discussed the merits and perils of the dreaded Movie Cross.

But how do I write the perfect logline, I hear you scream?

In the next post, I will answer that question…