Tag Archives: screenwriter

The Best Screenwriting Books in the world… possibly.

I was recently asked what are my favourite screenwriting books. So here they are:

Save The Cat by Blake Snyder 

It’s impossible to ignore this one, even if you disagree with the formulaic approach. There are tons of terrific lessons here. But best saved for the more advanced screenwriter.

Story by Robert McKee

The guru of screenwriting, McKee’s book contains pretty much everything you need to know about storytelling.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler 

Breaks down every mythic story and archetype. Very easy to read and full of great examples. It clarifies a lot of what other people say.

Screenplay by Syd Field 

The beginner’s guide to writing a script. Contains all the basics on structure and format. Goes into character creation a little too much for my liking, but then he was also an actor.

Raindance Writer’s Lab by Elliott Grove 

A great practical guide that touches upon the business as well. Essential reading.

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman 

Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many, many more. This is a frank memoir about screenwriting in Hollywood.

Which Lie Did I Tell by William Goldman

More memories and advice from the veteran scriptwriter, with more attention to things like writing for budgets.

Writing Screenplays that Sell by Michael Hague 

The first book I ever read on screenwriting and one of the best. Hague gives you the basics in a way that’s simple to understand.

Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder 

The sequel offers more fixes for common problems as well as a very useful section on Act Three.

Save the Cat Goes to the Movies 

Can’t recommend this highly enough. Some truly great insights into different movie genres and the rules they follow.

The Devil’s Guide to Screenwriting by Joe Eszterhas

The infamous scribe of Basic Instinct gives you a very funny look at the flipside of success in Hollywood. Read it to feel empowered as a writer. This is the stuff they didn’t want you to know.

How to Make a Good Script Great by Linda Seger 

A very good fix-it guide when your screenplay lacks that little something.

Tales From the Script by Various 

Frank and fascinating interviews with many major screenwriters. Learn from the people who are working in the trenches.

The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier

Contains all the formatting instructions you need to avoid being seen as an amateur.

Breakfast With Sharks by Michael Lent 

Be warned. The swimming pool of Hollywood is not for the faint-hearted. Learn to recognize and avoid the sharks with this great guide. Contains some terrific practical advice on writing and negotiating your career (or lack of one). Wish I’d read this years ago.

500 Ways to Beat The Hollywood Script Reader by Jennifer Lerch 

Basically a list of common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Rewrite by Paul Chitlik

This is my go-to guide when I’m beginning, guess what, the rewrites! The best thing about this book is that it gives you a structure and a plan to approach your rewriting with. If, like me, you require structure to do anything, this is the book for you.

Bladerunners, Dear Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off by Michael Deeley 

Veteran British producer Michael Deeley gives you his rather candid insight into the business.

Screenplays 

Lots of them. Any you can find. Especially good ones. Especially produced ones. Notable ones for study are: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Basic Instinct, Speed, The Fisher King, Jaws, The Terminator, Aliens, Chinatown, Casablanca, Die Hard, Network,The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Alien, Living In Oblivion, Near Dark, The Hitcher, Reanimator, Deliverance, The Godfather Part II, Superman the Movie, Taxi Driver, The Dear Hunter, The Thing, Altered States, Ordinary People, Annie Hall, Groundhog Day, Back To The Future, The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, and many, many more.

Once you dipped into some of these you’ll never look at Transformers 4 in the same way again.

There you go. I’m adding to my on library all the time, so I may well update this post at some stage. If I missed any, let me know. Maybe you have your own favourites or stumble across some gem while browsing around. But these are the books that have helped me the most.

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Notes from FantasyCon2014

Great artwork for the brochure reproduced here by Larry Rostant

Great artwork for the brochure reproduced here by Larry Rostant

FantasyCon 2014, run by the British Fantasy Society, was held at the Royal York Hotel on Friday 5th – Sunday 7th September 2014.

This was my first time at Fantasycon, the annual gathering of the British Fantasy Society. So I didn’t know what to expect. I did know, however, that there were quite a few eminent guests, including Charlaine Harris, author of the phenomenally successful Sookie Stackhouse series, better known as TV vampire show “True Blood”. Other luminaries included horror author Ramsey Campbell and “Chocolat” writer Joanna Harris, as well as “Dr Who” scribe Toby Whithouse to name but a few.

The convention was held at the Royal York Hotel, adjacent to the train station and therefore a very convenient location. The hotel itself was a grand old affair. Sadly, the cost of staying there was prohibitively expensive. In fact, as I had only decided to go at the last minute, getting a hotel in York proved a difficult task, so I had to commute from Manchester on the two days I attended. However, this wasn’t too bad, thanks to a convenient rail link.

Prior to booking, the lack of information on the website was perplexing and gave the convention the feel of a “members only” club. However, this wasn’t the reality when I got there. Although many people came in groups, overall I found people to be very friendly and accommodating. But a better website, and even a forum, would have helped a lot. As it was, I threw caution to the wind and bought my ticket. But I can’t help but think how many other people were put off by the impersonal nature of the web page.

The first day was an introduction to the convention. Once I had acquired a map of the rather confusing (and sprawling) hotel layout, I grabbed myself some great free books for attendees (always a bonus!). There were also some fantastic discounts available in the dealer room from some sellers, while others remained reassuringly expensive.

I was very grateful for the introductory session which got me talking to several other attendees. The rest of the day passed in a blur. The crowd was an eclectic one, with attendees from as far as the USA. It was great to see people who were as enthusiastic about sci-fi, fantasy and horror as myself, if not more so. The staff too were friendly, and the convention rather relaxed. A little too relaxed, unfortunately. I missed several author signings despite being in the same bar! A bit of an announcement would have been nice.

Throughout the Con, there were book launches, author readings, even short film showings. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to the bitter end to witness the delights of Karaoke on Friday, which apparently was a pity.

On Saturday, I got there early and bleary-eyed to attend a great panel discussion on whether there was a place for hope in horror. The panel consisted of Ramsey Campbell, Roz Kaveney, Guy Adams, Sara Jayne Townsend and Adam Neville. After a spirited debate, the panel ended with Roz Kaveney’s revelation that he once worked in the same restaurant as serial killer Dennis Nielsen! A very enlightening discussion that showed the versatility of the horror genre.

Charlaine Harris entertains at FantasyCon 2014.

Charlaine Harris entertains at FantasyCon 2014.

Later, Charlaine Harris gave us the lowdown on what it feel like to become an overnight sensation after thirty years of writing mystery novels, as well as the agony and ecstasy of selling your work to cable TV. Ms Harris was very entertaining, and was a regular fixture in the lobby, as were several other authors, giving the con an even more relaxed feel.

Later, I attended a panel on horror in TV. This featured “Dr Who” scribe Toby Whithouse, screenwriter author and editor Paul Kane, and Stephen Volk, writer of notorious BBC 1992 fake documentary “Ghostwatch”. Bizarrely, everyone on the panel agreed that CGI was not a good alternative for strong stories. Maybe there is hope for TV.

There were many other panels to attend, including an enthusiastic demonstration in swordfighting. Inevitably, I found that a lot of the most interesting panels conflicted. Yet there did seem to be a lull between 2-5pm.  But perhaps someone else with different interests would have told you the opposite.

Saturday ended with a mass signing. However, I sacrificed this in favour of hanging out in the bar. This is because for me the most rewarding aspect of FantasyCon was meeting other fans. As a writer, you tend to spend too much time in isolation. This means you lose touch with the people who matter most – the readers. I was amazed at their passion, their interest and their knowledge.  It really made me want to up my game.

On Saturday night, I headed home, my hunger for the speculative satiated for the moment, clutching my bagfuls of cheap books and signed copies. One of my aims had been to find new authors to broaden my reading, and I had certainly been given enough food for thought. I came away with a much greater knowledge of the blossoming sc-fi, horror and fantasy market, and with several new authors to sink my teeth into (figuratively).

A little light reading.

A little light reading.

Sunday proved a bridge too far for me. As there were only panels in the morning, I decided not to attend and save myself a hefty train fare. The afternoon was taken up with the British Fantasy Awards. But again, there was a curious lack of publicity about these on the net. The FantasyCon Twitter feed was also strangely silent throughout the weekend. The BFS produce some great publications, so it is odd that it doesn’t toot its own horn more.  Maybe the BFS could even televise the event on a Youtube channel!

In summary, this was a very worthwhile Con. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to meet likeminded people and who enjoy lively debates about everything in the world of speculative fiction and movies. I hope to go again next year and have an even better experience. However, a little more information would have been nice from the organisers for those who have not boldly gone to the Convention before. More Twitter updates would be a definite plus as well. But if you are a fan or creator of sci-fi/fantasy and horror in the UK, this is one convention you cannot afford to miss.

My  advice  is to book early and stay late, something I hope to do next time around!

 

Next year’s FantasyCon 2015 is to be held in Nottingham, UK.

 

 

 

 

How to Write Loglines – an actually useful guide

Want to know how to write effective loglines for movies and books? Read on!

INTRODUCTION

There has been so much written on the subject of writing loglines that I thought it was about time I added my tupppence (or two cents, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on) to the debate.

Let’s start with the basics:

1. WHAT IS A “LOGLINE”?

A logline can apply to both novels and screenplays for movies. They are generally short, punchy descriptions of the plot (i.e. the thing your story is about). Editors, agents, producers and assorted other people often ask for a logline when they are deciding whether to buy or represent your work.

Interestingly, neither Robert McKee in his lauded book “Story” nor William Goldman in his seminal essay “Adventures in the Screen Trade” mention what a logline is. Yet I would argue that is one of the most essential tools the screenwriter or novelist has at his or her disposal. In fact, it is an essential skill to master.

One thing a logline is not is that thing you see on movie posters. This is in fact a “tagline”. Tagllines are very short (usually one sentence, or sometimes less!) statements used to entice someone into watching a movie.

An example of a tagline:

“In space, no-one can hear you scream” (Alien)

While this is a great tagline, note that it tells us nothing about what is going on (other than it’s in space, and you’re likely to scream).

A logline is more sophisticated and tells us more about the story.

For example:

“A psychopath escapes from an asylum and slashes his way through a quiet suburban neighbourhood until he is defeated by a bookish young woman” (Halloween).

Okay, so it’s not poetry. But you get the picture.

 

 

2. WHY THE HELL DO I NEED A LOGLINE ANYWAY?

But Eric, you say, why should I distil my 100,000 word novel or my 120 pages screenplay, work of genius that it is, into a single sentence?

The answer: a logline is a selling tool.

Loglines allow you to “pitch” (i.e. tell) someone about your story in a very short space of time. And when you’re dealing with producers, agents and executives who can only spare you less than a minute, this becomes important.

Of course, if you’re happy just writing and never selling anything, loglines probably won’t apply to you. Good luck on your chosen career path. Some of us have to eat.

A good logline can make someone sit up in their seat and pay attention. It can entertain, move and arouse curiosity in the listener. And it can delay that moment when they start yawning or hang up.

 

3.  OKAY, SMARTYPANTS. WHAT IS A GOOD LOGLINE MADE UP OF?

Opinions abound on this.

In his excellent guide “Raindance Writers Lab: Write and Sell the Hot Script”, Elliott Grove suggests that you first come up with a “basic premise”. This, to me, is a logline: a 25 words or less summary of the plot.

A rule of thumb is, the shorter the logline, the higher the concept.

High concept is what sells in Hollywood (although other types of film also sell). What is a high concept? Basically, something that’s real easy to sell.

In “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder (a book no screenwriter should be without)  the author says that a killer logline should include the following:

– Irony

– A compelling mental picture

– An idea of audience and cost

– A killer title

Let’s investigate:

Irony

What is Irony? In the film “Borat” , Sascha Baron Cohen in his alter ego of the Khazakstanian ambassador to the USA, interviews a real-life professor of comedy. When the Professor tries to explain a joke to him, Borat deliberately gets the wrong end of the stick repeatedly. This goes on for some time until it becomes very funny. Everyone but the Professor of comedy, who is paid to understand humour, gets the joke. That is irony.

An example of irony in a logline would be: “A lawyer is forced to tell the truth for 24 hours after his son makes a birthday wish ” (Liar Liar).

The other elements are all important. A title is essential to help your movie stand out from the crowd. A sense of scale and budget will help others to decide whether to invest (is it “The Blair Witch Project” or “Avatar”?) .

However, there are basic elements I think this definition leaves out.

The easiest way to analyse what makes a good logline is to look at one.

Here are two examples:

“A police chief with a phobia of the sea must kill a giant shark but faces opposition from the local mayor who demands that the beaches stay open” (Jaws).

“A naive farmboy on a distant planet learns that he is actually the son of a legendary warrior and sets out to rescue a princess from an evil galactic empire”. (Star Wars).

Here we can see irony at work. The police chief is afraid of the water but must fight a shark. The farmboy is naive but must somehow defeat a whole army.

But there is more than just irony in a logline. Looking at our examples, here are some common elements:

A PROTAGONIST in an IRONIC SITUATION must overcome an OBSTACLE to achieve a GOAL in an ARENA.

Tackling “Jaws” first:

“A police chief [PROTAGONIST] with a phobia of the sea [IRONY] must kill a giant shark [GOAL ] but faces opposition from the local mayor [OBSTACLE ] who demands that the beaches stay open [ARENA]”.

The ARENA is the environment the story takes place in. This could be a location (a distant planet), a particular organisation (for example, the mafia), or even within the family unit (see “Ordinary People” for an example).

Sometimes the ARENA will be implicit. Other times you will have to spell it out. But the logline should give a sense of this.

Note that the OBSTACLE may be the same as the ANTAGONIST, or it may not. In “Jaws”, you may think the antagonist is the shark. But in fact it is the local mayor who opposes Brody’s shark safety measures. Killing the shark is the GOAL.

In “Star Wars” the antagonist is Darth Vader (or Grand Moff Tarkin to be precise). But in fact the whole Empire is what poses the problem.

The point is, the OBSTACLE is a fluid concept, depending upon how you craft your logline. But I believe there is an optimum balance to be achieved for maximum effect.

Here is another example that shows the flexibility of the logline concept:

“A young man and woman from different ends of the social spectrum fall in love aboard an ill-fated ocean liner.” (Titanic)

Breaking it down:

“A young man and woman [PROTAGONIST] from different ends of the social spectrum [OBSTACLE] fall in love [GOAL] aboard an ill-fated ocean liner [ARENA and IRONY].”

Note that it is the young woman who is the protagonist. More on that in another post. But the story is always about ONE PERSON’s journey. Unless it’s an ensemble film. Which just goes to show that William Goldman was right when he said “Nobody knows anything”!

One more for the road:

“A loyal Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an insane Emperor and returns to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge” (Gladiator)

Here’s the breakdown:

“A loyal Roman general [PROTAGONIST] is betrayed [IRONY] and his family murdered by an insane Emperor and returns to Rome as a gladiator [OBSTACLE and ARENA (literally!)] to seek revenge [GOAL]”.

Note also that sometimes it is the Protagonist’s FLAW which provides the irony (such as the farmboy being naive in “Star Wars” or the police chief with a phobia off the sea in “Jaws”). Other times it is the entire situation which is ironic, such as the loyal Roman general who is enslaved and betrayed by his own Emperor. Again, it’s a flexible concept.

The important thing is not to get hung up on the details but to check all the boxes.

One last thing. It may be worth your while to develop the logline BEFORE you write the script, as this way you can build a story that has the strongest foundations possible.

IN SUMMARY

So there you have it:

PROTAGONIST + IRONIC SITUATION + OBSTACLE + GOAL + ARENA

Not necessarily that order!

Have fun with loglines. You will probably take quite a few goes to build the best logline for your story. But the rewards are worth it. A logline is the PRIMARY selling tool. Once you practice it, you will surprised at the results.

 

Sneak preview of new horror novel “Project Nine”!

Today, I wanted to share with you something very special to me.

Here is the first look at the amazing cover for my new horror novel, “Project Nine”. The folks over at MyInkBooks have done a fantastic job putting this together. Suffice to say, a picture can say a thousand words!

But don’t be misled into thinking this is a straight-up horror yarn. I would never let you readers off the hook so easily! No, “Project Nine” is instead a horror/sci-fi/love story! Add a realistic police investigation and the evil machinations of a  ruthless politician… and you have a modern horror story with a distinctly classic feel.

The precise plot is under wraps for the moment, but I can say that if you like horror, this is the book for you! Even if the luscious young lady on the front cover doesn’t tempt you, how about this gushing review: “the narrative prose expounds a candor much in tune with all the greats in Literature”.

And as for how the novel got to be published, well that’s a story in itself!

But in case it sounds like I’m trying to sell you something… take a look below and see what you think.

FrontCover2

 

“Project Nine” is due to be published later this year.  I’ll be releasing more news as it arrives. Watch out for it!

 

 

Bonus post! How to write Hollywood action lines part 3!

Here is something that trips me up time and time again, and I’ve seen even the most seasoned screenwriters falls for it. So I thought I would include it in this bonus post about how to write Hollywood-style action lines in your screenplay.

This tip can be summed up in one word:

EDIT.

What I mean is, you should always be trying to REMOVE UNNECESSARY WORDS.

Do you have a screenwriting bible?

I do.

It contains everything I’ve ever leant about screenwriting in bullet point form. Only I can understand it, which is fine because it’s only for my use. But in it, I’ve written down the words I should try to avoid at all costs.

And now I’m sharing them with you.

So here they are:

“But”

“And”

“As”

“Is/Are/Am”

“Both”

“Then”

“Just”

“We See”

Please note: if you read a lot of produced screenplays written by professional screenwriters, you will probably see these words being used over and over again. The difference between them and you?

They got paid already.

Another point worth mentioning is: don’t go overboard. If you include one “but” in a 110 page script, chances are it won’t make any difference. Also, if you edit your action lines down too much, they may not make sense. Removing every “a” or “the” will confuse the reader. Sometimes you might even want to deliberately break the rules to make more of an impact on the reader.

So use common sense.

But before you start marketing your script, a simple search for these words will allow you to edit them out of existence and strengthen your action lines. And that might be enough to tip the scales in your favour.

Now if only I’d used this tip on my last script…

How to Write Hollywood-Style action lines Part 2!

Here is the second chapter of how to write action lines.

Now, I’m not professing to write like any of the people whose work I’m about to discuss. However, I have noticed certain things which we as writers can do to make our action lines more professional. And this isn’t just for screenwriters, either. I believe that everyone (myself included) would benefit from analysing the style of the masters.

That said, I’m going to begin with a non-screenwriter.

Stan Lee is a comic book legend. The man who invented Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and many many more. Comic book style is even terser than screenwriting. They only have one caption to get across a lot of information.

Here is a passage I read from the Amazing Spider-Man a while ago:

“You’ll see Spidey turning to a psychiatrist for help after he becomes convinced he may be going mad! And wait’ll you learn who the mysterious shrink himself turns out to be. Next, our hero has to a battle a seemingly indestructible robot, and if that isn’t enough, the deadly mechanical marauder is actually controlled by the sneering, leering, J. Jonah Jameson himself!”

Notice anything?

If you’ve ever heard Stan the Man talk, you can probably hear his intonation ringing in your head right now. But let’s boil it down to some simple rules.

Let’s take another look:

“You’ll see Spidey turning to a psychiatrist for help after he becomes convinced he may be going mad! And wait’ll you learn who the mysterious shrink himself turns out to be. Next, our hero has to a battle a seemingly indestructible robot, and if that isn’t enough, the deadly mechanical marauder is actually controlled by the sneering, leering, J. Jonah Jameson himself!”

Lee’s style is so bold that generations of comic writers have mimicked him. Here we see several of Stan’s tell-tale traits at work. And if that isn’t a clue, nothing is!

Notice the sentence structure contains adjectives before most of the nouns (except for the proper noun ‘Spidey’, which is really a name). You have a “mysterious shrink”, a “seemingly indestructible robot”, and a “deadly mechanical marauder”.

Which brings us to our next Stan Lee trait: alliteration (words that begin with the same letter for those without an English degree). Phrases like: “Mechanical marauder”, and of course J. Jonah Jameson himself. Many more Stan Lee heroes are alliterative, too. Like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, and Matt Murdock. Lee once said he did that on purpose so he could remember the names, but whatever the reason, it makes the phrases have even more impact.

There you go, two simple ways to make your action lines stand out: alliteration and adjectives.

However…

Just remember that screenplays are also sparse. They are images. Easy to follow. Easy to read. Mainly written in high school English. So do don’t go jumping for your Thesaurus just yet.

Consider this passage:

“The front of the Opera House is open only to foot traffic these days. A bizarre place on a Friday night, hawkers and whores, the rabble, the poor and the curious mill around the crudely built platforms and brightly lit stands. Zhora, in just a translucent raincoat, is not out of place in this flea market atmosphere. Trying not to run, she slices through the mob as quickly as she can. Deckard is not far behind, dodging and side-stepping, trying to move against the tide of people scurrying for shelter

She comes to an intersection and turns out of the mall onto a less crowded street. She glances over her shoulder as she breaks into a run and runs right into a couple of pedestrians. All three go down.

Deckard comes out of the crowd in time to spot her getting to her feet. She sees him and runs. The two pedestrians are in his line of fire. He runs past them and drops to one knee, leveling his blaster

DECKARD

Stop or you’re dead!

She doesn’t.”

 

That’s an excerpt from the screenplay “Bladerunnner” by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based (very loosely) on the novel by Phillip K Dick.

Let’s take a closer look:

The first paragraph sets the scene with a beautiful description that is little more than implied. But there are those adjectives again: “crudely-built”, “translucent”. However, as the action builds momentum, the prose becomes sparser and leaner. The sentences grow short. Simple. Fast. The pace builds until the climax…

Here, the screenwriters use sentence structure to create a sense of energy and pace. The action-filled nature of the scene is also emphasized by the strong verbs and tenses. Zhora “slices through the mob” Notice, she “slices”. She doesn’t just run or walk through them. This creates a feeling that she is powerful and determined. Meanwhile Deckard dodges and side-steps. He has to get out of people’s way. He is her physical inferior.

As the pace quickens, the verbs become even leaner: Zhora turns, glances, runs,  until she collides with more pedestrians.

A useful rule is to try to get rid of any “is” verbs. Is running. Is walking. Is grabbing. Is talking. These are static words that slow the reader down. Better to say he or she runs, walks, grabs, talks.

Time for a third example:

The granddaddy of all powerful prose has to be Robert E Howard, with his Conan stories. You will see similar patterns to Stan Lee in his work, which is effortless to read. Here is an excerpt from Conan’s battle with a sorcerer in “Black Colossus”:

“He cast his staff and it fell at the feet of Conan, who recoiled with an involuntary cry. For as it fell it altered horribly; its outline melted and writhed, and a hooded cobra reared up hissing before the horrified Cimmerian. With a furious oath, Conan struck, and his sword sheared the horrid shape in half.”

Notice the adjectives (marked in italics). Also notice the strong verbs: “He cast”, Conan “recoiled”, it “fell”, his sword “sheared” it in half.

I’ve found that a simple sentence structure works best:

adjective +subject + verb + adjective + object.

However, as with everything to do with writing, feel free to be as creative as you like.

In pointing out these stylistic devices, I’ve tried not to be prescriptive. However, Howard’s prose is extraordinarily powerful, as is Stan Lee’s, with its jokey, friendly, informal tone. While other screenwriters like David Peoples carve out lean, action-packed sentences to speed up the action.

By far the best way to discover what works is to read screenplays. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Only then do you get a sense of what a Hollywood script looks like. And then, of course, you can find your own voice as a writer.

But that is a post for another time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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.