Tag Archives: scripts

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.

 

 

 

How to Write Hollywood-style action lines — part 1

Today, here are some tips on how to do the above – write action lines like the ones you see in Hollywood screenplays. Style can make or break a script, or turn a great story into a terrible script.

The main aim of all stylistic devices in a screenplay is… to get the reader to read yor script.

That’s it.

So how do you do that?

Create suspense.

Use short sentences.

Make it a vertical reading experience.

See?

 Here are some examples:

The “vertical” style was perhaps most famously used in “Alien”. Here is a sample taken from the revised script by Walther Hill and David Giler, based on the original script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett:

“SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:

INT. ENGINE ROOM

Empty, cavernous.

INT. ENGINE CUBICLE

Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
Empty.

INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL

Long, dark.
Empty.
Turbos throbbing.
No other movement.

INT. CORRIDOR – “A” LEVEL

Long, empty.

INT. INFIRMARY – “A” LEVEL

Distressed ivory walls.
All instrumentation at rest.”

Pretty obvious why it’s called the “vertical” style, right? The aim is to make the reader’s eye naturally flow down the page thus causing him or her to TURN OVER and start reading the next page. Do that enough times and the reader will actually finish your screenplay.

But you don’t need to be so drastic. Back in 1978 that was fresh writing. Nowadays it’s more a throwback. Also, this tends to use up a lot of pages.

Here’s a slightly more modern example, from a draft of “Scream” written by Kevin Williamson:

“FADE IN

ON A RINGING TELEPHONE.

A hand reaches for it, bringing the receiver up to the face of
CASEY BECKER, a young girl, no more than sixteen.  A friendly face
with innocent eyes.

CASEY
Hello.

MAN’S VOICE
(from phone)
Hello.

Silence.

CASEY
Yes.

MAN
Who is this?

CASEY
Who are you trying to reach?

MAN
What number is this?

CASEY
What number are you trying to reach?

MAN
I don’t know.

CASEY
I think you have the wrong number.

MAN
Do I?

CASEY
It happens. Take it easy.

CLICK! She hangs up the phone.  The CAMERA PULLS BACK to reveal
Casey in a living room, alone.  She moves from the living room to
the kitchen.  It’s a nice house.  Affluent.

The phone RINGS again.

INT.  KITCHEN

Casey grabs the portable.

CASEY
Hello.

MAN
I’m sorry. I guess I dialed the wrong number.

CASEY
So why did you dial it again?

MAN
To apologize.

CASEY
You’re forgiven. Bye now.

MAN
Wait, wait, don’t hang up.

Casey stands in front of a sliding glass door.  It’s pitch black
outside.

CASEY
What?

MAN
I want to talk to you for a second.

CASEY
They’ve got 900 numbers for that. Seeya.

CLICK!  Casey hangs up.  A grin on her face.

EXT.  CASEY’S HOUSE – NIGHT – ESTABLISHING

A big country home with a huge sprawling lawn full of big oak
trees.  It sits alone with no neighbors in sight.

The phone RINGS again.”

This is a nice, flowing style that leads your eye down the page. Notice how the sentences are short. Clipped. And, in some cases, incomplete.

There is also far less detail than you think in these lines. The writers were adept at using minimal words to convey a setting. The reader’s mind fils in the blanks. In fact “Alien” uses only two words to describe a spaceship’s engine room.

So the next time you think about adding a ten-line paragraph to explain that this is a comfortable, well-furnished craftsman-style house that nestles on the edge of town surrounded by sycamore trees with a luxury car parked on the drive outside… think again.

Which brings me to my second tip .

Don’t overdo it.

Some sentences belong together. When you try to force them into a vertical pattern, you actually break the flow and make it more difficult to read down the page. For example, here’s a passage from the script of “The Bourne Identity” by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum:    

INT. FISHING BOAT BUNK ROOM — DAWN — TIME CUTS

Transformed into a makeshift operating room.  A light swings
overhead.  THE MAN layed out across the table.  Sounds —
groans — words — snatches of them — all in different
languages.

GIANCARLO playing doctor in a greasy kitchen apron.  Cutting
away the clothes.  Turning THE MAN on his side.  Two bullet
wounds in the back.  Probing them, judging them.

Now — GIANCARLO with a flashlight in his teeth — TINK —
TINK — TINK — bullet fragments falling into a washed-out
olive jar.

Now — something catching GIANCARLO’S EYE — A SCAR ON THE
MAN’S HIP — another fragment — exacto knife cutting in —
tweezers extracting A SMALL PLASTIC TUBE, not a bullet at
all, and as it comes free —

THE MAN’S HAND SLAMS down onto GIANCARLO’S”…

This is still a pretty vertical read. However it would have been even more vertical to separate each sentence out onto separate lines, like so: 

“Transformed into a makeshift operating room.

A light swings overhead.

THE MAN layed out across the table.

Sounds — groans — words — snatches of them — all in different languages.

GIANCARLO playing doctor in a greasy kitchen apron.

Cutting away the clothes…”

And so on. But does this make it any better? No. Sometimes it’s worse to force the reader to look at a new line. The most important thing is to preserve the flow. I’ve read lots of amateaur screenplays where the writer thought they were doing the reader a favour by splitting lines up in this way. But  it actualy makes it harder to read them.

It’s a judgment call. And the best way to decide is to look at other scripts. There are plenty of them on the Internet these days. Break them down the way you would an Enlgiash Literature exercise.

And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in Part 2.

See you then!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug reviewed (or “Not more barrels”).

The Hobbit Part 2: or "how many characters can we fit in a barrel?"

The Hobbit Part 2: or “how many characters can we fit in a barrel?”

This week, here’s a review that shows the perils of big-budget filmmaking from a screenwriting perspective.

WARNING: SPOLIERS AHEAD

Now, I really loved “The Hobbit Part 1”. I mean, I really loved it. Others may have thought it lacked action scenes and spent too long with the unfunny dwarves. However, I loved exactly that. Music is a much-ignored part of filmmaking. But when done correctly, it can elevate a film to something fantastic. Consider Superman the Movie (the Christopher Reeve one, not the emo-Superman of recent years), Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Close Encounters. All had great soundtracks. Coincidentally, all by John Williams. But other composers like John Barry or even Daft Punk have come up with equally good soundtracks. Anyway, I digress. The point is, the Lonely Mountain Song by Neil Finn was my favourite soundtrack piece of 2013.

I also liked the time spent setting up the dwarves. Film is not a video game. These are supposed to be STORIES about CHARACTERS. Not just an endless succession of CGI chase and fight sequences (which become outdated fast. Check out the Matrix Reloaded if you don’t believe me).

So, in short, I loved Part 1. Loved Rhadghast with his rabbit-drawn sled. Loved the goblin king. Great.

Now to “The Hobbit Part 2″…

It began well enough. Through the “magic” of 3D (it wasn’t available in anything else in my cinema), I was transported to, respectively: Bree, Beorn’s cottage (although this lasted slightly less longer than I had hoped), and the caves of Thranduil. Very nice stuff. Even liked Tauriel and Kili (although I’m not sure how a romance between an elf and a dwarf would work in practice).

Then we came to the barrels. And this is, for me, where it all went wrong.

Now, I understand that this is a adventure film. There has to be SOME action, right? So I was along for the ride. Until the laws of physics started to be routinely ignored. Not only that, but it seemed the laws of PLOT LOGIC were ignored as well.

During the barrel riding scene, elves became superhuman. Dwarves also became superhuman. The numbers of barrels magically fluctuated (maybe Gandalf put a spell on them). Dwarves leaped twenty feet out of moving barrels in a fast-flowing river to steal weapons from the hands of Orcs and throw them back with deadly pinpoint accuracy. And having done all this, they arrive at Laketown and complain they haven’t got any weapons… having just slain about two hundred Orcs!

Still, my growing sense of apprehension was only a feeling of dread akin to the knowledge that the Necromancer had returned. So I went along to Laketown, hoping things would improve.

And, for a while, things did. The Necromancer, and his link to the evil eye in LOTR, was a very nice touch. Not in the book, but it made perfect sense within the context of the movies.

Then came Laketown.

Peter Jackson’s LOTR is reknowned for its attention to detail. It is said that there is so much set detail in Rivendell that it can never be captured on camera.

So what went wrong in Laketown? All of a sudden, it felt like I was on a set. Maybe it was the heavy overuse of interiors. But everything looked a little bit fake. The politics of Laketown were also hard to grasp. Stephen Fry’s Mayor seemed to fluctuate between wanting to kill the dwarves and wanting to help them. Nor was it clear what Bard the Bowman’s  status was in Laketown. Anyway, it was here that the Hobbit and I parted company.

Cue, Smaug. Everybody loves a dragon. I am no exception; I’m a sucker for the mythical beasties, ever since seeing Disney’s rather frightening kids’ film “Dragonslayer”.  So when Smaug appeared, I wanted to like him.

Yet, while Bilbo raced for the Arkenstone (which has no magical properties, it appears, so why it was so valuable compared to a mountain of treasure the size of Wales escaped me), we were treated to the least enjoyable action sequence I have yet seen in the whole film series.

Instead of a brisk romp with a dragon, this sequence turned into a half-hour epic. Dwarves managed to survive fifty-foot drops. They leaped across thirty foot-wide gaps. Never again will I doubt dwarven architecture, as a waking dragon can cause an earthquake in Laketown but fail to bring down the roof of a chasm even when all the support beams are shattered.  The dwarves (ingenious creatures worthy of a job at Microsoft) are able to rig up a one-hundred foot molten gold statue in less than a minute.

When said statute suddenly (and inexplicably) explodes in a torrent of molten gold, it had me rolling my eyes and sinking into my seat.

Another example of plot nonsense occurs when Smaug returns to find Bilbo quivering, ready to be eaten and accepting his fate.

“I’ll show you,” says Smaug. “I’ll burn Laketown down, that’ll make you suffer!”

How about eating him? Wouldn’t that make him suffer? But no, Smaug decides to save Bilbo for later (after all, there’s another three hours to go), and burn down Laketown. Which he would do anyway.

Hmm.

Don’t even get me started on how Thorin manages to use a heat-conductive metal shield to float safely on a river of molten gold.

So in conclusion, “The Desolation of Smaug” is definitely a film of two halves. The nice character moments and humour of the first half is undone in the second half by an over-reliance on the same physics-defying and unconvincing CGI we have sene in films like “Indiana Jones 4” (Remember the fridge? That’s worthy of a trope in itself, much like “Jumping the Shark”. Maybe we should have “Riding the fridge”?)

Perhaps it’s the result of so many disciplines being involved in what used to be a proces involving only actors, a director, and a handful of crew. Maybe it’s even due in some way to the input (or lack of input) of Guillermo Del Toro, who apparently departed the production due to delays in filming. It’s anyone’s guess how having such a visionary director leave halfway through affected the outcome. But whatever the cause, it felt like the filmmakers had thrown in their towels after the barrel riding scene.

I don’t know if “The Hobbit” will take its place alongside the “Lord of the Rings” as modern classics. But it seems that in a world where anything can be conjured up using that magical CGI paintbrush, filmmakers need to exercise more restraint. Otherwise they risk suffering the fate of a certain cartoon mouse who also experimented with magic and came undone.

Monsters in the House

Today I’m going to share some secrets with you about how to write in the movie genre called “Monster in the House”.

The late, great Blake Snyder can be credited with bringing this term into popular phraseology amongst screenwriters. Basically it is the kind of movie where there is a Monster… in a House. Geddit? Many horror movies use this genre, but so do many other kinds of film. For example, Blake says in his excellent books “Save the Cat” and “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies”  that the good ol’ Monster in the House includes such films as “Jaws”, “Independence Day”, “Scream”, “Single White Female”, and even “Fatal Attraction”.

So how does this go? Well, put simply, Blake says you must have a Monster, a House, and a Sin committed by one the chartacters that invites the Monster into the House. For example, in “Jaws” it is the Mayor’s refusal to close the beaches, out of fear that it will damage tourism on the island, that invites the great white shark to keep munching on the locals.

 

Birds Film

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds starring Tippi Hedren. Can you spot the “Monster” and the “House” in this movie? Extra marks if you can remember what the “Sin is, too!

 

Blake’s books include a whole host of other great observations about this genre and others and I encourage you to read them all. However I thought I would apply this to my own latest screenplay while I was working on it. The result was that I may have come up with a definitive “blueprint” for the Monster in the House genre.

This may or may may not make sense without reading Blake’s books. However, you can find some illuminating examples by visiting his wesbite http://www.blakesnyder.com/ and using the free dowloads there.

Anyway, here goes…

 

MONSTER IN THE HOUSE STRUCTURE BLUEPRINT

1. Setup

The House is introduced and described. The Hero’s weakness is also introduced. Don’t forget to Save the Cat!

2. Catalyst

The Sin is committed, ultimately (but not necessarily there and then) inviting the Monster into the House.

3. Debate

Resistance of whatever is the catalyst by the Hero.

4. Break into Act Two/Turning Point # 1

The main conflict with the Monster begins.

5. B Story

The Hero and another character interact.

6. Fun & Games

Hide and Seek with the Monster in the House.

7. Midpoint

Stakes are raised. The Fun is now over. A and B stories cross. Kiss at 60?

8. Bad Guys Close In

Turn, Turn, Turn as one by one the Monster kills off the Hero’s allies and generally makes things harder for them.

9. Rock Bottom

The Sin is finally exposed. The Whiff of Death occurs.

10. Dark Night of the Soul

Despair. Monster appears victorious.

11.Break Into Act Three

The solution!

12. Final Challenge

The Hero combines his weakness with what he has learned during the story to  defeat the Bad Guy (and optionally Save the Cat if not done before).

13. Resolution

Survival, basically.  Optionally you may show how the Hero has overcome his weakness.

 

So there it is. I’d be interested in knowing what anyone else thinks about this. But it seems general enough to apply to pretty much any Monster in the House script.  Next time I may even break down a popular movie into these component parts to see if it does work all the way through. Until then, keep writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Being Persistent

You wouldn't want to be this guy. Unless you were a writer.

You wouldn’t want to be this guy. Unless you were a writer.

As you go through this journey to reach your writing goals, there is one thing I cannot stress enough.

You must persist.

Of all the people I know who have become writers, they all share one thing in common. They did not give up. And out of all the people I know who did not become writers, they too had one thing in common. At some point, they did.

It’s easy to give in to the voice inside your head that tells you you’re not good enough, that you never will be good enough, that you’re wasting your life, that becoming a professional writer is just an impossible dream…

But are you wasting your life following a dream?

I would argue that those who go through life without dreams are truly the ones wasting theirs.

It may be that you have financial pressures urging you to get a steady job. It may be you have a family, or one on the way. It may be you are surrounded with unsupportive people who laugh and sneer whenever you mention your latest project.

Eddie Murphy has said on the Actors’ Studio that he only surrounds himself with positive people, because negative people wear you down.

You will encounter a lot of jealousy in your quest to be a writer. People will laugh at your dreams. Some will give you harsh, unconstructive feedback. Others will simply ignore you.

You must learn to overcome this. Because this is a form of rejection, and rejection is the writer’s shadow. It follows him wherever he or she goes, threatening to obscure him or her from view.

One way to beat rejection is to reframe the statistics. If you only get one script request out of a hundred submissions, well then surely that means that every submission will get you closer to reaching one hundred and getting that script request!

Being positive is sometimes the hardest part of writing. But if you can master it, you will eventually succeed. Even if it happens in a way you never expected…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having said that…

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

– Female driven

– Limited location

– Low budget

– Horror/thriller

– No SFX

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

BUT.. and this is a big BUT!

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

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

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

Here’s hoping you can write big too!

American spelling and grammar

Let’s get one thing straight. I hate editing and proofreading. Hate it. With a passion.

Nor do I claim to have any expertise in the area of grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Or any skill, for that amtter. matter.

But I thought that all you budding British screenwriters who want to make it in the States might want to know some commonly misused phrases, together with some insights about American English, that I have learned on my journey so far.

First of all. Toward, or is it towards? And forward, or is it forwards?

Well, actually, it’s both. And yet…

American authors and editors seem to prefer “forward” and “towards”. As in, “to run towards” or “to go forward”. Maybe it has something to do with “forwards” being one of the dreaded adverbs.

Also, I’ve noticed some differences in punctuation.

In English English (if there is such a thing), we like to drop the final comma in a list. For example: “blue, yellow, red and green”. Not so in American English. Our cousins across the Atlantic like their commas. So in American English this would tend to be written as : “blue, yellow, red, and green”.

If I’m wrong about that, I’m sure someone will correct me.

Finally, some terms.

In America they don’t have rubbish. It’s either trash or garbage. It’s not a rubbish bin either. It’s a trash can or garbage pale (or dumpster if you’re hiding a body).

Nor do they go looking in the dark with torches. Torches in America are the burning staves you go chasing after Frankenstein’s monster with. Take a flashlight instead.

Other differences can include:

“-our” endings becomes “or” endings, e.g. “colour” (British) as opposed to “color” (American).

Ending that have “-ise” e.g. “organise” in British become “-ize” e.g. “organize” in American. Similarly with “organisation” (UK) v “organization” (USA).

Other favorite confusions include:

“aluminium” (UK) v “aluminum” (USA)

“tonne” (UK) v “metric ton” (USA)

“mummy” or “mum” (UK) v “mommy” or “mom” (USA)

An excellent article on the subject can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_spelling_differences

So these are just a few of the ways you can confuse or distract an American reader. I’m saying all this because that’s the last thing you want to do. You want the reader to feel comfortable that you know what you’re talking about (even if you don’t).

I’m sure there are many more of these. If I come across them I’ll let you know.

No commas were harmed in the writing of this post.