Archive for the ‘script consultant’ Category

July 8th, 2017  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant
   |   No Comments

So I was updating my website and saw that it’s been just about forever since I posted on my blog. When I was thinking about things I wanted to post I realized I haven’t posted because I’ve been too busy working and I immediately knew what I wanted to write.

I’m incredibly grateful. Yes, for the work because, well, rent, but more importantly for the opportunity to work with creative humans who are telling stories.

Screenwriting is hard, right? The more writers I work with and the more scripts I read, the more respect I have for the craft of screenwriting. There’s the actual execution of the script but also having a really compelling, original idea. Not sure which one is more challenging but it all comes down to the cold hard truth: this is a craft that takes commitment, passion, and maybe just a little bit of crazy.

Given all that I wanted to take a moment to say thank YOU to all the writers who welcome me on their journey. I’m deeply honored and extremely grateful to be allowed in to your stories and your process. You all totally rock.

Write On!

 

 

   |   No Comments

I recently taught a webinar for The Writers Store on Story Development. In it we talked about the importance of testing your story concept before you end up like Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation lost in a sea of notes and pages with no idea how to move forward.

adapt2

 

 

 

 

 

What you want to do is find a process for evaluating your story concept before you get to page 60 and have written yourself into a corner only to discover it doesn’t work. This causes you to waste precious time, get frustrated and even worse… give up!

The heart and soul of a screenplay is its premise. Whether this is  something high concept or more independently minded a successful script starts with a really great idea. But a great idea isn’t a story – a story is the chain of events set in motion by the central disturbance. A well written screenplay has a great idea that naturally leads to a compelling story.

It’s important to learn how to assess the strength of your idea as the first step in your story development process. Asking yourself some key questions about your concept before you go to draft can help you determine if your story idea is solid enough to warrant developing it. If you’d like to hear the full webinar where I share tools you can use to find ideas, test your concept, find the spine and shape of the narrative and begin to outline you can find it on demand at The Writers Store here.

Character

The protagonist’s actions drive the story forward so it’s important to look at spine of the piece from your main character’s perspective.

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • Do they have a flaw or subconscious problem they need to heal?
  • Do they have an external goal / problem they need to solve that drives the story forward and will sustain 90+ minutes?
  • Is this a goal the audience can get emotionally invested in them achieving?
  • Does this goal naturally lead to action ie: plot?
  • Does this goal/action naturally lead to an all is lost crisis moment?
  • Does the action that drives the plot result in your protagonist growing in a meaningful way over the course of the story?

Plot

The crux of any story is the chain of events (plot) that stem from the main disturbance. Looking at the plot is an important part of determining the strength of the premise.

  • Does your story have a clear inciting incident / disturbance that kick starts the story and creates a problem for your protagonist to solve?
  • Does the problem your protagonist faces create the opportunity for compelling, high stakes obstacles that escalate (chain of events)?
  • Are there at least three major obstacles (ideally more)?
  • Does this problem naturally lead the audience to ask “and then what?” after each obstacle is overcome?
  • Does the problem your protagonist has to solve create tension and suspense around the outcome?
  • Can you clearly plot the inciting incident, first act turning point, mid-point, second act turning point and climax?
  • Does the action naturally propel the protagonist to a compelling climax?
  • Does the action of the story lead to meaningful resolution?
  • Does the story have a clear theme?

Commerciality

While generally we don’t want to write specifically to the marketplace we do want to write a script that will eventually sell and attract the attention of agents, managers and producers so it’s important to evaluate your idea from a commercial perspective as well.

  • Does your story have a clear genre?
  • Is your protagonist, their goal, obstacles and resolution unique and something we haven’t seen before?
  • Does it have an original hook?
  • Does your idea naturally attract cast and a director?
  • Is the world of the story unique and visually compelling?
  • Does your concept have a built in audience?
  • Can you envision the marketing campaign?
  • Is this concept in line with current trends in the marketplace?
  • Is the concept in line with the budget needed to make it?
  • Does the concept feel like a movie?

Personal

A personal investment in the story you’re writing is key and it’s vital to assess this as well.

  • Are you passionate enough about your idea that you will be able to spend the next year (probably longer) developing it?
  • Why is this particular idea important to you?
  • What are your goals with this screenplay?
  • Does this particular concept move your career forward?

Testing Your Concept

The process of answering these questions will help you to assess the strength of your overall premise and the resulting story. No one wants to spend six months to a year on a project that isn’t going anywhere so evaluating your ideas before you go to draft is an important first step to see if what you have is worth investing your time and energy into. At the end of the day it just might help you tell a stronger story too!

   |   No Comments

Everybody has their own way of breaking a story or finding the shape of a narrative.

One of the ways I use when I’m working with writers or working on my own stories is a variation of something Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) calls The Clothesline Method. You can find it here. 

The basic method involves drawing a straight line “a clothesline,” marking off the main act breaks/turning points and then “hanging” the “clothes” on it. The clothes are the scenes you know or are thinking about. So perhaps you have the final scene or know what the first turning point is going to be “hang” these scenes on the line and continue to develop the other beats from there “hanging” them on the line as you go. Gradually this will give you the general shape of the narrative.

 

The line looks something like this:

____l_______________l____________l____________l________________l____________l_

Inciting Incident     End Act One    Midpoint           End Act Two          Climax          Resolution

 

Which loosely corresponds to the following page numbers:

Inciting incident (10-15)

End of act one (20-30)

Midpoint (60)

End of act two (90)

Climax (95)

Resolution (100)

 

With the “clothesline” laid out you can rough in the beats you already have in mind. As you do this look for the three main plot lines which should dovetail over the course of the story:

Internal Character Arc – the main shifts in character that lead to the protagonist’s transformation.

External Plot Line – the main action.

Relationship Line – the primary relationship that helps move the story forward and brings the character to a point of transformation.

 

As you rough in the main beats you can see the natural progression of the story and determine what’s working and what isn’t. You can brainstorm ideas and solutions and when you’re ready take your clothesline and turn it into an outline and eventually a draft.

Obviously everyone has their own way of cracking a story and this is just one way to go about it. The Clothesline Method is relatively loose and free form and fits the way I think about story.  You, of course, will have your own process which I’d love to hear about in the comments below. Hearing how other writers develop stories can be very helpful and it’s good to share our processes.

If you want to know how David Seidler (The King’s Speech), John August (Big Fish), Ava DuVernay (Selma) and others break a story check out The Academy’s excellent Creative Spark series on YouTube. You can find the link here. 

September 25th, 2014  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, story editing
   |   No Comments

Here’s a screenwriting truth.

A script is for READERS. A film is for AUDIENCES.

Seems obvious, right? Clearly you can’t have a film without a script but, here’s the deal, our engagement with a script is entirely different than our engagement with a film.

Why?

Because a screenplay is a written document that tells the story in words. This is done in such a way that the reader will visualize the movie in their mind’s eye. Though a script is a blueprint for a story that will be told visually it’s ultimately a piece of writing. Because of this a reader’s engagement with a script is akin to reading a novel.

A film on the other hand is visceral and immersive. A film has the benefit of actors, a visual world, music and special effects. These elements help tell the story in ways that words alone cannot. Given this an audience’s engagement is a lot more focused and full on.

What does this mean for screenwriters?

It means that we have to choose our words very carefully thinking about how the reader will respond. Yes, it’s also essential to keep the audience in mind, but first we need to fully engage the reader and tell a story that will keep them hooked to the very last page.

How can writers keep the reader engaged?

-Immediately grab the reader by getting to the heart of the story quickly. Audiences are engaged with a film from the moment it begins through music, the opening credit sequence and the unique visual world of the story. They have likely seen the trailer and the one sheet and are willing to settle in and let the story unfold. The first pages of a screenplay don’t have this luxury. You have to get to the heart of the story quickly and economically with urgency and tension.

-Hook the reader emotionally. On screen emotional engagement happens almost immediately when we first see the actors (especially if this is an A-list star) and there is an automatic buy-in that doesn’t happen on the page. The way to hook the reader emotionally is to clearly establish the protagonist’s goals and the deep underlying need that drives them. This helps the reader engage with the main character’s journey and become invested in the outcome of the story.

-Clearly establish the world of your story. In a film the unique world of the story is conveyed in every frame. It’s communicated through costumes, set design and music. On the page it’s easy to lose the sense of where the story is set unless we’re reminded of it throughout the piece. With this in mind attention has to be given to the specific detail that communicates the world your story is set in. If your story is set in a rundown urban center this has to be evident throughout the script not just on the first page and then forgotten. You may need more establishing shots or beats that hone in on the kind of details that tell us where the story takes place. On screen the setting is woven into every scene and doesn’t require the same kind of specific focus.

-Use explicit dialogue such as exposition judiciously. On screen a character’s backstory, inner world, conflict and relationships can be communicated in many different ways especially through performance. Clearly a script doesn’t have the ability to fully convey how an actor will play a role so this sub textual information has to be clearly established on the page lest it get missed. While this may lead to the occasional piece of dialogue feeling somewhat “on the nose” specific, judicious use of exposition (without going overboard!!) will ensure the subtler elements of your story are clearly communicated. This more overt dialogue can be removed in the production draft.

-Establish the visual relationship between characters through their actions. For example if your piece is an interracial romance or involves physical opposites like Laurel and Hardy this relationship will be front and center on the screen. Yet this kind of visual information will soon be forgotten on the page unless it’s apparent in what the characters say and do.

-Succinctly convey action sequences. Action sequences on the page rarely measure up to their on screen version. It’s nearly impossible to convey the excitement and spectacle of adrenaline fueled action sequences without the benefit of stunts, special and visual effects, sound effects, music and performance. Because of this readers generally skim action sequences to find out the outcome – who lives, who dies etc. While action sequences on the page still need to be tension filled and engaging write them with your reader in mind and leave the full blown description to the director and production team.

There’s something else to think about here. Readers/executives are reading screenplays for work. Not only do they have a stack of scripts to read, e-mails to answer and calls to make but they are evaluating the piece with their specific agenda in mind. Be it coverage, financing, repping the writer, seeing if it’s right for their acting client etc. Audiences, on the other hand, are watching a film for enjoyment – it’s entertainment. This means readers and audiences are coming at the material from completely different perspectives and engage with it in very different ways.

Ultimately (fingers crossed) a screenplay will eventually be a movie. This means the writer needs to tell the story in a way that communicates what we’ll see and hear on the screen and enables the reader to see the movie in their mind’s eye. Film, clichéd as it might be, is a visual medium and at the end of the day visuals come first. That said in order for a script to eventually become a movie it has to fully engage the reader. Knowing how to keep your reader hooked through to the very last page is the first step in getting your story on the screen.

originally published in Scriptmag

July 27th, 2013  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, story editing
   |   No Comments

Before I read a script I don’t want to know anything about it. I like to come at the piece with an open mind and no preconceived ideas about the premise or intentions that might ultimately influence the read. Now, is this truly possible?

Nope.

Because all reading is inherently subjective.

All writers, whether new or established, have to deal with a certain level of subjectivity when their work is being evaluated. This of course can be both good and bad.

For example when a script goes out for coverage the reader doesn’t generally know about attachments such as cast or a director. But knowing who is set to star or what kind of director will be involved can make a huge difference when reading the script. Put yourself in their shoes. If you know Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) is going to direct you’ll instantly filter the writing through his unique perspective. If Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hangover) is the lead you’ll have him in mind as you read the script. Clearly knowing the attachments will have a big effect on whether or not you respond to the piece and ultimately how you evaluate it.

Another factor that can come into play is if the executive knows the writer personally either as a friend or professionally. If the writer is a friend the reader may bring qualities to the writing that aren’t there just because they know them. Some of the story events may have a familiar ring to them or they might sense the writer’s “voice” more easily than someone who doesn’t know the writer. If the executive has worked with the writer in the past and has read other material they will bring that context to the current script seeing patterns and themes that other readers wouldn’t.

In addition we all have our own personal taste and interests. Maybe you love sci-fi and hate romantic comedies, perhaps you’d choose an epic drama over a horror script. You might be into period pieces because you really like history and detest teen comedies. Effects heavy action scripts might bore you while a low budget indie keeps you hooked. As a reader you can work to put these natural interests aside but they still can’t help but influence how you look at a piece of material. Another aspect of this is the reader’s mood that day. For example if a writer submits a romantic comedy to an executive that’s just broken up with their girlfriend chances are it might not go over as well as it would if they were still in the first few days of their romance. Ultimately we’re all human and respond to writing from our own individual, highly specific place.

Context also matters. If a reader or executive is looking at a script for a production company, agency, manager, contest or lab this too will play a role in how they evaluate a piece of work. All of these venues have very specific agendas and are looking for scripts that fall into their particular niche. While everyone is looking for quality work with a fresh perspective a big studio isn’t looking for the same thing as Sundance. An actor’s production company is looking at star vehicles and may not want something action or effects laden or too indie. HBO and Lionsgate don’t have the same agenda. Agents and managers are looking at the overall career of a writer and are looking at material from a sales perspective. Who the script is being evaluated for plays a big role in how it’s interpreted.

Where the writer is in their career can affect the read. For example brand new writers are at an advantage on one hand because their work can be looked at with a certain neutrality. But on the other there’s no track record or frame of reference which can often lead readers to be harsher and expect more. A more established writer can get away with more in both execution and concept as they have previous work to look to. I’ve read scripts by new writers that couldn’t get traction in the marketplace only to see an established writer successfully pitch and produce a very similar idea. So while concept is king so is how well known the writer is and this too will affect how a piece is read.

The experience level of the reader is something that comes into play as well.  An executive who has read 1000’s of screenplays will be able to spot formula from miles away, see twists coming and be underwhelmed by overused conventions. They may have higher expectations overall but be able to see good writing immediately.  Whereas a new reader might judge a script too harshly or focus on the minutia because they are still learning the language of feedback. They may see the piece as highly original when it’s premise is overly familiar. Either way how many scripts the executive has read will play a role in their interpretation of the material.

So what can a writer do to mitigate all of this and ensure your piece is being read in the most favorable way? Well, truthfully, there is no way to have a completely unbiased read. That said the only defense is to make sure the script reflects your intentions and is telling the story you want to tell. Getting feedback from trusted peers, friends, writers groups, story editors or consultants before you take your piece out is a good way to check to see if your script is in line with your intentions. Executives and readers will always have their own unique take on the work and hopefully it’s in sync with yours but if not at least you can be confident knowing you’ve written a piece that accurately conveys the movie you see in your head.

thanks to Lucy @bang2write for some last minute inspiration!

   |   No Comments

It’s summer and people across the country are making travel plans. The first thing they do is figure out where they want to go. You can’t plan your trip until you know your final destination, right?

Lately when I’ve been working with writers to develop their scripts I’ve been using the same approach – beginning at the end. If you know where you want to end up it’s far easier to know where to begin. Looking at your script in reverse can be a really helpful tool when writing your piece.

Where your protagonist ends up tells us where they need to begin.

Screenplays are all about transformation – we want to see a character grow and change over the course of the story – this is the spine of their inner journey. In order to give the protagonist a meaningful transformation the first thing we need to do is determine where they are at the end of the story. How have they changed and grown? By looking at what they have learned we know what kind of shift needs to take place and can make sure we properly set this up at the beginning.

For example in Silver Linings Playbook Pat learns to move on from his marriage, embrace a relationship with Tiffany and manage his illness. Since we know this is where the story has to end we can backtrack to the first act and make sure we set up the fact that he’s fixated on getting his wife back, uninterested in any other romantic relationship and is not in control of his illness. In Little Miss Sunshine our family ends the story united this means they need to begin the story separated by their dysfunction. In The Descendants Matt ends the story having forgiven his wife for being unfaithful. This means he needs to begin the story being deeply upset about her infidelity.

When we know where our protagonist is at the end of the script it’s much easier to determine what information we need to give the audience about who they are and what state they are in when the story begins.  This helps us give the protagonist a clear arc. Yet in order for a shift such as this to feel emotionally satisfying and not arbitrary and forced it has to be properly plotted. Once again starting at the end can help us here.

Plotting the protagonist’s transformation – All is lost and their epiphany.

For example in Up Carl comes to terms with the loss of his wife, gains a surrogate son in Russell and becomes a happier person overall. In order for this to work we need to open the story with Carl being unable to move on after the death of his wife, avoiding relationships and being unhappy and curmudgeonly. The key beats that help make this shift feel believable are the protagonist’s “all is lost” moment at the end of the second act and their corresponding epiphany.

All is lost. 

In Up Carl’s “all is lost” moment is when he’s forced to choose between losing his house and saving Kevin and Russell who have been captured by Muntz. Carl chooses to stay with his house. This is his lowest point and suggests that while he may achieve his goal of getting to Paradise Falls he’s not going to reconcile the loss of his wife or form a lasting friendship with Russell which is what we know he really needs to do.

Epiphany.

Carl ultimately decides to go after Russell but in order to do this he has to be able to let go of his commitment to fulfilling his and Ellie’s dream. This is beautifully done when Carl looks at their scrapbook and finds a note from her thanking him for the adventure of their life together. This is Carl’s epiphany. It allows him to reconcile the loss and fuels his decision to rescue Kevin and ultimately to let go of the house and go after Russell.

In this way the protagonist’s “all is lost” moment and their epiphany are the two main beats that work together to create their transformation. So once again if we know where the protagonist needs to be at the end of the story we can determine what “all is lost” moment and epiphany will help them to get there.

Second act linking beats.

So we know where we need to be at the beginning and at the end. We have a good understanding of what “all is lost” moment and epiphany will naturally lead them to change but we still need to link these beats so the transformation feels earned and emotionally satisfying. To do this we need to plot the protagonist’s shift over the course of the second act. This means seeding in small changes along the way.

In Up there are multiple interactions between Carl and Russell and we see Carl slowly open up to the point where we believe he would make the decision to rescue Russell and let go of his house. In The King’s Speech Albert meets with Logue giving the story a natural way to show Albert healing both his stammer and the childhood wounds that weakened his self-confidence. This helps us buy him standing up to the Archbishop and successfully giving his wartime speech. In Silver Linings Playbook Pat and Tiffany’s dance rehearsals bring them closer and help us to believe that Pat would fall for Tiffany and reconcile the fact that his wife has moved on.

Begin at the end.

The protagonist’s transformation is the destination and knowing this helps us to plot the stops along the way. Deciding where you want your story to go and how you want the protagonist to change is a vital part of your screenplay and can be a very useful tool to use when developing your piece.

 

   |   3 Comments

Many of my clients write short screenplays and last year I helped develop nine short scripts for Film Independent’s Project:Involve seven of which were greenlit and showcased at the Los Angeles Film Festival. One of these, To the Bone written by Erin Li and Silka Luisa, has been accepted to Slamdance.  We’re gearing up for this year’s program so short films are on my mind.

Shorts are a great way to develop your writing skills and can be an excellent calling card if produced. Short film screenplays are a unique form of storytelling that are not simply pared down features but have their own specific rules and structure. Because they are short they have the ability to deliver a quick, powerful emotional punch. In many ways this gives them greater impact than a feature which has to tease out the same affect over 90+ minutes. In order to write an effective short film it helps to be aware of the aspects of screenwriting that are unique to short films. Here are some character guidelines to keep in mind (my next post will take a look at structure).

• Protagonist’s Goal
Even in a short the plot of the story is driven by what the protagonist wants. This is their goal. As in a feature their goal needs to be compelling, urgent and something we can get behind. We want to emotionally engage the audience so they are invested in the story and want to see the outcome. This doesn’t mean their goal has to be big like saving the world. Sometimes smaller, more internal goals have greater emotional impact partly because they are more relatable.

• Backstory
The challenge in creating a compelling character in a short is you don’t have the luxury of 30 pages to set up your protagonist for the audience. Depending on the length of your short you have only a handful of pages and sometimes even less. This means you don’t have time for elaborate backstory or exposition (which is like a dead weight in a short). So how do you convey important information about your character? Economically, visually and through action and relationships. If there is something we must know about your character’s past or current situation then find ways to convey this with a visual reference. This could be something in the setting, a unique visual attribute (clothes, hair) or gesture. We learn the most about a character through their actions. So what they are actually doing and who they are doing it with tells us a lot. This is your toolbox. Use it to tell us about your character economically without having to involve a whole lot of backstory and exposition which you don’t have time for.

• Protagonist’s Arc
Even in a short screenplay the main character needs to grow and change over the course of the story. Unlike a feature you don’t have 90 pages to develop and arc a character so the shift they make needs to be smaller and not feel like a huge leap. Big changes are just too much to incorporate in such a short time. So what you’re looking for here are protagonists who have shifts in perspective, see things in a new light, and undertake a new or different action. They may have a shift based on the consequences of their actions or we might see a change in their relationships as a result what’s occurred in the story.

Of course this comes with its own challenge which is that these smaller shifts tend to be more internal than external so the trick here is to find visual ways of externalizing the internal change.

• Secondary Characters
While a feature length narrative may have myriad characters a short film needs to focus on the protagonist and a limited number of secondary characters. These are your antagonists, love interests, best friends, parents, boss, co-workers etc. There just isn’t enough time to service more than three-four secondary characters (generally less) and it’s important to decide what characters you absolutely need in order to tell your story. Key here is incorporating secondary characters whose relationship with the protagonist  helps us to understand who they are, their goal and their transformation.  For example the main character’s relationship with their sibling/parent/friend  can tell us whether they are kind, helpful, disconnected, emotionally aloof, self involved etc. traits that would be hard to establish without seeming them in relationship with another character.

• Theme
Knowing what your story is about and what you are trying to say as a writer is vital even in a short screenplay. One of the ways to think about this is what your protagonist learns over the course of the story tells us what the piece is really about. Once again this doesn’t need to be a huge, earth shaking idea or shift but it needs to be clear and we need to understand your point of view and why you’re telling this particular story. Using the protagonist to convey the theme is an effective way to do this. Shorts that are “about” something are more likely to connect with the audience and resonate more deeply.

If you’ve written a short I’d love to hear your comments, ideas and suggestions.

 

August 28th, 2010  Posted at   script consultant, script consulting
   |   No Comments

No not a list… just a great new movie directed by Quentin Lee and written by Koji Steven Sakai, which I helped shape as a script consultant, playing in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5 August 27-September 2nd 2010.

Great review in the Huffington Post you can check out here or  the LA Times review here.  And the review in The Examiner here.

www.thepeopleivesleptwith.com

August 4th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting
   |   No Comments

So what’s this thing called marketability and do I need to worry about it as I write?

As a script consultant this is a question I’ve been asked by writers many times and it’s a good one. The answer is yes, and um, well, no. How’s that for confusing? I’ll try to clarify…

Marketability (or commerciality) is a term used to describe a project’s viability in the marketplace. Key here is how likely it is to draw an audience. Anyone reading your script (from agents to production or distribution companies) will be taking a look at the piece with an eye to its marketability. If they determine that the project is unlikely to find an audience they probably won’t want to move forward with it. 

There’s a pretty straightforward bottom line at work here: if no one comes to see the movie then there’s no way to make money on it or recoup the investment in it. Makes sense right? It’s the same thing you’d ask yourself if you were an agent considering investing many hours of valuable time to sell the script or wondering if you should put up millions of dollars to make the movie.  

So if your project is going to gain momentum in the marketplace there needs to be some element of commercial viability.  Now you’re probably wondering how this is assessed. Well there are many, many factors that come into play here. Budget, cast, director, genre, and hook are just a few.

BUDGET. Is the piece low,  medium or high budget? Determining this is key because it dictates what other elements will be needed to ensure the piece finds an audience. For example a low budget indie made for a million dollars doesn’t need the cast required by a big budget studio piece. 

CAST. Will the script attract cast that are meaningful enough (ie: recognizable) to draw an audience? Grown Ups is a good example of this. While the script is pretty thin on story it’s done over 142 million at the box office and continues to draw an audience primarily because of the cast. Anyone reading the project in it’s initial stages would have seen the castability immediately.

DIRECTOR. Is the script strong enough to interest a director who will elevate the piece and increase the likelihood of it attracting an audience? The Hangover is an example of a script finding the perfect director (Todd Phillips) for the piece. In a different director’s hands it could have easily been an edgy art house film with a niche audience. Director appeal would have been apparent from the first read.

GENRE. In very general terms genre pieces, such as thrillers and action films, will attract a wide audience while dramas are traditionally more challenging because they often lack a clear, easy to market premise. If the script is a drama then the other elements (cast, director, budget, hook) become a bigger piece of the puzzle.  

HOOK.  This is an assessment of the script’s overall uniqueness and is the most important question to ask when thinking about marketability. Without a clear, original premise that can be used to market the piece you will likely face an uphill battle when trying to find representation, financing or distribution. Hurt Locker, The Hangover, and Up, all have highly original ideas which can be easily conveyed. Just take a look at their trailers or posters – the hook is easy to see. 

These are just a handful of the questions agents, development executives and production companies ask themselves when evaluating a script’s marketability.

So should you be thinking about any of this while you write?

This is where the no part comes in. I’ve found that scripts written solely with the marketplace in mind rarely work well. Good writing comes from your unique ideas and the way you see the world. It’s far more important to tell a story you want to tell with your original voice than it is to think about the marketplace.

Yet, that said, once you’ve written your piece it’s important to be able to stand back and honestly assess it’s marketability. This will help you to be realistic in your expectations. If you write a script about a young woman’s search for her AWOL father in the bitterly cold Ozark Mountain’s (Winter’s Bone  – a very good low budget film that’s done 4 million at the box office) know that it will probably find a smaller audience than Inception (soon to reach 200 million). And will therefore face some limitations when seeking a foothold in the marketplace. 

So first and foremost write the story you want to tell. Write it really, really well. Then take an honest look at it’s market potential and proceed with realistic expectations around how your piece will be received in the marketplace.

June 30th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Writing a script is hard work. Writing a great script even harder. No one sets out to write a bad script so what does it take to write a good one? In my many years as a script consultant reading and developing material I can sum it up with:

A good script is a great idea well told.

So what’s a great idea?

A great idea is a compelling premise, an original hook, a central idea that we’ve never seen before.

Hurt Locker about a bomb squad in Iraq is a highly original idea. The Hangover about three guys who lose the groom on the eve of his wedding is another example. Lars and the Real Girl about a man who falls in love with a blow-up doll is a very unique concept. Even Little Miss Sunshine, which uses a pretty conventional road trip conceit, has an original idea at its core.

All of these are examples of scripts that are based on great ideas.

But it’s not enough to have a great idea. You have to tell your story well.

So what does this entail? Well many things but there are some building blocks that need to be in place.

Characters.

The story has to have a compelling protagonist with a clear goal that we care about them achieving.

Relationships.

The main character has to be in relationship with other characters who help or oppose their goal. They need to shed light on the protagonist and be engaged with them in a meaningful way.

Great dialogue.

Not expositional, on the nose or irrelevant. It has to define character not overshadow it.

Plot.

The plot has to be tension filled and move forward with urgency and suspense around the outcome. The climax has to be satisfying and relate to the protagonist’s overall goal. We should feel the main character has been transformed by the story events and that the overall piece has a satisfying, emotionally compelling arc.

Theme.

The script has to have a clear point of view and be about something specific. When the reader turns the last page or the audience leaves the theater they should know what you were trying to say even if your intention was simply to entertain.

While a lot of elements go into telling a story, if these building blocks are not in place chances are your story is not working as well as it can. And it’s probably not going to work successfully.

So what makes a good script?

A great idea well told.

June 23rd, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Do you remember working on group projects in college? Remember how hard it was to get everyone on the same page and to pull their weight. By the time a movie is screening in theaters several hundred people may have been involved in the process. No other art form is as collaborative as film and the potential problems, roadblocks and insurmountable crises are numerous when you have so many people working on a project together.

In my experience as a script consultant, involved in the very initial stages of development, and having worked in production and distribution the fact that any film makes it to the screen is an incredible achievement. 

The process goes something like this…

It all starts with the writer of course. An original story (or adaptation) has to be written. Assuming this is a spec (commissioned scripts follow a slightly different path but encounter the same uphill battle), the writer then has to get it to someone who can get the movie financed. This might be an agent or a manager who shows it to the studios or maybe the writer has hooked up with a producer who  takes it out to production and distribution companies.

Once a studio or production company likes the film (this could take years!) they need to put together the financing. In our ever-changing landscape of filmmaking this can be a very complicated process involving co-productions, soft money, private investment and pre-sales, among others. This is a Herculean task in itself and many well-written scripts are unable to find someone willing to put up money to make the film.

Once money to make the film is secured, the film starts casting and / or searching for a director. Another major hurdle here is casting which depends on an alchemy of finding the right talent, for the right money and a convergence of schedules. Same with the director. And let’s hope all these people have the same vision and don’t end up in jail on the first day of principal photography (don’t laugh it’s happened!).

So the film is cast and the perfect director is lined up. Now we have physical production where any number of things can go wrong. From location logistics to crew dynamics (more than one mutiny has been staged by unhappy below-the-line crew) but let’s assume everything comes together and the film is shot. Whether or not this happens within budget is worthy of its own post.

Then we’re into post-production (or into re-shoots if necessary). Many say the film is really made in the editing room and I’d agree. Visual effects, sounds effects, and music are added here.

So now we have a locked film and the marketing people work their magic to design materials to promote the film. Dollars significantly affect how successful the campaign will be but hopefully people will be drawn to the theater to see your movie.

So there you are on a Friday night, talking to your friend, munching on your Red Vines and waiting for the movie to start. It’s the end of a busy week and maybe you’re bitching about your boss or that co-worker you’ve got a crush on. The last thing you’re thinking about is the hundreds of people who have been passionately involved in making the film you’re about to watch.

For them making the film was likely an intense labor of love. There were probably tears, hugs, fights, disappointments, compromises, and celebrations. A decade may have passed since the writer wrote The End on the final draft. Yet somehow they all came together to craft the movie you’re about to see.

So as the curtain rises know that you’re about to witness a small miracle. The miracle of filmmaking.

June 16th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

As a script consultant, determining the theme of a script is one of the areas I often focus on with writers. Figuring out what your story is really about is essential to the success of your piece. Without a clear central idea, the script can easily lose its way and the audience is unlikely to connect to the film.

Focusing the theme of your script can be surprisingly difficult and there are many theories on what your theme should be. I’m a little more flexible on that front and look to the main character and their journey to define what the story is really about.

 One way to approach fine-tuning your theme is to look at your protagonist’s arc. Generally what your story is about is articulated by what the protagonist learns over the course of the piece.

With this in mind…

The first act defines the main character’s primary goal. Ideally they should have a conscious goal (external) and a subconscious goal (internal). For example in Up Carl’s conscious goal is to fulfill his and Ellie’s lifelong dream of getting to South America. Subconsciously he’s looking to reconcile his grief and the loss of his wife.

The end of the first act is a twist that complicates their goal and raises the question: will our protagonist achieve what they want?

As the story progresses through the second act the main character encounters escalating complications on the way to achieving their goal. The end of the second act is the protagonist’s lowest point, an all-is-lost moment where it seems they are not going to achieve their goals.

Still with me? Because this is where the theme is most clearly articulated…

The second act turning point forces the protagonist to look at why they haven’t achieved what they wanted and leads to an epiphany that tells us what the story is really about.

In Up the second act turning point is when Carl is forced to choose between saving his house, which Muntz has set on fire, and helping Russell rescue Kevin who has been taken by Muntz. Carl, unable to let go of his connection to Ellie, chooses his house and in doing so upsets Russell.

Carl retreats to the house and sadly looks through his scrapbook where he finds a note from Ellie thanking him for the adventure of their life together and encouraging him to go on a new one. This causes Carl to look at his situation from a new perspective. It’s Carl’s epiphany and the moment that tells us that, while the story is a fun adventure, it’s really about reconciling loss. Carl has actually achieved his subconscious goal.

This beat reinvigorates Carl and he goes off to look for Russell only to find he’s taken a handful of balloons and set off to rescue Kevin himself. Carl, having learned what he needed to learn, chooses to go after Russell. The climax is a do-or-die battle that tests Carl’s commitment to Russell.

The resolution of the piece shows Carl stepping up for Russell at the Boy Scout meeting and confirms that Carl has indeed reconciled the loss of Ellie and is willing to move on to the next adventure. Because Carl’s epiphany is so clear, and extremely moving, the piece resonates and it’s easy to see what the theme of the movie really is.

Looking at your protagonist’s arc, specifically their epiphany and emotional transformation, can be one way to see if your theme is being articulated clearly enough for it to have the emotional impact it should.

June 9th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

It’s the weekend. You’ve just spent 20 bucks on a movie and popcorn. As you leave the theater what’s the first thing you do?

If you’re like me you’ll turn to your girlfriend, buddy, husband or mother and ask them: what’d you think?

We’re all critics and usually have an opinion on the movies we see. Sometimes you may not know why you liked or didn’t like the film, you’ll just have a gut reaction. As writers it’s important to fine-tune our critical skills so we can better assess whether our material works or not. While movies are inherently subjective, in general, a well-told story that follows proper structure will connect to an audience.

So what does a successful movie, and therefore screenplay, need to have?

A Strong Protagonist with a Compelling Goal.

In Up Carl was so driven to pursue his and his wife’s lifelong goal of exploring the wilds of South America that he tied balloons to his house in order to get there.

Hurt Locker’s Sergeant William James disposes of life threatening explosives in war-torn Iraq.

In Little Miss Sunshine The Hoover’s are determined to get Olive to the pageant no matter what.

These are all incredibly powerful goals that we can easily get behind and become invested in for the duration of the movie.

Meaningful Conflict

Obstacles that stand in the way of our protagonist’s goal keep us hooked into the story to find out the outcome. We’re driven to find out if our hero will achieve their goal.

Russell complicates Carl’s goal at every turn as does Kevin, Muntz, the balloon-tethered house and of course Carl’s inner demons.

James faces one bomb after another, each one more difficult than the next, including a body bomb left inside a young boy and a human time bomb he’s unable to diffuse in time.

The Hoover’ face all sorts of complications on their quest, from a broken van to an untimely death.

An Emotional Transformation

We go to see movies because we want the experience of transformation. Even the most straightforward action films have the emotionally satisfying experience of good triumphing over bad. Without this element it’s unlikely we’ll connect to the film or find it satisfying.

In Up Carl fulfils his and his wife’s dream and is able to reconcile the loss, enabling him to return to his community a changed man.

James returns home and discovers that the only life he’s cut out for is military life and leaves his wife and infant son for another tour of duty.

And while we want Olive to get to the pageant what we really want is for her family to reconcile their differences. Which they do after Olive’s stunningly inappropriate performance.

These transformations all make for very satisfying movies and, while a film like Up has a happier ending than say Hurt Locker, both films resolve the central character’s goals and make for meaningful films.

Without a clear goal, meaningful obstacles and an emotionally satisfying resolution it’s unlikely you’ll connect to a movie. So the next time you leave the theater and you’re not sure why you did or didn’t like the movie you can ask yourself if it had these three essential elements: strong protagonist with a compelling goal, meaningful conflict and an emotional transformation. Chances are if you liked it these elements were there working in concert to tell a compelling, entertaining story.

June 2nd, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Sometimes it’s not until we look back that we can see how the events of our lives have led us to where we are and those seemingly inconsequential moments suddenly take on a whole new light.

As a script consultant that’s what I do when I work on your script. I look at each beat and connect the dots to see what the overall significance and meaning is. Like this:

True Story. At 8 years old I’d memorize the entire TV guide every week. If someone in the family wanted to know what was on they didn’t flip through the guide – they asked me. I always knew.

True Story. The movie Diva (1981) changed my life. My older sister, just back from college, dragged me to the subtitled French-language film. I asked so many questions in the first 10 minutes that she hissed at me to shut up and refused to clarify my confusion. So for the very first time I was forced to sit back and actually watch a movie. Breathtaking. Spellbinding. The music from Diva haunts me still.

True Story. While waitressing in Victoria, BC one of the regulars, a local TV/movie producer, asked me if I’d associate produce a telethon with him. I reminded him that while I was a struggling writer and artist I was really just a waitress. He didn’t care. I figured he wanted a date. But he didn’t. He really did want someone to work with him because his regular associate producer / talent coordinator was out of town. Timmy’s Telethon was 21 hours of live television broadcast throughout Vancouver Island every spring. OK, it was pretty hokey but we raised a bunch of money for kids and it kick started my career in film and television. If it wasn’t for Arthur Rabin I’d probably still be serving Margaritas and chicken wings to unruly college boys.

True Story. Sold everything I had to move to LA for a development job working with writer/director John Kent Harrison. That was just about 15 years ago. Dropped the desk job when I had my two kids but kept working in the part of movie making I like best. Screenwriting. Working with writers, directors and producers to develop material. Telling stories.

This is mine. I can help you tell yours.