Saturday, April 29, 2006

THE RIGHT SCRIPT

If I don’t sell a script soon, I’m going to die! What should I do?
_________________________________________


Start making funeral arrangements.

You’ll probably never sell a script. Most writers never sell scripts. Why should you be any different?

But I’ll try to answer this question – even though there is no answer.

It all comes down to having the “right script”. This goes against modern wisdom that preaches “write a great script.”

“Great” scripts do sell, but so do bad scripts. So, one could just as easily suggest “write a bad script.”

"Great" is a buzz word.

"How can I make it in Hollywood?"

"Write a great script."

Teachers and purveyors of HOW TO books use "great" every chance they get. What else can someone say? "Great" makes everyone look smart. Writers are writing great scripts, and Hollywood is selling/buying great scripts.

And, in such a tough, puzzling business, "great" allows the writer to actively strive for something specific (so he thinks). He enthusiastically tells himself, "All I have to do is write a great script and Hollywood's doors will open for me!"

But anyone who works in the business knows this is not entirely true.

I suggest writers write the “right” script.

The notion of the "right script" selling is just a more realistic approach to the way the business operates.

This shouldn't prevent scribes from writing a "great" script anyway.

But “great” is subjective. In the end, only the person who buys the script may think it’s great – which means it isn’t necessarily great. It’s just the “right script” for the buyer.

It’s almost impossible to find a script that everyone would agree is “great.”

The WGA recently voted CASABLANCA at the top of its “GREATEST SCREENPLAYS” list.

I like the movie, but I think the other top nine scripts on that list are all “greater” screenplays than CASABLANCA. It’s subjective. (I think many are more enamored with the movie that surrounds the CASABLANCA screenplay – rather than the script itself. There probably aren’t many alive today who actually read the screenplay before seeing the movie.)

The recent industry “Black List” anointed THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (by the talented Alan Loeb) as a script favored by more executives than other screenplays in 2005. It wasn’t even close to being my favorite.

After STAY sold for 1.8 million dollars, everyone in town read it. And many scratched their heads.

I thought STAY was well-written, but I didn’t think it was a “great” script. (Disappointing, frustrating, inexplicable would be my choice of adjectives.)

Clearly, it was the RIGHT script for New Regency.

And that sale (fueled by THE SIXTH SENSE success) started a development trend of those sorts of surreal scripts with “surprise endings.”

If a script sells for 1.8 million dollars and starts a trend – pundits suggest it must be “great.” Ironically, STAY was a critical and box-office failure.

Maybe this is all just semantics. But many “great” scripts are written and never sell. And lots of bad scripts are written and do sell. So, my philosophy is to write the RIGHT SCRIPT.

Since struggling scribes are constantly given the same old, obvious advice, I thought I’d dish out some of my own obvious advice.

I think there are THREE basic ingredients that create the “right” script – which could lead to a sale.

They are: 1) CONCEPT 2) EXECUTION 3) MARKETING.

CONCEPT is king in the Hollywood spec market – especially for “tyro scribes” (that’s Hix Nix Stix Pix for “new writers”). I hear lots of concepts from new scribes and rarely do any resonate with the sound of a “Hollywood movie.”

Part of being successful in this business is having a good head for concepts. For instance, I like the concept for TWO MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, a script in pre-production. In this story, an obnoxious divorce attorney must find his kidnapped wife before he’s forced to pay the unorthodox ransom: He must kill himself.

It’s a single-minded concept that conjures up plenty of drama and sounds like a movie. It’s simple. And simple is good.

I recently attended the Sacramento Film Festival, where some nice gentleman pitched me a metaphysical drama told through the mind’s eye.

It didn’t make any sense but his passion for the project was apparent. He pitched this in front of 150+ people – none of whom understood the new age rant either.

It only got worse when I asked him who he pictured in the starring role, and he answered, “All of us.”

I don’t think even Enya on crack would see the movie potential here. Although this man truly believed he stumbled upon a concept that would entice all, he was gravely mistaken. (It’s his prerogative to write the script, but he shouldn’t be surprised when it receives a Hollywood welcome similar to Scott Peterson at a Lamaze class.)

It’s safe to assume that if Hollywood generally isn’t making that sort of movie, it’s not going to make yours.

Having a simple and dramatic concept is key for a new writer because it’s easy to pitch – making it easier to sell. This doesn’t mean the story has to be elementary. It can have all sorts of layers and dimension – but don’t complicate the concept.

EXECUTION is how the concept is developed and communicated.

Exploit the concept. If it’s a comedy about a pathological liar who must tell the truth for a day, then the script must explore that concept to its limits. (“Write to concept” is a phrase I use.) The beautiful thing about a strong concept is that the execution doesn’t have to be stellar. It must show that the writer knows his craft, has talent, and the ability to do a rewrite. It cannot be a total disaster – like most scripts. But it doesn’t have to be Scott Frank either. Cockeyed character arcs and tinny dialogue can all be fixed.

A strong concept with adequate execution trumps a dull concept with excellent execution.

Why? Because as a new writer, you have no industry provenance for a producer or agent to trust you have the chops to execute a dull concept.

I often hear writers being told, “Write a great script and it will rise to the top.” What does that mean? How will it rise to the top?

MARKETING your script is the only way it can rise to the top. Keeping it on your desk or in a computer file isn’t going to help advance your career. You must get the script out there. This means trying to connect with industry executives and managers and agents. (The contest route is fun but should be supplemental to your marketing efforts.)

Recently, a writer e-mailed me to tell a startling story about how a script with the same title, concept and similar execution as his sold on spec by another writer. (Legal action is pending.) We eventually spoke on the phone, and oddly, the alleged theft became the farthest thing on my mind.

All I kept wondering was, “How the hell was another writer able to sell the script that you couldn’t?” It comes down to marketing. The other writer had more juice, more friends, more connections and knew how to network.

This is where the writer has to make it happen. Win friends and influence people. Do the research, find the (potentially) right people and contact them. Have a quota. Send out X amount of script copies a month and don’t stop until you’ve met or exceeded that quota.

The only way the script can rise to the top – is if it’s in the pile. Get it there.

In order to sell a script, there needs to be a magical convergence of at least three factors. You need a CONCEPT that immediately sparks interest and sounds like a movie. The script needs to boast EXECUTION that writes to concept – meaning the script exploits the premise to its maximum potential. And the script needs to be MARKETED in the way that it gets to the right people. Remember, these factors work hand in hand. For instance, it’s easier to market a script that has a strong concept.

But the sum of these three entities doesn’t have to equal “great.” It’s all about the “right script.”

You’ll sell the right script.


Send questions to theinsidepitch@sbcglobal.net

3 Comments:

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Henry said...

Awe-inspiring. Thanks Chris for this piece.

 
At 10:01 AM, Blogger Christopher Lockhart said...

Thanks, Henry.

This was written six years ago, and some things have changed in the business. For instance, a spec script needs to be much farther along in its development nowadays - close to a polished draft as possible - than maybe it needed to be when this was written.

But, regardless, concept is still king in the spec market. And I still firmly believe that a script sells because it's the right fit - Project With Buyer - like a love connection.

It just makes more sense that this whole ambiguous and subjective "great" bullshit.

It's less about writing a great script and more about writing the very best script you can write. Others will decide if it's great or not. That's out of your control.

And the ironic thing is that its "greatness" will most likely vary from reader to reader.

 
At 4:24 PM, Anonymous Steve said...

I really get a lot out of the notion of writing to the concept, or "exploiting" the concept. Thanks. For me, it helps to focus on exploiting the world of the story too.

 

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