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What's a screenplay? Good question. After all, if you're going to write one, you ought to know the answer. Right?
You probably already know an answer. A screenplay is writing intended to be turned into film. It's a hundred-odd pages held together by brass brads, in which you have written down whatever you want the audience to see and hear in your movie.
If it gets made, the director will come up with a whole new vision, the actors will change your dialogue, the editor will concoct another way to order the scenes, and it won't be "your movie" anymore. That's okay. A screenplay is not a complete work. It is not intended to be appreciated on its own. If a movie were a building, a screenplay would be the blueprint. Nobody settles down in front of a roaring fire with her beloved, a bottle of Chianti, and a nice blueprint. Nobody takes a couple of good screenplays out to the beach—outside of show business, anyway.
That means there is no point writing a screenplay if it isn't going to get produced.
We all know that, somewhere in the back of our minds, but most of the thousands of screenplays I've read in ten years as a development executive were never in any danger of being made into a movie. Fromthe moment the writer conceived them, they were doomed. They may have been well crafted or poorly crafted, but they were all missing what they needed in order to get made.
This book is about writing movies that get made. Not just popular movies. Art films get made, too. Writing a screenplay that will make a brilliant movie is a good part of writing a movie that will get made, and that's what most of this book is about. But that's not all of it. So it's important to understand what else a screenplay is, if you're going to go to all the trouble of writing one, because if you don't, the odds are you're wasting your time.
A Screenplay Is Part of a Package
A screenplay is the first element in what the movie business calls a package. A package is a combination of
• some material—a book, a screenplay, even just a concept, plus
• a star actor and/or a star director
that movie people are betting the audience will want to see in movie theaters or on their TVs.
A screenplay is an element in a deal.
Show business has a split personality. It is a business, which means people are not in it for their health. When movies flop, people lose their jobs. Unsuccessful directors have to go back to shooting commercials. Unsuccessful actresses have to go back to waiting tables, or marry carpet salesmen. Unsuccessful producers have to go back to selling carpets.1 It's not surprising how crassly commercial the movies are. What's surprising is that they're not more crassly commercial.
Very few people go into the motion picture industry because they want above all to make a lot of money. The money's great if you're working, but really, if you just want to make money, you might aswell be selling Porsches or oil-drilling equipment. Practically everyone in the business got into it because they love movies. Screenwriters want to tell stories. Producers want to put good movies on the screen. Actors want to indulge their most extreme emotions in front of a crowd of people, so think twice about dating one. Practically everyone in the motion picture industry is trying to make good movies. They're not all trying to make great art, but if they had the choice, most of them would rather make a movie that will last.
Every motion picture project starts with a bit of commerce and a bit of art.
In theory, a motion picture project begins when someone working in development at a motion picture studio or production company reads a wonderful screenplay. Development is the stage of the movie-making process when screenplays get optioned, bought, rewritten, rewritten, rewritten, and usually buried. This reader is likely someone called, believe it or not, a "reader"—often a recent film school grad who gets paid $40 a pop to write two to five pages of synopsis and scornful commentary. If the reader likes it, he might alert a story editor, who brings it to the attention of a development executive, who gives it to a production executive at a studio or a producer at a production company.
Once a deal is struck, the production exec or producer sends the script out to a director, who, hopefully, sparks to the material and agrees to direct the script. Then the script goes to stars. Once a big enough star agrees to do the picture, the studio agrees to fund the picture, and we're off to the races.
Your screenplay does not get made into a movie until all of these people say yes: the reader, the story editor, the development exec, the production exec, the director, and the star. If the production exec, the development exec, the story editor, or the reader got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, your project is dead at that studio or production company.
(If Tom Cruise sends in a friend's screenplay, then it skips to the top. The production exec reads it and automatically likes it, it gets optioned, and if Tom agrees to star in it, it gets made. More about that in a bit.)
A screenplay is a selling tool. It is a salesman for the movie. It sells your story to people you've never met, whom you'll never meet, some of whom are in a permanently bad mood because you can write and they can't. It has to sell to a twenty-two-year-old reader who thinks he knows everything about what makes a great movie. It has to sell to a story editor up past midnight trying to finish her stack of scripts so she can make love to her boyfriend before he goes into REM sleep. It has to sell to a production exec who brought home two scripts: yours, and one Tom Hanks wants to do. It has to sell to an actor who is terrified of getting old. It has to convince all of these cranky people that it is a movie just dying to be made.
So, a screenplay is a blueprint, an element in a deal, and a sales tool.
What gets your screenplay through the gauntlet? If you read most screenwriting books, the answer is something like this:
These things don't get you past the gatekeepers. Sure, you'll want to have 'em in your screenplay. But what actually gets you through is a great hook.
A hook is the concept of the picture in a nutshell. Not just any concept. A hook is a fresh idea for a story that instantly makes show business people interested in reading your script, and then makes the audience want to see your movie.
Here are some good hooks:
• A man is about to commit suicide when an angel shows him what his town would be like if he had never lived. (It's a Wonderful Life)
• Two people who hate each other meet anonymously and fall in love. (The Shop Around the Corner, You've Got Mail)
• A bunch of unemployed Brits decide to put on a striptease act to earn some money. (The Full Monty)
• A cynical advertising executive suddenly develops the power to read women's thoughts. (What Women Want)
• A lawyer suddenly loses his ability to lie. (Liar Liar)
• Some Jamaicans decide to enter the Olympics as a bobsled team, although there is no snow in Jamaica. (Cool Runnings)
• A strange genius discovers a number that may be the name of God. (p)
• Three filmmakers went into the woods to tape a documentary on a legendary witch. These are the tapes we found after they disappeared. (The Blair Witch Project)
• A puppeteer finds a secret tunnel into John Malkovich's brain. (Being John Malkovich)
• There's a bomb on a crowded city bus. If the bus slows below 50 miles an hour, the bomb will go off. (Speed)
• A man discovers he has been replaced by his clone. (The Sixth Day)
• A journalist finds a heart-wrenching love letter in a bottle. She tracks down the man who wrote it and falls in love with him. (Message in a Bottle. I didn't say a film with a great hook had to be good, did I? I only said you need a great hook to get your screenplay made.)
Some of these were made into big Hollywood productions, and some were independent pictures. ("Independent" is a huge misnomer. "Independent producers" are dependent on practically everybody. A better term might be codependent producers.) What all these movies have in common is that you want to see how they're going to turn out. What happened to those kids up in those woods? How do abunch of gnarly, inhibited British guys put on a striptease show? You have to read the screenplays to find out.
Sometimes the hook is not even what the movie is really about. The hook for Free Enterprise might be, "two aging Trekkies bump into William Shatner, who longs to write and star in a rap version of Julius Caesar." The story is mostly a romantic comedy about an aging Trekkie who meets the perfect Trekkie girl and almost screws it up. But if that were the only hook, the movie wouldn't have got made. "Trekkies meet Captain Kirk" sells the movie.
At this point, you may be thinking, "But most movies don't have great hooks." In fact, if you look at the Internet Movie Database's list of the top 250 movies according to viewer ratings (see http://www.imdb.com), almost none of the top movies have great hooks.
I never said any screenplay needs a great hook to get made. I said that your screenplay needs a great hook to get made.
These days, movies are driven by bankable elements. A bankable element is any creative element—star, director, material it's based on—you can bank on getting people to come to see the picture. Or to put it another way, Harrison Ford is starring in my picture, and now I am going to deposit my big fat check in the bank.
How Hookless Pictures Get Made
Here are some ways hookless pictures get made:
• Steven Spielberg reads a novel about a Nazi Party member who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. Steven Spielberg hasn't had a flop in ages, so he's a bankable element. (Schindler's List)
• A producer gets the cinematic rights to the hit Broadway show Evita! "The rise to power of the widow of Argentina's dictator, Juan Perón" is not a good hook. "Hit musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber" is a bankable element.
• Kevin Costner talks with a friend who's got an idea about a Civil War hero sent to a remote outpost, where he meetsIndians and slowly goes native. Kevin promises his friend that if he'll write the novel first, Kevin will get the picture made. Kevin was the bankable element here. (Dances With Wolves)
• Some guys with a digital camera make a film for $10,000 and it rakes in $80 million in box office. They want to do another film. They are instant bankable elements, at least until their second picture flops. (Whatever picture the Blair Witch guys do next. Applies equally to the latest nine-day-wonder, e.g., Kevin Smith and Clerks or Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi.)
• A producer reads a novel about a retarded southern man whose life goes through many weird and wonderful twists that tell the story of two decades we all lived through. After the producer hires a screenwriter to adapt it, Tom Hanks decides to do the picture. Tom Hanks's movies have made over a billion dollars. Put that in your bank and smoke it. (Forrest Gump)
• John Grisham writes another legal thriller. Believe it or not, many of the people going to see pictures based on John Grisham's books have no clue who he is, and may not even know they're based on books at all. But his pictures are consistently successful in the marketplace, and that makes him bankable. (The Runaway Jury, The Juror, The Client, The Rainmaker, The Firm, etc.)
• Dimension Films decides to do Children of the Corn 7. The last six Children of the Corn movies made a profit; the series is a "franchise." If they can make the seventh one for less than they grossed on the last one, they'll make money.
A bankable element is anything that makes people with money in the bank think that people with money in their wallets will want to go see the movie they're backing. So long as the value of the elements in a picture adds up to the cost of making the movie, you're off to the races. If you have big elements, you make a big movie. Small elements, small movie. Jim Carrey is a bankable star for big-budget comedies. Jane Campion is a semibankable director for art movies. (In case you're interested, the show business industry trade paper, The Hollywood Reporter, publishes an annual list of who's bankable andhow much they're worth, based on expert opinions, called the Star Power rankings. Another promising recent development is the Internet Movie Database's star ratings at http://www.imdbpro.com, where stars are ranked by the number of times their credits are downloaded by fans.)
If you have bankable elements, you don't necessarily need a great hook, or any hook at all. The more bankable the elements you have, the less important it is that your screenplay is even good, as far as getting it made is concerned. But if you are trying to get a star or director who's a bankable element to read your material, then you probably need a great hook. Most stars aren't stupid; the ones who are got to be stars because they know how to hire people who aren't stupid. A great hook makes everything easier all along the way.
It is possible to make a movie based on a script without a great hook and without bankable elements—a script so stunningly moving and brilliantly written that it draws the passion and dedication of many people to make the film with whatever money they can find and whatever actors they can afford. Don't even go there. The odds are hugely against it. When such pictures are made, there are usually other factors at work. Government tax credits for pictures shot in foreign countries account for many of these exceptions. Niche market pictures account for most of the rest: pictures made for a built-in core audience, such as Smoke Signals, a charming drama about Native Americans, or Go Fish, a clever romance about lesbians. A tiny fraction of all films released in the United States are made by daring producers who raise the money by any means necessary, often maxing out their credit cards. For each one of those, there are ten or twenty that never got released at all. No one writes news stories about those, or about their producers who are now declaring bankruptcy.
If your story does not have a hook, you are probably wasting your time writing the screenplay.
Assuming you do not have a bankable element attached, and you're not bankable yourself, you need a great hook or your screenplay isjust not going to get made. If your story does not have a hook, you are probably wasting your time writing the screenplay.
As with any rule, there are exceptions to this one, and there are also ways around it. But if your objective is to get a picture made, and if you are not pals with influential people in show business, then it is a rule you should pay attention to.
It's worth saying again: If your story does not have a hook, you are probably wasting your time writing the screenplay. You may enjoy the process of writing, you may get an agent, you may get invited to meetings in nice air-conditioned offices. But you aren't likely to sell your screenplay, and if you do, it's not likely to get made.
So: how do you come up with a great hook?
How You Come Up with a Hook
Great hooks are pretty rare. Once a movie is made, no one else can use that hook, at least not until everyone forgets the movie. Use once and dispose. So how do you come up with new ones? Is there some magic method?
Alas for you (and me!), I don't have a magic way to coming up with great hooks. No one does. Not even George Lucas does. (Ever see Howard the Duck?) But I have two techniques. They're not magic. In fact, they require a lot of effort. But they do work. They are:
a. Paying Attention
Paying attention means being aware of the real stories going on all around you, and then twisting them into a movie premise. The classic Billy Wilder picture Ace in the Hole tells the story of a reporter covering the story of a man trapped in a cave. It probably began with Wilder or his producer following news reports about a man trapped in a well or a cave and noticing how excited everyone was about theongoing situation. That's not a movie—yet. But what if your journalist is cleverly keeping the man trapped in the cave in order to keep the story alive? What if he's a cynical, burned-out reporter trying to bring his career back to life by manipulating the situation? That's a hook.
In Canada, a little girl rescued some snow geese chicks after their mother was killed. But the young geese had no mother goose to show them the way to their winter territory; all they had was the little girl they'd bonded to. So the little girl's father taught her how to fly an Ultralight (a kind of motorized hang glider), and she led her goslings all the way to Florida; he wrote a book about it.
That's a hook. All it needs to become a movie is a ghost. (I'll talk more about ghosts later.) We know why the geese need to fly home, but we don't know why the little girl needs to help them. In the 1996 movie Fly Away Home, she's lost her own mother, and so, by saving the geese, she heals her own wound.
The Air Bud movies were created because the dog who stars in them got in the news. His owner had already trained him to play basketball and the right people had the thought, "A dog who plays basketball? There's gotta be a movie in this." What makes the story a movie is that it's about a kid who's lost his father, who has given up playing basketball, his favorite sport. The dog helps the kid fall in love with the game again, helping the kid get over the death of his father.
These hooks are all from books and the news, but any stories or dramatic situations will do. You just have to figure out what's missing in the story that would make it into a movie.
For example, suppose you read an article in The New York Times about how couples in New York often live with each other all the way through their two-plus-year-long divorces because they can't afford to move out, or because their lawyers have told them to stay in the marital residence for tactical reasons. What might make this a TV show is if they're already dating other people and reacting to each other's dates. What might make this a movie could be if they are each trying to set the other up with a new boyfriend or girlfriend so the other will move out. Do they succeed, or fall back in love again?
Paying attention means being alert when you hear or read about a dramatic situation some real people got themselves into and then figuring out how to make a movie story out of that situation.
If your story is too close to real events, you will have to buy the life story rights of the people involved, unless they are public figures or you write your story from the public record (see the section on copyright on here). But if you try to write the best movie possible based on the idea, instead of trying to be faithful to the actual events, you will likely end up with a story that is "inspired by" the true events and not based on them. In that case, you don't need to buy anyone's life story.2
(Many producers will buy people's life story rights even though they know that by the time they've finished the movie, it will hardly be the same story at all. Why? So when they go into a meeting at a studio, they have something to sell. Anybody can walk in with a concept, but a guy coming in with the rights to someone's life story has an element. It makes the project seem more real. It also makes it harder for the studio or production company to go around the producer and make a movie based on the same concept without him. You can't copyright a concept, but you can option someone's life rights. So if you're not a producer, and you intend to change the story dramatically, you may well not need to buy anyone's life rights; you can just say the film is "inspired by true events.")
Paying attention can also be a more general process. There might be an idea floating in the air, or a new technological development. Suppose you hear about Internet dating services. How do you make that into a movie? One obvious comedy premise would be to have a couple break up and start looking for new mates on the Internet, only to find each other again. A thriller premise might be a woman being stalked by a guy she met on Webpersonals.com, who told her a pack of lies about himself but knows everything about her. Of course, both of these premises are old and tired now. They might have been fresh in 1999, and too far ahead of their time in 1997.That's the risk of writing from trends. They move on, and your screenplay becomes old hat.
Jurassic Park arises from a combination of the eternal attraction of dinosaurs (eternal at least since I was a kid) and the trendy new technology of recombinant DNA. "A rich man hires scientists to recreate dinosaurs for his theme park. They run amok." Almost all of Michael Crichton's scientific thrillers have cool hooks; that's why practically all of them have been adapted into movies.
Bear in mind that writing about a timely subject is not the same as coming up with a timely hook. All Quiet on the Western Front, written by George Abbott after the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, comes from a phrase that news reports repeated daily during World War I. The phrase takes on an ironic meaning in the movie, which is about a group of idealistic young students who cheerfully enlist, only to confront the horror of World War I. The Best Years of Our Lives is another phrase that suggests a movie. A lot of men found that returning from World War II to civilian life was not what they'd hoped for; that, in fact, they preferred being shot at to dealing with life's little daily insults. The movie, written by Robert Sherwood after MacKinlay Kantor's novel, follows a trio of men who fly home on the same bomber, as they try to find their way back into the civilian swing of things.
Neither of these movies has a hook. They were timely pictures. All Quiet on the Western Front was made fourteen years after the war, when people were ready to make sense of the horror they'd been through. Both won Oscars for Best Picture. But they would have been hard to set up at a studio if they had not been based on best-selling novels, and they would have been hard to sell to the audience if they had not been packed with stars.
Mrs. Doubtfire trades on the oddly still fresh concept that divorced men love their kids as much as divorced women do and might do anything to stay by their side. Kramer vs. Kramer covered this territory in 1977; a father raising a son alone was enough of a hook. What made Mrs. Doubtfire a movie with a hook was that Robin Williams's character impersonates a British nanny in order to be close to his kids.
The idea doesn't have to be recent if no one's made a movie about it. The concept that no one can be tried twice for the same crime is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but it was not until 2000 that they made a movie about it, Double Jeopardy: "A woman is framed for killing her husband. She does her time, only to find out that he's really alive and he framed her. She can't be prosecuted for killing him a second time, so ..."
There is one further way to come up with a hook by paying attention. As motion picture-making technology improves, it becomes possible to put spectacles into movies that were previously too expensive. In 1990, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park would have been prohibitively expensive (if they were mechanical), or ridiculous (if they were guys in rubber suits). In 1995, leading-edge computer graphics technology made them possible. Now anyone can afford to put a dinosaur in his movie. Likewise, Twister used leading-edge technology to replicate the effect of being in a tornado. Previously, you had to use a cloud chamber (think of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz), which is tough to control precisely, and tougher to stick actors in. Backdraft used digital compositing to place its characters in the middle of realistic flames.
People go to the movies, among other reasons, to see things they've never seen before. If you can think of something exciting that no one's seen before, that can now be put convincingly in a movie, then you have the beginnings of a hook. The hard work is finding the right story to showcase the spectacle. In some movies, the story is no more than a thinly disguised vehicle for the spectacle. There was nothing particularly compelling about Twister's pair of tornado scientists trying to get a measuring instrument into a tornado before a rival team did it. People went to see the movie because it had really great tornado effects. In other movies, the story really builds on the spectacle. King Kong's story is far deeper and richer than the giant ape effect. That's why we still watch it, and why we may well be watching Titanic fifty years from now, long after the film's water effects and sinking-ship effects seem unimpressive. Roger Spottiswoode's brilliant, as-yet-unproduced adaptation of William Golding's novel The Spire shows a medieval cathedral's spire going up. Until recently itwas probably too expensive to put a spectacle like that on film. You'd have to build a cathedral, at least a fake one, or try to put real actors convincingly into a model cathedral; with CGI (computer graphics interaction), you don't have to build the whole cathedral, just a few sets. (I think it would be exciting to see a cathedral go up.) What makes that spectacle into a compelling movie is the battle of wills between the abbot and the master builder, one wanting to build a spire, the other convinced too tall a spire will crush the cathedral.
Stealing seems to be more popular than paying attention, probably because so few people are any good at paying attention. Stealing means taking someone else's story without paying for it and changing it into a movie. (When you pay for it, it's called adapting. When you faithfully adapt something you haven't paid for, it's called buying yourself a lawsuit.)
One very effective form of stealing is updating the classics. Clueless is a comedy about a popular girl at Beverly High who decides to do a total makeover on a "clueless" new girl, only to discover that it is she herself who needs the makeover—a spiritual one. The hook (and the outline of the plot) is stolen from Jane Austen's novel Emma. Moulin Rouge is a tragic romance about a poor writer who falls in love with a high-class hooker who is being kept by a rich duke. The concept and characters are stolen from the famous 1848 novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, Camille, which was also made into a famous opera, La Traviata; Dumas was writing from his own life (paying attention).
The hook of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was,
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
A boy and a girl from warring families fall in love. Their tragic death stops the war.
This hook was stolen for the hit Broadway musical West Side Story, which became a classic movie musical. The Montagues become a white street gang (the Jets) and the Capulets a Puerto Rican one (the Sharks) duking it out on New York's West Side. Romeo Must Die retold it with an Asian gang and the American mob standing in for the warring families. Director Baz Luhrmann updated Shakespeare's story without changing a line of dialogue in Romeo + Juliet: Verona becomes Verona Beach, and the "swords" and "longswords" become brand names for pistols and assault rifles.
Shakespeare himself stole many of his hooks. He stole Romeo and Juliet's hook from the Roman poet Ovid's story of Pyramus and Thisbe—a familiar story if you know another of his plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
If the source you're stealing from is public domain, you can keep as much of the original work as you want to. (For an explanation of when a work falls into the public domain, please see here.) You'll probably find yourself changing quite a bit just because what audiences want now has changed from what they wanted a hundred years ago. Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac is a romance about a brilliant writer and swordsman, Cyrano, in love with a beautiful girl named Roxanne. Unfortunately, Cyrano has a ridiculously long nose. He finds himself helping his handsome friend Christian woo the girl, just so he can write her love poems and know she's reading them.
Steve Martin stole that hook in Roxanne, where his Cyrano is a fireman and Darryl Hannah's Roxanne an astronomer. Of course he had to explain why his Cyrano didn't get plastic surgery. But the real updating is in the ending. Rostand's hero died without ever declaring his love for Roxanne because it would sully the memory of her supposed lover, his best friend Christian. His 1897 audience, steeped in honor and tragedy, ate it up. Modern audiences wouldn't stand for such nonsense, so Martin's hero not only 'fesses up, he gets the girl.
The trick to stealing a hook is to poach what still works and find a way to update what no longer does. Francis Coppola's Oscar-winning Apocalypse Now is loosely based on a novel by the nineteenth-century author Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness is set in colonial Africa, where Mr. Kurtz, a white man, has gone upriver and set himself upas a mad god to African tribespeople. Marlow, the hero, is sent to bring him back. Kurtz, dying, tries to communicate to Marlow the horror of what he's seen and done, so that he can explain it to Kurtz's fiancée. In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz, a promising career soldier, has gone upriver and set himself up as a mad god to Cambodian tribespeople. Captain Willard, an army assassin, is sent to kill him. Kurtz, dying, tries to communicate to Willard the horror of what he's seen and done, so that Willard can explain to Kurtz's son why Kurtz did what he did. The updating is in setting the movie in the insanity of the Vietnam War. The scenes and characters are replaced but the through line and the driving question are the same.
Goldoni's classic farce The Servant of Two Masters is practically begging for an update: a servant decides he'll make more money if he has two masters at once. He juggles his two jobs with increasingly disastrous results. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out what your hero would do for a living now. We don't really have servants in this society. What if a personal assistant is running a second job out of the same office, over the phone?
Another good way to steal is to take the plot of a movie and set it in a different environment. Sergio Leone's classic Western A Fistful of Dollars has a great hook: a gunfighter comes to a town terrorized by two rival gangs. He joins first one gang, then the other, playing them off so that they destroy each other, freeing the town from its misery. It is practically a scene-for-scene remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic samurai flick Yojimbo, which was, shall we say, heavily inspired by Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest. The story was again remade as a Bruce Willis picture, Last Man Standing.
Outland's hook is "a burned-out marshal in charge of a mining station in space tries to rouse the terrorized miners to help him confront three killers sent to murder him." It is High Noon in space, with the clocks all over town replaced by the space shuttle's countdown to landing.
You've Got Mail is about two booksellers who despise each other in person, but fall in love over the Internet. Ernst Lubitsch's classic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, written by Samson Raphaelson from a play by Miklós László, has two office coworkers who can'tstand each other falling in love through the personal ads. Coincidence? Stealing? You be the judge.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, written by Sidney Buchman from a story by Lewis Foster, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, has a naive congressman turning the House of Representatives on its head because he won't compromise. The Eddie Murphy movie The Distinguished Gentleman, written by Marty Kaplan and Jonathan Reynolds, gives the Capra idea a modern twist: the new congressman is a con man, who nonetheless finds his sense of decency outraged by the far more cynical politicians.
From a legal point of view, you can always steal a hook. No one can copyright a hook. In fact, you can steal anything so long as it is an idea. You can't steal characters, dialogue, or specific bits of plot. In other words, you can write a script about a little girl who is whisked away to a magical land where, opposed by evil creatures and helped by wonderful allies, she tries to get home. But from the moment the allies include a tin woodman, a cowardly lion, or a scarecrow, you have infringed on the copyright of the L. Frank Baum estate. You also can't have the tin woodman show up in a dream sequence in a drama you wrote, unless the underlying work has fallen out of copyright (which it may have).
You can do a faithful adaptation of other material that has a great hook. Then, of course, you're not only taking the hook but the plot, scenes, characters, and possibly dialogue from the material.
You can freely do a faithful adaptation of any work that has fallen out of copyright. Copyright expires with time. When a work falls into the public domain depends on when it was created. Here are some simple rules:
• Anything published more than sixty-seven years ago is in the public domain.
• Anything published before 1978 was copyrighted for twenty-eight years. The copyright registration could be extended for up to sixty-seven years. If a book is in print, its registration hasalmost certainly been extended. However, if the work is something that everyone forgot about—say, a book that fell out of print for years, or a magazine article from a defunct magazine—then it may not have been reregistered and it is now PD or in the public domain. (Apparently It's a Wonderful Life was never reregistered, which is why it got played so often on TV: no one had to pay for it. The colorized version is, of course, copyrighted.)
• Anything published after 1978 will be under copyright for the lifetime of the author plus seventy years, for our purposes, "forever."
If you're interested in finding out the copyright status of a work, you can check the Library of Congress (LoC) on-line at http://www.loc.gov. However, the LoC's on-line records are spotty, and the absence of a registration does not necessarily mean the material is in the public domain. For that you need a copyright search. Thomson and Thomson (http://www.thomson-thomson.com) are a copyright research firm in Washington that searches the LoC physical files and gives you a report. The reports cost a few hundred dollars and take about five business days; call (800) 356 8630. There are other companies that do copyright research; look them up on the Internet.
If fictional material isn't in the public domain, you'll have to do a deal with whoever owns the rights to it. If it's a novel, for example, you'll have to find out who controls the cinematic rights. Check the first few pages of the book to see which publishing house published it and what city they're in. Call information and get their number. Call them. Ask for the person responsible for sub rights (subsidiary rights) or movie rights for that book. The sub rights person can tell you how to reach the author's agent if the author retained control of those rights, as is common these days, or can, if the publisher has obtained the movie rights, negotiate a deal with you for them.
It's up to you to negotiate a deal to option the book that is fair to both you and to the author or publisher, and lasts long enough for you to write and sell the script. (You can also hire an entertainment lawyer to do this for you. If you don't have the money for that, youmay be able to find an entertainment lawyer who will work for no money, but attach himself or herself to the project as a producer of some kind. That will cost you nothing now, but much more if your project goes forward.) Bear in mind if you option a book that it might easily take seven years to make a film out of it. There will be many, many drafts of the script, many producers who option your script and fail to set it up, many actors who get interested and then lose interest. Forrest Gump took over ten years to reach the screen. So don't make a one-year option unless you can renew it indefinitely. You'll lose the underlying rights before you can do anything with your screenplay.
Material is also in the public domain if it consists of true events. Anything historical is fair game, that is, anything where everyone in the story is dead. Dead people have very few rights. Anything said in a court of law is public record, which also makes it public domain. So long as you stick exclusively to court records, you could do a movie about a certain football star murdering his ex-wife. You wouldn't want to, but you could.
If you go beyond court records, writing about people who are still alive is sticky. If you make someone look bad, you run the risk of being sued for libel, that is, writing lies about someone. If you can prove you're telling the truth about them, you might win your court case, but being in a court case is like going to war: you may win, but you'll for sure bleed.
You can also be sued for violating someone's right to privacy. Everyone except public figures has a right to privacy. Loosely that means I can't make a movie about your private life without your permission unless you make your private life into public business. You might become a public figure by running for office, going on talk shows, being an entertainer or sports star, getting arrested, or otherwise intentionally getting in the news. The right to privacy is not something I am even remotely qualified to talk about in greater detail. Suffice it to say that one exists, and if you have a doubt you should consult an entertainment lawyer. (For that matter, if you're not sure about copyright, or anyother legal issue, it's probably worth talking to an entertainment lawyer for fifteen minutes before you spend six months writing a script. As a bare minimum, spend a few hours on the Internet reading through the many sites that discuss copyright law in greater depth than I've done here.) You're better off not writing nasty things about living people. You'll notice that in Backbeat, a lovely, semifictional movie about the Beatles in their early days, the only characters who do anything hurtful to anyone are Stuart Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein, and John Lennon. Dead, dead, and dead, alas. The movie's version of Paul McCartney just writes silly love songs, and the real one can hardly sue over that.
The rule of thumb is, stick rigorously to the provable, historical truth and consult a lawyer, or invent a fresh story inspired by real life whose characters and events are so distant from the details of real life that no real person can reasonably claim that you're writing about him or her.
There are lots of movies with great hooks that don't necessarily come from paying attention or stealing. The writers came up with these hooks all by themselves. Some of them come from putting opposites together, or having people pretend to be something they're not:
• "A coldhearted executive hires a prostitute for the weekend for sexual companionship, but she teaches him how to love." (Pretty Woman)
• "Three confirmed bachelors get stuck taking care of a baby." (3 Men and a Baby, a remake of Colline Serreau's much tighter Trois Hommes et un Couffin)
• "A tough, wise-ass Chicago cop investigates a murder in quiet, polite Beverly Hills." (Beverly Hills Cop)
• "A trash-talking streetwise woman masquerades as a nun to hide from gangsters." (Sister Act, with some inspiration from Some Like It Hot: "A pair of musicians dress up as women to hide from gangsters in an all-girl band.")
• "A girl's transvestite mother masquerades as her real mother to impress her fiancé's straightlaced parents." (The Bird Cage, a remake of La Cage aux Folles)
Some of them come from "what if" thoughts:
• "What if a fisherman caught a mermaid?" (Splash)
• "What if a conspiracy theorist uncovered a real conspiracy?" (Conspiracy Theory, though the film really failed to deliver on its own premise)
• "What if a rich man offered a poor man's wife a million dollars to sleep with him?" (Indecent Proposal)
• "What if you could talk to animals?" (Dr. Doolittle)
Some of them come from sheer inspiration:
• "A divorced father puts on Santa's suit and becomes Santa in spite of himself." (The Santa Clause)
If you come up with a hook and then discover that a picture with more or less the same hook was made recently, or is in development somewhere in L.A., then you are probably better off abandoning the project. If five years later the project never got made, or people have forgotten about it, you can come back to it. But it is sad to write a script you love and then have it rejected because "Warner Bros. has something like that in development."
HOW LONG SHOULD I SPEND THINKING UP A HOOK?
How long is a piece of string?
How long are you willing to spend?
You may already have had a great hook in your mind when you bought this book. Or it could take you three months to come up with a good hook.
Having a less-than-thrilling hook will doom your screenplay. No one will buy it. If you're lucky, and you have a good agent, you may get to go to a half dozen meetings with development people, but it won't go any further than that. All the work you put into a screenplay with a less-than-compelling hook will be for nothing, except as practice.
Now how long are you willing to spend?
I'll tell you this: almost no one spends enough time working on his hook. It's not as much fun as writing screenplays. Most writers go with the first half-decent idea they have. But half-decent doesn't get bought. That's why I'm recommending you take three steps to testing and improving your hook. They will take you quite some time to complete, but they will save you heartache and wasted effort later:
1. Come up with a great title.
2. Pitch your idea.
You'll be glad you did.
Before you pitch your idea, though, you need a title. Your title is the most important phrase in your entire script. A catchy title will get people to listen to your story or read your script. A dull, confusing, or pretentious title will put people off your script.
Your title is the most important phrase in your entire script.
I'll go into much more depth about titles in the last chapter, but for now, what you need is something that
a. is catchy and
b. says something about your story.
As you develop your hook into a story, and then into a script, you should always be working and reworking your title. Almost nobody spends enough time thinking about the title, either. If you spend 10 percent of your writing time doing nothing but thinking up better and better titles for your script, your time will be well spent. You can stop when practically everyone who hears it says, "Now that's a good title!"
Pitching Your Idea
Okay, so you think you have a really great hook. Do you start writing the screenplay?
Not yet. Surprisingly, many of the people who think they have a fresh, inspiring, clever new story that people will want to see on the screen, don't.
Strange as it may seem, the best way to find out if people would be interested in a movie with your hook is to ask them.
Tell your story concept to anyone who'll listen. Tell your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your dry cleaner, your waitress, your bartender, your kids, the baby-sitter, old people on park benches. Listen closely to their reaction and watch their faces. Are they sparking to your idea? Do they want to go see your movie? Or are they just being nice and friendly?
Kids, don't try this where professional screenwriters drink their coffee, or where producers schmooze, at least not until you've written the script. People rarely steal ideas intentionally, but if they overhear you, they might convince themselves they thought of it first.
When you pitch your ideas, a few things will happen.
1. You'll find out if anyone's interested. If nobody's interested, either come up with a better idea or a better way of phrasing your idea, and try again.
2. You'll hear about the competition: all the books and movies that your idea reminds people of. There may be some you haven't tripped over. You might want to check those out to seeif there's anything you can steal. But if one of them is recent and very similar, now might not be the time to write yours.
3. If they're interested, they may interrupt with "and he's really in love with her, right?" or "and he's really evil, right?" These reactions may give you good ideas, but even if they're off base, they're telling you the sort of things your audience expects to see. You shouldn't use every suggestion—that's your call, not theirs—but you should hear what people are saying.
If you're getting really positive responses ("Wow! That's a great idea! Did you really think of that by yourself?"), then you can go on to the next step.
Once you know that civilians are interested, it might be a good idea to see if motion picture-industry people would be interested. I'm making the heretical suggestion that you might want to send out your query letters before you spend all that time writing your script rather than after.
A query letter is a letter you send to all the development executives in the Hollywood Creative Directory, or if you're trying to get an agent, to all the agents in the Hollywood Agent Directory. (See http://www.hcdonline.com.) It is a one-page letter that explains what your screenplay is about and asks if they'd like to read it. As a development executive, I have read thousands of query letters. If you don't know people in show business, a query letter is the natural way to get your script to people who can do something with it. No one wants to read a screenplay unless he might be able to do something with it, so if someone reads your query and asks you to send him your screenplay, he thinks you have a hook.
Now this is a step you may not want to take just yet if you're anxious that people will steal your idea. You may want to wait until you have a plot outline that you can copyright at the Library of Congress (see chapter 9). But frankly, I don't think much stealing goes on inshow business, except the kind of stealing I'm recommending you do. I'm going to make the movie for millions of dollars of other people's money; out of that budget, your script is probably at most a hundred thousand bucks. Why would I steal your script and get myself into a lawsuit? I can probably option your script for a few thousand bucks, but if I want to steal your idea, I have to hire a writer to do it, and he's going to cost fifty grand. Why wouldn't I just ask to read your script, option it, and then get it rewritten if I think it needs fixing?
Okay, here's the idea. When I read a query letter, I don't actually know that the writer has written the screenplay already. I send back the stamped, self-addressed card and forget about it until the screenplay shows up. That's because even the tiniest, credit-challenged company listed in the Hollywood Creative Directory gets ten or twenty queries a day. You have to read fifty of these letters to find one that sounds even vaguely promising.
As a development executive, you might think I'd be peeved if people used me for free market research, but actually, I wish they would. Then I'd be more likely to find a screenplay that I could do something with.
If you send out two hundred query letters and get back two responses, you may not want to waste your time writing the script. If you get back ten, you might want to write the script. If you get twenty, stop sleeping and write the damn screenplay already.
One side benefit of writing your query first, by the way, is that you may realize that you're focusing on the wrong aspects of your screenplay.
Suppose your hook is, say, "A marine biologist falls in love with a mysterious girl who turns out to be a mermaid." Suppose in writing your story, you find yourself concentrating on the adventures of the mermaid. If you took a look at your query, you might realize you were getting off track. Or, if your gut tells you you're on the right track, you could rewrite your hook ("A mermaid falls in love with a marine biologist") and see if people are still as interested.
This is not to say, of course, that you should reduce your screenplay to the simplicity of a query letter. You need richness and depth. You need surprises and twists and turns. I am only saying that if your concept doesn't query well, then either
1. you're not getting through to people how wonderful your idea is, and you need to rewrite your query, or
2. people don't think it's that wonderful an idea, and you need a better idea.
Either way, you can now fix the problem before you write the screenplay, rather than after.
How to Write a Good Query Letter
A good query letter says in one paragraph what the story's hook is, and asks if I'd like to read it. That's all it needs to do! The story sells itself, or it doesn't.
I spend about three seconds reading the average query letter. If it doesn't grab me by the third sentence, I'm on to the next envelope. Sorry, folks, I know that sounds philistine, but I've found through years of reading query letters and scripts that if a writer can't grab me in three sentences, the script is not going to be something I can get made into a movie. Even if the idea is good, if you can't write a clear one-page letter that draws me into your story, I assume your 115-page script won't draw me in, either.
If I am interested, of course, I read the rest of the letter, and think about it, and ponder whether the idea sounds like a good movie tome.
Here is a good query letter:
Dear Mr. Epstein:
I have just finished polishing Mythic, a thriller about a dragon that attacks an isolated Alaska oil rig community; the drilling has roused it from ancient sleep.
Please let me know if you'd like to read the script. I would be happy to sign a release form if you have one, or I can have my agent send you the script.
Yours very truly ...
See how short it is? But if there's any chance I might be interested in producing a contemporary dragon movie, I'm going to ask to read the script.
(In reality, Mythic, a superb script by Ehren Kruger, came to me through his gifted agent Valarie Phillips, not from a query letter. We optioned it. I wonder if the company still has it? Someone make this picture, please, I'm dying to see it!)
Here's another good letter, only slightly longer.
Dear Mr. Epstein:
Michael Eisner suggested I contact you about my new screenplay, Life Is Beautiful. It's a bittersweet drama about a Jewish man in 1943 Italy who tries to hide the horrors of the Nazi occupation from his young son by pretending it's all a big game. Although the historical events are sorrowful, the story is uplifting and even comedic.
My grandfather survived the Holocaust himself, and I wanted to bring to life some of the almost unbelievable stories he told me.
If you are interested in taking a look at the screenplay, please let me know. An SASE is enclosed for your reply. Thank you for your consideration.
Very truly yours ...
(An SASE is a stamped, self-addressed envelope.)
The above is a made-up query letter for the hit film Life Is Beautiful. I have no idea if anyone ever wrote a query letter for the film. Since the writer-director was also a comedy star in Italy, probably not.
If someone in show business recommended that you write, mention that first. If you or (especially) your screenplay won an award, mention that. Awards and recommendations are the two strongest things you can put in a query letter. They mean that someone other than you thinks this is a good screenplay.
If you have some direct personal experience that touches on the screenplay, or you've done in-depth research, it's worth mentioning.
By the way, your hook in a sentence or two is often called a logline. Think of it as the sentence that would describe it in TV Guide.
• A dragon, awakened from ancient sleep by oil drilling, attacks a small Alaskan town.
• A Jewish man tries to hide the horrors of the Nazi occupation from his young son by pretending they are all playing a big game.
• Don't tell me why your script will have a big audience or satisfy a need. The producer or agent or exec reading your letter knows far more than you do as to whether there's an audience for your story or not, or at least thinks she does. Just tell the darn story. The story sells itself, or it doesn't.
• Some writers (Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, for example) claim you shouldn't state your hook, for fear of someone stealing it. Instead you should just talk about the genre it's in, and say something like "I have a screenplay consistent with the quality of your productions." I can't imagine why anyone would bother responding to a cover letter if there's no hook in it. I never have. Also, with many of the companies you'll be sending the script to, "consistent with the quality of your productions" doesn't speak that highly of your work.
• If there is a surprise ending, you may mention that there is one, but not what it is. Sell the sizzle, not the steak.
• Don't apologize in advance for wasting my time.
• Don't tell me five stories. It suggests you're just throwing stuff up against the wall and hoping something sticks. Write five letters, and send them to different people.
• Don't write your whole query as a scene from a movie. It's been done.
• Spelling counts. I will reject a misspelled query instantly, regardless of what it says. Spell-checking is not enough. If I see "whose" for "who's" or "it's" for "its," the letter is toast.
• If you've done something really exciting in your life ("I was an AP stringer in Beirut for five years, was kidnapped by Shi'ites, and escaped after 111 days of solitude"), then let me know. If you have done years of research, let me know.
• If you have written nine earlier scripts, it doesn't help you to mention it. People in show business have sheeplike tendencies; they trust other people's judgment more than their own. They will wonder, "If no one liked the other scripts, why should I like this one?" On the other hand, if you have written scripts that have been produced, or even optioned, let me know!
• If you are snail-mailing a query to someone who doesn't have e-mail, use a plain white regular business envelope for the query. Don't bother with a big manila or Tyvek envelope. Be sure to include a stamped, self-addressed postcard where I can check a box that says, "Send me the script."
• If it's an e-mail query, don't send a query letter as an attached document. Send it as plain text in the message body itself. Attached documents are a pain to locate on the hard disk and often show up unreadable. There is no excuse for attaching a one-page letter.
It's all about the story. No fancy paper, fancy formatting, colored type, or a picture of you; it just looks amateurish. You're not selling yourself as a graphic designer, you're selling yourself as a wordsmith. I'll take a letter neatly typed on a manual typewriter as seriously as I'll take one from a computer.
I don't think you should offer a synopsis. That's just encouraging them to ask for the synopsis instead of the script, which creates one more step where they can say no. They may ask for a synopsis. In that case, don't send them a synopsis, which tells them everything that happens; send them a pitch. A synopsis is a working document that details the plot. A pitch is a selling document that tells them the story. See chapter 2 for how to write a pitch.
By the way, don't follow up a query letter with a call or another letter or e-mail. It is a complete waste of time. If they wanted to read your script, they would have let you know, y'know?
How to Get Your Hookless Movie Made
Suppose you have a story that you're burning to tell, and it just doesn't have a hook.
There is one way to get your hookless movie made, and that is to make your story into something that has real value in the marketplace all by itself. If you can make it into a "property" that a producer can buy from you and sell to a studio, then your story may become a movie down the road. (You can also insist on writing it.) To do that, you need to make your story into a big success in another medium.
Let's suppose you want to tell the story of an aging midwestern housewife who falls in love with an aging photographer visiting to shoot the local covered bridges. There's no immediate hook. What will be compelling about the story is not its concept, but the way the characters are drawn and how they react to each other and change. Much of the story is internal—the housewife's emotions awakening as the photographer reminds her what it's like to love and be loved.
Do you write the screenplay?
No, you write a novel instead. In a novel, you can give the characters tremendous depth and richness. Moments can stretch over pages. Years can collapse into a sentence. You can get inside one or even several characters' thoughts. The Bridges of Madison County was made into a successful movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. But first it was a novel. In fact, first the novel didn't do well. It took months of lonely bookstore clerks reading and recommending the book for it to get onto the best-seller lists.
The screenplay didn't have to grab people; the novel had already done that. The screenwriter didn't have to get through the gatekeepers. He was hired to adapt the book when the project was already in progress. Everyone working on the project had the book to refer to as well as the screenplay.
Novels don't even need to be long to make the transition to movies; in fact they're probably more successful if they're short. Erich Segal's very short novel Love Story was supposedly written on a dare in a few weeks.
Suppose you have a story about some agents in the Immigration and Naturalization Service Division Six, who dress really cool and carry really cool guns and take care of the cool-looking real aliens who live and work unnoticed on Earth.
Do you write a screenplay?
Although this sounds like an attractive idea, it's not really a hook. If you're thinking of Men in Black, you know that the aliens and guns and agents really were cool. But if I got a screenplay on my desk with this concept, how would I know that anything would be as cool as the screenplay promised? Movies like Alien and Dark City and Blade Runner, although well written, owe much of their success to their compelling visual style.
Surprisingly, screenplays don't communicate visual style at all well. Theoretically they could, if you wrote pages of extremely detailed description. The problem is that the people reading your screenplay don't much like to read big chunks of single-spaced prose. They will blip right over them to get to the story, figuring that the director will probably ignore your description anyway, which he probably will. The feeling is that screenplays should suggest a feel for their visual world, rather than insisting on too many details.
If you are thinking of writing a movie like Men in Black, you might be better off publishing it as a comic book—which is how Men in Black got made. Many of the most visually stylish movies started out as comic books (e.g., Blade, The Crow, the Batman movies). Most successful comic series (e.g., Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Ghost, Sandman) and dozens of less successful ones are already under option to movie companies for precisely the reason that when you buy the rights to a comic book series, you not only buy characters and story ideas, you buy a whole visual world.
If your story does not have a clear hook, but you are dead set on making it into a movie, see if what attracts you to the story isn't something that is best conveyed in another medium. Novels are good for the inner lives of characters and the passage of time. Comics are good for visual style. Other media—plays, the Internet—may allow you to communicate stories successfully that mightnot make it onto the screen if written directly as a screenplay. Once you have a best-selling book, comic, hit play, or popular website, then you may be able to parlay your story into a movie.
As a general rule, if the story doesn't scream, "I wanna be a movie!" then it probably wants to be in a different medium, at least at first.
Having read through this chapter, by now you may be pretty steamed. All this effort to find out if you should write your screenplay at all—whatever happened to the thrill of discovering your story as you write it, huh? Whatever happened to writing what you know, telling the truth, and not worrying about selling it until it's done?
That's not crafty screenwriting. This book is called Crafty Screen writing because screenwriting is a craft, not an art.
Artists create to please themselves. A painter can put whatever he likes up on the canvas, and people can buy the painting or move on. The artist is free to do what he likes. So long as he can afford paint, canvas, and cigarettes, he's golden.
A craftsman creates to please himself and his client. A cabinetmaker makes cabinets to fit someone else's room and someone else's taste. But he tries to give the cabinets a sense of grace and beauty and truth. The drawers have to slide in and out easily, and the proportions and finish also have to feel right. A finely crafted cabinet says something about the room it's in, and gets your clothes off the floor.
A movie is a work of craft. Dozens or hundreds of people work on it, and it costs millions of dollars. It has to entertain. It has to make money. It also should carry a theme, a subtext, say something eternal in a new way. Or to put it another way, if you make it only to please others, it will have no soul and it probably won't please anyone. But if you write your movie only to please yourself, with no regard for other people, you are unlikely to get it made.
If your screenplay isn't delightful and doesn't give insight, it's a waste of trees. In theory everybody knows that, but too manyscreenplays, pale mimics of movies we've already seen, don't take you anywhere and don't give you any insight; they just introduce you to people you've seen a million times. That's hack work.
But the best movies are crafty. They teach, they delight, and they move us. They open up new worlds and they pack the audiences into the multiplexes. They have a great hook that gets them past the gatekeepers, and they have rich, compelling stories filled with fascinating characters and dialogue that rings true. They are commercial, but they don't sell out. The truth is the audience wants to see great movies, and a commercial movie is simply any movie that a lot of people want to go see.
As a crafty screenwriter, your job is to craft your screenplay so it satisfies all these criteria.
Copyright © 2002 by Alex Epstein
|9||Get it Made!||218|
|App. A||A Sample Option Deal||249|
|App. B||Sample Screenplay Pages||257|
Posted October 31, 2002
How can you tell if a how-to-write book is any good? If it's well written! Crafty Screenwriting is fun to read -- like having a conversation with a very smart, witty mentor. Much of the advice I had never heard before, but as soon as I read it I knew it was right. The best advice has to do with when you should NOT write a screenplay (i.e. when your idea is really better suited to another medium, or if it doesn't have a "hook," which means it's probably doomed from the get-go). If you read this book, you'll not only learn a lot about writing but also about how the show business works. And you'll pick up some funny jokes along the way. My favorite: Q: How can you tell when a producer is lying? A: His lips are moving.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.