Make Your Story A Movie: Chapters 4-6

by John Robert Marlow

PART II

WHAT HOLLYWOOD WANTS (AND WHY)

Most authors would like to see their work adapted for the big (or small) screen, but the path from here to there is at best unfamiliar—and can seem incomprehensible. Some bestsellers are made into movies, others ignored. Obscure books, short stories, and magazine articles are blessed by Hollywood’s magic, while thousands of screenplays are turned away. What sense does that make? Is there no rhyme or reason here?

Well, yes, actually. But it’s hard to make out when—like most writers—you’re on the outside looking in. The twelve chapters that follow will take you through the looking glass and make some sense of the enigma that is the Hollywood adaptation process. More importantly, it will explain why some books are made into movies while others are not, and what you can do to make your story more attractive to filmmakers.

CHAPTER 4

TWELVE THINGS HOLLYWOOD WANTS

The Buyer’s Checklist

As Sylvester Stallone once pointed out, “There’s a reason they call it show business, not show art.” The business of filmmaking is something that can only be learned by doing, or by heeding the advice of those who’ve ventured there before you and lived to tell the tale.


Writer/producer Ehren Kruger’s screenwriting credits include Dumbo (2019; NOV), Ghost in the Shell (COM), Transformers 2, 3, and 4 (GAM), The Ring 1 and 2 (NOV), God is a Bullet (NOV), Blood and Chocolate (NOV), and Arlington Road—a script that won him a prestigious Nicholl Fellowships award and kicked off his professional career. “There are writers,” he says, “and certainly I was one of them, with an unrealistically optimistic opinion of the salability of stories that they themselves have fallen in love with simply because they want to tell those particular stories. This is fine for novelists, because at least in that industry you have the option to self-publish. For screenwriters, it’s different.

“Studios are running a business. And you have to make your peace with that. They’re looking for a return on their investment, and they need to be making movies that put people in seats. That holds true whether the project is something you can make for a million dollars and auction at Sundance, or something you can only make for a hundred million dollars.

“Looking back to the beginning of my career, I wish I could have known better which stories not to write. That I could have put a more objective and realistic business eye on some of the ideas and stories I started to tell—things that, in hindsight, I look at now and recognize, ‘That one really never stood a chance.’

“When you start any project, you need to ask yourself some questions and figure out what elements will make it an attractive investment and get other people excited about it, so it has a chance of getting made. These are not questions I thought to ask when I was starting out.”

But thanks to the hard-won experience of Ehren and others, we can ask those questions now. Indeed, experience has led film studios and the production companies that team with them to look for a number of very specific things in the projects they choose to adapt. Says Jonathan Hensleigh: “The moving target that a screenwriter has to hit to satisfy the commercial requirements of the studios has gotten smaller and is now moving faster, so it’s harder to hit. They want very specific elements, and the reason for that is because the fear factor in Hollywood is worse now owing to the cost of the films and the cost of marketing.”

Some of these “specific elements” mean little or nothing to publishers, which is one of the reasons why many good books are never adapted—and also why those that are adapted often undergo significant changes before hitting the screen.

The most important of these things are covered in the next eleven chapters, and form a sort of buyer-friendly checklist of questions you should ask yourself about your own projects. Briefly summarized, they are …

• Pitchable Concept: A cinematic story concept that can be conveyed in ten seconds or less.

• A Relatable Hero, or one with whom the reader/viewer can sympathize or empathize (or can at least find compelling); if people don’t care about your characters and what happens to them, Hollywood doesn’t care about your story.

• An Emotionally Compelling Story because, in the end, a relatable hero is not enough; the most engaging character in the world will soon turn boring if he or she has nothing emotionally meaningful to do. The hero must “have skin in the game,” must have something at stake.

• A “Ticking Clock” to add immediacy to the story; no ticking clock means no hurry, no urgency to get anything done—and that, in turn, makes for a boring story or (worse) no story at all.

• Strong Visual Potential: A story whose main events can be engagingly depicted onscreen; if the camera can’t see it, it’s not a movie.

• Classical (Three-Act) Structure: With something like 95 percent-plus of all commercially successful films adhering to this structure, Hollywood is inclined to play the odds—and you should be, too.

• An Actor-Friendly Lead role that appeals to bankable actors; for the most part, studio greenlights hinge on actor (and sometimes director) participation. No actor interest means no studio (or other buyer) interest.

• Average Length: 105 to 120 minutes or thereabouts; time is money, and first-timers do not warrant exceptions.

• Reasonable Budget: You are not James Cameron, and your film cannot cost half a billion dollars. (Cameron’s first movie—The Terminator—cost a mere $6.5 million, $4 million of which reportedly went to star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

• Low-Fat Story: Everything in the story must be there for a reason (other than being one of the writer’s favorite scenes).

• Franchise Potential: Sequels to successful films are less risky investments than original films, making this a big advantage—particularly at higher budget levels. Not always required, but nice to have.

• Four-Quadrant Appeal: A story that appeals to everyone—young and older males and females (the four quadrants). This is where James Cameron lives and breathes, and the reason his films can cost what they do. Not required at all levels, but increasingly important as budget rises.

• Merchandising Potential: The more stuff the studio can sell, the happier they are; irrelevant at lower budget levels, critical for many summer blockbusters—which often generate more income from merchandising than from theatrical release.

Okay, that’s thirteen things—but “Twelve Things Hollywood Wants” sounds better. Point being, the more of these things your project has, the greater your chances of moving it along. If, on the other hand, your current story is missing one or more of the first ten qualities, you may find yourself in Ehren’s never-really-stood-a-chance category. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change things—or at least change them in the adaptation, which is what matters to Hollywood.

So let’s take a closer look at each.…

CHAPTER 5

PITCHABLE CONCEPT

This Is Your Ten Seconds

When it comes to selling in Hollywood, concept is king. A pitchable concept is like oxygen: without it, you’re dead. Still, there is one significant difference: you’ll last longer—much longer—without oxygen. Terry Rossio is probably the highest-grossing screenwriter of all time. His credits include the Pirates of the Caribbean (THM), Shrek (NOV), Zorro (TVS/NOV), Men in Black (COM), and National Treasure franchises, The Lone Ranger (RAD), Godzilla (MOV), Aladdin (1992; MFL), the record-breaking Déjà Vu spec sale ($5.6 million), and other projects literally too numerous to mention. His Lightspeed project (cowritten with Bill Marsilii), sold for $3.5 million. He is the most fiercely analytical writer I have ever met.

“Most aspiring screenwriters simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept,” he counsels. “It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months—sometimes years—are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.”

WHY “PITCHABLE” CONCEPT?

Before delving into what makes a concept pitchable, it’s important to understand why a pitchable concept is needed in the first place. The answer can be boiled down to two words: time and marketing. Let’s tackle time first.

Agents, managers, producers and film executives are among the busiest people on earth. “To their credit,” says screenwriter ***Evan Daugherty, “these guys are insanely busy, and they’re getting these scripts all the time, and probably really want to find that magical script in the pile. But there are so many scripts it’s just crazy.”

Christopher Lockhart, executive story editor at WME, is one of those insanely busy guys. “For any writer trying to break into the business,” he says, “it’s ultimately about concept. Most new writers don’t have the concept. Writer-driven scripts have to be carried by the writing alone—and that’s a tougher sell.

“Juno is like that. If you pitch that script to me, and you say it’s about a pregnant teen who struggles to find the perfect parents to adopt her baby, I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever.’ Because the charm and the magic of Juno is in the writing—the character and the humor—and not in the concept itself. But how do you pitch the writing when the writer is unknown? You can’t.

“Whereas with something like Liar Liar, the magic and the charm are first and foremost in the concept: it’s about a lawyer who has to tell the truth for twenty-four hours, during the biggest case of his career. That sounds exciting. There’s a lot more clarity, a lot more conflict, and you can really see the potential just from that description.

“Fine, maybe you wrote a great script—but if you can’t get the concept across, who the hell is going to read it? You have to understand: everybody writes a great script. It’s like being in prison: everybody’s innocent.”

The prison analogy is a good one—except in this case, everyone’s trying to break in. And you might be surprised by the numbers. The WGA (Writers Guild of America) registers some 50,000 new screenplays each year. Many writers copyright their scripts instead of registering them, and an even larger number don’t bother doing either—so we can conservatively say that 100,000 new scripts enter the marketplace every year. Add these to last year’s scripts, and those from previous years (which often continue to circulate as their authors keep revising them and sending them out), and you begin to see the problem.

There’s simply not enough time to read every script and adaptable property that comes along—the vast majority of which will, as every industry pro knows from bitter experience, turn out to be poorly written, plotted, or executed (if not all three).

Of those stories which are not one or more of the above, many will be in some way inappropriate for the person or company being contacted: too expensive, too narrowly (or broadly) focused, wrong genre, or simply not a good match for their current needs.

“I can’t read every script out there,” says Lockhart. “I just can’t do it. No one can.” And so no one tries. “With hundreds of thousands of scripts from new writers circulating around town,” he confirms, “there has to be some kind of vetting process. And concept is the quickest and easiest way to vet. If you don’t have representation or a solid recommendation, concept is the best way to catch someone’s attention—and in all cases, it’s helpful. Concept, concept, concept.”

Keeping the above in mind, put yourself in the shoes of the person you hope to impress. In the next three hours, you can read one script—or you can review well over a thousand concepts. Put another way: if you were to read the thousand scripts instead of the concepts, and you did nothing but read those scripts for ten hours a day, every day, it would take you 324 days to read them all. (And more like two to three years if you were reading books instead of screenplays.)

Now let’s look at this the other way around: if you were to look at concepts only, for 324 days, for only one hour a day—you’d have reviewed just under 350,000 potential projects. If you did this for ten hours a day, the total number of concepts reviewed would approach 3.5 million. Which technique do you think your competitors are using?

So, are you going to spend your time trying to read everything that comes your way—or are you going to vet the concepts first, and then follow up on and read only those that seem both promising and appropriate?

Welcome to Hollywood.

Your agent, manager, or producer will also use the “logline” (ten-second concept pitch) to catch the interest of potential buyers. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a story that you can articulate efficiently and clearly to someone else,” says screenwriter ***Ehren Kruger. “Because that’s what a junior studio executive will use when speaking to a senior studio executive, who then speaks to the head of the studio, who ultimately says yes, buy that thing, or no, don’t buy that thing.”

The other consideration is marketing. “You want to be able to get the concept down to something that makes the reader or listener see the movie poster,” screenwriter John August advises. “That seems really gross and wrong, but at the same time, many of the most challenging projects, the ones that are hardest to get going, are that way because it’s hard for the buyer to understand how they’re going to market it: what the poster feels like, what the trailer feels like. The studio has to know it can promote the movie in those formats.”

Ehren Kruger agrees. “At the other end of the process,” he says, “you can’t market a movie to audiences based on ‘Trust us, it’s good.’ Studio executives need to know what the concept is, so it can be related to the potential audience.”

Indeed, with limited exceptions (mostly smaller, independent projects), there is little industry interest in stories whose central concepts and conflicts cannot be plainly and dramatically stated in one to three sentences. Why? Because the finished film will be marketed with “trailers” (those short, coming-attractions previews) as short as 30 to 60 seconds. Experience proves that films which cannot be effectively marketed in this way tend to do poorly at the box office. Which, in turn, makes it difficult if not impossible to find investors. So the very first thing you want to do is take your story and boil it down to trailer-friendly, pitchable basics.

WHAT MAKES A CONCEPT PITCHABLE?

A pitchable concept should be brief, clear, original, and commercial. “The concept also has to be intriguing, compelling, attractive,” says Terry Rossio. “I would add, specifically, that the story has to have a compelling main relationship (which all great movies have) and that the concept for the film should exist in the public consciousness in some fashion, yet hasn’t been done yet.

“There should be some element that is so inventive, so alluring, it has people in Hollywood kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. Kicking themselves so hard, in fact, that they’re willing to give you lots of money because you did think of it first.”

In addition, it should contain the three most basic elements of your story: who it’s about, what their goal is, and the nature of the obstacle that must be overcome before that goal can be reached.

First up: brevity. Grab a stopwatch, real or virtual. Imagine yourself face-to-face with a Hollywood producer, who asks you the inevitable question: “What’s your story about?”

Now start that stopwatch ticking, and answer the question aloud. Stop the clock when you’re done. If your answer took more than ten seconds, it’s too long. Impossible, you say? Not so—as we’ll see in a moment.

On to clarity. When it comes to pitching, clarity is crucial, confusion lethal. Again, put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Someone comes to you with a concept—a mere sentence or two, written or spoken. If they can’t manage to pull that off without confusing you, what are the chances they can pull off the whole two-hour story? Probably zip. And while such an assessment may be unfair because writing two-hour stories and ten-second pitches are entirely separate skills…once again, welcome to Hollywood.

As Napoleon once said of military orders, “they must be impossible to misunderstand.” That’s what you’re aiming for here: not only does every word count, every phrase or sentence—as well as the overall pitch—must have only one meaning. (The rare exception being an intentional double entendre.)

SAMPLE CONCEPTS

Within the industry, the ten-second, concept-based pitches referred to in this chapter are called loglines. Here are four examples of loglines I wrote (after the fact) for successful films you’ve probably seen on the big (or small) screen. See if you can identify the movies they pitch.

A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal.

In a society where criminals are arrested before their crimes are committed, a cop convicted of a future murder goes on the run to prove his innocence.

An emotionally shuttered Wall Street tycoon hires a vivacious hooker for the week, falls in love, and struggles to forge his first meaningful relationship.

A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—have been set loose by a power failure.

If you haven’t already guessed, here are the movies to go with those loglines: The Fugitive (TVS); Minority Report (STO); Pretty Woman; and Jurassic Park (NOV). Note that each logline is brief, clear, original, and commercial—while at the same time conveying the central who, goal, and obstacle of the story. All in ten seconds or less—even for a relatively complex concept like Minority Report.

For more on developing and refining concepts, see Chapter 17; for more on loglines, see Chapter 25.

CHAPTER 6

RELATABLE HERO

Why Do We Care?

Your main character needs to be someone the audience can sympathize or empathize with, or at the very least find compelling. In most cases, that means they like him—but there are exceptions.

WHO GIVES A DAMN?

Important as concept is, it’s not enough. Because if that concept isn’t wrapped around one or more characters who are both engaging and in some way relatable, no one’s going to stick around long enough to see how the concept plays out.

Gale Anne Hurd has produced dozens of films, ranging from small and personal—The Waterdance, Safe Passage (NOV), and The Wronged Man (ART/TRU)—to blockbusters like Armageddon, Aliens, and The Terminator, as well as the Hulk and Punisher (both COM) franchises. She also produced The Walking Dead TV (COM), Talking Dead (TVS), Fear the Walking Dead (COM/TVS), Lore, Falling Water and Hunters (NOV) series. “I respond to character-driven material, regardless of its origin,” she says. “I fall in love with the characters and generally respond to stories featuring ordinary people who succeed in overcoming extraordinary challenges.”

Dark Horse Comics publisher Mike Richardson has been instrumental as a producer in bringing about such big- and small- screen adaptations as 300 (COM/HIS), Sin City (COM), The Mask and Timecop (both COM, and both of which he cowrote), the Hellboy franchise (COM), R.I.P.D. (COM), The Umbrella Academy (COM), and Dark Matter (COM). All told, he’s optioned or sold close to 100 projects, produced twenty-eight films (including TV), has another two dozen in development, and won an Emmy for producing Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. When describing what he looks for in an adaptable comic, his advice is eerily similar to Hurd’s.

“We’ve been very successful creating stories involving regular people who are caught up in unusual or fantastic circumstances. It’s a recipe that seems to work. If we can relate to the main character of the story—if we can identify with him or her—then as viewers we end up putting ourselves in that same situation. I think that’s a good approach for coming up with an interesting film or book. Of course, it’s easy to say and hard to accomplish.”

Note that it is the character who is (or seems) ordinary. Why? Because an obviously extraordinary character is less relatable to the average reader or viewer, who then has a harder time rooting for—or imagining himself in the same situation as—the hero. In those relatively few instances in which the lead character seems extraordinary from the start, he usually has some kind of relatable flaw or vulnerability: a marriage or career on the rocks, an addiction, a failure or fear or accusation that has run his life off the tracks—making him, because of that, relatable when he (or she) otherwise wouldn’t be. Another way to make such a character relatable is to bring him down to Average Joe status by swinging a wrecking ball through his perfect life.

Since selling his first script (Galahad), screenwriter Ryan Condal has been hired to adapt several properties written by others. When it comes to adaptations, he says, “what’s most often missing in the original work is a compelling protagonist that we want to pay 12, 13, or 18 dollars to see in a movie theater on a Saturday night. That’s where I make my reputation and my money as a writer of adaptations: cracking the hero’s journey in a given property. The world of the story is usually fairly well thought-out in the original work; I have to make sure the main character is someone we give a damn about.”

To drive this point home with adaptation clients, I often use the following analogy. Imagine reading about a terrible accident. It could be nearby, or half a world away. There’s a flicker of sympathy—“Oh, those poor people”—and ten seconds later you’re thinking about your next cheeseburger because, in the final analysis, this sort of thing happens to someone, somewhere, every day, turning the victims into statistics. That doesn’t make you insensitive; it’s a necessary coping mechanism, without which you’d probably go batso.

Now imagine that, a short time later, you learn that a close friend or relative was in that same accident. Suddenly, you can think of nothing else. Did they survive, were they hurt, will they be okay? Where are they, how can you reach them, what can you do to help? These questions consume you; everything else can and does go to hell until you find the answers.

It’s the same exact event—yet its effect on you is totally different. That’s not rational, so why does it happen? Because in the second instance, you care deeply about the person involved. That makes you emotionally invested in the outcome. As Ryan might put it: “The main character is someone you give a damn about.”

It’s the same with a movie (or book or comic or true story, for that matter): when you care about the characters, you become emotionally invested in the story and its outcome. Make no mistake: story is what happens to characters. Events alone, happening in isolation, have no context, no meaning—and no emotion attached to them.

When, on the other hand, they’re happening to someone you’ve come to care about, you have to know what happens next. That’s what keeps readers reading and audiences watching. It’s why the whole world seems to disappear when you’re caught up in a great story. It’s what makes you stay up late to finish that book. And it is why, in an increasingly repressive and isolated society, people continue to flock to the movies: to experience emotions that are unsafe, less intense, or altogether inaccessible in the real world. (Would you really want to be chased by a Terminator—or a tyrannosaur?) After all, if we could find what we get from movies elsewhere, Hollywood would be out of business.

“A relatable hero is generally what they’re looking for,” notes screenwriter/producer Leslie Dixon. “On the other hand, an antihero can also work. We don’t really have a Steve McQueen among our stars right now, but you can definitely make somebody like him and I wouldn’t say he’s exactly relatable, but you still want to be him if you’re a guy. You want to kiss him if you’re a woman. Not every hero has to have the relatability of Tom Hanks to be the hero of your movie.”

Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh also sees the antihero as potentially commercial. “The role of antihero found a niche in commercial filmmaking,” he says. “But always the American antihero is someone who is rejected by society for whatever reason, an outcast, maybe morally conflicted—but at the end he always does good.”

And here we begin to expand the definition of relatable—and even step beyond it. “Actors,” says Leslie Dixon, “vastly prefer complex and flawed characters to straight-ahead good guys. If your hero is a saint, you’re doing something wrong. Relatability is actually less important than whether the actor will say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ Because your movie will never get made if some actor doesn’t say they want to play that part.

“So while the character also has to appeal to the audience, you must always think, if I were an actor or an actress, would I want to play this part? And all of a sudden, you might realize that, geez, my lead character runs an orphanage and volunteers with disabled people on the weekends. She’s so goody-goody, I want to slap her teeth out. I don’t want to play that part. I’d rather play this drug addict over here, who kills somebody in self-defense. So I would definitely make sure the protagonist is compelling.

“Actors need something they can bite into, and not that many people are writing them really good parts. That is one of the absolute best ways to get in. It’s a sideways door into the industry, where you could write some really great role for an actor—something they might win an Oscar for—and somehow get it to their manager or get it to their agent and come in that way.”

In the end, a good commercial story must have at least one relatable or sympathetic or empathetic or compelling or root-for-able main character, or hero. Plot is reason; character, emotion. “You need to create characters people care about,” confirms screenwriter Ehren Kruger. “You want that propulsive energy: what’s going to happen to these people, where are they going to end up? You can’t have characters who are just there to serve the function of the plot.”

Ryan Condal agrees. “I search for a compelling hero I can build a story around,” he says. “It all starts with the hero—who are they, how are they different, and why do we care about them?”

It’s also important to remember that heroes do not exist in isolation; the people and things they care about both tell us something about them, and provide another way to draw readers into the tale. “To me,” says Terry Rossio, “the relationships between characters need to be defined; those are the moments audiences want to watch, and the actual characters can be adjusted to make the main relationship or relationships the most interesting. That leads to thinking about what kind of character, and character situation, is best to mine the concept, or take best advantage of the concept or story arena.”

It’s crucial to understand, as well, that the main character need not be likable. But understand, too, that this is a risky path to pursue, and one which—if not trod with the utmost care—will very likely result in failure. The key here is to create a character with whom the audience can still sympathize or empathize, or at the very least find compelling in some way.

“A lot of people are going to tell you that a likable and relatable character is a must,” says Paul Haggis. “In the Valley of Elah (ART/TRU) does not have a relatable, likable protagonist; the one I created was much more unlikable and less relatable than the person upon whom it was based, but I think it’s a pretty good movie.” It is, however, also a movie whose lead character is a man in search of the truth about what happened to his dead son—and who among us cannot sympathize or empathize with that?

The lead character in Sideways (NOV)—Miles—is the kind of guy who steals money from his mother’s dresser drawer. And yet, somehow, we want the best for him and his “depression, and anxiety, and neg-head downer” messed-up life. Why? Because he’s compelling. He’s the self-inflicted total loser we want to see make good.

Occupying the far end of the scale is Steven, the main character in A Perfect Murder (MOV/PLY), whose efforts to kill his rich wife form the basis of the story. Though charming, he’s not likable in a deeper sense, and hopefully not terribly relatable, sympathetic, or empathetic—but the guy is absolutely fascinating to watch. He’s so smart, so bad, so determined and darkly compelling that we almost want to see him pull it off. Importantly, he also has an antagonist who is, in some ways, even more reprehensible than he is.

Still, there are limits. Says ***Jonathan Hensleigh: “Buyers are not going to sit there and say, ‘Well maybe the hero is a heroin-addicted cross-dresser who strives for two hours to achieve his goal and then fails miserably, resulting in the deaths of all of his friends. It’s not going to happen, that picture’s not going to be made, even by an independent production company.’” Why? Because relatability, sympathy, empathy, and a compelling lead are all missing.

In the final analysis, audiences must care about your hero, or Hollywood doesn’t care about your story. If concept is king, character is heart—and with few exceptions, a poor hero with heart will draw more viewers than a king without.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: MYSAM Chapters 7-9, coming in the first half of April, 2019. To be notified of important site updates (new chapters, full-length interviews etc.)…

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