Screenplays, & What I'm Learning

There are rules that have been set.

I grew up on Spielberg and the Goonies, big fun blockbuster movies.   I graduated high school ready to pursue making films of such stature and then I got into film school and I saw two films that changed my whole outlook on filmmaking.  One was 2001: A Space Odyssey and the other was The 400 Blows.  Both of these films completely unshed everything I thought good movies were.

These films gave me an emotional response that shook me.

For a few years into film school and even a few years after, I dismissed good solid Hollywood faire as formulaic and I only wanted to be a proponent for... "good movies."  Like Birth, Magnolia, or The Royal  Tenenbaums.  

2009 was a year of discovery for me.  I think this year may be considered year of endings, but it also has been a year in which all my preconceived notions of what makes a good movie become completely upended.  I found myself seeing a Ron Howard movie in the theater, after I swore him off.  I would of seen New Moon, had any of my more cynical buddies also wanted to see it.

I also saw a ton of foreign films this year, thanks to this year's AFI Film Festival, which had all free screenings.

I'm learning there are rules that are set in the industry.  I've learned of terms, I never heard before and I am finding that these aren't things you fight - but rather use as tools in your arsenal.  I read somewhere that when you're writing a spec script for a TV series, you don't write something new and "fresh."  The producers only want to know, "can you can write my show?"

Fresh ideas and new approaches are internal dialogues.

So, what are the rules?  Rules that most Hollywood relies on.  Some that are broken, but often only successfully by those... internal.  Here are a few I've found:

  • Single protagonist meets single antagonist, ensemble pieces are rare.
  • There are 4 quadrants of demographics Studios look for: Mom, Dad, Teen & Preeteen, meeting all four in one script is golden.  These 4 Quadrant films are the big budgets.  The Avatars and Transformers 2.
  • Scripts don't need "hollywood endings" but rather, clear resolutions of dilemma.  You set a character up, you give him a tough dilemma, you deliver on a resolution and find yourself with a nice and clean theme.
I found in my writings, this far in my career, I've followed none of these rules.  The second rule may not apply as much as the first and last, but still - breaking into the industry is a tough, TOUGH act.  I have to prove that I'm worth their time because, and this is something I've somehow forgotten, it's THEIR money.  

Hollywood may come out with some really, really bad ideas: Planet 51, Did You Hear About the Morgans? and the upcoming Tooth Fairy but they also have made good choices, that have clearly made their money back:

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen has made over $400 million dollars.  Now, this film is nothing like the work I'd like to put my name on, nor do I ever see myself capable of making an Avatar or Transformers or Iron Man film... But when those formulas work, Star Trek or The Hangover for example, the films are great fun.  

Recently, I saw Up in the Air.  This film wasn't perfectly directed.  I found some of the camera work to be a bit sloppy.  However, there were a ton of amazing details.  The performances were all top notch - and above all... the script is 100% solid.  

This I've found is the key to all success.  This is where Up in the Air has gotten its success.  It doesn't rely on niche markets (Precious, which is also pretty amazing) or excessive franchise marketing (Ice Age 3).

There are two types of success in the movie industry.  There is success from marketing, franchise & name... and then there is true success.  Up in the Air may not be my favorite film of the year, it's The White Ribbon, but it's definitely the most successful film.  And by this, I mean - a film that uses the talents of script, performance and direction to create a perfect harmony.

And that's my thoughts, in my most humble opinion.