In order to clarify some common terms and principles allow me to take a few minutes of your time to define some areas where there could otherwise be confusion. If you are new to screenwriting, this will be interesting because of the film industry information. If you are a seasoned film industry insider, I hope these definitions and descriptions of these seven basic screenplay requirements will shed a different light on the elements you already know.
The film business’s only product is entertainment. By entertainment I do not mean solely to divert. The film business has many examples of films like this. Films which sadly create needless sex and violence to divert the attention of the audience, but which make no attempt to use any of the other tools at the disposal of the screenwriter and filmmaker – setting, action, characterization, plot, structure and dialogue.
Entertainment comes from the Latin root to intertwine. This is the task of the screenwriter – to weave all the elements available to a screenwriter and weave them together to create an entertaining story. In well-crafted screenplays, the weaving should be tight and invisible. Setting, action, characterization, plot, structure and dialogue should be combined so that the seams do not show. A writer who has learned how to do this is mastering the craft of screenwriting. An exercise: list three films that you feel are crafted solely to divert.
Try to answer these questions when you look at a film:
1.What made you interested in the story?
2.Were there any common elements in the setting, the action, and the characterisation that connect the films?
3.What did you like least about each film?
4.What did you like the best?
There is no science to this approach, but if you deconstruct a story you may discover techniques that you can use (or avoid) in your own work.
Orson Welles said ‘A poet needs a pen, a painter needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs a whole army’.
Like it or not, that is the film business and it is a complex business at that. Writers tend to be drawn by the making of the film – the technicians, the actors, the scoring, the cinematography, design of the costumes and the props. But these are the actions of the film industry (read car industry, aerospace industry). The actual creation and making of the film is the role of the film industry.
Writers who forget the business side of the industry do so at their peril. The bankers and financiers, the marketing and public relations people, the owners and employees of the cinemas, the accountants with their complex procedures, the tax lawyers, the copyright and royalty collectors are a few of the silent faces who are employed by the film industry.
Add in the more glamorous roles of the actors, the directors, the editors, make-up artists, scenic artists, lighting and sound specialists and you really have an army of people involved in the making of a film.
Each area is really a sub-industry, the people in each sub-industry tend to distrust, even hate the people in other sub-industries. But money and collaboration govern the entire movie business. Therefore, a writer who includes camera directions in a screenplay, or is too specific with stage directions is precluding the possibility of collaboration with the cameraman and the actors – two very important categories of collaborators. The trick is to write a screenplay that inspires each and every category of the person likely to be involved in the making of the movie. A successful writer learns how to do this, and to incorporate everyone’s creativity into the movie. Thus a finished screenplay should be considered the blue print for a movie, or suggestions for a movie, and not a carefully bound package of precisely typed paper that represents the death of a few trees! Writers who ignore this, or fail to research and educate themselves about the intricacies of the movie business will encumber their chances of success by this lack of knowledge.
Writers must learn as much as possible about the industry.
As a writer, you are inevitably going to spend long hours writing alone, and the commercial and collaborative aspects of the film business can be easy to forget. Also remember that as a writer, you are basically setting up your very own business where you manufacture products (scripts and treatments) and for which the cost of manufacture (paper, some ink and some envelopes) is minuscule compared to the possible sale price of a script.
A writer friend of mine once boasted to a dinner table of light industrialists that he had started a business with a 10,000 percent mark up. The table went dead, the usual mark-up is 60-80 percent, and finally, one of the more arrogant businessmen asked him what it was and my friend offered ‘I’m writing a screenplay’. He was referring to the price of a pack of photo copy paper as the only cost of raw materials!
Oddly enough, many astute businessmen recognise the financial limitations of their own businesses, even though they look financially secure and wealthy beyond belief. I have met several highly successful businessmen who know to a cent how much their business will earn this next year and the year after. Whereas their business crank out a profit at a predictable rate, affected only by basic economic factors such as employment and interest rate rises, only in the world of athletics or movies can an individual turn from pauper to multi-millionaire literally overnight. Writing a well-crafted and commercially viable screenplay will catapult you straight into the movie business at the very highest level. But before we get too dreamy-eyed thinking of riches and before we order the Rolls Royce catalogue, remember the following. You will never get paid for writing a script. You only get paid if you sell it. And only a hot script sells.
There is nothing more contrived than the film business. Everything about the industry from the way we view the images on a screen, to the way that films are created by groups of technicians shows the movie business to be the most contrived of any art form in the world. As screenwriters, we must learn to fill the vacuous void of the screen with images and voices that follow the contrivance in the cinemas.
Remember too, that as children we all looked forward to the bedtime stories that our parents told us. Now that we are adults, we are still going to the cinema for a bedtime story. The fact that the filmmakers used a series of contrivances to bring us the story is something that we expect and accept.
For example, it is common knowledge that films are shot out of sequence. Suppose the script calls for the first scene to be in her bedroom downtown, getting dressed, and the second scene with her at the airport flying into the arms of her lover whom she hasn’t seen in two days. We all know the director doesn’t film the first scene, yell ‘Cut’, and drag everyone to the airport for the second scene, and so on. We know that films are shot out of sequence for matters of economy. Yet we accept this when we sit in front of a screen and watch a movie.
Human beings are fixated by what happens to others. Walk down any street and notice the crowd gathered around the accident victim, or feel your head turn while walking down a street at night and see the shadow outline a of a naked body against a bedroom curtain.
Let’s face it – we love to gape.
5.Maximize, in minimal circumstances
Creative economy is a bit challenge. To achieve this, a screenwriter has to maximize everything that they have at their disposal. Remember too that as a screenwriter you are denied many of the literary tools. Alliteration, simile and metaphor are devices best left to poets, lyricists or novelists.
Also, a screenwriter can only write what is to be seen on the screen. Therefore, you can’t say ‘It’s very cold’ – because how do you show cold? You could say ‘Hail bounces off the windscreen’.
But I don’t mean just the creative tools. I mean that as a writer you need to maximize your own personal life, to be able to take the energy and patience to explain to those with whom you share your life that what you are doing is very important to you. Know when to pull back when to involve them, this is also a big challenge.
One of the worst things about writing is sneaking into your workspace and turning on the computer. Something about the click of the switch, or the chime the machine makes when you switch it on creates a black hole of energy. Energy that sucks in all sorts of things – the telephone rings, a pet (if you have one) needs attention, or worst of all, if you share your life with someone else, a human being tries to help you. It usually goes like this – ‘Honey, I’m going to write now for forty-five minutes.’ Fifteen minutes later, the love of you life walks behind you and starts massaging your neck and cooing words like ‘You look really tired’ or ‘You really should do something about those bags under your eyes’ and before you know it you have stopped writing and gone to bed!
Handling you personal life so that you family and friends know that while you are writing you must not and cannot be disturbed takes a special skill. You have to learn how to do this too, if you want to write the hot script.
6.Hollywood, love it or leave it?
First of all, let me explain that by Hollywood I mean the professional film and television community centred in Los Angeles – yes, Hollywood is the major centre of film production. But by Hollywood I also mean the centre of film production in other major cities – New York, Toronto, Hamburg, Vancouver, Barcelona and London.
In these cities, and others, professional film production companies also turn out movie after movie although perhaps not on the same scale as in Los Angeles. These film production companies very in size from mini-majors like FilmFour, Canal Plus, Pathe or Kinoveldt to small companies producing a picture or two directly for TV or the home video market.
Personally I love Hollywood films.
This always gets me into trouble. Running the Raindance Film Festival, which is noted for its cutting-edge aggressive films, my acquaintances ask me ‘But how could possibly like Hollywood? Most Hollywood films suck!’
True. But so do most ballets, most novels, most operas, most paintings, most poems, most symphonies and most rock songs.
By saying I love Hollywood films I mean that I love seeing vast expanses of scenery, sparkling special effects, snappy and crisp dialogue, gorgeous costumes and settings, ambitious and grand camera movements that make up typical Hollywood films. And when Hollywood succeeds and tells a story that compels the viewer, that elicits emotion in the audience, that brings a lump to the throat, or a gasp of laughter, Hollywood is fantastic. It also follows that one of the best ways to write for the screen is to study Hollywood movies.
Some acquaintances of mine who are attempting to make a career in the film industry belabour the Hollywood point and say they are tired or bored with Hollywood films.
To them, and to you, if you find yourself sharing this sentiment, I respectfully suggest that you are in the wrong profession. If you say you are fed up with glitz, with glamour, and fatigued by sparkle, then I really think you are in the wrong business.
If you do fall into this category, then view this post as a simple one designed to increase your understanding of the movie business, and use it as something that will increase your enjoyment of the films you choose to see, but please don’t pretend to be a part of it. You are just setting yourself up for hurt and disaster.
By Hollywood I also refer to the time-honoured tradition of passing each script through a series of filters. The Hollywood filtering system in not without fault. Hollywood makes many poor scripts. The reason for this is more to do with the politics of the movie business than anything else, and more specifically the pay-or-play deals that dominate the business.
The Hollywood system spends hundreds of millions of dollars each and every year on developing screenplays, and in the process creates opportunities for writers to write and get paid.
Since 1999, a whole new breed of film companies has leapt out of nowhere. Their remit is to produce moving pictures for the Internet, mobile telephones and handheld devices. These companies are producing work for these new platforms, and I also refer to these companies as ‘Hollywood’. Another Hollywood medium demanding film script after script after script.
7.Audience: the most basic screenplay requirements
It is astounding to me that screenwriters most commonly ignore their audience.
To ignore the audience is to almost certainly bring great peril to your screenwriting career. The devastation cannot be fixed by going to a screenwriting school either – as most film schools don’t understand the importance of researching the audience either.
Allow me to expand further on this topic: The Screenwriter’s Audience