Screenplay Competition Tips for Success

September 11, 2011
In honor of finishing reading scripts for the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Contest:
  1. Pick the right genre. Seriously, it seems like at least half the scripts I see are period dramas. Looking back and counting, I realize it’s not even close to half, but stories that take place in the past are difficult to sell, because only a certain type of person is really interested in that story. The chances are low that your reader will be a fan of period dramas, so you could be hurting yourself a whole lot with that.
  2. Lose the stop signs at the beginning of the script. If the first two pages of your script are less than 50% dialogue, rewrite it. Scene description is much harder to follow, and it’s less interesting to the reader. While stylized silence may be great at the start of a movie, at the start of a screenplay, it’s just annoying.
  3. Pick a great title. It’s amazing how many titles give you no indication of what the film is about. But when I see a title like, for example, “Lucy Goes Ballistic” or “No One Gets Out of Here Alive,” I’m immediately intrigued. Definitely something to elevate.
  4. Put the logline on your title page. I actually don’t know if you’re even “allowed” to do this. I know a lot of contests have really strict rules about what goes on the title page. All I know is that when I’m fishing around for scripts to read, when I see one with the logline on the cover, I read the logline, and if it interests me, I pick it up, and if not, I don’t. Logically, the person who reads your script, therefore, is much more likely to already be interested in it when they start.
  5. The bookends are the most important part. The first 15 pages are the most important of your script. Make sure those are amazing. The last 30 pages are the second most important. Make sure those are amazing, too. That way, even if your second act is a little weaker, you’ll at least be setting a good tone to start, and finishing on a strong note.

Meet Bill – More on Titles (and Mentors)

January 28, 2009

Last night, as the wife and I were browsing the selections at the MovieCube DVD box in our local grocery store, we came upon this selection.  We almost breezed past it, when my wife reminded me that we had seen a coming attraction for this movie at some point.

“We did?”  I said.  “I don’t remember it.”

“Yeah,” she responded.  “You said that that was a lousy title for that movie.”

I looked at the nondescript title.  Meet Bill.  “Yeah, that sounds like something I’d say.”  Apparently, I came up with a way better title based on the coming attraction, although neither of us remember it, even having watched the movie.  Maybe if I watched the trailer again I’d remember.

Interestingly, the title does works perfectly within the theme of the film.  Its genre being “Midlife crisis/male melodrama” (a genre I coined in a college essay for films like American Beauty and Wonder Boys), the essence of the movie is that it’s about Bill, our hero, finding himself and discovering who he is.  Hence “Meet Bill.”

So I’m torn.  In the context of a piece of contemporary artwork, the title is great.  But as a vehicle to drive sales it clearly sucks.  I have a hard time believing, given the quality of the script, that none of the writers or the director could have come up with something better if they’d wanted to – in brainstorming titles myself, one of my favorites is The Acorn Guy – you cut into the trailer the scene in which Aaron Eckhart catches his wife on tape talking about his acorn-sized penis, and I can’t help but think everyone who watches that trailer will remember it, with the film subsequently making more money.  But does that compromise the artistic integrity of the director? Is it worth it?  I’m sure the producers would think so.

My favorite thing about this movie is that the mentor role is reversed.  The hero is roped into “mentoring” a student, except that in the filmic sense, the student is actually mentoring him.  I quite enjoyed this dichotomy.  I also enjoyed the slow development of the character – rather than clear decisions that serve as major turning points, the whole film is a series of small decisions that serve as minor turning points, until the non-Hollywood anticlimax at the end.  (My wife and I both wanted the Hollywood ending, and it easily could’ve been done, but it’s clear that the filmmakers were going for something else here, and I respect that.)

All told, interesting movie, very fun and funny, while provoking some interesting thoughts.

Adaptations – Runaway Jury

January 14, 2009

Massive spoilers ahead!

I just got done reading John Grisham’s The Runaway Jury, which by the way, should’ve been called Runaway Jury.  Why does John Grisham insist on including the word “the” in front of all his titles?  That’s one of my pet peeves.  Unless the rest of the title is one word – like The Firm or The Godfather – or a proper noun followed by a common noun – like The Hudsucker Proxy or The Shawshank Redemption – it almost always detracts from the power of the title.  Think about it: The Bride Wars.  The Four Weddings. The Hotel for Dogs. No.  Those titles would suck.

Anyway, I digress.  I saw the movie a number of years ago and remember loving it.  Politics aside, it was great on suspense and great on character.  I love movies with Jason Bourne-type human superheroes who can anticipate everyone’s every movie, and I like it even more when two such characters have to go at it, and that’s really what this movie was.  And a few weeks ago I was looking for a suspense/thriller/mystery type novel to read, and this is what I came up with.

It’s interesting how different the two are.  We can start with the most glaring change, which is that the book covers a tobacco trial while the movie is a gun trial. No doubt this was a context choice – by time the movie was made in 2003, tobacco was no longer a controversial issue and it was nowhere close to unprecedented that a widow might be compensated for her husband’s nicotine-related death.  Mass shootings like Columbine (which occurred in 1999) were of greater importance, so that part of it I think was an excellent choice.

It gets more subtle than that, though.  In the movie, we start headfirst knowing that Rankin Fitch (great name) is the bad guy, while Nicholas Easter (great name) and Wendell Rohr (great name) are the good guys.  In the book it’s a little more ambiguous – both sides are skirting the letter of the law, both sides are hiring ruthless and unscrupulous jury consultants, and both sides are, well, lawyers, doing dirty, nasty, lawyer-like things. Easter is a little more ruthless, and actually occurs as manipulative at time, which the consummately loveable John Cusack couldn’t possibly pull off.  And Marlee is soooooo annoying.  This, I think, is Grisham’s failing that was corrected in a form that’s more prone to concisify the story to fit within a desired timeframe.  The playing games/taunting Fitch portion of the book drags on and on, whereas I remember it being much more intriguing and suspenseful.  And the movie does a better job of building suspense and building the stakes, what with the attack on Marlee’s life.

Honestly, I think the movie may be better just because of the tight storytelling.  The book kept me turning the pages, but Grisham’s storytelling style is actually kind of drab and matter of fact, a habit he no doubt picked up during his 20 years of legal experience.

So through all of this, I find myself asking the question, “How did they adapt this movie?”  The answer is that they took the same characters, put them in a similar situation, used the same plot structure, and then filled in all the beats from scratch.  Though the plot was essentially the same, few of the scenes and none of the dialogue was. This is a pretty stark contrast from, say, The Shawshank Redemption, where all of the voice over narration and most of the scenes were pretty much lifted directly from the novella.  And it’s a stark contrast from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where the basic premise is the only thing that tied the film to the story in any way, shape, or form.

I’ve never really considered just how vast you can adjust your creative license when adapting a movie. Recently I read Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and I’m looking forward to watching that movie to see what they do there.  And I’ll be in the theater at midnight to see The Watchmen to see if they follow the lead of V for Vendetta or even Sin City by cloning much of the dialogue and set design.

Oh … to be in the inquiry …

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