Is this A Movie?
One of the first questions Hollywood execs ask as they read your script is “Is this a movie?” Well, you’re thinking “Of course it is, you’re reading the script!” Just because you wrote a script, doesn’t mean it’s movie material. What does that mean?
I recently read a screenplay by a new writer who had put in a tremendous amount of work on his script, but no matter what he did to it, it was never going to be a movie. There was no story. You can fill 90 pages with scenes, but if they don’t add up to a compelling story, they may as well be blank. After reading several scripts by new writers, it was plain to see that the majority of them didn’t have a marketable film concept at the heart of it. Of those who did, their scripts didn’t tell the story that needed to be told. Perhaps those with a weaker concept could have tweaked it to make it work, but it requires skill to figure out how to do that.
This is a pretty tricky subject because anyone who writes a script of course thinks it’s a movie or else they wouldn’t have written it. Let’s set aside factors like the script isn’t polished or there are major problems with the story, structure, characters, what have you and focus instead on the concept. Is this something people will pay $14 to see? Would you? You’d be surprised by the number of writers who wouldn’t pay money to see their own film.
There are likely several questions executives ask themselves as they’re reading your script:
Is the concept compelling, simple and complete?
A compelling story means it’s something that sparks interest when you tell people your idea. It doesn’t have to be high-concept, but it does have to have implied conflict and immediately conjure up some idea of how the story might play out. It might even hint at potential scenes the audience might expect to see. They can effectively see a film before they read the script. This doesn’t mean your script should be predictable. In fact, it should be the opposite; the concept itself should stand out as unique – the same, but different means it follows the rules of genre but has a unique twist to the concept.
Your concept should be simple enough to be told within two hours yet have enough material to last two hours. By simple enough, I mean it shouldn’t have fifteen different subplots that are impossible to wrap up in two hours. A film like Love, Actually has multiple story lines, but they all follow a single theme, which keeps it simple. A common problem new writers have is getting through act two and if the concept is weak, there’s an automatic tendency to fill the script with empty scenes or to add new characters that have nothing to do with the main plot. If your concept isn’t strong enough to engage an audience or to fill a 90-page script, you do not have a movie idea. Be careful not to discard your concept simply because you have fallen prey to the second act problem; your concept may be solid, you may just have strayed from it.
By complete, I mean the story ends when the movie is over and vice versa. If your story continues beyond 2 hours, maybe you have a TV series. If your story ends before you can get to page 60 then you have a short or perhaps a stage play. Part of your job as a writer is understanding which format suits your story’s needs. But what about franchises like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight? With the exception of Lord of the Rings, I’d say the first film of each of these franchises could stand on its own without its sequels. Lord of the Rings was always going to be a trilogy, but that doesn’t make it any less of a ‘movie’. It simply needed 9 hours to be told. It is nearly impossible for a new writer to sell a trilogy. It’s great to have ideas for a franchise, but do you honestly believe a studio will give you a 3-picture deal with no previous credits? True, nothing is impossible, but why make things harder for yourself?
How will this show on the big screen?
Many new writers tend to forget that screenwriting is more than just mapping out directions for actors and directors. It’s a script for a visual medium. There must be description that brings your world to life. Beyond what actors say and do and where they are when they do it, what does this look like on screen? Is there visual spectacle? Movies are about fantasy, creating an alternate reality where people can escape their humdrum lives for a couple of hours so what about your movie will make people want to stay there?
Will people want to see it?
It’s the movie business. Producers are looking to buy what will sell. If they can’t see people buying tickets to it, they aren’t going to buy your script. You might love your script, it might be fantastic, but it also might be too small for the big screen. Look at some of the small indie films and figure out why they were made as low budget indies rather than major studio productions. A film like Blair Witch Project could have easily been made on a big budget – simple concept, compelling, complete, shows well on the screen, makes people physically ill, but it lent itself perfectly to the low-budget format because of the subject matter. Blair Witch definitely wouldn’t have been half as effective if it had been a major studio production. But it sold tickets! It was in essence a major studio film masquerading as an indie film. Napoleon Dynamite was a small film with odd characters and a lot of people argued that it had no story, no character arc, etc., but it did really well because the characters were compelling enough to draw audiences.
Will A-list actors want to be in it?
Juno was a smaller film, but the characters and dialogue were so compelling, it attracted big name actors and a major director. Little Miss Sunshine too was a smaller film that attracted top-notch talent and audiences alike because it was fresh, unique, compelling and funny. If the characters interest actors, it will interest audiences. If producers can attach a name actor to your project, they know they can make money.
This is all well and good, but how do I know if my script fits these criteria?
It’s not easy to figure this out by yourself. Get feedback from peers and others working in the industry who read scripts. Conduct a script reading with working actors. If you can’t do this on your own, there are plenty of local organizations willing to help you out. Check for film groups, non-profit organizations, film bureaus, or talk to an acting class. Get creative. The better the actors, however, the more credible their feedback. They read a lot of scripts and can tell you if your work would interest them. A script that would interest a new actor isn’t necessarily going to interest an A-list actor.
Ask your script readers if they would pay to see it in the theatre and why or why not. I attended a script reading a while back of a cute, well-written, small feature that would have suited the indie film market, but when the moderator asked if anyone would pay to see it, less than 5% said yes. It had all the elements of a movie, but it was too narrow in focus, too dreary and didn’t go anywhere. No one wants to see a movie that ends up nowhere.
Read produced scripts by new writers then watch the movie. Compare the two. Can you see from reading the script why it was produced? It’s not as helpful to do this with scripts written by established writers especially if they were written for producer-commissioned films. Then read your script – how does it compare? Be honest. How could you improve it to get it up to par?
Read unproduced scripts by new writers. Triggerstreet.com is a great source of amateur screenplays. Read and review scripts as much as possible and you’ll soon see the difference between amateur and professional stories. Look past the obvious surface flaws and ask yourself why this movie should be made. If you can’t answer that and all these reasons why it shouldn’t be made pop into your head then you finally understand what makes a movie.