Saturday, March 28, 2009
Inspiration Strikes (Or Not.)
by Jim Cirile
You know the feeling as well as I do. That lightning-in-a-bottle moment of inspiration where you seize upon an idea that you think will make a fantastic screenplay -- days or even months of excitement as you reenergize, excited about sitting down and writing. You’re chasing that tiger by the proverbial tail, the endorphins are flowing, you forget all your failures and allow yourself to get frakkin’ psyched. It’s a beautiful thing, my friends.
But that’s not what this piece is about. This piece is about the dread feeling of, “Crap, I can’t think of a killer concept.” If you’re like me, you have a folder chockablock with script, scene and character ideas, maybe even an articles or titles file, too. I can’t tell you how long “Great Expectorations” -- a comedy about a high school loogie-hocking prodigy -- has sat there waiting for me to get to it (hint: a decade.) Yet sometimes, for the life of you, you can’t come up with an idea worth writing.
And that’s a very, very good thing.
What am I babbling about? Folks, we all have ideas. But not all of our ideas are good ones. And it is very important as writers that we learn to discern the boffo from the also-rans. Failure to develop that critical skill can lead to a big-ass pile of screenplays, perhaps even well-executed ones, that you can’t give away. Bookshelf to my left: piled with ‘em. I’ve wasted years of my life writing scripts that were dead on arrival based on concept alone. At UCLA, the esteemed Hal Ackerman preaches that one needs to set aside time to write every day. While I do not dispute this, I must add a qualifier: er, yah, unless all your ideas bite.
Okay, okay. I’m not being fair. True, there’s value in working on anything, because you never know where your best nuggets are going to come from. But it comes down to this: if you’re looking to pursue writing as a career, then you need to be a student of the marketplace and select your ideas with laser-guided precision.
I’ve been rockin’ the Agent’s Hot Sheet column for “Creative Screenwriting” for eight years, and there are certain themes I’ve seen over and over again. First and foremost: this isn’t 1973. Films that might have had a shot back in the day may not any more. For example, it’s hard to believe any major studio would take a flyer on “Star Wars” if went out as a spec today. Too expensive to make, no source material. Rather, they’ll adapt a graphic or sci-fi novel if they’re looking for a big sci-fi adventure to fill their slates. Dramas --“Ordinary People,” “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter” -- all those great movies would be real tough sledding now.
So what to write?
First, hone in on your intended market. Want to appeal to the studios? Then you have a microscopic target. Here are your choices: youth-focused comedy, new-style romantic comedy (male-centric,) action, horror, thriller. That’s pretty much it. Put your Western back in the stall. Enbalm the period drama. Photon torpedo your sci-fi adventure. Sports movie? A big maybe. Baseball and American football movies don’t do well foreign; agents and managers will tell you not to write them. Yet they are always getting made. More commercial is basketball for some reason. And heck, if you have a serious chops and castable parts, you might even be able to sell an Ultimate Frisbee or hacky-sack or foosball movie. A rugby-themed project just got set up two weeks ago.
Obviously that doesn’t give you a lot of creative leeway, so feel free to explore other avenues. What about indies? OK, but the days of Miramax making big period movies are over. If you’re aiming indie, you need to keep the budget low and still work within certain genres -- quirky or black comedy, rom-com, action/chase/thriller/suspense, horror. Still not a lot of drama on this list, sadly. If you keep the budget *really* low, you may be able to DIY and take it on the festival circuit or even break it up into webisodes. Bear in mind that most of the indies have been absorbed into the big media conglomerates.
Your last major target (for features) is cable. Network MOWs are a thing of the past. If you have a female-centric production, Lifetime could be interested; something music-themed, VH1; legal-themed, TruTV; and so on. The big kahunas are of course HBO and Showtime original movies, but those as difficult to break into as studio movies due to the prestige factor.
And please don't even think about writing an ensemble piece. These are generally auteur-driven projects, not specs. The only exception to this rule is an “Independence Day”-style action/adventure ensemble flick or maybe a crime thriller with a director attached.
So what to write?
Let’s say you have no idea at the moment. As I alluded to above, that’s actually a good thing -- because of course you *do* have ideas; you’re simply killing the iffy ones before you waste months on them. You’re hopefully savvy enough about what the market wants as to not go too far down the road developing that tearjerker about the Peloponnesian Wars. Remember well this advice from a producer friend: “I’d rather read a poorly executed script with a great idea than a fantastic script with a weak one.” And by “weak,” he means uncommercial. So take the time. Wait for that great idea, for that lightning to strike that bottle. Maybe it’ll take months. But you’ll know it when it hits. Zap!
One great way to come up with a marketable idea: find something to adapt. Nowadays, source material is all -- that means screenplayizing a pre-existing book, article or song into a screenplay. The comic book/graphic novel vein has been mined out, but there are a million novels and short stories ripe for the picking. Spend an afternoon browsing at the local library and make a note of books you like that have never been made into a movie. You may find works by well-known authors that not only speak to you, but the rights are available. The rights to a novelist’s back-catalog may be available and affordable. A quick phone call to the publishing company (contact info conveniently printed in the book) will tell you if the film rights are up for grabs, and if you can make a passionate case and have a strong sample, you may be able to convince the author or his rep to give you an option for a song. It’s worth a shot. Next time you talk to an exec, instead of saying, “uh, I’ve got a dumbass comedy called ‘Great Expectorations,’” you can say, “I have the rights to VC Andrews’ first novella and I’m adapting it into a teen thriller.” I can guarantee you people will listen.
One more thing. When you DO come up with an idea you think is the bomb, great! Put it through The Gauntlet of Scrutiny. Ask yourself: can you see this movie up on the marquee at your local 77-plex alongside “Comic Book Hero 5” and “Grisly Horror Porn 9”? Really see it? Or at the local indie theater playing alongside a Sundance winner? Does it have roles that will appeal to name actors? Most importantly, is it something immediately appealing about it to buyers -- a compelling real-life story, an adaptation of a cool book, a great title with a slick play on words? In other words, what’s the hook?
So what to write? Not something pretty good or lukewarm or even great for what it is. Write something AWESOME. And remember: it’s okay to 86 the also-rans. They’ll all keep themselves warm in the big, happy stack on your bookshelf.
Posted by Admin at 12:46 PM