Ten Genres to Avoid Like the Plague
by Jim Cirile
Even more important than what’s hot right now? What’s ice cold. Our industry panelists give you the skinny on ten genres to avoid.
ADVISORY BOARDYou’re ready to write a spec. You know it’s tough out there, but you’re confident that with your quirky, exciting characters, you’ll be able to stand out from pack. And so you fire up the computer and set about writing... an angst-ridden teen ensemble drama about a struggling screenwriter. RRRK! (Sound of brakes being stomped on.) Step away from the vehicle, ma’am. Certain genres make good specs; others do not. Before you waste years of your life, make sure that your concept is not dead on arrival!
The Arlook Group
International Creative Management
The Shuman Company
International Creative Management
United Talent Agency
Here are ten genres to beware of. Bear in mind that any of these genres could conceivably be resuscitated by an attachment or by bringing a fresh new spin to a tired formula...
1) THE MOB MOVIE. When a mafia script lands on my desk, I wince. “I rarely get excited (about them,)” says UTA agent Julien Thuan. “You’re starting from not a good place.” Manager A.B. Fischer from the Shuman Company seconds that. “Coming off the end of The Sopranos, that show did it so well for so long that I think it’s going to be a while before the mob movie comes back.” Absent having Scorcese attached, you’d best park Guido and Nunzio on the shelf for a while.
2) THE WESTERN. The toughest material to get any interest in. “They’re useless foreign,” says FilmEngine’s Jake Wagner. “It’s such an American thing that it’s very tough to sell (internationally.)” ICM’s Nicole Clemens cuts to the chase: “The Western as a spec, I would say no. It won’t work until a studio makes one that makes a ton of money. Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies, but...” Of course, that doesn’t mean they never ever sell. Ultra-hot prodco Vertigo picked up Brigands of Rattleborge (by Craig Zahler, repped by our own Julien Thuan) earlier this year. “It’s is a great script,” says Clemens, “but I don’t know if they’ll ever make it.” And then there's "Jonah Hex," which certainly did nothing to help the Western genre. Sigh.
3) FANTASY MOVIES. Think you can spec the next Harry Potter? Ha! “That’s impossible, frankly,” says Fischer. “If you look at the projects that are sold, the majority of them are based on an article, a book, a true story. For a studio to spend $100 million-plus on something that doesn’t have built-in awareness, it’s not gonna happen.” But Wagner offers a ray of hope. “Because fantasy is a hot genre right now, I would encourage someone to write a fantasy spec. That spec that sold recently, Land of Lost Things, by (newcomer) Dan Mazeau, it’s a big, expensive project, and Nickelodeon picked it up. That’s going to put him up for all the other book adaptations -- the Harry Potters, the Lords of the Rings. Even if it doesn’t sell, if it’s well-written and well-received, it’ll put you up for all those open (fantasy) assignments right now, which are half the assignments out there.”
4) THE SPORTS MOVIE. This one’s not dead at all; it just has one very important limitation -- the story has to be true. Fischer says, “I think the most recent huge sale was The Fugees (based on New York Times reporter Warren St. John's article on Luma Mufleh, who assembled a soccer team of kids from various war-ravaged countries.) It’s an uplifting story, but (it’s) based on a true story. To write one from scratch, once again, it’s another uphill battle.” Fischer recommends seeking your own source material. “If you’re a writer out in Minneapolis, and there’s a figure there that the entire country doesn’t know about, try to get that person’s life rights. If it’s a story that you feel needs to be told, there might be a place for it.” Thuan adds that while buyers keep saying they don’t want sports movies because there’s little foreign sales potential, “(they keep making them,) and they all succeed. So I feel like if that’s your bag, go for it.”
5) (TRADITIONAL) ROMANTIC COMEDY. The Meg Ryan/Julia Roberts style romantic comedy is indeed moribund. Long live the new paradigm -- the male-driven romcom. “That was Failure to Launch, which was a spec I sold,” says Clemens. “There are no actresses out there anymore who can get a movie greenlit. But also if it’s male-driven, you have a better shot at getting a guy to take his girlfriend on movie night.” Thuan says that the town still wants romcoms, “but (not) a traditional romantic comedy. (They want) the big concept with the star in the middle of it. Knocked Up becomes the new paradigm for the romantic comedy, which has maybe an edgier sensibility. That kind of innocent romantic comedy doesn’t seem to work as well as it used to.” Wagner adds, “It’s the hardest genre to find something new and interesting and fresh, because it’s so formulaic.”
6) MOVIE INDUSTRY MOVIES. "It’s a personal pet peeve of mine," says Fischer. “I hate it, a lot of people hate it, and it’s one of those stigmas that I don’t think will go away. You’re trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, and Middle America doesn’t get it. The red states that look at Hollywood as elitist, they don’t care what goes on in the industry.” He adds that half the query letters he gets are from people who just graduated film school and say things like, “‘Hey, I wrote a script about a guy who wants to be a filmmaker.’ It feels amateur.” Get some life experience, folks, and write about that instead. And keep in mind that movies like The Player rarely get made and when they do, they’re auteur-driven.
7) ENSEMBLE DRAMAS. Dramas are hard enough to sell, but ensemble dramas? Ugh. Worse, many scripts are “accidental ensembles,” a result of writers not knowing how to focus on their protagonist. It’s easy to get lost exploring all minor characters and subplots and think it’s okay because, “Well, it’s an ensemble.” BZZZ. “Those are the hardest movies to get made,” says Wagner. “I personally would never encourage a writer to spec an emsemble. Maybe if it was based on a book -- a literary property that’s held in high regard.” Clemens says succinctly, “Not a spec. A spec means you clearly get the concept, or you know who the star is going to be, and it’s clearly a movie star movie.”
8) PERIOD PIECES. One of the hardest genres to get any interest in, largely because they’re so expensive to make. Clemens tells us she has one that she’s been trying to get set up for years. “Specs are things that are kind of like fastballs down the middle. (Period pieces are not) a fastball down the middle.” Thuan adds, “Those who write them and write them well work all the time, because the skills that you demonstrate with a period piece are so applicable to so many other genres. But (they’re) always hard to sell.” Adds Wagner, “Those movies get made because a director with a great track record wants to make one. You know, if George Clooney wants to make a period movie, he can. I personally always cringe when I hear, ‘It’s set in 1850.’”
A subset of the period piece is the War Movie, another tough egg to crack. “I’ve seen projects that tell little-known stories about a hero in World War II that are amazing,” says Fischer. “The comments you hear back are, ‘Eh, we’ve seen (these types of) stories to death.’” Thuan adds that war movies only happen when “a huge director shows up and says, ‘I want to do a war movie,’ and he wills that movie into existence.”
9) ANIMATION. Just because there’s a new talking animal flick opening every week doesn’t mean you can write one on spec. Says Thuan, “The reason is because the process of how animation studios make their movies – some, like Pixar, don’t even entertain projects that weren’t generated there. And other places want to develop their own ideas, even though that’s not a hard and fast rule.” So you don’t even have a buyer. And Dreamworks just put a 3-year moratorium on talking animal movies. Believe it.
10) KIDS’ ADVENTURE MOVIES. I saved this one for last because the answers here surprised me. “Hot,” says Wagner. “Everybody’s looking for the next Goonies, Amblin-type piece right now.” Thuan agrees, “If you polled a group of studio executives, I bet you they’d all say that they want one.” But beware -- the format is deceptively difficult. “I loved The Goonies,” says Fischer. “People have tried to duplicate it and haven’t been successful.” Writers forget that there needs to be an adult star role. “That is the key,” says Wagner. “A lot of times they’ll write the hero as a kid. Then you cut out the Ben Stillers and the Jack Blacks, the guys that greenlight movies.”
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