Saturday, September 16, 2006

Meet the Four Quadrants

Thought I'd dig this column out of the vault and post it here for y'all, since the topic is still very timely. Many thanks to Creative Screenwriting, of course, for the rewrite permission. And now it's time to...



by Jim Cirile

Just what is a four-quadrant movie, and why should writers care about them? Simple—because they are often the most successful films, and therefore they are also the most coveted scripts.


Richard Arlook
The Gersh Agency

Marty Bowen
United Talent Agency

Nicole Clemens
International Creative Management

Emile Gladstone
Broder, Webb, Chervin & Silbermann

Melinda Manos
Manos Management

Julien Thuan
United Talent Agency

Let’s start this shindig by plugging my favorite movie of last year. Okay, I loved Finding Neverland, but as a Bond fan and comic book fan and Brad Bird fan, heck, my top honors go to The Incredibles (Gee, what a shock—another terrific Pixar movie.) The success of this $92 million animated feature dovetails quite nicely into this month’s column—The Incredibles is a near-perfect four-quadrant movie.

Just what does “four-quadrant” mean? It’s a movie that appeals to all four main demographic groups—young and old, male and female. Obviously, many flicks do not do this. Strangely, my five-year-old daughter does not share my love of Army of Darkness. Yet she and her mother and I, along with all her female teenage cousins, all came out giddy from The Incredibles. As of this writing, the film has grossed $260 million, and that’s just the domestic box office.

So it stands to reason that studios are on the lookout for the next The Incredibles and its ilk—the 4-quadrant spec is the current “it” girl. UTA feature lit agent Julien Thuan says, “If you have a property that could be marketed to the four major demographics, presumably it will be a more successful movie. It’s obviously a large part of what ‘event films’ aspire to.”

And while “four-quadrant” may be a hip buzzword, there’s really nothing new about it. The Gersh Agency’s Richard Arlook tells us, “I’ve been getting calls for years from people looking for great family movies that work for young and old and male and female. And they’ll reference successful movies. Two years ago, it was Shrek. Now it’s The Incredibles or Meet the Fockers.” BWCS’ Emile Gladstone observes, “The top ten grossing movies of all time attracted a very broad audience. Now If you read the Titanic script, you wouldn’t necessarily think it was a four-quadrant movie, but it did hit on all quadrants.”

That’s one of the, er, incredible things about The Incredibles—like Titanic, on the surface, it too doesn’t appear to be a four-quadrant movie. An animated film about superheroes? And not even established characters? Kid’s flick, end of story. But the script smartly spun the old formula on its butt. Instead of having the female lead get kidnapped, with the male protagonist having to rescue her in Act 3, it’s the male protagonist who gets kidnapped, forcing the wife and kids to come to the rescue. This stroke of brilliance allowed the Elastigirl character to really come into her own and made millions of kids want to emulate the superheroics of Violet and Dash. “One hundred percent,” agrees Gladstone. “And thematically, it’s more about how to make the most of your mundane life. There’s certainly a lot about mid-life crisis in that movie, a lot of scenes that adults would relate to.” Thuan adds a few more reasons why The Incredibles performed so well versus some other superhero films that did not: “At the root of it, you had this emotional core that had universal appeal. It has a very simple idea—a family of superheroes that have to come together to save the world. It’s great comedy, but for the most part it’s clean comedy, so it can appeal to the entire family. And it has great messages. It’s not about violence. It’s not about a lot of the other crutches of those sorts of movies.” Gladstone agrees, “If movies were only about cool action sequences, then Elektra would have done well. It’s a combination of cool action sequences with characters that you really care about.”

So let’s say you, intrepid writer, deliver to your representative one of these elusive and coveted 4-quadrant specs. What happens now? “Frankly, when you have that kind of material, it becomes an obvious sell,” says Thuan, “and as a result, an obvious buy. So it’s easy for the marketing people to get behind it, because they essentially have a lot of ways in which to put the film out there and precedence for how they can do it.” Gladstone notes that the wider the appeal of the script, the greater the sell behind it. “Only certain studios will do a horror movie, and only certain studios will do a character-driven action movie. You figure out ‘Who is your hard target?’ in terms of your sales strategy—‘This is a Universal picture.’ ‘This is a Sony and a Universal picture, but it’s not a Warner Bros. picture.’ But with a four-quadrant movie, it’s everyone’s picture. The larger spec sales and bidding wars come from movies that appeal to a broader audience.” In other words, if you nail the 4-Q, that’s where the big paydays are.

Thuan and Arlook both break out the big guns when marketing a four-quadrant spec. “You definitely alert buyers in a different way to what you have,” says Thuan. “You identify producers who have experience making these kinds of films so that you can help to validate it as that kind of a film. It’s not always obvious to the buyers.” And when a terrific four-quadrant spec lands in Arlook’s lap, “I’ll call all the biggest producers in the world of 4-quadrant movies and hype ‘em on it,” he says, “and tell them ‘I’ve got one of those scripts that everybody’s looking for, and it’s a great script.’ But if it’s not a great script, I’m not calling anybody.”

And therein lies the rub—another reason the four-quadrant script is so coveted is because it’s deceptively difficult to pull off. “I’d rather have a small, brilliantly written Million Dollar Baby,” says Arlook, “or that kind of movie that’s going to attract a filmmaker, than the biggest idea in the world that’s written like crap.” UTA’s Marty Bowen seconds that. “Trying to write to appeal to everyone seems to be contradictory to the creative process. Within reason, a writer should write and not worry about mass marketing. Let the story he or she believes in find its own audience,” he says.

Still, all of our panelists advise their clients to maximize their script’s marketability... to a point. Gladstone feels that writers should be true to their voice while still watching box office trends. “If they’re romantic comedy writers, I’m asking them to make scripts more comedic and make sure there are set-pieces that allow for a marketing campaign,” he says. “I’m trying to steer romantic comedy writers from writing When Harry Met Sally to writing the best variation of Along Came Polly--not that that is the model for the script itself, but if you look at the marketing campaign and its success, you have to emulate that.”

Manager Melinda Manos mentions a recent debate based on marketability. “There’s a logo of a gang in (my client’s) script--the middle finger. It’s seen a lot. That’s something that would have definitely made the movie an ‘R.’ We said, ‘This may hurt the sale.’ So I had a conversation with the writer, the director attached, with the agent—‘What can we use instead of that?’ We came up with the second finger, then two fingers like a rapper’s move, and then the pinky... it got really stupid after awhile. We were like, ‘You know what? We’re leaving it. If we have someone that likes it enough, (but) they don’t want to buy it because of that, then we’ll change it.’” And therein lies the danger of self-censorship based on marketing concerns. Says Thuan, “For writers to already censor themselves in the creative process before anyone even sees the script, it’s just brutal. We end up with nothing. The voice is so diluted by the time it gets to the screen that to already start diluting based on anticipation of marketing or hitting key demographics--if that’s part of the writing process, it lacks purity to such a degree that most of the time, it won’t work.”

Moral? “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Some decent writer wrote that. If you crank out a 4-Q script shooting for that big payday, it probably won’t work. As always, write what you’re passionate about. But if you do decide to write a 4-Q, remember, “For the most part, the successful four-quadrant movies appeal to both kids and adults,” says Gladstone, “and have adult protagonists as well as kid protagonists. The adult protagonist, that’s where you’re going to find your star. That’s how you’re going to get your movie made.” Don’t write something like The Goonies where the kids are the sole protagonists. “Not gonna sell,” concludes Gladstone.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Slippery Rewrite Slope

I've seen it many times. You think you should be moving forward with each draft; but oftentimes, you work on the rewrite, send it in to CI, and based on the analysis, you're worse off than you were the first time. It can be a bit discouraging, for sure. We all want to get better coverage when we resubmit, of course. And that happens less than half the time.

It's important to remember several things:

1) It is seldom a steady upward arc of script progression. More often than not, the rewrite will come in at roughly the same box score zone, or sometimes even gets worse. The reasons for this are many. First is that while trying to solve certain problems, writers often inadvertently create new ones. Sure, your spot-fix solution may address note 97B and kick that one to the curb, but... the ripple effect creates three new plot-holes or character consistency problems.

Or perhaps your solution doesn't go far enough to fix the problem--like putting out a three-alarmer with a water balloon. Writers (myself included) ALWAYS try to do the least work possible and are notoriously reluctant to throw away scenes which are not working ,even if reader after reader tells them, "you gotta rethink this." So we patch things with spit and glue rather than doing the invasive surgery that may really be required.

Or it could be that... brace yourself... the writer simply doesn't have the chops yet to actually solve the problem at a level required to elevate the material. This is where education and old-fashioned practice come into play. It's also why we always tell people to watch similar movies and break them down scene by scene, so writers can really start to understand why those film's structures worked, and thus see how their own script's structure differs. Like everything else in life that's worth doing, screenwriting is a craft that must be practiced over and over, studied and really pored over before most of us can start to get it right. Sure there are those wunderkind guys who write their first script, and it's brilliant; they win the Nicholl Fellowship and they become Hollywood's new "it" guy.

There are about 6 of those dudes on the planet. The rest of us have to friggin' work at it. Today my daughter got her 3rd yellow stripe in Kenpo karate. We were told if she works very very hard she can expect to have a black belt in 7 years or so. Why should screenwriting be any different? It's all about the dedication you bring to it. Gotta be willing to fall down, get back up again, and most importantly, rewrite the hell out of your scripts over and over. If you do not have steely resolve, do NOT become a screenwriter.

2) A lot has to do with the individual analyst. For example, many CI clients elect the dual reader option, and I'm always interested to see the results. More often than not, since my team are all smart cookies with degrees in screenwriting and practical industry experience, the notes are very similar from reader to reader. But recently I got two coverage reports back on a script in which the two readers both said pretty much the same things--but one gave it a PASS and low-middling box scores, while the other gave it an enthusiastic CONSIDER with above average box scores. The big difference had less to do with the notes and advice but with the passion the individual readers felt for the script. Succinctly, one dug it; the other not as much, but saw the potential. Now that didn't affect the notes, because both ferreted out the same structural and character problems. And I personally then read that script, and I agreed with BOTH analysts. The guy who really liked it was right, and correctly qualified his comments by saying this is a strong, marketable script that needs work; and girl that didn't like it as much thought the same thing. They just scored it differently.

So bear in mind, a coverage report is just one person's opinion at the end of the day. A knowledgeable opinion for sure, but still, an opinion.

3) There is often a specific central problem in a script--the structural flaw which no amount of patching will overcome. The script is broken, and will stay broken, until that issue is repaired. A writer can do dozens of rewrites, tackling all the other problems in the script, and still get a PASS if that central problem is not addressed. This might be, say, a key implausibility in the story; if you don't buy the whole premise, well, that's a tough nut to crack. Or maybe it's a lack of a through-line or external goal for the protagonist... and on and on.

I recently experienced this exact issue with one of my own scripts. I wrote draft after draft, sent it to my team under a pseudonym as I always do, but I could never get better than a weak consider. This drove me NUTS. Until I finally realized the problem was that nobody cared enough about my main character. Sure, he was well-developed and had a character arc, but no one had an emotional connection to the guy and thus no one really cared to root him on... which meant they didn't care to keep reading. I had no idea what I was doing wrong until one of my readers gave me a real hair-puller of a note I did not want to address. When I finally dug in, I realized what he was really saying. And in fact, I had been avoid addressing this issue, dismissing the other readers who had commented on this, because I thought simply, "they're wrong." Dope!

So I took great pains to go back and make my guy likeable--tough on the outside like before, but very wounded on the inside. And the difference was night and day. I had finally licked that elusive central problem. And suddenly that same script--changed by only a short new scene added in the first act and a few minor dialogue tweaks--went from weak consider to strong consider, because everyone was pulling for the guy.

All of us get discouraged as writers. It comes with the territory. You slave over a draft and hope to God somebody likes it... and then disappointment sets in when you realize, "Crap, I have to do MORE work on this thing? Sigh."

Welcome to the writer's life!

--Jim Cirile

Friday, September 08, 2006

Popular Films Partners With CI

Hi folks,

I'm pleased to announce that Coverage, Ink has entered into a new agreement with production company Popular Films. Popular is run by Sean Sorenson and Tim Albaugh, two very, very smart guys (and working writer/producers both.) Tim was actually one of my teachers in the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, and I can tell you for sure he knows his stuff.

Popular will be offering high-end script consultations by way of script mark-ups and phone meetings. We will be rolling this out on the Coverage, Ink web site within the next few weeks. Popular will also be keeping their eye out for good material...

Check out their web site HERE!