So you have an idea for a movie…

A couple months back, an old friend asked me for some advice…

Is there any value to a REALLY good idea for a blockbuster film that has not been made? If so, how would one proceed without being taken advantage of? Of course, I do not have a script, just an idea that would make tons of money developed and produced.

Now as you know, if you have read the About, I’m not actually in the industry, officially; for me, screenwriting remains a hobby.  I am, however, happy to share what I have learned about this scenario. 

Is there value? Potentially, YES! 

How? With patience and persistence!

General Pursuit of Hollywood

Let me set expectations. A story idea, from the wild, is statistically one of the rarest successes in present day Hollywood.   Even if that story is written into a script, the odds are incredibly low if it is not written by someone with the right connections.  These scripts, specs as they are called (speculative script), are uncommissioned/unsolicited screenplays.

A couple of decades ago, spec scripts were seeing a gold rush – hundreds of scripts options and sales in a year, many in the six-figures.  This year, only a couple dozen scripts will make the cut, and typically in the tens-of-thousands range. Script Pipeline provides reporting on spec sales.

Yet, there are success stories out there, even today. That slim sliver of hope is all that screenwriters, like me, need to keep the faith! So read on, dear friend – if your idea is as good as you hope, it’s worth taking a shot!

The very first thing you should do is register your idea with the WGA. Here, you can register just about anything to provide a record of the intellectual property. Keep this registration current as your idea progresses.

As for what is next, the first question I would ask, is, are you interested only in selling the idea or do you want to be involved more? If you just want to pitch the idea and get a “Story By” credit if it ever gets made, then I would suggest you take advantage of logline pitch opportunities. There are online sites like Virtual Pitchfest, and whole host of in-person pitch opportunities in L.A. (and other cities).

To do this successfully, you need to pen a great logline – check various online sources for how to write a great logline. If you want to take it further, you can write an outline or prepare a ‘one sheet’ to share with potential pitch-ees.

If you would like to try your hand at writing, you can.  If you would like to partner with a writer, you could try a personal connection or reach out to the manager of a professional.  Directories of professionals in the industry are available in various formats, typically for a fee. If you have someone specific in mind, you should try to hunt down their representation and see if they accept unsolicited ideas.  They may of course just pass, but they also might take on the project or pitch the idea upstream.  In any event, once you have a script in hand that you are satisfied (plan for writing and rewriting and rewriting from various feedback and coverage options), there are more ways to pitch than when you have just the idea – including many, many screenplay competitions.

Another option is to pitch the idea to a known producer or director; I think those are going to be much harder to cold-call (many have solicitation policies), so I would try to find a personal connection somehow.  And of course there are the production companies and studios – which are also easily found in various directories but you’ll need to follow the policies for unsolicited materials here, as well.

All of this said, you said this was a blockbuster idea, and the blockbuster idea – assuming it is a big action or other widely-appealing story (particularly internationally) – does give you the best chance of success in modern day Hollywood.  Fewer movies are being made because fewer people are going to the theater. When people do turn out for a movie, it is typically a blockbuster movie; and people particularly love stories with worlds prime for a big franchise.

Non-Traditional Studios

Thanks to digital media there are opportunities outside of the big studios. For example, Amazon Studios accepts submissions of scripts and concepts. Netflix has also started partnering in productions of movies Hollywood turned town. The Blacklist is a great accessible industry community, starting from a survey about top scripts that hadn’t been made into films.

Indie Route

So, say you decide that this sounds too daunting and you really just want to see your movie get made, period.  Then you have to consider the independent route.  Today, the barriers to entry for filmmaking have truly never been lower. Equipment is easy to come by and every town has some kind of film community or program that people can plug into.  Find a writer and film staff and you could be on your way; some don’t even go that far and just film on their iPhones.  Once your concept starts to take shape, you can take your ideas to the crowd.  Once you have the perfect film in the can, you can submit it to film festivals around the country and globe.

If you aren’t completely sure of your idea, some pros have suggested starting with a solid short and seeing where it takes you.

The Four Ps

Above I mentioned the need for patience and persistence; I always add passion and perseverance when talking about anything you want to do or accomplish.  All four are ultimately what you’ll need to see something through (and, probably, a bit of luck), but I hope that this post has helped you develop an understanding of how to tackle that big idea!


On Robert McKee Story Seminar

I can’t believe it’s already been two full weeks since I completed the Story Seminar.  After an extra day off in L.A., and flying home, it was right back into the daily grind of work and home duties.  I knew I should have just written a post while I was still there!  Still, the time has given me time to reflect and decide which thoughts to share, from the four days.

As an amateur, I wasn’t sure I should be spending this much on a set of talks on screenwriting.  I had investigated less expensive options, through local community school and Seattle Film school offerings, and investigated other traveling pro-workshops that might be passing through the Pacific Northwest.  But then, as I was trying to at least read books I hadn’t read yet, and re-read books I knew were valuable, to focus my rewriting efforts, I found, in one book, the mention of McKee’s seminar as a must-do.  Honestly, even then, if it were anywhere but my favorite place in the world – L.A., specifically near Manhattan Beach – I might have still waited.  But I’m so glad I didn’t.

The McKee Story Seminar isn’t just a seminar on screenwriting, or even ‘just’ writing – it’s a seminar on life.  Now, one key lesson was that movies are Not life, and this fact is what brings people to see movies.  But by learning about how events change the charges of our personal values, how we make adjustments to gaps between expectations and reality, that we realize in our maturity the difference between character and characterization, and then, in the ultimate lesson, learned by analyzing Casablanca (sorry, I won’t give away that one, as the journey of learning it is more important than the final lesson), through the course of four days, it is hard to just consider the characters on your pages and in your minds. You also find yourself considering, well, yourself, in your own life movie.  One evening Mr. McKee passed me while I was eating dinner, and I wanted to stop him and ask – “Does the tuition include the cost of therapy?”

It is rare in my life that looking under the hood, or behind the curtain, of something I truly love does not ruin or degrade that love.  Such as my brief student internship at NASA in the late 80s.  I expected everything to be modern and advanced, to be space-age-like.  Instead, it seemed to be an organization stuck in the 50s, in personnel and their wardrobes, office technology and practices.  The workers that had been around seemed beaten down by bureaucracy. But, unlike that experience, learning about what makes movies work, made me love movies even more.  I will not watch another movie or television program without seeing them in a whole new way, and I am happy about that – not sad.  In fact, by the end of the third day, I no longer felt bad for liking commercial movies, and I found a new appreciation for genres that I haven’t really liked up until now.

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to summarize here all of the key lessons, as you should buy the book or attend the seminar if that’s what you want.  It’s not that I don’t have details – I took 60 single-sided pages of notes.  But, I do think I can share what I liked and didn’t care for.

The days are indeed long, with 8 hours of talks worked into a 10 hour daily schedule.  It’s a grind, for sure, but for me that was a good thing.  Total immersion was effective.  And managing a few days together was logistically easier than, say, 16 2-hour sessions over as many weeks.  Part of what made the seminar wonderful was that the full seminar – all 32 hours – is, itself, scripted.  And, after thirty years of doing this seminar, it was certainly well rehearsed.  While at times you felt like your class was unique, with McKee going off on little tangents about current events, society or a particular scene in a recent film, most of the time you could see the class progressing through the curriculum as designed, complete with deliberate mannerisms and delivery of punch lines.  On the down side, movements you thought were natural and charming day one were a bit annoyingly predictable by day four. (For me this was also true of the tangents, which students were fairly warned of in the handout at start of class, which usually consisted of extreme opinions, and often not politically correct ways.  Some I agreed with, some I did not, and some I simply wrote off to generational gap.) Ultimately, the scripted nature assured that you covered all of the material. And, with clear, if rigid, rules about participating in the seminar, you know your time and investment is respected and that b.s. on the part of your cohort won’t be tolerated.

This was true of even the final day, mostly spent bonding with 230 other people, through an analysis of Casablanca and a champagne toast in its honor.  This was a great finale – a bittersweet one.  On one hand you are done being in that classroom, on the other, you feel like you could listen four more, even eight more days, trying to sponge more knowledge from McKee. You scoop up various books  and media for sale (which I will review here in the future), hoping to take a piece of McKee home with you (I don’t, by the way, recommend the topic DVDs; was surprised at the age and brevity of the content on the one I purchased). You can see why Storylogue was created and if you didn’t think you would subscribe before class, you are probably convinced you must by class end.

In the end you leave feeling like you witnessed your own little piece of history and that you graduated into a very special part of the film industry – you are a McKee student.

– April

The Declining Box-Office

In a recent issue of Time (January 16, 2012), in The Culture, writer Richard Corliss highlighted a few facts about declining box-office revenues and offered a few potential contributing factors.  According to the snippet, revenue was down nearly 5% in 2011 with attendance at the 1992 level.  The highest gross of a film in its domestic run (Harry Potter) was less than the most popular video game day-one sales (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3).

Corliss takes to five points on why this may be happening:

  • Seasonality of movie-going – what must be an apparent change from before, films were most successful between April and Labor Day.
  • Demographic changes – Apparently young men found substitute entertainment, while women and customers of 40 were doing more than their share.
  • Traditional stars aren’t pulling crowds – Corliss looked at the films with actors that usually draw large crowds – and found few of them in the top 20 for the year.
  • Sequels are sagging” – Oddly enough Corliss acknowledges that the year’s top seven films were sequels, but then explains he add this point because none of this years originals are likely to lead to a sequel.
  • Cartoons are crashing” – According to Corliss, five of the top ten films in 2010 were animated, but only one of the top films in 2011 was.

Now, when I sat down to write this post, I wanted to mention this article and throw out my own thoughts on why people aren’t going to the movies.  But having summarized it, I’m not sure I really agree with what it has to say.

  • The seasonality point could be true and is easily verified in data. Fair enough, but I’d sure like to understand how dramatic of a change this really is.
  • Demographic changes – again, potentially an interesting change, but not clear from what is provided that it is a leading cause in the decline.
  • Stars don’t pull crowds – Okay, this one I have a hard time going along with.  Certainly yesterday’s clear stars won’t necessarily be favorites tomorrow.  The stars that Corliss looked at have been around awhile – why not look at current and younger actors that have popularity? Most everyone I know asks about films in this order: Name (what movie?) Cast (who’s in it?) and Log line (what’s it about?).  WHO is in a film is always going to matter. And it usually needs to be a recognizable name – stars.  I’m tempted to follow-up this post with a double-click on some of this data.
  • “Sequels are sagging” – If we just ignore the fact that the author highlighted – that the top 7 films were sequels – and turn our attention to the potential for sequels, my issue isn’t so much that I disagree (e.g. I’m not going to name a 2011 film that I’m sure will have a sequel), but it is that movies should not fundamentally be written and produced for that potential.  So, while this may be true, I don’t think it’s for the reason the author states.  One factor I will talk about below, is that consumers of entertainment are wiser and do not want to be thought of us long-term revenue streams.  That said, if a story is good and it makes sense, there is obviously evidence that sequels can be popular.
  • Animated features – This is the point that I find the hardest to believe in.  Animated features take a very long time to create, and it seems like a very competitive space, in that many times you see look-alike films coming out about the same time, and certainly competing for family dollars at peak periods mean trying to have something out there before the other studio.  With so many coming out in 2010, it would make sense the pipeline was a bit dry for 2011.  And, once again, I point to the obvious, that there will always be kids that want to go to the movies, and a certain age group that prefer animation.

From a regular Jane point of view – I point to the movie-going experience itself as a problem for box-office struggles.  I mean, sure, I get that more and more people have 60″ high-definition televisions and sources in their homes, but the movie theater still provides an important place in activity and entertainment for a large number of people.  The top complaints I hear from would-be-movie-goers aren’t that they’d rather stay home, it’s that the experience isn’t meeting their needs.

  • The cost – The cost for a couple or a family to go to a primetime movie is ridiculous. Anywhere from $10-$20 per person, just for a ticket, means just to show up and view the movie is going to cost you $20-$80.  That price point puts the activity into some serious competition from other activities.  Once you add in the unreasonably priced food and beverages, which average $10-15 per person, you are up to $50 for a date and as much as a whopping $120 for a family. For what is on average a 90 minute activity! Ouch!  Especially when you consider it might be likely that people who want to go to movie theaters are those that cannot afford fancy in-home-theaters or don’t have their own homes yet.
  • Food and drink options – While it has taken our country a while to start coming around to truly healthful eating, and it still has a long ways to go, it is already true, in my experience, that the traditional snacks and beverages are losing popularity.  The amount and nature of the calories found behind that lobby counter are all wrong!  Theaters need to change more quickly.
  • Location – Because movies have moved away from the many neighborhood theaters and to massive movie-plexes, many of my friends have to look at driving 20-40 minutes to the theater.  And many of my friends prefer art and international films, which usually only appear in one or two local theaters in downtown Seattle.  I know many people in my little part of town would love a one or two screen theater that we could just walk to.
  • Selection – In general, think it’s time that Hollywood stray a bit from its magic formulas.  Today’s consumers are wiser and demand more uniqueness from the subjects of their attention.  Continuing to re-run storylines and depend on obvious gimmicks simply won’t work as well, any more.  That said, I think that every time a theater dedicates 2-4 of it’s theaters to the hit-of-the-week, they are reducing selection for the larger movie-going population.

I do think movies are doing a couple of things right in adapting to today’s consumers:

  • Reinventing – In recent years I have seen several 21+ and/or ‘gold service’ theaters crop up and they seem to be popular.  IMAX, 3D and 4D options have increased.
  • Flexibility – I remember when you couldn’t plan on going to a movie until mid-afternoon, at the earliest.  Now, there are usually plenty of times to choose from, including early morning for family features.

In the end, I feel that Corliss’ article isn’t well-grounded and generates more questions than it answers.  But, reading that article, and writing this post, has made me a lot more curious about the patterns and changes of theaters and consumers over the years, so look for more on this topic in the future. It is an important one for screenwriters to consider.

– April