Monday, January 7, 2013

Ten Things Hollywood Wants in Source Material and Screenplays

by John Robert Marlow 
Novelist, Screenwriter

Whether gathered around a campfire, painting on cave walls, writing words on dead trees or computer screens--it's in our blood. Books and other storytelling formats can be noble undertakings, capable of reaching hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of readers. 

But movies are the global campfires of our time--reaching tens, sometimes hundreds of millions. When books reach this level, they do so with the aid of movies based on the books. Aside from religious texts with thousands of years to build an audience, there are no exceptions. People who don't read, people who can't read--still watch movies.

And right now, the movies people watch most are based on other things. Currently, 8 of the top 10, 16 of the top 20, and well over 50 of the top 100 highest-grossing films of all time are adaptations--of books, comics, historic events, faerytales, religious texts, poems, theme park rides, toys, songs... the list seems endless. But why were these specific stories chosen for the screen?

Most books and other properties are not movies. Some never will be. Many, however--including most books--could be movies, if skillfully adapted. And therein lies the rub: when Hollywood people (agents, managers, producers, directors, actors, studio execs and investors) look at a book, even a very good book, they see... a book. And the business of Hollywood is making movies, not books.
"Hollywood's always looking for the easiest, quickest path to the end zone," says Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nozik. "One of the first things I ask, and I'm sure every other producer who looks at a piece of material asks, is this: is this thing a movie, or is this not a movie? And is it a movie that can ever get made? Sometimes I'll look at source material and think, this could be great, but I have no idea how to make it work as a movie, the story's just too difficult to translate."

Absent a huge existing fan base, the storyteller with big-screen aspirations has two choices: create something easily translatable (a story in another medium with a movie screaming to get out), or--better yet--deliver the finished translation (an original or adapted screenplay). 

The first points Hollywood toward the end zone; the second can be a touchdown pass. Of the two, the second pays better. Both approaches can work but, as Nozik says, "Studios are less willing to consider source material than finished screenplays based on the same material, and they're willing to spend more when they can see it well executed, because you're helping them get to the end zone--a finished film--quicker."

In researching Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood (St. Martin's Griffin, $15.99), I spoke with dozens of authors, screenwriters, producers, directors and others whose film adaptations have earned over $50 billion and scores of Academy Award nominations. I've done my best to distill their collective wisdom in the book and the Make Your Story a Movie blog.

The following is a small part of that wisdom:

1) Pitchable Concept
Concept is Hollywood’s shorthand. No one has time to read everything, so no one tries. Instead, they read 10-second pitches called “loglines.” Ten seconds means you have to pitch the concept, not the story. If you hook them with the concept, then—and only then—will they read your story.

Your concept must have three elements: WHO the story is about, what their GOAL is, and the nature of the OBSTACLE they must overcome to achieve that goal. If you can’t boil your story down to this, Hollywood folk worry they won’t be able to sell the movie in a 30-second trailer—and that could be fatal. Sample concepts from the book:

A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless US Marshal. (The Fugitive)

A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—have been set loose by a power failure. (Jurassic Park)

2) Relatable Hero 
Story is what happens to characters—and if audiences don’t care about the characters, they don’t care about the story. Think of it this way: you hear about a terrible car accident on the news, and you think, “Oh those poor people.” Ten seconds later, you’re thinking about your next cheeseburger. Ultimately, the accident is tragic, but the victims become statistics.

Now let’s say you learn that someone you care about was in that wreck. Suddenly, you can think of nothing else: did they survive, were they hurt, will they be okay? These thoughts consume you, and you can think of nothing else. It’s the same exact event—but your reaction is completely different. Why?

Because you care deeply about the person this happened to, and that makes you emotionally invested in the outcome. You need to put the reader in the same position: caring about your main character—and emotionally invested in what happens to him or her.

3) Emotionally Compelling Story 
Your story, too, should be relatable—and emotionally compelling. Your main character or hero should have something on the line: something to be won or lost, or both. In a word: stakes. Something of tremendous importance to the hero—because his (or her) struggles become ours.

The stakes needn’t be huge in any objective sense: your hero might be saving a planet (Avatar)—or just trying to get his daughter to a beauty pageant on time (Little Miss Sunshine). But even this, alone, is not enough.

The audience must want the hero to succeed. If the whole story revolves around the hero’s efforts to save someone we’d rather see dead, you wind up with a situation where the audience would be happier if the hero failed—and that’s a recipe for disaster.

The stakes must also escalate as the story goes on, with the biggest stakes—whatever those may be—reserved for the climax.

4) Ticking Clock
Consider this basic premise: Our Hero must find and disarm a bomb that will destroy New York City at midnight. Now this one: Our Hero must find and disarm a bomb that will destroy NYC at some point in the future. The first is workable, the second unfilmmable—because the first has a ticking clock, and the second doesn’t.

The logic is both simple and inescapable: if the bomb goes off at midnight, Our Hero has to hustle. Suddenly there’s tension, suspense, urgency. Every second counts: a traffic jam, a missed bus, a dropped call could be fatal—for millions.

If Our Hero’s loved one is in the city and can’t get out before midnight—so much the better. Now the stakes are personal, more emotional and compelling.

Stories without ticking clocks tend to ramble, and the few that do get made (usually low-budget indies) tend to flatline at the box office. That’s not a place you want to be.

5) Visual Potential
Film is less flexible than print. It’s greatest strength—the camera—is also its greatest weakness. A book can delve inside a character’s head—and stay there—for 300 pages. Movies can’t do that—or, more correctly, can’t do it without somehow externalizing the character’s inner experience in a way that makes it seem external (and therefore lensable). Brilliant examples of this include Inception and The Matrix films.

Some books are inherently cinematic (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games); others, not so much. But even noncinematic books can be successfully adapted—if the writer doing the adaptation is sufficiently skilled.

Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields is a story told subjectively, from the perspective of a single character who never shares his experiences with anyone else. Screenwriter Leslie Dixon changed that in her adaptation, which became the hit film Limitless. Alan’s book, which—despite good reviews—had gone out of print, was suddenly back on the shelves with a new title.

6) Structure
When you see a movie, read a book, or visit a museum, you have an innate sense of whether the work is good, mediocre, awful—or transcendent. And that’s really all you need to know, if your goal is appreciation. If, on the other hand, you want to create such works yourself, or explain to a studio head or financier just why it is that they should sink millions of dollars into creating a movie based on your material—you need something more than “It works for me.” You need a deeper understanding.

Neither Michelangelo nor Leonardo da Vinci relied on outward appearances to inform their art; instead, they dissected human bodies. Likewise, anyone hoping to sell to Hollywood needs to understand the structure beneath the beauty.

Over 90% of all commercially successful films are classically structured, with seven plot points in the following sequence: inciting incident, first act turn, midpoint, low point, second act turn, climax and wrap-up.

7) Actor-Friendly Lead
When telling a story in most media, you create your own lead character. In film, the literal face of your lead is an actor.

Understandably, those in the business of financing films want that face to be familiar or, at the very least, compelling. Which means you must craft a story with one or more strong roles that one or more of these people will find appealing.

Actors, basically, want to show off. That’s why they’re actors. They also want to be challenged, and demonstrate their ability to do things they haven’t done before. The biggest challenge of all is to do something that no one has done before; unique roles are rare and, therefore, talent magnets.

Look at your characters: do they seem like real people with hopes and dreams as well as problems, flaws as well as virtues—or are they cardboard cutouts placed in the story to serve the writer’s purpose instead of their own?

8) Average Length
Have you ever noticed that the biggest-selling authors tend to write the longest books? Stephen King’s first novel Carrie is 272 pages (including author’s introduction); The Stand—written years later—is nearly 1200 pages.

Line up J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, or Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight novels on a shelf: as time passes, the books get bigger. The same is often true with filmmakers. Once you’ve proven your mettle, turned a profit and built up a fan base, you can bend the rules a bit.

A publisher might plunk down $80,000 to release a 300-page hardcover; that’s $266 a page. A production company or studio is going to spend between $1 million (Saw, Hard Candy) and $450 million (Avatar) to release a film—which works out to between $10,000 and $3 million per onscreen minute.

If you’re selling a screenplay, the people footing that bill do not want to hear that your story is running long (over 105-120 minutes or so).

9) Reasonable Budget
Many would argue the “reasonable budget” ship sailed from Hollywood long ago. Here, we mean reasonable by Hollywood standards, where a picture like Doubt—with a couple of people talking at an old church for under two hours—costs $20 million.

Bringing your script in at 105-120 pages does not mean the movie will be affordable, because content affects budget. This is not true of books, where the publisher’s per-page cost remains the same, whether your characters are playing checkers or blowing up a planet.

On film, two characters playing checkers might cost $200,000; shooting a major action sequence could run $10 million. The more your story costs to film, the fewer the number of people who can afford to make it.

To you, the story is a labor of love; to Hollywood, it’s a business proposition. As one diplomatically-minded studio head told me: “Unfortunately, studios can’t make films out of love. We have to make them out of profit.”

10) Low-Fat Story 
Because of time and budgetary constraints, there’s little room for anything not absolutely essential. A novelist can burn ten pages describing a room, so long as it stays interesting. A screenwriter might do this in a sentence; more than a paragraph will mark him (or her) as an amateur.

A novelist can engage to some extent in repetition; screenwriters cannot; Harry Potter leaves home twice in the first book, but only once in the film. Everything serves a purpose; nothing is incidental. Think of James Cameron’s Aliens and Avatar movies, where things seen early—the power loader, the AMP suit, the legend of Toruk Makto—reappear and prove crucial later on.

A book can be both cinematic and long, filled with fascinating digressions—like the
Dragon Tattoo trilogy. But when it comes time to adapt, you have to know what stays, what changes, what goes—and how to do all of that while preserving the heart of the original story.


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