Made you look, didn’t I? The power of a strong hook has been fueling marketing schemes for years, not the least of which involve the glamour and glitz of writing scripts for the movies.
The illusion that movies look so easy and effortless when one is seated in a darkened theater belies the reality of the amount of hard work that transpires when their creators are seated in front of a keyboard. Fueling this pervasive myth has been the recent crop of remakes, sequels, prequels, adaptations and abysmally lame storylines that prompt newbies to boast, “I can do better than that!” So, too, could a squirrel with a crayon which, unfortunately, is an impression I’m often left with whenever I review screenplays wherein the writers have made up their own formatting, left the actors to ad lib their way through key scenes, or submitted a cover-page collage of the stars and locations they think should be used.
I mention all of this because I was recently approached by a marketing guru who wanted me to pen a slap-dash ebook for him by Christmas that would carry a grabber title along the lines of “How to Write Screenplays for Fun and Profit”. Quite the little stocking-stuffer to be sure, its intended readership to include those who had already purchased how-to’s that instructed them on the craft of building backyard bird feeders, making perky stencils from vegetables, and fashioning 150 Halloween pet costumes out of napkins.
When I diplomatically suggested that screenwriting wasn’t exactly a pursuit for the weekend hobbyist, his ballistic retort affirmed what I already suspected; specifically, that hawking a dream is more lucrative to the seller than imparting any useful reality that could actually make that dream come true for the buyer. As my grandfather used to quip, the quickest way to make a million dollars is a two-step process: (1) write a book called “How to Make a Million Dollars” and (2) sell it.
The screenplay and fiction workshops I’ve taught over the years have only reinforced the notion that we’ve become a microwave society that wants instant results. I recall a student who once asked me what the secret was to becoming a writer. (Had I told him to put a blank ream of paper under his pillow at night and let the words flow out of his head as he slept, I’m pretty sure he would have believed me.)
“The first thing to do,” I told him, “is to pull out a chair and sit down.”
“Then what?” he asked.
“Then start writing,” I replied.
“But seriously,” he pressed with an underscore of whininess, “what’s the secret?”
Therein, I think, is the target market for the get-rich-quick genre of books that promise overnight success as a screenwriter, artist or rock star. Dreams – like fine wine – can’t be rushed if they’re to be of any value.
A Google or Amazon search on tips for writing screenplays yields no small number of resources on how to write an Oscar-worthy project. Unspoken, of course, is the pesky little detail of needing to possess a certain level of writing – and storytelling – ability to begin with. What’s particularly alarming, however, is the number of wannabe writers who have shelves of these instructive tomes in their home libraries and yet have given them only a cursory skim prior to typing “Fade In”. The impatience to strike box-office gold overnight, it seems, far outweighs the importance of learning any of the ground rules or studying the competition.
Most people, for instance, would never consider jumping out of an airplane, rappelling off the Matterhorn or diving off of an ocean cliff unless (1) they had previously participated in these activities, (2) they acquired the proper equipment to ensure a safe outcome, and (3) they believed the reward outweighed the risk. Every year, though, tens of thousands of individuals plunge – without any preparation, forethought or professional advice – into the heady waters of screenwriting and then wonder why they sink like a stone without making a single splash.
While it is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not the best way to make an impression on film industry decision makers. Hollywood has a long memory…and yet my fellow consultants and I routinely receive submissions about beautiful women who are impregnated by Satan for a cult, teen wizards who battle evil at boarding school, and shy extraterrestrials that get left behind by the mother ship and make friends with kids in suburbia. What producer wants to invite a lawsuit by pursuing such obvious clones?
Nor is there ever a shortage of scripts that eagerly copycat any given year’s Oscar contenders, one of the strangest being a client who hurriedly used the Search/Replace function on his computer to turn the female character in his previously submitted romantic drama about Wall Street stockbrokers into a gay male cowpoke on a dude ranch in Montana.
The irony is that even a smidge of thoughtful and well directed advice from industry pros can go a long way in getting past the gatekeepers, and certainly some of the best analysts and studio readers in the biz can be found at the HollywoodLitSales website (www.hollywoodlitsales.com), a comprehensive screenplay consulting service launched in 1997 by Howard Meibach. Howard took time from his schedule to chat about what it really takes to make it from script to screen in today’s competitive market.
Q: So how – and where – did your interest in movies first ignite?
A: Well, I always loved going to the movies as a child but taking a Hitchcock class at Brooklyn College was what really got me hooked.
Q: Do you remember what some of your favorite films were when you were growing up?
A: Wizard of Oz was definitely magical and, for some reason, I felt a strong connection to Dorothy who had to go through such hell just to get back home. It’s actually sort of the same experience I have navigating the Los Angeles freeways during rush hour!
Other movies that affected me were Dr. Strangelove because of the imagination and talent of two masters, Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers, and Dog Day Afternoon because I’m a big Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet fan (okay so he shouldn’t have directed The Wiz). I saw them shooting it in Brooklyn, not too far from the park where I used to go sledding in the winter.
Q: What are your favorite films now?
A: I enjoy all kinds of movies from Adam Sandler comedies to popcorn movies like the Mission Impossible series, to the smaller indies such as anything Jim Jarmusch makes. They all moved me emotionally in some way and kept my interest. I also loved Stranger Than Fiction, which was a very unstudio-like studio comedy starring Will Ferrell that not many went to see. It was extremely clever.
Q: Let’s talk about your professional career path and how it led you to start HollywoodLitSales?
A: I started as a production assistant working on several TV movies. Then I worked in development with Ron Shusett (Minority Report, Alien) and his brother Gary looking for screenplays that Ron would executive produce and co-write. I’ve also written a few screenplays that were optioned but never produced. I started the website about 11 years ago to help promote my directory of sold spec scripts called "Spec Screenplay Sales Directory". It has now grown into a major source of up-to-date information and connections for screenwriters.
Q: What are the three most common mistakes that you see fledgling screenwriters make in their submissions?
A: That’s easy: Structure, structure, structure! Nothing is as important for a well written script. Every other mistake can be fixed with a rewrite. But if you absolutely need a number two and three, it would have to be not knowing how to properly weave exposition (story information) into a screenplay without it sounding stilted and writing clichéd characters that we’ve seen a million times before. As you’ve pointed out, writing a well written screenplay looks easy but it’s very hard to do.
Q: The $64,000 question: What is Hollywood really looking for?
A: Anything that is the same but slightly different than the latest blockbuster. Most producers in Hollywood have absolutely no idea what they are looking for until they read it. I know writers hate to hear this but it’s true.
Q: There’s no question but that technology has improved both the look and the magical possibilities of today’s filmmaking. But has it been at the expense of delivering a solid story and compelling characters?
A: Let me answer that with a couple of examples. The latest Spiderman sequel looked fantastic but the story was slow and there were too many bad guys. The special effects in the third Pirates of the Caribbean were great but the story was too confusing. Pan’s Labyrinth from director Guillermo del Toro worked on all levels. It was a magically unique story and the special effects only added to the storytelling.
Q: In addition to critiquing screenplays, HollywoodLitSales also looks at theater scripts and novels insofar as their potential for film adaptation. Which do you think is an easier exercise: to turn a stage play into a screenplay or to adapt a novel for the big screen?
A: They both have their advantages and disadvantages, so this is a tough one to answer. Much of it depends on the particulars of the book and the play in question. In general, plays have fewer characters and storylines, so there will be fewer choices to make in this regard. In terms of location, movies tend to need interiors and exteriors to provide scope. Plays usually take place at a few interior locations, and books often contain many interior and exterior locations, so books would have the advantage there. Plays are dialogue-driven while the plots in books are told internally through the characters' minds. In that respect, a play could have an advantage since a lot of the dialogue is already written. Plays, however, are very static in terms of action because action is difficult to stage. All movies need some type of action, so the advantage would have to go to the book there.
Q: If you could remake any of the classics, which one would you choose and who would you cast, given today’s existing crop of actors?
A: I would leave the classics alone! Why? Because I think it’s sacrilegious to take a classic and try to update it for a modern audience. Watching what they did to Psycho, for example, was nauseating. I just heard that a remake of The Birds is in the works. Shame on them!
Q: Any thoughts on the easiest film genre for a novice to break into?
A: Horror no doubt since they make so many and at such a low budget. The less the financial risk for a company, the greater the chances that they will go with a newcomer.
Q: Why are there so many remakes and sequels? Is Hollywood running out of fresh ideas?
A: There are plenty of original ideas out there but Hollywood wants to play it safe financially. Sequels and remakes are safe bets since there’s already a built-in audience for them.
Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of in your life and why?
A: Besides meeting and marrying my lovely wife, Nancy, it would have to be starting HollywoodLitSales. It’s gratifying to know that we’ve helped so many writers connect with Hollywood.
Q: What’s the best advice you give to people who tell you that they want to write for the movies?
A: Study the marketplace, learn the craft, write one script after another and let nothing stand in your way. If you’re a new writer without any produced credits, don’t even think of writing a sequel. The studios need name writers to write their sequels in order to attract name talent. Without talent, the movie just doesn’t get made. Oh, and only think of becoming a Hollywood writer if you are extremely passionate about it and you got a thick skin. This business is very tough and not for the weak at heart. That said, if you’ve got what it takes and you understand what you’re getting yourself into, go for it and best of luck!